Melinda Odermatt watches as steel is cut
NASSCO employee Melinda Odermatt and her grandson watch as the first piece of steel is cut by a robot. Photo by Chris Jennewein

The first steel was cut at General Dynamics NASSCO Thursday for the lead ship in a new class of six Navy fleet oilers named for civil rights leaders.

Melinda Odermatt, a 30-year employee at the shipyard, pressed a button to cut the first sheet of steel for the future USNS John Lewis, named for the civil rights leader and Congressman from Georgia.

The new ships will be 741 feet long and be able to carry 157,245 barrels of fuel plus large amounts of dry cargo. Their mission is to replenish Navy ships while underway.

John Lewis-class oiler
Rendering of a John Lewis class oiler. Courtesy NASSCO

NASSCO President Kevin Graney said the ships represent the first “clean sheet design” by the shipyard in 17 years.

“This really is a significant and historic event for the Navy,” said John Lighthammer, the Navy’s principal assistant program manager for the oiler fleet. “I congratulate all of NASSCO and its employees.”

Hundreds of employees from NASSCO’s engineering, design, supply and planning departments gathered at the shipyard in Barrio Logan to witness the ceremonial cutting.

The future USNS John Lewis will be completed in November 2020, and all six ships in the class by 2023.

“We want to get to a footing where every six months we’re starting a new hull,” Graney said.

All of the ships in the class will be named for Americans who have been instrumental in the civil rights struggle, with the John Lewis followed by the Harvey Milk, Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth.

Graney said it was appropriate for the ships to be built at NASSCO because it has the most diverse workforce of any large shipyard.

He thanked NASSCO employees by quoting Lewis as saying, “When we come together with a mission and a sense of community, we can make the impossible possible.”

NASSCO President Kevin Graney addresses employees
NASSCO President Kevin Graney addresses employees at the shipyard prior to the start of construction. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.