Three new ships named after Marines — but did the Navy get it right?


The destroyer Jason Dunham was named after the Marine Corps' first Medal of Honor recipient in the Iraq war. (Bath Iron Works photograph)

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.

Cross-posted from Battle Rattle.


About Author

I'm a senior writer with Marine Corps Times, covering ground warfare, manpower, weapons acquisition and other beats. I embedded in Afghanistan in spring 2010, and plan to return at least once in 2011.


  1. SECEF botched it again! These ships are classed as naval auxiliaries, should have been specialized sealift ships, and certainly should not have been named after Marine heroes. Their functions have little to do with Marines (even if they ever do work right?).
    Someone needs to question these decisions

  2. Apparently they are naming LCSs after both historic Navy ships (Freedom, Independence) and cities (Milwaukee, Little Rock).

    Those are awfully big names for ships which are essentially overpriced and under-armed gunboats.

    If I were the SECNAV, I would probably follow the Royal Navy practice in naming gunboats:

    USS Incapable (LCS-1)
    USS Unaffordable (LCS-2)
    USS Illogical (LCS-3)
    USS Unsurvivable (LCS-4)
    USS Irrelevant (LCS-5)

  3. The naming of the ship “Jason Duhnam” is perfect. A great way to memorialize an ordinary person that made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of those he was fighting with.

    Too many times we give credit where it doesn’t belong; e.g., the U.S.S. Ronald Regan. While Regan might have been a good president, is he worthy of such an accolade? I believe that the naming of ships should be reserved for those that give a part or all of their lives to protecting our country. No one can questIon the intent when a ship or whatever is named after a courageous volunteer who has given everything.

  4. All the World wonders…..

    What will SECNAV name LHA-7 ??

    Just like the lead ship, LHA-6, there is now well deck to carrying any landing craft.

  5. I can’t say I’m surprised looking at the current trend in the Navy towards Political Correctness, particularly under this SecNav, but it is extremely inn appropriate to make these such a political move rather than the example of warfighting tradition to inspire people. He isn’t even consistent in how he assigns the names. He just decides based on his political agenda.

    I also disagree with naming an LPD the Montford Point, for a similar reason that the John P. Murtha should not be an LPD, they are not American Cities. One being a camp, the other a politician.

    The Secretary is taking away the traditions of this fine service at the expense of political correctness, and it is only a matter of time before the our focus away from combat and operational capability leaves us with a decrepit service incapable of operating at all.

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