Groton-based sub named best ship in Atlantic fleet
Groton — Embroidered on the crew's blue ball caps, next to the submarine's motto, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," is a small trophy, a nod to the coveted award they've received.
But other than that small insignia, the crew does not intend to boast about their boat being selected as the best all-around warship in the Navy's Atlantic fleet — not a surprise from sailors who signed up to be part of the silent service.
The crew took it in stride "because they know that tomorrow requires the same amount of effort as today and even more than yesterday," the ship's captain, Cmdr. Matthew Fanning, 42, said by email this week.
During a pier-side ceremony at the Naval Submarine Base on Saturday, the crew of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hartford was presented with a plaque, signifying it is the recipient of the 2017 Battenberg Cup, a trophy with a storied history dating to 1905 that initially started as a U.S.–British rivalry.
"There is no question that Hartford deserves the Battenberg Cup for our efforts, but I know there are many captains that can say the same and they would not be lying," Fanning said. "Our Navy has ships at sea today and every day keeping our country safe and on each one there is a crew working tirelessly to help one another succeed. It is humbling to accept this award knowing how many other crews are also worthy of it."
The story of the cup began in 1905, when Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg, a commander of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, made goodwill port visits to Annapolis, Md., Washington, D.C., and New York City. He sent the cup to the commander of the U.S. North Atlantic Fleet and decreed that the ship possessing it could be challenged to a rowing cutter race by its British or American counterpart any time the two ships met.
The racing was interrupted during World War II, and it wasn't until 1978 that the Navy assigned the cup a new significance: to serve as a symbol of excellence.
Today, nearly 100 surface ships, aircraft carriers and submarines are eligible for the award. The Hartford was selected "based on outstanding crew achievements and an exceptional level of operational effectiveness," the Navy said. It is the fifth submarine to take home the honor.
Master Chief Nathan Chappelle, 35, the chief of the boat, attributed the achievement to the crew's ability to "flex" and "roll with the punches," but also to Fanning's leadership and "his ability to keep the crew informed when less than desirable things happen."
The Hartford has participated in the past two Ice Exercises, known as ICEX, which test the Navy's ability to operate in the Arctic. The five-week exercise is held every two years. During this year's exercise, the Hartford tested its ability to shoot and recover torpedoes beneath Arctic sea ice. Another submarine was supposed to participate in the exercise but had issues, so the Hartford "got called up," Chappelle said.
After the boat returned from the Arctic, it was sent on an unexpected two-month "surge" deployment, he added, "which threw a wrench in our schedule."
At the start of the year, Hartford received the Battle "E" Award as the best ship in its squadron, and that likely "played into our contention" for the Battenberg Cup, Chappelle said.
Logistics proved too tricky to bring the 3-foot-tall, steel-plated trophy from the Norfolk, Va., offices of Vice Adm. Charles "Chas" Richards, commander of the Atlantic submarine force, to Groton, so instead the crew was presented with a plaque. Plus, there's no room for a trophy of that size aboard a submarine, where space is precious.
The crew members were a bit disappointed they didn't get to see the trophy in person. They'd hoped to revel in Stanley Cup-like celebrations. But the boat's leadership tempered those expectations.
The Hartford was out to sea when Fanning, the commanding officer, got the message that his boat was the winner. He immediately got on the boat's general announcement system to relay the news to the crew. He'd been telling them they were the best for a long time but now the Navy had seen fit to agree with him, he said. He told them how proud he was, and that he appreciated their hard work whether they receive awards or not. He signed off with "Damn the torpedoes!"
Admittedly, some of the younger submariners had to ask, "What is this thing we just won?"
Yeoman 2nd Class Taylor Gilbert, 22, who's been on the Hartford for three years, described it this way: "We'd been busting our butts, working really hard, like we always do. At first a lot of guys were like, 'That's awesome but what is it, really?'"
The award "showed off how much the crew has come together over the years," Gilbert said.
It wasn't that long ago that sailors begrudged getting orders to the Hartford, which was commissioned in 1994. In 2009, the submarine collided with a Navy amphibious ship, the USS New Orleans (LPD 18), in the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East. The Navy found the crew of the Hartford to be at fault.
Now, it's the most sought-after submarine assignment on the East Coast, Gilbert said.