Setting sail

Wichitans asked to help support new ship bearing city’s name

By Joe Stumpe

A new Navy ship called the USS Wichita will soon be patrolling foreign seas, and a retired rear admiral from Derby is raising money in support of its sailors.

“I like to tell people Mayor (Jeff) Longwell ‘voluntold’ me for this opportunity,” Jeffrey Penfield joked during an appearance before the Sunrise Rotary Club at Rolling Hills Country Club.

But the gregarious 34-year Navy veteran, who now makes his home in Kansas City, is serious about the fundraising effort.

“There will be generations of sailors on that ship. It’s all about taking care of these men and women.”

The USS Wichita is scheduled to be commissioned during a Jan. 12 ceremony at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., near Jacksonville. It’s what’s known as a “littoral combat ship” designed to perform numerous tasks – from minesweeping and sub hunting to humanitarian aid and piracy defense – in shallow coastal waters called “littorals.” Its crew will number about 100.

The Navy outfits the ship with “basic creature comforts,” Penfield noted. It’s the goal of the USS Wichita Commissioning Committee, which Penfield chairs, to provide the crew with exercise equipment, televisions, video games and even college scholarships.

Penfield shared his own story of Navy service, starting with his background as the son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed at McConnell Air Force Base. As a 17-year-old freshman at Wichita State University, he was thinking about buying fancy wheels for his hot rod when his dad offered some advice.

“He said ‘That’s dumb. Why don’t you invest in your future?’”

Penfield did, getting his pilot’s license for $750 through a program offered at McConnell. He majored in aviation management at Wichita State University, then entered the Navy and trained as a carrier pilot. Penfield logged over 4,000 flight hours and 750 carrier landings in the F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet and other planes. He deployed in Operations Enduring Freedom, Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom, earning numerous medals. 

The U.S. Navy, now 243 years old, is needed as much as ever to deter aggression and keep sea lanes open for commerce, Penfield said. “The world’s not becoming any friendlier.”

The USS Wichita’s commissioning is part of an effort to grow the fleet from 280 to 350 ships.

And to do that, Penfield said, “We need kids to join the Navy and to stay in the Navy.” Most crew members on the USS Wichita will be 25 years old or younger, he said. The ship itself will likely be in service for over a quarter-century. 

To donate or learn more about the USS Wichita, visit usswichita.org

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