MARINETTE, Wis. – Sailor Marcus Blye says he will be standing on the deck of the new USS Little Rock when it arrives Monday at Canalside. He'll look for his family in the crowd expected to welcome the new Navy warship.
Ensign Bailey Elizabeth Rhodes says she will be looking at the sky hoping to see snowflakes. It will be the Texan's first time "up north" and she has heard about Buffalo and snow.
Navy Commander Paul Burkhart says many of his friends and family from Western New York will show up for the new Little Rock's commissioning on Dec. 16.
The new Little Rock will be moored 50 feet from the decommissioned USS Little Rock at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park when it'll be officially accepted into the Navy.
The $440 million high-speed ship comes outfitted with the latest hi-tech weaponry — the cutting edge of America's defenses at sea. But it is also the sailors on board who impress Burkhart, who now works at the Pentagon but served as the ship's first commander during its construction.
"The ship is a conglomeration of metal that has been put together, but it is the crew who provide the heartbeat," Burkhart said. "And, I know pretty much every crew member and they are a phenomenal group of sailors."
Amid the formality and fanfare at the commissioning, crew members will eagerly await the words, "Man our ship and bring her to life."
Once uttered, they will charge up the gang plank and assemble on the deck, marking the ship's official entry into the Navy's fleet.
As the ship's inaugural crew, the sailors will be known as the Little Rock's "plank owners," a title that distinguishes them from all future Little Rock crews.
They will not take the honor lightly.
"I feel like I'm part of something greater than myself," said Blye, a 2nd class mineman.
Duties aboard ship
The Buffalo News interviewed crew members when the Navy took control of the newly built ship in September. The sailors began living aboard the ship beside the Wisconsin shipyard where it was built. They said they felt privileged to be assigned to the new Navy warship.
"This ship is amazing," said Chief Fire Controlman Franco Montjoy, who grew up in Washington D.C. "It's the future of the Navy, and it links us to the past. We're one more link in the chain of Navy history."
On the crew's first day of living aboard the new USS Little Rock, sailors tackled a long laundry list of tasks that would take weeks and months to complete before traveling to Buffalo.
Ropes needed to be measured, cut and coiled for the smaller crafts stored in the ship's belly.
Iron chain links bigger than a man's fist had to be inspected and the chain connected to the ship's anchor.
Crates of guns and ammunition had to be loaded and arms distributed to the sailors who would stand watch guarding the ship.
In some of the secured steel-roomed walls off endless hallways, sailors and technical assistants could sometimes be seen downloading computer programs onto multiple redundant hard drives. Near the ship's galley, the smell of fresh paint hung in the air along with the aroma of roasting beef.
The ship hummed with enthusiasm.
"The learning curve is steep, but we're figuring it out with help from members of the parent command who are on board," said Rhodes, the 22-year-old newly minted ensign.
A gunnery officer, Rhodes says this is her first billet aboard a ship. She supervised sailors loading machine guns, rifles, shotguns, handguns and ammunition onto the ship.
Raised on a ranch in northeast Texas, Rhodes is one of two female officers and four enlisted women in the Little Rock's core crew of 70 sailors.
Boatswain's Mate Brett Ragan, who comes from the Arkansas city for which the ship is named, pilots its 36-foot-long rigid-hulled inflatable boats, which launch from the lower level of the ship's stern. But that's not all he does. If the ship's Sikorski SH-60 Seahawk helicopter is called out on a mission, the 25-year-old sailor goes topside when the aircraft returns to guide it back onto the flight deck. He then refuels it.
Ragan also operates an overhead crane used to place arriving cargo bins of armaments in the ship's open reconfigurable zones.
The reconfigurable zones make the new Little Rock flexible because it can pursue different combat missions. The ship can fight in surface warfare or switch to eliminating underwater mines and hunting down enemy submarines with unmanned underwater vessels and special sonar.
'Humongous jet ski'
The ship's technology is what impresses Blye the most.
"We have all of this technology and it makes me feel safe," said the 32-year-old mineman.
The Little Rock is categorized as a littoral combat ship for its ability to sail in shallow waters. It replaces, among other ships, traditional minesweepers. So instead of sending a 90-member minesweeper crew into hazardous waters containing submerged mines, LCS vessels can pilot remote-controlled mine-hunting equipment to detect and destroy mines.
The ship's navigator, James Kocsis, says he grew up on Lake Michigan and spent summer days zipping along the lake on his personal watercraft.
Aboard the Little Rock last summer when it underwent sea trials in Lake Michigan, he says the ship hits speeds of about 45 knots — roughly 52 mph — and that "it was like riding a humongous jet ski."
Before serving on the new Little Rock, the fastest Navy ships Kocsis operated topped out at 32 knots. Now the 35-year-old sailor says he looks forward to "opening up" the Little Rock on the open seas.
The crew also likes what the ship offers for living conditions.
One of the living quarters with six sleeping racks provides more space and privacy than other Navy ships, said Gas Turbine Systems Technician Dobson Smart, a 12-year Navy veteran.
As he unpacked his gear, Smart, 31, said the sleeping berths, known as "coffin racks," are usually stacked three high. That can make a sailor feel like a packed sardine. The Little Rock has double-high sleeping berths.
"You can actually sit up in your rack. There's plenty of head room," Smart said.
Sailor Dobson Smart packs his belongings into the quarters he shares with seven others aboard the USS Little Rock. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)
And unlike other ships with 40 or more sailors assigned to sleeping quarters, the biggest units on the Little Rock accommodate up to eight bunks. That means more privacy and less competition for the showers and head.
"There's actually a gym on this ship," Smart said.
And then there's the food.
Word spread fast among the crew on their first day aboard the ship that four culinary specialists were preparing a special meal to mark the beginning of their days as shipmates.
"Prime rib, shrimp, loaded baked potatoes, corn on the cob, chicken noodle soup, a salad bar, dinner rolls and pecan pie," Senior Chief Petty Supply Officer Lucas Anderson said, rattling off the menu.
In the 22-seat crew mess hall, there's plenty of elbow room for shipmates.
Adjacent to the mess hall are two other dining facilities, a 15-seat dining room for the ship's chiefs and a 15-seat ward room for officers. But everyone stands in the same cafeteria-style food line to fill their plates.
Many of the sailors, when off duty, wear T-shirts emblazoned with the new USS Little Rock's motto that capture the intense spirit of the crew: "Back with a vengeance."
The commissioning will bring sentimental emotions to the first two commanders of the new Little Rock.
Burkhart, the ship's first skipper, oversaw its construction at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine Shipyard in Wisconsin.
Burkhart grew up in North Chili, outside Rochester, and his wife Michele was raised in Jamestown.
"I still have a lot of family and friends up in Western New York, and they are asking me for invitations to the commissioning," said Burkhard, 50, who enlisted in the Navy at 17 in 1984.
Proud of his roots, Burkhart added, "I'm still a diehard Bills fan, and we go home to my wife's family in Jamestown for Christmas."
For Capt. Todd D. Peters, the Little Rock's current commander, the visit to Buffalo will give him the chance to see the old USS Little Rock. It holds special meaning for him.
"I came from a broken family, and when I was going to high school in Curwensville, Pa., there was a Mr. Jay Buhler, the school's band leader, and he was very influential in my life. When I told him I was going to be the commander of the Little Rock, he told me he had served on the old Little Rock, and I never knew that," Peters said.
Such serendipity, the commander said, underscores how those in the Navy share a special bond.
"The Navy," he said, "is a global force, but it's a family."