City Proclaims “USS Helena Day” as Namesake Sub Commander, Crew Visit
HELENA, Mont. - Five members of the USS Helena (SSN 725) visited the submarine's namesake city Sept. 26-29 to rekindle a once thriving relationship between the boat and the city it represents, Helena, Mont.
Helena’s contingent was led by Cmdr. Paul Dinius, Helena’s Commanding Officer; Master Chief Hospital Corpsman David DiPietro, Chief of the Boat; Lt. J.g. Garry Ferguson, Supply Officer; Chief Electronics Technician Jose Centeno, and Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Ivan Reyes.
Helena, the capital of Montana and a city of about 30,000, owes its existence to 19th century gold miners who came seeking their fortunes in an area called “Last Chance Gulch,” which is now home to Helena’s downtown and was the original name of the city until 1864. At that time, citizens felt the name Last Chance was too crass and decided to change it.
Helena is protected by two 5,000 feet plus mountains: Mt. Ascension and Mt. Helena, and one man-made, wooden fire tower. This tower was dubbed “The Guardian of the Gulch” and is the city’s most prominent icon. The 25-foot structure was built in 1876 after a huge fire destroyed the downtown area. “The Guardian of the Gulch” was manned around the clock until 1931 to keep watch over the city. If a fire was spotted, an alarm was sounded to alert the town to begin fighting the fire.
Descending upon Helena with varied expectations, the delegation found Helena to be a gorgeous place surrounded by miles of untouched land. Looking out the window of the plane upon approach, Reyes described what he saw. “You could see the valley in which the charming town resided amidst the mountains of the Continental Divide that soared around it. I’m a big city guy,” he added, “but I was still amazed at the sight!”
After hitting the tarmac, the group was promptly received by Helena Mayor Jim Smith, city commissioners, the city manager and a handful of other key players, where they enjoyed refreshments and introduced themselves during a brief “meet and greet” session at the airport. Besides introductions, the sailors also discussed topics, such as the nature of their jobs onboard the submarine, favorite deployment destinations and uniform elements. They also fielded a myriad of questions. This type of encounter proved typical throughout the visit.
When introductions were complete ,the sailors realized they were among many who had stood in their shoes before, having several years of prior military experience themselves which turned out to be a microcosm of the city’s relatively large populace of prior service members.
Dinius, commented, “You can’t turn around without bumping into a veteran in this town.”
The next two days held even more opportunities for the submarine’s delegation to immerse itself in the community. The delegation toured Carroll College, a private Catholic school in Helena, and addressed cadets of its Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit, They also observed the dedication of a new band shell mural at Memorial Park, met with the city’s Youth Indian Alliance, attended and addressed principal city personnel and attendees of the regular city commission meeting, visited Anchor Park, which housed the screw of the former USS Helena (CA 75) among other ship relics, toured Summit Aeronautics Group, then returned to the City-County Building Sept. 28 in the evening, where Mayor Smith proclaimed that date “USS HELENA Day” in the city. The proclamation was received over dinner later that evening at the Green Meadow Country Club outside of town.
Afterwards DiPietro discussed the highlights of the visit. “The entire visit was a highlight! But if I had to pick out one thing, I would say the best part of the trip was seeing the presentation of honorary submarine dolphins to Mayor Smith from the Captain.”
The presentation of submarine dolphins came during the city commission meeting Sept. 27. After Dinius spoke to those in attendance about submarine service and, specifically, Helena and her crew, the gold dolphins were pinned on the Mayor’s lapel. "Dolphins" are a submarine warfare insignia worn by enlisted and officers that signifies a Sailor is proficient in using all the systems aboard the submarine.
The proclamation of “USS Helena Day” by Mayor Smith was an equally honorable event. The sailors stood and were recognized as the Mayor proudly spoke of the delegation and the crew it represented.
As the trip wound down, the sailors left with a feeling that Helena was a long since tapped wealth of warmth, hospitality and pride for the ship and crewmembers that represent it. Such an impression was left by the city on the sailors that they intend to change the ship’s emblem to incorporate the iconic likeness of the aforementioned Guardian of the Gulch.
“For so long the name Helena was just a city’s name on a correspondence and various other items. But after visiting the city I’m now able to associate names, faces and places with the name Helena and I’m extremely proud to represent it all,” said Commander Dinius. Similar sentiments were echoed by the others.
Ultimately, the Helena delegation accomplished exactly what they set out to do. The intent was to gain as much exposure within the community as possible in order to remind people that they had a submarine out there representing their wonderful community. In doing so, the USS Helena and its city reestablished their bond and plan to enhance it with future and fare more frequent visits.
Helena, a Los Angeles Class, fast-attack submarine, is currently homeported at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine completing an 18 month engineered overhaul.