Christening of USS Iowa submarine may be viewed at Grout June 17

Posted by Pat Kinney on Thursday, June 1, 2023

Images courtsey of the USS Iowa Commissioning Committee

Image Captions:

Top Left: Former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, left, and Kelly Sullivan at the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown during cleanup following the August 2020 derecho. Vilsack is official Navy sponsor of the USS Iowa submarine (SSN-797) and Sullivan is the officials sponsor of the Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68)?

Top Right: Former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, at left, confers with USS Iowa sailors on the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown during cleanup following the August 2020 durecho.

Bottom Left: The crew of the USS Iowa submarine (SSN-797) poses in front of a large American flag attached to the hull of the submarine, under construction in Groton, Conn.

Bottom Right: A long view of the USS Iowa submarine under construction in Groton, Conn.

Graphics: The official crest of the USS Iowa submarine includes its predecessor battleship and a shamrock encircled with a memorial wreath for the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo (left) and the patch of the USS Iowa submarine (right)

WATERLOO – A new U.S Navy vessel named for the state of Iowa will be christened Father’s Day weekend, supported by the granddaughter and grandniece of five Waterloo brothers killed during World War II and a retired submarine officer from Cedar Rapids.

The USS Iowa submarine, hull number SSN-797, will be christened 9 a.m. Iowa time (10 a.m. Eastern) Saturday June 17 at Groton, Conn., where it was constructed over the past several years.

The christening will be broadcast livestream. About a dozen "watch parties" will be held around the state, including one at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo, part of the Grout Museum District. Museum doors open at 8:30 a.m. Light refreshments will be served. The event is free, but donations will be accepted. (Download or view the event flyer.)

Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, one of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo who served together on the USS Juneau and died in battle in 1942, says the crew of the new USS Iowa submarine are as devoted and bonded to this state as she and Waterloo are to the present-day Navy destroyer named for her grandfather and great uncles.

In fact, Sullivan noted, USS Iowa crew members have been to the state several times – including providing aid during the August 2020 derecho storm – a ground hurricane that ripped across the center of the state and caused widespread damage.

A truck of relief supplies was dispatched to Iowa “with a whole bunch of crew members, and generators and fuel, bottled water,” she said. “To watch them step up when our state was having an incredible tragedy, it was beautiful to see their kindness, how much they wanted to help Iowa.” It was in keeping with the “We Stick Together” motto of the Sullivans and their namesake ship.

Kelly Sullivan, who is working as an advisor to the USS Iowa commissioning committee, is the official sponsor of the Navy guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68).

The USS Iowa’s sponsor is former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack wife of Tom Vilsack, current U.S. secretary of agriculture and former Iowa governor. She participated in durecho cleanup with crew members at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown and appeared with crew members in Waterloo at Iowa Irish Fest last August.

“Christie Vilsack is really committed to being an active sponsor,” Sullivan said. “I’m pleased to see how excited she is about it, and becoming friends and having that special bond that we have of being sponsors of Navy vessels,” she said.

Kelly Sullivan is generally considered one of the most active ship sponsors in the Navy since the USS The Sullivans was christened in 1995 and commissioned in 1997. She’s participating in numerous activities with the ship and hosted many current and former crew members on visits to Waterloo-Cedar Falls, including having sailors visit her third-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls. the USS The Sullivans Association had its reunion in Waterloo last August over Iowa Irish Fest.

While she wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s coached former Iowa first lady Vilsack in the finer points of being ship sponsor, Sullivan said, “It’s been fun. She has asked questions, so it’s been neat.” 

She recalled how Vilsack pitched in with crew members to clear up the Veterans Home grounds. 
“Boy it was hot!” Sullivan said. “She’s truly embracing the idea that sponsor is not just an honorary position. It’s a position where you’re involved, you stay connected to the crew; you make sure the crew knows how much you appreciate them. And you take the opportunity when you can to be involved in other activities on ship.”

She said her friendship with Vilsack, and getting USS Iowa crew members to regularly visit Waterloo for Iowa Irish Fest in recent years has been very rewarding, as well as connecting USS Iowa crew members with team of Navy bicuyclists participation in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI.

