Master of the high seas
Pomp, patriotism and politics as Navy’s newest ship gets a name
By Rick Holmes
April 7, 2017
BATH, Me. - The orders of the day called for dress blues, so the crew of the USS Thomas Hudner marched in their sharpest uniforms into the biting wind and slushy snow of an April storm. It was a special occasion, the christening of the nation’s newest destroyer, and the men and women of the U.S. Navy don’t mind getting wet.
Ship christenings have traditions that are well-practiced here in Bath, where they have been launching ships into the Kennebec River for 400 years. A Navy Band played. Dignitaries spoke, including all four members of Maine’s Congressional delegation. The wife of the ship’s namesake smashed a bottle of champagne on the bow of the 509-foot craft.
The honoree, Capt. Thomas Hudner, was on hand, a rarity when it comes to ship christenings. In 1951, when his friend and wingman, Jesse Brown, was shot down in Korea during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, he crash-landed his own plane in a vain effort to rescue him. President Harry Truman awarded Hudner the Congressional Medal of Honor for “displaying conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life.”
There was no talk of jobs, money or politics as Hudner and his ship were honored that blustery morning. But the presence of Maine’s two senators and two Congress members was a reminder. Each was introduced with reference to the committee assignments most relevant to keeping the Navy’s ships being built by Bath Iron Works.
The 5,900 jobs at BIW – skilled manufacturing jobs with good union pay and benefits – are critical to the economy of Mid-Coast Maine. Every Maine politician, whether it’s the liberal Democrat from the state’s southern House district, the Republican from the northern district who based his remarks on “America First,” or the state’s moderate senators, Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King, makes preserving those jobs a top priority.
Defense contracting is big business, and General Dynamics, owner of BIW, is one of the biggest in the world. There’s an intense competition between BIW and the Huntington-Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss, to build Arleigh-Burke class destroyers like the Hudner. It’s the job of the Maine Congressional delegation, along with an army of General Dynamics lobbyists, to keep those contracts coming here.
None of the speakers mentioned the cost of the USS Hudner, but it’s your money, so you should know: $663 million.
The Hudner, which will be officially commissioned next year after more testing, is the 66th out of a planned 75 Arleigh-Burke destroyers. And that’s just one part of the American fleet, which is far and away the largest Navy in the world. The U.S. has more destroyers than the next five countries combined. The advantage in aircraft carriers, the most powerful sea-going vessels, is even greater. No other country has more than one. The U.S. has 10.
Our large fleet is getting ever larger. We have about 272 vessels today, which was due to grow to 305 ships under Obama administration plans. President Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to build a 350-ship Navy.
That’s just part of Trump’s proposed $603 billion defense budget. He’s calling for a $54 billion increase in military spending, paid for by huge cuts in non-military domestic programs.
And there’s the rub. To budget is to choose. The USS Hudner costs more to build than the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million) and the National Endowment for the Arts ($145 million) combined – two of 19 programs zeroed out in Trump’s budget with their own political constituencies. There’s a large debate to come about the choices we make.
But the story of Capt. Hudner’s heroism in Korea is a reminder that national security isn’t just about dollars and cents. Hudner disobeyed an order to stay in the air. He destroyed an expensive piece of military equipment in a futile effort to save a buddy. For that he received not a reprimand, but the nation’s highest military honor.
Even that decision may have involved some politics. Jesse Brown, the pilot Hudner tried to save, was black, the nation’s first African-American naval aviator, and Truman had taken intense criticism for his decision to integrate the armed forces.
Their friendship was spotlighted at the time, and again at the ship christening ceremony, sending a message about inclusion.
My father was a Navy man. Like the members of the future crew of the USS Hudner who marched proudly through the snow in Bath, he helped supervise the construction of the aircraft carrier that would carry him to war in the Pacific. We should all be proud of the ships Americans build, and of the men and women who sail into danger on them.
But we cannot forget that there’s politics and money behind every line of the federal budget.