USS Los Angeles, California, and Narwhal: How U.S. Navy Ships are Named During World War II

Escort carriers such as USS Casablanca, pictured here, are named after sounds, bays, islands, and famous American battles.

via GetArchive

Escort carriers such as USS Casablanca, pictured here, are named after sounds, bays, islands, and famous American battles.

By the end of the Second World War, the United States had 6,768 commissioned ships, making its navy the largest in the world. Its entire fleet comprised 70% of the world’s naval tonnage and was twice the size of all other navies, friend and foe, combined. Each ship bore a unique individual name, with no two ships ever possessing the same name. Naming ships may seem like a trivial matter, especially during a time of global conflict, but it has become an important tradition in navies around the world, the U.S. included. From battleships being named after states and cruisers after cities, the U.S. navy had a specific way of naming its thousands of ships throughout World War II.  

During the time of the Continental Navy and the early U.S. Navy, ships didn’t have a general guideline for being named. Most were named after Revolutionary war patriots and heroes (Hancock and General Greene),  American ideals and institutions (Constitution and Congress), or American cities and states (Boston and Virginia). Not until March 3rd, 1819, did Congress officially place the responsibility of naming ships to the Secretary of the Navy, a power still exercised today. It stated that “all of the ships, of the Navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States, according to the following rule, to wit: those of the first class shall be called after the States of this Union; those of the second class after the rivers; and those of the third class after the principal cities and towns; taking care that no two vessels of the navy shall bear the same name.”   However, this wasn’t necessarily followed, seeing that many new types of ships were joining the navy, so new conventions were drawn upon how they should be named. By America’s entry into World War II, each type of ship in the navy had its own naming convention.

Battleships were warships with extensive armor and large-caliber guns and served as capital ships through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first battleship in 1886 was named after the state of Texas, with this soon becoming the norm for all future battleships. This was a major difference from other major navies, seeing that they usually named their battleships after important historical figures, and was important because it reflected that the navy was America’s navy.   Since then, all U.S. battleships bore the names of states until the navy’s last battleship, the USS Missouri  However, there is one exception, USS Kearsarge (BB-5), which was named after a mountain in Merrimack County and a civil war sloop-of-war, a one decker sail ship.  

The U.S. Navy’s first Aircraft carrier, a ship that served as a seagoing military airbase, was named Langley after Samuel P. Langley, an American aviation pioneer. However, naming carriers after individuals didn´t become routine. The next two carriers were built from the unfinished hulls of battlecruisers and thus carried their name. After 1923, Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, decided that new aircraft carriers should be named after historic naval vessels or battles (Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise, Wasp, and Hornet.)  With the beginning of WWII, this was changed to include important battles in American history and present battles.   

Escort carrier, a smaller carrier that usually helps fend off attacks from aircraft and submarines, was acquired by the U.S. Navy during WWII. The Secretary of the Navy during the time, Frank Knox, decided since they were separate from the main carriers, to name them after sounds, bays, islands, and famous American battles. Some escort carriers might sound like they were named after cities or islands like USS Casablanca or USS Guadalcanal, but they are actually named after the battles fought there. 

Cruisers, both light and heavy, were medium-sized warships with light cruisers armed with 6-inch guns, and heavy cruisers, with 8-inch guns, were named after cities. The only exception is the USS Canberra, which is named after the Australian heavy cruiser, HMAS Canberra, and the capital of Australia. This makes the USS Canberra the only U.S. warship named after both a foreign warship and foreign capital. A notable American light Cruiser is the USS Helena, named after the capital of Montana. The ship was part of several of the largest and bloodiest naval battles of the war. This includes the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the Battle of Kula Gulf in which she met her watery death.

Destroyers and destroyer escorts, are small, fast warships that usually support and screen the larger vessels, were named after Navy and Marine Corps heroes. This was later changed to include, “Deceased American Naval, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Officers and enlisted personnel who have rendered distinguished service to their country above and beyond the call of duty; former Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries of the Navy; members of Congress who have been closely identified with Naval affairs; and inventors”.  

The navy convention throughout World War II didn’t stay, even for the type of ships that the navy still uses. New types of ships are being added to the navy and many old types are being decommissioned. Carriers are now generally named after presidents and with the absence of battleships, submarines are now named after states.