The Origin of Submarine Dolphins – All Hands Magazine January 1961

Submarine Warfare Insignia

One way to distinguish a United States Navy Submariner from any other sailor is to see the dolphins predominantly displayed on his or her uniform. Officers wear a gold version and enlisted wear a silver version. I have seen many stories over the years about the origin of the insigne but this article from the Navy’s All Hands Magazine seems to sum it up nicely.

The common name for the insigne is Dolphins although in my time, they were also known as “Fish”. That’s interesting in some ways since a dolphin is a mammal and not a fish.

Dolphins of course are mammals because they have all of the major characteristics of mammals; they breathe through lungs, they are warm-blooded, they produce milk for their offspring and they have hair. They also have blowholes and must return to the surface for air.

Where did the “Fish” come from?

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the name fish came from a smartass Submariner who was making a snarky comparison to the men who were fishy enough to volunteer to be locked up in a steel tube that submerges for extended periods of time.  Submariners have a quirky sense of humor which can either be endearing or annoying depending on who is on the receiving end of their brand of humor.

I have heard many times that once you wear the dolphins, they are forever emblazoned into your heart. I can’t speak for all submariners, but it is certainly true for me. I am proud of the American flag and I am a humble servant of the Risen Lord. But there is a part of me that will always be a part of a very unique family known as Submariners.

One caveat: Like all good Naval Yarns that are passed along, this one probably has some elements of truth to it and some conjecture. I will leave it up to historians to decide which is which.

Mister Mac

Little did I realize when I posted this that it would generate such “critical” acclaim.

This is now the first of a two part article.  The rest of the story is found here:

The Origin of Submarine Dolphins – Part Deux


ALL Hands Magazine JANUARY 1961


“A high point in the career of many a Navy man occurs when he becomes a qualified submariner. At that time he is authorized to wear dolphins.

The correct name for the dolphins is submarine insigne. It is one of the items of uniform included under the category of breast insignia, including naval aviator, aviation observer and parachutist insignia, among others.

The submarine insignia came into use in the Navy nearly 37 years ago. It was on 13 Jun 1923 that the commander of a New London-based submarine division, took the first official steps—by way of an official recommendation. That officer was Captain Ernest Joseph King, USN, who later became Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations.

Captain King recommended that a distinguishing device be adopted for qualified submariners, both officers and enlisted men. With his recommendation he submitted a pen-and-ink sketch of his own. The sketch showed a shield mounted on the beam ends of a submarine, with dolphins forward of, and abaft, the conning tower. The recommendation was strongly endorsed by Commander, Submarine Divisions, Atlantic Fleet, the following day and sent on to the Chief of the old Bureau of Navigation.

Over the next several months the Bureau solicited additional designs from various sources. Several were submitted. Some combined a submarine-and-shark motif. Some showed submarines and dolphins. Some used a shield design.

On 20 March 1924, the Chief of BuNav recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that the dolphin design be adopted. A few days later the recommendation was accepted by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Acting SecNav.

The final design shows the bow view of a submarine proceeding on the surface of the sea. Her bow planes care rigged for diving. Flanking the submarine are stylized dolphins in horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the bow planes.

As with other breast insignia (and enlisted distinguishing marks), qualifications are outlined in the Bupers Manual, while the method of wearing, a description of the design and an illustration of the design are to be found in Uniform Regulations.

The submarine insignia in the early days were awarded only to those officers qualified for submarine command. Later the criteria became “Qualified in sub- marines.” Also in the early days, the insignia were worn (both by officers and enlisted men) only when attached to submarines or submarine organizations. Under current directives however, once qualified, the insignia may be worn regardless of the duty being performed.

As first authorized, the insigne for officers was a bronze, gold-plated metal pin. Later, both a gold embroidered insigne and a gold-color metal pin became authorized.

Today enlisted submariners may wear either a silver-color metal pin or an embroidered dolphin. The latter is either white or blue, depending on the uniform worn.

Originally, the embroidered insigne was worn on an enlisted man’s right sleeve, midway between the wrist and elbow. To day it is worn on the left breast.”

ALL Hands Magazine JANUARY 1961

Update from 2022:

This was the first of four parts to this story. The following links will take you to the other three:

The Origin of Submarine Dolphins – Part Deux

Submarine Dolphins Part Three – The Artists that created the Insignia

The Origin of Submarine Dolphins – The Fourth (and I think) Final Chapter

Mister Mac

23 thoughts on “The Origin of Submarine Dolphins – All Hands Magazine January 1961

  1. In an early paragraph the statement is made that the dolphin is a mammal and not a fish.
    This is incorrect. The dorado or mahi mahi is a dolphin and is a fish and not a mammal.
    Just sayin’

    1. Dolphins are a widely distributed and diverse group of aquatic mammals. They are an informal grouping within the order Cetacea, excluding whales and porpoises, so to zoologists the grouping is paraphyletic. The dolphins comprise the extant families Delphinidae (the oceanic dolphins), Platanistidae (the Indian river dolphins), Iniidae (the new world river dolphins), and Pontoporiidae (the brackish dolphins), and the extinct Lipotidae (baiji or Chinese river dolphin). There are 40 extant species of dolphins. Dolphins, alongside other cetaceans, belong to the clade Cetartiodactyla with even-toed ungulates. Cetaceans’ closest living relatives are the hippopotamuses, having diverged about 40 million years ago.

