Navy Ship Naming: What's My Name Again?

May 07, 2024
Navy Ship Naming: What's My Name Again?
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The United States Navy has many proud traditions stretching back centuries, today we cover one of their more recognized traditions, ship naming. From mighty aircraft carriers to humble tugboats, each vessel in the Navy fleet bears a moniker that is steeped in history, symbolism, and occasionally, a dash of controversy.

So, who exactly gets to pick these names, and what's the story behind some of the Navy's most famous ships? Join me as we embark on a journey through the colorful and sometimes contentious realm of naval nomenclature - buckle up buttercup!

The Power Behind the Navy Ship Names

First things first - let's talk about the big kahuna, the person who wields the power to christen the Navy's ships. That honor falls to none other than the Secretary of the Navy, a political appointee who serves as the head honcho of the Department of the Navy. Not only does the Secretary get to name new ships as they roll off the production line, but they also have the authority to rename existing vessels if their current titles have become a bit, shall we say, problematic.

This power was recently put under the microscope as the military reckons with bases and ships that bear the names of Confederate figures from the Civil War. An independent commission, created as part of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Bill (which former President Trump initially gave the thumbs down), is currently mulling over recommendations for renaming these assets. According to the commission's vice chair, retired Army Brigadier General Ty Seidule, the Secretary of the Navy's ship-naming authority is enshrined in Title 10 of the U.S. Code.

"There have been about 20 ships that have been renamed while they were serving, for a variety of reasons," Seidule noted during a recent media roundtable. These reasons range from changes in ship class to political considerations.

A Tale of Two Controversial Ships

Speaking of political considerations, let's take a closer look at two ships that have found themselves in the renaming crosshairs: the cruiser USS Chancellorsville and the survey ship USNS Maury.

The Chancellorsville is named after a Civil War battle fought in 1863, which has been hailed as Confederate General Robert E. Lee's greatest victory. However, the triumph was marred by the loss of one of Lee's top commanders, the indomitable Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who was accidentally shot by his own troops and later succumbed to his wounds.

Meanwhile, the Maury bears the name of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a former U.S. Navy officer and oceanographer who defected to the Confederacy and tried to persuade European powers to join the Southern cause. The current USNS Maury is the sixth Navy vessel to be named in his honor.

As of now, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro is still mulling over the commission's recommendations and hasn't made any final decisions on renaming these ships. But one thing's for sure - the process is bound to be a doozy!

What's in a Name? The Navy's Naming Process

So, how exactly does a ship get its name? It all starts when a contract to build a new vessel is awarded. That's when the Secretary of the Navy's spokesperson gives a shout-out to the Naval History and Heritage Command, which starts brainstorming potential names. These suggestions make their way up the chain of command, including a stop at the desk of the Chief of Naval Operations, before landing in front of the Secretary for the final say.

But wait, there's more! The Office of Naval Research's Office of Counsel also gets in on the action, making sure that none of the proposed names step on any legal toes or infringe on trademarks. And if the Secretary has a bee in their bonnet about a particular name, they can always ask the Naval History and Heritage Command to give it a once-over for any historical hiccups.

A Motley Crew: Famous Navy Ship Names

Now that we've got the naming process down pat, let's take a gander at some of the most famous (and quirky) ship names in Navy history:

1. USS Enterprise (CVN-65): Named after the legendary ship from the "Star Trek" franchise, this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier served from 1961 to 2017 and was affectionately known as the "Big E."

2. USS Constitution or "Old Ironsides": this wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, having been launched in 1797. She's still afloat today and open for tours in Boston Harbor.

3. USS Ponce (LPD-15): This amphibious transport dock was named after Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer who discovered Florida while searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth. Talk about a wild goose chase!

4. USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10): This littoral combat ship was named in honor of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. Now that's what we call a fighter!

5. USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and USNS Mercy (T-AH-19): These two hospital ships have provided medical assistance and disaster relief around the world, living up to their compassionate names.

6. USS Nimitz (CVN-68): This supercarrier, commissioned in 1975, is named after the legendary Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II. Talk about big shoes to fill!

7. USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000): This futuristic-looking guided missile destroyer is named in honor of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the youngest person to serve as Chief of Naval Operations. With its stealthy design and advanced weaponry, the Zumwalt is like something straight out of a science fiction novel.

8. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70): Named after the long-serving Georgia Congressman who was known as "The Father of the Two-Ocean Navy," this aircraft carrier has been at the forefront of U.S. naval operations since 1982.

9. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71): This Nimitz-class carrier bears the name of the 26th President of the United States, who was also a distinguished naval historian and an Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Bully for you, Teddy!

10. USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78): The lead ship of the Navy's newest class of aircraft carriers, this technological marvel is named after the 38th President of the United States, who served in the Navy during World War II.

11. USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79): Set to be commissioned in 2024, this Ford-class carrier will honor the memory of the 35th President, who famously served as a PT boat commander in the Pacific during World War II.

12. USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76): This Nimitz-class carrier, commissioned in 2003, is named after the 40th President of the United States, who also served as a captain in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

13. USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77): The last of the Nimitz-class carriers, this ship pays tribute to the 41st President, who was the youngest naval aviator in World War II and later served as Director of Central Intelligence.

14. USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG-1002): This Zumwalt-class destroyer is named in honor of the 36th President, who served in the Navy during World War II and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in the South Pacific.

15. USS Doris Miller (CVN-81): And now, drumroll please... the newest and most advanced ship to be named in the U.S. Navy is the USS Doris Miller, a Ford-class aircraft carrier set to be commissioned in 2032. This ship will make history as the first aircraft carrier named after an African American and an enlisted sailor. Miller, a messman third class, earned the Navy Cross for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor, where he manned an anti-aircraft gun and helped save countless lives despite having no formal training.

A Blast from the Past: Historical Naming Conventions

Of course, ship-naming conventions have evolved over time, often reflecting the zeitgeist of the era. For example, between 1959 and 1967, the Navy commissioned 41 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines collectively known as the "41 for Freedom Submarines." These boats were named after a hodgepodge of historical figures, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and even Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Fast forward to 2020, and then-Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite chose the name "Constellation" for the Navy's newest class of frigates as a way to reconnect with the service's proud heritage and boost morale in the wake of a series of scandals.

"When you tie that together and you allow a sailor to serve on a ship that has such a glorious history in its name, that stuff just bubbles to the top and makes people feel proud and makes them feel that they are a part of something special and part of something that's greater than self," Braithwaite told USNI News.

Charting a Course for the Future

As the Navy navigates the choppy waters of cultural change and reckons with its Confederate-tinged past, Secretary Del Toro has some big decisions to make when it comes to renaming ships like the Chancellorsville and the Maury. Will he look to the Navy's storied history for inspiration, or will he chart a bold new course that reflects the service's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

One thing's for sure - the names that adorn the Navy's ships are more than just words on a hull. They are symbols of the values, aspirations, and sometimes, the contradictions that have shaped the United States throughout its history. As the fleet continues to evolve and grow, so too will the stories behind its names, weaving a rich tapestry of tradition, innovation, and progress.

So, the next time you see a Navy ship gliding across the horizon, take a moment to ponder the name emblazoned on its bow. Whether it's a nod to a founding father, a pioneering explorer, or a modern-day hero, that name carries with it the weight of centuries of service, sacrifice, and the enduring spirit of the United States Navy.
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