BALTIMORE, Md. (Army News Service, Sept. 16, 2007) - The logistics support vessel Major General Robert Smalls (LSV-8) - the first Army vessel named for an African American - was inducted into the Army's watercraft fleet yesterday during a commissioning ceremony at Baltimore's historic Inner Harbor.
The 314-foot long, 5,412-ton vessel officially joined the Army Reserve's 203rd Transportation Detachment as more than 300 guests looked on. Smalls is the second of two improved LSVs based on the six earlier Gen. Frank S. Besson-class vessels. Her sistership, Staff Sgt. Robert T. Kuroda, LSV-7, joined the Reserve's Honolulu-based 548th Trans. Det. in October 2006.
Among the dignitaries attending yesterday's commissioning were Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve; Maj. Gen. William Monk III, commander of the Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Sustainment Command; Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, the Army's chief of transportation; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District; and Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina's 6th Congressional District.
Built by VT Halter Marine in Moss Point, Miss., and christened in April 2004, LSV-8 is named in honor of Robert Smalls. As a 23-year-old slave during the Civil War he commandeered a Confederate transport steamer loaded with armaments and used the vessel to spirit his wife, children and 12 other slaves to freedom. Hailed as a hero by Union leaders, Robert Smalls went on to become the first African-American to captain a vessel in U.S. service and later served as a major general in the South Carolina militia, a state legislator, a five-term member of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, S.C.
That LSV-8 bears Maj. Gen. Smalls' name is due largely to the efforts of Kitt Haley Alexander, a writer and artist who spearheaded a seven-year effort to have an American military vessel named after the Civil War hero.
"I knew that this man deserved more recognition from this nation," she said, "and I first approached the Navy about naming a ship after him. After that didn't work out I ended up sitting near the Army's chief of military history at a social function and, after speaking with him later, he said that Robert Smalls' service in the militia might allow the Army to name a vessel after him." After a lengthy verification process, the Civil War hero was ultimately selected to give his name to the vessel.
Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls and the other seven LSVs currently in Army service are designed to provide worldwide transport of general and vehicular cargo. Fitted with huge bow and stern loading ramps, the ships each boast a 10,500-square-foot central cargo deck large enough to hold up to 24 M-1 Abrams main battle tanks.
The Kuroda and Smalls - launched in 2003 and 2004, respectively - are updated variants of the six earlier Besson-class LSVs and incorporate improved bow ramps, upgraded communication and navigation systems, and a host of other refinements.
The vessels in the Army's watercraft fleet range in size from small workboats to the LSVs, according to U.S. Army Transportation Corps officials. Army vessels have participated in each of the nation's conflicts since the Revolutionary War, and currently play a vital role in supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as participating in humanitarian-relief efforts in the Pacific and Caribbean.
"This is a tremendously capable vessel, and we're very fortunate to have such an asset in the Army and the Army Reserve," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steven C. Brown, commander of the 203rd Trans. Det. and LSV-8's vessel master. "We've trained very hard to bring this ship into the Army's fleet, and this commissioning ceremony is a way of saying that Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls and her crew are ready to undertake their wartime missions."
"This is a great day, and one I will never forget," said Freddy Meyer, great great grandson of Maj. Gen. Smalls and one of many of the former slave's descendents on hand for the ceremony. "Maj. Gen. Smalls was a renaissance man - an educator, a politician, a Soldier, a businessman and a family man, and the Army could not have picked a better person to name this ship after."
Mr. Meyer and several other Smalls family members were aboard the vessel when she first arrived in Maryland, and had the opportunity to get to know many of the crewmembers.
"I know that these Soldiers will be an excellent crew for this great vessel," he said. "They're smart and professional, and they're very mindful of the kind of man Robert Smalls was, and what he stood for. This ship could not be in better hands."
(Steve Harding is managing editor for "Soldiers" magazine.)