Twenty years ago this week on a very hot and sunny Saturday, I became a USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN 73) Plank Owner. For those not familiar with naval traditions, a plank owner is an original member of a ship’s crew on the day she is placed in commission. I share this honor with about 3000 other Sailors, Chiefs, and Officers; who, on the 4th of July in 1992, brought the ship alive at the Norfolk Naval Station. This July 4th – as we celebrate the 236th year of our nation’s indeoendence – the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON will mark the 20th anniversary of her commissioning. To those interested, I offer this recollection of the events up to and including the actual day. I have also provided some photo memories from my own collection and from the ship’s first cruise book.
As anyone can imagine, it takes years to build an aircraft carrier. The Navy awarded Newport News Shipbuilding the contract to build GEORGE WASHINGTON at the end of 1982 and on August 25th, 1986 her keel was laid and the ship’s construction began. But it would be over three years before a crew started to form.
In the early part of 1990, the Pre-Commissioning Unit was established. It was made up of the Prospective Commanding Officer, CAPT Bob Nutwell, and a handful of Sailors, Chiefs and Officers. Many if not most of these initial crew-members would form what was to become the Reactor Department under the leadership of CAPT Jim Brown. This is the department I would later join in early July of 1990 when I reported aboard.
On July 21st 1990, the GEORGE WASHINGTON was christened and launched by the ship’s sponsor – First Lady Barbara Bush. President Bush also attended and provided the principal address during the ceremony, speaking about the important role the US Navy plays in projecting American strength around the globe.
(A historical side note – juxtaposed during these early days of the PCU GEORGE WASHINGTON, were the events leading up to and including the first Persian Gulf War. Twelve days after the ship’s christening, Iraq would invade Kuwait and in January 1991, the United States would lead coalition forces in what was known as Desert Storm.)
In the months following the christening, the crew prepared to accept the ship’s systems and equipment while the shipyard continued to build the ship. This would take close to 18 months beginning in late 1990. During this time, every department worked alongside their shipyard counterparts to install and test every piece of equipment and every ship system. For those of us in the Reactor Department, it required us to work around the clock in shifts. We had to test every system in the nuclear powered propulsion plant, which included the initial start up the ship’s two nuclear reactors.
In the spring of 1992, the ship underwent sea trials – a ship test drive of sorts by the Navy before it takes actual ownership. It was at this time the ship’s crew took the ship out to sea for the first time. Teams of Navy and shipyard inspectors verified that all ship systems operated correctly, requiring an evaluation of the ship’s maximum speed at a flank bell.
Upon completion of sea trials, the Navy was ready to accept its newest carrier into the fleet. A comical side note – the ship was fortunate to have Broadside Cartoonist, Jeff Bacon, as a fellow plank owner. He entertained us all with his Broadside like, but very ship specific cartoons. His drawings would be in the ship’s Plan-of-the-Day and many were framed and hung in the Wardroom. Below is one of the many he drew in which he depicts the comical angst that CAPT Nutwell might have faced had he been given the bill for the ship.
As anyone can imagine, a ship’s commissioning is quite an event. For an Aircraft Carrier though, it is an amazing spectacle with over 20,000 people on hand to see the nation’s newest capital ship.
With over 3000 crew-members, I would imagine there are probably just as many different versions of what we all recall from that day. Here is what I remember with a little help from the ship’s cruise book and published news accounts like this one from The Daily Press.
Commissioning Assignment – Ushers
Most of the ship’s Junior Officers (JO’s) were tasked with being ushers and helping direct guests to their seats. Some of us were tasked more specifically with escorting dignitaries and special guests. I remember someone from the Reactor Department who was the lucky guy task with escorting Miss USA. Looking through the cruise book, I discovered it was our Reactor Training Assistant and consummate bachelor (as I recall) – LCDR Mike Tuzzulo.
For many of my fellow JO’s, however, our task was pretty straightforward. We helped direct the thousands of visitors to their seats and then as the ceremony proceeded, we acted as safety observers to help anyone who may fall victim to the heat. As a result, we did not directly participate in the actual ceremony, which perhaps was unfortunate. But at the same time, it gave all of us a magnificent view of the ceremony, allowing us to hear the distinguish guests speak and watch as CAPT Nutwell order the first watch set, bringing the ship “alive.”
As with any Naval Ceremony, there are distinguished guests who are invited to participate. The highlight for many and perhaps the most special of the guests was First Lady Barbara Bush – the ship’s sponsor.
