By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
The first ship of the next generation of fleet replenishment oilers will bear the name of civil rights activist, U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Lewis and actress Alfre Woodard recently welded their initials into part of a ship in a special keel laying ceremony at the General Dynamics-National Steel and Shipbuilding Company along San Diego Harbor, according to news reports. The fleet replenishment oiler will be named USNS John Lewis after the civil rights leader and is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2020.
“The rest of the John Lewis class of ships will be built over the next 10 years and will stay in service for 40 years, serving 85,000 service men and women and 11 air craft carriers,” according to a statement on the Congressman’s website.
The ship sponsor is customarily the honoree’s wife but his wife Lillian passed in 2012. Woodard was asked to serve as sponsor because she has portrayed civil rights advocates throughout her award-winning career.
The laying of the keel is the Navy’s way of acknowledging the beginning of a ship’s construction. At that stage some initial components of the ship have already been built, and the keel laying ceremony involves joining those components together.
Consistent with Rep. Lewis’s commitment to non-violence, the USNS John Lewis is not part of a class of combat vessels but will replenish oil on ships at sea and comprise part of the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force that will be operated by the Navy Sealift Command.
“I was almost moved to tears,” said Rep. Lewis, “to meet and greet the many hard working, committed and dedicated men and women from General Dynamics who are building the USNS John Lewis.” Building the ship will require the work of about 3000 craftsmen, welders, and builders.
“For the U.S. Navy and former Secretary Ray Mabus to see fit to honor me in this way is unreal and almost unimaginable,” Lewis continued. “I only try to do what is fair, what is right, and what is just and get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. This class of ships pays tribute to the powerful contribution each and every participant in the struggle for civil rights and social justice has made to help build a true democracy in America.”
At the keel laying ceremony Mike Kosar, Support Ships, Boats and Craft program manager, Program Executive Office (PEO) Ships, said, “We’re honored to have Representative Lewis and Ms. Woodard with us today as we lay the foundation for recapitalizing our nation’s critical fuel-replenishment-at-sea capabilities. These ships are steadfast, reliable and allow our warships to defend our freedoms for which Representative Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting.”
On Jan. 6, 2016, then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy’s new oilers would be named for “people who fought for civil rights and human rights,” and that the first ship in the class, TAO-205, which was procured in FY2016, would be named for Lewis.
The Navy plans to procure a total of 20 John Lewis-class ships. On July 28, 2016, it was reported that the Navy would name the second through sixth ships in the class (i.e., TAOs 206 through 210) for Harvey Milk, Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth, respectively. The ships are estimated to be ready in April 2020.