Inside the USS Milwaukee, a Navy Ship Built for Speed

U.S. Navy file photo of USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), from Dec. 2011.
U.S. Navy file photo of USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), from Dec. 2011.

It still has that new car smell.

Or more accurately, that new ship smell.

The Navy's latest littoral combat ship, the USS Milwaukee, has undergone sailing trials on Lake Michigan since Marinette Marine shipyard workers finished construction in northeastern Wisconsin. But it's not officially a part of the fleet until Saturday's commissioning ceremony.

The oddly-shaped gray vessel with its Navy Jack flying at half-mast in honor of the Paris terrorism victims has drawn crowds since it docked Sunday afternoon on Milwaukee's lakefront.

Designed for versatility and speed, littoral combat ships are a relatively new addition to the U.S. Navy built to operate close to shore and quickly switching from one combat mode to another by swapping out different equipment such as anti-mine or anti-submarine gear.

With the global rise of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida rather than foes that fight with navies, Kendall G. Bridgewater was asked Monday about the relevance of ships like the USS Milwaukee.

The ship's commanding officer noted that the Navy's job is to keep sea lanes open, something it has done for centuries.

"It doesn't matter if we're at war or at peace, the Navy is doing its job of keeping sea lanes open. It hearkens back to the start of the U.S. Navy which was to fight pirates," said Bridgewater, noting that littoral combat ships are not designed to go toe-to-toe with combat ships.

The USS Milwaukee is the fifth Freedom class littoral combat ship built in Marinette. The first, the USS Freedom, was commissioned in Milwaukee in 2008. After this weekend's ceremony, the USS Milwaukee will travel through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the East Coast, then south to the Panama Canal to its home port of San Diego for patrols in Asia.

It features a helipad in the stern for one manned and one unmanned helicopter. Standing in what's called the waterborne mission zone, Bridgewater pointed out a movable crane that can pick up a 34-foot boat to slide into the water through a rear hatch for crews to go ashore, transfer to other ships or conduct search and seizure missions.

There's no propeller. Instead, the ship uses four water jets to travel at speeds up to 45 knots.

Unlike older Navy ships, littoral combat ships operate with much smaller crews. A crew of 54 operates the USS Milwaukee, though it will carry around 100 when sailors tied to the helicopter aviation unit are on board.

The bridge is staffed with only three people who can control 95% of the ship through touch screens and levers that operate the water jets while sitting in seats that resemble Capt. Kirk's on the Starship Enterprise of "Star Trek."

Nautical charts are passe. The ship travels with the aid of GPS and computerized maps.

"We still have some paper charts but we've got one hanging on the wall for decoration," said navigator Lt. j.g. Alexander Gallagher, of Dallas, Pa., who wanted to serve on a littoral combat ship because "it's a small crew so you have more responsibility. But it's also more fun. Just from our name, we get to go closer to land and go faster."

The current crew contains only one Cheesehead -- Jerald Lagae, a cook who grew up in Superior. On Monday morning Lagae took time out from grilling chicken breasts and whipping up tuna salad for the crew's lunch to talk about his job of helping feed sailors. Tuesdays are tacos and Wednesdays are burgers with pizza served on Saturdays.

"It's quite a pleasure to cook for the crew, to make their day. Everyone looks forward to the meals," said Lagae, a Packers fan. "I definitely have a lot of pride knowing this was built in the state I grew up in."

Crowd likely for ceremony

A large crowd is expected for the commissioning ceremony at 1 p.m. Saturday. About 19,000 tickets have been handed out though it's unclear how many will show up for speeches, patriotic music and Wisconsin-made beer and bratwurst as the USS Milwaukee is officially welcomed into the fleet.

Activities include a reunion for members of the last USS Milwaukee, an oiler that earned a campaign star during the Vietnam War and helped transport the King Tutankhamen exhibition to America in 1976 before it was decommissioned in 1994.

"It's a rare instance where you have a ship named after a city built in the state of that city by the people of the state and commissioned in that same city," Bridgewater said.

Ship sponsor Sylvia Panetta, the wife of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, christened the ship in December 2013 in Marinette. On Saturday when she steps to a microphone and says "Man your ship and bring it to life" the crew will run from the shore onto the USS Milwaukee and start its engines, engage its radar and other operations followed by a long whistle blast.

Milwaukee has embraced the ship and its crew, with residents signing a large banner at State Fair and greeting crew members at German Fest and the Milwaukee Air & Water Show.

The State Fair banner is prominently displayed in the hangar where helicopters will be stowed. Written in different colored ink the citizens of Milwaukee wished the crew of the USS Milwaukee well, writing "God bless you and thank you for all you do," "Stay safe" and "Bon Voyage."

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