Submarine North Dakota to get visitors despite delayed commissioning

Despite the postponement of the submarine North Dakota's commissioning, originally scheduled for Saturday, 58 people from the namesake state are still making the trek because they couldn't get their flights and hotels refunded or wanted to come anyway.

In April, the Navy announced that the commissioning ceremony would be postponed because of issues with the redesigned bow and component parts such as torpedo tube interlocks that keep the crew from accidentally letting sea water enter the torpedo room, said Lt. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for Submarine Group Two, in an email. During the testing of the North Dakota (SSN 784), Electric Boat discovered issues with how some of the components were assembled and decided a "prudent review" was needed, he added.

The commissioning has been rescheduled for "the coming months, possibly the fall," according to the Navy.

"It has nothing to do with getting behind schedule," Hawkins said. "... It's pretty typical that when you change the design you have some kinks that you need to work out, and postponing the coming date allows the Navy to review and inspect various processes."

Many of the 500 people from North Dakota who booked with the travel agency Satrom Travel and Tour will be able to change the date of their flight and tour, once the new commissioning date is set, without a penalty, said Bob Wefald of Bismarck, N.D., who is the chairman of the USS North Dakota Committee. Wefald, who has been working to get a second Navy vessel named after North Dakota since 1985, didn't book his flight with the travel agency and wasn't so lucky.

"It affected a lot of people adversely, like my wife and I had to cancel our flights and lost 200 bucks apiece," Wefald said.

The last time a Navy vessel was named after North Dakota was in 1910. It was a coal-fired, steam-powered battleship that was decommissioned in 1923.

"The people of North Dakota are just bursting with pride as we get ready for this second ship," Wefald said.

Wefald, who is a veteran from the Vietnam era, said he suggested back in the mid-1980s that the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce work with him to get another ship named after their state. He said he wrote U.S. presidents, secretaries of the Navy and members of the state's congressional delegation year after year about the idea until 2008, when the decision to name the submarine was announced.

A team of North Dakotan senators and congressmen ultimately made it happen, he said.

"All I did was act as a cheerleader and keep pushing. If it wasn't for those guys, I would still be pushing," Wefald said.

Although the commissioning has been delayed, the Navy has designed activities for those who will be visiting southeastern Connecticut this Friday and Saturday - both people from North Dakota and family members of the submarine's crew. They will be allowed to tour the inside of the $2.6 billion submarine in drydock at Electric Boat, the Submarine Force Library and Museum and a few training modules at the Naval Submarine School, Hawkins said.

The group from North Dakota also has a lunch planned for noon on Saturday at the Mystic Marriott Hotel in Groton, where military veterans from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation area will present Cmdr. Doug Gordon, commander of the North Dakota, and Chief of Boat, Master Chief Electronics Technician Tim Preabt with a "sacred eagle feather" for the submarine in order to guard and protect it and its crew, Wefald said.

Bill Butcher, a veteran and vice chairman of the USS North Dakota Committee, is one of the 58 traveling to southeastern Connecticut to take the tour of the submarine and visit some other sites on the East Coast.

"We are looking forward to having some good Connecticut lobster and clams" and escaping the 90-degree heat in North Dakota, he said.

He said he and others who are visiting this week plan to return again for the commissioning.

Electric Boat spokesman Robert Hamilton said on Wednesday that the shipbuilding company plans to complete the submarine by the contract deadline, which is Aug. 31. This gives the company 66 months to complete the project. It was christened Nov. 2, 2013, and was on track at that time to be delivered to the Navy after 59 to 60 months.

There are contractual incentives to finishing ahead of schedule, Hamilton said, but "we are going to deliver the ship when it's ready."

The commissioning traditionally occurs after the shipbuilder delivers the submarine to the Navy and marks the date when the precommissioning unit (PCU) North Dakota becomes the USS North Dakota. Once commissioned, it will be the 11th member of the Virginia-class nuclear-attack submarines.

The Navy buys submarines in "blocks," and the North Dakota is the first submarine of eight to be built in Block III of the Virginia-class submarines. Twenty percent of Block III submarines' design were changed from Block II submarines' design in order to save about $100 million per submarine.

It is the first submarine to have a redesigned bow with a new sonar array and two larger payload tubes instead of 12 individual, vertical-launch missile tubes. The submarine will be able to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, deliver Special Forces and provide surveillance of land and sea.

j.somers@theday.com

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