Born in West Virginia and raised in Virginia, Sen. Tom Carper attended the Ohio State University on a Navy R.O.T.C. scholarship, graduating in 1968 with a B.A. in economics. He went on to complete five years of service as a naval flight officer, serve three tours of duty in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and continued to serve in the Naval Reserve as a P-3 aircraft mission commander until retiring with the rank of captain in 1991 after 23 years of military service. With the war winding down in Southeast Asia, Carper moved to Delaware in 1973, where he earned his M.B.A. at the University of Delaware. Today, he and his wife of 30 years, Martha, live in Wilmington and are the proud parents of two sons. Carper travels from Wilmington to Washington each day on an Amtrak train.
His career in public service began in 1976, when he was elected to the first of three terms as Delaware’s state treasurer. Six years later, he ran for – and was elected – to Delaware’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Carper went on to serve five terms as a U.S. congressman, where he earned a reputation as a results-oriented centrist, serving on the House Financial Services Committee, as well as the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which is now part of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Carper was then elected the 78th governor of Delaware in 1992 and served two terms in that role. As governor, he pursued a common-sense agenda that led to eight balanced budgets, tax cuts in seven of those eight years, and major increases in employment. Carper led the effort to strengthen the state’s “rainy day” fund and boost Delaware’s credit rating to “AAA” for the first time in state history, while helping to overhaul the state’s education system and to implement welfare reform initiatives in Delaware and the nation.
During his second term as governor, Carper was selected by his colleagues to serve as vice chairman, then as chairman, of the National Governors Association (NGA). After serving as chairman, he led the NGA’s “Center for Best Practices,” which focused on developing and implementing innovative solutions to policy challenges faced by governors across the nation.
On Jan. 3, 2001, Carper stepped down two weeks early to become Delaware’s junior senator. He was reelected in 2006, and with his reelection in November 2012 he has been elected to statewide public office in Delaware 13 times. When Sen. Joe Biden stepped down to become vice president in January 2009, Carper became Delaware’s senior senator.
In his time in the U.S. Senate, Carper has worked extensively on reforming our health care system, improving our environment, and ensuring that federal programs are run efficiently and effectively. He is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and a senior member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
During more than 30 years of public service, Carper has worked tirelessly to develop practical solutions to real problems. His ability to work across party lines has earned him a reputation for consensus-building that is unique in to-day’s political climate. The Washington Post’s late David Broder called him “a notably effective and non-partisan leader, admired and trusted on both sides of the aisle.”
What is the story behind how this submarine came to be named Delaware?
Sen. Tom Carper: I spent 23 years of my life as a naval flight officer – active-duty, Reserve, Vietnam veteran – and my job in the Navy was to be a P-3 aircraft mission commander. We tracked mostly Soviet subs all over the world, including many nuclear submarines. We used to try to hunt and track our submarines for training, and they were very hard to find. Submarines have been a part of my life forever, and about seven years ago, Newark, Delaware resident Steve Llanso wrote a letter to the editor of our statewide newspaper, the News Journal, stating that it has been over 100 years since there has been a ship named after Delaware. In the meantime, many other states have had ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers named after them. The letter asked me the question, “Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?” I read that, and I said that maybe that somebody should be our congressional delegation! Then–Congressman John Carney, Sen. Chris Coons, and I said, “Let’s marry our fortunes together and see what we could do!” At the time, the Secretary of the Navy was the former governor of Mississippi, and I am the former governor of Delaware, so he is a friend. So I called him and asked, “Mr. Secretary, it’s been 100 years or more since a ship was named after the state of Delaware. Is there anything we can do about this?” We had a nice conversation about it, and he said, “Let me call you back in three or four months.” Three or four months later, he called me back and said, “I have some good news for you.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “The Navy has decided to go forward with the construction of four brand-new Virginia-class fast-attack submarines in the next four or five years. The first one will be the USS Delaware.” I could have reached through the telephone lines and just hugged him! I was so excited and so pleased. A year or so later, we had a keel-laying ceremony in Newport News, and a couple of months after that, we had a christening of the submarine where Jill Biden, America’s former second lady and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, cracked a bottle of champagne on the hull of the ship in front of thousands of people. I thought she was going to break a hole through the ship’s hull, but she didn’t! We had a great ceremony, and the ship has gone on to prepare for its sea trials and get fine-tuned. We’re excited it’s coming to Delaware!
