After a week at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor and a historic U.S. Navy commissioning ceremony that may never take place again in largely landlocked Indiana, the USS Indianapolis Littoral Combat Ship set sail Tuesday morning for its home base in Florida.
The $450 million ship tasked for mine warfare, the fourth to bear the USS Indianapolis name, will travel up Lake Michigan, through the Straits of Mackinac, across the Great Lakes and through the St. Lawrence Seaway that opens into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Quebec City in Canada. The warship and its crew of 70 sailors will then travel south down the coastline to the Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Florida.
“Their families will be there to welcome them when they pull into the home port,” said Ray Shearer, chairman of the USS Indianapolis Commissioning Committee, which spent years planning Saturday’s ceremony.
More than 12,000 people total are estimated to have attended the commissioning in which the Freedom-class ship made in Wisconsin was officially placed into U.S. Navy service. Speakers included Gov. Eric Holcomb, Under Sec. of the Navy Thomas Modly and Department of Defense Deputy Chief Management Officer Lisa W. Hershman.
Only a few Navy ship commissionings have taken place on the Great Lakes, where the mostly coastal Navy typically does little more than basic training and the periodic goodwill tour. Barges were required to perform the ceremony on the Detroit River, and commissioning ceremonies in Milwaukee and Buffalo were beset by blizzards.
But organizers were determined to bring the pomp and pageantry of a Navy ship commissioning to Indiana, especially since the USS Indianapolis was being built at a shipyard on Lake Michigan.
“We knew we couldn’t bring it down the White River to Indianapolis, so we looked at ports on Lake Michigan,” Shearer said. “We looked at both the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor and Michigan City, but there were some logistical challenges for Michigan City. It wasn’t ideally set up for the ship and there wasn’t enough room in the parking lot or pier… It was key to have it in the heart of steel country, by the steel mills that have supplied the United States Navy for more than 100 years. It all comes down to our freedom and our national defense.”
Organizers received a lot of help from state and local governments, as well as from JROTC programs at local schools and groups like the South Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, Indiana Dunes Tourism and the Northwest Indiana Forum. Businesses at the port, normally a flurry of semi-truck traffic, shut down at their own expense for the day to accommodate the crowds.
Local businesses chipped in, with Portillo’s providing lunch to the sailors. The service members received gift bags of popcorn from Valpo Events, commemorative bats from Hoosier Bat Co., and candy from Albanese Candy Co.
The Region also showed the sailors how appreciated they are, Shearer said. People constantly thanked them for their service, which is far less likely near military bases where uniformed service members are a commonplace everyday sight, he said.
“It was memorable,” he said. “People aren’t going to forget that day. It was moving when they brought the ship to life and all the sailors ran aboard to man their station.”
The USS Indianapolis was supposed to set sail early Monday morning, but its departure from the deepwater Lake Michigan port in Portage was delayed so it could get charts with the latest weather conditions.
“They’re now well on their way on their journey,” he said. “But now the real work begins. Now they have to get the ship ready because little over a year from now they’ll be deployed.”