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 now there are five since 2002.
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.”
Some names are better received than others. In announcing John Murtha (LPD-26) last year the Secretary over-ruled city names for the San Antonio class. Officially, Murtha was honored as the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, and a Navy release cited “his unwavering support for our Sailors and Marines.” It was untrue: in 2005 Murtha drew bitter criticism for declaring Marines in Iraq guilty of murder before the investigation was over. Marines took the ship as a calculated slap at Leathernecks, especially galling from a champion pork merchant.
The most recent controversy involves 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 opted for a Democrat Party figure in a totally unrelated field. (Another T-AKE was named for civil rights martyr Medgar Evers.) Other ships in the class recognize naval explorers Richard E. Byrd and Robert E. Peary plus astronauts Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra.
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.
Hardcore naval aviators disapproved of USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) and George W. Bush (CVN-77). Truman slashed naval aviation from 99 carriers to 15 (including CVEs) and tried to disband the Marine Corps, while Bush presided over the Tailhook witch hunt. 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.” Reportedly Senator John Warner’s name was hung on a Virginia class submarine, and the onetime carrier name America on LHA-6, to free a carrier for a proper name.
However, Republicans insisted on honoring Gerald Ford, who was never elected president, and whose primary naval duty was a ship’s athletic officer. Disappointed, Enterprise (CV-6) veterans of WW II were informed that the next Ford class hull could be Enterprise, and plans were discussed for passing the original silver to “the 80 boat” and even transferring some of the 1938 ship’s portholes from “E65” to a new carrier. That would have been a tremendous acknowledgment of naval tradition.
No such luck.
The Democrats intervened, and the Obama administration favored John F. Kennedy, 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.
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.
The Navy has flubbed an historic opportunity. In the centennial year of naval aviation, no greater tribute could be accorded than respecting history and tradition in naming our latest combatant for the greatest flattop of all.
The CV-6 association states, “Those of us who served in our Navy during WW II and were given the privilege to serve in USS Enterprise, will always remember those 391 shipmates who were killed in action.”
The U.S. Navy should do no less.