At the Key West International Airport, a woman wearing a USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee t-shirt is waiting for her flight. She made the pilgrimage to the nation’s southernmost city to see her grandson, a newly minted naval officer and Higbee crewmember, taking part in the ship commissioning ceremony the day prior.
“It was inspirational,” she says. “I was so proud to be at this ceremony and support my grandson who took part in this historical event.”
The Navy commissioned its newest Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG-123), in a ceremony held at the naval pier in Key West, Florida on May 13, 2023. Among the hundreds in attendance were family members and friends of crewmembers, the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Director of the Nurse Corps and other dignitaries, as well as a throng of dedicated well-wishers.
The commissioning marked the moment the colors were first raised aboard the ship and its crewmembers could officially call themselves “plankowners.”
For those in attendance this was a rare chance to see a ship coming online and be part of an age-old tradition that extends back to the first days of the Navy when our warships had wooden hulls, carved figureheads and were powered by wind and canvas sails.
Among the supporters in attendance were Navy nurses—both retired and active duty—who made the pilgrimage in support of one of their own, the ship’s namesake Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee. As one of the “Sacred Twenty,” and later as Nurse Corps Superintendent led the Navy nurses through World War I and the Great Influenza Pandemic, Higbee is a powerful symbol of the Corps’ foundational years.
DDG-123 is only the third ship in the history of the U.S. Navy to be named after a professional nurse. And having a new warship named after a towering pioneer of the Nurse Corps is a reminder that the Corps’ legacy is stronger than ever.
“This goosebump-inducing ceremony was not only a historic moment for Navy Nurses, but a personal one for me,” said Margie Sloane, a retired Navy nurse in attendance. “When the command to ‘man this ship and bring her to life’ was delivered, it felt like the history of my service as a Navy Nurse was brought to life again.”
Sloane entered the Nurse Corps in 1968 and spent her service career working the wards of the old naval hospitals in Newport, R.I., and Chelsea, Massachusetts. Having a warship named after a fellow Navy nurse is meaningful to her, and once offered an opportunity to attend there was little question that she and her husband, retired Capt. Richard Sloane, would take the 8-hour drive from their home in Orlando.
“The terms ‘warship’ and ‘Navy nurse’ have a strong connection, in my mind,” said Sloane. “Each is prepared for combat and service and is a testimony to commitment and purpose.”
“As a Navy Nurse to see this commissioning was an honor and boosted what is an already incredible sense of pride in our Corps,” said retired Capt. Mary Mahony, the Executive Director of the Navy Nurse Corps Association (NNCA). NNCA is an organization of over 1,100 active duty and retired nurses dedicated to preserving the traditions of the Navy Nurse Corps.
The Higbee commissioning was an important event for NNCA and their members were well-represented at the ceremony. Among them was retired Capt. Alvina Harrison-Wells, a 92-year-old nurse who had served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Harrison-Wells journeyed over 1,500 miles from her home in Butler, Missouri just to be part of this special event.
In addition to active duty and retired Navy nurses, the ceremony was attended by many veterans who had served on the previous USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DD-806). Known as the “Leapin’ Lenah,” this warship was in commission from 1945 to 1979. She earned a total of eight battle stars for actions in World War II and Korea and later received six campaign stars for service in Vietnam. Among her former crewmembers in attendance was retired Rear Adm. Tim Jenkins, who served as a department head and navigator aboard DD-806 from 1962 to 1965.
“The return of Higbee to the fleet feels like a rebirth of sorts,” said Jenkins. “For over 40 years, there hasn’t been a presence of my first ship and now to have a far superior, new Leapin’ Lenah in the Navy just feels right.”
Regardless of their connection to Higbee, many of those in attendance and watching the ceremony through live stream would probably agree with Admiral Jenkins.
As the ship now sails to its homeport of San Diego it carries more than a dedicated crew working together to ensure maritime defense and keeping the seas open and free. It carries the goodwill, support and appreciation of a grateful nation who will be rooting for the ship and its crew from a distance. And if we were to judge by ceremony alone, the Higbee’s future is promising.
“Observing the fresh-faced crew and highly skilled leaders in command made me a bit emotional and extremely optimistic,” said Sloane. “I know the future [of the Navy] is bright for generations to come.”