Union Tribune

July 13, 2003

'Man this ship and bring her to life'
Former first lady Nancy Reagan gives the command for sailors of Navy's newest carrier, the Ronald Reagan


NAVAL BASE NORFOLK, Va. The Navy put into service yesterday its newest and most powerful warship, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.

The massive $5 billion warship, the first to be named for a living former president, will be based in San Diego beginning next summer.

The 40th president and two-term California governor is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and could not attend the commissioning ceremony. But former first lady Nancy Reagan was on hand as the ship's sponsor to give the order that turned the 100,000-ton mass of steel and high-tech gadgets into a living warship.

Dressed in a white suit that matched the sea of white Navy uniforms around her, the one-time Hollywood actress noted playfully, "They've only given me one line."

Then she announced: "Man this ship and bring her to life."

At that command, several hundred sailors ran from the pier up three tall access stairs into the ship and up to the flight deck to man the rails, creating a wall of white uniforms a fifth of a mile long.

All of the radar and fire control antennae and a deck-edge crane went into motion, an F-14 Tomcat fighter was towed into view on the flight deck and a group of flight deck personnel, in their multicolored jerseys, joined the sailors at the rail.

Then, as the ship's bells and whistle sounded, a diamond formation of Navy fighters flew overhead.

Following several months of at-sea testing of its flight deck systems and further training of the crew and a return to the shipyard for some corrective work, the Reagan will move next year to its new home in San Diego.

With President Bush finishing a trip to Africa, Vice President Dick Cheney gave the main address. He noted the aptness of naming the latest of the Nimitz-class carriers for Reagan, who during his two terms in office authorized construction of four of the ships in his drive to rebuild America's military strength.

"President Reagan spent eight years in the White House removing all doubts about the credibility of our armed forces or the clarity of America's purpose," Cheney said.

"If the purpose of naming a carrier is to convey the strength and seriousness of our country and our military, we certainly have accomplished that."

The commissioning ceremony was attended by an estimated 20,000 people, including family and friends of the crew, active and retired service members and members of the Navy League, which supported many of the associated events.

The ceremony came after nearly eight years of construction of the Reagan at Northrop Grumman's Newport News shipyard. Although outwardly similar to the eight other Nimitz-class carriers, the Reagan contains more than 2,400 changes from the early ships.

Begun in the last decade of the 20th century, the Reagan will serve into the second half of the 21st and it is designed for a time dramatically different in technology and in security challenges than the Cold War era for which the San Diego-based Nimitz was conceived.

The modifications include massive structural features, such as the huge bulbous bow protrusion under the waterline and the elongated island towering over the flight deck.

The bow was modified to compensate for weight the ships have added over the years and to improve efficiency at cruise speed.

The island was extended aft to shelter an enlarged bomb elevator, changes made to accommodate the sophisticated precision-guided munitions that have largely replaced "dumb bombs" as the weapon of choice.

But most of the changes are hidden within the 1,092-foot-long, 20-story-high floating city.

The old maze of thick electrical cables have been replaced by a network of fiber optic wires able to carry vast amounts of voice and digital data among a staggering number of high-tech electronic systems and to allow for easier upgrades for future technologies.

The air-conditioning system has been enlarged to keep crew and equipment cool in the heat of places like the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, which have replaced the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea as the principle operating areas.

The Reagan also was built to house up to 800 women among the 5,000-plus members of the ship's crew and air wing.

Capt. John W. "Bill" Goodwin, who has commanded the nascent warship through the last three years of its construction, will not get to take it to San Diego or on its first operational deployment. He will be relieved by Capt. James Simon on Aug. 28.

"To not be able to take this ship on a deployment is certainly bittersweet," Goodwin conceded. "But I like to think that what I have done and what the crew has done has laid the foundation for the next 50 years of this great ship.

"I am the first commanding officer of the Ronald Reagan. The last commanding officer hasn't even been born yet."

Early next year, the Reagan will sail from Norfolk to North Island Naval Air Station, where it should arrive by early summer. It will bring nearly 3,000 crew members, perhaps twice that number of dependents and an estimated $240 million a year economic boost from pay and services.

The Reagan crew will get some relief from the San Diego area's expensive housing market because the carrier John C. Stennis will have left for its new homeport of Bremerton, Wash., opening a sizable part of the 9,200 government-owned or contracted housing units.