USS North Dakota Carrying the Name of North Dakota Across Oceans of the World
For the second time in its history, North Dakota will have a namesake boat protecting the nation and promoting the state in ports around the world.
Construction of the USS North Dakota, a Virginia-class nuclear submarine, began on March 2, 2009, and the boat is expected to take to the waters as an official part of the U.S. Navy Fleet in 2014.
“This submarine is the culmination of a long effort and a lot of work by many different people,” says Judge Bob Wefald (Ret.), chair of the USS North Dakota committee. “This boat will be a tremendous source of pride for our state.”
Two USS North Dakotas
The first USS North Dakota was a training vessel used during World War I and never participated in armed conflict. Its construction was authorized in 1906 when the United States jumped into the naval arms race with Germany, England, France and Japan in an effort to build large battleships called dreadnoughts. The first of these ships built by the U.S. were the USS Delaware and her sister ship, the USS North Dakota.
The USS North Dakota, which was the first ship in the U.S. Navy to have steam turbine engines, was christened in 1908 and commissioned in 1910. It spent the next 13 years serving as part of the Navy’s presence in the Caribbean, Europe and South America. The ship delivered troops, participated in training exercises and guarded coast lines. In 1923, it was designated to be sunk during a fleet exercise; however, lack of funding to convert the USS North Dakota from active to target status saved the ship from being sunk and it was sold for scrap in 1931.
Pieces from the ship were salvaged and the State Historical Society of North Dakota now holds the USS North Dakota’s bow plate, bell, silver service, builder’s model, flag, sighting mechanism for its 12-inch guns, ribbon from sailor’s hat, 1907 political button, souvenir picture frame, pennant, pillowcase and handkerchiefs. The bow plate, the ship’s silver set and a replica of the USS North Dakota are on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, and the silver service is used at special state celebrations, including the opening of each legislative session.
The campaign to get a second ship named after the state began in 1985 when Wefald joined the then-Bismarck Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. “I suggested we take on a couple of projects, which included building a veteran cemetery and getting a second ship named for North Dakota,” says Wefald, who served three years of active duty in the Navy and 24 years in reserves.
He watched the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery come together rather quickly, being completed in 1992 after being established by an act of the 1989 Legislative Assembly. His work on the ship naming involved contacting every President, Secretary of the Navy, and state Congressional delegation member between 1985 and 2008.
In 2007, Bismarck-Mandan Chamber President Kelvin Hullet jumped on board with the campaign and wrote letters of support to prominent North Dakotans in the Navy. “The reason we wanted to pursue this idea is that it had been almost a century since a navy vessel named for North Dakota had sailed the oceans of the world,” says Hullet. “It is not often that one gets to work on a legacy project to create a 30-year relationship between the crew of a submarine and a state.”
In June 2008, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter announced a submarine would be named for the state of North Dakota. “I give a lot of credit to former Senator Byron Dorgan for pushing this through for us,” notes Wefald.
Once the name of the boat was established, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber formed the USS North Dakota committee. “To kick off the effort, the Chamber asked the Congressional delegation, Governor, former Governor and other key individuals such as retired Admiral Bill Owens to assist in the efforts. This became our honorary committee,” says Hullet, who now serves as treasurer on the active committee.
The USS North Dakota committee is charged with promoting and supporting the boat’s building efforts, as well as the submarine and its crew throughout its lifetime. “The Chamber is involved to assist the committee with organizing events and growing awareness of the boat across North Dakota,” adds Hullet. “Our organization is a facilitator of the project, but the relationship with the boat belongs to the people of North Dakota.”
“This is a very big deal,” says Wefald. “This submarine is going to carry the name of North Dakota across the world.”
Building the Boat
The construction of the new USS North Dakota is taking approximately five years, involving nearly 1,000 people per day for a total of nearly 12 million labor hours, at a total cost of $2.8 billion. A major construction milestone was reached this year with the ceremonial keel laying held on May 11 in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. In this ceremony the boat’s sponsor, Katie Fowler, had her initials welded onto a piece of metal which will become a permanent part of the submarine.
This is just one of the many important roles Fowler will play during the construction and life of the submarine. In February 2009, she was notified by an official letter from Secretary Winter that she was being invited to be the sponsor of the USS North Dakota. “This great honor means I will have a lifelong relationship with the ship and her crew and also play an important role in the christening and commissioning.”
Fowler’s ties to North Dakota began when she met her husband. “My husband, Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler (Ret.), grew up in Bismarck and I first visited the state before we got married more than 30 years ago,” she says. “My husband is very proud of his North Dakota roots and heritage and, quite honestly, North Dakota became my second home long ago.”
The keel laying ceremony has historic significance as a key part of the construction of the ship, in which Fowler declared the backbone of the ship “truly and fairly laid.” However, today’s modular construction changes the literal meaning of the event. “For the future USS North Dakota, this ceremony marked the first time the partially manned crew, representatives from North Dakota and the sponsor were able to come together with part of the constructed vessel,” she says.
As of the keel laying in May, the submarine was 62 percent complete and more than half manned with 67 crew members at last count. The boat’s full crew will consist of 134 officers and enlisted personnel, including the Chief of the Boat, ETCM (SS) Tim Preabt, a native of Minot.
