Gerald Ford, Navy Man, Enshrined in Bronze on Aircraft Carrier


America's newest aircraft carrier packs 50,278 tons of steel, much of it in glorious Navy gray, but all eyes Thursday turned toward the 1,200-pound piece of bronze under wraps in Hangar Bay 2.

The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford now has a statue of its namesake to accompany its crew to sea. The sculpture was unveiled in an emotional ceremony that, in some ways, was more than a simple dedication.

It marked the turning of a page.

There was Capt. John F. Meier, the Ford's first commander whose tenure will end Friday in a formal changeover ceremony. Although he will never lead the ship to open water, Meier's legacy is clear: Sailor by sailor, he built a crew to operate a ship that will mark a generational change in naval warfare.

There was Susan Ford Bales, the president's daughter and ship's sponsor. She spoke after Meier as the statue was still shrouded in dark cloth. At one moment, she paused and turned to a group of hard-hatted shipbuilders who had gathered to watch the ceremony.

"My fellow shipbuilders . . ."

She paused as emotion filled her voice.

"Let me say this again, because I'm proud to say it. My fellow shipbuilders: Today is a day filled with happiness. But it's also a day filled with some sadness, because it's the last time I'll speak publicly to you here in the shipyard."

The Gerald R. Ford, built by Newport News Shipbuilding, is the first in a new class of U.S. aircraft carriers. It is scheduled for commissioning in 2016.

The term "fellow shipbuilder" was more than phrase of affection. Ford Bales' fingerprints will be on the aircraft carrier as it heads to sea trials this summer, followed by delivery to the Navy later this year.

Over the past 10 years, she worked on the ship during her many visits to the Newport News shipyard.

Navy tradition dictates that a ship's sponsor participates in noteworthy events, such as breaking a bottle across the bow during christening. In her case, that was not enough.

"Along the way, I've turned wrenches with you," she said. "I've punched holes. I've pulled cable. I strung telephone wires. I worked up in the big blue crane. I tested weapons elevators. Calibrated dual band radar. Turned on the pumps to flood the dry dock. Tested the giant bay hangar doors."

Matt Mulherin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding, said her heartfelt comments meant a great deal to the men and women who worked on Ford. There is no model on how to be a ship's sponsor, and she "certainly set the far extreme of how involved a ship's sponsor can be," he said.

Enshrined in bronze

After the speeches came the big unveiling. The cover was pulled away and the statue came into full view amid raucous applause.

There stood Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Ford as he appeared in World War II aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey. Etched in bronze, the figure is 7 feet tall -- a full foot taller than the real-life president. His right hand holds a navigational sextant. He gazes toward the horizon, one foot resting on the ship's scupper rail.

There's a story behind that scupper.

Photos from Newport News Shipbuilding christening ceremonies, including the submarine John Warner, carrier Gerald R. Ford and the Virginia-class submarine Washington.

As Meier described it, Ford was aboard the Monterey in December 1944 when it was hit by Typhoon Cobra. A fire broke out, and the commanding officer directed Ford to lead the firefighting effort. As he headed toward the flames, the ship listed 25 degrees. Blue water crashed over the deck.

Lt. Cmdr. Ford was nearly washed over the side, but he grabbed a scupper at the last second. It saved his life.

The presence of a sextant as a nod to technology of the past -- and of the present, Meier said. Sailors still use them, although the aircraft carrier is packed with the latest technology.

"Today, we actually do a lot of training with sextants and training in celestial navigation because you don't require outside sensors or satellites," he said.

Ford never discussed his military experiences with the family, his daughter said. Given a second chance, she would have asked him about it. A man of humble origins and not known for having a huge ego, he might be embarrassed by a 7-foot tall likeness of himself in bronze.

"He probably would have said, 'I look pretty good with all that hair on my head,'" his daughter joked. "That was really something I had to deal with when we did this. I never saw him at this stage of his life. I had to really get used to all that hair on his head."

Then again, Ford Bales said her father had a brief career as a male model. An Internet search turned up several photos of a young Ford kissing his girlfriend on a 1942 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Labor of love

The sculpture is the work of J. Brett Grill of Grand Rapids, Mich. He also sculpted the statue of Ford that stands in the Capitol Rotunda.

Grill said he started by making small-scale models. The idea of Ford on the deck with the sextant "was just one of the possibilities in the beginning that rose to the top," he said.

As the nation's 38th president, Ford will forever be linked to how he assumed office. He was appointed vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, then assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. Most people don't know of Ford's Word War II service, and Grill said it was satisfying to depict that part of his life.

"It was fun to dive into the archives and look at the photos," he said. "Very few people know about the more distant past, yet these events shaped who he was."

Meier said he's educated his young sailors about Ford's career, calling the president a great example of a man who rose from humble beginnings but was never overcome by ego.

"As I look at President Ford, I am inspired -- inspired by his life of service," he said.

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