GRAND FORKS - North Dakota will get a special present today, its 124th birthday, when the nuclear-powered attack submarine, the USS North Dakota, is christened in Groton, Conn. It’s the second U.S. Navy ship to be named for the state. The first was a battleship that was in service from 1910 until 1923. 

The christening, beginning at 10 a.m. Central time, will be telecast live throughout North Dakota, as well as on the Internet, with some broadcasts beginning a half-hour earlier.

The ship is part of the Virginia-class attack submarines, designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships. It will carry Tomahawk missiles, as well as torpedoes and other munitions.

The USS North Dakota crew, which includes 117 enlisted Navy personnel, is led by a native North Dakotan, Master Chief Tim Preabt, who serves as the ship’s commander of boat. As chief of boat, he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the boat and the crew and serves as senior enlisted adviser to the commanding officer and the executive officer.

Preabt, 43, grew up in the Minot area, as well as Williston and Mandan, graduating from Mandan High School in 1989. His father, Duane Preabt, lives in Grand Forks.

“Being from North Dakota, I could never have dreamed of the opportunities I’ve had,” Tim Preabt said in a telephone interview Friday. “For me, this is my pinnacle.”

While his father cannot attend today’s christening, he plans to be there in the spring for the commissioning.

“He was in Hawaii when this deal first came up,” he said. “The next thing I knew, he was going to be in charge of that big thing. I’m pretty proud of him, very proud of him,” Duane Preabt said.

Katie Fowler, the ship’s sponsor, will christen the ship by breaking a bottle of champagne against a plate welded to the hull. She is wife of retired Vice Admiral Jeffrey Fowler, a Bismarck native and a veteran submarine officer and commander, who retired in 2010.

More than 100 officials and dignitaries from North Dakota will attend the ceremony.

Among them is former North Dakota Attorney General and retired judge Robert Wefald, who started an annual letter-writing campaign in the 1970s to have another Navy ship named for the state.

“We think this is really great that we’ve got this ship named after us,” Wefald said this week. “It will be the most modern and advanced ship in the world when it is commissioned. This is just the cat’s meow.”

Both of North Dakota’s senators and Gov. Jack Dalrymple and first lady Betsy Dalrymple will be among the dignitaries.

“Christening the USS North Dakota will mark a great milestone for North Dakota and a great honor for all North Dakota service members,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “It will be a tangible symbol of our state’s love of country and commitment to serve and defend it.”

“Naming such an important ship after our state is a tribute to North Dakota’s incredible sense of patriotism and strong tradition of military service,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “The whole state should be proud as we christen the USS North Dakota.”

On schedule to be commissioned in May, the USS North Dakota is the 11th ship of the Virginia class, the first U.S. Navy combatants designed for the post-Cold War era. The nuclear-powered vessel has a lifespan of 33 years, without the need to refuel.

The North Dakota is the first in the Virginia class to feature a redesigned bow with new sonar, and the first with two larger payload tubes, instead of 12 individual vertical launch missile tubes, according to Cmdr. Douglas Gordon, commanding officer of the North Dakota.

The redesign also is estimated to save the government about $100 million per submarine, he said.

The redesign also is saving time.

The last two submarines delivered to the Navy took more than 60 months to build. The USS Mississippi took 62 months, while the USS Minnesota, which was delivered in 2012, took 63 months.

After the christening, the North Dakota will be prepared for system engineering and sea tests, which are planned for late this year or early in 2014, according to Gordon.

“Sea trials are what we’re really working toward,” he said.

If the ship passes all tests, the North Dakota will be delivered to the Navy in January, after 59 months of construction - the shortest construction period on record for a Virginia-class submarine. The original goal had been to make delivery in February.

Only about half of the sailors who will board the ship have ever been to sea on a submarine, according to Gordon. And just 16 of the more senior personnel have served on a Virginia-class ship.

They’ve been training for about two years.

Each operator went to Navy schools to operate nuclear systems, through a mix of classroom instruction and simulator training. As systems became available on the North Dakota, they shifted some training and drills aboard the ship.

Preabt has more than two decades of experience. Enlisting the day after graduating from high school, he chose the Navy partly because an uncle, John Preabt, had served in the Navy.

“He traveled a lot, and while growing up that enticed me,” he said. 

He might have chosen another branch of the military, but his interest in electronics led him to the Navy and ultimately to submarines.

He’s been on eight deployments, commonly at sea for about six months at a time. Three of those assignments were aboard the USS Key West, while he was stationed in Hawaii before moving to Groton in 2011.

While the typical deployment involves 30-day periods under water, he has been submerged in a vessel for as long as 72 days.

“It’s something you adapt to, like anything,” he said. “We make our own air and atmosphere. We’re very well fed in the submarine force. Everybody has their jobs to do.”

Crew members work 18-hour days, either on the job or on watch.

“The sense of pride in what you’re doing is no different from being on the front lines of a battlefield,” he said.

Preabt and his wife, Linda, have three children, a son who is a high school senior and two daughters, who are in elementary school.

While his present assignment is scheduled to last until the spring or summer of 2015, he intends to wait until 2016 to retire.

He and Linda, who grew up in Williston, are looking to retire in North Dakota. So far, he said, they’re considering Fargo or the Bismarck-Mandan area.

Preabt had planned to retire in 2011. However, they had a change of heart when they learned about the possibility of serving on the North Dakota.

“We didn’t want to retire and someday look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do try to do that?’ he said. “This is an opportunity you’d never be able to get back.”


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Fast facts about the USS North Dakota

Specs: Weighing 7,800 tons, the boat is also 377 feet long. The ship’s top speed, when submerged, is 25 mph. It won’t require refueling throughout the lifespan of its nuclear reactors, a projected 33 years.

Use: The USS North Dakota is a part of a group nuclear-powered attack submarines.  It can strike targets on land or at sea using torpedoes and missiles.

Cost: $2.6 billion – part of a $14 billion congressional appropriation for eight submarines.

Commander: The USS North Dakota’s leader is Cmdr. Douglas Gordon, an Indianapolis native.

Motto: “Strength from the Soil, Reapers of the Deep.” The first half of this motto is borrowed from the North Dakota state flag. The second half plays homage to the men who man submarines as “reapers of the deep” and is also a nod to the state’s farming heritage.

The Crest: Among other symbols that represent the state and its history, the ship’s crest includes green ribbons to represent the state’s agricultural community and school colors of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University.