The U.S. Navy

By Norman Polmar, Author, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

The three boats of the Seawolf class now have three different name "sources." The lead submarine, commissioned a year ago, is named for a solitary fish with strong, prominent teeth and projecting tusks that give it a savage look. Naming U.S. submarines for marine life dates to the Navy's second submarine, the Plunger (SS-2), completed in 1903. From that time until the advent of the Polaris in the late 1950s, essentially all U.S. submarines had fish names; attack submarines (SSNs) continued to have such names until the late 1960s when—according to popular lore—Admiral H. G. Rickover declared, "Fish don't vote." His influence led to several boats being named for deceased members of Congress who had supported his programs.

But the unpopularity of Rickover's scheme soon led to attack submarines being named for U.S. cities, beginning with the Los Angeles (SSN-688), completed in 1976. The 62 boats of that class all were named for cities except for the SSN-709, the Hyman G. Rickover . Then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman directed that the submarine be named for the admiral, whom he had helped force out of the Navy in January 1982, to prevent Congress from bestowing the name on an aircraft carrier.

The SSN-21 reverted to a fish name. But the choice of Seawolf should have been questioned. The first Seawolf (SS-28), later renamed H-1 , ran aground in 1920 off San Margarita Island, California; four men died. The submarine sank when she was refloated.

The second Seawolf (SS-197) was sunk in late 1944—by U.S. antisubmarine forces. There were no survivors.

The third Seawolf (SSN-575) was the nation's second submarine. She differed from the first, the Nautilus (SSN-571), in having a liquid-metal heat exchange system. She operated from March 1957 until December 1958, when problems with her reactor plant required that she be rebuilt with a pressurized-water reactor.

Thus, the three previous Seawolf s had less than auspicious careers, making it questionable why that name was chosen for what was to have been the lead ship of the world's most advanced submarine design.

The second submarine of this class has been named Connecticut (SSN-22). State names previously were used for the 18 Trident missile submarines of the Ohio (SSBN-728) class, and before that for battleships and, more recently, for cruisers. The last Connecticut (BB-18) was stricken in 1923. The state name was assigned through the efforts of the Connecticut congressional delegation, to honor the state that is home to one of the nation's two surviving submarine-building yards. (Should the first of the new nuclear attack submarines [NSSNs] be named Virginia, where the other U.S. submarine-building yard is located? Yes!)

Now the third Seawolf , the SSN-23, has a third name source: former (and living) presidents. Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. Naval Academy graduate to be elected president. He served in a diesel submarine before entering nuclear school but left the Navy before reporting to the Seawolf (SSN-575). Still, he was able to campaign as being a nuclear engineer.

But as president he disappointed many senior officers in the armed services, especially the Navy. His personnel policies helped fuel a mass exodus of senior enlisted personnel that at times was so critical that ship deployments were delayed. In 1979, President Carter vetoed the entire fiscal year 1980 defense budget because it contained an aircraft carrier. Subsequently, Congress overrode his veto, funding the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The situation was exacerbated by Mr. Carter's Secretary of Defense, Dr. Harold Brown, a former Air Force secretary not known for his love of the Navy.

"For many who served [in the Navy] then, Mr. Carter is at fault for having presided over the hollowing-out of the U.S. military," wrote a Pentagon reporter. 2 Mr. Dalton, who was given his first government job by President Carter, has decided to name a submarine for his old boss—whose tenure as president did little to help the Navy—and to further muddle the already confused scheme of naming U.S. Navy ships. Alternatively, Mr. Dalton could have named an aircraft carrier Jimmy Carter.

   1. Ernest Blazar, "Inside the Ring," The Washington Times , 27 April 1998, p. A6. back to article
   2. Blazar, "Inside the Ring," p. A6. back to article



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