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USS Billings arrives at Key West, Florida

The USS Billings arrives in Key West harbor on July 29 in this photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Arnesia McIntyre, provided by the U.S. Navy and Miami Herald. The combat ship was commissioned in a ceremony on Saturday, August 3.

Just over six years ago, the secretary of the U.S. Navy announced that a new ship would be named for Billings.

On Saturday, the USS Billings will be commissioned at Truman Harbor in Key West, Florida. It's been a long journey from construction in Marinett, Wisconsin, where the 378-foot-long, 3,500-ton warship was delivered to the Navy on July 1, 2017, and christened by Sharla Tester, wife of Sen. Jon Tester. Sharla Tester and members of the ship's crew later came to Billings to visit residents and spent time helping to build a Habitat for Humanity House in the Heights. The ship has been outfitted for duty over the past two years.

Dozens of Billings area businesses, organizations, families and individuals are sponsoring the commissioning festivities. Local veterans groups held fundraisers, including a recent auction at American Legion Post 4. The Billings City Council supported the effort with $30,000 in city funds.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole chairs the Commissioning Committee with Councilman Mike Yakawich and County Commission Chairman Denis Pitman serving as vice chairs. Ron Spence is the committee coordinator. Local veterans, city officials, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Billings Alliance are well represented on the committee, which includes Ed Arnold, Brent Brooks, Dan Brooks, Judy Cohen, Sue Davidson, Katy Easton, James and Joy Mariska, Kae McCloy and Andy Zoeller.

Thanks to these public spirited folks for volunteering their time to appropriately honor Billings' first namesake U.S. military ship.

Saturday's ceremony is expected to draw 2,000 people. The event is open to the public, but required tickets ran out in June, according to a July 30 Miami Herald report.

The Commissioning Committee and a contingent of other USS Billings sponsors from Billings are in Key West this week. Four days of festivities steeped in Navy pomp and tradition culminate Saturday morning with the actual commissioning ceremony aboard the USS Billings. 

The USS Billings is the Navy's 17th Freedom-Class Littoral Combat Ship, designed to be fast, agile and operate near shore. With two gas turbine engines, the ship has 96,000 horsepower and can travel at 45 knots (52 mph). Its firepower includes .50-caliber guns, 57-millimeter cannons, surface to air missiles and torpedoes. It will carry three helicopters.

This type of ship costs about $362 million according to FreightWaves.com, cited by the Miami Herald.

The ship's crew of 70 is now led by Commander Nate Rowan. The previous commander was relieved after the USS Billings hit a parked ship on June 21 near Montreal, Canada, en route to Key West. The battle ship continued its journey and the commissioning is moving forward as scheduled. The new ship's home port will be Naval Base Mayport, about 25 miles from Jacksonville, Florida.

Though our state is landlocked, there is a long tradition of Montanans serving in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and Reserves. The USS Billings honors our city and recognizes that people here support U.S. military members even though we are nearly a thousand miles from a port that can accommodate a combat ship.

Billings residents are proud to have our city's namesake ship defending our country.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.