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Naming in the United States Navy, Published 2013
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The Navy
traces its ancestry to 13 October 1775, when an act of the Continental Congress
authorized the first ship of a new navy for the United Colonies, as they were
then known. The ships of the Continental Navy, and of the Navy later
established under the Federal Constitution, were not named in any strictly
categorical manner.

Ship names
in the Continental Navy and the early Federal navy came from a variety of
sources. As if to emphasize the ties that many Americans still felt to Britain,
the first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred in honor of
Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex who is credited with building the first
English naval force. Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the
seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and
heroes (Hancock and General Greene). Others commemorated the
young nation’s ideals and institutions (Constitution, Independence,
Congress). A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to
the French Navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War
frigate named Bourbon saluted the King of France, whose alliance would
further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American
places (Boston, Virginia). Small warships– brigs and
schooners–bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character
traits (Enterprise, Diligent). Others had classical names (Syren,
Argus) or names of small creatures with a potent sting (Hornet, Wasp).

On 3 March
1819 an act of Congress formally placed the responsibility for assigning names
to the Navy’s ships in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy, a prerogative
which he still exercises. This act stated that “all of the ships, of the Navy
of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by
the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United
States, according to the following rule, to wit: those of the first class shall
be called after the States of this Union; those of the second class after the
rivers; and those of the third class after the principal cities and towns;
taking care that no two vessels of the navy shall bear the same name.” The
last-cited provision remains in the United States Code today.

An act of 12
June 1858 specifically included the word “steamship” in the ship type
nomenclature, and officially defined the “classes” of ships in terms of the
number of their guns. Ships armed with 40 guns or more were of the “first
class”; those carrying fewer than 40, but more than 20, guns were of the
“second class.” The name source for the second class was expanded to include
the principal towns as well as rivers. The unprecedented expansion of the fleet
during the Civil War was reflected–as far as ship naming was concerned–in an
act of 5 August 1861, which authorized the Secretary of the Navy “to change the
names of any vessels purchased for use of the Navy Department…” This provision
also remains in current law.

before the turn of this century the legislation was changed to reflect the
remarkable changes taking place in the Navy itself as wooden hulls, sails, and
muzzleloading ordnance gave way to steel ships with breechloading rifles. An
act of May 4, 1898, specified that “all first-class battleships and monitors
[shallow-draft coast-defense ships completed between 1891 and 1903, armed with
heavy guns] shall be named for the States, and shall not be named for any city,
place, or person, until the names of the States have been exhausted, provided
that nothing herein contained shall be construed as to interfere with the names
of states already assigned to any such battleship or monitor.”

As with many
other things, the procedures and practices involved in Navy ship naming are as
much, if not more, products of evolution and tradition than of legislation. As
we have seen, the names for new ships are personally decided by the Secretary
of the Navy. The Secretary can rely on many sources to help him reach his
decisions. Each year, the Naval Historical Center compiles primary and
alternate ship name recommendations and forwards these to the Chief of Naval
Operations by way of the chain of command. These recommendations are the result
of research into the history of the Navy and by suggestions submitted by
service members, Navy veterans, and the public. Ship name source records at the
Historical Center reflect the wide variety of name sources that have been used
in the past, particularly since World War I. Ship name recommendations are
conditioned by such factors as the name categories for ship types now being
built, as approved by the Secretary of the Navy; the distribution of geographic
names of ships of the Fleet; names borne by previous ships which distinguished
themselves in service; names recommended by individuals and groups; and names
of naval leaders, national figures, and deceased members of the Navy and Marine
Corps who have been honored for heroism in war or for extraordinary achievement
in peace.

In its final
form, after consideration at the various levels of command, the Chief of Naval
Operations signs the memorandum recommending names for the current year’s
building program and sends it to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary
considers these nominations, along with others he receives as well as his own
thoughts in this matter. At appropriate times, he selects names for specific
ships and announces them.

