Down to the Sea in Ships'--Names

By Captain William F. Calkins, USNR

Although I was a sedentary sailor, not to be confused with the forces afloat, I came to live amidst peril of a most peculiar sort. I almost gave a U. S. General Stores-Issue Ship the name of a star which had been named by the astronomer who discovered it after his mistress's pet poodle. I did name a submarine after a sea slug with a most unmentionable sea-going nickname. What it occasionally cost the Navy to burnish the names off all the equipment on some ship when I had goofed and had to rename her hurriedly, I'll never know (and would rather not).

Before the Navy entrusted me with one of its reserve commissions as a lieutenant (j.g.), it made certain I was a college graduate. Then, by assigning me to the ship-naming detail, it gave me the opportunity to acquire another liberal education.

Like everyone else in the Navy, I knew vaguely that each category of naval vessels is assigned a general source from which the names of all ships of that type are drawn; states for battleships, cities for cruisers, and so on. But this is only an easy beginning. There are a lot of classes of ships, I learned.

Naval vessels are named after stars (store and cargo ships), fish (submarines), birds (minesweepers and submarine rescue vessels), and species of trees (net layers); mythological characters (repair ships); well-known American battles (aircraft carriers); ingredients of explosives (ammunition ships); Navy heroes (destroyers) and pioneers (sub and seaplane tenders); precious and semi-precious stones (converted yachts).

I quickly learned that I had to bone up on such oddments as volcanoes (also ammo ships), mountains and mountain ranges (amphibious flagships), U . S. geographical areas (destroyer tenders), counties (transports and cargo vessels, attack), and rivers (oilers)only I and possibly Rand-McNally know how many Smith counties there are in the United States-Indian words, chiefs, and tribes (tugs).

Doesn't sound too hard, does it? I soon found out that the Navy usually had more ships than I had names. If the decision hadn't been taken not to name the landing ships, probably I would have still been at war.

There are certain criteria for the selection of ships' names. The name cannot be already assigned or closely similar to some other ship's name. We checked the U. S. Maritime and the Royal Navy lists as well as our own. If the British had a battleship by name of Dauntless, we didn't mind naming a converted yacht-gunboat by the same name, but we didn't want an HMS Birmingham and a USS Birmingham maybe in the same ocean. This avoidance of duplication sharply reduced the supply of possible names, added to our work and headaches.

To evade the problem, the first Brown honored got the USS Brown (DD-S46); the next was called the USS Walter S. Brown (DE-258), and so on. But you could only take it so far and the name began to get a little frayed around the edges.

For instance, there were the USS Don O. Woods (APD-118), Wm. M. Wood (DD-715), Leonard Wood (APA-12) and Belleau Wood (CVL-24), not to mention the net-laying ships, the Torchwood, Redwood, Pepperwood, Rosewood, Spicewood, and Sandalwood. My fevered dreams sometimes concerned whole task forces composed of ships all having the same name!

Spelling and pronunciation both had to be reasonably simple. The average enlisted man (and his girl friend) must be able to say the name comfortably. If his best girl couldn't spell it, he might not get her letters.

The name had to be appropriate. We had to avoid the booby trap of the double-entendre. You would be astonished at how many perfectly respectable names of bays, rivers, or Indian chiefs can conceivably be goofed up into something quite contrary or uncomplimentary to a naval vessel.

Sometimes the just-word names could be the hardest. The Navy had a score or so of hospital ships. Try to think of comfortable words that describe the idea of "solace" or "tranquillity" as few as twenty times using a new word each time, and you will learn that Roget's Thesaurus can be a frail reed, indeed.

Words like Clamp, Weight, Swivel for salvage vessels (fifty of them), or like Shelter, Caution, and Harrier for the minesweepers (several hundred of them) get hard to come by after the first flush of the chase wears off.

As I glance over Jane's Fighting Ships of the World to refresh my memory, I see that despite our loving care, some real dillies got by me or one of my predecessors —Buoyant, Incredible, Peril.

"What's your assignment, Mac?" "Incredible!" or, "What's your ship, son?" "Buoyant (I hope)!"

When the shipbuilding program really got rolling, the carriers gave us a lot of trouble. There isn't an inexhaustible supply of names of famous old Navy vessels (like Bon Homme Richard) or famous successful naval battles. You will recall that in 1942 and 1943, the United States had not yet won any great number of battles. Moreover, it takes some time and perspective for everyone to figure out, did we win the battle and what was its name? The CVE's were coming along faster than the battles.

