Michelle Obama visits Electric Boat for keel-laying ceremony

Michelle Obama attends a keel-laying ceremony at Electric Boat in North Kingstown, Monday, June 2, 2014.

The keel of the nation's 13th Virginia-class attack submarine was laid in North Kingstown Monday in a ceremony featuring first lady Michelle Obama.

"All right, can I just break with protocol and say, this is really cool," Mrs. Obama said.

It was that down to earth way that went over well with many of the workers at Electric Boat who were able to personally meet the first lady before the ceremony.

"Very warm, very welcoming. She came into the room, shook a lot of our hands," said Christopher Levenseller, an Electric Boat employee.

Mrs. Obama came to North Kingstown for a keel-laying ceremony. She put her initials to a metal plate that will be mounted to the Navy's newest submarine, the USS Illinois, named for her home state.

An EB veteran of 37 years, Michael Macomber did the honors of welding her initials into the plate.

"It was an honor, a very big honor. I'm a just blue collar guy. I've worked here 37 years. It was like a feather in my cap for my career," Macomber said.

Mrs. Obama applauded the work of Macomber and all the employees at EB.

"Thank you for everything you do for being part of this effort. I've heard that you are the most skilled ship builders we have around," Mrs. Obama said.

And they have a lot more building to do.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who chose the first lady to be the sponsor of the Illinois, said this newest submarine is part of the Navy's effort to replenish its fleet.

"The decline in the size of the fleet has been arrested and we will return to a fleet of more than 300 ships by the end of this decade and we will remain there," Mabus said.

That's good news for EB, which just received a new government contract for 10 more Virginia-class submarines.

"We're hiring up in Quonset this year. We've got several more months of hiring -- around 100 people a month through the most of the rest of this summer," said Kurt Hesch, an Electric Boat vice president.

"My kids get to go to college. Basically, it's stability," said Calvin Guyton, an EB worker.

The keel-laying was ceremonial. The submarine is about 75 percent complete. A christening is expected next year.