GREAT FALLS, Mont. — She’s touted as a force to be reckoned with. And after nearly a 100-year absence, a U.S. Navy vessel now bears the name “Montana.”
And when she takes to the water, you better beware of the “Vigilantes of the Deep.”
The U.S. Navy recently christened its newest nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, the USS Montana, at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia in a ceremony that featured some flavor of the Big Sky state.
“I christen thee United States Ship Montana!” former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the ship’s sponsor, said Sept. 12 as she smacked a bottle of sparkling wine against the bow. “God Bless this submarine and all who sail in her!”
The christening of the USS Montana, also known as SSN 794, was a virtual celebration due to COVID-19 restrictions, meaning the Montanans who have been watching the progress on this submarine since its inception in 2015 had to watch online. It was the first christening of a U.S. Navy ship since the coronavirus outbreak began, officials said. The event was held at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, in Newport News, Virginia. Huntington Ingalls is America’s largest military shipbuilding company.
The celebration started with an honor song offered by the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, which represented the 12 tribes of Montana. CSKT Councilman Martin Charlo noted that Native Americans serve in the Armed Forces at a higher percentage per capita than other ethnic groups in the United States.
“It’s an honor to know our warrior spirit will be carried by this highly advanced and fast machine that will carry out many missions and keep our land safe,” he said. “We salute and send the Creator’s blessings over all men and women who help build, equip, crew, train and eventually set sail in defense of our nation.”
Members of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes perform an honor song for the christening of the USS Montana.
“May the Creator watch over all the new crew members and keep them from harm,” Charlo said. “They will be in our prayers.”
But don’t pull your water wings down off the shelf just yet as officials said it could be a year or so until the $2.6 billion submarine — the first vessel to be named after the state since 1908 — takes to the high seas. Montana is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in late 2021.
The christening is a shipbuilder event that the vessel is ready to launch and is far different than the submarine being finished and ready to join the fleet, said Bill Whitsitt, director of the state’s USS Montana Committee based in the Treasure State.
He said through the committee — a nonprofit created by a group of Montana residents wanting to support the submarine and endorsed by the governor and Legislature in 2017 — the state has made the commitment to support the ship for its 30-year service life.
"It was a very moving experience, he said of the ceremony, adding it was a “major milestone” in the ship joining the U.S. Navy fleet.
Jennifer Boykin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding and executive vice president of Huntington Ingalls Industries, offered an explanation at the christening, the first such event since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It is an important ceremony in the life of a ship, signaling it is water tight, ready to launch and prepared to start the next and final stage of its construction before going to sea,” she said.
The relationship between a ship sponsor and crew is special. Jewell will also impart her spirit on the ship and her crew and will possess a spirit unique to her sponsor, Boykin said.
Jewell said she looked forward to ringing the special bell the USS Montana Committee had made for the submarine. She was selected by then-President Barack Obama to be the ship’s sponsor, a title given to a prominent citizen chosen to christen a naval vessel. Jewell has spent time the past few years with the captain and crew and been in submarines.
Jewell spent a night as a guest of the Navy on another submarine, the USS New Mexico, doing exercises under pack ice of the Arctic Ocean in 2014.
“In the spirit of its namesake state, the USS Montana will explore some of the wildest places on Earth in service to us all,” she said. "May the magnificent fighting capabilities of this incredible submarine be an appropriate deterrent to aggressors who seek to undermine freedom and democracy for the United States and its allies across the globe.
“May the crew be well trained … and may all of our blessings carry the USS Montana and her crew to safety throughout her years of service to the American people,” Jewell said.
Mariah Gladstone, an engineer working on her master’s degree and member of the Blackfeet Nation, is serving as the submarine’s maid of honor and offered a blessing.
The maid of honor can serve as a proxy at events for the sponsor.
Even the invocation was distinctly Montana, as it was given by Jason Sutton, a Montana native who now serves as director of manufacturing for Newport News Shipbuilding.
“We raised our kids to believe that although the military moved us all over the world, that Montana truly was home and the last best place,” he said.
“… We pray as this silent sentry prepares to run deep in harsh, oceanic environments and in close proximity to a formidable foe that their purpose remain pure as they stand guard, and when called upon to wield the sword, may it strike with swift accuracy and render further violence useless to realize a peace beyond understanding,” Sutton said in his prayer.
Capt. Michael Delaney, the submarine’s commander, called the USS Montana one of the most capable warships ever built.
“To the crew, together we have the privilege and responsibility to establish Montana’s legacy,” he said at the christening ceremony. “I am honored to lead you in this endeavor and grateful to serve with each and every one of you.”
He said over the past two years he has visited several parts of the state.
“From its natural beauty and rugged outdoors, to mutton-busting and rodeos, the thing that stood out the most was the people that we met throughout the state and the reception with which they received the crew.”