This time she was without her husband who was attending another 4th of July event. Joining the First lady during the ceremony was Mr. W.R. Phillips – President and CEO of Newport News Shipbuilding, Admiral Frank B. Kelso – Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Paul David Miller – Commander In Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, The Honorable Charles Robb – Senator of Virginia, The Honorable Dan Howard – Under Secretary of the Navy, and the Honorable Dick Cheney – Secretary of Defense.
Included in the crowd of 20,000 were my own invited guests. My very special guest was my fiancé – Lisa – who I married later that same year (we are also celebrating our 20th anniversary in December). Additionally, my parents, grandparents, siblings, and Lisa’s parents, as well as my best friend Tim and his wife Mary Beth, also attended as my guests.
(Personal Side Note – Tim and I started our Naval training together in 1988 and to this day our two families have remained the closest of friends.)
Looking back, I especially remember my Grandparents absolute awe in seeing the ship up close and touring on board after the ceremony. Many years later, I would share a final moment with my Grandfather before he passed away, as we both recalled the time I gave him a tour of “my” aircraft carrier. Having my family and friends attend and allowing them to share the experience made the day even more memorable – as I am sure it did for so many other plank owners whose own special guests came.
As with any Naval Ceremony there is protocol to follow (see program). Barbara Bush spoke to the crowd and crew. In her remarks she recalled the day the ship was christened:
“I remember how proud I was to break the bottle against the bow. I’m even prouder today to see the George Washington ready to join the fleet.”
Following the First Lady, Mr. Phillips and Senator Robb offered brief remarks to the gathering. It was after that when the act of commissioning the ship began, with Admiral Kelso – The Chief of Naval Operations – reading the commissioning directive to the Commanding Officer.
“I hereby direct CAPT Nutwell to place George Washington in commission. God bless and Godspeed to all who sail on her.”
In response, CAPT Nutwell announced:
“Aircraft carrier George Washington is in commission. I assume command and report for duty, sir! CAPT Branch, set the first watch.”
CAPT Malcolm Branch, the ship’s Executive Officer, then directed the first watch to be set and for the ship to “Come Alive!” And with that order, the 92,000-ton mountain of steel came to life.
What followed was absolutely phenomenal, resulting in a standing ovation by all who witnessed.
While the U.S. Atlantic Fleet brass band played “Anchors Aweigh” and “America, the Beautiful,” hundreds of sailors ran from the pier up the ship’s plank and lined every visible rail of the ship. Aircraft handlers brought a Navy F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet and A-6 Intruder into view on the ship’s flight deck, the carrier’s radar began to whirl, flags were unfurled and the ship’s horn began to blow. Topping it all off, the crowd enjoyed a flyover by four Navy aircraft.
With the ship’s company manning the rails and the ship’s first watch set, the Secretary of Defense – Dick Cheney – spoke to the crowd. He praised the ship’s crew as among the Navy’s best and proclaimed them ready to fight whatever enemy and perform whatever duty their nation requires:
“As you face that challenge, may the George Washington always be first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of our countrymen.”
Following the benediction and the departure of the official party, the ceremony was over and the ship was opened to the public for touring.
The event was televised on local stations and covered on the national news. For my family and myself, it was one of the best ways we ever celebrated Independence Day together. To this day it stands out as a fond memory for all of us and I am certain the same could be said for the entire crowd who attended.
To My Fellow Plank Owners
I probably would be remiss if I did not say a few words to my fellow plank owners, but time and space precludes saying something to the hundreds of friends I made during my tour. I hope all of you are doing well. Thank you for making my time on the GW memorable and fun. If any of you read this and would like to drop me a line, please post a comment, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you.
Back in 1992, I remember CAPT Nutwell commenting that the GEORGE WASHINGTON’s last CO had yet to be born – an acknowledgement to the planned fifty-year service life that is typical for an aircraft carrier. Looking at the ship’s crew today, the average age is in the mid-twenties. Many of the young sailors aboard today were still infants or were not even born at the time of the commissioning. Looking forward thirty years, the majority of the ship’s last crew will not be born until the 2020’s. Today, however, the last CO has indeed been born and he or she is probably in high school preparing for college. Perhaps, this young person already dreams of flying in the Navy or maybe has no inclination that a naval career is in their future. Someday though, this young person along with a future crew will have the privilege to serve aboard one of the country’s finest ships and be a part of an amazing legacy that started over twenty years ago.
I will close with a verse that the ship’s first command chaplain, CAPT Earl Boyette, CHC, wrote to be sung as part of the Navy Hymn – “Eternal Father” – during the ship’s All Faith’s Service on July 5th, 1992.
From Valley Forge to flight deck free, we lift our voice in praise of Thee.
Grant all who sail GEORGE WASHINGTON, thy will in us shall ere be done.
As our Nation’s Father knelt to pray, we seek Thy help and peace always. Amen