Tom Andrews/My Turn
The onset of Fleet Week in San Francisco brings back memories of an event that occurred six months ago. In April, we commissioned the USS OAKLAND (LCS 24) at the Port of Oakland. It was a wonderful event, attended by a few hundred people, most in their cars, watching on big screens while they listened to the ceremony on FM radios. They got out of their cars and put their hands over their hearts while Dr. Yvonne Cobbs sang the National Anthem, and they bowed their heads reverently while the Bishop of Oakland, CAPT Michael Barber, gave the Invocation and Benediction.
In the audience were two centenarians. QMCS Mickey Ganitch, a Pearl Harbor survivor, was already in his baseball uniform when the Japanese attacked, as his USS Pennsylvania team was supposed to play the USS Arizona team that morning. He ended up fighting a different enemy that day. CDR “Diz” Laird, a Congressional Gold Medal winner, was the only Navy fighter pilot to shoot down enemy planes in both the European and Pacific theaters during WWII. Attending remotely was the last remaining Plankowner of the last USS OAKLAND (CL-95), BK1 Robert Almquist, who wished the crew good luck.
The speakers were notable and brief. Mayor Schaaf gave a heartfelt welcome to the crew, proclaimed the day as USS Oakland Day, and gave the Skipper an Oakland city flag. VADM Sean Buck, representing the CNO, talked about the significance of the ceremony and the role of the ship in the fleet. SECNAV Thomas Harker, a Cal grad, commented on the effort that went into building the ship and her process to reach the moment of commissioning. Ship Sponsor Kate Brandt, Google’s Sustainability Chief and former SECNAV Energy Advisor, gave the order to “Bring this ship alive!” Canons roared, bells rang, whistles screamed, turrets turned, and the ship came alive. She was now ready to serve; the newest Navy ship with the crew she deserved.
It was from the crew that I drew my inspiration. After the commissioning ceremony, we hosted a barbeque for the crew under the giant Port of Oakland cranes. Afterwards, we held a ceremony where we recognized the crew as Plankowners – the first crew of the ship. It is a special designation, one earned by very few sailors over the course of their careers. I was a bit concerned at first at the challenge of handing out over 70 plaques; but, the crew made the moment inspirational. From the get-go, the crew celebrated every one of their fellow crew members with hoots and hollers, whistles and cheers. Every single one of them! The energy was incredible. A lady handed me each plaque, and, with every crewmember, she would tell me something amazing about the person I was about greet. We had new Chiefs, meritoriously promoted Petty Officers, A-School Honor Graduates. There was a story for every one of them, and this lady knew them all. She had a Cal sweatshirt on, so I assumed she was part of the wardroom. One of the last plaques was hers, and that is when I found out that this Cal grad was a Petty Officer Second Class, working to get commissioned as an Intel Officer. Just another in a long line of exceptional shipmates.
And their names were not Smith and Jones. In fact, there was not a Smith nor a Jones in the entire crew. They came in all shades and persuasions: men and women, gay and straight, white and black and every shade in between. Their names were Ramlakhan and Liberato, Welch and Baraoidan, Jaskowiak and Gutierrezmartinez. The Skipper was a Mustang; one who came up through the enlisted ranks and now was in Command of the Navy’ newest warship – CDR Francisco Garza, a man with a bright smile and Command presence, the crew’s biggest fan.
But it was the esprit de corps of the crew that impressed me the most. It was palpable. It was honest. It was sincere. They truly loved and respected each other, and they were honored to be in each other’s company. It was a far cry from my active duty days, where racial tension was high and drugs were everywhere. A far cry.
The whole day gave me hope . . . the Navy is in good hands, from the bottom up.
(RADM Tom Andrews, Chair, USS OAKLAND Commissioning Committee, Novato, CA.)