Although many are familiar with the historic battleship moored in Wilmington, the USS North Carolina BB55, they may be surprised to know there is also a Virginia-class fast-attack nuclear submarine that bears the name of the state, the USS North Carolina SSN 777.
The submarine was commissioned in 2008 in Wilmington and is based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with a crew of 130. Some of the crew are North Carolina natives, including its commander, Capt. Gary Montalvo.
Montalvo was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Durham, where he attended the School of Science and Mathematics. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 and worked on three other submarines before becoming captain of the North Carolina.
Montalvo was back in the state this week, along with Chief of the Boat J.R. O’Donnell and other crew members in an effort to re-establish a relationship with the state that has been lost because of the distance from the ship’s home port. They met with Attorney General Roy Cooper, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Durham Mayor Bill Bell, among other leaders, to connect with the state. They had hoped to meet with Gov. Pat McCrory but were unable to because of scheduling conflicts.
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Montalvo is aware of what he described as “the tyranny of distance” that has left many North Carolinians unaware of his ship’s existence. He described a telling encounter during the visit.
“We were checking out of a parking lot the other day and the tenant took our ticket, thanked us for our service and then said to us, ‘What ship are you on,’” he said. “We said the North Carolina. He said, ‘Well, I’m glad they got some money to repair that ship,’” a reference to the restoration of the battleship.
Montalvo expresses respect for the USS North Carolina Battleship in Wilmington and the state’s relationship with it. The people of North Carolina raised money to buy the ship from the federal government in 1961 to prevent it from being scrapped.
“That, in my opinion, is the gold standard of a relationship between a ship with the name and the namesake, the state,” Montalvo said. “I’m hoping to start building that, and I think step one is just informing the public that there is another North Carolina, and it’s actually operating right now, conducting deployments and missions in support of the defense of our country.”
Chief Petty Officer Mark Shelly, who was born at Fort Bragg, and three other members of the crew visited the Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill and met with Mayor Bell. Montalvo hopes to host representatives from the state in Hawaii to see the rest of the crew.
“Just to get some representatives so that when we do events for the ship the crew can see that the state is a part of them,” Montalvo said. He anticipates making more visits to North Carolina.
The North Carolina recently returned in March from a six-month deployment in the Western Pacific, where the ship received the 2015 Battle Efficiency, or Battle “E” award.
“It essentially says that the North Carolina is the best ship in our squadron,” O’Donnell said.
Montalvo praised his crew, saying that the award means that among 10 other submarine crews, “we were the best.” He wants the people of North Carolina to know that.
“The SSN 777 is the warship with your name in Pearl Harbor, doing great things for your country,” he said.
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