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Naval Station Mayport prepares to welcome a new ship to fleet

The future littoral combat ship USS Wichita on July 11, 2018, conducts acceptance trials, which are the last significant milestone before a ship is delivered to the Navy.

U.S. NAVY

By CHRISTOPHER HONG | The Florida Times-Union | Published: January 10, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — There's been at least one troublemaker on every crew that Mike Trnka, a chief mineman with the U.S. Navy, has been a member of during his 15 years in the service.

Except for the crew he's now a part of aboard the future USS Wichita.

The soon to-be commissioned ship, part of the Navy's new generation of stealthy, fast and agile warships that can execute aggressive shallow water missions and still hold their own in the open seas, is manned by roughly 70 people. Running such a small crew requires the crew to run a tight ship. Everyone must do their job — several jobs, in fact — and there's no room for slack or misconduct.

"These sailors are handpicked," said Cmdr. Nathan Rowan, the commanding officer of the vessel, while giving reporters a tour Thursday of what will soon be the newest littoral combat ship stationed at Mayport Naval Station.

When the ship's commissioning ceremony ends Saturday, it will be the sixth warship of its kind to join the squadron based in Mayport, Fla., which is home to the East Coast's littoral combat ship fleet.

The future USS Wichita, whose steel hull is painted with the number 13, will serve as a training platform and is not scheduled for deployment. Instead, it will remain in Mayport, where new crew members can learn to work on this young fleet of ships.

The 387-foot ship, the third to carry the name of the largest city in Kansas, is powered by four large engines, two gasoline and two diesel, and is moved by jet propulsion.

Despite its size and seaworthiness, it drafts just 14 feet of water.

Rowan compared the vessel to a giant jet ski. He said the ship is highly maneuverable and fast, capable of quickly reaching speeds of 40 knots. It can stop just as quickly.

"You have to hold on to something when it stops and goes," Rowan said.

The future USS Wichita is packaged to hunt and neutralize mines, although its sister ships can hunt submarines, fight other warships and deploy special forces.

Working on the new class of ships is considered to be an elite assignment, Rowan said. He said the crew was drafted through a special screening process that identifies the Navy's finest and weeds out anyone who may cause problems.

A crew of this size doesn't have a designated kitchen staff. Everyone, even Rowan, washes their own dishes.

There are some benefits to the arrangement.

The crew has more flexibility in what they can cook, and that has allowed them to prepare meals that reflect their diverse backgrounds. Rowan spoke highly about Taco Tuesday. On Thursday, lunch featured curry chicken thighs, pancit noodles and beef and broccoli.

There's also a strong camaraderie on the ship.

Trnka said crew members feel a strong duty to perform their jobs well and not let each other down. They also watch out for each other when they are off of the ship. He he said it's important for the crew to stay occupied with family-friendly or otherwise healthy activities to steer clear of temptations that could jeopardize their fitness to work on the ship.

"You really depend on each other," said Petty Officer Ever Romero Melgar, another crew member. "If one goes down, you feel it."

The ship will be commissioned Saturday at 10 a.m. during ceremonies at Mayport.

©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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