Report on Ship Naming Falls Short
By NORMAN POLMAR
The Navy Department has is- sued “A Report on Policies
and Practices of the U.S. Navy for
Naming the Vessels of the Navy” in
response to the biting criticism of
recent ship names assigned by
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
Three names, in particular, have brought forth criticism from naval historians, active as well as retired
Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and members of
Congress: John P. Murtha (LPD 26), Gabrielle Giffords
(LCS 10) and Cesar Chavez (T-AKE 14).
The report, prepared under the supervision of Undersecretary Robert O. Work, is a valuable reference document, explaining Navy ship naming procedures since
colonial ships of the American Revolution. The authors
of the document, released July 13, are professional naval
historians, all currently or previously employed by the
While the report reads well, it fails to effectively ration-
alize the recent ship names selected by Mr. Mabus. First, it
divides the “universe” into two distinct schools: “Orthodox
Traditionalists” who “believe that Navy ship names should
be chosen using fixed naming conventions,” and “Prag-
matic Traditionalists” who “know that battle force ship
types, and classes within ship types, inevitably change due
to a variety of reasons — chief among them technological
advancements [and] therefore reject the notion that a
fixed source of naming conventions for particular ship
types can possibly stand the test of time.”
This artificial division is ridiculous. For example,
no one expected state names to be ignored for future
ships because they once were the name source for bat-
tleships long since retired from naval service.
Technology advances rarely were the chief reason for
name changes. For example, the first nuclear-propelled
cruiser (CGN) carried on the convention of naming cruisers for cities, the first nuclear frigates (DLGN) carried on
the tradition of naming destroyer-type ships for people,
and the first 59 nuclear attack submarines (SSN/SSGN/
SSRN) were named for fish and other marine life. USS
Triton (SSRN 586) in this series was named for a Greek demigod who possessed a man’s body above the waist and that
of a fish below. Nuclear propulsion was one of the principal technology changes of the Cold War era. Similarly,
guided missile-armed ships carried on traditional names.
Some technology advances did bring new name
sources for ships. For example, the 41 Polaris missile
submarines (SSBNs) were named for famous Americans,
although the nationality of a couple of these individuals
was questionable. The Trident SSBN program initiated
naming submarines for states. The development of the
amphibious transport dock (LPD) required a new name
source, as did the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and
mobile landing platform (MLP). Thus, it is difficult to
argue against new name sources for new types of ships.
Rather, the controversy over ship name selections by
Mr. Mabus centers around the specific names that he
selected that are ( 1) not in line with his own name selection procedures and ( 2) surround specific names that he
has chosen. The Navy report fails on both these issues.
LPDs — going back 50 years to USS Raleigh (LPD 1)
— have been named for cities, the early ships for cities
that also bore the names of explorers. Mr. Mabus chose
to change the procedure for the 26th ship, naming it for
the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a former Marine
and the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress.
But other ship types have been named for members of
Congress — submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers.
Why break with the “current” tradition for naming
LPDs? What was the technology change? More significant, Mr. Murtha had publicly called eight U.S. Marines
“cold-blooded killers” for the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqi
men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005. The
case culminated with all but one Marine being found not
guilty, or having their charges dropped.
The Navy report seeks to justify the Murtha by saying the naming “is completely consistent with the special cross-type naming for honoring famous American
elected leaders ... .” That statement attempts to justify
any political naming decision.
Similarly, the naming of the ammunition cargo ship
T-AKE 14 for labor leader Cesar Chavez has brought
sharp criticism of Mr. Mabus. Chavez certainly could be
rated as an American “hero,” i.e., the name source for
these ships beginning with the USNS Lewis and Clark
(T-AKE 1). Mr. Chavez, however, called his time in the
Navy “the worst two years of his life.”
Mr. Mabus would have done better to have named a
building at a Marine base or Navy facility for Murtha
and Chavez. Or, the secretary could have prevailed
upon the administration to name a federal park or