In an effort to curb the coronavirus pandemic, all large gatherings have been canceled for the foreseeable future. That has meant smaller graduation ceremonies or none at all, no concerts, plays, or college or professional sports events.
For the future USS Tripoli, it means the scrapping of plans for a grand commissioning ceremony that had been scheduled in Pensacola later this month.
“We had people that were coming from pretty much all over the southeastern United States, and maybe a couple from California, because they had ties to the old Tripoli LPH-10,” said retired Rear Adm. Don Quinn, chair of Pensacola’s Tripoli Commissioning Committee. “So, in general, the mood is disappointment.”
Tripoli LHA-7 was delivered to the U.S. Navy on February 28, and earlier this year a summer commissioning date was set for June 27.
Then, the COVID-19 outbreak surfaced as an ongoing national crisis.
As a result, the ship has been forced to trade the pomp and pageantry of the large ceremony at NAS Pensacola for an administrative commissioning on July 15 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where it was built.
Adm. Quinn said the ceremony’s cancellation was a disappointment for committee members, too, but came as no surprise.
“As you know, that’s been overshadowed by the disappointment and all the things that have gone on with COVID-19. It just falls in line with everything else that’s going on due to the pandemic.”
For local elected and business leaders, there’s a missed opportunity to display the area’s support for the military and show off the community to the thousands of individuals - including military brass - that had been expected to attend the festivities.
Then, there’s the ship’s crew.
“All the work they’ve done, they’re not going to be able to come to Pensacola and receive all the great things that we do here for this crew, and I think that’s the missing of an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Harry White, former Public Affairs Officer for NAS Pensacola.
White is also a member of the commissioning committee and member of the board of the Pensacola Navy League, which has been at the forefront of organizing local commissioning events for the Tripoli crew.
“That’s the big issue. They don’t have the opportunity to come here and enjoy the friendship and love that we share in Pensacola, Florida.”
For now, the America-Class amphibious assault ship remains in Pascagoula, with Capt. Kevin Meyers still assigned as commanding officer. He had been scheduled for a reassignment to a ROTC position at George Washington University.
Meantime, the crew of 1,100 is continuing to conduct training, while also working to keep the coronavirus in check.
“They had 20 or 30 folks (test) positive a month or so ago, so they took half the crew off the ship, you know to get the social distancing. If you’ve been in enlisted berthing, there’s no social distancing done in enlisted berthing.”
Those crewmembers taken off the ship in an effort to shut down the outbreak were temporarily housed in quarters at the Seabee base in Gulf Port.
According to Quinn, before the final decision, there were discussions about other options for a Pensacola commissioning ceremony, short of total cancellation. However, with required pandemic protocols, it really wasn’t feasible.
“Now the Navy puts the crew into quarantine for three weeks before they get underway to make sure that nobody has the virus,” he said, noting the general difficulty of controlling the COVID-19 spread aboard ship.
“If they came over here and we did the ceremony, then the ship would sit there at the pier for three weeks, another three weeks, while they went through their quarantine before they went to San Diego.”
Add about a month of travel time from the Gulf Coast to San Diego to the minimum eight months the ship is already behind schedule and the result is a crew that is weary and ready to move on.
“They’re bummed, but at this point, it’s gone on for so long, they just want to get it done,” said Quinn. “They’ve got a crew of 1,100. Three hundred of them lived in this area; 800 of them, their families are in San Diego. So, the longer this goes on, the more they’re separated, so they want to get it done.”
Now, for practical purposes, Tripoli will depart Pascagoula for the west coast and the Pacific Fleet, immediately after a brief administrative commissioning.
As explained by Adm. Quinn, this means the commissioning becomes official with a letter from the Sec. of the Navy, which is a method that used to be common.
“Back in the early 20th century, they would send out a message saying ‘you’re commissioned,’” he said. “They would have a small internal ceremony, involving mainly the crew. They would set the first watch. They'd raise their commissioning pennant and then they’d get on with their business.”
More recently, the Navy drew down in size and built fewer, more expensive ships, which boosted the profile of christening and commissioning ceremonies.
By 1984, the Navy focused on spreading around those much-celebrated events from the traditional sites in San Diego and Norfolk to other Navy cities across the country.
Pensacola has benefited from the practice, and prior to the coronavirus outbreak was on track to host ceremonies for Tripoli and the future USS St. Louis, which is set for August.
Despite the current setback, Adm. Quinn says the local commissioning committee can envision the day when such grand happenings can resume locally.
“Yes we can, because remember this would have been our sixth one and the Navy has already said, based on what we’ve done for this one in these extraordinary times, that when we want another ship, let them know and we’d get one here,” he proclaimed.
While Tripoli’s Pensacola commissioning won’t be taking place, each of the ship’s 1,100-member crew will get to take a piece of Pensacola with them in the form of custom-designed plank-owner plaques.
“There’s a brass plaque that has the ship design and then down in each corner, the coins; one is the ship’s emblem and the other is Pensacola,” Quinn detailed. “It’s got the Blue Angels on it and it’s got the Light House over at NAS. So, to Harry’s point, they take a piece of Pensacola with them forever.”
For his part, Harry White says the crew will also forever respect the local effort to make the occasion special for them.
“Because even in these trying times, we reached out and got the job done and they will always remember Pensacola, Florida, for what we did in order to affect this commissioning and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”