Homer gives huge welcome to USS Hopper

Fifty flags on the Homer Spit beach and perhaps 500 people greeted USS Hopper, the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, based U.S. Navy destroyer, as it rounded Coal Point at the end of the Spit on Saturday. Homer Downtown Rotary provided U.S. Flags, and rows of them lined the beach in front of Land’s End Resort. As Hopper pulled past the Spit, rows of sailors lined the decks. One family, Ralph Crane, his daughter Joy Overson and his granddaughter Faith Overson, waved a large American flag and an Alaska flag.

“Thank you for the warm welcome earlier this afternoon. In all my 24 years of Naval service, I’ve never seen as much patriotism as we enjoyed today. Your city is beautiful,” wrote Hopper’s commanding officer, Cmdr, J.D. Gainey, in a letter to the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. “ Your positive energy was felt and cheers heard a nautical mile away.”

Hopper stopped in Homer on its way to participate in Northern Edge 2017, a joint military training exercise with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps to be held in the Gulf of Alaska and elsewhere in the state.

An ad-hoc group of veterans, service clubs and citizens organized a barbecue for Hopper’s sailors on Saturday, with the U.S. Navy brass band playing. Organizer Phil Needham said for years he “thought we should do something for those guys when they show up here. … I conspired and got some help and put together the fish fry.”

The reception also included a small protest of about 25 people from the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and the Eyak Preservation Council. They questioned holding Northern Edge exercises in May during whale migrations. One sign said “Homer welcomes the Navy, but not the time and place.”

“It’s not against the military,” said Emily Stolarcyk, director of the Eyak Preservation Council. “It’s just move the time, move the place.”

A planned arrival about 1 p.m. seemed to be on schedule, “and then they came in and did a head fake,” Needham said.

Just as the 505-foot Hopper eased up to the Deep Water Dock after a minus 4.6 low tide at 11:23 a.m., a lifeboat cannister hanging over the rail bumped the dock and cracked, and Hopper aborted the mooring. Hopper turned around and headed back out into Kachemak Bay, confusing onlookers.

Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said that a row of camels, or 6-foot wide by 10-foot long black rubber bumpers hung down the side of the dock fenders, didn’t provide enough cushion between Hopper’s steeply tapered side. With a narrow keel and a 66-foot wide beam, Hopper needed more camels to keep the narrower part of the boat away from the dock so the deck wouldn’t bump the dock. The extreme low tide complicated matters.

“I don’t think anybody on that ship has been used to looking up at a dock when they came alongside,” Hawkins said. “That’s just not normal for them.”

The Navy and harbor officials had been in constant communication over Hopper’s needs. That included a new survey of the bottom at the dock done by Navy contractors, Hawkins said. In all the communications, “they didn’t realize they needed a bigger offset than the 6-foot camel,” Hawkins said.

When USS Decatur, also an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, visited Homer in 2011, it had 8-foot camels.

“It was just communications,” Hawkins said. “I don’t fault anybody.”

As Hopper sailed around in Kachemak Bay, workers with North Star Stevedoring rigged a new set of camels, this time three of them lashed together to give a 12-foot wide offset. About 5:30 p.m., with the new camels in place, Hopper came back in and made a successful mooring.

In his letter, Gainey apologized to the people who had come to greet Hopper and had to wait.

“I appreciate this understanding as we found the most appropriate time to moor safely later this afternoon,” he wrote.

Needham said sailors came to the barbecue about 6 p.m. The afternoon event that started with preparations in the morning continued until 9 p.m.

“It was a long day for all, but it was one of those things that was worth it,” he said.

Needham said there were no political groups behind the picnic.

“It was mostly just a community thing,” he said. “Nobody really sponsored it. We just reached out to friends and community and put it together.”

At Hopper’s arrival, Mayor Bryan Zak, city council members Donna Aderhold, Shelly Erickson, David Lewis, Heath Smith and Tom Stroozas, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Kelly Cooper, City Manager Katie Koester, chamber director Karen Zak, and other officials welcomed the crew in a small ceremony on the flight deck. Navy Petty Officer Christopher Prasad, Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, re-enlisted in a ceremony on the deck, too. Gainey presented Prasad with a U.S. flag flown on Hopper.

Homer American Legion Post 16 provided a spaghetti dinner, chili feed and hamburgers every night Hopper was in port, Karen Zak said. On the chamber’s web page, members were invited to list any specials for visiting sailors, and about 80 businesses from hotels to massage therapists offered discounts. Needham said that at Captain Pattie’s, where his daughter works, he heard it was almost impossible for a sailor to pay for a meal because locals were so quick to pick up a check.

In appreciation for Homer’s goodwill, Gainey offered tours of Hopper on Sunday and Monday afternoons. About 500 showed up on Sunday. A group of West Homer Elementary School students toured Hopper on Monday, and sailors also visited local schools. Hopper has a crew of about 330, Gainey said, with about 30 percent of them women. Hopper herself is named after a pioneering woman computer scientist, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, “Amazing Grace,” as she was known. Hopper served in the Navy computing section during World War II, and then in the Naval Reserves up to age 80. She died at 86 in 1992. Hopper is credited with coining the phrase, “ a bug in the computer,” when she actually found a bug in a large mainframe computer that had caused a short.

Gainey said women have served on combat vessels for more than 30 years.

“Now they’re part of the crew,” he said of the role of women on ships. “The U.S. Navy is going to reflect the United States of America.”

DDG destroyers were the ships that launched 50 cruise missiles against Syria last month in retaliation for chemical warfare attacks. The Swiss Army knife of the Navy, DDG destroyers fight against anything that moves above, under and on the ocean. Its weapons include 90 missile cells from Tomahawk cruise missiles, standard missiles and anti-submarine missiles. A 5-inch gun at the bow packs a big punch, but Phalanx close-in weapons systems fore and aft nicknamed R2D2 — for its similarlity to the Star Wars robot — serve as anti-missile, anti-aircraft and anti-boat defense. Hopper also has an array of torpedoes.

As lethal as her weaponry might be, “It’s not the ship that’s lethal. It’s the crew,” Gainey said.

Zak said she felt Homer showed Hopper’s crew a great time.

“I think the community did everything we could think of to make them welcome,” she said. “I think they’re going to have a very positive reflection on their time.”

Hopper returned to the bay on Wednesday to bring a crew member to shore for a personnel transfer, said Capt. Anastasia Schmidt of the Alaskan Command.

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