Ship NAMING in the United States Navy

On 3 March 1819 an act of Congress formally placed the responsibility for assigning names to the Navy's ships in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy, a prerogative which he still exercises. This act 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." The last-cited provision remains in the United States Code today.

In its final form, after consideration at the various levels of command, the Chief of Naval Operations signs the memorandum recommending names for the current year's building program and sends it to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary considers these nominations, along with others he receives as well as his own thoughts in this matter. At appropriate times, he selects names for specific ships and announces them.


Oilers, large tankers fitted to refuel other ships at sea, are named for rivers (Monongahela, Patuxent) or for famous ship designers or builders (Joshua Humphreys, Benjamin Isherwood). Fast combat support ships provide fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to aircraft carrier battle groups. The newest class of these ships honors the names of honored supply ships of former years (Supply, Arctic).

Ship NUMBERING in the United States Navy

Until 1920 the nomenclature of a U.S. Navy ship was spelled out (e.g., frigate, sloop-of-war, monitor, torpedo boat, submarine, etc.). Early in the 20th-century, as ship types diversified and became more numerous, the Navy began referring to ships of certain types by a consecutive number indicating the relative order of their construction, applying numbers retroactively back to the beginning of the particular type in question. For instance, the first U.S. destroyer, Bainbridge, was given the number “one” (No.1).

As with any retroactively applied system, peculiarities and seeming discrepancies were bound to (and still do) appear. George Washington (SSBN-598), for example, was a fleet ballistic missile submarine, nuclear propulsion, with a hull number of 598. This seems to indicate that George Washington was the 598th ballistic missile submarine accepted by the Navy, a reasonable assumption given the mid-20th century practice of using consecutive numbers. This is not the case, however, as the numbers were consecutive by general type, not individual class variations

For this reasoning, USS Kanawha, launched in 1914 from Mare Island, CA, was numbered AO-1, even though she probably didn't refuel other ships at sea until WWII. The first ship built specifically as an oiler was USS Cimarron AO-22, departed Philadelphia in  1940.


Go To: U.S. Navy Oilers