'Pacific power' hailed as Navy commissions USS Portland
With the blast of cannons and a roll from the drums, the USS Portland formally enlisted for duty inside its namesake port — cementing the Rose City's status as a fearsome "Pacific power."
Hundreds of sailors hustled aboard, lining the decks of the Landing Platform Dock as the crowd clapped and the band played a martial tune. Soon the colors red, white and blue snapped in the wind.
"Your city now has a ship worthy of its industrious heritage and creative spirit," U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan told the assembly. "To allies, have no fear. To adversaries — don't even think about it."
More than 5,000 people — including veterans, soldiers, Navy personnel and their families — gathered for the commissioning ceremony on Saturday, April 21 at Terminal 2 on Front Avenue along the west bank of the Willamette River.
There was no need for a smash of champagne across the bow, as the ship has borne the name Portland since May, 2016, when it was christened by ship sponsor Bonnie Amos, the wife of the retired Commandant of the Marine Corps, James F. Amos.
"The sponsor of a ship is the woman who gives her spirit to the ship, and will remain with it wherever it sails," Bonnie Amos explained, noting that the seafaring custom dates back to the ancient Phoenicians.
Yet there was no shortage of pomp and circumstance, as Naval tradition demands the setting of the first watch and the "breaking" of the pennant, a special flag hoisted to the mast until the vessel leaves service.
The commissioning also officially affixes the acronym United States Ship (USS) to the Portland. On this occasion, the flag was raised to half mast in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died on April 17.
Accepting the commission was Capt. Jeremy "J.R." Hill, who will now take command of the 371 crewmembers aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport ship, which will also be known as LPD 27.
"Keep the bottom wet and don't scratch the paint," advised Pacific Fleet Vice Admiral Richard Brown.
The 684-foot-long vessel is equipped with a 24-bed medical ward, four diesel engines, a battery of machine guns and anti-air missile systems as well as a flight deck that can accommodate a variety of helicopters. Its motto will be "First Responders, Brave and Determined."
Striking a patriotic tone, Gov. Kate Brown noted that "freedom isn't free" and praised Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler for ensuring the "wonderful weather."
"I have incredible respect and admiration for those who serve," Gov. Brown said. "Thank you so much for your service."
Seated in the first row were two guests of honor who served during World War II, U.S. Marine Corps hospital corpsman Joe Bruer and Women's Reserve control tower operator Margaret Lutz.
"We're the ones that went on the battlefield and brought in the boys that were shot up," said Bruer, a 95-year-old Portlander. "They lost arms and legs. Too many of them died right there."
Lutz, a 96-year-old former teacher, was stationed at a naval air station in Astoria after she joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as WAVES.
"Everybody wanted to be something for the service," she recalled. "I felt I was totally capable."
The USS Portland, constructed in Mississippi at a cost of $1.6 billion, is the third Navy craft to be dubbed Portland, though the first to solely honor the Rose City. Its home base will be at San Diego.
The first USS Portland — a heavy cruiser named after the city in Maine — saw combat in the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942, crucially picking up survivors from the sunken carrier Lexington. Both previous Portlands, and perhaps the third as well, have been given the affectionate nickname "Sweet Pea."