Key West will return to its nostalgic days as a Navy town this weekend when it rolls out the red, er, blue, carpet for the nation's newest warship and her 280 proud sailors.
The 510-foot, 9,200-ton USS Spruance will sail into Key West Friday afternoon, touching off a week of pomp and pageantry to herald the ship's Oct. 1 commissioning. The ship is the first naval vessel to be formally commissioned in the island city that has hosted countless military vessels, aircraft and personnel throughout its storied history.
With flags proudly flying and its crew lined up along the rails, the Spruance will navigate Key West's main ship channel about 2 p.m. Friday and dock at the Navy's Mole Pier. The best view of its arrival will be from Fort Zachary Taylor and the Truman Waterfront area, and the public is encouraged to welcome the ship and its crew upon arrival, said Trice Denny, public affairs specialist for Naval Air Station Key West.
Private vessels may also welcome the Spruance from the water, but will be asked to adhere to safety distances established and enforced by the Navy and Coast Guard.
"It's going to be a really nice week. These sailors will remember this for the rest of their lives," Denny said. "The Navy always wants the sailors to have fond memories of the commissioning, and it's kind of like an adoption of the ship by the city of Key West."
Cmdr. Michael Westbrook, commanding officer of the Spruance, said he wanted a location where the crew and their families "would have the best time on liberty, and Key West was the first choice from the start," he said, adding that the presence of Naval Air Station Key West also contributed to his decision. "Since Adm. Spruance was a surface warfare officer who truly understood and effectively employed the power of naval aviation, conducting the commissioning that also highlights aviation is particularly appropriate during 2011, the centennial of naval aviation."
The Secretary of the Navy, who has final say, immediately approved Westbrook's request for the commissioning to be held in Key West.
Invitations and tickets for the Oct. 1 commissioning have already been sent and approved, and anyone without a ticket will not be admitted to the ceremony on the Outer Mole, Denny said, but the ship will be open for public tours from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and again on Sept. 30. No reservations are required. Anyone interested in touring the destroyer should meet at the gate behind the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center on Truman Waterfront for transportation to the secure area.
"Keep in mind, this is a brand-new warship, so certainly security measures will be in place," Denny said, adding that the touring public should bring a photo ID, wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to have their bags searched.
Spruance sailors and their families will be taking advantage of Key West's activities and weather, and groups of about 50 sailors will spend time next week volunteering at local nonprofits for community relations projects, Denny said.
Sailors will help with Habitat for Humanity, the Key West Wildlife Center, Florida Keys Outreach Coalition for the Homeless and Sigsbee Charter School before sailing away Oct. 3 to begin the voyages that will take the Spruance around the world.