Barrington on Board

Story by Jeffrey Westhoff | Photo: Tao Zhang

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Within a year, Illinois residents will be able to do something they haven’t been able to do in more than a century. They will be able to participate in the commissioning of a United States Navy warship named for their state.

The USS Illinois, a Virginia-class attack submarine, is currently being assembled at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Conn. The sub is the first Navy ship to bear the name Illinois since a battleship that was launched Oct. 4, 1898.

The new USS Illinois is scheduled to be commissioned on Dec. 20, 2015. Three Barrington-area residents – Bobby Ferguson, Dee Dee Johnson, and Christina Currie – will be there. They have prominent positions in the USS Illinois Commissioning Committee, a group formed over the summer to ensure the submarine receives the proper pomp to accompany the circumstance of its commissioning.

Several events honoring a ship’s crew and sponsor traditionally take place during commissioning weekend, but the Navy is prohibited by law to pay for anything but seating on the pier, the stage, and bunting for the ship. “The Navy can’t go out and raise the money,” said Ferguson, who is co-chair of the commissioning committee.

It is up to such a committee to raise funds for the additional events before and after the commissioning ceremony, as well as plaques for the ship’s crew and gifts for the sponsor and major contributors. “The commissioning committee is essential to an effective and good commissioning of a ship,” said the captain of the USS Illinois, Cmdr. Jess Porter. “Without the commissioning committee, essentially none of the other stuff would be able to happen.”

Usually after a ship is named, a government official from the vessel’s namesake state or city takes the lead in establishing a commissioning committee. When Porter didn’t see that happening for the USS Illinois, he reached out to Navy League for help. The Navy League is a civilian, nonprofit organization that publicly advocates for the Navy as well as the other maritime services: the U.S. Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marines. Most commissioning committees are set up through the auspices of the Navy League. “The Navy likes to go to the Navy League to start a commissioning committee,” said Ferguson, who has been in the Navy League for 25 years. “It is the Navy League that gets these things going.”

Forming a Committee

The five Chicago-area Navy League councils took up Porter’s appeal and formed a commissioning committee for the USS Illinois, appointing Len Wass as chairman. Wass, a retired Navy captain and former submariner, is with the Navy League’s Aurora Council. He asked Barrington Hills resident

One thing all U.S. Navy recruits have in common is that they must spend time in Illinois.

Since 1996, Naval Station Great Lakes has been the Navy’s only boot camp, formally called Recruit Training Command. Every year approximately 38,000 men and women arrive at the base in Lake County to begin their entry in the Navy. Since the first boot camp class in 1911, more than 3.5 million recruits became sailors at Great Lakes.

Great Lakes is the largest military installation in Illinois and the Navy’s largest training center. More than 20,000 military and civilian personnel work and train there. The base is situated on 1,628 acres near North Chicago.

Great Lakes has served its country for more than a century. When President Theodore Roosevelt announced the base’s creation in 1905, it was unheard-of to establish a naval training center a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. Great Lakes opened its gates on July 1, 1911. Thirty-nine of Great Lakes’ 1,153 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the original buildings, noted for their distinctive red bricks, were designed by architect Jarvis Hunt.

Besides boot camp, Great Lakes is also home to many schools where sailors learn the latest in naval technology and leadership skills. More than 13,000 people annually attend these advanced classes. “Our mission here at Great Lakes is simple: Deliver highly skilled, technically proficient, disciplined and motivated sailors to the fleet,” said John Sheppard, the base’s public affairs officer.

Ferguson, a former Navy man, to serve as co-chair. Ferguson has experience with commissioning ceremonies. He was chairman of the committee that saw the USS Freedom, the first of a new type of surface warship designed for agility in coastal waters, commissioned in Milwaukee in November 2008. He has attended eight other commissionings.

“These are unbelievable ceremonies, just unbelievable,” Ferguson said. “None of the other military services have anything like this. When the Air Force gets a new plane, they don’t have a ceremony for it.”

