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Good question. I consulted the Naval Historical Center website for the answer.
As you know, the 234th birthday of the United States Navy was last week, on October 13th. Way back then, the ships of the Continental Navy were not given names with any real significance – ship names came from all kinds of sources. For example, the very first Continental Navy ship was named Alfred, in honor of the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, who reportedly commissioned the first naval force in England [remember, at this point, the colonists still felt some allegiance to Britain, so this name choice made sense].
Another early ship was named the Raleigh, after Sir Walter Raleigh [an English explorer who was knighted under Queen Elizabeth in 1585], and many others were also named after prominent Englishmen [like the General Greene, named after Nathanael Greene, who served as an officer in the Revolutionary War under George Washington]. Some vessels had names to reflect the ideals of new country [Independence] – in fact; a ship built in 1782 was named the America [in what some might call an ironic twist, the America was gifted to the French Navy].
And so the rather arbitrary but meaningful naming of ships continued until 1819, when Congress decided to bestow the responsibility of naming naval ships to the Secretary of the Navy. At that time, Congress decided that first class ships would be named after states; second class after rivers and third class after cities and towns. No two ships could have the same name, which is still true today [unless a vessel is named in honor of a ship that was destroyed during combat]. First class ships were armed with forty or more guns; second class ships carried between twenty and forty guns, and so on. Any ships purchased by the U.S. Navy were subject to a name-change by the Secretary of the Navy [which is still in effect today].
Now, the ship-naming laws of the 1800s get far more complex – but what is most important is that the Secretary of the Navy has the responsibility of finding an appropriate, meaningful name for each and every vessel in the naval force [the Secretary of the Navy still holds this job today]. To give the Secretary a little help and inspiration, the Naval Historical Center provides a list of recommendations, based on extensive research as well as suggestions from service members [cool, huh?] Before this list arrives on the desk of the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations must review it and sign off. The Secretary makes the official announcement when a new vessel has been named.
A ship is typically named before it is officially christened. Of course, ships still have a selected sponsor who must christen the vessel. The sponsor, like the ship’s name, is chosen by the Secretary of the Navy. If a ship is named after a person, the Navy attempts to locate the oldest surviving direct descendent of the ship’s namesake to assume the role of sponsor. In other cases – when a ship is not named after a person with a descendent as sponsor – it is customary for the wife of a public official or a high-ranking naval officer to serve as sponsor.
The Navy has made attempts throughout history to ensure that the naming of ships is organized and systematical. Since 1920, for example, only battleships have been given names of U.S. states. Other types of ships that once bore the name of a state were renamed. Cruisers were named for cities, while destroyers were named for prominent naval leaders or American heroes. Submarines – which became a part of the Navy in early 1900 – were first assigned names like Salmon or Porpoise, followed by more “intimidating” names like Viper. In the mid-1900s though, submarines were given “alpha-numeric” names like A-1, which carried on until the thirties, when subs were once again given names reflecting “fish and denizens of the deep.”
When World War II began, the Navy began constructing new types of ships, which, of course, required new naming guidelines. A new type of ship, the cruiser, were given names of famous war battles in American history, and were often bestowed with names of early naval ships. Destroyers were named after fallen members of the Navy or for ships that were destroyed during the war.
There are many types of naval ships, and all have different naming guidelines:
Submarine tenders – named after “submarine pioneers” [Holland]
Ammunition ships – bear the names of volcanoes, or words that “denote fire and explosives” [Pyro]
Fleet tugs – named after American Indians [Powhatan]
Salvage ships – carry names that indicate “salvage” and safety [Safeguard]
Surveying ships – named in honor of individuals who have established themselves in the field of oceanic science or exploration
Oilers/Tankers – carry the name of American rivers or well-known ship builders and designers
Fast Combat – named in honor of previous supply ships [a fast combat ship carries ammo and other supplies]
And, in case you were unaware, the prefix USS means “United States Ship,” and is used on official documents to distinguish a commissioned ship of the U.S. Navy. Until a ship is commissioned, and after it has been decommissioned, its name will not feature USS.
There you have it – an overview of the naval vessel naming process. As a Navy veteran, this type of stuff really interests me, and I think it is important to share this historical information with non-military as well. Pass it along!