January 16, 2007
Vice President Cheney, Secretary Winter, Admiral Mullen, members of the family of Jerry Ford, men and women of our Armed Forces, ladies and gentlemen:
I want to thank Senator Warner for his leadership on last year’s Defense Authorization Act in including the provision that made this day possible, and I want to commend the Navy and Secretary Winter for following through on the suggestion in that bill that we name CVN 78 in honor of President Gerald Ford. I was pleased to co-sponsor Senator Warner’s amendment because of the special pride this honor would bring to President Ford’s heart, and because it rings so true as a memorial to him.
In 1941, not long after Gerald Ford opened a law practice in Grand Rapids, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Gerald Ford enlisted in the Navy within the week.
At first, Ford served in the physical education branch, and this gifted athlete coached all nine sports that were offered. He soon grew restless, though, and needed to join the fight. Ford asked to be transferred to service at sea, and was assigned to a light aircraft carrier, the USS Monterey. He would later write that there he saw “as much action as I’d ever hoped to see.” With Ford serving as assistant navigator, athletic officer and anti-aircraft battery officer, the Monterey fought in many of the major operations of the South Pacific, earning 10 battle stars during his service.
Perhaps Lieutenant Ford’s finest hour at sea, however, was a battle not with the enemy, but with the elements. In December 1944, a massive typhoon slammed the Monterey, with waves topping 70 feet. Chaos reigned as the planes on board caught fire, and several broke free from their cables. Many of the sailors were incapacitated; Admiral Halsey ordered the Monterey abandoned; and flames threatened to consume the carrier. But then – thirty years before President Ford would right our ship of state – Lieutenant Ford helped save the Monterey and its men.
At great personal risk, Jerry Ford led a team down to the hangar deck to battle the fire. With gas tanks exploding around them and thick smoke choking the air, they evacuated the stricken men and then extinguished the fire. The fight lasted for hours, but the Monterey and almost all of her sailors survived. The teamwork that Jerry Ford learned playing football at the University of Michigan was surely put to the test that day. And the “we’re all in this together” feeling of community, instilled in him by his Grand Rapids upbringing, just as surely contributed to his leadership on the Monterey.
After the war, Gerald Ford returned to practice law in Grand Rapids but soon felt a new call to service. When he ran for Congress, his naval record was clearly an asset, but more important than how that service helped him was how it had changed him. Ford’s naval service had inspired in him a transformation similar to that of Michigan’s great Senator Arthur Vandenberg, another son of Grand Rapids who had evolved from an isolationist to an internationalist.
With Vandenberg’s support, Ford ran an underdog primary campaign against the isolationist incumbent. Ford’s upset victory was a reflection of how highly voters thought of him personally and also how much had changed in American politics.
The people of Michigan’s Fifth District recognized that Gerald Ford was the right man for the times, and years later the rest of America would reach that same judgment. The Watergate scandal slammed our nation like a political typhoon, and thank goodness Gerald Ford was there to lead us with the same steady courage he had displayed on the Monterey.
As Commander in Chief, President Ford resolved, in his words, “to make our Navy as it has been, as it will be, and as it must be – the best Navy in the whole world.” Today, we help keep that pledge with this new aircraft carrier named in his honor, and we renew that pledge in his name to maintain the best navy in the whole world and to help defend beyond his and our lives the nation that Jerry Ford loved so much.