The Traditions of Ship Commissionings
By: LTJG Chloe J. Morgan, USN, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The Navy’s use of the word “commission” means the placing of a ship in active service. The commissioning ceremony is one of the most significant milestones in the life of a ship as it marks her acceptance as a unit of the operating forces of the United States Navy. Brought to life after ship naming, keel laying, christening and launching, time-honored Naval customs and traditions help welcome a warship into the fleet.
The Early Days
The commissioning ceremony has been a tradition in the U.S. Navy since December 1775, when the Alfred, the first ship of the Continental Navy, was commissioned at Philadelphia. Derived from British naval custom, these early commissionings were not public affairs and no written procedure for commissioning was laid down in Navy’s early days. The first specific references to commissioning located in naval records is a letter dated Nov. 6, 1863, from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to all navy yards and stations. The Secretary directed: “Hereafter the commandants of navy yards and stations will inform the Department, by special report of the date when each vessel preparing for sea service at their respective commands, is placed in commission.”
In recent years, commissioning ceremonies have come to be public occasions with unique traditions.
A central figure in a ship’s life is the sponsor. Chosen by the Secretary of the Navy, a ship’s sponsor is a female who is typically selected for her relationship to the namesake or to the ship’s current mission in accordance with SECNAV Instruction 5031.1C.
There have been numerous notable sponsors with deep ties to the ship’s service. When the escort ship USS Harmon (DE 678), the first U.S. Navy ship to be named for an African American, was laid down in 1943, it was sponsored by Naunita Harmon Carroll, mother of the late Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon. For the commissioning of USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in 1975, more than twenty thousand people watched as Catherine Nimitz, the eldest daughter of the late Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, fulfilled her duties as the carrier’s sponsor. Past first ladies Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama have been the sponsors for the fast-attack submarines USS Columbia (SSN 771), USS Texas (SSN 775) and USS Illinois (SSN 786), respectively.
Once selected, the sponsor maintains that role for the entire commissioned life of the ship. The sponsor selects a maid/matron(s) of honor to help her execute her official and unofficial roles. The maid/matron of honor can serve as a proxy at events, and if the sponsor steps down from the role or dies while the ship is in commission, the primary maid/matron of honor will represent the sponsor in all official sponsorship duties.
With roles like maid/matron of honor, the wedding theme is carried throughout the commissioning with the employment of flower girls at the ceremony.
Of course, the ship could not come alive without her crew. “Plank owners“ are Sailors who are members of the crew of a ship when that ship is placed in commission. These Sailors have an immense responsibility to turn the ship from a metal vessel to a living, fighting manned warship. Leading the crew, the ship’s prospective commanding officer (PCO) serves as the traditional host of the commissioning ceremony.
Traditions and Ceremonies
A commissioning ceremony is usually filled with speeches from flag officers, civil leaders and other distinguished visitors. The Navy leader who delivers one of the final speeches usually places the ship into commission by announcing it to the crowd. At the completion of the speech, the prospective commanding officer orders the prospective executive officer to hoist the colors and the commissioning pennant.
At the moment when the commissioning pennant is broken at the masthead, a ship becomes a Navy command in her own right, and takes her place alongside the other active ships of the fleet. The American pennant is a long streamer that is blue at the hoist, bearing seven white stars; the rest of the pennant consists of single longitudinal stripes of red and white. The pennant is flown at all times as long as a ship is in commissioned status, except when a flag officer or civilian official is embarked and flies his personal flag in its place.
Ships’ commissioning programs often include an anecdote about the storied origin of the commissioning pennant. According to legend, during the first of three 17th-century Anglo-Dutch naval wars (1652-54), Dutch Adm. Maarten Tromp put to sea with a broom at his masthead, symbolizing his intention to sweep the English from the sea. His British opponent, Adm. Robert Blake, two-blocked a coachwhip to show his determination to whip the Dutch fleet. Blake won; in commemoration of his victory a streamer-like pennant, called a “coachwhip pennant” from its long, narrow form, became the distinguishing mark of naval ships.
After the pennant is hoisted, it is customary for the prospective commanding officer to formally read the orders appointing him to command. Understanding that the ship is now a fighting member of the fleet, the now commanding officer orders the executive officer to set the watch.
The final part of the ceremony is also the most iconic. In a time-honored Navy tradition, the ship’s sponsor gives the order, “Man our ship and bring her to life!” The crew responds by saying “Aye, aye, ma’am” and runs toward the brow to man the ship as “Anchors Aweigh” is played. Crew members take their places, side-by-side, manning the rails as the ship’s systems came online. Radars, weapon systems and other parts of the ship begin to move, symbolizing the ship “coming to life.”