As they say, what goes around comes around. This column in July 2011 noted the U.S. Navy’s atrocious record for naming its own ships. Much of that posting is duplicated here, with a current wrinkle.
The U.S. Navy is institutionally incapable of following its own rules. In recent years Secretaries of the Navy have ignored historic conventions regarding appropriate names for different classes of ships, repeatedly catering to political factions.
The situation was recently summarized by a retired chief petty officer. He says, “The Navy has a system for naming submarines. They’re named for cities, states, politicians, and fish.”
That’s an apt description of the “system.”
Naval purists recall the long-gone era of logical ship names: battleships were states; carriers were battles or historic ships; cruisers were cities; destroyers were people; submarines were fish, etc. No more.
The essence is rule of man rather than law, as new ships are named by the Secretary of the Navy—a political appointee. A congressional summary notes, “The Navy states that while ‘it has attempted to be systematic in naming its ships, like all institutions it has been subject to evolutionary change…’”
That’s one way of putting it. But for a reality check, exchange “evolutionary change” with “politics.”
The Navy was not always so political. In the 19th century four living people saw their names on naval vessels. Ten ships were named for living people in the 20th century (six since 1980) and there have been eleven since 2002 (five since deceased).
At Tailhook ‘87 Secretary John Lehman was asked about ship names. He responded that sometimes the Navy has to play the name game to get funding. A retired CPO exclaimed, “SecNav, are you saying that Congress will shell out $3 billion for a carrier named Vinson but not for a carrier named Essex?” Lehman replied, “That’s about it.”
Controversy also involved naming a Lewis and Clark class supply ship for labor activist Cesar Chavez. Reportedly Chavez described his Navy service as the two worst years of his life, but rather than continuing to honor pioneers, SecNav—somebody named Mabus—opted for a Democrat Party figure in a totally unrelated field.
In 2016 a new replenishment oiler was announced for San Francisco homosexual politician Harvey Milk, a navy veteran assassinated by a city supervisor in 1978. He was known for his preference for juvenile boys. The same Mabus person made that decision, too.
Then there are aircraft carriers.
For decades the most important ships afloat were named for battles or historic ships. However, two carriers have been named for presidents who died in office: Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) and John F. Kennedy (CV-67). USS Forrestal (CV-59) honored another naval veteran, the first Secretary of Defense.
After Nimtiz (CVN-68) in 1972, every subsequent carrier has been named for presidents and politicians, including Senator John Stennis and Representative Carl Vinson. Both were Navy supporters who, like Nimitz, should have been honored by naming of destroyers or frigates. (Both were southerners and devoted segregationists.)
Hardcore naval aviators disapproved of USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) and George W. Bush (CVN-77). Truman slashed naval aviation, seeking to transfer its mission to the Air Force, and tried to disband the Marine Corps. Bush presided over the 1991 Tailhook witch hunt that denied thousands of innocent officers due process. But partisan politics won.
Interest in christening a new carrier Enterprise—the most storied of all flattops—brought a brief resurgence of optimism among purists. With CVN-65 due for retirement, the lead ship of the CVN-79 class could become “Big E III.”
However, Republicans insisted on honoring Gerald Ford with CVN-78, who was never elected president, and whose primary naval duty was a ship’s athletic officer. His namesake, lead ship of the class, has turned into an open-ended sinkhole: perennially late with enormous costs at very little return. It was delivered incomplete and may not deploy for years to come.
Then the Democrats intervened, and the Obama administration favored John F. Kennedy for CVN-79, even though CV-67 was only decommissioned in 2007. As long as “a real carrier name” was ignored, rather than recycling Kennedy the Navy might have considered another WW II naval officer: Richard M. Nixon. And good luck on that one!
The Enterprise name was bestowed upon CVN-80, much to the satisfaction and amazement by the dwindling crew of the World War II “Big E” vets.
But naval purists will continue their critique. As long as SecNav makes the decision, the process will remain subject to political favoritism. The only way to change it is to enact a law requiring adherence to convention, but guess what? That decision would have to be made by politicians.
Now apparently the interim SecNav, somebody named Modly, makes the decisions. He’s a former naval officer and D.C. denizen who was executive director of the Defense Business Board. Whatever that is. He seems to be a space holder until his full-time successor is approved, somebody named Braithwaite. Presumably Braithwaite is supposed to sort out the USS Ford mess, which had only worsened under his predecessor, somebody named Spencer. (The Ford is still a mess and likely to remain so indefinitely.)
In any case, Modly is the culprit behind naming CVN-81 for Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, the black sailor aboard the battleship West Virginia portrayed by Cuba Gooding in the egregious 2001 movie Pearl Harbor. Miller received a deserved Navy Cross and died aboard the escort carrier Liscome Bay (CVE-56), sunk in November 1943.
Here’s the thing: “Dorrie” Miller already had a ship named for him, the frigate FF-1091 between 1973 and 1991. That was entirely appropriate, as destroyers and frigates historically have been named for naval heroes. But of the 190 aircraft carriers owned by the U.S. Navy since 1922, none have been named for any individual below the rank of fleet admiral (Nimitz, CVN-68).
Unfortunately, the legacy of Doris Miller has come down to racial politics. The PC police were in full enforcement mode with CVN-81, not only emphasizing Doris Miller’s ethnicity, but making the announcement on Martin Luther King Day.
Perhaps even more to the point, consider the huge list of war-fighting, war-winning naval heroes who have no ships named for them. If you’re unfamiliar with them, all are easily googled:
Joe Foss, John L. Smith, Marion Carl, Richard C. Mangrum, Robert L. Galer, Jeff DeBlanc, Kenneth L. Walsh, and James E. Swett. All were recipients of the Medal of Honor and/or Navy Cross; all contributed significantly to the Guadalcanal and Solomons campaign, America’s first offensive of WW II.
Shame on the United States Navy for its institutional abandonment of Marine Corps aviators who made a difference in the greatest of America’s wars.