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Christening, Launching, and Commissioning of U.S. Navy Ships

Thousands of ships of every description, the concerted effort of mobilized American industry, came off the ways during World War II to be molded into the mightiest navy the world had ever seen. The historic christening-launching ceremonies continued, but travel restrictions, other wartime considerations, and sheer numbers dictated that such occasions be less elaborate than those in the years before the nation was engaged in desperate worldwide combat.

The actual physical process of launching a new ship from her building site to the water involves three principal methods. Oldest, most familiar, and most widely used is the "end-on" launch in which the vessel slides, usually stern first, down an inclined shipway. The "side launch," whereby the ship enters the water broadside, came into nineteenth-century use on inland waters, rivers, and lakes, and was given major impetus by the World War II building program. Another method involves ships built in basins or graving docks. When ready, ships constructed in this manner are floated by admitting water into the dock.

End-on launch
 24 Apr 1943
Norfolk Naval Shipyard

DE707 launch
3 April 1944
Defoe Shipyard

Fitting Out and Commissioning

Christening and launching are the inseparable elements which endow a ship hull with her identity. Yet, just as many developmental milestones must be passed before one takes his place in society, so too must the newly-launched vessel pass such milestones before she is completed and considered ready to be designated a commissioned ship of the United States Navy. The engineering plant, weapon and electronic systems, galley, and multitudinous other equipment required to transform the new hull into an operating and habitable warship are installed and tested. The prospective commanding officer, ship's officers, the petty officers, and seamen who will form the crew report for training and intensive familiarization with their new ship. Crew and ship must function in total unison if full potential and maximum effectiveness are to be realized. The most modern naval vessel embodying every advantage of advanced technology is only as good as those who man her.

Prior to commissioning, the new ship undergoes sea trials during which deficiencies needing correction are uncovered. The preparation and readiness time between christening-launching and commissioning may be as much as three years for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to as brief as twenty days for a World War II landing ship. Monitor, of Civil War fame, was commissioned less than three weeks after launch.

Commissioning in the early United States Navy under sail was attended by no ceremony. An officer designated to command a new ship received orders similar to those issued to Captain Thomas Truxtun in 1798:

Sir, I have it in command from the president of the United States, to direct you to repair with all due speed on board the ship Constellation lying at Baltimore. It is required that no Time be lost in carrying the Ship into deep water, taking on board her Cannon, Ammunition, Water, Provisions & Stores of every kind completing what work is yet to be done shipping her Complement of Seamen and Marines, and preparing her in every respect for  Sea . . . It is the President's express Orders, that you employ the most vigorous Exertions, to accomplish these several Objects and to put your Ship as speedily as possible in a situation to sail at the shortest notice.

Captain Truxtun's orders reveal that a prospective commanding officer had responsibility for overseeing construction details, outfitting the ship, and recruiting his crew. When a captain of this period in our history determined that his new ship was ready to take to sea, he mustered the crew on deck, read his orders, broke the national ensign and distinctive commissioning pennant, caused the watch to be set, and the first entry to be made in the log. Thus, the ship was placed in commission.

Commissionings were not public affairs and, unlike christening-launching ceremonies, no accounts of them are to be found in contemporary newspapers. The first specific references to commissioning located in naval records is a letter of 6 November 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."

Subsequently, various editions of Navy Regulations mentioned the act of putting a ship in commission, but details of a commissioning ceremony were not prescribed. Through custom and usage, however, a fairly standard practice emerged, the essentials of which are outlined in current Navy Regulations.

Officers and crew members of the new ship are assembled on the quarterdeck or other suitable area. Formal transfer of the ship to the prospective commanding officer is done by the Naval District Commandant or his representative. The transferring officer reads the commissioning directive, the national anthem is played, the ensign is hoisted, and commissioning pennant broken. The prospective commanding officer reads his orders, assumes command, and the first watch is set.

Re-commissioning of USS Naifeh DE 352

Commissioning of USS Inch DE 146

Craft assigned to Naval Districts and shore bases for local use, such as harbor tugs and floating drydocks, are not usually placed "in commission" but are in an "in service" status. They do fly the national ensign, but not a commissioning Pennant.

In recent years, commissioning ceremonies have come to be public occasions more than heretofore had been the practice. Guests, including the ship's sponsor, are frequently invited to attend, and a prominent individual may deliver a commissioning address. On 3 May 1975, more than twenty thousand people witnessed the commissioning of USS Nimitz (CVAN-68) at Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier's sponsor, daughter of the late Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, was introduced, and the
President of the United States was the principal speaker.

Whether for a massive nuclear aircraft carrier, destroyer, submarine, or amphibious type, the brief but impressive commissioning ceremony completes the cycle from christening and launching to full status as a ship of the United States Navy. Now, regardless of size and mission, the vessel and her crew stand ready to take their place in America's historic heritage of the sea.

Commissioning Pennant

The act of placing a ship in commission marks her entry into active Navy service. 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.

This ceremony continues a tradition some three centuries old, observed by navies around the world, and by our own Navy since December 1775, when Alfred, the first ship of the Continental Navy, was commissioned at Philadelphia. Once in commission, the commanding officer and crew are entrusted with the privilege, and the responsibility, of maintaining their ship’s readiness in peace, and of conducting successful operations at sea in time of war.

The commissioning pennant is the distinguishing mark of a commissioned Navy ship. A commissioning pennant is a long streamer in some version of the national colors of the Navy that flies it. The American pennant 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.

USS Brennan DE 13 Commissioning Pennant
USS Brennan DE 13 Commissioning Pennant

Until the early years of this century flags and pennants were quite large, as is seen in period pictures of naval ships. By 1870, for example, the largest Navy pennant had an 0.52-foot hoist (the maximum width) and a 70-foot length, called the fly; the biggest ensign at that time measured 19 by 36 feet.

Professional national navies began to take form late in the 17th Century. All ships at that time were
sailing ships, and it was often difficult to tell a naval ship from a merchantman at any distance. Navies began to adopt long, narrow pennants, to be flown by their ships at the mainmast head to distinguish themselves from merchant ships. This became standard naval practice.

As warships took on distinctive forms and could no longer be easily mistaken for merchantmen, flags and pennants continued to be flown, but began to shrink to a fraction of their earlier size. This process was accelerated by the proliferation of electronic antennas through the 20th Century. The biggest commissioning pennant now has a 2.5-inch hoist and a 6-foot fly, while the largest shipboard ensign for daily service use is 5 feet by 9 feet 6 inches (larger "holiday ensigns" are flown on special occasions).

Information courtesy of the US Navy: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq108.htm
Photos added by DESA webmaster

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