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USS Billings in Lake Michigan

The USS Billings slides into Lake Michigan for the first time at Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin on July 1, 2017.

A committee tasked with raising awareness, plus at least $150,000 for next year’s commissioning of the USS Billings, has about 15 months before the combat ship begins its expected half-century of service defending the nation.

The city’s namesake ship, a Freedom-class littoral (near the shore) combat ship, was launched July 1, 2017, in Marinette, Wisconsin. It’s still being equipped and tested by its builder, Marinette Marine.

USS Billings crowd

Christening participants record the launch of the USS Billings at Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin on July 1, 2017.

The commissioning is tentatively set for November 2019, said Ron Spence, coordinating chairman of the local steering committee. Top current contenders for the commissioning site are a pair of Florida communities — St. Petersburg and Cape Canaveral.

The USS Billings is the 15th of a planned 20 Freedom-class littoral combat ships to be constructed.

Billings is among the smallest of the namesake cities. Those ships already commissioned include the USS Fort Worth, Milwaukee, Detroit and Little Rock.

Others that have been launched and are awaiting commissioning are the USS Sioux City, Wichita and Indianapolis.

The Billings City Council authorized $15,000 toward the commissioning ceremony, and steering committee members plan to add to committee coffers by selling USS Billings hats, polo shirts and T-shirts at MontanaFair Aug. 16-18. They'll also be seeking business donations.

Coincidentally, Spence said he’ll be in Buffalo, New York, next week for the Marine Corps League’s national convention (Billings will host the event in 2019). In December 2017, Buffalo hosted the commissioning of the USS Little Rock, the Navy’s ninth littoral combat ship.

Spence, general manager of the Billings Hotel and Convention Center, said thousands of people endured snow and bitter cold to witness the USS Little Rock commissioning, for which a Buffalo committee had raised $600,000.

Spence said the local commissioning committee agrees to pay for a number of out-of-town events celebrating the commissioning, including a sponsorship dinner, a captain’s reception and a commissioning breakfast. Committee members will also be fundraising for plaques and gift bags for members of both crews. That’s about 140 gift bags and plaques at about $150 each, Spence said.

Commemorative coin

A steering committee plans to sell USS Billings hats, polo shirts and T-shirts during MontanaFair Aug. 16-18. Committee members also plan to strike a commemorative coin similar to this one.

Funds that are leftover are placed into the ship’s health, morale and welfare fund. In addition, some namesake cities have set up a scholarship fund for crew members, Spence said.

He said he’s confident the committee can raise the needed funds in advance of the USS Billings commissioning.

“This is a naval ship with Billings’ name on it that will represent our city on the sea for the next 50 or 60 years,” Spence said. “We hope that the people and the businesses in Billings will step up and do their duty.”

Photos: Tour of the USS Billings

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.