USS Somerset, in honor of 9/11, is commissioned
The sun was spring-bright and the air winter-cold when Mary Jo Myers, wife of retired Gen. Richard B. Myers, finally said the words Saturday that a crowd of thousands had waited hours to hear:
"Man this ship and bring her to life."
Sailors began marching from the amphitheater at Penn's Landing onto the brow - that's what civilians call the gangplank - of the Navy's newest ship, the USS Somerset.
More sailors appeared on the upper decks, dwarfed by the 25,000-ton vessel as they peered down at the politicians, military brass, shipbuilders, families of United Flight 93's passengers and crew, and regular folks way down on land. A lifeboat was revealed as a door in the ship's side slid open. The horn boomed.
That was pretty much it, but it was plenty for Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval operations, who said the official commissioning of a ship that commemorates 9/11 heroism over Pennsylvania was "exhilarating." The Somerset - which took four years and $1.2 billion to build - was ready for action.
The vessel, an amphibious assault ship that also can deliver humanitarian aid - is named for Somerset County, where the hijacked Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. Passengers and crew stormed the cockpit and prevented the hijackers from attacking another target. The memory of the heroism of those ordinary people now inhabits the work space of men and women who have chosen to face danger.
Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93, told the crowd that "heroism is not achieved, it is revealed." He urged the sailors and Marines who serve on the ship to remember the passengers and crew who did not set out that morning with the intent of becoming heroes.
"Please, let their actions - their essence - sustain you and motivate you as you bring the USS Somerset to life this morning and as you serve our country proudly aboard her, revealing your essence and your character, wherever the call of duty takes you," he said.
As people talked about the hulking gray ship Saturday morning, words like honor, privilege, respect, and courage came up over and over again.
Verna and Gordon Eastman were among about 20 people who came to remember LeRoy Homer, Flight 93's first officer, who was just 36 when he died. They live next to Homer's sister in Herndon, Va.
"This is such a meaningful tribute to a group of people I don't think we'd ever be able to appreciate fully for their heroism," Verna Eastman said. "I wanted to say thank you." Behind her sunglasses, there were tears in her eyes.
Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., lost his father and stepmother on the plane. His father had run what was then the family company, Continental Electric Inc. It made motors for Navy ships. "This would have been a great day of pride for him," he said.
Peterson also was worried about recently announced cuts to the military budget that he thinks will "energize" our enemies. "In today's world, this would not be here," he said of the ship.
Tighter budgets already have taken a toll on the 4,000 people who worked at the Ingalls Shipbuilding facility near New Orleans. Ingalls is consolidating operations, and the Somerset was the last ship to be built there.
"Ships are what we're about," Greenert said after the ceremony. A flexible ship like the Somerset, he added, "is exactly what we need."
The ship is scheduled to leave for San Diego, its home port, on Tuesday morning.
BY THE NUMBERS
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SOURCE: U.S. Navy and Ingalls Shipbuilding