What’s in a name? (a short explanation of how naming submarines got so fishy fifty years ago)

Growing up, I read nearly every book I could get my hands on that contained US Navy ships.

I especially loved the stories about the Second World War. It was so cool to be able to know that Battleships were always named after states, cruisers bore the names of cities and destroyers were honored with the names of American heroes.

Even submarines were fairly simple since they would be named after some fish that I have never heard of before the Navy named a fleet boat for them. There were so many honored boats that did such amazing things. But I know that looking at the list, they really had to use their imaginations to find just the right name for a submarine and keep it manly and warlike. Probably explains why there was no USS Goldfish.(I think)

During my short time in the Navy I served aboard five nuclear submarines.

Of those five, one was named after the first President, one a fish, two were cities and one was a state. According to the early rules, all of them probably violated the original naming conventions of the Navy. The exception may be the Halibut but a Submariner from the early days when the boats were named after their class and hull number might take great exception. Sadly none of the guys who served on those old boats are around to set the record straight.It’s always fun being around a group of boat sailors when the subject of boat names and tradition comes up. With the introduction of the Virginia class Fast Attack, it has to be even more fun. I don’t judge. Like I said, my experience was pretty scrambled all by itself

Things are a pretty big jumble these days. We have had boats that are named after men and manned by fish (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and to my knowledge we have stepped away from naming any submarines after fish. Cities and states are so intermingled now, its beyond understanding.

Maybe the next generation will change that too. I kind of hope I live long enough to see what is next. In the meantime, here is a brief explanation from fifty years ago that captures some of the craziness. We were building boats very quickly and as a 41 for Freedom sailor, I take a bit of pride in being part of both that generation and the Ohio Class boomer. Shot missiles from both just for fun also. They landed just about where they were supposed to. That in itself is pretty cool.

What’s in a name?

All Hand Magazine June 1968, JO1 Jim Teague, USN

The people charged with recommending U. S. Navy ships’ names have no such easy way out. There are various rules to follow—and the selection of a name which a ship will carry makes an interesting story.

First of all, the following account should be recognized as a general guide in selecting ships’ names. While there are rules, the final selection may be, and sometimes is, determined by criteria which are aimed at enhancing the tradition of the greatest Navy in history.

Each type of U. S. Navy ship has its own category from which names for new vessels are generally drawn.

Certain types, for example, honor the names of heroic ships of the past; others perpetuate the names of famous naval battles; and still others honor heroes of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.

Deviations from traditional categories, as stated above, do occur. In any case, the selection of a name calls for careful preparation, and must be approved by the Secretary of the Navy, since he, by law, has the responsibility for assigning names to U. S. Navy ships. (Incidentally, only one class of ship—the battleship—is specifically named in accordance with law.)

SECNAV’s AUTHORITY for naming vessels comes from an act of Congress passed on 3 Mar 1819. The act provided that “All ships of the Navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States, according to the following rule—to wit: Those of the first class shall be called after the states of the Union, those of the second class after the rivers, and those of the third class after the principal cities and towns, taking care that no two vessels in the Navy shall bear the same name.”

As the roster of naval ships increased, revisions of the original plan were made. On 12 Jun 1858, the following law was passed:“. . . be it further enacted that all of the steamships of the Navy now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named according to the following rules, namely, all those of 40 guns or more shall be considered of the first class, and shall be called after the states of the Union; those of 20 and under 40 guns shall be considered as of the second class, and be called after the rivers and principal towns or cities; and all those of less than 20 guns shall be of the third class, and named by the Secretary of the Navy as the President may direct, care being taken that no two vessels in the Navy shall bear the same name.”

Today, the process of selecting an appropriate ship’s name involves research and recommendation by the Naval History Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

The recommendation is presented to CNO for approval, then to SECNAV, whereupon, if approved, the new name is assigned to the ship. If a new ship is to be of a classification already on the Navy List, the source from which her name is to be selected is a matter of existing policy.

When the Navy gets a new type of ship, as was the case when the Polaris submarines joined the Fleet, the Navy settles on a new category from which names can be selected. For instance, the 41 Fleet ballistic missile submarines bear the names of “distinguished Americans and others whose lives have paralleled and contributed to the growth of democracy.”

Submarines started out being named for fish and denizens of the deep. Carrying fish and undersea names, such as Pickerel, Haddock and Whale, are submarines (SS), guided missile submarines (SSG) and nuclear powered submarines (SSN). Several former submarines, now auxiliary and transport vessels (APSS), still carry their former fish names (Grouper).

As new submarines are named, it is a practice to choose names of famous submarines formerly on the Navy List so that these ships and their brave men will not be forgotten. Fleet ballistic missile submarines, as has been mentioned, are named for famous American patriots (Patrick Henry), and for others whose lives have paralleled and contributed to the growth of democracy (Lafayette).

No matter what the boat’s name, I can tell you that I would do just about anything to ride one once more to test depth and do an emergency blow. Any submariner that tells you he (or she) would want to do that is not being truthful. But I could be wrong.

Mister Mac

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