“I’ve worked 23 years to get a ship named after the state, so when I saw this whole thing come together and a big section of the submarine at the keel laying ceremony, I was beyond excited,” says Wefald. “We are well on our way.”
The boat is being built by General Dynamics Electric Boat based in Groton, Connecticut, a company founded in 1899 which has since constructed 209 diesel submarines and 103 nuclear submarines.
“While the ship is being constructed, we are busily getting personnel qualified to stand watch on the ship in order to support a complex testing program that will occur over the next couple of years,” says Douglas Gordon, Commander of the USS North Dakota.
The completed submarine will have many important components including special features to provide improved shallow water ship handling and support special operation forces; and Photonics Masts that house color, high-resolution black and white, and infrared digital cameras atop telescoping arms that will replace traditional periscopes. Because it is a nuclear-powered submarine, it will never have to be refueled during its 33-year lifetime.
“The USS North Dakota will be the first Block III ship of the class. Some of the key differences will be the incorporation of the two Virginia Payload tubes which will be capable of carrying six Tomahawk cruise missiles,” says Commander Gordon. “Once operational, the USS North Dakota will join the other fast attack submarines in the Fleet in carrying out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, undersea warfare roles, anti-surface ship warfare roles, cruise missile strike capability, special operations insertion, mine warfare, and battle group support.”
“I long for the day the ship gets underway for the first time,” continues Cmdr. Gordon. “That day will be the high point of my career and will highlight the tremendous effort by the crew and the two shipyards responsible for building the ship. Each milestone we complete is very memorable for me and the crew.”
Supporting the USS North Dakota
Many state, national and Navy officials showed their support of the USS North Dakota by attending the keel laying ceremony. This included Fowler and her family, U.S. Senator John Hoeven; USS North Dakota committee members Wefald, and Hullet, along with Vice Chair Bill Butcher and Secretary Dot Frank; and nearly 50 USS North Dakota crewmembers.
Also attending were Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion; Vice Adm. John Richardson, commander, Submarine Forces; Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, commander, Submarine Group 2; Rear Adm. Dave Johnson, program executive officer, Submarines; Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch, deputy director, of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division and a North Dakota native; Rhode Island officials including Governor Lincoln Chafee; U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline, along with some 1,000 people from General Dynamics.
The next major milestone in the boat’s construction will be next year, when the pressure hull is completed. The christening of the boat, when Fowler breaks a bottle of spirits on the ship, is also expected to take place next year, followed by the sea trials and then delivery of the boat. The commissioning will mark the point when the USS North Dakota officially joins the Navy Fleet. This is historically scheduled three to four months after the projected delivery date, and is expected to take place in 2014.
In the meantime, the USS North Dakota committee and Fowler continue to build support for the boat and the life-long relationship the state will have with its crew. “As this project progresses, more and more people will be connected to the USS North Dakota’s crew, officers and their families,” says Hullet. “The USS North Dakota’s officers and crew radiate a sense of duty and working with them really brings home the responsibility of the state to make this boat its own.”
Wefald says his duties include “chief cheerleader and organizer” of the state’s support of the USS North Dakota. “I have been going around the state talking to as many people as I can about the USS North Dakota, in the hopes of establishing committees at other Chambers across the state.”
He has also been keeping a blog about the USS North Dakota project and recording the submarine’s progress at http://ussnd.com.
“Our goal is to organize throughout the state so in 2013 we can start raising money to allow us to build a lifelong relationship with the boat and its crew and to make certain we can have a large North Dakota presence at both the boat’s christening and commissioning.”
The Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce has USS North Dakota merchandise for sale, including shirts, baseball caps, and commemorative coins, to help in supporting the boat and the Committee’s efforts. These items are available by calling the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber at 701-223-5600 or ordering online at www.bismarckmandan.com.
“Purchasing USS North Dakota merchandise is really about creating a sense of pride across the state for the boat. The money raised goes to helping support the awareness of the boat,” says Hullet.
The Committee recently sponsored a crest design contest, which garnered nearly 100 entries. Five designs were submitted to the boat’s crew to be used in the creation of the final crest. In June, the Committee also brought two of the USS North Dakota’s chief petty officers, Jonathan Noll and Jason Roberts, to the state to make presentations and attend events to promote the submarine.
“We are going to make certain we have a large North Dakota presence at both the christening and commissioning,” says Wefald. “We want to make a big impression on the Navy, the sailors and the boat.”
Throughout the boat’s lifetime, the USS North Dakota will have the support of those involved in its creation, as well as the state and U.S. Navy. But even more importantly, the submarine will take the name of North Dakota around the globe.
“Once commissioned, the USS North Dakota will sail the oceans of the world,” says Fowler. “The crew and the submarine will be ambassadors, spreading the name and heritage of North Dakota across the globe. I am looking forward to a lifelong relationship with my ship and its crew.”
For additional information on the historic and current events related to the USS North Dakota, visit Wefald’s blog at http://ussnd.com or visit the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce website at www.bismarckmandan.com.