The winds of change whistle like a boatswain’s pipe as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman returned to Naval Station Norfolk following a Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) and prepared for the change of command ceremony for Capt. Gavin Duff, Truman’s 13th commanding officer, Dec. 17.
When Duff took command on August 29, 2021, he remarked, “The things that are primary on the focus on my mind are ensuring that we continue to develop sailors, continue to train, and ensure that we’re ready to answer the nation’s call.”
Looking back on Duff’s 30 months as the commanding officer, that primary focus certainly rang true, and his leadership and steadfast dedication to the 3,200 Sailors under his direct charge is clearly evident.
Duff admits it’s a tough task wrapping up the experiences shared with thousands of people he’s met on Truman into a few words, but he’s thankful for the ship’s crew, the airwing, the squadron, the DESRON staff and the strike group. Even on his final voyage during Truman’s transition back to Naval Station Norfolk, Duff remained characteristically poised, humble and gracious.
“Unequivocally every memory I have from this tour will be about the Sailors that I’ve interacted with,” said Duff, “Watching all the reenlistments, promotion ceremonies, multicultural heritage events, deployments, launches and recoveries, exams, inspections, successes, challenges, and seeing us come to life and respond to each one of those events has reinforced everything I’ve ever believed about Sailors’ willingness to make a difference, support one another, and support the mission.”
A steadfast leader from the beginning.
Duff took command at a critical point in the workup cycle. The ship had recently completed a 10-month PIA at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and was less than a month away from her congressionally mandated triennial Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV). INSURV is a five-day event where 150 assessors observe over 400 demonstrations and inspect nearly 100,000 pieces of equipment, overall cleanliness and preservation, and material condition to ensure total mission readiness.
Under Duff’s leadership, Truman knocked the inspection out of the park, receiving an ‘excellent’ score and recognition as one of the best aircraft carrier assessments in recent years. At the time, Duff remarked, “Our sailors saw this goal as the true focus and met the challenge as they do every day. You guys stepped up and worked hard these past few months and executed it like the professionals you are.”
With Truman’s next INSURV again on the horizon, Duff not only started his tour with an INSURV but finished by taking critical steps to get the ship and crew off on the right foot to start getting ahead of the work and into the mindset needed for the inspection.
Shortly after INSURV, the ship departed to complete its final deployment certification, Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX). COMPTUEX runs the ships, aircraft, squadrons, and staffs through complex scenarios across warfare areas to refine communication and teamwork, and certify the carrier strike group as a cohesive battle-ready team before deployment. For the first time in Truman’s history, the carrier strike group composition included the Royal Norwegian Navy’s Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (F310) as a cooperative deployer.
A unique aspect of being the commanding officer of the flagship for the carrier strike group is the role played in uniting the dozens of detachments and commands who sail aboard the ship. Duff’s wealth of knowledge across all facets of the carrier, high attention to detail, and down-to-earth leadership style served as a unifying force for the aircraft carrier’s 5,000 Sailors. A teamwork mentality that was needed as Truman stepped out the door.
A historic deployment.
On December 1, 2021, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group departed for her 10th deployment amid rising tensions and uncertainty with Russia. Shortly after crossing the pond, the ship and crew quickly made history when the U.S. placed the carrier strike group under the command of NATO’s Naval Striking and Support Forces for the first time since the Cold War as tensions grew.
In an interview in January of 2022, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that putting a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group under the operational command of NATO should send “a clear message to Russia.” When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group was on station and ready.
Throughout the deployment, NATO took tactical command of the ship during several NATO-led exercises and vigilance activities, and it marked the longest continuous operation of a U.S. aircraft carrier in U.S. European Command in over 20 years. Truman and the carrier strike group served as a vital, visible force in the region during the 9-month extended deployment.
The ship returned from deployment on September 12, 2022. “This has been an outstanding deployment by every measure due to the expertise and professionalism of our Sailors,” said Duff at homecoming. “This deployment was a first of its kind for nearly all of us onboard. I am immensely proud of the tenacity, skill and commitment this crew displayed to our Allies, partners and our own leadership. These Sailors are the soul of this ship, and I can think of no greater honor than to be part of this team.”
The work doesn’t stop.
After homecoming in September 2022, the crew enjoyed post-deployment leave, and Duff immediately shifted focus to getting Truman ready for the next stage of the ship’s life, a Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. For Truman, this maintenance period is the last in her maintenance cycle before the ship enters Newport News Shipyard for its RCOH in the future.
Despite RCOH on the horizon, the ship’s operational time at sea is not over. Duff worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure material readiness for the ship’s next deployment. Many Sailors will remember their Captain by the many hours spent walking the ship and critical projects, usually with a full trash bag in hand, and his smile while chatting with Sailors he’d pass on the deck plates.
Truman’s maintenance period focused on modernization efforts, structural repair, and preservation work from forward to aft and top to bottom. Additionally, a significant focus of this availability included extensive work to enhance berthing spaces, gyms, barber shops, laundry areas, and entertainment spaces, along with installing Wi-Fi capabilities focused on the crew’s quality of life.
At the 50% point during the maintenance period, Duff remarked that “It is the culmination of hard work, teamwork and a shared vision to enhance Truman’s readiness and capabilities.”
Passing the torch.
Today, a new chapter of the Truman lies unwritten as Capt. Dave Snowden assumes command, like the passing of a torch. “The next commanding officer is amazing,” said Duff. “He and I have been friends since 2009, and he will be spectacular for this crew.”
Snowden, a former Truman executive officer, is coming home. “I am so excited to be back onboard Harry S. Truman,” said Snowden. “Since its commissioning, the ship has enjoyed a great reputation, and that is largely because of all the Sailors that have been on this ship for the last 25 years.”
Duff’s commitment to the combat readiness of the ship and the well-being of each Sailor was exceptional, respected by all, and reflects the grit and warrior toughness of the ship’s ethos. In some ways, his legacy will remain solidified in the cannons of history, frozen in time as he joins the ranks of former commanding officers on Truman’s historic command wall.
However, Duff’s legacy and impact will live on for the crew he served with and their families through his guiding principles of leadership, integrity, expertise, humility and respect. His Sailors will remember Duff’s extensive naval knowledge, approachable mentorship, focus, and unwavering dedication to the ship and his Sailors.
On behalf of the entire crew, we wish Duff and his family ‘fair winds and following seas’ on their continued service to the U.S. Navy and the nation.