A rare look inside the USS Delaware, an attack submarine visiting Wilmington this week

The crew of the USS Delaware stand in front of a flag of the Presidental Seal while on their submarine during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine.

The crew of the USS Delaware stand in front of a flag of the Presidential Seal while on their submarine during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine. (Emily Cohen/WHYY)

From its current perch at the Port of Wilmington, the boat can launch a Tomahawk cruise missile that could hit targets as far away as Des Moines, Iowa, or Orlando, Florida.

Longer than a football field, the submarine has a lifespan of more than three decades but will never have to refuel.

And it can ply the waters of the world, undetected, at a depth of at least 800 feet — all while traveling at 30 mph and carrying a deadly arsenal that includes bright green 21-foot torpedoes (but no nuclear warheads).

This 377-foot-long vessel is the USS Delaware, a nuclear-powered submarine and the first Navy vessel to bear the state’s name in nearly a century.

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The boat was christened in 2018 by its sponsor Jill Biden — then the former second lady of the United States and now first lady.

The deck of the brand new U.S.S. Delaware submarine is visible.
The brand new USS Delaware submarine was championed by Senator Tom Carper and then Vice-President Joe Biden in 2013. (Emily Cohen/WHYY)

Since its christening, the USS Delaware, based in Groton, Conn., has been training in the Atlantic, awaiting deployment.

A formal commissioning ceremony scheduled for 2020 was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the ship was commissioned underwater, a first in Navy history.

The delayed formal ceremony will now occur Saturday at the Wilmington port, with President Biden and Jill Biden on hand to make remarks.

The sub has been docked since Tuesday in the waters off Wilmington after steaming up the Delaware River. Here’s a video captured from the Delaware Memorial Bridge by Jerry DiEleuterio of Newark.

On Friday, the ship’s crew held a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s ceremony, taking reporters on  a 45-minute tour of the boat.

“We’re very proud to bring the USS Delaware into Wilmington,’’ Cmdr. Matthew Horton told a handful of reporters as he stood on a barge in front of the 18th Virginia-class fast attack submarine.

“It’s a once in a lifetime, once in a career opportunity to bring this ship into its namesake port, to show it off to the community, to present what the Navy is doing and present our capabilities to the citizens of Delaware.”

Horton said he’s honored to commission the submarine with the “the commander in chief and our sponsor. It’s definitely not something that occurred frequently.”

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After another year of training and maintenance, Horton said the $3 billion sub and its crew of 121 enlisted men and 15 officers will head to undisclosed waters at sea. “They’re ready to go out and carry out the nation’s missions,’’ Horton declared.

USS Delaware Captain Matthew Horton talks about his ship during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine.
USS Delaware Captain Matthew Horton talks about his ship during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine. (Emily Cohen/WHYY)

Standing behind Horton and beaming was fifth-term U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, a former Navy flight officer who played a leading role in the submarine bearing Delaware’s name.

After a Delawarean wrote a letter in 2012 to the editor of the Wilmington News Journal about Delaware’s lack of a Navy boat, Carper called Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy and a fellow Democrat and former governor of Mississippi. Carper served two terms as Delaware governor and was a U.S. representative before his election to the Senate in 2000.

“I said, ‘All right. It’s been a hundred years since a ship was built by the Navy and named after the First State,’’’ Carper recalled. “That’s a long time. It really is. And do you think maybe we could do something about it?”

Senator Tom Carper speaks at a podium.
Delaware Senator Tom Carper talks about his joy in seeing the submarine he fought to bring to Delaware. (Emily Cohen/WHYY)

Carper said Mabus called him three months later and said five Virginia-class subs were being ordered.

“The first off the line will be the USS Delaware,’’ Carper recalled Mabus telling him.

“If I could have pried through the wire and kissed him, I would have done that,’’ Carper said. “I was so happy.”

Face to face with a bright green 21-foot torpedo

Horton and his crew agreed to let WHYY News and about a dozen other media outlets take a guided tour. Also getting tours Friday were a few dozen locals, including Gov. John Carney and Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki.

No cameras or phones were allowed, but guests were taken through every section of the three-floor, 32-foot-tall vessel: living quarters, weapons room, computer command center, cafeteria, and more. All within feet of a nuclear reactor.

After climbing down the gray metal stairs, visitors were greeted by narrow but not cramped corridors of metal piping and mechanical systems. Above were a myriad of insulated wires. Anyone much taller than 6 feet had to bend down to move through the submarine.

Visitors were shown the so-called “six-packs” — bunks where about six enlisted men (no women serve on the USS Delaware) take turns sleeping in an area less than eight feet wide and deep. One called it the “broom closet.”

One enlisted man said he and some fellow crew members have used their time at dock to hit the terra firma and visit the area. Some spent part of the day Thursday in Philadelphia, where they saw the Liberty Bell, he said.

The command center housed about $100 million of computer hardware and software. Some 30 computer screens were lit up, including ones showing sonar and servers.

The periscope is a large color monitor with a 360-degree view that was able to zoom in on the lettering of a ship more than a quarter-mile away at the port.

Guess how the periscope is controlled?

If your guess was an Xbox controller, you would be correct.

No kidding.

The weapons room was another marvel. Guests filed in and stood in a line. At eye level was a 21-foot torpedo, ready to be fed into a launch tube, if needed. Asked how many torpedoes were on board, the tour guide quipped, “Enough.” He did not elaborate.

On and on guests marched, past the officers’ quarters, which were only three to a bunk and had slightly more room than the six-packs. The choice rooms were the one-man bunks used by Horton, his executive officer and chief of the boat.

The crew of the USS Delaware board their submarine during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine.
The crew of the USS Delaware board their submarine during the dress rehearsal for the official commission ceremony for the new submarine. (Emily Cohen/WHYY)

The tour passed the kitchen and cafeteria line, where cooks were serving salad, vegetables and chicken nuggets. One joked that guests could have a nugget for $5. The fare was fresher than usual, because the staff procured food from the Wilmington area. No booze on submarines, our host said.

The boat can stay submerged for up to two months, with enough food and other supplies to feed and equip them for that long.

The submariners eat in a small cafeteria that reminds one of a small diner, where they can watch movies that play on two televisions. They have limited or no access to the internet, and while at sea only get short written summaries of news and current events.

The officers eat in a “dining” room with a large table that also can serve as a makeshift operating table. Our tour guide said the boat’s medic could perform an appendectomy if necessary, should no helicopters be available to medevac a patient to a hospital.

Guests were amazed by the complexity and organization of the ship.

One was Purzycki.

“This is crazy,’’ the mayor remarked, his eyes wide and a big smile on his face.

DiEleuterio, a sales rep and former city cop who shot the video of the submarine from the bridge, waited outside with a handful of others for a tour.

“It’s exciting for me personally,’’ said DiEleuterio, who sported a USS Delaware baseball cap. “But for the citizens of the state of Delaware, for the position of the state of Delaware, I’m very excited to have a naval warship named after our home state.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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