While there
is no set time for assigning a name, it is customarily done before the ship is
christened. The ship’s sponsor–the person who will christen the ship–is also
selected and invited by the Secretary. In the case of ships named for
individuals, an effort is made to identify the eldest living direct female
descendant of that individual to perform the role of ship’s sponsor. For ships
with other name sources, it is customary to honor the wives of senior naval
officers or public officials.

While the
Navy has attempted to be systematic in naming its ships, like all institutions
it has been subject to evolutionary change, and the name sources of the Navy’s
ships have not been immune to this change. Thus, an historical accounting of
this evolution, as it appeared in modern times, may help the reader understand
the ship naming process as it exists today.

The Civil
War expanded the Navy to an extent undreamed of in prewar times. More than 200
new ships were built, and another 418 were purchased for naval use. Ironclads,
including monitors, and shallow-draft river steamers fell into new
classification categories, and their naming reflected the abrupt pace of
growth. Names like Hartford andBrooklyn, Ticonderoga and Monongahela
mingled with Trefoil, Stars and Stripes, Penguin, and Western
. Many ships, including gunboats and monitors, bore names of American
Indian origin, such as Owasco, Sagamore,Saugus, and Onondaga.
Four big monitors, laid down but never completed, were given such
tongue-twisters asShackamaxon and Quinsigamond. A large
oceangoing ironclad was, fittingly enough, named New Ironsides. Ships
acquired for Navy use were known by such strange names as Hunchback, Midnight,
and Switzerland. In 1869 one Secretary of the Navy, who disliked the
Indian names borne by so many Navy ships, renamed a large number of them,
substituting names from classical antiquity such as Centaur, Medusa,
Goliath, and Atlas. A few months later, his successor changed
most of the names back again!

As the “new
Navy,” the generation of steel ships that would mature into the fleet of the
20th century, took form the Navy’s new ships were named in accordance with what
evolved into a new system, tailored to the new ship types now developing. There
came to be–then, as now–some duplication in use of name sources for different
ship types. Names of states, for example, were borne by battleships; by armored
cruisers (large, fast warships as big as, or bigger than, contemporary
battleships but more lightly protected and armed with cruiser-caliber guns),
and monitors (small coast-defense ships armed with heavy guns). As battleship
construction went on through the early 1900s, state names began to run short.
The law stated that battleships had to bear state names; to comply with this,
monitors and armored cruisers were renamed for cities within their respective
name states to free the names of their states for assignment to new
battleships. The monitors Florida and Nevada, for instance,
becameTallahassee and Tonopah, while the armored cruisers Maryland
and West Virginia became Frederick andHuntington. By 1920,
state names were the sole preserve of battleships.

In 1894 the
famed Civil War sloop-of-war Kearsarge ran aground in the Caribbean and
had to be written off as unsalvageable. There was so much affection for that
ship in the Fleet that the Secretary of the Navy asked Congress to permit her
name to be perpetuated by a new battleship. This was done, and Kearsarge
(Battleship Number 5) became the only American battleship not to be named for a

From the
1880s on, cruisers were named for cities while destroyers–evolving from the
steam torpedo boats built around the turn of the century–came to be named for
American naval leaders and heroes, as today’s destroyers are still named.
Submarines began to enter the Fleet in 1900. The first was named Holland
in honor of John Holland, submarine designer and builder. Later submarines
were, at first, given such names as Grampus, Salmon, and Porpoise,
but were also named for venomous and stinging creatures, such as Adder, Tarantula,
and Viper. Submarines were renamed in 1911, however, and carried alpha-
numeric names such as A-1, C-1, H-3, L-7, and the
like until 1931, when “fish and denizens of the deep” once more became their
name source. In 1931, existing ships were not renamed.

