The town of Gilbert is hosting a viewing Wednesday, Dec. 7, for the keel-laying ceremony for the USS Arizona nuclear submarine, which has the town as its municipal sponsor.
The town’s viewing will take place at the Public Safety Training Facility, 6860 S. Power Road, Gilbert. The event opens at 8:30 a.m. with the ceremony at 9 a.m.
The ceremony marks a milestone in a ship’s construction. General Dynamics Electric Boat will hold the keel-laying ceremony at its facility in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on the 81st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The submarine will be the first U.S. Navy warship to carry the name Arizona since the battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk in the attack. Several armored-piercing bombs struck the ship, including one which exploded the forward magazines. The sunken hull is a permanent memorial to the 1,177 officers and crewmen who were killed in the attack.
The ship’s sponsor, Nikki Stratton, will weld her initials onto a steel plate to be permanently mounted in a place of honor on the completed vessel. Stratton is the granddaughter of Donald Stratton, who served on the battleship during the 1941 attack.
“Honored. Humbled. Blessed," Nikki Stratton said by text about her participation in the ceremony. "Understanding the great duty that has been bestowed upon me. I am not really sure there are adequate words to express how I am feeling. Joy. Sadness. But most of all, thankful.”
Badly burned during the attack, Donald Stratton was discharged in 1942 and sent home, but successfully reenlisted in 1944 and returned to the Pacific Theater to fight in campaigns in New Guinea, the Philippines and the Battle of Okinawa. He worked throughout life to help honor the memory of Pearl Harbor and those who gave their lives in service to their country. Stratton died in February 2020 at the age of 97.
Nikki Stratton confirmed she has been learning to weld in preparation for the event.
Stratton formally asked Gilbert to be the municipal sponsor by letter on the town’s centennial, July 6, 2020, and again in person to Gilbert Town Council on Sept. 15, 2020.
“My goal is to find a municipality that I think best embodies the spirit of the USS Arizona (BB-39),” she wrote. “It needs to have the small-town feel not unlike the towns where most of the sailors grew up — where neighbors look after neighbors, people say hello while walking down the street and, above all else, you feel welcome regardless of where you came. I believe that Gilbert, Arizona — the biggest “town” in America — embodies the spirt of the USS Arizona.”
Council voted unanimously Oct. 13, 2020, to accept Stratton’s invitation.
The town’s role is to be ceremonial hometown to the crew and “the center of gravity and representative voice for all the people of the great state of Arizona,” according to Stratton.
Activities associated with sponsorship are underwritten by the nonprofit Navy League of the United States Phoenix Council, which handles fundraising and runs all monies through a Navy League account, said Jake McManus, president of the league’s Phoenix Council.
The Arizona will be the 30th ship of the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class fast attack submarines and the first to be equipped with the Virginia Payload Module, or VPM, according to General Dynamics.
The VPM comprises four large-diameter, vertical payload tubes in a new hull section inserted into the existing Virginia-class submarine design. The tubes enable the submarine to deliver a variety of capabilities, including weapons, unmanned undersea vehicles, and other undersea payloads.
General Dynamics Electric Boat is the prime contractor and lead design yard for the Virginia class, which is the first class of U.S. Navy submarines produced for post-Cold War missions. It is designed to be more cost-effective and modular construction enables it to be equipped to perform a wider range of mission capabilities than previous classes, according to the company. The company's construction teammate is Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
“We are proud to observe this milestone in the construction of the submarine Arizona, a ship which symbolizes the legacy and courage of those who died that fateful day serving their country, a legacy we must never forget,” Kevin Graney, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, said in a press release. “The capabilities provided by this ship will enhance the reach of America’s warfighters to preserve our nation’s freedom.”
The in-person event is invitation-only. However, in addition to the viewing at the Public Safety Training Facility, a live video stream will be available to the public at www.gdeb.com.
Among the scheduled speakers at the event Robert Ballard, the retired U.S. Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who is known for his work in underwater archaeology.
Ballard won fame for his discovery of the shipwreck site for the RMS Titanic in 1985 and subsequently also found the wreck sites for the Battleship Bismark in 1989, the USS Yorktown in 1998 and PT-109 in 2002, the ship from which former President John F. Kennedy was recognized for saving members of his crew.
A delegation from Gilbert is at the ceremony in Rhode Island: Mayor Brigette Peterson, former Council Member Bill Spence, a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander who originally contacted Stratton about Gilbert being the municipal sponsor, and Pamela Rinesmith, who leads the USS Arizona efforts for the town’s Veterans Advisory Board.