Montana may be a landlocked state, but the USS Montana submarine is bringing the Big Sky to the sea.
The first submarine named after the Big Sky state is currently under construction in Newport News, Virginia. Crew members toured the Flathead Valley last week to engage with the state’s citizens and culture.
Officially called Pre-Commissioning Unit MONTANA SSN 794, the nuclear fast-attack submarine will join more than 10 other ships in the Navy’s Virginia class to carry out “a range of missions in defense of our nation,” according to the USS Montana Committee. The committee organized a previous tour for the crew in the Great Falls area and an upcoming visit to Southwest Montana.
Lt. Aaron Bishop and Petty Officers Marlon Haughton and Tyler Fellows spent the week of July 4 meeting members of the local community and informing them about their state’s namesake ship.
“Montana has been incredible. Nobody has seen this level of excitement or support [from the community] before,” Bishop said. As one of three Montanans in the ship’s 135-person crew, the Huson native reciprocates that excitement. “I’m very proud to be from Montana.”
He said he’s enjoyed being able to point out familiar landmarks, share his favorite beer and show off his home state’s natural beauty to his fellow crew members. “It’s really cool to interact that way,” he said.
As the ship’s assistant operations officer, Bishop helps train the Montana crew and provides operational experience from three years serving on the USS California.
For Haughton and Fellows, their first visit to Montana was an opportunity to appreciate the local culture and better understand the ship’s motto: “Do or Die, Big Sky.”
“We say that all the time, but you don’t really know what it means until you experience it,” Fellows said.
Their Big Sky experience included horseback riding, presenting a flag at the Bigfork Rodeo and, of course, getting a taste of huckleberries. Culinary Specialist Haughton said he plans to introduce the crew to the local flavor. “I’m a big fan of huckleberry,” he said.
They also met Montanans across the valley, including local veterans and Boy Scouts at VFW Post 4042 in Bigfork, Fourth of July revelers at the Kalispell Independence Day parade and members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes at a powwow in Arlee. Space is limited on a submarine, but Bishop said they will be sure to include a flag that the tribe gifted them as one of the ship’s main decorations.
Bill Whitsitt, the chairman of the USS Montana Committee, organized the crew’s various community interactions because he believes in the importance of familiarizing the crew members with the community they represent and vice versa.
“We can’t raise as much money as other states, but we can make up for it in enthusiasm,” Whitsitt said.
The USS Montana crew said this enthusiasm was evident throughout all the stops on their tour.
“I’ve been to numerous commands and I’ve never seen so much support,” Haughton noted. Fellows shared that when they arrived in uniform at Flathead Lake Lodge, everyone broke into spontaneous applause. The support has been “absolutely astounding,” he said.
There are still months to go on the ship’s construction, but they expect to reach a major milestone with the ship’s nuclear reactor very soon. It’s expected the ship will be christened in the spring of 2020, and the crew members hope to see a large Montana contingent there.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4459.