World War I
sparked unprecedented naval ship construction, principally in destroyers and
submarines, to protect a massive sealift effort–the “bridge of ships”–across
the Atlantic to Europe. Additionally, the development of mine warfare
necessitated the introduction of a new type of ship, the minesweeper. A new
type of ship required a new name source. The then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy,
Franklin D. Roosevelt, took a keen interest in amateur ornithology. This led
him to select bird names as the name source for these new ships, and “F.D.R.”
signed the General Order assigning names to the first 36 ships of the Lapwing
class. The ships that bore these colorful names served as the backbone of the
Navy’s mine force for the next quarter century; many earned honors in World War

Between the
World Wars the Navy’s first aircraft carriers came into service. Our first
carrier, converted from the collier Jupiter, was Langley (CV 1),
named in honor of aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Our next two
carriers were built on the unfinished hulls of battle cruisers, two of a
canceled class of six fast capital ships which had already been assigned the
names of American battles and famous former Navy ships. These new carriers kept
their original names, Lexington and Saratoga. The original
battle-cruiser name source continued as Ranger,Yorktown, Enterprise,
Wasp, and Hornet entered service between 1934 and 1941, and was
carried on through World War II and into the postwar years.

As World War
II approached, and ship construction programs began to include new types of
ships, these required new name sources; others required a modification of
existing name sources to meet a perceived shortage of “appropriate” names.
Minesweepers were now being built and converted in large numbers. Perhaps
fearing an exhaustion of suitable bird names, the Navy also used “general word
classification” names such as Adept, Bold, and Agile, for
new sweepers. This began a dual naming tradition that extended beyond World War
II. Modern mine countermeasures ships are intended to detect and destroy all
types of mines; they bear such names as Avenger,Guardian, and Dextrous.
Coastal minehunters, similar in concept but designed for use in coastal waters,
carry bird names (Osprey, Raven). Some hundreds of small seagoing
minesweepers, built during World War II, were at first known only by their hull
numbers. After the war, those remaining in the Fleet were reclassified and
given bird names; thus, the wartime YMS 311 became Robin (AMS

A new ship
type, the destroyer escort (DE), retained the name source of its “parent” ship
type, the destroyer. Most of these mass-produced antisubmarine patrol and
escort ships were named in honor of members of the naval service killed in
action in World War II. Some were named for destroyers lost in the early stages
of that war.

Ships lost
in wartime were normally honored by having their names reassigned to new
construction. Names likeLexington, Yorktown, Atlanta, Houston,
Triton and Shark were perpetuated in memory of lost ships and
gallant crews. Unique among these names bestowed in honor of lost ships was Canberra,
assigned to a heavy cruiser in honor of the Australian cruiser Canberra,
sunk while operating with American warships during the Battle of Savo Island in
August 1942. This was seen to be an appropriate exception to the custom of
naming cruisers for American cities.

During World
War II the names of individuals were once again assigned to aircraft carriers.
A small fleet carrier (CVL 49), converted from a cruiser hull, was named Wright
in honor of the Wright brothers, while a large aircraft carrier (CVB 42) of the
Midway class was named Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after the
President’s death in the spring of 1945. That name was suggested to
then-President Harry S. Truman by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who
would himself later be honored in the naming of our first “supercarrier,” Forrestal
(CVA 59). Franklin D. Rooseveltwas the first aircraft carrier to be
named for an American statesman; Franklin and Hancock, wartime Essex-class
fleet carriers, honored the former Navy ships of those names and not, as many
think, the statesmen themselves. A new Langley (CVL 27) honored our
first aircraft carrier, lost in the opening months of war in the Pacific.

warfare, long considered a minor function by navies, assumed major importance
in World War II. An entirely new “family” of ships and craft was developed for
the massive landing operations in Europe and the Pacific. Many types of landing
ships did not receive “word” names, but were simply known by their hull numbers
(LST 806 and LCI(G) 580). Attack cargo ships and attack
transports carried landing craft to put cargo and troops ashore on a beachhead.
Many of these were named for American counties (Alamance [AKA 75]; Hinsdale
[APA 120]). Some early APAs, converted from conventional troopships, kept their
former names (Leonard Wood,President HayesAchernar) or constellations (Cepheus). Dock landing
ships, seagoing ships with a large well deck for landing craft or vehicles,
bore names of historic sites (Gunston Hall,Rushmore). Modern LSDs
are still part of today’s Fleet, and carry on this name source (Fort McHenry,
Pearl Harbor). After World War II the remaining tank landing ships (LST)
were given names of American counties; thus, the hitherto-unnamed LST 819
now became Hampshire County (LST 819).

