History (basic)

Navy History / Traditions

The Navy's "Birthday" - The U.S. Navy traces its origins back to 13 October 1775, the date the Continental Congress ordered the construction of ships for the fledgling U.S. Navy. For more on the establishment of the Navy, see Birth of the U.S. Navy under Frequently Asked Questions.

The Navy Department was established as a separate department on 30 April 1798 (it was previously part of the War Department). The first Secretary of the Navy was Benjamin Stoddert.

Navy Colors - The official Navy colors are blue and gold.

Navy Motto - There is no official motto for the U.S. Navy. "Non sibi sed patriae" (Not self but country) is often cited as the Navy's motto, however.

The Navy Hymn - "Eternal Father, Strong to Save"

Navy march - "Anchors Aweigh"

"Anchors Aweigh" was written in 1906 as a march for the Naval Academy Class of 1907. The music was composed by Lt. Charles A. Zimmerman, bandmaster of the Naval Academy; the lyrics were written by Midshipman Alfred H. Miles. It was first performed at the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia in 1906 (Navy beat Army 10-0!).

Today, the song has become an important part of Chief Petty Officers training. While there is a proposal to include protocol for performing "Anchors Aweigh" in the Navy Regulations and to designate it the official song of the U.S. Navy, it remains an unofficial service song. There are numerous variations in the words to "Anchors Aweigh;" this version is considered the original version.

Anchors Aweigh (1906 version)

Stand Navy out to sea, Fight our Battle Cry;
We'll never change our course, So vicious foe steer shy-y-y-y.
Roll out the TNT, Anchors Aweigh. Sail on to Victory
And sink their bones to Davy Jones, Hooray!

Anchors Away, my boys, Anchors Aweigh.
Farewell to foreign shores, We sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay.
Through our last night on shore, Drink to the foam,
Until we meet once more. Here's wishing you a happy voyage home.

Blue of the Mighty Deep; Gold of God's Sun
Let these colors be till all of time be done, done, done,
On seven seas we learn Navy's stern call:
Faith, Courage, Service true, with Honor, Over Honor, Over All.

Change of Command Tradition

The Change of Command Ceremony is not prescribed specifically by U.S. Navy Regulations, but rather is an honored product of the rich heritage of naval tradition. It is a custom wholly Naval, without an equivalent counterpart in the Army or Air Force. Custom has established that this ceremony be formal and impressive--designed to strengthen that respect for authority which is vital to any military organization. Parading all hands at Quarters and public reading of official orders stem from those days when movement of mail and persons was a slow process. This procedure was designated to ensure only duly authorized officers held command and that all aboard were aware of its authenticity.

The heart of the ceremony is the formal reading of official orders by the relieving officer and the officer to be relieved. Command passes upon utterance by the relieving officer, "I relieve you, Sir (or Ma'am)." The officer being relieved responds, "I stand relieved." This simple procedure is duplicated hundreds of times daily throughout the Navies of the world as each watch officer passes responsibility to his or her relief in the conduct of each ship's routine.

Why is a ship referred to as "she?"

It has always been customary to personify certain inanimate objects and attribute to them characteristics peculiar to living creatures. Thus, things without life are often spoken of as having a sex. Some objects are regarded as masculine. The sun, winter, and death are often personified in this way. Others are regarded as feminine, especially those things that are dear to us. The earth as mother Earth is regarded as the common maternal parent of all life. In languages that use gender for common nouns, boats, ships, and other vehicles almost invariably use a feminine form. Likewise, early seafarers spoke of their ships in the feminine gender for the close dependence they had on their ships for life and sustenance.

Wetting Down a Commission

In the old Navy, an officer's commission was hand-written on heavy parchment. According to some sources, the newly commissioned or promoted officer held a dinner for his shipmates and friends. During the course of the evening, the new commission was rolled into a cone, the small end folded up to form a cup. This paper cup was passed around the table for all the guests to toast the new officer. Thus, the new commission was "wetted down." Considering the importance of the document, however, this interpretation may be doubtful. Commissions in the early U.S. Navy were signed and issued by the President and were of great legal and personal value.

According to other sources, the wetting down party was once quite a rough and tumble affair. It was the custom for the officer to wear his new uniform or stripes for the first time at the wetting down. The guests would then proceed to christen the uniform, the occupant, and the commission with whatever liquid refreshment (paid for by the victim) was available. Over the years, however, Navy life has became more calm, the price of gold braid has skyrocketed and a literal christening is not usually condoned. It might even be considered downright unsociable.

Who shines the ship's bell?

An old Navy tradition has it that the ship's cook shines the ship's bell and the ship's bugler shines the ship's whistle. This tradition may still be observed in some of the ships of the modern Navy. However, in normal practice, the ship's bell is maintained by a man of the ships' division charged with the upkeep of that part of the ship where the bell is located.