Aboard the USS Somerset, daily inspiration from Flight 93

By Walter G. Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Any Navy crew has pride in its ship, but there is a special sense of pride and duty among the crew of the USS Somerset. This feeling is even stronger for the Pennsylvanians on board.

Each of the 9/11 ships has this shield, incorporating visual elements of the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and Flight 93. (photo Walter G. Meyer)

Each of the 9/11 ships has this shield, incorporating visual elements of the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and Flight 93. (photo Walter G. Meyer)

The Somerset is the third of the three San Antonio Class LPDs — the acronym stands for Landing Platform/​Dock — named for the September 11 attacks. The USS New York has steel from the World Trade Center, the USS Arlington has pieces of the Pentagon, and to build the USS Somerset, workers melted down a crane that was a landmark near the Flight 93 crash site, where all 40 crew members and passengers died.

But the Somerset has much more than steel to connect the ship to Flight 93 and rural southwestern Pennsylvania. The ship’s commander, Capt. Lennie Reed, said, “Frankly, it’s a little easier to command this ship because of the evidence of Flight 93 and the sacrifice of the passengers. You can’t go into a space pretty much that doesn’t have a ‘93’ or a reminder. Our sacrifice compared to that is pretty minimal.” Capt. Reed is from Gambrills, Md., about a three-hour drive from Somerset, and he feels a bit of a connection there and to the attack on the Pentagon after having spent time there.

His new ship is special. “We’ve got Flight 93 we’re named in honor of, but then there’s also Somerset County, which I think of as any county in the United States. You have your Shanksville Fire Department, your maple syrup, the maple decking that they donated that is used on the quarterdeck, and then you have all the street signs. It’s sort of an informal way to represent any county in America. We’re maybe the only ship that does that.”

Instead of being numbered as on other ships, the passageways bear actual street signs donated by municipalities in Somerset County. “The street signs help for finding my way around the ship,” said Cmdr. Chris Marvin, the ship’s executive officer and one of the newer members of the crew. He is from the tiny town of Athens, Bradford County, “a stone’s throw” from the New York border. Cmdr. Marvin graduated from Penn State University in 1996; the Somerset is his sixth ship and his sixth different class of ship.

The street signs are matched to the appropriate parts of the ship: The galley is on Turkeyfoot Road; Commissary Road is where you’ll find ATMs and a convenience store.

There are reminders of Somerset County everywhere: In the enlisted mess decks, there are memorials to the four men from the county who won the Medal of Honor, going back to the Civil War. The bookcases in the small Flight 93 museum on board were made in Somerset County from local trees.

But it is the connection to the heroes — and on board they are always referred to as heroes — of Flight 93 that the crew and visitors to the ship find most moving.

Slogan above the USS Somerset flight deck

Slogan above the USS Somerset flight deck

Painted above the flight deck is “Let’s roll,” the last words of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer heard by a phone operator before passengers stormed the cockpit and prevented the hijacked United Airlines plane from reaching its intended target, either the Capitol or the White House. The hijackers steered the plane into the ground after the cockpit door was breached.

A quilt has squares made by the family or friends of each of the heroes and the ramp up from the well deck lists their names.

Ensign Leighton Rodrigo is from Warminster, Bucks County. “When I found out I was going to be on the Somerset, it definitely struck a note, being from Philly. The knowledge that this is a ship named for 9/​11, it justifies what I do every day, gives me a purpose.” Citing the quote attributed to Edmund Burke, “ ‘The only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ What happened in Somerset justifies what we do.”

The LPD is an amphibious transport dock, and the Somerset is a versatile ship. It can transport up to 800 Marines fully equipped for combat. The flight deck can accommodate two large vertical take-off Ospreys or six smaller helicopters. The well deck can be flooded to take on landing craft and launch them toward a beachhead.

There is a full hospital on board, which in addition to the supplies for the Marines, makes the ship ideal for what Capt. Reed called HADR: humanitarian and disaster relief. “That is probably what we will get used for more than anything else — immediate response. We have a full hospital and about 20 corpsmen, and we can go anywhere and help anyone. In peacetime, that’s what we do.” LPDs were instrumental in the U.S. response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Capt. Reed adds, “Then there is the fact that we can deliver a battalion of Marines anywhere in the world that they’re needed, so carrying that big stick is helpful as well.”

The Somerset was built in New Orleans and taken to Philadelphia for its commissioning March 1. It was the first ship commissioned there since 2009. A Pennsylvania location was requested by the ship’s crew and command to further connect it to its namesake, according to Ensign Daniel Williams, the public affairs officer for the Somerset.

“We had the largest VIP section of any commissioning,” Ensign Williams said. In three days of tours in Philadelphia, 18,000 people visited the ship. The families and friends of many who were aboard Flight 93 were able to visit the ship, along with dignitaries from Somerset County and most of the Shanksville Fire Department, the first responders to the Flight 93 crash.

Boatswain’s mate James Zendarski grew up in Nanticoke, Luzerne County, and used to travel to Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins play. The Somerset is his first ship, and he said he’s proud to be serving aboard it. “Having it commissioned in Philadelphia right outside my home, it’s kind of a good feeling.” His family, like that of Capt. Reed and the other Pennsylvanians in the crew, attended the commissioning.

After commissioning, the Somerset made her way through the Panama Canal to her current duty station at Naval Base San Diego.

Cmdr. Marvin finds special meaning in the three 9/​11 ships. “They represent their location but also represent 9/​11 as a whole. Each individually because that event manifested itself quite differently across three different locations: New York, with the impact of the metropolitan area — the herculean effort that the police department and the firefighters of New York put forward there. Similarly, the Pentagon — that hit the military family as a whole. Then, of course, Somerset … There was a group of American citizens. And in speaking about it — you can hear it in my voice now — I get emotional talking about it.”

“The expectation of heroism is there for your public servants. It always is. And the military, the same thing. There is an expectation of selfless service and valor. But with Flight 93, what you realize is that where it may seem that valor is uncommon, I would disagree with that … You will find that uncommon valor actually is very common. So that is the story of the trifecta of these three ships. In my mind, it kind of captured beautifully the people who serve the public every day, the people who defend our freedom abroad and people in general.”

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