Gulfport finally gets its chance to host ship commissioning

VIDEO: USS Jackson Commissioning

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GULFPORT -- The Port of Gulfport at last got to roll out the red carpet for the military as the USS Jackson, LCS 6, was officially commissioned at water's edge Saturday.

The ship is the first to be named after the state's capital city. Built in Mobile, it is the third littoral combat ship in its class.

John Kelly, the city's chief administrative officer, said the commissioning was a first for the port.

"On another occasion, we tried to hold a commissioning for the USS Mississippi (the Navy's latest nuclear-powered submarine) but the water depth was not deep enough to bring it in, so it ended up in Pascagoula," he said. "We are so very fortunate to be able to do this in Gulfport Harbor today."

Low temperatures and a chilly breeze blowing off the Gulf did not stop ship enthusiasts from attending the ceremony, at which the Mississippi Sound served as a backdrop. The crowd also didn't let security delays, at times as long as an hour, prevent them from celebrating the "birth" of the USS Jackson.

Spectators parked in the Island View Casino parking garage south of U.S. 90.

Guests were ushered through two security checkpoints, then bused to the port.

City of Gulfport spokesman Chris Vignes said the security planning for the commissioning involved several agencies.

"It took months of planning to make it happen," he said. "It was team effort between the Gulfport Police Department, the U.S. Navy and NCIS."

Much-anticipated event

Thousands attended the patriotic ceremony, including veterans, active military personnel and families with small children hoping to catch a glimpse of the Navy's latest warship.

Boy Scouts from South Mississippi and beyond were among those on hand to witness the historic occasion.

Jake Everly, 14, from Troop 8 in Jackson, said he was proud to see his city's namesake ship getting commissioned.

"This is cool," he said. "It's named after the capital. Once it's done, it will be an active Navy ship."

Secretary of the Navy and former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus was the featured speaker at the commissioning.

He joined Gov. Phil Bryant, Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes and others in activating the vessel.

It will leave the Port of Gulfport for San Diego, where it will be assigned its first mission.

A native of Starkville, Mabus served one term as governor from 1988 to 1992. He said one of his duties as secretary of the Navy is naming the ships in the Naval fleet.

"It may be more than a coincidence that the USS Jackson joins the USS Mississippi and the USNS Choctaw County," Mabus said with a smile. "This is the first ship named for Jackson, Miss., and I think that's long overdue."

The ship was built by Austal USA for about $600 million. It is almost 420 feet long and more than 100 feet wide.

Mabus said it should be able to serve the Navy for at least 30 years.

"Sailors not yet born will serve aboard this ship," he said.

Second-generation sponsor

The USS Jackson was sponsored by University of Southern Mississippi associate professor Katherine Cochran. She is the daughter of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who was also in attendance.

Her mother, the late Rose Cochran, was the sponsor of the USS Barry.

"It has been wonderful," Katherine Cochran said. "It's been about three years since the keel naming in Mobile. This event has really put a wonderful endpoint on this experience. I was really surprised by the incredible turnout."

She said she was glad the event came to fruition in Gulfport.

"When my mother sponsored the USS Barry, the ceremony was in Pascagoula," she said. "We were so excited when it looked liked (the Jackson's commissioning) was going to come together for Gulfport."

More in store for Gulfport?

Gulfport's Kelly, although he would not release specifics, said there may be additional commissionings for the port.

"I just learned this morning that in three years there's likely to be another ship commissioned here," he said. "The Coast of Mississippi is a community that loves its military. (Mabus) has the authority to name ships, so we're thinking there's likely to be another ship named for something in Mississippi sometime soon."

The commissioning ceremony began Saturday with a breakfast for the dignitaries hosted by Cafe Climb in Gulfport.

With another commissioning possible in 2018, Thad Cochran, a Navy veteran, said the ceremony marked the beginning of new era for Gulfport.

"It's an exciting beginning," he said. "I think it's going to continue for this area and that's good for not only for the military but for the jobs it creates in South Mississippi."

Jacksonians thrilled

During his welcoming remarks, Bryant asked the participants to be "Jacksonians" for the day.

"We have brought Jackson to Gulfport, two of my favorite cities," he said.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, also in attendance, said the ship's namesake is a source of pride for his city.

"It's exciting," he said. "It's not only good for Jackson but also for the state."

Mabus, the 75th secretary of the Navy, is the longest consecutively serving secretary since World War I. He said the Navy and Marines serve the country in times of war and peace.

"The Navy and the Marines are America's away team," he said. "We're not just in the right place at the right time but we are in the right place all of the time."