Jacksonville, FL - In the first commissioning ceremony to happen at Naval Station Mayport since 2006, the future USS Wichita will formally enter Navy service this Saturday.
It marks continued growth for Naval Station Mayport- the ship is the fifth Littoral Combat Ship to call Mayport home so far, and the base is expecting 16 overall by 2023. But as the Sailors settle in to their new home, they’re also keeping a strong connection with the city the ship is named for.
GALLERY: Future USS Wichita
Commander Nathan Rowan, the future USS Wichita’s Commanding Officer, has served on five ships at Mayport, including as the Executive Officer on the USS Philippean Sea. He says his 70-man crew has been challenged in learning the systems and technology, and dealing with the evolving design of mission elements of the ship, but they’ve been rising to the occasion and are excited to be the commissioning crew.
“It’s great, it’s a unique experience. We’re the first to embark a ship, bring it to life, figure out all the cool things the ship can do. The learning curve for us is very steep, however, we get to be the first to do a lot of cool things on board, so it’s been a wonderful experience,” Rowan says.
Unique to this ship, Rowan says when he took command, the vast majority of the crew had already served on an LCS. He says that experience made their work so far much easier, and continues to be something they prioritize, as those Sailors move to new assignments.
“The resident knowledge is being passed down from those Sailors who are getting ready to leave, to those Sailors that are now embarking. So our level of readiness has been sustainable,” he says.
Rowan says he is proud of the camaraderie and care among the ship’s Sailors, which is magnified by the small size of the group, compared to other ships. At just 70 Sailors, he says they all roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done, right down to everyone being accountable for doing their own dishes. The ship’s technology- which relies heavily on cameras to watch areas that would otherwise traditionally be manned- aids them daily, and sometimes the small size even gives them an advantage. Rowan says they all enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal with recipes that you may not see on another ship, because they get to take some more liberties, since there are fewer mouths to feed.
For many of the Sailors who serve on the future USS Wichita, their assignment was a bit of luck.
“The fact that I’ll be able to be stationed on the ship representing the city that I was born and raised in, it’s a good honor and privilege,” says Operations Specialist Isaac Davis.
The future USS Wichita is the third ship to be named for the Kansas city, and natives like Davis say that makes being part of the commissioning crew even more special.
“The ship and the Sailors will definitely do the city proud,” he says.
Chief Information Systems Technician Brian Tanner, another Wichita native, has served in the Navy close to 15 years. He’s been a plank owner for a shore command, but never for a ship. It’s an honor he says is right up there with making Chief.
“I leave my mark, leave a piece of me, and I always take a piece of her with me,” Tanner says.
The ship shows that connection as well. A cabinet on board is filled with Wichita-related memorabilia that they proudly display, including a ball and bat signed by Wichita’s minor league team, fire helmet signed by a fire station in Wichita, books written and donated by the ship’s sponsor, and more. Even the ship’s motto, “Keeper of the Seas”, is a play on the “Keeper of the Plains”, which is a well-known statue in Wichita.
One of the areas unique to the #USSWichita- cabinet features memorabilia honoring the city, including a ball and bat signed by their minor league team, and a fire helmet signed by a Wichita fire station @ActionNewsJax @WOKVNews pic.twitter.com/ImQ0a82Sc4— Stephanie Brown (@SBrownReports) January 10, 2019
A commitment to honoring Wichita doesn’t mean their new City is being left behind.
Rowan says they look for opportunities for the crew to be in the Jacksonville community together, like volunteering at events or building under Habitat for Humanity. Many of the Sailors’ families have also been living in the city for several months, in anticipation of the commissioning and homeporting.
“It does something not only for the base, but also for the community- which is very important- and the economy here in Florida,” Rowan says.
Just a few years ago, Mayport was at a historically low level of ships, with just 13, because of the decommissioning of the guided missile frigates. The peak in the 1980s saw more than 30 ships in the basin. The Navy moved the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York, and USS Fort McHenry to Mayport in order to boost the level back up, and the base has been designated as the East Coast homeport for the LCS ships, specifically housing the Freedom variant of the ship.
The future USS Wichita is the third ship officially added at Mayport in just the last month and a half, along with the USS Sioux City- another LCS- and the guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner. At least two more ships are slated for this year, the LCS’s USS Billings in August and USS Indianapolis in November.
GALLERY: USS Thomas Hudner
For the future USS Wichita, their goal is training and development. The ship will continue operations later this month testing systems and doing other work off which the Navy can learn what on the ship works well and what may need improvement. They’re specifically designated for mine countermeasures, and Rowan says there are experts on board this very minute working on the design of that mission package.
In addition to providing lessons learned for the Navy, in the Mayport basin, they’ll serve as a training platform for Sailors on other LCSs.