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story.lead_photo.caption The new USS Little Rock, a littoral combat ship built by Lockheed Martin, arrives Dec. 4 at the Buffalo, N.Y., harbor.

A U.S. Navy warship named for Arkansas' capital city was ceremoniously brought to life Saturday, transforming the sleek-bodied vessel into an active military asset.

On the waterfront in Buffalo, N.Y., the USS Little Rock, also known as LCS-9, was commissioned beside the original USS Little Rock, now a 610-foot-long floating museum.

Saturday was the first time in the Navy's history that a ship was commissioned alongside the vessel for which it was named.

First put in service in 1945, the elder ship was a light cruiser before it was converted to a guided-missile cruiser. The ship was decommissioned in 1976 and became part of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park the next year.

Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is credited for continuing the USS Little Rock name. The former governor of Mississippi was a brand-new officer on the original ship in the early 1970s.

Photo by Benjamin Krain
People gather Saturday at the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock to view a live feed of the commissioning of the USS Little Rock in Buffalo, N.Y. It was the first time in U.S. Navy history that a new ship was commissioned alongside the vessel for which it was named.

The new USS Little Rock is a littoral combat ship, a small, agile model meant for operations close to shore. It was constructed by Lockheed Martin in Marinette, Wis.

A band of Arkansans, including Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, traveled to New York to attend Saturday's commissioning.

Another group of about 130 people viewed the ceremony through a live-stream at the Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock. A local committee organized the watch party.

The group -- the USS Little Rock Namesake Committee -- gave each crew member on the new ship a "baseball jacket" with the ship's crest embroidered on the left breast, said Ron Maxwell, the effort's coordinator.

The group also gave each crew member a hunting knife from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and a gift bag from the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock provided a painting of the capital city's skyline from the perspective of the Arkansas River's north shore. Each crew member also will receive a "challenge coin" with the ship's seal and the Little Rock seal.

At the theater Saturday, 10 Boy Scouts filled a row of seats. Their scoutmaster, Barry Bray, said he took the young men to view the live-stream because the commissioning ceremony falls in line with their "duty to God and country."

"We've been at war since these guys have been born," Bray said. "Isn't that a scary fact?"

Many live-stream viewers, like former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, were veterans. One attendee, Michael McMurrough, went out of curiosity.

"The little kid in me just thought it'd be a cool thing to do," he said.

Speaking at the theater, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin gave a lesson in military history. The Navy's first commissioned ship, the USS Alfred, was named after a king, he said.

"With all due respect to anyone named Alfred and the royal family, Little Rock is a heck of a lot better name," he said.

In Buffalo, New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul welcomed a bundled-up crowd in below-freezing weather. Flurries of snow fell on people wrapped in parkas and knit hats.

Hochul described the technological advancements that led to the USS Little Rock's lean, light build.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the future has arrived," she said.

Shipbuilders began constructing parts that would become the $360 million vessel in 2012. That cost is an average for ships built under a block-buy contract, according to Lockheed Martin.

Fashioning the 389-foot-long, 57-foot-wide ship, though small by Navy standards, took more than 1 million man-hours.

The ship accommodates a helicopter pad and a ramp for small boats. Four jets can pump more than 1.9 million gallons of water per minute, enough power to drain an Olympic-size pool in 20 seconds.

The ship can be reconfigured for three missions: surface warfare, mine countermeasures and anti-submarine operations.

A core crew of 50 sailors will call the USS Little Rock home, though that number can double depending on the mission package.

In July 2015, the USS Little Rock was christened. In step with tradition, Janee Bonner, the wife of a former U.S. representative from Alabama, Josiah "Jo" Bonner, smashed a bottle of champagne against the bow.

Janee Bonner was chosen to be the ship's sponsor, which is a person, usually a woman, who has dedicated her life to public service and oversees the ship's journey.

The vessel left its Wisconsin shipyard this fall, sailed through the Great Lakes and arrived in Buffalo on Dec. 4.

At Saturday's ceremony, Bonner told the ship's officers and crew to "man our ship and bring her to life."

Sailors climbed aboard, looked down at the congregated people from the deck, and saluted.

Stodola told the crowd he knows the ship "has the resiliency, the determination and the tenacity of Little Rock in its hull, and in its mission systems.

"Though I suspect for the enemy, at least, a little less Southern hospitality," he said.

Boozman remarked that if the crew did not already know how to call the Hogs, an Arkansan would teach them soon.

The ship's official symbol, a snarling razorback, is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Natural State. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's football team got that nickname after former head coach Hugo Bezdek remarked that his players operated like a "wild band of razorback hogs."

"I'm confident this crew, known as the Warhogs, will carry on that same work ethic," Boozman said.

"Admittedly Little Rock is not one of the places you think of when you mention the Navy," he later added. "But Arkansas has a long tradition, a proud tradition, of defending our nation."

A veteran who is part of that tradition, David Hare, teared up when he imagined watching a warship return home.

He described sailors in their dress whites standing side by side along a ship's deck as spouses and children watched from shore.

Hare and his wife, Tina, attended the commissioning watch party in Little Rock because they've always felt "very connected to the military," Tina Hare said.

From the stage in Buffalo, Cmdr. Todd Peters spoke about his wife.

She's the only woman beautiful enough to make him take his eyes from his new home, he said.

Peters will command the crew as the USS Little Rock sets sail for its home port in Mayport, Fla., which it will reach in 26 days from Saturday, he said. Later in 2018, the ship will sail out to sea.

Peters delivered a message for veterans who manned the original USS Little Rock decades ago.

"Rest easy knowing we have the watch."

Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: Ceremony initiates warship called LR

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