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USS Illinois Sailors Spending Thanksgiving in Oswego

Nov 24, 2015 02:17PM ● Published by Shannon Antinori

The USS Illinois is only the second Navy ship to be named for the Land of Lincoln. The ship's commissioning committee was formed by the Aurora Council of the Navy League. (Photo courtesy of www.ussillinois.org)

Sailors from the USS Illinois won’t have to eat their turkey dinner in a Navy chow hall this Thanksgiving, thanks to members of their ship’s commissioning committee.

More than a year ago, the Aurora Council of the Navy League created a committee to commission the nuclear submarine, which is the first Navy ship to be named for Illinois since 1897. The submarine is under construction in Groton, Connecticut, and the commissioning committee has dedicated itself to helping support its crew and their families while the sailors wait for the ship to be commissioned.

Now, nine families in area towns including Oswego, Naperville and Aurora will welcome sailors into their homes for Thanksgiving before a whirlwind tour of Chicago.

USS Illinois Commissioning Committee chairman Capt. Leonard R. Wass, U.S. Navy (Ret) of Oswego, said the idea came from a committee member who wanted to do something for single sailors who don’t have wives and families.

“We decided to bring the single crew members to the Chicago area,” said Wass. “They’ll be treated to being part of the family, rather than staying in Connecticut and going to a pretty sterile chow hall.”

The sailors are scheduled to arrive in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. They will stay with their local host families until Friday, when they’ll head to the Union League Club of Chicago to be joined by two of their chief petty officers.

A member of the USS Illinois Commissioning Committee will also take the crew to the Museum of Science and Industry to tour the Navy exhibit, including a U-505 submarine captured from the Nazis during World War II. Wass said the sailors will also take in a comedy show at Second City on Friday night.

On Saturday, the sailors will make an appearance on the field at Soldier Field during the Northwestern vs. University of Illinois game.

According to Wass, the commissioning league isn’t taking sides at the game.

“We’re going to cheer for both Northwestern and Illinois,” Wass joked. “We’re representing the whole state.”

The USS Illinois sailors are scheduled to fly back to Connecticut on Sunday, Wass said.

Navy sub makes history

According to Wass, the USS Illinois is only the second Navy ship to be named for the Land of Lincoln and the first in more than a century.

The last USS Illinois was built in 1897 and went on to circumnavigate the globe as part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” from December 1907 to February 1909. During the World Wars, construction began on two more USS Illinois battleships, but was never completed. Once World War II ended, the ships were scrapped, Wass said.

Construction on the new USS Illinois nuclear sub began in 2011 in Groton, Connecticut. Wass said the sub’s commanding officer reached out to the Aurora Council of the Navy League more than a year ago, saying the ship was in need of a commissioning committee.

“We didn’t even know there was a USS Illinois being built, said Wass, who is a retired Navy captain and nuclear submarine officer.

The Navy League came on board to form a committee, with duties including spreading the world about the sub to the people of Illinois. Since the ship receives no government funding until it is commissioned, the committee has an even more important role in helping to support the crew and their families until construction on the sub is completed.

In October, the commissioning committee also hosted a christening ceremony for the sub, which is due to be completed in February 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama did the honors by officially christening the ship, calling it a “technological wonder” complete with infrared cameras and advanced stealth, sonar and communications systems, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The $2.7 billion submarine is expected to begin its sea trials early next year before being accepted as an official warship in the Navy fleet next summer, according to Wass.

“You’re talking about a three-story building that’s 1 and 1/3 football fields long, so this is a big submarine,” he said.  

Wass said the commissioning committee has also pledged to support the ship for its 35-year life in the Navy.

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