US Navy in Grand Forks promoting USS North Dakota

Associated Press
The USS North Dakota: The Virginia-class attack submarine (like this one pictured here) is under construction on the East Coast and is scheduled to join the fleet in 2014, a year after another Virginia-class boat takes to the seas: the USS Minnesota.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — About as far from deep water as they can be, a submarine executive officer and his sub's engineering master chief will be in Grand Forks Thursday to talk up their $2.6 billion, nuclear-powered boat, only the second in the U.S. Navy to carry its proud name: USS North Dakota.

The Virginia-class attack submarine is under construction on the East Coast and is scheduled to join the fleet in 2014, a year after another Virginia-class boat takes to the seas: the USS Minnesota.

"It's an incredibly big deal, a $2.6 billion boat that's going to carry the name of North Dakota around the world," said Robert Wefald, a former state attorney general and district court judge who spearheaded the naming campaign.

"It will operate for 33 years without refueling, the most advanced naval vessel in the world when it's launched," he said.

Wefald, who served in the Navy for three years during the Vietnam era and later served 24 years in the Naval Reserve, literally nagged Navy officials and members of the state's congressional delegation to put the state's name on another ship.

The first USS North Dakota, an all-big-gun "dreadnought" style battleship, was built early in the last century as the United States joined Great Britain, Germany and other nations in a naval arms race. Commissioned in 1910, USS North Dakota delivered troops and participated in training exercises during World War I but was not involved in combat. It was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1931.

When he left the attorney general's office in 1985 and went back to private law practice, Wefald prodded Bismarck civic leaders into taking up the cause of getting another Navy ship named for the state.

"That began a 23-year campaign," he said, which included writing letters once or twice a year to the Secretary of the Navy and North Dakota's representatives in Congress.

"Finally, in about 2008, I wrote my annual 'Dear Byron, Kent and Earl' letters" to then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, Sen. Kent Conrad and then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy, all Democrats. Wefald is a Republican.

"You need to get this done," he wrote, adding — with tongue in cheek, goading the three men who liked to style themselves as "Team North Dakota" — that they should "show a little clout."

Dorgan responded, also with tongue in cheek, assuring Wefald that the campaign for a new USS North Dakota was on — and adding that he could maybe pull a few strings and get Wefald back on active duty.

Later that year, the Navy secretary announced that the first nuclear-powered attack submarine in a new series of Virginia-class subs would be named USS North Dakota.

As construction on the boat proceeded in Groton, Conn., and Newport News, Va., Wefald and others brought officers and men assigned to the boat to North Dakota to strengthen the bond. On Thursday, Lt. Cmdr. Kristopher Lancaster, the designated executive officer, and Master Chief Machinist's Mate James Lucky will make several presentations in Grand Forks, including an 11:30 a.m. news conference and lunch at the Ramada Inn.

The two crew members also will participate in Saturday's UND Homecoming parade and in pre-game ceremonies at the football game.

Wefald said state backers of the project hope to raise money for the boat's christening ceremony and to "keep a lifelong relationship between the boat and the state."

Some critics have challenged the need for or cost of the North Dakota and several more Virginia-class subs in or soon to be in production. But Wefald said the boat will serve a vital role.

"We have an obligation to defend ourselves," he said. "The two biggest allies we've had throughout our history are the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. We need to keep those safe. USS North Dakota will be out there for 33 years, defending those oceans and making sure nobody comes to attack us."