Naming of Navy ships returns to tradition

Recent choices drew criticism

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Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, under fire from Congress and veterans for naming ships after fellow Democrats and social activists, plans to announce another round of ship names in the near future that will be more traditional, a Pentagon official tells The Washington Times.

The official said Mr. Mabus has chosen names for five surface ships - three for war heroes and two for locations. Ships typically are named after states and cities.

“I think they would be more consistent with what most people would say traditions and naming conventions are,” the official said.

Asked whether this was a response to criticism, the official said: “It isn’t. I think if you look at these five additional ships, I think you’ll see examples that are very traditional.” The official said three ships would be named after highly decorated Navy or Marine Corps personnel.

Mr. Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, broke with Navy conventions in the past three years when he named an amphibious ship, two cargo ships and a littoral combat ship after two social activists and two fellow Democrats.

“The Navy’s ship-naming process remains the subject of criticism based on several recent decisions,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, wrote to Mr. Mabus on Tuesday. He said there are still opportunities “for the Navy to show its intent to uphold the integrity and tradition of this process.”

Mr. Hunter, who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine Corps officer, renewed his recommendation that the Navy name a ship after a war hero, the late Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

Sgt. Peralta received the Navy Cross for valor in smothering the blast of a grenade with his body during a 2004 raid in Fallujah, Iraq. Congress‘ 2012 budget bill urged the Navy to name a ship after him.

For years, Congress has taken a keen interest in ship-naming, an honor that travels in deployments around the world and sometimes into battle. The power to name ships resides solely with the Navy secretary.

“There have been exceptions to the Navy’s ship-naming rules, particularly for the purpose of naming a ship for a person when the rule for that type of ship would have called for it to be named for something else,” according to a Congressional Research Service report in March.

“Some observers in recent years have perceived a breakdown in, or corruption of, the rules for naming Navy ships.”

Lawmakers have begun to closely monitor Mr. Mabus‘ choice of names.

In December, senators added language to the defense budget bill that directs the defense secretary to submit a report to Congress on the process it uses for naming ships. The bill asks whether the Navy has detoured from historical practices and, if so, why.

“There have been a number of controversial ship-namings recently, and one way to deal with that is to have more input and to think more clearly about who we are going to name Navy vessels after,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Mabus defended his selections.

“The secretary of the Navy’s office receives hundreds of letters and suggestions each year from citizens, military retirees, members of Congress, industry and others recommending names for U.S. Navy ships,” Capt. Pamela Kunze said.

“The Navy appreciates the interest of all who participate in the ship-naming process, and all inputs are given careful consideration. Naming ships after people or places which represent the American spirit or the tremendous dedication and sacrifice made by those in and out of uniform is an honor and a privilege which is taken very seriously.

“Throughout the 200 years secretaries of the Navy have been naming ships, there have always been exceptions to naming conventions for various ship classes. Generally speaking, names are chosen to honor individuals who have displayed uncommon commitment, service or courage, or to recognize geographic locations or traits representative of American values.”

Mr. Mabus has drawn criticism in the namings of three ships.

He named a San Diego-class amphibious docking ship, one used principally by Marines, after the late Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat. The previous nine ships in that class had been named after U.S. cities, a park and a county.

The naming angered members of the Marine community, who noted that Mr. Murtha had declared that Marines killed civilians “in cold blood” in the Iraqi village of Haditha in 2005. At the time, the Marines involved in the raid had not been put on trial. Only one Marine was convicted - on a charge of dereliction of duty.

The Navy noted Mr. Murtha’s service as a Marine in Vietnam and his support in the House to fund the armed forces.

Mr. Mabus named one combat logistics force supply ship after civil rights leader Medgar Evers and a second one after leftist farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez.

Until that point, the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships had been named for famous explorers or people who made significant contributions to the armed forces.

Chavez served briefly in the Navy after World War II. A biographer wrote that he considered it the worst time of his life.

Critics said there were better choices if the Navy wanted to honor a Hispanic.

“The one that got the most attention from people who couldn’t really quite figure out whether that was the appropriate thing to do or even related much to the military was the Cesar Chavez and the Jack Murtha,” Mr. Blunt told reporters. “People in the Chavez case could not figure out the linkage.”

Last week, Mr. Mabus named a littoral combat ship after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat.

Ms. Giffords was seriously wounded in a January 2011 assassination attempt and retired from Congress last month to focus on her rehabilitation. She served on the House Armed Services Committee.

Until the Giffords naming, all Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships had been named after U.S. cities.

Some retired Navy officers posted criticism of the Giffords naming on social media and online alumni sites.

“Not to be mean, but what did this lady do or accomplish except to survive a shooting?” wrote one Naval Academy graduate. “Don’t we have Medal of Honor recipients who deserve this honor a thousand times more?”

There have been ship-naming departures in the past.

In the last month of the George W. Bush administration, the Navy named a Virginia-class submarine, which until that time had been named after states, in honor of former Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican.

Mr. Warner was a World War II Marine who later served as Navy secretary as well as ranking member and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s spokesman: “There is no shortage of military heroes to pick from, but only the Navy can explain its process and why they are going out of their way to exclude Peralta and so many others who deserve the honor.”

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