Ferguson said his work on the USS Freedom Commissioning Committee taught him one valuable lesson: “For your social events, find the two ladies in town who throw the best parties and bring them in.” That led him to recruit Johnson and Currie as chairs of the Illinois Host Committee and Special Events, respectively.

Ferguson and Johnson, who is the proprietor of Bataille Academie of the Danse in Barrington, had worked together previously as members of We Do Care, the organization behind Barrington’s Freedom Festival, which highlighted villagers’ supports for the troops. “Everything I’ve seen her do, she’s done well,” Ferguson said of Johnson. “We have this very fine relationship,” Johnson said of Ferguson.

Johnson pointed Ferguson toward Inverness resident Currie, who has owned her own event-planning business, Christina Currie Events, for 10 years and has been in the industry for 22 years. “Christina is exactly who I thought would be perfect for the job,” Johnson said. “Her reputation certainly precedes her. She’s just really good at her job.”

Planning and Hosting Events

As the special events chair, Currie will be in charge of the events during commissioning weekend. Historically, these events have included a chairman’s reception (to recognize contributors) a platform briefing reception (to make sure all those scheduled to speak during the ceremony are assembled and ready), a post-commissioning reception (for all attendees), and a commissioning committee reception (to recognize committee members). The Navy estimates between 3,000 and 8,000 people attend a commissioning ceremony, depending on the size of the ship. The USS Illinois will have a crew complement of 137 sailors.

“Have I ever produced big events with thousands of people? Yes. But not something like the commissioning of the USS Illinois,” Currie said. “It’s an historic opportunity. I don’t think another opportunity like this will come again during an event planner’s lifetime.”

While Currie’s expertise is planning, Johnson considers herself a “day of” person. Her talent is looking after the logistics as an event is unfolding and making sure things are done properly and on schedule. Johnson said running a dance school has given her the right experience. “If I can move 400 kids every year in a show, a couple hundred adults shouldn’t be a problem.”

When the USS Illinois takes to sea later this year, it will be the 13th Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the U.S. Navy’s fleet.

The Virginia-class subs represent the latest design in the Navy’s modern approach to warfare. They are built for combat and intelligence-gathering missions in shallow, coastal waters, but they can also take on the more traditional deep-water role that submarines played during the 20th century. “We’ve gained another portfolio of missions,” said the captain of the USS Illinois, Cmdr. Jess Porter.

The first ship in the class, the USS Virginia, was commissioned in October 2004. Construction on the Illinois – designation SSN-786 – began in March 2011. It is being built by Huntington Ingalls Industry in partnership with the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics.

The Illinois will be the third ship in the third block of Virginia-class subs. Unlike the submarines built in the first two blocks, the Illinois will have a redesigned bow and more advanced electronics. Also, two of its 12 missile tubes will be able to accommodate other missiles than Tomahawk cruise missiles. “It gives us a lot more flexibility in the payloads it can use now,” Porter said.

Porter was appointed captain of the Illinois in summer of 2012. It is his first command. He has spent 29 years in the Navy, the last 18 years in the submarine service. The first members of the ship’s 137-man crew reported for duty in July 2013. Porter said that while the submarine is being assembled, the crew is at the shipyard in Groton, Conn., learning to operate the ship’s systems. “The payoff is actually going to sea,” Porter said, “and that’s what a lot of my crew is anxious to do.”

Following Tradition

A ship’s commissioning should not be confused with its christening. The christening is when a ship’s sponsor – in this case, first lady Michelle Obama – smashes a bottle of champagne across the ship’s bow to formally name the vessel. The USS Illinois’ christening is scheduled for June 27, 2015.

A ship’s commissioning occurs several months after launch, once the ship has been tested at sea. At the commissioning, the Navy formally takes possession of the ship from its builder. The Navy considers commissioning “the most significant event in the life of the ship.” It is a tradition that dates back to the commissioning of a captured British schooner, the Margaretta, in 1775.