We temporized for a while by naming them after bays, inlets, and other bodies of coastal salt water, but we soon ran out of such names. You would think it could never happen to a nation with as much coastline as the United States, but it did. People who named bays, etc., were inconsiderate enough to name them after rivers and counties and mountains and all the other things we had been busy naming ships after. So we called on the Coast & Geodetic Survey people. They reeled off list after list, but we had already used or rejected all of those names. When they got to the ragged coastline of Alaska, however, we were overjoyed to find many new and original names. To be sure, some of them sounded a little exotic, but maybe they were Eskimo or something. Anyhow, off to BuShips went a fine list of new names for CVE's. Truth dawned slowly. Some of our fine new names were Russian. We had completely forgotten that the Russians were the first settlers of Alaska and naturally they put their place names on the land.

That was one time we burnished names off ships in a hurry. BuShips swore it would cost untold fortunes to do it, but the ships were still building, and we got it done—we simply could not have U. S. ships sailing under Russian names, even though we were reasonably friendly with them at the time.

Submarines are named for fish or "denizens of the deep." At the peak of the shipbuilding program, the Navy had around five hundred submarines afloat, a-building, or a-planning. And that's a lot of fish, I can testify.

There are nowhere nearly as many fish as you may think there are. More particularly, since ichthyologists seem to prefer Latin names for fish, there are even fewer fish names that the average citizen-sailor can (a) pronounce, (b) spell, or (c) even recognize as belonging to a fish.

The reasonable names like Trout, Bass, Salmon, and Shark were used up long before I appeared. I was reduced to scrabbling around for names like Spinax, Irex, Mero, and Sirago. You never met any of these on a shoreside menu.

It takes some long stretching to hook other than the most common fish names to submarines and have anyone know you are naming them after fish. Even the so-called common names can be rough. Here are four: Ten-Pounder, Red Squirrelfish, Shiner, Big-Eyed Scad. Nobody could possibly name a U. S. naval vessel the USS Big-Eyed Scad. Nor can you use their real names—the ones on their birth certificates, so to speak—which go something like this: Elops machnata (Forksal) or Holocentrus diadema Lacepede.

We fudged a little and came around twice. There is a USS Shark; there is also a USS Tiburon, which is shark in Spanish. There was the gallant USS Wahoo and also the USS Ono— same fish. There were the Jack, the Amberjack, the Ulua— samefish. There were the Pompano and the Pampanito, the Devilfish and the Diablo, the Chub and the Hardhead, (both minnows—but we couldn't name a fighting ship the USS Minnow), the Tuna, Tunny, and Bonita (all kissing cousins, if not the same), and Eel, Moray, and Conger (that look remarkably alike). We never figured that we could put Sardine on the Navy list, but we named the USS Sarda— samefish.

The sub named for the sea slug, as already mentioned, was a somewhat unsuccessful action. The name Trepang sounded pretty good to me. Maybe not as good as Salmon, but the choice then wasn't extensive. The book said it was "any of the holoturians, mostly species of Stichopus and Holothuria, esp. H. edulis ." I didn't know what all that meant, but what the heck! It lived in water, so it was a denizen of the deep. Somebody should have told me it was a sea slug (with an even ruder nickname)—and he did, but not until she was afloat. Once a ship was afloat, it was even harder to re-name, so, as far as I know, somewhere at sea or in mothballs, there is the USS Trepang, probably affectionately known to the underseas Navy as the USS Sea Slug, if not something worse.

One of my fondest memories of Washington is when I went over to the National Museum to bid goodbye to Dr. Wetmore, the director. He and his corps of scientists had contributed to the war effort above and beyond the call of duty in the matter of fish, stars, trees, and Indians.

As we parted, Dr. Wetmore said, "Calkins, you have been an amusing fellow to work with. You know, in the early part of the war, you were naming your submarines after our fish, but I learn lately that we have been naming our fish after your submarines."

And that is exactly what happened. When the going got really tough, I tried a new tack. I would read the dictionary until I came across a name that sounded sort of fishy. Then I would ask one of Dr. Wetmore's ichthyologists if he had a fish by that name, knowing darned well that he didn't.

When he had checked his card file without finding the name, I would ask him if he could find me a blank card. The taxonomists are constantly identifying new subspecies, differentiating them by minor features from their near relatives. The scientific name is fairly automatic—genus, species, and subspecies which may be the name of the discoverer. But often no one gets around to giving them popular names.

