Vessels blessed before mission

Published 10:54 am Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dressed in overalls with a white beard and wearing a straw hat to block the sun, Joe Parker stood on the paved slope at City Front Wednesday and prepared to board a barge to watch the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mat sinking unit and its support vessels pass in review along the Yazoo Diversion Canal.

The water parade was part of the Corps’ annual blessing of the fleet ceremony honoring the vessels before they begin an almost four-month program of stabilizing and protecting the Mississippi’s riverbed and its levees.

It’s a mission Parker, the assistant chief of the mat sinking unit, has made many times in the 36 years he has been a member of the unit’s crew, but this year he’s staying on shore. An injury has forced him to forego this deployment. It’s a disappointment for someone Corps Vicksburg District Commander Col. John Cross said is an important member of the crew.

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“Joe has been a big part of the mat sinking unit,” Cross said. “He’s been the face of the unit. He’s been interviewed by the Discovery Channel, Monster Machines (on the Discovery Channel) and Canadian Discovery.”

But being on shore as one of about 200 people watching the passing parade was a strange experience.

“I started as a mechanic and worked my way up,” Parker said. “I feel like I should be out there, but it’s not going to happen this year. Probably next year.”

Standing on the top deck of the barge, Army chaplain Col. Mitchell I. Lewis and the Rev. Sam Godfrey, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, officiated over the program, alternating to bless each vessel, from the Motor Vessel William James pushing the matt sinking unit with its steel superstructure and the Motor Vessel Benyuard pushing the massive quarters boat that will serve as home for more than 300 Corps employees during the deployment, to the crew boat Muddy Water.

Each vessel was showered with water from a Vicksburg Fire Department water cannon as it neared the entrance to the river.

The tiny fleet’s passage brought back memories for Marjorie Carter, 99, and her daughters, Lynn Jacobs of Monroe, La., and Kathryn Laughlin of Starkville. Mrs. Carter’s husband, Gordon Carter, was a Corps employee for 41 years, and superintendent of the mat sinking unit from 1948 to 1971.

“He enjoyed it and looked forward to getting out again,” Mrs. Carter said. “He came home and he was very impressed with it. I’m glad he got to see it when they put all the advances on it.”

“We used to go up to the overlook circles (Navy Circle and Louisiana Circle off Washington Street) and watch it leave. That was our treat,” Jacobs said. “We used to watch it go under the bridge.”

She said she was in Vicksburg last year when she heard about the blessing of the fleet, adding the Corps did not have a blessing of the fleet when her father was superintendent.

“It think it’s (the blessing) perfect, because I keep thinking how many years he put in,” her mother said.

Jacobs said she heard about the blessing of the fleet last year when she was in Vicksburg.

“We came last year, and we decided it was worth coming back to,” she said. “It bought back a lot of memories. We plan to make it an annual event. It was part of our lives, too. It left in August and returned on November. They were always home by the holidays; never after Christmas.”

As they entered the Mississippi, the Mat Sinking Unit and its four-vessel support team turned north for Cairo, Ill., where it will begin its annual program of laying an articulated concrete mattress along the riverbank and levees to protect them from erosion and sloughing caused by the current and changes in the river stages.

“It’s going to work it’s way down, and by the end of January, it will be at Head of Passes south of New Orleans,” Cross said. “So it’s a long journey from north to south.”

He called the unit’s mission vital.

“When we put that concrete mattress out along the banks, it stabilizes the river and it stabilizes the levee so it armors the banks,” he said. “That it the only machine in the world capable of doing that. It is one of a kind, unique and we work very, very hard to maintain it so it can keep doing its mission.”

The Corps he said, is looking to replace the unit, which was built in 1948.

“The technology is so old, it’s practically no technology,” he said. “It’s so old that we’re spending a lot of money to keep it maintained and keep it repaired. It’s time to replace it. She’s done well so far.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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