      The name mahi-mahi comes from the Hawaiian language and means “very strong”, through the process of reduplication. Though the species is also referred to as the common dolphinfish, the use of “dolphin” can be misleading as they are not closely related to dolphins; see Coryphaena for the possible etymologies of “dolphinfish”.

      Sorry, you are not correct according to science.

      1. I think the key here is the term “heraldic.”
        According to this link,

        Heraldic dolphins were considered to be the fastest and strongest of all fishes. Since that is the image selected, and not the mammal dolphin, it is likely to be what was intended in the original design of the submarine qualification insignia.
        Just a thought.

      2. Sorry Mister Mac, Submarine Dolphins are dolphin “fish,” NOT mammals, as in Mahi Mahi, NOT porpoises.. Most of our submarines were also originally named after “fish,” although quite a few were named after other sea creatures, like Nautilus (a mollusk) or Narwhal (a whale), even Porpoise (mammal), starting with the Turtle and Alligator (reptiles).

      3. No need to be sorry. Opinions are free and each of us have a right to the ones we choose. I spent a great deal of time researching all four articles related to the naming convention and development of the submarine warfare insignia. I am comfortable with the final product. I have written about 1100 articles for the blog to date and average about five hours of research depending on the subject. (I say average since some of the early posts were pretty short and not as in depth). One thing I have found is that even within official Navy sources, there are differences in opinion on the exact same thing. Add into that the wide-open source called the internet and you would be stunned by how many variants on opinions you can find. I am pretty sure I have done three posts on submarine naming conventions as well, but I continue to seek more data to add to the knowledge pool. Based on my health and trajectory, at some point over the next few years, I will not be around to discuss opinions anymore. But please know that for today, yours is well received.

  2. But I believe the animal pictured on the Dolphin insignia are indeed Mahi Mahi dolphinfish. At least that was what I was taught when qualing. Thus calling the insignia dolphins and or fish is accurate.

    1. In my second career as a lean manufacturing and six sigma specialist I learned an important life lesson. To be fair, I knew the same lesson in the Navy but being surrounded by so many rich sea stories, it was easy to get distracted. The lesson was this: In God we Trust. All others bring data. Or verifiable facts in this case. There is no written documentation anywhere in the thousands of documents I routinely use in the Library of Congress, Naval Heritage and History Command or any other reliable source for information. I was taught many things and heard many sea stories as I grew up in the Navy (if one actually can grow up in the Navy) and probably heard the same sea story. But I have never found anything that remotely proves it other than legends. If anyone can show an actual Navy document that states this, I will happily update this post. Until then, sorry, not convinced it is a Mahi Mahi (which is definitely NOT a dolphin)

  3. The “Dolphins” worn by those of us who qualified in Submarines are not of the mammal or porpoise, but the Dolphin Fish, Dorado, or Mahi-Mahi. It has a very large head & looks like the dolphin on the insignia that we wear. The “fish” on the insignia looks nothing like the porpoise type dolphin. It is interesting to note that when we would transit in or out of port, Porpoises (Dolphins) would usually escort us. The remarkable thing to me was they would be in pairs, 2 on each side near the bow, another 4, 2 on either side about even with the sail, another 4, 2 on each side about the same distance back from the front 2 pair, & then the rest of the “pod” split to either side taking up the rear. They would break the service in unison on each side of us even though they could not see the others across the hull! & yes, I do have pictures!

    1. The original contributor to the symbol for submariners indicated to the Navy chain of command that the emblem would have two dolphins. I cannot read Admiral King’s mind since he is no longer with us. Sadly history does not record whether he was speaking of what is known to scientists as a mammal or what is known to many traditionally as something else. While its interesting to see all of the opinions, all we know for fact is what he penned in his original submission. If someone can show me written documentation from that time period (1924) I will be happy to include it. But in my years of research, I have never been able to find anything that actually proves either case. Thanks for the feedback. Mac

  4. I refer you to the scales on the “mammal”. last time I checked, no species in the clade Cetacea that have scales. That clade includes all dolphins, whales and porpoises.

    1. Thanks for the note Zoe. The people who wear the dolphins are certainly strong in their opinions. I am still searching the archives for the name of the Philadelphia Jeweler that actually created the submarine insignia but so far have hit a dead end. Tonight I found an announcement in the Library of Congress that lists an article in the Washington Evening star. [volume], March 30, 1924, Page 15, Image 53 which clearly identifies the symbol as “Dolphins” but stops short of saying they were Heraldic (which even an old sea dog like myself can clearly see form the available images). I appreciate your thoughts.

  5. I really don’t care about the genus, reason or whether or not they are heraldic or not. I just know that I was proud to wear them from 1965 until present. I can still remember my qual board, who was on it and standing tall to receive them and then drink them at Alfie’s across from EB.

  6. The mahi-mahi or common dolphinfish is a surface-dwelling ray-finned fish found in off-shore temperate, tropical, and subtropical waters worldwide. Also widely called dorado and dolphin, it is one of two members of the Coryphaenidae family, the other being the pompano dolphinfish

  7. Back in my time…(’70’s – ’80’s) – we referred to the pin as ‘dolphins’.

    My son and his contemporaries – when working towards qualification – called them FISH. Not dolphins.
    He earned his ‘fish’ (gold ones) while on the USS Virginia – in 201302/2013.

    I live near the Bangor Submarine Base – and regularly interface with current submariners, and when asked, they too call their pin ‘FISH’.

    So – old school types – like Mr. Mister Mac and me will talk about having dolphins – and the new generation will talk about having fish.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s