Navy vessel naming is more a process of tradition than of legislation. The Secretary of the Navy decides the final names of new vessels but vessel name recommendations are influenced by such factors as:
- Name categories for vessel types now being built, as approved by the Secretary of the Navy
- Distribution of geographic names of vessels of the Fleet
- Names borne by previous vessels that distinguished themselves in service;
- Names recommended by individuals and groups
- 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.
On 13 October 1775, 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. 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, such as the Hancock and General Greene. Others commemorated the young nation's ideals and institutions, such as the Constitution, Independence, and 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 was named Bourbon in honor of the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American places, such as Boston and Virginia. Small warships, such as brigs and schooners, bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character traits, such as Enterprise and Diligent). Others had classical names, such as Syren and Argus, or names of small creatures with a potent sting, such as Hornet and Wasp.
By the early 1900s, Navy vessels were named in accordance with vessel types. For examples, battleships were named for states, cruisers were named for cities, and destroyers were named for American naval leaders and heroes. Starting in 1931, submarines were named for fish and denizens of the deep. World War II vessel construction included new types of vessels, which required new naming sources, and there was a perceived shortage of "appropriate" names for existing types of vessels. Antisubmarine patrol and escort ships were named in honor of name service members killed in action during the war. Vessels lost in wartime were normally honored by having their names reassigned to new construction. During the war, names of individuals were once again assigned to aircraft carriers.
As vessels evolved, such as destroyers becoming nearly as large as previous battleships but with less armor and less displacement, the naming conventions also evolved. Modern war ships make up loss in displacement with increased firepower, speed, and detection capabilities, so their names have evolved to describe them better.
The naming of Navy vessels has become even more political in recent years. The first ship named for a living person was the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in 1975. Since then other vessels have been named for living people, such as USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR-300), and USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23).
Each ship type was distinguished by a type code of two to four letters; pennant numbers were always assigned consecutively within a ship type. American ship classes were always named after the "name ship" -- the first of the class counted by low pennant number. A shorthand form of class name was the pennant number of the name ship.
Following the British tradition, once a ship had been formally named (at the launching of the hull), the name was normally not changed. Before this formal naming, names were often shuffled around during construction.
Vessels, including Navy vessels, have traditionally been referred to using the female pronouns she or her. Nowadays, this is considered politically incorrect and those in politics or the higher echelons of the military establishment use the pronoun it when refereeing to vessels. However, sailors, especially those who serve at sea, still refer to vessels using female pronouns.
Ship Naming 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." Nevertheless, they are 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.
In the early 1800’s, there was no fixed form for Navy ship prefixes. Ships were rather haphazardly identified, in correspondence or documents, by their naval type, such as “U.S. Frigate ____,” by their rig, such as “United States Barque ____,” by their function such as “United States Flag-Ship ____,” or they might just identify themselves as "the Frigate _____," or as "Ship ______." In the 1790’s, the term "United States Ship" (USS) began to be used and by the late 1800’s it was in frequent use.
On 8 January 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 549 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.
United States Navy Regulations, 1990, Article 0406 defines the classification and status of naval ships and craft:
- 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. ....
- Commissioned vessels and craft shall be called "United States Ship" or "U.S.S."
- 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."
- 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 "YOGN-8").
Traditional Ship Naming
- Aircraft Carriers (CV). They were named after either famous battles or other famous ships from the navy's history, such as USS Lexington ("The Lady Lex"), USS Saratoga ("Old Sara"), USS Ticonderoga, USS Belleau Wood- USS Ranger, USS Essex, USS Enterprise ("Big E"), USS Constellation ("Connie"), USS Wasp, and USS Bon Homme Richard ("Poor Richard").
- Battleships (BB). By law, battleships were named for states, such as USS Arizona, USS Oregon, or USS Texas, except for USS Kearsarge (BB-5). Battleships had unofficial names based upon their names. For examples, the West Virginia was "WeeVee", the California was "The Prune Barge", New York was "The Empire State Battleship", and the Pennsylvania was "The Keystone."
- Battlecruisers (CC). Under the 1916 program, battlecruisers were to receive names of battles or famous ships. When cancelled under the Washington Naval Treaty, two were converted to aircraft carriers, and this became the standard for them, with the exception of USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42), USS Forrestal (CVA-59), and USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63).
- "Battlecruisers" or Large Cruisers (CB). Under the 1940 program, they were named for US Territories, such as USS Alaska, USS Guam, USS Hawaii, and USS Puerto Rico.
