Four U.S. Navy ships have been named after Indianapolis: a World War I-era cargo ship that was decommissioned within a few years, the heavy cruiser that won 10 battle stars during World War II before being sunk in the single largest loss of life in U.S. naval history, the Los Angeles-class submarine during the 1980s and 1990s, and the new littoral combat ship that was just commissioned at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor on Lake Michigan.
More than 12,000 people turned out for the commissioning of the USS Indianapolis, a historic event in largely landlocked Indiana. It's one of just four Navy commissioning ceremonies to take place on the Great Lakes in recent years, and those in Milwaukee and Buffalo were beset by blizzards.
The port in Northwest Indiana, a short distance from Chicago, hosted the $450 million mine warfare ship before it traveled up Lake Michigan, through the Straits of Mackinac, across the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and down the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean to the Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Florida.
Most commissioning ceremonies take place in front of only 1,200 to 2,000 people at naval bases in cynical, jaded coastal cities where the locals are all too familiar with the Navy. But organizers went big, bringing in six times as many spectators and high-ranking Navy and Department of Defense brass along with Congressman Pete Visclosky and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The Freedom-class ship capable of traveling more than 40 knots and in shallow waters near the shoreline was made at a shipyard in Wisconsin and dispatched down to the South Shore of Lake Michigan.
"We knew we couldn't bring it down the White River to Indianapolis, so we looked at ports on Lake Michigan," USS Committee Organizing Committee Chairman Ray Shearer said.
The commissioning committee ensured the ship would be filled with many references to its namesake city, including a mural of the Indianapolis skyline and a photographic mural of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
"We try to create a relationship between the ship and its namesake," said Doug Lehman, a member of the board of directors for the commissioning committee. "We try to create a connection between the crew and its namesake. If you saw all the graphics on the ship that were connected to Indianapolis, the commissioning committee was the group that got graphic designers to come in and go through the ship and decide what worked where, that kind of thing, all as a part of creating a relationship between the ship and Indianapolis."
The ship, for instance, is filled with quotes from Hoosiers, including from Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears: "America allows us to be able to dream, then gives us the ability to achieve those dreams."
"We found the quotes," Lehman said. "We tried to find quotes that fit the space that they were put in and what the ship does, or the attitude of the crew, that kind of thing. Most of it comes from Hoosiers or people very involved in the state of Indiana. 'Fire when ready' was from a Hoosier. We tried to make sure there was some kind of connection, some kind of relationship between the Navy and Indiana or Indianapolis with regards to the graphics that we used."
About 25 to 30 volunteers took part on the commissioning committee, all from Indiana. The core group consisted of 8 to 10.
"There are three major ceremonies with regard to a ship coming into the Navy: the keeling where they lay what's basically the backbone of the ship, the christening — which is the one most people are familiar with — where they break the bottle across the bow, and then the commissioning, which I say is like when you buy your car and the dealer gives you the keys and says you can drive away now," Lehman said. "The Navy gets to take possession of the ship."
Cmdr. Colin Kane, a native of Columbus, Ohio, tasked with his first ship command, made it a priority to staged the ceremony in the Hoosier State.
"Since I found out I was going to be the commanding officer, I always knew I wanted to make sure the commissioning took place in Indiana, as close as I could get the ship to Indianapolis," Kane said. "I think bringing this kind of event to the people here is extremely important. The steel mill over here is where much of the steel plate was laid for this ship."
The 3,900-ton ship, manned by a crew of 70 and tasked to a mine warfare mission, pulled up at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor and did a whirlwind tour of the state. They visited the neighboring ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, where they make the steel plate, the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, and several stops in Indianapolis, including the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Museum, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Shapiro's.
Mineman Second Class John McCoy, a native of Long Island in New York City, was impressed with the Jewish delicatessen on the south end of downtown, a vintage purveyor of corned beef and pastrami on rye.
"It was great," he said.
McCoy thought he would be turning valves and doing a lot of manual labor when he enlisted in the Navy and was surprised with how automated the ship was.
"This is more things that I grew up with," he said. "This is more technology, and I feel more ready for this. Engines, things like that, still require more manual labor, but this is more brainpower."
They also got to meet with four survivors from the USS Indianapolis heavy cruiser that was sunk in the waning days of World War II, in which many of the sailors were eaten by sharks. The survivors related stories about how they made it out alive.
"It was inspiring," McCoy said. "It was something you can't compare yourself to. It's a huge honor and a responsibility to keep their legacy going. It's exciting. We're finally doing what we spend two years to do."
He also was impressed that he got to know everyone on the ship and that it was like a small family, which is not the case on many larger Navy vessels.
Chief Informational Technician Delila Edwards, a Florida native who was eager to sail back to her kids, said there was a lot of responsibility in taking over a new ship. Most of the ship's crew members have been training since 2016.
"It's different," she said. "Everything on a new ship, you're setting that protocol. You are the start of a legacy on a new ship. On a ship that's already been commissioned, you come in and go with the flow of everything that's already been established. Everyone that comes after us will follow us. This crew is the plank owners of this ship. We set the tradition of this ship."
Though much smaller than a larger ship like an aircraft carrier where one might not recognize many shipmates after a year-long deployment, the ship is something a self-contained city with a library, medical treatment and "steel beach picnics" where they can grill and lounge during off-hours to keep their spirits up during months at sea.
Shearer said it would only be about a year before they got deployed.
"Now the real work begins," he said.