Let’s Name More Warships for the Long Overlooked

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Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist Jay M. Chu

The Navy cargo ship named for Cesar Chavez will set sail later this year

The recent decision by the Secretary of the Navy to name a new cargo ship after farm labor leader Cesar Chavez apparently has rankled conservatives in Congress. The ship, a dry cargo and ammunition ship under construction in San Diego, is due to be launched May 5.

Conservatives decry the ship naming process as becoming politicized; proponents claim the process has always been political, and support the name as an honor “to not just him but all Latinos who have built and defended this country.”

Ships have traditionally been named for historical figures that have played important roles in U.S. history. Chavez served in the Navy from 1946 to 1948. He founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later became the United Farm Workers. By using non-violent tactics, reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr’s tactics for civil rights, he made people aware of the poor working conditions of farm workers. He fought for safer conditions, better wages, and recognition of the importance and dignity of all farm workers. He truly was an American hero to thousands of Latino immigrants, farm worker or not.

Why exactly are the Republicans in Congress against in this ship naming issue…because the ship isn’t named for a white, Anglo Saxon Protestant?

In 2003 I submitted an op-ed article to the editor of Proceedings, a professional publication of the United States Naval Institute. A new DDG, the USS Mason (DDG 87), had just been commissioned, and I questioned the decision to recycle the name which had been used on two previous occasions. This appears to happen quite a bit. Most notably in the active inventory of this class are the USS Mitscher (DDG 57), USS Mahan (DDG 72), the USS Preble (DDG 88), the Bainbridge (DDG 96), Forrest Sherman (DDG 98), and Farragut (DDG 99). Why not honor some new people? There are plenty of women (and minorities) who have never been so honored… and they deserve to be.

Although the Secretary of the Navy is ultimately responsible, he does not come up with the names. They come from a variety of sources, including service members, Navy veterans, the public, and even Congress. Ships names are forwarded to the Chief of Naval Operations by the Naval Historical Center, which compiles primary and alternate ship name recommendations based on several criteria.

Factors for naming of ships that bear the names of individuals include naval leaders, national figures, and deceased members of the Navy and Marine Corps who have been honored for heroism in war or for extraordinary achievement in peace. Other ships in the class have been named for astronaut Alan Shepard, explorer Robert Peary, physician Charles Drew and Sacagawea, a female Native American guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s, and Amelia Earhart.

Of the current inventory of 303 Navy combat ships, only one is named for a woman, the USS Hopper (DDG 70). In fact, of the thousands of ships that have been in the Navy, only 10 have been named for women. The most recent prior to Hopper, which was commissioned in 1996, was in 1945 when the USS Higbee (DD-806), a Gearing-class destroyer was named for Lenah S. Higbee, Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1911 to 1922. Other Navy vessels named for women are the Harriet Lane, 1858, a revenue cutter; the Elizabeth C. Stanton (AP-69), Pocahontas (YT-266), Florence Nightingale (AP-70), Mary Lyon (AP-71), Dix (AP-67), Susan B. Anthony (AP-72) and Watseka (YT-387), all in 1944, and USNS Mary Sears (T-AGS 65), an oceanographic survey ship. The USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) is named for both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is great that the non-combat ships of the line are pursuing new names and heroes to honor. But the brouhaha over the naming of USNS Cesar Chavez smacks of ethnocentrism. I would like to see more ships named for our lesser known American heroes, notably civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., gay activist Harvey Milk, and women such as American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, aviator Jackie Cochran, astronaut Sally Ride, and merchant marine captain Mary Parker Converse. There is no shortage of such overlooked heroes to honor on our nation’s Navy vessels sailing the globe’s oceans.