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New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide


New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide

Jun 08, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Patrick Kinney
New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide
The crew of the USS Iowa submarine (SSN-797) poses in front of a large American flag attached to the massive hull of the submarine, under construction in Groton, Conn. (Photo courtesy of Mat Tanner)

WATERLOO – A new U.S Navy vessel named for the state of Iowa will be christened Father’s Day weekend, supported by the granddaughter and grandniece of five Waterloo brothers killed during World War II and a retired submarine officer from Cedar Rapids.

The USS Iowa submarine, hull number SSN-797, will be christened 9 a.m. Iowa time (10 a.m. Eastern) Saturday, June 17 at Groton, Conn., where it was constructed over the past several years by General Dynamics Electric Boat.

The christening will be livestreamed over the internet. Several “watch parties” will be held around the state, including one at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo, part of the Grout Museum District, 503 South St.  Museum doors open at 8:30 a.m. Light refreshments will be served. The event is free, but donations will be accepted.

Simultaneous watch parties will be at the following locations:

  • Gary Dolphin’s Iron Bar, 333 E. 10th St., Dubuque
  • El Kahir Shrine, 903 Tower Terrace Road, Hiawatha
  • Freedom Foundation of Cedar Rapids, 4001 Center Point Road NW, Cedar Rapids.
  • Iowa Gold Star Veterans Museum, Camp Dodge, 7105 NW 70th Ave., Des Moines.
  • American Legion Post 403, 910 Main St., Van Meter.
  • VFW Post 1856, 518 South 29th St., Fort Dodge.
  • Union County Development Associations, The Roundhouse, Building 301, 305 West Montgomery St., Creston.
  • American Legion Post 64, 4021 Floyd Blvd., Sioux City
  • American Legion Rainbow Post No. 2, 716 South 4th St., Council Bluffs

USS Iowa crew members visit Iowa

Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, one of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo who served, fought and died together on the USS Juneau in 1942, says the crew members of the new USS Iowa submarine are as devoted and bonded to this state as she and Waterloo are to the present-day Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans, named for her grandfather and great uncles.

In fact, Sullivan noted, USS Iowa crew members have been to the state several times, including providing aid during the August 2020 derecho storm – a ground hurricane that ripped across the center of the state and caused widespread damage.

A truck of relief supplies was dispatched to Iowa “with a whole bunch of crew members, and generators and fuel, bottled water,” she said. “To watch them step up when our state was having an incredible tragedy, it was beautiful to see their kindness, how much they wanted to help Iowa.”

Kelly Sullivan, who is working as an adviser to the USS Iowa commissioning committee, is the official sponsor of the Navy guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), the second Navy vessel named for her grandfather and great uncles.

New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide
Christie Vilsack, third from left, sponsor of the new USS Iowa submarine, poses with crew members and Kelly Sullivan, far right, sponsor of the Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans, at Iowa Irish Fest in Waterloo in August 2022. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Sullivan)

Former Iowa first lady is vessel’s sponsor

The USS Iowa’s sponsor is former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, wife of Tom Vilsack, current U.S. secretary of agriculture and former Iowa governor. She participated in derecho cleanup with crew members at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown and appeared with crew members in Waterloo at Iowa Irish Fest last August. Crew members also visited the Iowa State Fair.

“Christie Vilsack is really committed to being an active sponsor,” Sullivan said. “I’m pleased to see how excited she is about it, and becoming friends and having that special bond that we have of being sponsors of Navy vessels.”

A ship sponsor, by tradition, is a female civilian who is invited to “sponsor” and bring luck and divine blessing to a vessel. In the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, the sponsor is technically considered a permanent member of the ship’s crew and an advocate for its continued service and well-being. It’s more than breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow.

New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide
This is a long view if the USS Iowa submarine under construction in Groton, Conn. It’s 377 feet long, 34 feet wide and weighs 7,800 tons (Photo courtesy of Mat Tanner)

Kelly Sullivan is generally considered one of the most active ship sponsors in the Navy ever since the current USS The Sullivans (hull number DDG-68) was christened in 1995 and commissioned into Navy service in 1997. She’s participated in numerous activities with the ship and hosted many current and former crew members on visits to Waterloo-Cedar Falls, including stops at her third-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls. The USS The Sullivans Association had its reunion in Waterloo last August over Iowa Irish Fest as a result of her efforts.

While she wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s coached Christie Vilsack in the finer points of being a ship sponsor, Sullivan said, “It’s been fun. She has asked questions, so it’s been neat.”

New USS Iowa submarine to be christened June 17; watch parties planned statewide
Former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, standing in the back of a pickup truck with a chainsaw, and U.S. Navy crew members of the new USS Iowa submarine, are shown here cleaning up grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown after the August 2020 derecho. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Sullivan)

She recalled how Vilsack pitched in with crew members to clear up the Veterans Home grounds.

“Boy it was hot!” Sullivan said. “She (Vilsack) is truly embracing the idea that sponsor is not just an honorary position. It’s a position where you’re involved, you stay connected to the crew; you make sure the crew knows how much you appreciate them. And you take the opportunity when you can to be involved in other activities on ship.”

Sullivan said her friendship with Vilsack, and getting USS Iowa crew members to regularly visit Waterloo for Iowa Irish Fest in recent years has been very rewarding.

