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Annapolis Welcomes USS Sioux City

Nov 13, 2018 10:02AM ● By James Houck

The USS Sioux City is the 11th such built ship in the class of fast Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which are designed to be agile and stealthy surface combatants. Today, the 389-foot vessel made its way up the Chesapeake Bay for a week-long rendezvous in the City of Annapolis, where it will be officially commissioned into military service. Sioux City is the first combat vessel ever, to be commissioned at the U.S. Naval Academy, which serves as host for the big event. Here, it will anchor and the public is invited to tour the innovative ship all week, leading up to the November 17th commissioning ceremony.

We spoke with Frank Thorp, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.), a 30-year Navy veteran who returned to his hometown of Annapolis upon retirement and has served as the Chairman of the recent Commissioning Committee, ushering along the planned festivities and community support for this historic week. A full list of this week’s events can be found at the ship’s official commissioning website:

So, you've been back in town now for four years, and I assume that the Navy took you all over the world before that.

 Yeah, it took me all over. Actually, I lived in, for long periods of time, in Norfolk and San Diego. I lived in Japan, Newport, did some short periods of time in Quatar, short period of time in Bahrain, did a lot of time in Washington.

When did your involvement with this commission committee begin? I can't remember a ship of this scope and size ever being commissioned here in town. So, it must be really interesting for you to have been involved in this process. Does it start when the ship is first being realized and built on the yard? And then the committee forms, or how does that all happen?

So, first of all, you're exactly right. There's never been a ship commissioned of this caliber at the Naval Academy. There was a patrol craft commission back in the '90s in a much smaller kind of thing, but not a major warship like an LCS or something, and that's all made possible because these ships are designed to be able to go in shallow, into shallow water, so they only need 13 1/2 feet of water. So, a destroyer or a cruiser or a submarine can't tie up at the quay wall at the Naval Academy, but an LCS can.

So my involvement started, I was on the zoom wall commissioning committee, and back in, I guess it was September-October of 2016, and leading up to that, I thought to myself, "You know, why don't we commission an LCS in Annapolis?" And so, the thought brewed around in my head, and I realized if I said anything that it was tantamount to volunteering, so it took me a while to decide whether to do it. And about that same timeframe, having come back to Annapolis, I thought, "You know, I've been pretty fortunate in life. I grew up in Annapolis, which was really really good to me, six kids and all that. Six kids in my family growing up, and the Navy's been really good to me."

So I figured, "How do I give back a little bit?"

I got involved in the film festival, and that was the year that opening day, opening night, at the Naval Academy, and there was a reception in town, and then everybody at the reception walked to opening night at Mitscher Hall. And I was struck at how many people were saying that they had never been to the Naval Academy.

Or that it had been a really long time since they had been at the Naval Academy. And so I thought to myself, "Well, that's kind of crazy." So I started asking why, and they were like, "Well, you can't come on to the Naval Academy." And I'm like, "Well, no you actually can. You can walk in. You can't drive in but you can walk in."

And I discovered at that point that post 9/11, that wall that I always thought was designed to keep me in when I was a midshipman, was now keeping the public out. And that really bummed me out because I think the Naval Academy's such a big part of Annapolis, and I know the Naval Academy, especially Ted Carter, while he's been superintendent, has worked really hard to integrate the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

And I thought to myself, "You know, I thought we should do a ship commission, how cool would that be for the City of Annapolis?" So, I reached out at the end of 2016, to the sister of the Navy's office, it's the secretary of the Navy who decides where a ship gets commissioned. And I had worked for Secretary Mavis, so I reached out to his office and said "Hey have you thought about commissioning a ship at Annapolis?" And a guy in the office said "Well, actually the USS Sioux City is penciled in to be commissioned at Annapolis in late summer or fall of 2017." And I'm like...are you kidding me? It's like, tomorrow.

This was about Christmas time '16. So, come to find out, that there were many other people who had thought of the idea. Matter of fact, I had mentioned it to Ted Carter before I said anything to Secretary Mavis' office and the supe was like "Oh, God, that'd be great for Annapolis. Let's do it." Mary Winnefeld, the ship's sponsor, had proposed Annapolis for the ship and she had said "Hey, it would be great to do it at Annapolis." I think the commanding officer was excited about it. The Secretary of the Navy approved Annapolis as a commissioning site on January 19, 2017. And why that's important is on January 20th he left office. So, change in administrations, there's not a Secretary of the Navy. What we were afraid of then was that the decision wouldn't be made until summer time and then we wouldn't have enough time to put together a commission.

For better or worse, the ship was delayed...for mechanical reasons. These things are super high technology. Any Navy ship of class, the first couple of ships have engineering problems. They were very optimistic on when they're going to commission.

So we've had about a year and a half to put the whole plan together, or more than a year and a half to put the plan together but we only got the date back in August, I think it was. So, it's been a full sprint since August to get the word out, get the invitations out, get our sponsorships going, raise the money to do it. We put together a commissioning committee. It's about 30 people. The role of the commissioning committee is to raise the funds and coordinate the week's events. With the whole idea, we really have three things to do. We put together a week of events, commissioning reception and ceremony and all that, to really send the ship off have a very positive entrance into the fleet.

