My son served a tour in the navy on the submarine USS Philadelphia. One night I got to wondering about the method the US uses to name its' subs. Here’s a little bit about what I found.
Before WWII, all US subs were numbered by type, so you had the O-25, the R-14, and the S-12. Militarily efficient, but not very inspiring.
In WWII, US submarines were named after fish and marine creatures. So we had cool scary names like the Barracuda, Stingray, and SeaDragon. We also had some less-than-fearsome names like the USS Plunger, the USS Tuna, and USS Cod. We had a lot of submarines in WWII, and I guess we ran out of good names.
Since then, the Fast Attack boats have been named according to evolving custom, starting with the same fish and marine creatures, then moving on to Presidents, Admirals, and important Americans, for a while cities and towns, and most recently to States (which used to be what we named Battleships for).
For the ‘boomers’ (missile boats), the evolution was from Presidents, to Distinguished Americans, and now States of the Union. There was a time when you knew a ship’s function by it’s name; the Iowa and Texas were battleships, the Helena and Indianapolis were cruisers. It's not that cut and dried anymore.
While poking around, I saw among the USN Ballistic Missile Submarine force the Lafayette (SSBN 616), Tecumseh (SSBN 628), Von Steuben (SSBN 632), Casimir Pulaski (SSBN 633), Simon Bolivar (SSBN 641), and the Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN 658). There is also a Fast Attack boat named the Kamehameha (SSN 642). Not all of these boats are still in service, the average lifespan of US submarines appears to be around 30 years.
The names may be familiar to you, in a vague sort of way. But what did these people do that was important enough for the navy to name ships (er, boats*) after them? Click on the names for more complete biographies.
The Marquis de Lafayette was a French soldier and statesman who played an important part in the American Revolutionary War.
One of the great leaders of the American Indian tribes. A member of the Shawnee, he worked to unite the Indian nations against the encroaching white man.
Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was a Prussian soldier who came to America to help in the war against Britain. He was instrumental in turning Washington’s ragtag band of revolutionaries into an army, introducing techniques of training that are still used today.
Polish officer who is known as the Father of American Cavalry, he helped organize and train troops for General Washington. He trained the father of Robert E. Lee in Cavalry tactics.
This one has me a little stumped. Basically his claims to fame – as far as the US Navy is concerned – are that he traveled through the US soon after the war of independence, which may have inspired him to liberate South America. He is sometimes called the ‘George Washington of South America’. I’ll keep looking for the tie-in, unless ‘prominent Americans’ extends to the whole of the Americas (USS Carmen Miranda anyone?).
Mariano G. Vellejo
Born in Mexico, he considered himself a Californian above all else. He played an important part in the development of the California territory and it’s eventual inclusion into the United States.
A dynasty of Hawaiian monarchs. I always thought it was just one King. I would guess that the submarine is named after the first Kamehameha, who was known as "the Great".
I’ll be looking up some of the other, less well-known historical figures later and I’ll link to their biographies as well.
* In the US Navy, all large surface vessels are referred to as ships but all submarines are called boats.