KEVIN LEININGER: Ever hear of the USS Fort Wayne? Neither has anybody else, and maybe we should try to change that

The only USS Fort Wayne in naval history wasn't too impressive or memorable. Can't we do better? (Courtesy photo)
This cruiser, sunk during the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942, is one of four USS Vincennes in naval history. (Courtesy photo)
This cruiser, one of four ships named after Indianapolis, was sunk by the Japanese in 1945 and represents the greatest single loss of life at sea in U.S. Navy history. (Courtesy photo)
This USS Evansville, one of two, was a frigate that served in World War II and Korea. (Courtesy photo)
The next USS Indianapolis will be a "littoral combat ship" like this one. (Courtesy photo)
This USS Indiana, launched in 1895, was America's first battleship. (Courtesy photo)
This nuclear submarine recently became the fourth USS Indiana. (Courtesy photo)
Jim Banks
Kevin Leininger

So far as I can tell, just one ship has been named “USS Fort Wayne” in the entire 243-year history of the United States Navy — a dumpy 12,000-ton World War I-era freighter so irrelevant it isn’t even included in an online list of 46 Indiana-related naval vessels.

The state’s second-largest city obviously deserves better, and not just because last week’s delivery of a new nuclear attack submarine gave the Navy its fourth USS Indiana.

Granted, one of the ships named for the Hoosier state was an under-construction battleship scrapped in 1924 under terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. But three is still much better than one, and some Indiana cities and places have done even better than that.

Indianapolis is larger than Fort Wayne and the state capital, so maybe I shouldn’t begrudge it being the namesake of not one, not two, not three but four ships: a cargo ship decommissioned in 1919, an attack sub in commission between 1980 and 1998, a planned “littoral combat ship” and the most famous of all: a heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine during World War II after delivering components of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb in 1945.

But what’s so great about Vincennes that it should also have four ships named in its honor?

Sure, it’s the oldest European settlement in Indiana and, to be fair, the latest USS Vincennes (a guided missile cruiser decommissioned in 2005) was named not for the city but for the 1779 battle that made George Rogers Clark a Hoosier legend. Still, the city with a population of less than 20,000 people has managed to have three ships named after it: an 18-gun wooden sloop sold in 1867; a cruiser sunk in 1942 and another cruiser that served from 1944 to 1946.

And it the list of places smaller or more obscure than Fort Wayne getting more love from the Navy hardly stops there. There have been two USS Evansvilles: a World War II tank landing ship and a frigate that served between 1944 and 1953. Freighters named for Elkhart County and South Bend also served during World War II. The landing tank ship USS Jefferson County, launched in 1944, was named for 25 counties, including the one in Indiana. USS DeKalb county, a similar ship launched about the same time, honors counties in Indiana and five other states. Other multiple counties are similarly honored, as are other features with no fixed address: the Wabash and Maumee rivers, for example, each have spawned four ships.

As Mayor Tom Henry is so fond of pointing out, Fort Wayne has “momentum” thanks to downtown redevelopment, a strong economy and other reasons for pride an optimism. And yet, when it comes to naval history, that pride is non-existent. Indiana was the namesake of America’s first seagoing battleship, launched in 1895. The wartime losses of the USS Indianapolis and USS Vincennes were tragic (332 Vincennes crewman died, as did more than 700 on the Indianapolis), but their service is remembered and revered, and justifiably so The sinking of the Indianapolis even provided the best scene in “Jaws.”

As for the USS Fort Wayne, which was commissioned in 1918 and decommissioned a year later before being sold to a commercial firm, her contribution to national defense seems to have been almost non-existent.

Fort Wayne has done a good job of marketing itself as a destination for business and tourism, but clearly needs to do more to market itself to the Pentagon. Under the Navy’s current guidelines, Fort Wayne could be considered as the namesake for a Littoral Combat Ship (small, stealthy vessels designed to operate near shore), but names are selected by the Secretary of the Navy — presumably at the request of others. So I put the question to some of our local representatives: Would you be willing to promote a second — and more worthy — USS Fort Wayne?

“We’d be interested in getting feedback from our citizens. If this is something a lot of people would like for us to pursue, we could possibly explore an opportunity through outreach with the Navy,” said city spokesman John Perlich.

As a former officer in the Naval Reserve, would Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, have some interest or clout? After all, as spokeswoman Andrea Palermo noted, Banks is the first district representative to serve on the House Armed Services Committee. “With all due respect to Fort Wayne, efforts for a USS Columbia City might come first,” she said, referring to Banks’ Whitley County heritage.

She was joking, yes. But given Fort Wayne’s history of naval futility, it’s not just a laughing matter. If you want to make a few waves, let the city know by calling 311 or by filling out a form https://www.cityoffortwayne.org/contact-mayor/view/form.html

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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