Three of its 133 sailors, who came from 33 states, reportedly call Montana home.
Virginia Class submarines are 377 feet long and have a 34-foot beam. They displace 7,800 tons when submerged and travel about 28 mph. They have 12 Tomahawk missile tubs and four torpedo tubes, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The keel for the boat was laid on May 16, 2018 and construction of the submarine involved 4,000 shipbuilders, officials said.
The first USS Montana, ACR-13, was an armored cruiser also built at Newport News Shipbuilding and commissioned in July 1908. She served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, landed Marines during unrest in Haiti in 1914 and escorted convoys during World War I. She was decommissioned in 1921, Navy officials said in a news release.
Construction of the current USS Montana began 2015. It is the third of the 10 Block IV Virginia Class submarines.
Virginia Class submarines navigate deep waters while doing anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface ship warfare; strike warfare; special operation forces support; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; irregular warfare; and mine warfare missions, Navy officials said.
They are replacing Los Angeles Class submarines. The Navy said in a news release the submarines are known for their stealth, endurance, mobility and firepower.
Whitsitt explained the significance of the ship’s bell, saying it was from the first USS Montana, commissioned in 1908, now on display at the University of Montana.
He said the new bell for the new USS Montana is filled with historical significance. It is a historic replica of the first bell, but has the emblem of SSN 794. The new bell has the state motto “Oro y plata” and has gold and silver dolphin pins worn by qualified submariners and has real Montana gold and silver in it as well.
"… On behalf of all Montanans, we ask in the words of the Navy hymn “Bless those who serve beneath the deep …,” Whitsitt said.
The committee informs the people of Montana about the USS Montana and its role in protecting our nation, supports the commissioning of the USS Montana, provides appropriate financial support for the USS Montana not provided by the U.S. Navy because of budget or other constraints.
The keynote speaker, Acting Undersecretary of the Navy Gregory J. Slavonic, said the USS Montana will enhance the United States' fleet with next generation stealth, surveillance and special warfare capabilities.
“It sends a signal to friends and foe alike that we will maintain supremacy under the waves and extend the lethality and readiness in every domain,” he said. “This powerful platform is proof of an ironclad relationship between the Navy and industrial partners who form the backbone of our maritime strength.”
Montana’s congressional delegation wished the ship well.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines said the day was “long overdue” as Montana’s name had not been on a battleship for nearly 100 years.
“God bless the men and women who will serve aboard the USS Montana and may God continue to bless this great United States of America,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said the Montana is a force to be reckoned with.
“In a time of new global threats and challenges, it will represent Montana and our nation in the waters by defending us around the world for decades and decades,” he said. “I want to thank the active duty sailors and Marines who serve on vessels like the one we are celebrating today for keeping us safe. I know you will do Montana proud. It is an incredible honor to be part of this journey.”
GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte said we live in a challenging and unprecedented time.
“Know that this submarine will always embark with the support of all Montana and any sailor who boards her will be an honorary Montanan. May God keep this submarine and her crew safe.”
Among those who viewed the christening was state Attorney General Tim Fox, who is a member of the USS Montana Committee.
He said the committee raised money for some of the finer points of the submarine, such as a Montana-themed insignia and items to the captain’s quarters “so that Montana can be part of the ship.”
The insignia, the official emblem of the USS Montana, includes a Glacier National Park scene, a gold star within the submarine’s hull number, SSN 794 and the state motto of Oro y Plata (gold and silver).
It includes two eagle feathers representing the values, culture, and courage of Native American warriors and their tribes, a grizzly bear and 3-7-77, a symbol is associated with Montana’s early citizen vigilantes.
Finally, the Latin inscription within the emblem’s Montana border is “May it defend our way of life.”
The Montana crew has chosen to be called the “Vigilantes of the Deep,” Whitsitt said, noting it is a homage to Montana’s past.
Fox, who is termed out of office at the end of the year, said he hopes he can view the launch when that occurs in the next year or so.
Whitsitt said he watched the ceremony with a great deal of pride.
“I’m proud of our U.S. Navy, I’m proud of the shipbuilders in Virginia and the incredible work they did and proud of all the work everyone put into it,” he said.
“We are very proud of the sailors,” he said, noting the captain has made four visits to the state, sometimes with a commanding officer and crew members and then went to different parts of Montana, often staying with families.
“This boat is going to have 130-plus young sailors and carrying the name Montana and they need to know they are supported by those in their namesake state,” he said. "They appreciate the people back home know about, pray about them and want to be protected.
“Montanans, as you know, are patriots and want to support our military people and when go into harm’s way with our blessing and with the best equipment in the world,” Whitsitt said.
“We hope the mission is peace, but we want these young sailors to be protected.”