As naval
technology advanced after World War II, the fleet began to evolve much as it
had after the Civil War. Old ship types left the Navy’s roster as new types
emerged. Nuclear power and guided missiles spurred much of this change. The
first nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, Long Beach, was the last
cruiser to be named for a city in traditional fashion.

The next
cruisers, also nuclear-powered missile ships, were given state names and became
the California andVirginia classes. We had built no battleships
since World War II, and these new ships were seen to be, in a sense, their
successors as the most powerful surface warships afloat.

fleet ballistic missile submarines, built to carry the Polaris strategic
deterrent missile, began to go into commission in the early 1960s. These were
rightly regarded as ships without precedent. Thus, a name source of their own
was deemed appropriate. Our first ballistic missile submarine was named George
, and the rest of the “41 for freedom” bore the names of “famous
Americans and others who contributed to the growth of democracy.” Some of these
submarines were later reclassified as conventional attack submarines under the
Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) agreements. Though they lost their missile
capability, they continued to bear such names as Patrick Henry and Ethan
. The newest Trident missile submarines of the Ohio class bear
state names, one of the name sources originally considered for the first
Polaris submarines. One of the class,Henry M. Jackson, honors a
legislator who had a strong share in shaping American defense programs.

Into the
mid-1970s attack submarines continued to be named for sea creatures, though a
few were named for such legislators as Richard B. Russell and L.
Mendel Rivers
. Ships of the more recent Los Angeles class bear the
names of American cities. One exception, Hyman G. Rickover, honors the
man who has been called “the father of the nuclear Navy.” The new Seawolf
class has departed from this scheme, with Seawolf representing a
“denizen of the deep” and Connecticut named for the state; the third
ship of the class has not yet been named.

After World
War II aircraft carriers were given a mix of such traditional carrier names as Ranger,
Saratoga, andCoral Sea and names of individuals. The first of
these, as we have seen, was Franklin D. Roosevelt, later followed byForrestal
and John F. Kennedy. All the ships of the current Nimitz class
bear the names of such national figures asTheodore Roosevelt, George
, and Ronald Reagan.

The names of
American battles have been perpetuated by the newest class of guided missile
cruisers. The first of these was TiconderogaThomas S. Gates for a statesman who served as
Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense.

guided missile destroyers continue the tradition of honoring naval leaders and
heroes. There are the typical exceptions; Roosevelt (DDG 80) was named
in honor of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, whileWinston Churchill
honors the great war leader of World War II. Some destroyers bear names of
recent heroes, while others carry on the traditions of distinguished former
ships of the same name.

The Navy is
not only made up of combatant ships. Throughout its history it has depended on
its auxiliary ships, a generic term used in referring to the many different
types of ships used to support the Fleet. Auxiliary ship types are numerous and
varied, and display many different name sources. Submarine tenders, for
instance, are “mother ships” to submarine squadrons and bear the names of
submarine pioneers (Simon Lake, Hunley, Holland).
Ammunition ship names are names of volcanoes or words denoting fire and
explosives (Suribachi, Pyro). Fleet tugs, big seagoing ships
capable of rescue and firefighting as well as towing, bear American Indian
names (Powhatan,Navajo), while salvage ships have names
indicating salvage (Safeguard, Grasp). Ocean surveying ships have
been named for individuals who distinguished themselves in ocean sciences or
exploration (Maury, Wilkes, BowditchPathfinder,
points to its role at sea. Oilers, large tankers fitted to refuel other ships
at sea, are named for rivers (Monongahela, Patuxent) or for
famous ship designers or builders (Joshua Humphreys, Benjamin
). Fast combat support ships provide fuel, ammunition, and other
supplies to aircraft carrier battle groups. The newest class of these ships
honors the names of honored supply ships of former years (Supply, Arctic).

