“Wooooh!” The blare from the mighty air horn announces “I’m the Motor Vessel George C. Grugett and I’m here to join the fleet!” A few seconds later, more horns blare in welcome response, filling the afternoon air with sounds reminiscent of early days on the Mississippi River.
In a ceremony steeped in maritime tradition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District christened the Motor Vessel George C. Grugett at Beale Street Landing in Memphis Aug. 20.
“In the name of the United States, I christen thee Motor Vessel George C. Grugett. Bless her and all who sail her,” proclaimed Judi Murray, the sponsor, and George C. Grugett, in unison. Then Murray, Grugett’s sister, shattered the ceremonial bottle of champagne against the gleaming capstan of the new towboat.
Memphis District Commander Col. Jeffery A. Anderson ordered the master of the vessel, Capt. Tony Johnston, to place the vessel in service to the Memphis District, the Mississippi Valley Division and the inland waterways of the United States of America.
“Bring her to life!” he commanded. Her USACE colors were hoisted and a blast of her horn announced her arrival for duty.
Christening ceremonies for newly constructed vessels date back many centuries. Jewish and Christian
ceremonies involved wine, water and the intercession of the saints, said Memphis District Deputy Commander Lt. Col. T. Dave Patton, the master of ceremonies. Ship launchings in the Ottoman Empire
included prayers and often a sacrifice of sheep. The Vikings are even believed to have offered human sacrifices.
It became standard for champagne, as the most elite of wines, to be used. The tradition also developed that a female would do the honors and be named the sponsor of the ship. Maritime superstition
held that a ship that wasn’t properlychristened would be considered unlucky. A champagne bottle
that didn’t break was a particularly bad omen.
While cultures and customs dictate the tone and activities of the ceremony, its purpose is still the same: to ask divine protection for the vessel and its crew while navigating the powerful and often unpredictable ways of both rivers and oceans.
“In keeping with tradition, specifically the wine and blessing tradition, USACE celebrates new additions to our fleet with ceremonies like the one today,” said Patton. “We also use the occasion to celebrate honored and respected members of our Corps family.”
Named in honor of George C. Grugett, the $12.4 million river towboat replaces the Motor Vessel Strong and will ensure continued success of the district’s critical navigation mission, he added. Crew members will be Capt. Tony Johnston, Harold “Tray” Lawrence, III, James L. Dulin, Dustin T. Adams, Make Hatton and Aaron W. Kirk.
As a prelude to the actual christening, the ceremony began in the hearing room onboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi where Mississippi River Commission President Maj. Gen. John Peabody related
the distinguished and extensive public service career of Grugett. “George represents the greatest generation,” said Peabody. “The one that really secured our freedom against the
greatest threat, by many estimates, that it has ever faced. The threat of fascism and totalitarianism that was a wave in the years between World War I and World War II, and of course, George was born at
the beginning of that period in 1924.”
A native of McConnell, Tenn., Grugett attended school in Dyersburg, Tenn., for the first 11 years and graduated in 1942 from Byars Hall High School in Covington, Tenn. He attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and the University of Mississippi in Oxford.Grugett served as an
Army Air Corps bomber pilot in World War II from 1943 to 1945. As a captain with the 12th Air
Force, he flew 47 bomber missions as part of the air combat operations over Italy and Southern
Europe. His early military background was significant in shaping his future pursuits and motivated him to
strive for a lifetime of excellence, said Peabody.
During the next 35 years, he honed his understanding of the civil works mission of the Army as an USACE employee. He oversaw multi-million dollar projects, mostly related to flood control and navigation along the lower Mississippi River.
“He built a whole bunch of projects,” said Peabody. “The one I think of the most is the Huxtable Pumping Plant, which is the largest pumping plant that we have on the Mississippi River.” Located in Mariana, Ark., Huxtable Pumping Plant is responsible for evacuating water from the St. Francis Basin and is crucial to providing floodrisk reduction .
After retiring from USACE, Grugett served another 33 years as vice president of the influential Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, where he was a tireless advocate of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. This $13 billion program grew out of the Flood Control Act of 1928 - passed in response to the “Great Flood” of 1927 - and brought forth a new “room for the river” approach thatincorporated natural features such as wetlands and floodplains.
On behalf of all of the commissioners, Peabody said it was a great honor to make today’s remarks. “We can never possibly repay you the debt of gratitude that, not just this valley, but our entire country owes you for your service. You have truly built a legacy that will endure for the nation. I think it’ll endure forever. Others will build upon it, but you have established a foundation that is sound, secure and solid, and that will live, basically forever.”
He then turned the floor over to Grugett, who humbly shared his past experiences and his feelings on today’s event before moving to the pier for the vessel christening.
“When I was called - about two years ago - they asked me if I would be embarrassed. I said, wait a minute, I remember some of the regulations. The one I remember the most is that to have a Corps of Engineers vessel named after you, you had to be dead! I said I don’t want any part of that mess,” recalled Grugett with a laugh. “But, they assured me all of that had been taken care of. So I told them I’d be greatly honored, and I am.”