Above, you see the destroyer Jason Dunham. It’s named after Cpl. Jason Dunham, who covered a grenade with his helmet on April 14, 2004, in an attempt to shield the blast from fellow Marines. He died eight days later, and received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism on Jan. 11, 2007.
No human being in their right mind would question the naming of the ship. It’s a logical, sensible case in which a class of ship frequently used to honor war heroes memorialized one of the greatest heroes of the Iraq war.
It’s no secret that the Navy has taken a hit in the naming other ships in the last few years, though. As Navy Times colleague Sam Fellman pointed out in a story last month, chief among those are the Cesar Chavez and the John P. Murtha, both of which rankled a variety of conservative politicians, service members and military advocates.
The Cesar Chavez, a Lewis and Clark-class cargo ship, was named after a labor leader and civil rights activist, raising questions about whether politics were involved with some critics. The class of ship is usually named after pioneers, but most other namesakes in the class (Alan Shepherd, Lewis and Clark, Amelia Earhart) were decidedly a different kind of pioneer.
The John P. Murtha, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship, was named after the Marine veteran and late congressman. It outraged some Marines and Marine families who remembered that he accused Marines of “killing innocent people” in Hadithah, Iraq, before an investigation had concluded and anyone had been charged.
Those are controversial names, to be sure — and ones that could have been avoided in favor of others on which virtually all Americans could agree.
That brings us to the Navy’s decision, announced yesterday, on what to name the three first mobile landing platform ships.
“I chose to name the department’s new MLPs Montford Point, John Glenn and Lewis B. Puller as a way to recognize these American pioneers and heroes both collectively and individually,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. “The courage shown by these Marines helped forge the Corps into the most formidable expeditionary force in the world.”
It’s hard to argue with using the names. Glenn is an American hero, a Marine aviator who served in combat and later became an astronaut and U.S. senator. “Chesty” Puller is a Marine legend, a five-time Navy Cross recipient who served in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and the Korean War. Montford Point served as the training ground to thousands of black Marines who served in World War II.
The question is whether the names were used on the right kind of ship — and yes, it has mattered in the past.
There are certainly variations, but ship classes have typically followed themes. For example, many amphibious assault ships are named after famous battles — Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Makin Island, etc.
Montford Point is a place. It’s one that has been memorialized several times in the last year, and rightfully so. More than 20,000 black recruits were trained there from 1942 to 1949, and their service is credited with leading the U.S. to desegregate the military.
Puller and Glenn, on the other hand, are people. In fact, as I learned in a conversation with Defense News sage Chris Cavas, Puller’s name was used on a guided-missile frigate that was decommissioned in 1998. That Lewis B. Puller was part of a class of ship named after another war hero, American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
Wouldn’t it have made sense, then, to wait and name another San Antonio-class ship after Montford Point, memorializing its black Marine veterans with a ship that will carry modern-day Marines? The San Antonio class already is named after a location, so it would have held form. It also certainly would have been more popular across the Corps than naming a San Antonio-class ship after Murtha.
Also, wouldn’t it have made sense to name a destroyer or some other fearsome ship with heavy guns the Lewis B. Puller, rather than a mobile landing platform? Granted, the MLPs will have a major role in seabasing, a Marine Corps concept, but it doesn’t exactly square with Puller’s legendary status.
As Fellman pointed out in his story, Congress is expecting the Navy to report back this year and explain how it names its ships. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year.