“That’s one of the things I love about the Navy is the traditions,” Ferguson said. “

The christening and the commissioning are the last of the three key events in a ship’s early life. The first is the keel laying ceremony. For the Illinois, this event took place on June 2, 2014, in a Rhode Island shipbuilding plant when Obama wrote her initials on a steel plate that was affixed to the sub. According to tradition, the laying of the keel – the central beam that runs from bow to stern – is the first step in a ship’s construction and the ship’s sponsor writes her initials on the keel. The tradition is adjusted for a submarine, which does not have a keel (it is built in sections).

Another naval tradition that goes along with the commissioning is that the members of a ship’s inaugural crew are known as “plankowners.” In the days of wooden ships, this meant an original crewmember was entitled to a piece of the ship’s deck after it had been decommissioned. Prior be being named commanding officer of the Illinois, Porter was executive officer aboard the USS Missouri, one of the earlier Virginia-class submarines, when it was commissioned in 2010. “Being a plankowner is an amazing experience,” he said.

Because submarines and other modern warships no longer have planks, the tradition has been adjusted so that Navy plankowners receive honorary plaques on commissioning day. It is the duty of the commissioning committee to provide these plaques, and to pay for them. This emphasizes the committee’s need to raise funds for ceremonies and gifts, as well as to pay for crew members of the Illinois to visit their namesake state. Porter has already made the trip three times to talk about his ship and to meet with high school students in Navy JROTC units. “We want to have an intimate and ongoing relationship with the people we represent and the people we serve,” Porter said.

Fundraising Goals

To pay for these many initiatives, the committee has set a fundraising goal of $800,000. This figure is based on the needs of previous commissioning committees, Ferguson said. As of mid-November, the group had raised only $12,000, but Ferguson said the group is just getting started. “We have not held any fundraisers so far.”

The first event will be Feb. 5 at Wickstrom Chrysler Jeep in Barrington. Porter and other officers of the USS Illinois will attend. Currie, who is in charge of planning the fundraisers, said the committee hopes to have 10 events. Ferguson would like to see one at Navy Pier and at least one downstate to get all of Illinois involved in the submarine that bears its name. Other planned venues include the Union League Club of Chicago (home of the commissioning committee), Pritzker Military Library and Museum, and Aurora.

Even though the group is just starting its fundraising campaign, committee members said they are meeting an enthusiastic response when they tell people about the USS Illinois. “The reaction I get when we talk to people … is that people jump at the opportunity because it gives them a chance to help improve the image of the state,” Ferguson said. Currie also encounters excitement when she mentions the project. “Everyone is repeating the same sentences. ‘Wow, this is historic! This is huge!’” she said.

Meeting the Crew

Meanwhile, committee members also are finding opportunities to get to know the ship’s crew. Ferguson, Currie, and Johnson traveled to Groton on Dec. 18 to attend the crew’s Christmas party. Porter was in Chicago to attend the first full meeting of the committee at the Union League Club. “That meeting was amazing,” Porter said. “Very, very good.” He appreciated the opportunity to match faces to names and to “voices on the phone.”

Currie said it is important to remember that the commissioning ceremonies focus on the ship’s crew. She said her goal is “that they feel special and that they walk away feeling Illinois has supported them.”

Currie and Johnson both joined the committee out of a sense of pride in their country and gratitude to those in the military. Currie volunteered “first and foremost to serve those who serve our country. I don’t think I’ve had an opportunity to do that before.”

As for Johnson, “I’ve always considered myself a patriot,” she said. Her husband, Bruce, is a former Marine. “Anything I feel I can do on this end, the civilian side, I try to do,” she added. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to be part of this group.”

Porter said he and his crew appreciate the commissioning committee’s efforts. “The work they’re doing is amazing to me,” he said. “They’re doing this for the love of their country. … We all should be applauding them.”

To donate to the USS Illinois Commissioning Committee and to learn more about the submarine and its crew, visit the committee’s website, www.ussillionis.org. Donations also can be mailed to P.O. Box 96, Lockport, IL 60441. The committee is a 501(c)3 organization, and donations are tax deductible. Jeffrey Westhoff is a writer who lives in Palatine. He is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington. Photographer Tao Zhang is the owner of Lenswork Studio in Winnetka.