At a little past two on a hot, humid, hazy Saturday in Groton, the growing activity interrupts the weekend stillness. A DC-9 flies overhead and settles into the New London Airport. Black limousines roll down Poquonnock Road. A caravan of thirteen buses from Rhode Island are backed up on Clarence B. Sharp highway. Policemen stand on every corner. Crowds stream towards the gates of Electric Boat. It’s launch day for the PROVIDENCE!
Astroturf covers the ground inside the Building Ways. Huge tarps, white ropes, patriotic bunting and bright lights help conceal the fact that this is an industrial work area. The many seated guests fan themselves with their programs and listen to the Northeast Navy Band.
The giant round bow of the submarine, draped with a bright and colorful skirt, protrudes into the ceremonial area and looms above and behind the podium.
Behind the drapes, where it is much darker, workers are busy with the final launch preparations. Instead of astroturf and bunting, there is scaffolding, staging, power cords and hose lines.
Workers in soiled clothes congratulate the crewmembers of the 719 boat, who are in full dress whites. One worker introduces himself to a sailor. “I’ 11 be working on your boat after the launch,” he says proudly.
A steep ladder ascends from the floor, through a maze of scaffolding, to the submarine’s brow. Capt. Emil D. Morrow, the boat’s prospective commanding officer, stands next to his executive officer, Cmdr. Stanley R. Szemborski. The officers line up on the sail planes, while the crew mans the rails. Back aft , SUPSHIPS and contractor personnel wait for the big event.
The brow is withdrawn promptly at 3 p.m. A railing is then hammered into place where the brow had been.
“This is more than just a hulk, ” says one of the carpenters. “This boat is more complete than any they’ve ever launched.” He looks over the side as his co-workers below wave to him. “After building 18 of the 688s, VLS added a new challenge,” the Manager of the North yard says, referring to the Vertical Launch System for Tomahawk cruise missiles. (PROVIDENCE is the first sub to receive the system.) “This boat is 83 percent complete, including 95 percent of the weight. ” He adds, “When completed, with her liquid load the 719 will displace about 6,900 tons submerge. Today, she’ 11 enter the water with a dryweight of 5150 tons.” Although they don’t measure launch velocity anymore, the manager guesses that “the boat will be moving between 16 to 17 knots when it hits the water.”
Large anchor chains are fitted to the ship and secured to a pile out in the river. “When the chain reaches the end, the boat stops,” one of the carpenters explains. “That’s so we don’ t end up in New London,” — and “The cradle that the sub sits on goes down the ways with the boat. After the boat is in the water, the ropes holding the cradle will be cut free with an axe.”
It is now 3:53. The speeches are heard by those topside over loudspeakers .It is hot.but they’re out of the sun. A flock of small craft herded by Coast Guard boats buzz around in the river below. A helicopter orbits above. Thick haze almost obscures the New London shore. Sponsor Jean Smith, wife of the U.S. Attorney General, approaches the bow. “In the name of the United States, I christen thee PROVIDENCE,” she proclaims.
There is a metallic bang, and another — and another — as Mrs. Smith tries to break a bottle of champagne on the boat. Then the whistle sounds, the ship shudders, all hands salute, and at 4:06 the submarine begins to move. The many workers in the building wave to the people topside. The ship picks up speed, emerging 22 seconds later through the doors and into bright sunshine. The ship gently enters the water. Thousands and thousands of yard workers, their families and friends, watch from the land-level, facility dock, cheering wildly. There are countless small craft tooting their horns. Dozens more spectators watch from shore outside the yard. Then the whistle is silent. The crew cheers. The North Yard manager returns from up forward. He’s outwardly expressionless, a veteran ofmany launchings. “I had to break my bottle,” he says. “Mrs. Smith failed to break her bottle in two swings, so I took charge and broke the standby bottle. ”
“It’s a great feeling” says a Chief — riding the topside of the PROVIDENCE. You’re hot, you’ve been standing there for over an hour. you’re tired. And then the ship starts to move and you straighten right up. A lot of pride comes forth. ”
Tugs come alongside immediately .Navy tugs, EB tugs, Thames Rivver tugs — all are there. A Navy tug takes off a large portion of the riders, bringing them back to EB. One of them, the Maintenance Painter Foreman, then walks through the yard to the street. He’s seen every launch since the Nautilus, but PROVIDENCE is the first he’s ever ridden. “This is my last launch before retirement ” he says. “I wanted this to be my best, and I think it was!”