“The Iowa has done an exceptional job of finding opportunities to connect with the people of Iowa,” Sullivan said. “They want the people of Iowa to recognize, ‘this is your boat.’ “
The ship has been four years in the making; with construction slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the latest of several ships named for Iowa in the nation's history.  An Iowa steamship was used to transport troops in the Civil War. The battleship USS Iowa BB-4 saw service in the Spanish-American War and the USS Iowa BB-61, "The Gray Ghost," served in World War II, Korea and in the 1980s and early 1990s patrolling the Persian Gulf and is now a battleship museum in the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif. The state of Iowa paid $3 million toward the BB-61’s preservation before it was opened for public tours about 10 years ago. Visiting Iowans may tour "The Gray Ghost" for free by simply displaying an Iowa driver license or state identification. It has been a popular stop for visiting Iowans, particurlarly during the 2016 Rose Bowl when the University of Iowa Hawekeyes played Stanford.

Similarly, with the USS Iowa submarine, as a result of the crew’s outreach efforts, “The people of Iowa know about this submarine,” Sullivan said. “They’re proud. And it’s because of all the work the commissioning committee has done.”

I think the boat represents Iowa, and the people of Iowa, who have made an impact on our Navy,” Sullivan said. It is one of several active-duty ships with Iowa connections, named for people or places in Iowa. They include among others, the USS Des Moines, a heavy cruiser which served from 1948-61; and a sister ship to the USS The Sullivans, the USS Milius, named for Paul Milius, a Navy combat pilot from Bremer County downed over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during the Vietnam War who is still listed as missing in action. 

Although it’s in a different branch of service there’s also the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Emlen Tunnell, commissioned in 2021 and named for a University of Iowa football player who was decorated for saving shipmates’ lives during and after World War II. He played for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers and was the first Black athlete elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I think it’s important for Iowans to learn about and honor all the people who serve our country – and especially in the Navy. We’re a landlocked state. We don’t have the ocean nearby. But if you go in the history books, it’s Navy, Navy Navy.”

That includes, in addition to her grandfather and great uncles, Admiral William Leahy, senior naval officer on active duty during World War II, who was a native of Hampton, and Read Adm. James D "Jig Dog" Ramage a decorated naval combat pilot from Waterloo.

Retired Navy submarine sailor Mat Tanner, a 1987 graduate of Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids now living in Groton, is working with the commissioning committee as an executive director and says numerous Iowa businesses and individuals are getting involved.  For example he said Big Grove Brewing in Iowa City and Des Moines is teaming with a brewery in Groton, Outer Watch for a special brew, a cream ale called Rack Stowed, in connection with the commissioning. 

Tanner experienced the anticipation of a christening before. He was an original crew member, or plank owner, on the submarine USS Greenville, named for the city of Greenville, Tenn. He knows of the bond between a vessel and a local community. He sees the same connection between the state of Iowa and its new namesake vessel.

“I think it’s the Iowa pride, and ‘iowa kind,’ ‘Iowa strong,’ -- people taking care of each other,” Tanner said. “Getting the sailors back there to visit – the pride they show, from the people of Iowa to the sailors -- it's incredible. It’s kind of why I wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to pay that back, to do my part to help the guys.”

And for a little friendly in-house rivalry, the crew is divided among different “watch sections.”  “There’s four watch sections,” he said. “We have the Cyclones, the Hawkeyes, the Panthers, and then we have the Sullivans,” he said – tying back to the state's public universities and the Navy’s renowned Iowa-born band of brothers. 

“Most Iowans are very, very supportive of the military in general. And I know the crew appreciates everything everybody’s doing for them,” Tanner said. “It’s neat to see the support. It’s been nice to be a part of it from the beginning.”

The USS Iowa submarine, after a shakedown period, is anticipated to be officially commissioned into the Navy for service in late spring or early summer of 2024. It has a crew of about 135 
Tanner said water from various Iowa rivers and streams, including the Cedar which runs though Waterloo-Cedar Falls, have been collected and Vilsack and crew members from Iowa will pour that water over the submarine in an "annointing"  with wanters from his namesake state prior to christening.

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.