Did you ever wake up at 4 AM and have so many thoughts in your head you just couldn’t go back to sleep?
That was last night. I was thinking about two submarines. The USS Pittsburgh SSN 720 which is currently preparing for decommissioning and the USS San Francisco SSN 711 which is in limbo as she is being prepared to become a moored training ship. I never sailed on the Pittsburgh. I built the San Francisco. But as President of the Pittsburgh Navy League I have been part of a team that has supported the Pittsburgh for the life of the boat.
What kept me awake was a combination of things. Mostly ship’s names. San Francisco will have an extended life in her new role. Pittsburgh will go away just as so many other 688 class boats already have. So these are my thoughts about ship and submarine names. Hopefully you will get it. If not, remember I was operating on about four hours worth of sleep.
Before the first weld or rivet is put in place, the life of a ship or submarine is partially defined by a very momentous decision: Deciding her name.
The builders will know her by a hull number. All of the planning, pre-staging and preparation will revolve around that unique identification. But once she has a name, the building of her character begins. That name will forever separate her from any other vessel that looks like her or any that came before.
There are so many unique moments in a ship’s history that when they are forged together become her story. The laying of the keel. The Launching. The commissioning. But the naming sets the course for the life of the ship.
Some ships are blessed with a legacy name. A name that was used on a previous vessel with a powerful history. The Los Angeles Class submarine USS Pittsburgh was blessed with such a name. This “man of war’s” name was rich in tradition before the keel was laid. Throughout the nation’s history, the City of Pittsburgh has lent her name to the Navy four times. All four times, the ships that bore her name served in times of conflict. All four times, they were victorious.
The World War 2 Cruiser earned two battle stars and many memorable scars in combat. The SSN 720 boat earned her combat distinction with two historical battle engagements of her own. Operational security will probably obscure the rest of the contributions she made to national security over her lifetime. But her crew knows them all.
Submarines and ships are made of steel. Even the best built will eventually bear a toll as they are ravaged by the sea. Even if the sea is occasionally calm, the real enemy is one of the most uncontrollable – time.
The day comes when a decision must be made about her life. All those miles and dives finally catch up with her. Like the hands that built her, her usefulness will start to fade. All of her achievements and proud history will not be able to keep her from the scrapper’s yard. Newer and faster ships with more capabilities will rise up to take her place. In the end, no excuses or wishing on the part of her crews will help keep her from her fate.
A very few old girls will become monuments, either in part or in whole. They will be forever attached to a pier in some distant city or a cannibalized part will end up as a static display that no sailor can enter or operate. For a once gallant ship, that pier must feel like a prison. Her bow will never break the waves again rushing into battle. She will be frozen in time with no ability to once again master the seas.
The joy and anticipation that was layered onto her keel with every plate as she took form in the beginning, is now replaced with emptiness and utility. She is gradually returned to a shell with only echoes of her former deeds blowing in the wind. Her equipment that served so well will be stripped and sold for surplus and finally the hull itself will be recycled. A lucky few may get a piece of her. Despite the legend of the Plankowners, so rare is it that her first crew ever get to hold anything in their hands.
Time wears out her machinery and batters her hull. Time cannot destroy her name.
As long as the freedom she protected exists, her legacy will remain. Her life and deeds are burned into the pages of our nation’s history. The scorecard of her accomplishments will set the standards for all the ships that follow.
It would be easy to look at her on these final days and think that she was defeated. The enemy she faced in combat could not best her even though the hands of time have. Don’t be deceived. Her soul is intact. The blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of her fine crews will never be forgotten. Her place in history was tempered by the crews that sailed her into history.
Those of us who never sailed on her only know her by her given name. The crews however had their own unique way of identifying her. The many nicknames she bore over her lifetime ranged from the obscene to the reverent. Only the crews know those names and only they can use those labels with any legitimacy. But in moments requiring solemnity, it is her first name, her given name that connects both crew and admirers.
On her final day in commission, we reflect on all of her accomplishments. We thank the crew for watching over her. We honor those who led them. When the ceremony is over, we return her name to posterity. Some of us will think about the next ship to bear her name as she takes her place in line to once again defend freedom.
No matter what ship may inherit that name, there will always be an unspoken adjective to accompany her as she sets sail once more – Victorious. That legacy has been paid for. That future is our obligation to provide.
CWO2 R. W. MacPherson US Navy Retired