DULUTH — The first commissioning of a U.S. Navy ship in Minnesota history unfolded in front of more than 2,000 guests in the Twin Ports harbor on Saturday.
Sailors ran aboard the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul at the peak of the ceremony to “bring the ship to life.” Cannons fired smoke rings across the Rice’s Point slip that held the nearly 400-foot warship. And, poetic words were the order of the day as the ship designed for shoreline attacks and defense joined the Navy fleet.
The vessel will sail out of Duluth on Monday, bound for a month-long journey back to its home port at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida.
Gov. Tim Walz was among a host of dignitaries to appear under a white tent on an overcast day featuring intermittent rain.
“We don’t commission artillery pieces in the Army,” said Walz, a retired Army National Guardsman. “And, that’s unfortunate.”
The invocation called for the officers and roughly 110-member crew to “embody the hopes, values and care of the people from the Twin Cities and Twin Ports.”
“We don’t just pretend this,” Walz said. “We are people of grit, resilience and bravery.”
Though vessels had been named for Duluth and the Twin Cities before, never had a commissioning come to the state. Navy officials said it was rare when Navy vessels could be commissioned so close to their namesake locations. The “home” event brought requests for more than 5,000 tickets to the Navy League of the United States.
Duluth Navy veteran David Wheat, a 7 ½-year prisoner of war in Vietnam, rose to the acknowledgement of the crowd.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Reps. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, and Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, were joined by the mayors of the three cities involved, as well as new Undersecretary of the Navy Erik Raven, overseeing his first commissioning ceremony.
“You’re the strength and determination of the American people,” McCollum, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, told the crew.
Stauber noted the $360 million ship was built using taconite iron ore from the Iron Range in the steel hull of the ship, and added the ceremony was “for many of us, once in a lifetime.”
The U.S. Navy Band filled the air with marches and exquisite sounds. Blue caps of Navy veterans filled the crowd.
Klobuchar said the state has waited since its inception in 1858 for a Navy commissioning.
“Our patience has finally paid off,” Klobuchar said, noting the translation of the ship’s motto — “find a way or make one” — and getting serious about the threats in today’s world, including “the inhuman barbarism of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”
“We have all been moved at this very moment by the bravery of the Ukrainian people taking up arms to protect their country,” Klobuchar said. “(They're) sending a warning shot to any tyrants around the world who believe that free democracies are up for grabs.”
Built for speed, agility and with weapons that can fire up to 9 miles, the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul is among a class of littoral combat ships designed to protect or attack within 25 miles of a shoreline anywhere in the world. Six-plus years in the making, USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul was built in Marinette, Wisconsin, by Fincantieri Marinette Marine on Lake Michigan for the defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.
Duluth’s Gary Black and spouse Celeste Curley-Black were among the scores of onlookers. Black, 68, had their picture taken with the ship as a backdrop. A Navy pilot who took off from and landed jets on aircraft carriers, he recalled being part of the commissioning of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington in Norfolk, Virginia on July 4, 1992.
“I was a plank owner,” Black said, using the title given to members of a ship’s first crew. “So, this is a big deal for the sailors here.”
David E. Anderson, 67, of St. Paul sailed in the Navy aboard submarines. He wore a cap honoring the first vessel to be named after the Twin Cities, the submarine USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul — decommissioned in 2007.
Anderson worked to preserve the conning tower and rudder from that vessel. He said those artifacts will appear at a new Military Museum at Camp Ripley in 2024.
“I’ve been working for 15 years on behalf of her namesake,” Anderson said. “It’s an honor to be here.”
Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.