On August 4, under a cool and cloudy sky, we were the guests of our friend Admiral Sparks and his son John at the USCG photo commissioning of the newest Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Bertholf, at Coast Guard Island, Alameda.
The Bertholf is a most impressive ship, the first of an entirely new class of cutters, and part of the Coast Guard's massive 25-year, $24 billion Deepwater acquisition program. 418 feet long and well equipped with armament and sensors, the Bertholf can stay at sea for extended periods, while participating in the vast array of Coast Guard missions. This morning she was brightly decorated with signal flags, her new paint gleaming, as the many guests and family streamed toward the water's edge for the ceremony. When the guests were seated, a host of admirals and dignitaries climbed the platform, followed by a 19-gun salute to honor the Secretary of The Chertoffs, Capt. Stadt Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
On the platform were the presidents of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding and Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems and Sensors; strange to think of a new Coast Guard cutter built by companies best known as aerospace engineers! But it was perhaps not so strange, as the Bertholf's C4ISR suite is its most important feature. For our older readers, C4ISR is an extension of what used to be C-squared, 'Command and Control,' and now means Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is to say how the Bertholf will attempt to use all information relevant to its mission as discovered and known by literally hundreds of other interested federal and state Admiral Allen, Commandant agencies. Each president spoke with pride of the shipbuilding achievement.
Like T.S. Eliot's cats, ships have many names. The Bertholf is WMSL 750. W = Coast Guard Cutter, MSL = Maritime Security (Large), 750 is the ship's number. The old class was WHEC, high endurance cutters, also known as the Secretary Class, named for Secretaries of the Treasury. But in our lifetime the Coast Guard has served under the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Transportation, and now the Secretary of Homeland Security, so the eight planned WMSL cutters will be part of a new Legends Class, named for Coast Guard Legends. The ship's class is also called National Security Cutter, but that name will evidently be replaced by the WMSL designation. WMSL 750 is named after Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf, the first Captain Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, when Presenting the Long Glass that service was formed in 1915 by merging the Revenue Cutter Service (which dates to 1790) and the Life-Saving Service. Commodore Bertholf made his mark as a Coast Guardsman much earlier when in 1897, as leader of the Alaska Overland Expedition he traveled by dogsled to relieve over 200 American whalers trapped in the ice off Point Barrow. For this he was presented with a gold medal by the United States Congress. The second ship, WMSL 751 has already been christened Waesche, after the famous World War II Commandant, and the third ship has been started in Pascagoula.
The ceremony continued with remarks by the Commandant and Secretary Chertoff, followed by the principal speaker, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Transportation and Infrastructure Crew members on board Committee. Congressman Cummings is the principal "money man" for the Coast Guard's Deepwater acquisition program, so it was good politics to honor him at this commissioning ceremony, but one must wonder when the House of Representatives is going to reorganize to provide a full House Committee to cover the vital role of the Department of Homeland Security, which was formed over 5 years ago, and is arguably one of the most important (and certainly the most complex) of the cabinet departments.
All of the platform speakers stressed the role of the crew; the new plankowners (the first crew of a new ship) have been working for months learning and improving their new cutter, as they sailed her on a familiarization cruise to her home port of Alameda, where she will be a Pacific Forces asset. As they learn, these Coast Guard personnel are writing the syllabi for training classes for new WMSL crewmembers. The crew has selected an apt motto, "Legends begin here." What the speakers did not mention was the new Crew Rotation Concept for major cutters, allowing a complicated pattern USCGC Bertholf at her home port of rotating cutters and crews to maintain the ship's OPTEMPO of 230 days a year while holding a crew's PERSTEMPO down to 185 days a year at sea, all this while finding time for ship's maintenance and supply, crew training and annual leave. As a result, crews will serve on several cutters, and cutters will have several crews during any three-year period. Semper Paratus!
The traditional procedures of a commissioning ceremony brought joy to those present. The Captain, Patrick H. Stadt, read his orders; the great-grandson of Commodore Bertholf presented a long glass (that's a brass nautical telescope for you landlubbers) to the Officer of the Day, who reported on board to set the watch; the commissioning pennant was broken at the masthead, making the USCGC Bertholf an official Coast Guard command; the sponsor, Meryl Justin Chertoff, who had christened her, ordered the waiting crew to "make this ship come alive;" the ship's complement of 113 men and women, including 14 officers, double-timed up the gangplank and manned all the dockside rails; all the ship's systems (most visibly the radars) were activated; and finally, the Commandant's personal flag was broken and flown from the newly-commissioned cutter.
And just as the ceremony concluded, the sun broke through the coastal fog, providing a fitting omen for this beautiful ship.