You mentioned that it has been more than 100 years since a USS Delaware set sail. How does the success feel getting the USS Delaware named?
You know, there have been different ships – small ships, large ships – named Delaware. The last USS Delaware was a battleship that served through World War I and I think it was decommissioned in the early 1920s. Some of the other ships are more modest. When the USS Delaware sails in the ocean and around the world, it will be one of the most modern nuclear submarines in the world. It will carry Mk. 48 torpedoes, which can be used to hunt and, if necessary, destroy enemy submarines. It can be used to target surface vessels, other naval vessels from adversaries if we ever have that kind of conflict. The submarine will carry cruise missiles, which will have a range of over 1,500 miles. It is so accurate that it could put a missile through someone’s front door around the world from that kind of distance. The submarine is built so it could be reconfigured and carry special operations forces to undertake covert missions and all kinds of other missions. It is a highly versatile machine. This is not your grandfather’s submarine! This is the most modern submarine in the world, crewed by about 135 sailors, some of whom have already been to Delaware and we’ve celebrated them in the last couple of years as the ship was being built, or, as you say in the Navy, as the boat was being built.
Do you have a message for the crew aboard the USS Delaware before it sets sail?
Welcome to our family, USS Delaware! We love you guys and we want you to feel very much a part of our family and our state. We plan to have students in our schools adopt a sailor and communicate with them. We’ve had parts of the ship’s crew come to our state for different kinds of events, such as visiting our NASCAR track. We have great football at Delaware State University in Dover and the University of Delaware in Newark. There are all kinds of events we have invited them to just to make them feel welcome. We love these guys. They’re just a wonderful group. I thought we were pretty good at what we did in the Navy patrol squadron P-3s, and now P-8 aircraft. But the sailors of our submarine force, they are the cream of the crop. They are just some wonderful people. Noncommissioned officers, commissioned officers, they are just the best.
As someone who served on P-3 Orion subhunters, do you have a special appreciation for the capabilities of submarines?
My life for 23 years: We tracked Soviet submarines. We would track other submarines from other countries, but mostly our adversary was the Soviets during the Cold War. They were not that hard to find. The Soviets used to have a ballistic missile submarine halfway between the western coast of the U.S. and Hawaii. Each of those submarines would carry anywhere from 12 to 16 missiles. Each missile would have maybe as many as four nuclear warheads. One submarine, one Yankee class, could literally blow away the western half of the United States, so they are very lethal. So we wanted to know where that submarine was all the time. In case the Cold War turned into a “hot war,” we needed to go out and destroy it before it destroyed us. Fortunately, we could find them and we could track them. We would do training exercises, which would involve our own nuclear submarines. They are very quiet, very difficult to track. In order to have a successful training mission, they would have to carry noisemakers. They were just that good! Even then, they were hard to find. We are really proud of the folks that crew these boats.
In the seven-plus years since it was announced that this vessel would bear the name USS Delaware, what have been the highlights – such as the keel-laying and the christening – for you along the submarine’s journey to its commissioning?
The keel-laying is an old Navy tradition. We actually had hundreds of people in the audience that are part of the crew, part of the crew’s family, the folks who are actually building the submarine. It’s kind of early in the construction process, so let’s get started, let’s get going. It’s more like the beginning of the barn raising, if you will, in olden days. The christening of the submarine – where Jill Biden popped the champagne bottle in a way I will never forget; I was standing very close to her, and the champagne just went everywhere, all over us, and all over her! But she really did her job! That was memorable. The ship’s crew has come to Delaware, and we have been able to welcome them personally. And to see the warmth with which they are embraced by the people of Delaware, when they realize who they are, and what their role is in the defense of our country, is just very uplifting.
The commissioning of the USS Delaware is taking place in Delaware at the Port of Wilmington. Tell us how you came up with the idea to make that happen and how important it is for the ship to be commissioned in the First State.
