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Who's coming to the USS Little Rock's commissioning

Most of the thousands of spectators expected Saturday at Canalside are coming for the novelty of witnessing a new warship become part of America's Navy.

Others will carry out official duties.

And still others will try and make a case for a future Navy ship to be named in honor of Buffalo.

Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who started a tradition by keeping the former USS Little Rock's name alive by bestowing it on the Navy's newest ship, will also be present.

The Navy's new USS Little Rock in Lake Erie with the Buffalo skyline behind it on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Mabus selected Janee' Bonner, of Alabama, to be the ship's sponsor. Her husband, a former member of Congress from Alabama, had been supportive of the Navy's decision to allow for "dual contractors" to build littoral combat ships at shipyards in Alabama and Wisconsin.

"The role I play with the Navy is to give the 'Come Alive Order,' and the actual phrase is 'Officers and crew of USS Little Rock man our ship and bring her to life,' " Bonner said. "The crew responds, 'Aye, aye ma'am,' and run aboard the ship. It's a Navy tradition."

Crew getting USS Little Rock shipshape for arrival in Buffalo Monday

Two years ago, she christened the new ship with a bottle of champagne when it was launched from the shipyard in Marinette, Wis., into the Menominee River, which connects to Lake Michigan.

Bonner will arrive here carrying on the sponsor's tradition of presenting the ship with a gift. Her gift recognizes both the new Little Rock and the former Little Rock.

"I commissioned a graphic artist to do a print of the new Little Rock and superimpose it over the old Little Rock in Buffalo," she said. "I'm giving the original to the ship and copies to the commanders."

After more than four years of construction, the $440 million warship arrived in Buffalo last week and docked beside the retired Little Rock at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park. That set the stage for a first in the Navy's 242 years – a new ship to be commissioned beside its namesake.

USS Little Rock's Buffalo arrival gives 'the crowd a show'

"For a ship this size, it usually attracts 4,000 to 5,000 spectators for a commissioning, but with numbers here reaching 9,000, it shows Western New York's love and support for the military," said Navy Cmdr. Paul Burkhart, who served as new ship's first skipper while it was in the final phases of construction.

Normally, a third of those issued free tickets are no shows at most ship commissioning ceremonies, Navy officials say. But given the number of tickets distributed in record time, optimism abounds that Canalside will overflow with spectators.

Who's coming

Burkhart, a native of the Rochester area, said he has invited 25 members of his family and friends.

"They're excited to see the introduction of the newest littoral combat ship coming into the fleet here in Buffalo," he said. "Most of them have never seen a commissioning."

The new USS Little Rock, known as LCS9, is part of a class of warships that can cruise in waters as shallow as 14 feet, hit speeds of 45 knots and swap out its armaments at sea, depending on what the combat mission requires.

The new nameplate glistens from the bridgewing on LCS9, the future USS Little Rock. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Hundreds of the spectators, including former crew members of the old Little Rock, will watch from the decks of the decommissioned ship.

"They will have the rare opportunity to witness the first commissioning of the new Little Rock while standing on the former Little Rock and be an actual part of history," said Capt. Brian W. Roche, executive director of the Naval and Military Park.

USS Little Rock Cmdr. Todd Peters and some of his crew made a little history of their own this past weekend, according to Roche.

"They slept aboard the old Little Rock so that they could say they have slept on both ships," Roche said.

Art Tilley, historian for the decommissioned USS Little Rock Association, says 300 former crew members and relatives will be in Buffalo this week. They credit Mabus, who once served on the ship, for making this happen.

Local Navy veteran who served on first USS Little Rock reminisces

"We  approached Ray when he was the secretary of the Navy at a reunion back in 2009 and said wouldn't it be nice if the Navy named even a tugboat the new USS Little Rock," recalled the 75-year-old Tilley, who lives near Gettysburg, Pa.  "Ray shrugged his shoulders and then in 2011 he announced that the next littoral combat ship would be named USS Little Rock. We're ecstatic we were named after a warship."

The old Little Rock, named in honor of Arkansas'  capital, was built to serve in World War II, but by the time it was ready for combat, the war was ending. The ship went on to serve as a guided missile cruiser before its 1976 decommissioning.

Past and future

G. Michael Hewitt, the first skipper of the soon-to-be decommissioned USS Buffalo [SSN-715] fast attack submarine, recalls when a contingent from Buffalo traveled first to Newport News, Va., for the christening and launching of the submarine and then to Puget Sound in Washington for the 1983 commissioning.

"Joanne Kemp was the submarine's sponsor and broke the bottle of champage," Hewitt said.

Her husband, Rep. Jack Kemp, and Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin and Erie County Executive Edward Rutkowski, all in office at the time, were among the dignitaries present.

"The commissioning committee invited my family to visit in Buffalo and we still remember that trip," Hewitt said. "We really appreciated the hospitality. The people of Buffalo were just so pleasant."

U.S. Navy sailors board the new USS Little Rock, with their sea bags at the Marinette Marine shipyard in Marinette, Wisc. on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

And history is again repeating itself.

Little Rock Cmdr. Peters says that everywhere he and his crew go they have encountered good wishes.

"We have had a ton of interest and everyone is introducing themselves and most are shaking hands," Peters said. "We are being introduced as being from 'the ship.' "

Hewitt will return to Buffalo on Friday at the invitation of the USS Little Rock Commissioning Committee to assist its members in making a case to Navy officials to name a future ship for Buffalo.

"Having a ship named after a city pulls the community together," he said. "There's a cohesion between the community and the Navy. It's a matter of civic pride."

And though it has been 27 years since Hewitt retired from the service, the 75-year-old former captain from Noank, Conn., will look official at the commissioning ceremony.

"My uniform still fits and I plan to wear it," Hewitt said.

Another special guest, according to Roche, will be Mary Wilson, the wife of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the late owner of the Buffalo Bills.

And he, too, was proud of his service in the Navy during WWII. His uniform is on display at the Naval and Military Park's museum.

Other dignitaries include U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas; Vice Admiral Luke M. McCollum, chief and commander of the Navy Reserve Force; and Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

Despite wintry weather, many have already tried without success to get a closer look at the ship. A security perimeter of 150 to 200 feet between Marine Drive and the Canalside pier has allowed for only distant viewing. But when the commissioning ceremony begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, thousands of ticket holders will have filed through security checkpoints and be able to closely take in the 387-foot-long vessel.

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