How will the
Navy name its ships in the future? It seems safe to say that the evolutionary
process of the past will continue; as the Fleet itself changes, so will the
names given to its ships. It seems equally safe, however, to say that future
decisions in this area will continue to demonstrate regard for the rich history
and valued traditions of the United States Navy.

A Note on
Navy Ship Name Prefixes

The prefix
“USS,” meaning “United States Ship,” is used in official documents to identify
a commissioned ship of the Navy. It applies to a ship while she is in
commission. Before commissioning, or after decommissioning, she is referred to
by name, with no prefix. Civilian-manned ships of the Military Sealift Command
(MSC) are not commissioned ships; their status is “in service,” rather than “in
commission.” They are, nonetheless, Navy ships in active national service, and
the prefix “USNS” (United States Naval Ship) was adopted to identify them.
Other Navy vessels classified as “in service” are simply identified by their
name (if any) and hull number, with no prefix.

Into the
early years of the 20th century there was no fixed form for Navy ship prefixes.
Ships were rather haphazardly identified, in correspondence or documents, by
their naval type (U.S. Frigate ____), their rig (United States Barque ____), or
their function (United States Flag-Ship ______). They might also identify
themselves as “the Frigate _____,” or, simply, “Ship ______.” The term “United
States Ship,” abbreviated “USS,” is seen as early as the late 1790s; it was in
frequent, but far from exclusive, use by the last half of the 19th century.

In 1907
President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Executive order that established the
present usage:

In order
that there shall be uniformity in the matter of designating naval vessels, it
is hereby directed that the official designation of vessels of war, and other
vessels of the Navy of the United States, shall be the name of such vessel,
preceded by the words, United States Ship, or the letters U.S.S., and by no
other words or letters.

–Executive Order 549, 8 January 1907.

Today’s Navy
Regulations define the classification and status of naval ships and craft:

1. The Chief
of Naval Operations shall be responsible for … the assignment of classification
for administrative pur- poses to water-borne craft and the designation of
status for each ship and service craft. ….

2. Commissioned vessels and craft shall be called “United States Ship” or

3. Civilian manned ships, of the Military Sealift Command or other commands,
designated “active status, in service” shall be called “United States Naval
Ship” or “U.S.N.S.”

4. Ships and service craft designated “active status, in service,” except those
described by paragraph 3 of this article, shall be referred to by name, when
assigned, classification, and hull number (e.g., “HIGH POINT PCH-1” or

— United States Navy Regulations, 1990, Article 0406.

Some, but
apparently not all, other navies also use prefixes with their ships’ names.
Perhaps the best known of these is “HMS” (His or Her Majesty’s Ship), long used
by the Royal Navy. In earlier times this was also seen as “HBMS,” for “His
Britannic Majesty’s Ship.” British Empire/Commonwealth navies used their own
versions of this, inserting their own nationalities, such as HMCS for Canada,
HMNZS for New Zealand, or HMAS for Australia. The Royal Saudi Naval Forces also
use “HMS.” Argentina uses “ARA” (Armada de la Republic Argentina); the
Philippine Navy identifies its ships as “BRP” (Barka ng Republika ng
Pilipinas). The Imperial German Navy used “SMS” (Seine Majestäts Schiff); the
World War II Kriegsmarine does not appear to have used a prefix, but the modern
Bundesmarine uses “FGS” (Federal German Ship). India and Israel both use “INS”
to mean Indian Naval Ship or Israeli Navy Ship. Lebanon and Tunisia, on the
other hand, do not use any nationality prefix.

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Naming in the United States Navy, Published 2013
 [76 Pages, 0.9MB]