By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
PASCAGOULA – A nuclear-powered submarine named the USS Mississippi is set to be commissioned today in Pascagoula, welcoming it into the U.S. Navy’s fleet at a ceremony expected to draw thousands.
Naval vessels are a common sight in the Gulf Coast port that hosts one of the nation’s largest military shipyards. But that hasn’t stopped Mississippians from going all-out on plans to honor the $2.6 billion attack sub, the fifth Navy vessel since 1841 to share the name of the Magnolia State. The commissioning ceremony is set for 10 a.m. today on the Pascagoula River, capping a week of festivities that began when the Virginia-class submarine arrived May 25.
“Placing it in service is a celebration for the crew,” said Capt. John McGrath, the submarine’s commanding officer.
The 147 crew members have been feted at receptions. They’ve also been taken out for golfing and fishing trips and have performed community service since their arrival.
McGrath said he’s particularly looking forward to the moment when ship sponsor Allison Stiller, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for ship programs, gives the traditional order to “Man our ship and bring her to life.” At that point, the crew will sprint aboard ship to man the rails as part of a hallowed tradition.
Construction on the 377-foot sub began in 2007. In 2009, the first 35 crew members reported to Groton, Conn., where the ship was built. The ninth Virginia-class submarine, the Mississippi carries torpedoes as well as Tomahawk missiles. It can also launch a team of Navy SEALs.
Unlike previous classes of submarines, the sub doesn’t have a conventional mechanical periscope, instead relying on cameras. That in turn allowed designers to move the traditional location of the control room and combine it with sonar stations.
Weighing 7,800 tons, the ship can cruise at nearly 30 miles an hour when submerged.
Mark McDonald of Meridian, chairman of the commissioning committee, said his group has given out 7,000 passes to the commissioning ceremony and expects 2,000 others to watch from the opposite bank of the Pascagoula River.
“The state of Mississippi really loves its military. We’re really patriotic,” said McDonald, a former naval aviator who retired as a commander in 2008. Having served as chief administrative officer for the city of Meridian and part of Mississippi’s most active Navy League chapter, McDonald was tapped with raising the private money to support activities surrounding the commissioning.
McDonald said Gov. Phil Bryant encouraged him to make the commissioning “the signature event of the year for the state of Mississippi.”
Private donations, as well as the budget for the event, have exceeded a $300,000 target. McDonald said the state’s defense contractors have been among the largest donors.
“You’d be surprised how many ordinary Mississippians reached in their pockets and gave money,” he added.
Among those scheduled to speak today is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Mississippi’s former governor.
Officials said the sub, after the ceremony and subsequent testing, is expected to report back to Groton, where it will be based at least until 2014.