At that commissioning ceremony, as you probably know, when the order's given bring the ship to life. And that commanding officer turns and reports that the USS Sioux City is in commission. After that, they deploy into the fleet.

And then the second one was to connect to Annapolis with the Naval Academy and the Navy. And the third was to connect this ship with her namesake city, Sioux City, Iowa, and her sponsor.

Long answer but that kind of gives you the background.

Where was that ship built?

Marinette, Wisconsin. The shipyard out there named Fincantieri and they build them there on the Great Lakes, they do the sea trials out there on the Great Lakes. It's perfect for this class of ship to be built on the Great Lakes, again, because of the draft of only 13 1/2 feet. And she's on her transit now to Annapolis.

So, it really does sound like, because of that delay, it was serendipitous. It did allow you just enough time now to plan a full week's worth of events which I'm sure you're excited about.

Yeah, we are very, very excited. Eastport Yacht Club is hosting a picnic for the crew on arrival. Which is just a perfect welcome, what a great way to get welcomed into Annapolis...they'll have about 125 or so members of the crew at the Eastport Yacht Club for barbecue chicken and stuff like that. And then the ship will be open for tours all week. And then Wednesday, which this is really cool and very unique to Annapolis...Watermark Cruises has donated the use of the Catherine Marie and we're doing what we're calling a crew's cruise, c-r-e-w-'-s c-r-u-i-s-e and taking the crew for a tour of the bay and the river, like a bunch of VIPs that we think that they are.

A lot of them are initiating or starting their Naval careers, I'd imagine.

That's exactly right. For a lot of them, this is their first ship.

And some of them will be coming back to the Academy grounds so this is a real special week of events. So, the public will be invited to tour the vessel, what should they be looking out for? As they board the ship and have a walk around?

 So, first of all, the ship is incredibly high technology. As you walk around the ship, it's state of the art technology. The second thing that I would tell you would be...if you read books and you read stories and you see on these brand new U.S. Navy ships's good livin'. It used to be on the older ships, they've got barely compartments of 40, 60, 75 people all in one room. Three racks on top of each other type of thing.

These new classes of ships...they're all state rooms. So, everybody from the most junior person to the most senior person has state rooms with 2, 4, 6 people in it. The third thing I'll tell you is the jet ski. There are no propellers. It propels through the water by four water propulsion jets. The ship will do 50 miles an hour.

And then the fourth thing I would tell you, that I think people are going to see, is the ship is built with modularity in mind. In other words, one of the things that happens with ships is these technologies go so fast, changes so fast, that the hull of the ship is still useful 20–30 years later but the technology inside the ship has to continually be updated or replaced and so that's an expensive adventure. With these kinds of ships, what the Navy's done is pretty smart is, think of it like a pickup truck where they'll actually be able to put modules in of new technology and take the module out and replace it with a new module so you don't have to rip the ship apart quite as much.

How did it come about that it attained the name Sioux City?

Great question. The Secretary of the Navy, he gets to do two things in his job that are absolute authority to do with no oversight. One is to designate the place the ships get commissioned and the other, which he does beforehand, is to name ships.

And most kinds of ships are kind of consistent. It's not always the same but, like, aircraft carriers are named after presidents. Or famous leaders like Chester Nimitz for the USS Nimitz. Littoral Combat Ships are named after small and mid-sized cities across the country. So, Secretary Mavis, when he was naming the ship, he had been to Sioux City, Iowa, as a kid. He had been through Sioux City as an adult and, I think campaigning in the Presidential campaign. He was very impressed at the patriotism, the Midwest values, the goodness, and also the support. They have a Medal of Honor recipient from Sioux City by the name of Bud Day. The main drag through Sioux City was renamed Bud Day Drive. And I gotta tell you, I've been out there about six times exactly since I got enrolled in this and it is Mayberry R.F.D. The Midwest values, the support for the military...they treat people in the military like rock stars out there. It's just unbelievable.

There are more than 500 people from Sioux City coming to Annapolis on Thursday and Friday for this event on Saturday.

After commissioning do you know what the ship's deployment will entail or is that classified?

Both. The ship will leave Annapolis on Sunday and head down to her new home port of Mayport, Florida. The skipper is working hard to get down there for Thanksgiving so the crew can be with their families for Thanksgiving dinner.

And then what normally happens, and will happen in this case, is that the crew was just moved on board a month or so ago. So, they'll go through an extensive rigorous training program where first they learn to operate the ship, the inner workings of the ship, then they learn how to operate the ship with other ships and their specific mission areas.

And then when that's complete, and there's no set timeframe for that. It's all based on what they're actually going to train for and how complex it is. Then they'll deploy. And they could deploy a year, 16–18 months later.

That's great. Well there's a lot to look forward to, obviously. I guess it all kicks off this week.

There's 30 people on the committee that are doing an absolutely great job. A bunch of great supporters. A bunch of donors who have donated everywhere from $100 to $200,000 and it's all the little request here, little request there, and every single one of them is important. So, we'll make sure that we cross all the t's and dot all the i's. I don't expect to sleep a lot this week, put it that way.