- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

NORFOLK — It was one for the Gipper.

Thousands of cheering onlookers yesterday witnessed the commissioning of the Navy’s ninth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier — named in honor of Ronald W. Reagan, the 40th president of the United States.

The Navy’s newest nuclear-powered carrier, adorned with red, white and blue bunting and a huge U.S. flag, became activated for duty during an invitation-only ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world.

“The Navy we have today is in many ways a monument to the vision and the convictions of Ronald Reagan,” said Vice President Dick Cheney, who delivered the principal address at the ceremony. “He came to the presidency with a clear understanding of the tools our Navy would need to protect the American people, to honor our commitments to allies and to maintain command of the seas.”

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, the ship’s sponsor, received a standing ovation as she stepped to the podium. “I only have one line, so man the ship and bring her to life,” she said.

A horde of sailors then boarded the carrier as a band played “Anchors Aweigh.” Two F-14 Tomcat and two F-18 Hornet jets flew in formation and the ship’s whistle sounded, both traditions of carrier commissionings.

Mr. Reagan, 92, did not attend the ceremony. The former president rarely leaves his California residence since divulging in 1994 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Please know that our thoughts and prayers continue to be with [the Reagans], especially on this day,” Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, told those at the ceremony.

While other carriers bear the names of former presidents — Washington, Truman and Kennedy, for example — the Reagan is the first U.S. aircraft carrier to be named for a living president.

“Today we send forth a great American ship bearing a great American name,” Mr. Cheney said. “More than two decades ago on his first voyage on an aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation, President Reagan called that ship ‘a powerful force in an uncertain world.’ A generation later, we can say that of the ship that we’ve now named for him.”

With a crew of about 6,000 sailors, including air-wing personnel, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) will be homeported in San Diego as a member of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The vessel towers 20 stories above the waterline, displaces about 95,000 tons of water, and at 1,092 feet in length, is nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

Ship construction took place at the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Newport News, starting with the keel being laid on Feb. 12, 1998.

Thomas Schievelbein, president of Northrop Grumman Newport News, said it was an honor to build a ship named for Mr. Reagan, whom Mr. Schievelbein called “one of America’s greatest advocates of strong sea power.”

The tradition of christening and commissioning Navy ships began in 1775 with the USS Alfred. According to the Navy League of Hampton Roads, maritime lore has held for centuries that the spirit of a ship’s sponsor enters the vessel at christening and remains with it forever.

Mrs. Reagan toured the massive ship Friday and was driven around the flight deck in a golf cart. She also shook hands with some of the sailors assigned to the carrier.

Asked what she thought of the ship, Mrs. Reagan described it as “exciting, overwhelming, beautiful.”

The ship was christened on March 4, 2001, the Reagans’ 49th wedding anniversary.

“Ronald Reagan understood that the advance of freedom depends on American strength,” President Bush said at the christening. “We must have a military that is second to none, and that includes a Navy that is second to none.”

The USS Harry S. Truman had been the last carrier christened at the shipyard on Sept. 7, 1996.

Mr. Reagan was an avowed supporter of naval power during his two-term presidency. By the time he left office in 1989, the Navy had nearly 600 ships, about twice the number it has today. He also initiated five Nimitz-class carriers.

The Reagan, with its 4.5-acre flight deck, will serve as a deterrence to potential aggressors during peacetime and in war, and can launch air attacks with more than 80 combat aircraft.

According to naval officials, the carrier’s two nuclear reactors are capable of more than 20 years of continuous service without refueling and can maintain a top speed in excess of 30 knots.

New technologies were incorporated in the Reagan since the first ship of its class, the USS Nimitz, was delivered to the Navy in 1975. These technologies include higher capacity air conditioning, better power and lighting distribution, and a fiber-optic-based network for improved communication and machinery monitoring.

The Reagan also features a redesigned weapons-elevator system and improved facilities for female personnel.

The ship will support a variety of aircraft, including the F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet strike fighters, the F-14 Tomcat fighter, the E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, the C-2 Greyhound logistics aircraft, the S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft, the EA-6 Prowler electronic warfare aircraft and the multirole SH-60 and MH-60 helicopters.

On Monday, the Santa Barbara Council of the Navy League of the United States, which adopted the Reagan in 2000, introduced Ronnie the Bear, the carrier’s unofficial mascot.

The bear, a Beanie Baby from Ty, sports a naval collar and white sailor hat and comes with logos of the Navy League and the Reagan.

The bear, starting at about $5, will be available in stores nationwide this week. The profits will be used to buy books, televisions, computers and videos for the ship’s crew.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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