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The U.S.S. Minnesota's pre-christening party. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

State's nuclear sub has local connections

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A small contingent of Osage residents and a Park Rapids graduate got a front row seat to history last month when they watched the christening of the U.S. Navy's latest nuclear submarine.

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OK, rows 4 and 12, if anyone is counting. It was the thrill of a lifetime for Harvey Harvala, his sister Judy Henderson and brother-in-law Dick Kovala. Judy, a 1962 Park Rapids graduate, is the mother-in-law of the U.S.S. Minnesota's commander John Fancher. He is married to Henderson's daughter, Amy.

The three, and Henderson's husband, recently attended the sub's christening in Newport News, Va., the shipyard that built the 377-foot, 7,800-ton behemoth.

Known as SSN - 783, the Minnesota is the 10th "Virginia-class" submarine being built at the shipyard. Construction began in 2008. It is classified as a "fast attack" sub and is armed with Tomahawk Cruise missiles, MK-48 torpedoes, advanced mobile mines and an unmanned undersea vehicle. It will have a crew of 120.

"It made you stop in your tracks and look," Harvala said.

"You can't believe the enormity of it," Kovala said.

The two Army vets joined 2,500 others Oct. 27 for the champagne and balloon-laden ceremony "at the pleasure of the Navy."

"We felt pretty special," Harvala said.

"Especially when you know the commanding officer," Kovala laughed. "It was definitely a 'bucket list' experience, a real treat. History in the making."

The ship will be formally turned over to the U.S. Navy in August 2013 and commissioned in a second ceremony the locals hope to be invited back to.

Harvala and Kovala said the sub will go out on six-month missions. It has to surface every three months to replenish the food supplies.

"There's food packed all over," Harvala said. "They can tell when to go back by the amount of headroom they have."

The men said Fancher, a shy man unaccustomed to celebrity, has been traveling the state to publicize the ship and the event. He's thrown out the first pitch at a Twins game, attended last weekend's Vikings-Lions game, takes the ship out for trial runs and has been involved in the ship's engineering for the past three years. Fancher is a 20+ year Navy man, a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

"It will be monitoring everything in the world," Harvala said. "It's a stealth sub. It's all about keeping this country safe."

The two men were keenly interested in the sub and how it works, but Navy personnel know how to keep a nuclear secret.

Much of the confidential information in the shipyard was covered up. Mammoth sheets draped areas deemed "off limits" to the public. Photos were banned in certain areas.

The sub, the third ship named after the state of Minnesota, has strong Minnesota ties.

It's sponsor is a Minneapolis woman named Ellen Roughead, daughter of a WWII Navy vet and wife of a lieutenant commander in the Navy. She broke a bottle of champagne over the sub's helm.

"The sponsor stays with a ship for a lifetime," Harvala explained. "Crews change."

A Rosemount teen designed the ship's logo. "It incorporates a seafaring Viking, the North Star, a blue background to represent Minnesota's lakes, a band of maroon to represent the University of Minnesota and a Latin inscription that translates to 'From the North, Power,'" according to the Navy.

The men, like kids in a candy store, brought home memorabilia, T-shirts and enough memories to share with their friends and neighbors.

But they hope to be on board, literally, to see the $2.6 billion ship's official commissioning, when the builder turns her over to the navy.

"I hope to go inside at the commissioning," Harvala said. "Of course, that's at the pleasure of the Navy."

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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