The U.S. Navy christened a ship after Dr. Charles R. Drew, honoring the late surgeon’s legacy of groundbreaking research on blood storage and preservation that saved numerous lives.
Under a steady rain, more than 1,300 people watched the launch on Saturday, Feb. 27 at a San Diego shipyard. The USNS Charles Drew, a Navy supply ship, will be a one-stop shop for food, water, ammunition, and spare parts for American and Allied ships.
During the ceremony, Bebe Drew Price, Drew’s eldest daughter, stood beside her two sisters at the side of the bow, holding a Champagne bottle. “My first thought was, I hope it breaks,” she said with a smile.
There was nothing to worry about. With one wallop, she smashed the glass bottle against the bow and the bubbly contents fizzed, splattered and sprayed, marking the ship’s traditional launching.
Amid cheers from the crowd, the ship’s horn bellowed and a band played the traditional “Anchors Aweigh.” Streamers-- red, white and blue--floated in the air like confetti as the ship slid into the San Diego Bay at 7:34 a.m.
The Drew family was full of pride and excitement, while the attendees were enthusiastic, said Dr. Keith C. Norris, Interim President, Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. “The grandeur of the event itself was matched only by the stature of Dr. Drew.”
In 2008, U.S. Navy Secretary Donald Winter announced that the 10th of 14 planned navel supply ships would honor Dr. Drew. Each ship in the entire fleet was named after prominent scientists and explorers, including Arctic leader Robert E. Peary, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, as well as trailblazers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Construction on the USNS Charles Drew began in October 2008. The ship cost $560 million to build and the project employed roughly 1,000 people. The vessel, at 689-feet long, can land two helicopters, handle 135 crew members, and store up to 10,000 tons of supplies for ships on the move, the company said.
The vessel is so large that only twice a month is the tide capable of carrying it safely from shore to sea, said Karl Johnson, a spokesman for General Dynamics NASSCO, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Virginia-based defense contractor.
The Drew family will maintain a naval tradition of staying in touch with the crew, said Sylvia Drew Ivie, a Los Angeles resident who is chief of staff for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The latest honor introduces her father’s legacy to a new generation of young people, she said, while reminding older ones of his life’s work.
The family already has discussed plans to use books and articles to spread understanding of Dr. Drew, in the hope that his values and accomplishments become part of the ship’s history. In addition, the family plans to visit the crew and to send them cookies.
“It will be a family project to stay in touch with the crew,” Drew Ivie said, “and to think of the good things we can send them to keep the connection going.”
Dr. Drew, father of the modern blood bank and an African American, ranks among the most prominent scientists in U.S. history. His research paper published in 1940 showed that human blood, when separated from plasma, can be stored for longer periods of time.
He was named medical director of the first Red Cross blood bank in 1941, and he also organized the first blood bank drive during World War II, dubbed “Blood for Britain.”
His later years were spent in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, where he taught, and at nearby Freedman’s Hospital, where he was chief of staff. In 1950, while heading to a medical conference in Alabama, he died from injuries sustained in a car crash in North Carolina.
In 1966, the Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science in the Willowbrook/Watts area of Los Angeles was named after him. Over the years, schools, clinics and even a U.S. postal stamp was named in his honor.
The evening before the christening, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., a former student of Dr. Drew, spoke at an invitation-only dinner held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel. Dr. Leffall, a prominent surgeon and the first black president of the American Cancer Society, was a member of the last class that Dr. Drew taught before his death.
Dr. Leffall recalled a poignant messages Dr. Drew was most noted for telling his students. He would say that that excellence of performance will transcend any barriers man creates, such as discrimination.
While mentoring Dr. Leffall and scores of other black surgeons, Dr. Drew also was known as a gentle father. He taught his children how to ride bikes, pick apples, and the importance of humility, said Drew Price.
“He never worked for awards of any kind,” she said. He believed that achievement came from showing “a certain diligence.” Of having a naval ship named in his honor, she said, “I think he would be exceedingly proud.”
Kelly Price Noble, a granddaughter who lives in San Diego, agreed with her mother. “He would have been humbled to have such a distinction bestowed on him.”