Captain Robert J. Decesari, USN retired after 30 years of service in both Surface and Submarine W01fare, Deep Submergence, and Engineering Duty. As an ED officer, he was CO of four Navsea reserve engineering duty units, and was personally involved with Spawar robotics RF communication systems analysis. A registered Professional Engineer, he has authored over 25 technical articles in the areas of electronic communications, deep submergence, and marine systems.
Over the years, the United States Navy has held to a convention for the naming of its ships. Although the criteria for the naming of ships has changed over the years, adapting to the times, it has basically followed a naming hierarchy based on equating the size of the ship to the importance of a person, historical event, or significance of a national event or icon. Basically, small vessels and craft could be named for local leaders, community leaders, towns, small cities and other assorted heroes, local leaders, or individuals. As the vessel grew in size, displacement, and armor, the name chosen was usually from a group of more distinguished, nationally known individuals, larger cities, or national icons. In addition, unique ship classes, namely destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, and battleships, had names chosen from distinct categories, for example, destroyers traditionally were always named after famous individuals, and preferably Naval heroes. Cruisers were named after US cities or areas of the country. Aircraft carriers often had names associated with famous American battles or famous ships or people that fought in heroic battles or contributed to the revolution, and sometimes flight oriented icons (Lexington, Saratoga, Wasp, Hornet, Kitty Hawk, Franklin, to name a few). The pride of the fleet, battleships, were primarily reserved for state’s names. And from before 1920’s through the 1960’s, submarines were named for fish, indicative of their underwater function. The Blue Jacket’s Manual listed in detail the naming categories for ships, and it was followed for the most part until about the late l 950’s. Although there is nothing preventing our Congress and Department of Defense from selecting ship names to honor whatever they choose, they usually have followed a naming pattern similar to the one just described. Today, our capital ships are the aircraft carriers, cruisers, and submarines. Within the last thirty years or so, they have been given names, with some exception, of famous individuals and presidents, significant battles, states and cities, respectively.
Historically, submarine identity and names have evolved from an alpha-numeric system to replacing the names once reserved for cruisers and battle ships. In between, we have had fish names as well as patriots and presidents. When submarines were first introduced, they were small vessels of limited, sometimes questionable use, manned by Sailors of questionable virtue! In a recruiting photograph of the early 1900’s, numerous submarines, (then legitimately called boats because of their small size) are shown on the deck of a transport ship with the crews napping on deck! In the technological progression of submarines from gasoline powered coastal patrol craft, to the true sea going, diesel electric fleet submarine, submarine names transitioned from letters and numbers ( i.e. 0 class and S class), to the names of fish and sea creatures, the likes of Nautilus, Narwhal, and Squalus.
Indeed, the Porpoise class of 1921 was the first full class of submarines to be completely named for fish. (The Plunger class of the 1900’s had all but one boat named for fish-the USS MOCCASIN). This tradition continued unbroken until the launching of the 4 J for Freedom, the fleet ballistic missile submarines, with USS GEORGE W ASHINGTON (SSBN-598) being the lead boat in the late 1950’s. (Note, though the WASHINGTON was over 300 feet long and displaced over 6000 tons, tradition still has it they are called boats!). Even though the Submarine Force had 41 famous patriots or freedom-loving individuals intertwined (actually 42 if one considers that the USS LEWIS and CLARK (SSBN-644) was named for two people), fish names continued with the 637 class. USS STURGEON, (SSN-63 7) was the last full class of US attack submarines to carry the names of fish-and more importantly-the names of some of our most distinguished and honored World War Two combat submarines. Of the WWII fish-boats, fifty-two of them are on eternal patrol. With the exception of SSN-21, USS SEAWOLF, there are no fish-named attack submarines presently serving in our fleet. The fish names have given way to people, cities, and states. When asked why submarines were no longer being named after fish, it is said that Admiral Rickover replied, “Fish can’t vote!”
I actually have no qualms about naming submarines for free-dom-loving and patriotic individuals, states, or presidents. Indeed, the selection of the names for the 41 for Freedom are very well suited for the charter of the fleet ballistic missile submarine. Albeit, when the names of the first boomers were made public, the George Washington class (SSBN-598), there was grumbling among the salty members of the sub force that the boats should not be named for people. This was a breech of tradition in their minds.
The subsequent 637 class boats, also constructed about the same time as the 41 missile boats, were all named for past famous World War II fish-boats and this fact quelled the concerns of the grumblers. However, the charter of the boomers was totally opposite of the fast attacks. Indeed, in the design phase, there was even talk of not having torpedo tubes on the boomers. Instead of sinking the enemy, performing special operations, collecting intelligence, and running around at flank speed, the fleet ballistic missile boats were intended to stay away from the enemy, lie quiet in the ocean, remain undetected, and move at three knots for months at a time, patiently awaiting the dreaded message to commence a launch. Thank God, that message never was sent. The ultimate mission of these boats was deterrence and projection of power, so that our country might enjoy freedom and not destruction or domination by a foreign power. Every one of the original boomer namesakes, from Casmir Pulaski, to the great Indian Chief Tecumsa, believed in freedom, the individual’s pursuit of happiness, and the greatness of a unique nation. The charter of these submarines ideally fit their name-sakes. The transition of ballistic missile submarine names to the states of the union reflects the success of United States submarine technology, transitioning from small pig-boats, to capital ships of the line, replacing the almighty battleship of that distinction. Admiral Rickover was correct in at least honoring the citizens of the cities and states with their namesake on a boat, as it was built from their tax dollar!
As previously stated, fifty-two boats never returned from their patrols, taking with them over 4000 US Sailors to their watery graves. The majority of the lost boat names were that of fish. Of these boats, the names, WAHOO, GROWLER, HARDER, TANG, and others, will always be associated with intense combat action and the finest and most gallant of the underwater warriors of World War Two. The extraordinary actions of”Mush” Morton, Sam Dealy, and Howard Gilmore, to name a few, should not be forgotten as well as the names of the boats that they served on. Although Admiral Rickover may have been correct in saying that “fish can’t vote,” the fifty-two United States submarines were lost in the quest for this country’s survival, and these men gave their lives so that we, their sons and daughters, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, might live and exercise the right to vote in freedom and security.
Our navy is steeped in tradition. We pipe flag officers aboard, sound bells for senior officers, man the rails when entering or leaving port, and the list goes on. The Submarine Force is no exception to naval traditions, and even has a few of its own-witness the tying of a broom to the periscope to indicate a clean sweep after a mission.* It is now time to see that the discontinued tradition of naming submarines after fish, and more specifically the famous fish-boats that never returned, be reinstated. While continuing to name the new boats after states, cities, and great Americans, we should continue to honor those men and boats still on patrol by keeping at least some of the great submarine fish names mixed in with the new crop of fast attack boats. Why not name the lead boat of a new class after one of the boats that never returned? The remainder can then be named for whatever Congress chooses. This way we can continue a tradition and honor the submariners that gave their all. It’s time to bring back the fish!!!