So the ichthyologist and I would thumb through the cards until we found a likely blank one, add the name I had devised, and there was the Navy's newest sub, named after a perfectly bona fide fish, with its name properly listed with the U. S. National Museum. Supply and demand, that's all it was.

It wasn't long before the sub skippers started asking for pictures of the fish for which their new boats were named. I do not recall which fish started it, but by then we were at the bottom of the ocean, grabbing anything. When the National Museum fellow showed me the picture, a horrible nightmare haunted me. It was a sub skipper about six feet tall, a former tackle at the Academy. He had red hair and he wore the Navy Cross and a flock of battle stars. He came stomping into Arlington Annex and d raped that picture, frame and all, around my neck—from the top.

Inshort, his particular fish from the bottom depths didn't look impressive or gallant or remotely like a submarine. It was mostly all head and had stupid-looking popeyes and a skimpy tail. Furthermore, it didn't look as if it would be attractive to the female of the same species. You couldn't even have used it for bait.

What would happen to the happy-ship spirit of the USS What-Ever-It-Was when that monstrosity arrived aboard? Quickly I reached a command decision—in the highest tradition of the naval service. I sent him a picture of a trout.

Thereafter I kept a handy file of pictures of trout, salmon, barracuda, and similar fish for such inquiries. The pictures on the wardroom bulkheads may have occasionally confused visitors who really knew fish, but I couldn't help it. The war had to go on.

The business of naming ships had its distressing moments, too. Destroyers and destroyer escorts are named, among other things, for naval and Marine Corps personnel who died gallantly in action. I spent many hours sadly reading the Navy Cross citations that came to us from the BuPers section on medals and decorations: "…above and beyond the call of duty, under severe enemy at tack at an advance position, Private First Class Jones fell on an enemy grenade…"

All of the young heroes couldn't be honored by having ships named for them. There were more heroes than there were ships. Duplications had to be eliminated. Some names were impossible. I spent a goodly part of my time writing widows and mothers explaining why the Navy couldn't name a ship after their hero-son or hero-husband.

Names frequently duplicated weren't hard to explain, but how would you break the news to Mrs. Dumpit, Mrs. Skootsky, Mrs. Rumf, Mrs. Wiener (the USS Hot Dog), Mrs. Reck ("the USS Reck wrecked last night"), or Mrs. Sweetie (the USS Sweetie pie would probably start fights in every liberty port between San Diego and Sydney)? Just how do you tell her the Navy doesn't like her name?

So far as I can recall none of these names ever came up—I dreamed them up for this illustration—but there were others, oh yes, many others, of equal or worse flavor.

Take a more commonplace name: Jones. How would you like to serve in a USS David Jones? Or the USS Cecil Thistlethwaite? Try that on your whithle. Real fatht.

These good people were never told the real reason why the Navy wouldn't have a ship by their name, but all of them got a polite reply and the total of the correspondence would make the world's best anthology of bureaucratic doubletalk. I know—I wrote it.

Naming ships for the Navy was sort of like cutting the soap opera off the radio before the last installment, or losing the last piece of a serial story. Would Seaman 1/c Schenkofsky be able to pronounce the name? Would Radioman 2/c Joe Smith mix the name in dispatches with an AKA of similar name in another ocean, even though he was supposed to use the Navy designator and number? Would fifty or 2,500 officers and men live as happily as may be in war time with the name we had chosen for their floating home?

Not many reports came back to us. Memory is dim now, but there was one, an aircraft carrier, escort, that had a name something like Hoggatt Bay early in the war. I was sitting in a bar one day and fell to talking with a young enlisted man.

"What's your ship?"

"CVE-75, sir."

"Oh," said I, "that's the Hoggatt Bay, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir, but that’s not what we call her."

"What do you call her?"

"Well, you see, sir, we've been spending a lot of time sailing around those Jap islands, and this old bucket bounces around a lot and never seems to get anywhere on time, so the boys on the ship call her the Hokey Pokey Maru."

Oh, well, it could have been worse.

During World War II Captain Calkins served in the 12th Naval District Intelligence Office and from 1943-46 he was Assistant and then Director of Public Information and Special Assistant to the Chief of Naval Personnel. At present he is Manager, Office of Agricultural Publications, University of California. He is also on the Staff, Naval Reserve Officers School 12-1. Captain Calkins has done newspaper and magazine writing and edited the program for the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, 1956. This is his first article for the Proceedings.



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