Tar Heel commander, crew of USS North Carolina visit Wilmington

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Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, left, listens as U.S. Navy Commander Gary Montalvo, commanding officer of the submarine USS North Carolina, talks to city officials. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, left, listens as U.S. Navy Commander Gary Montalvo, commanding officer of the submarine USS North Carolina, talks to city officials. Photos by Hannah Leyva.

On May 3, 2008, United States Navy Officer Gary Montalvo visited Wilmington for the first time to see the USS North Carolina (SSN – 777), a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, get commissioned in its namesake state.

“I was able to get several tickets and bring my whole family down here,” said the Durham-raised Montalvo, who was serving shore duty in Washington, D.C. at the time. “My dad kind of joked that I might get to command the ship one day, but I just laughed him off. I wasn’t even up for being a commanding officer at the time, I was just in line to be an executive officer.

“In other words,” Montalvo said. “It was a long shot.”

Fast forward eight years, and Montalvo, who has since reached the rank of commander in the U.S. Navy, returned to the Port City Tuesday as the commanding officer of the submarine he first saw on that May day.

“I’ve been very lucky and blessed,” said Montalvo, who has been in charge of the sub for about two years.

The USS North Carolina – the fourth Navy ship named after the Tar Heel State – has had four commanding officers since it has been in service, according to Montalvo. But Montalvo is the first with roots in the state.

Though he was born in Puerto Rico, his family moved to Durham, where he grew up and went to school. A huge UNC–Chapel Hill fan, he considered going there before choosing the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but still has a lot of pride for his home state, a pride he shares with his crew.

“They know that it’s important to represent the state and people of North Carolina well,” Montalvo said, adding that touring the state over the last few days has helped that message sink in with the five other men he brought with him. “They’ve seen the support from every place we’ve been to and gotten a better understanding of what it’s like here.”

Mayor Bill Saffo, left, meets with the crew and commanding officer Gary Montalvo, right, of the submarine USS North Carolina. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Mayor Bill Saffo, left, meets with the crew and commanding officer Gary Montalvo, right, of the submarine USS North Carolina.

Mayor Bill Saffo, who helped bring the submarine to Wilmington for its commissioning ceremony (it was the first time a ship had been commissioned in the state) and presided over the event as Wilmington’s top elected official, said he was proud of the way the submarine’s command and crew represented their namesake.

“When the sub was commissioned here, the commanding officers promised to keep up an interaction between them and the city, and they’ve kept that promise,” Saffo said. “They’ve always come back to let us know how they’re doing and to help out in the community any way they can.”

Both Montalvo and Saffo said the success of the USS North Carolina crew–which earlier this year was named one of the winners of the Pacific Submarine Force 2015 Battle Efficiency competition for battle readiness–shows the nation’s future is bright.

“A lot of people worry about the youth of our country, but I don’t, because I work with these guys every day,” said Montalvo, adding that, at 40, he is the oldest person on the sub. “It’s no doubt a young man’s business. These are 25-, 26-, 27-year-old guys controlling the ship and making sure it doesn’t sink, and I can’t say enough about the great job they do … In my eyes, that shows our future is bright.”

Saffo agreed, saying they set a good example.

“Imagine that $3.2 billion nuclear sub being handled so well by those young guys? Incredible,” said Saffo, who took a tour of the vessel before the 2008 ceremony. “They are excellent representatives of the community and the state, and I wish the public could really see all they do to defend our country.”

The commander and crew of the submarine USS North Carolina present a certificate to the mayor and city council members of Wilmington. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
The commander and crew of the submarine USS North Carolina present a certificate to the mayor and city council members of Wilmington. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

The USS North Carolina, which can carry 150 to 160 crew members on a fully loaded deployment, is based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and recently returned from a six-month tour in the western Pacific that included stops in Japan, South Korea and Guam. It is now undergoing routine maintenance and will be in port for two years before its next deployment. Though it still has many years of service life left, Saffo already has ideas for its permanent home in retirement.

“When it’s decommissioned in 40 to 60 years, I’d like to see it brought back here to Wilmington and parked next to the other USS [Battleship] North Carolina,” Saffo said. “We’ve got a place ready for it.”

Councilman Paul Lawler, who was also in attendance along with Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes, had a different idea.

“We need a new way to bring the Azalea Queen to town,” Lawler suggested. “That would be the way to go.”

Hannah Leyva is a reporter for Port City Daily. Reach her at hannah.l@portcitydaily.com.

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