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USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul prepares to enter Navy duty

The ceremony in Duluth marked history for Minnesota, as the state holds its first commissioning for a Navy warship.

DULUTH, Minn. — Jon and Phyllis Bergstrand searched all over their hometown on Thursday for the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, two days ahead of the official commissioning for the Navy vessel. 

“We wanted to see the ship for ourselves,” Jon said.

They finally found the ship tucked into an industrial area of Duluth, between the highway and Lake Superior.

What a sight it was.

“It means a lot,” Jon said, shortly after snapping a photo of the ship from a distance. “We love seeing the ships come in, and having the ship here is as close to Minneapolis-Saint Paul as it can get.”

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul won’t stay in Duluth long. Following the commissioning on Saturday morning, the crew of about 100 members will head to home base at the naval station in Mayport, Fla., near Jacksonville, to await further missions from the Navy.

Even so, history will be made in Minnesota this weekend.

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul is believed to be the first Navy warship ever commissioned in the state.

“I am more than proud,” said Commander Alfonza White, who is originally from Milwaukee. “Having a ship named after a city – it’s a very small amount of ships as far as, comparatively, the world’s size. They should feel honored.”

Commander White called his crew members “resilient,” praising their ability to serve without complaint during the pandemic. The ship was first christened during the summer of 2019, with a commissioning expected for the following year. However, due to COVID-19 and then the discovery of a design defect, the commissioning was delayed by almost two years, culminating in this Saturday's highly anticipated ceremony at 10 a.m. in the Port of Duluth. 

“We took it in stride,” Commander White said, “and now we’re here.”

It’s not the first Navy vessel named for the Twin Cities. Most notably, a previous USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul submarine operated from 1984 until decommissioning in 2008, while other Navy ships have been named for at least one of the cities.

But the newest version of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, known as a Freedom-class littoral combat ship, will serve as a key asset for the Navy’s worldwide operations. The ship can travel fast – more than 40 knots, the equivalent of 46 miles per hour – and it’s renowned for its ability to fit through tight spaces and move nimbly from side to side.

“The amount of power that we have, first and foremost, is incredible, how quick the ship can stop, how quick the ship can get going,” said Lt. Joseph Varello, an officer of the deck who basically drives the ship. “The ability for the ship to walk sideways is another really neat part of being an officer of the deck on this ship. It’s a huge advantage for us.”

When it arrives in Florida, the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul will specialize in shallow-water missions near the shore. Although the Mayport base off the coast of the Atlantic will serve as the ship’s home port, Commander White said his crew will have the ability to respond to any task across the globe.

“We are designed to emphasize areas such as the littoral, anything from 25 miles into shore. We have a shallow draft, designed to exploit those areas around the world,” Commander White said. “What that details, is what our commanders in chief dictate.”

While the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul does not have any Minnesota natives onboard, Commander White said there is a contingent of crew members from Michigan and Wisconsin.

Commander Bryan Kemmitz, a native of western Wisconsin, grew up watching Twin Cities television and visiting the North Shore.

“I was very close to Minnesota,” Commander Kemmitz said. “It's been a kind of unique, unexpected journey, for me to be able to come up here as the Executive Officer of a ship and pull up here.”

After the commissioning on Saturday, Commander White said – with a smile – that the crew would explore Duluth before heading east to Florida.

Jon Bergstrand, the Duluth native who pulled over on the side of the road to take a photo of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, knows he can’t chase the ship to Florida.

But he’s never going to forget the day the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul came to Duluth.

“Neat to see a brand-new ship,” Jon said. “And it’s not even commissioned yet!”

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