She also connected USS Iowa crew members with a team of Navy bicyclists who regularly participate in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, including the upcoming 50th anniversary ride in July.

“The Iowa has done an exceptional job of finding opportunities to connect with the people of Iowa,” Sullivan said. “They want the people of Iowa to recognize, ‘This is your boat.’”

The vessel has been four years in the making; with construction slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Several vessels have been named for Iowa

It is the latest of several vessels named for Iowa in the nation’s history.  An Iowa steamship was used to transport troops in the Civil War. The battleship USS Iowa BB-4 saw service in the Spanish-American War and USS Iowa BB-61, “The Gray Ghost,” served in World War II, Korea and in the 1980s and early 1990s patrolling the Persian Gulf. It is now a battleship museum at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif.

The state of Iowa paid $3 million toward the BB-61’s preservation before it was opened for public tours in 2012. Visiting Iowans may tour “The Gray Ghost” for free by simply displaying an Iowa driver license or state identification. It has been a popular stop for visiting Iowans, particurlarly during the 2016 Rose Bowl when the University of Iowa Hawkeyes played Stanford.

Similarly, with the USS Iowa submarine, as a result of the crew’s outreach efforts, “The people of Iowa know about this submarine,” Sullivan said. “They’re proud. And it’s because of all the work the commissioning committee has done.

“I think the boat represents Iowa, and the people of Iowa who have made an impact on our Navy,” Sullivan said.

It is one of several active-duty ships with Iowa connections, named for people or places in Iowa. They include, among others, the USS Des Moines, a heavy cruiser which served from 1948-61; and a sister ship to the current USS The Sullivans, the USS Milius, a guided-missile destroyer named for U.S. Navy Capt. Paul L. Milius, a Navy pilot from Bremer County downed in 1968 over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during the Vietnam War. He is still listed as missing in action.

There’s also the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Emlen Tunnell, commissioned in 2021 and named for a University of Iowa football player who was decorated twice for saving shipmates’ lives during and after World War II. He played for the NFL’s New York Giants and Green Bay Packers from 1948-61 and was the first Black athlete elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

“I think it’s important for Iowans to learn about and honor all the people who serve our country – and especially in the Navy,” Sullivan said. “We’re a landlocked state. We don’t have the ocean nearby. But if you go in the history books, it’s Navy, Navy Navy.”

That includes, in addition to her grandfather and great uncles, Admiral William Leahy, senior naval officer on active duty during World War II, who was a native of Hampton, and Rear Admiral James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, a decorated World War II naval combat pilot from Waterloo who also commanded a carrier division during Vietnam.

The ship sponsors also are steeped in tradition. Kelly Sullivan’s great-grandmother, Alleta Sullivan, was the sponsor of the first ship named for her five sons, the destroyer USS The Sullivans DD-537, now decommissioned and on display at a Buffalo, N.Y. military park.

Likewise, Vilsack was preceded as the sponsor of a USS Iowa vessel by Ilo Wallace of Indianola, wife of U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace of Orient. Mrs. Wallace sponsored the battleship USS Iowa BB-61, which is now docked at San Pedro.

Retired Navy submarine sailor Mat Tanner, a 1987 graduate of Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids now living in Groton, is working with the commissioning committee as an executive director and says numerous Iowa businesses and individuals are getting involved. For example, he said Big Grove Brewing in Iowa City and Des Moines is teaming with a brewery in Groton, Outer Watch, for a special brew, a cream ale called Rack Stowed, in connection with the commissioning.

Tanner experienced the anticipation of a christening before. He was an original crew member, or plank owner, on the submarine USS Greenville, named for the city of Greenville, Tenn. He knows of the bond between a vessel and a local community. He sees the same connection between the state of Iowa and its new namesake vessel.

“I think it’s the Iowa pride, and ‘Iowa kind,’ ‘Iowa strong,’ — people taking care of each other,” Tanner said. “Getting the sailors back there to visit – the pride they show, from the people of Iowa to the sailors — it’s incredible. It’s kind of why I wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to pay that back, to do my part to help the guys.”

And for a little friendly in-house rivalry, the crew is divided among different “watch sections.”  “There’s four watch sections,” he said. “We have the Cyclones, the Hawkeyes, the Panthers, and then we have the Sullivans,” he said – tying back to the athletic team nicknames of the state’s public universities and the Navy’s renowned Iowa-born band of brothers.

“Most Iowans are very, very supportive of the military in general. And I know the crew appreciates everything everybody’s doing for them,” Tanner said. “It’s neat to see the support. It’s been nice to be a part of it from the beginning.”

The USS Iowa submarine, after a shakedown period, is anticipated to be officially commissioned into the Navy for service in late spring or early summer of 2024. It has a crew of 135.
Tanner said water from various Iowa rivers and streams, including the Cedar, the Iowa and others, have been collected and Vilsack and crew members from Iowa will pour that water over the submarine in an “anointing”  with waters from its namesake state prior to christening.

More information about the USS Iowa submarine can be found at www.ssn797.com and the USS Iowa SSN-797 Commissioning Team Facebook page.

Patrick Kinney’s blog, View from the Cedar Valley, is on Substack. This column is republished  through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.