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Photo gallery: What it really means to be called 'plankowner'

Aug. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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Sailors aboard the submarine Minnesota conduct preventative maintenance on a torpedo tube Aug. 12. The ship will be commissioned Sept. 7 in Norfolk, Va. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)

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The Navy’s sea special program is always looking for sailors who meet pre-comm duty requirements, which are detailed in MILPERSMAN article 1306-800.
Navy Personnel Command’s website lists several “New ships” seeking sailors, including the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, the first-in-class Zumwalt destroyer, the amphibious transport dock Somerset and the amphibious assault ship America. For more information, contact your detailer or call NPC staff at 901-874-2282/3844.

ABOARD THE PRE-COMMISSIONING UNIT MINNESOTA — In a service steeped in tradition and ceremony, the title “plankowner” stands out.

The distinction goes to those sailors on a commissioning crew. It’s a rare honor and a source of pride sailors carry with them throughout their careers.

“Few things I’ve experienced in my Navy career are both as challenging and rewarding as being part of a commissioning crew,” said Master Chief Electronics Technician (Navigation) (SS) Randall Reid. “You are starting from scratch and building a team from nothing and that may sound simple, but it’s really not.”

Reid is the chief of the boat here on the Minnesota, and he will earn his second plankowner title when the attack submarine is commissioned Sept. 7 in Norfolk, Va.

Just three years ago, he watched another Virginia-class boat, the Missouri, come together.

During his tour there he served as assistant navigator and helped build a department from scratch. But now on the Minnesota, as the COB, he’s been able to have a catbird’s seat and see the entire command be assembled.

“You are putting into motion something that’s totally new to the Navy,” he said. “And that motion will still be here long after you are gone, until this ship decommissions one day.”

“Think about all the programs, collateral duties — everything a command does daily — that has to start somewhere, and it’s the pre-commissioning crew that does it. And to see both the ship and the crew assemble at the same time, come together and mesh together, and then the day comes, and here you are, operating at sea as a unit of the United States Navy. For a sailor, there’s really no feeling like that in the world.”

The term “plankowner” isn’t official, and it’s not something the Navy formally bestows on a crew member. But as long as Navy vessels head to sea, sailors will proudly brag of this distinction.

According to Naval History and Heritage Command, the certificates given to sailors denoting honor, as with other certificates such as being a shellback, given for crossing the equator, are unofficial, procured and given by the crews themselves, not the Navy.

The term dates to the days of wooden ships, when a sailor who helped build the ship would stake a claim to the planking that he, himself, nailed in place. When the ship decommissioned, that original crew member, with proper documentation, could ask for his “plank” as a memento.

Today, the term is used for anyone assigned to a Navy unit when it stands up. It can even include bases, squadrons and other shore-based units, or crews who recommission mothballed ships.

On the Minnesota, plaques are placed around the ship denoting the original crew in those spaces.

“Being a plankowner was definitely on my Navy bucket list, a box I planned to get checked someday. And it’s here,” said Chief Fire Control Technician (SS) Michael Witsil.

For him, putting a boat into commission is full circle: As a young submariner at his first command, he was on the crew that decommissioned the attack submarine Hawkbill in 2000.

“That’s the exact opposite of this experience,” he said. “It’s really a sad day.”

While dismantling that boat, he and others discovered the submarine dolphins welded to the hull. Per tradition, the first sailor on board to earn his warfare pin, signifying he is “qualified in submarines,” gets his dolphins welded to the hull at an undisclosed location. The sailor becomes part of the boat’s lore. His name is passed down through the generations of crews, and sailors are required to know who he is and when he received his pin.

Witsel and Machinist Mate (Weapons) 2nd Class (SS) James Moran, who a year ago became the first to be pinned onboard Minnesota, are still looking for the perfect place to stash Moran’s inaugural dolphins.

For Witsel, that moment will be huge — giving back to the Navy something he helped remove years before.

Moran, whose family is full of sailors and retired sailors, said being a plankowner and also the first to win dolphins at his first command will stay with him throughout his career.

“It’s a great honor on all accounts, but getting the dolphins was also a great relief,” he said. “It’s required for submarine service, so I’m glad that initial qual is behind me, and I can move on. While at the same time, I turn around and help my shipmates behind me earn theirs.”

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