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Pensacola Sends Plank-owner Plaques, Well-Wishes To Tripoli Crew

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

The future USS Tripoli will be placed into active service during a brief administrative commissioning Wednesday in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Even though the ship will not be getting the grand Pensacola ceremony that had been planned for later this month, the push is on to ensure crewmembers get a special memento in honor of the occasion. 

“We had the coins in separate boxes. We had the plaques and the name tags in separate boxes,” said Harry White, a member of the Pensacola Commissioning Committee, explaining the final steps required to assemble the plank-owner plaques.

One of these plaques will be given to each member of Tripoli’s original 1,000-member crew.

“So, we had to go through and put in the coins and specifically. The seal goes here and Pensacola goes here and so, yeah, we put together over 1,100 of these, with name tags.”

The assembly of the plaques took place at Sandy and Bubba’s Chevrolet dealership in Milton. Most of that work was completed on Thursday. On Friday, committee members and volunteers were packaging and labeling.

“There will be a list on the inside and a list on the outside. But, this box, Box number 40 has the information for LS2 Houck, Benjamin Houck, then Lane Houck,” said White, listing the crew members who’ll get the plaques in that particular box.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Jacquie Gray, other members of the Pensacola Commissioning Committee, and volunteers finish packaging Tripoli plank-owner plaques for the ship's crew.

Overseeing this process is committee member Jacquie Gray. For five previous commissionings, she and her husband, Carl, handled it all, out of sight, in their garage. But, with receptions and the big event canceled because of COVID-19, this task has become the most important on the local group’s checklist.

“I had a small portion of the commissioning committee,” said Gray. “And, now I got a big portion, because this is the big part that they’re going to get with their coin and their plaque with their name on it and a letter from the committee wishing them well.”

This time Gray has had plenty of help getting the plaques packaged, sealed, and ready for delivery by Wednesday, when Tripoli will be commissioned.

“Our volunteers are writing messages of good will on each package, wishing them fair winds and following seas, or wishing them warm wishes from Pensacola because they really didn’t get to come here,” Gray said. “And, we’re hoping that these all arrive safe and sound and that they have a wonderful career in the military and think of us when they go.”

Due to the current circumstances, the plaques have become the centerpiece of the effort by the local committee, and one of the people responsible for the design is artist and committee member Jennifer Kensler.

“The way it happens when you’re doing a ship’s coin, one side represents the city that it should be commissioned in, and the other side represents the ship,” Kensler explained. “And, I wanted to include on the coin the Blue Angels because they’re a big icon of Pensacola and the Light House and I think it came out pretty well.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Jennifer Kensler, left, and Jacquie Gray pose with the plank-owner plaque designed by Kensler.

In a nod to Tripoli’s mission to transport U.S. Marines, Kensler added to the coin an image of the Blue Angels’ C-130, Fat Albert, which has an all-Marine aircrew. At the center of it all is a bronze cast of the Tripoli LHA-7.

“It took me a while to get the ship drawing just right, but it was fun to do,” said Kensler. “It’s a labor of love. I do it because I love the military, Pensacola, and it’s something small I can give back.”

Kensler also designed the plank-owner plaque for the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence, whose Pensacola commissioning had to be moved to Mobile at the last minute because of bad weather.

Debi Graham is vice president of Armed Services for the Greater Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. Similar to then, Graham said the Pensacola commissioning committee has done the work for Tripoli, but the community will not get the payoff of having the people come.

“Yeah, we may not have the immediate economic impact if we had had all the families here and the weeklong activities, but at the same time you have to look at the long-term and that it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

The chamber hasn’t run the numbers, but Graham believes the economic impact would have been significant.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Pensacola Commissioning Committee members Harry White and Debi Graham, with the Greater Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce stand near a stack of plank-owner plaques.

“The tourism impact from the families coming in, hotels, etc., etc., and then the young military members being in town and going out to dinner and shopping, those types of things,” stated Graham.

“These ship commissionings are special. Our committee, a lot of us have worked together since the ‘90s when we first did Mitscher,” said White.

Tripoli was the Pensacola group’s sixth ship’s commissioning. 

By now, they know what they’re doing. They’re having fun doing it. And, they’re doing it not only for Pensacola, but for the U.S. Navy and the country.

“And, that’s the important thing about what we’re doing,” noted White. “We desperately need this ship and we’re doing everything we can do to get it on the way, so it can get to its homeport and serve the country as it’s designed to do.” 

The ship will set sail for its homeport in San Diego shortly after its administrative commissioning on Wednesday. In their final act, the commissioning committee is loading up the plaques for transport to the ship, courtesy of the Chevrolet dealership, this (Mon) afternoon.