We build our submarines in some different places, a number of them in Newport News, Virginia. But we’ll build some of them up in Connecticut, and a lot of the times when the ships are commissioned, if you have it be named after a city or state in the Midwest, you can’t get a submarine in those places. And sometimes it’s just not convenient to take them to a state that actually is a coastal state because they may not have the facility to do this kind of thing. As it turns out, my last year as governor, we built the Port of Wilmington, and along the Delaware River we built an auto terminal that sticks out into the Delaware River from the Port of Wilmington. It’s hundreds of feet long, maybe 500 to 600 feet long. Submarines themselves are about 400 feet long. The auto terminal has the capability to seat 5,000 people there. I think when I first raised the possibility to the Secretary of the Navy at the time – Richard Spencer – about a year or so ago about commissioning it at the Port of Wilmington, they weren’t really sure that it would work. When other cities and states have wanted to commission it in their city or state, it sometimes hasn’t worked in the past. The Navy set up a team – a couple of teams – of people to go to the Port of Wilmington to check it out, to look at the auto terminal, see if it would work. They stayed at the hotels in the area where we would be holding the ship’s crew. They came back and they said, “This would be perfect!” And the secretary was nice enough to invite me over to have lunch at the Pentagon maybe six months ago in the latter part of 2019. And he said, “Yeah, we got the report back in and we’re going to have the commissioning ceremony in Delaware at the Port of Wilmington.” I just could not contain myself. I was thrilled. And the people of Delaware, as more of them learn about this, are thrilled too.
What has been your favorite or most memorable interaction with the crew of the USS Delaware so far?
We have a couple of great college football schools. One is Delaware State University in Dover, and in the northern part of the state of Delaware, the home of the fighting Blue Hens. I remember being at a football game at the University of Delaware, I think it was two seasons ago, maybe in 2018. The ship’s crew is maybe 125 to 130 people. We had about 25 members of the ship’s crew sitting in the President’s Box at the football game, and at halftime, that complement of about 25 sailors, including the commanding officer, myself, and Gov. John Carney, went onto the side of the field after the halftime ceremonies were over. Then we were taken out on the field. It was announced who this was. This was like two years before the commissioning ceremony would take place. Most people in Delaware did not even know that the USS Delaware attack submarine was being built. Anyway, during the break of the game, we were taken out on the field, and the announcer announced who was walking out on the field. They were in uniform, and as the announcement was being read, people started to stand up, and the announcement was maybe 30 seconds or something like that. People all around the stadium, on all sides, started to stand up. The announcement ended, and they continued to stand up and remain standing. I had not seen a standing ovation like that. I’ve never got one like that. But, for the ship and the ship’s crew, it was just unbelievable. I’ve talked to the sailors since then, and they still talk about that moment. That was very special. For them, and for me.
What has been the response to the new USS Delaware from Delaware veterans, and from the First State community?
There is a great reverence for our veterans in Delaware. We have Dover Air Force Base, a top base in the world, terrific folks at the Delaware National Guard, and military presence from the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. We love them all and they know it. So the idea that we have the most modern nuclear submarine in the world, which we will be able to see for the next 30, 40, or 50 years and have it bear the name Delaware is something that makes us all incredibly proud. It’s not just representing Delaware’s veterans, but really our nation’s veterans.
How has your time in the U.S. Navy affected your public service, and how has it influenced your character and your beliefs?
I was trained to be a leader. When I was 10 or 11, I was a Boy Scout, later on a Civil Air Patrol cadet. When I was 14 or 15, I would sit in the left seat of an airplane as a Civil Air Patrol cadet in Roanoke, Virginia. I got the Navy scholarship and became a midshipman at Ohio State for four years. It helped me go to school, and that really helped change my life in wonderful ways. I was a 21-year-old, graduating in commission, and off to Pensacola at the height of the Vietnam War in ’68. And then, about a year or so later, I linked up with my squadron on the West Coast and headed for Southeast Asia, first of three tours. I learned more about leadership in the Navy as a midshipman, as a naval flight officer, on active duty and Reserve duty. There were great leaders and mentors for me, and I think they helped prepare me for the roles I’ve played since then. And the people of Delaware have been kind enough to let me serve as their treasurer, congressman, governor, and senator, so it’s worked out!
What can people expect, those who either will attend in person or maybe see a video, at the Port of Wilmington for the commissioning ceremony, and why should they maybe try to attend in person?
Well, it’s not every day you have a submarine coming into the Port of Wilmington, so this is a special day that I hope the public, young and old, will want to celebrate. A whole lot of people are going to come during the week that the submarine is in our port, and my hope is that a lot more will come and join us by watching the ceremony online. We’ll have the chance to keep in touch with the submarine and its crew hopefully for years to come. And maybe from time to time they’ll come back and see us, and we’ll show up in great numbers and welcome them home to Delaware.
Check out this interview along with others in the complete commissioning magazine: