CAPE MAY - Aboard the $53 million "game changer" cutter Rollin Fritch, docked Friday at the Coast Guard base here, Donna Fritch Fuller recalled that as a young child, only once did she have the chance to meet her uncle - the namesake of the brand-new ship - and that he had been "good-looking . . . such a kind young man."
Fuller, 77, of Sioux City, Iowa, remembered her older sister telling her that the only time they ever saw their father weep was when the family learned that his brother, 24-year-old Seaman First Class Rollin A. Fritch, had been killed in the Pacific Theater while aboard the troop transport ship Callaway.
On Jan. 8, 1945, Fritch was part of a Coast Guard gunnery crew aboard the Callaway when it was attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots off Luzon, Philippines. Fritch "manned his station aggressively," according to publications by the Coast Guard, and "unhesitatingly relinquished all chance of escape."
He "remained steadfastly at this gun" as one of three Japanese planes broke through the heavy antiaircraft fire and crashed onto the starboard wing of the Callaway's bridge. Fritch continued to direct his fire with "unrelenting fury upon the enemy until carried away with his weapon by the terrific impact" of the airplane hitting the ship.
Fritch was one of 29 U.S. troops aboard the Callaway who died that day. An additional 22 were wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for valor in combat.
"I really was in shock that he was chosen to have this ship named for him. My uncle was just one of so many heroes that day, so our family feels very honored that he was chosen," said Fuller, whom Coast Guard officers spent eight months tracking down so they could invite Fritch's surviving relatives to the 154-foot cutter's official commissioning ceremony Saturday.
Fuller, named as the ship's "sponsor" - whose duties include christening the ship - will be among Coast Guard officials and other dignitaries for the ceremony, which assigns the vessel to active service and sees its 23-member crew, including three officers, report for duty.
Termed a "Fast Response" vessel because of its capability to reach speeds of more than 28 knots and travel 2,950 nautical miles before having to refuel, the cutter will perform missions involving mostly search and rescue operations and fisheries law enforcement functions from New Jersey to North Carolina.
It could also be called upon to perform missions of port security and drug and undocumented immigrant enforcement, according to Petty Officer First Class Michael Henderson, who offered the media a tour of the new vessel on Friday.
Senior Coast Guard officials have called this class of ship "a game-changer" and "remarkable" for its various capabilities. It is the first of six such vessels on which the Coast Guard is spending a total of $318 million to upgrade its fleet from aging 110-foot cutters.
Each of the cutters is to be named for a Coast Guard hero who distinguished himself or herself in the line of duty. A second FRC, to be named the Lawrence Lawson, for the captain of an Illinois lifesaving station, is scheduled to arrive in Cape May in March 2017. A third, yet unnamed vessel, will arrive sometime later in 2017, according to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora.
Built by Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La., the Rollin Fritch is said to represent 30 years of "continuous improvement" in the execution and design of such vessels. It is the 19th ship in the Coast Guard's Sentinel-class FRC built by the vendor, according to Ben Bordelon, president and CEO of Bollinger, who said his company had built the Coast Guard's entire patrol boat/patrol cutter fleet.
"We are very proud of the fact that the FRC's already in commission have seized multiple tons of narcotics, interdicted thousands of illegal aliens, and saved many lives," Bordelon said in a statement.
All of the previous FRC cutters have been stationed in the Seventh Coast Guard District in Florida or Puerto Rico. The decision by the agency to homeport the Rollin Fritch in Cape May is significant because it expands the footprint of the FRC operations beyond the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Henderson said.
Eventually FRC-class vessels will be stationed in every coastal state, he said.
The Rollin Fritch is full of state-of-the-art engineering and equipment, including a desalination unit, which allows all of the water used aboard the vessel to originate as seawater and be converted to freshwater for drinking, showers, and other requirements. The desalination unit takes up a relatively small footprint - about three-by-seven-feet - inside the ship's main engine room.
Another favorite "gadget" at the captain's and the crew's fingertips on the bridge is a remote control "pennant" which allows them to use a handheld device - it looks like a video game - to control everything from rudder movement to docking the ship.
The Rollin Fitch is also packing an MK38 MOD2 machine gun on its bow that is remotely operated from the bridge.
"Basically, it is there so the ship can become a military asset if necessary," Henderson said.
Although the cutter is far from luxurious, its crew quarters provide slightly more room and comfort than earlier models, with larger staterooms, more toilets and sinks, greater storage space, and DirecTV access in the mess areas.
"It helps with crew morale," Henderson said.