The U.S. Navy recently announced that it would resume naming attack submarines after sea creatures, a tradition that became standard during World War II when many of the most successful submarines compiled legendary combat records. To honor particularly successful subs lost in action the name would be passed on to a newly built sub. All this was great for morale but in the 1960s it began to change as more and more of the new SSNs (nuclear attack subs) were named after politicians who had been good to the navy, especially the navy budget. Those that were not named after politicians were named after cities, which was seen as a useful public relations tool. Crew morale was no longer a major consideration but now it is, in part because it is increasingly difficult to recruit sailors to serve on the nuclear subs. Therefore, the next three SSNs will be named after illustrious World War II subs; Tang, Wahoo and Barb. If there is no major political blowback, the navy will continue the more popular, especially with crews, naming tradition.
This naming decision is not unique but part of a movement within the navy that was suppressed until 2012. That was when the navy took a stand for the sailors and said that names for warships would in the future be "more traditional." That means ships would be named after war heroes, battles, states, and cities. The “war heroes” included famous warships of the past. The 2012 announcement came after an uproar from veterans’ groups and lots of people in general when the navy was ordered to name warships after political activists and politicians. That, in itself, was part of a decades old trend. This resonated with many in the United States. All this goes back to the period right after World War II when the military procurement system became more corrupt, largely the result of so much more being spent on defense for so long. One aspect of that corruption was the growing custom of naming major warships after influential politicians. This was a way for the navy, and warship builders, to curry more favor and money in Congress.
The worst example of this was the Nimitz class carriers, which could also be called the "Politician Class." All but one of the ten carriers was named after political figures that helped the navy. The sole exception was the lead ship which was named after the World War II Pacific commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz. The successor to the Nimitz class continues the tradition being named after president Gerald Ford. But at least Ford served, with distinction, on a carrier (the USS Monterey) during World War II.
Some of these namesakes were contemporary politicians and some of those were still living. Naming ships after living persons is rare but not uncommon. George Washington had four warships named after him before he died. In fact, over a dozen U.S. warships were named after notable revolutionary period leaders. Up through the U.S. Civil War about one American warship a decade was named after a living person, usually a politician. In 1900, the first modern U.S. submarine was named after the fellow who developed it, John Philip Holland. Throughout the 20th century, but especially after World War II, warships were named after living people, mainly politicians who were helpful to the navy. So far this century six warships have been named after living Americans. These were USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in 2001, USS Nitze (DDG-94) in 2004, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) in 2004, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2006, USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) in 2008 and USS Gabrielle Giffords
(LCS-10) in 2017. One of the six was interesting, as admiral Meyer was (he died in 2009), well, a geek, and the man most responsible for development of the Aegis air defense system. American carriers go to war surrounded by Aegis equipped ships for protection against enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.
The most debased example of using warship names to attract political favor, and defense dollars, was the 2010 decision to name a smaller carrier (actually, an amphibious ship, LPD 26) after a recently deceased member of Congress, John Murtha. This really angered the troops, especially marines. That was ironic, as Murtha had spent 37 years in the marines, 33 of them in the reserves. He served a year in Vietnam as a staff officer. He parlayed that military experience into a political career, first at the state level then in Washington. Murtha was known as a particularly easy guy to do business with and a supreme opportunist. He was nicknamed the "King of Pork" for his ability to get projects, often useless but lucrative ones, approved for his district.
What made Murtha especially unpopular with the marines was his willingness to join the chorus of accusers condemning seven marines being prosecuted for murdering Iraqis in 2005. All but one of the accused eventually had the charges dismissed or were acquitted. It was a witch hunt and marines saw Murtha as one of the more eager hunters. Murtha had also been in trouble before on ethics issues and was known to play dirty when it suited his purposes. But guys like Murtha loved to spend federal money, especially for the navy and marines. While most sailors and marines loathed the man, the brass were more respectful and held firm on the decision to name an amphibious ship after him.
The navy does still name ships after their combat heroes, when it has a chance. In 2011 two new destroyers were named after SEAL commandoes, including one who was awarded a Medal of Honor. But the largest ships are still named after the people who expose themselves to paper bullets, not the real ones. Now the navy promises to cut back on using ship names to honor corruption, rather than valor.
Something else is lost when the names of famous ships are no longer used, the custom of passing on to a new ship historical artifacts that were present on the original ship with the same name. This honors the officers and crew that were responsible for making a ship famous. Some of these artifacts survived the name changes by being repurposed. One famous example was the cribbage board belonging to the captain (Richard O’Kane) of the famous USS Tang. O’Kane received a Medal of Honor for his last two battles against the Japanese and his cribbage board survived the war. It came to be passed on to the oldest attack sub in service and that tradition continues to this day.
Honoring the oldest warship in service has long been a U.S. Navy tradition but it is sometimes overtaken by historical events. Take the case of the First Navy Jack, a Revolutionary War standard that came to remain in use by the oldest warship in service. This custom has had its ups and downs. In 2019 the navy announced it was restoring the tradition of the oldest warship in service being the only one to fly the First Navy Jack (with 13 alternating horizontal red and white stripes with a rattlesnake superimposed as well as the words "Don't Tread On Me") instead of the usual Union Jack (blue with fifty white stars). Since September 11, 2002, all U.S. Navy ships have been flying the First Navy Jack and that was to continue for the duration of the War On Terrorism. The navy has no official comment on what this change has to do with the progress of the war.
The First Navy Jack moved around a lot in the 1990s, as the U.S. Navy downsized because the Soviet navy had largely disappeared after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. This process resulted in some very old ships finally getting retired. The USS Prairie, the last of the pre-war US Navy ships that fought in World War II, was decommissioned on 27, March 1993. The ship, a destroyer tender or supply and maintenance ship for deployed destroyers, entered service in late 1939. The USS Prairie passed the First Navy Jack on to the USS Orion, a submarine tender commissioned in 1944. But the Orion went out of service later that year and the First Navy Jack rapidly moved from one retiring ship to another until the Blue Ridge, an Amphibious Command Ship got it in 2014.
Most navies would not want to bring attention to their oldest ship, especially if it was nearly a century old. It's different in the American Navy. For example, in 2009 the carrier, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) held the First Navy Jack for eleven years (1998-2009), an unusually long time. The Kitty Hawk served for 48 years and 13 days. In that time about 100,000 sailors served on the ship. The ship was the Navy's last non-nuclear carrier. "The Hawk" did not age well and had lots of breakdowns in its final years. This led members of the crew to more frequently call their ship "Shitty Hawk" or "Shitty Kitty". After the Hawk retired the USS Enterprise (which entered service seven months after the Kitty Hawk) became the oldest ship in service.
Since 2009 three American warships have qualified to be the oldest ship. These ships have been remaining the “oldest ship” title for longer periods because the U.S. Navy has decided it would be cheaper to refurbish and extend the useful lives of older warships than building new replacements. The Enterprise was retired in 2012 and the amphibious ship Denver (LPD 9), which entered service in 1968, was the oldest ship until 2014 and succeeded by another amphibious ship the Blue Ridge (LCC-19) which entered service in 1970 and is expected to keep flying it until retirement in 2039.
The First Union Jack returned to wide use in 1976 when, for the entire bicentennial year (of American independence), all U.S. Navy ships flew it off the rear of the ship instead of the usual Union Jack. In 1980 the navy began having the oldest ship in service flying the First Navy Jack. By the 1990s, with many warships worldwide being retired with the end of the Cold War in 1991, this also generated more interest about which navy in the world had the oldest ship still in service.