- Cruisers, light (CL) and heavy (CA). Cruisers were named for cities in the United States and Territories, such as USS Cleveland, USS San Francisco, USS Baltimore, and USS Atlanta, with the exception of USS Canberra (CA-70) that was named after a foreign city.
- Cruisers, Guided Missile, nuclear (CGN). After the first nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, USS Long Beach (CGN-9), last US warship built on a true cruiser hull, CGN's of the California and Virginia classes were named for states. Bainbridge and Truxtun were first commissioned as frigates but later classified as CGN’s).
- Destroyers (DD) and Destroyer Escorts (DE). They were named for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard heroesm such as USS Fletcher, USS Farragut, USS Decatur, USS Cole, USS Truxtun, USS The Sullivans, and USS John Paul Jones.
- Frigates. Frigates (DL), formerly destroyer leaders, were named after naval heroes. In 1975, they were reclassified as either cruisers or destroyers. Frigates (FF), formerly ocean escorts, were also named for naval heroes. The reclassified frigates retained their destroyer names.
- Submarines (SS) and Submarines, Nuclear (SSN). They were either given a class letter and number, as in S class submarine, or the names of fish, marine mammals and crustaceans, such as USS Nautilus USS Squalus, USS Wahoo, USS Bonito, USS Gato, USS Albacore, USS Skipjack, USS Scorpion, and USS Thresher.
- Oilers (AO and AOR). They were named for rivers with Native American names, and colliers named for mythical figures.
- Fast combat support ships (AOE). They were named after US cities.
- Ammunition ships (AE). They were named either after volcanoes, such as Mauna Loa, or words relating to fire and explosions, such as Nitro and Pyro.
- Combat stores ships (AK, AF, and AFS). They were named after stars and other heavenly bodies.
- Minesweepers (MS). They were named for birds, or after 'positive traits', such as USS Adept and USS Dextrous.
- Hospital ships (AH). They were given names related to their function, such as USS Comfort and USS Mercy.
- Fleet tugs (AT) and Harbor Tugs (YT). They were named for Indian tribes.
- Submarines, Nuclear Ballistic Missile (SSBN). The first forty-one were named after historical statesmen considered "Great Americans," such as USS Lafayette, USS George Washington, and USS Benjamin Franklin.
Modern Ship Naming
With the evolution of naval technology, new ship types replaced others, and the naming system changed accordingly.
- Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN and SSGN). They are named after states, such as USS Ohio and US Alabama, except for USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730).
- Attack submarines (SSN). They are named after cites in the case of the older Los Angeles class, such as USS Los Angeles and USS Corpus Christi (renamed City of Corpus Christi "Triple-C" after protests from the Catholic Church), and after states in the newer Virginia class submarines. One ship is named after a fish, one is named after US President Jimmy Carter (the only president to serve in the Submarine service) and another (now decommissioned) was named after nuclear-submarine pioneer Admiral Hyman Rickover.
- Aircraft carriers (CV) Aircraft carriers, Nuclear (CVN). They are named after American admirals and politicians, usually presidents, with possible exception of USS Shangri-La (CV-38) that was named after a fictitious Himalayan kingdom described by James Hilton in his novel, Lost Horizon. During World War II, just after the Halsey-Doolittle bomber raid on Tokyo of 18 April 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to questions posed by members of the press, reported that the planes had been launched from somewhere in Shangri-La. This name honors Hornet (CV-8) which actually launched the Tokyo raiders in 1942 and which was subsequently lost in the Battle of Santa Cruz Island on the night of 26 and 27 October 1942. The first large American aircraft carriers, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga, were built on converted battle cruiser hulls; later carriers followed this practice.
- Amphibious assault ships (LPH, LHA and LHD). They are named after early American sailing ships, famous Marine Corps battles, or legacy names of earlier WWII era carriers.
- Cruisers (CG). They are named after great battles, such as USS Ticonderoga and USS Gettysburg.
- Destroyers (DDG) and Frigates (FFG). They retain their traditional naming conventions after Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine heroes, such as USS Spruance, USS Burke, USS Perry, USS Cole, and USS Kidd, except for USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81).
- Other amphibious vessels. They are named after cities or important places in US and US Naval history.
- Fast combat support ships. They are named for distinguished supply ships of the past.
- Replenishment oilers. They were named for shipbuilders and marine and aeronautical engineers, but have returned to the older convention of river names.
- Dry cargo ships (AKE). They are named for American explorers and pioneers