People stared and waved as the men in khaki strolled through the Downtown Helena Walking Mall.
Dressed in impeccable Navy uniforms, a four-member delegation from the USS Helena chatted with Mayor Jim Smith as they followed him toward Anchor Park, cameras in hand. Though they were nearing the end of the short visit to their submarine’s namesake city, there were still things to see.
It’s been about a decade since the last time a group from the ship visited Helena. Ever since the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed, the submarine’s crew has been preoccupied with other things, said Cmdr. Paul Dinius. But with the vessel in the midst of a major overhaul in a naval shipyard in Maine, a few of its members could take some time to make the trip.
The nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine took to the water in 1987 and is the fourth ship to bear the city of Helena’s name. During a laidback ceremony in the commission chambers Tuesday afternoon, Smith officially declared Sept. 28, 201o, “USS Helena Day.”
Former Mayor Russ Ritter talked the small audience through some aspects of the ship’s history as they watched footage from the day the submarine was christened.
Though Ritter was humble about his involvement in advocating for the ship’s name, Smith noted that the longtime mayor had worked hard to navigate through the political processes necessary to designate another USS Helena. Ritter said he had corresponded with members of the federal government and Navy before he was told he would receive a letter informing the city that the name had been chosen — and advised to ignore the first letter that would tell him otherwise.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I guess,” Ritter said.
“And you didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, either,” Smith added.
The USS Helena’s upgrades are on schedule to be completed next April and after that, the submariners will move to a home port in Norfolk, Va., Dinius said. The crew has been setting out on seven-month deployments, he said, and its next destination has not yet been determined. Prior to the maintenance work, the ship had been deployed in the western Pacific, he said.
There are about 150 crew members on the submarine, Dinius said, each tasked with jobs within one of three broad categories — engineering, navigation and radio communication, or weapons systems management. The submarine is equipped with such weaponry as MK-48 torpedoes.
The USS Helena visitors arrived in town Sunday. Aside from Dinius — who’s been the submarine’s commanding officer for about a year — the delegation included Master Chief Petty Officer David DiPietro, Petty Officer 1st Class Ivan Reyes and Lt. Garry Ferguson.
During their trip, they toured Summit Aeronautics, attended the dedication of the new band shell mural in Memorial Park, met with Carroll College ROTC cadets and Indian Alliance youth and dined with various city officials. They also made an appearance at the Helena City Commission’s regular Monday night meeting, where they presented Smith with an honorary submarine dolphin badge.
Dinius described Helena as a “fantastic place” where the crew has received warm recognition from the individuals they’ve encountered.
“The people are what make the city,” he said.
During the Monday night meeting, Dinius noted that he’d become fascinated with the city’s iconic Guardian of the Gulch fire tower and hoped to design a new emblem for the submarine that would incorporate the structure’s likeness.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org