Ever wonder how the Navy goes about naming its vessels? Let the Naval History and Heritage Command, our parent command, bring you up to speed. Today we bring you part two of four of “Ship Naming in the United States Navy.”
“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, became Tallahassee and Tonopah, while the armored cruisers Maryland and West Virginia became Frederick and Huntington. 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 state.
“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 II.
“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-53).
“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 like Lexington, 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. Roosevelt was 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.
“Amphibious 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 Hayes); many AKAs were named for stars (Achernar) 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 and Virginia 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.”