11 Facts You May Not Know About the U.S. Navy

By Danielle DeSimone

U.S. Navy traditions aren’t all about pollywogs and Army-Navy football games. For a U.S. military branch that has been in service to this nation since 1775, the Navy has a rich and storied legacy; here are 11 things you may not know about the United States Navy.

1. Submariners Volunteer for Service

Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristen C Yarber

A sailor assigned to the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Albany (SSN 753) walks through the missile room.

If you’re pulling duty on a submarine, it’s not by chance. Due to the claustrophobic and technical nature of the assignment, with service members spending weeks or months underwater while working eight-hour shifts, any Navy personnel serving on a submarine volunteers to do so.

2. The First Admiral Was a Civil War Hero

The U.S. Navy’s first admiral, David Farragut, was responsible for one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest quotes: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” | Photo credit National Archives and Records Administration

The son of an American Revolutionary War veteran, David Farragut had a long military career that spanned the War of 1812 and the Civil War and, ultimately, led to him earning the title of the first admiral in the United States Navy.

Farragut actually joined the Navy at the young age of nine years old and would go on to serve until his death at the age of 69, outliving President Abraham Lincoln, for whom he was a pallbearer at the president’s funeral. The admiral is perhaps best known for commanding his Navy forces through Confederate defenses in the Battle of Mobile Bay by shouting the iconic phrase: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”.

3. The Navy Has Its Own Way of Saying “Well Done"

Through World War II, sailors who did well were told “Tare Victor George”, which was code for “well done.” After the war, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed and it standardized communications. NATO created a system of B-flags for administrative communication. The last B-flag was BZ. The Allied Naval Signal Book created the phonetics for each letter and BZ became Bravo Zulu.

4. Navy Gun Salutes Have Different Meanings

Perhaps the most famous of salutes is the 21-gun salute. Often confused with the three-volley salute seen performed at military funerals, the 21-gun salute is a different ceremony entirely and regarded worldwide as an international sign of honor. The 21-gun salute has its roots in Navy traditions, originating from the days of wooden ships and broadside cannons.

In those days, if a ship fired a volley in salute, it would use up all of its ammunition, essentially leaving the ship powerless to defend itself for as long as 20 minutes while it reloaded its cannons. When approaching ships fired this volley, shore batteries and forts would know the ship represented no threat. In time, this grew to become a gesture of respect, with both land and sea batteries firing odd-numbered volleys back and forth.

Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan

Sailors assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard render a 21-gun salute during a burial at sea ceremony in 2018.

Today, the secretary of the Navy has the final say on which ships and stations may fire gun salutes. A national salute of 21 guns is fired on President George Washington’s Birthday (also known as Presidents Day), Memorial Day, Independence Day and to honor the president or heads of foreign states. Additionally, ships may – with approval from the office of the secretary of the Navy – provide gun salutes for senior officers using the following protocol:

  • Admiral: 17 guns
  • Vice Admiral: 15 guns
  • Rear Admiral (upper half): 13 guns
  • Rear Admiral (lower half): 11 guns All gun salutes are fired at five-second intervals and must total an odd number.

5. Fouled Anchors Aweigh!

If an anchor is fouled, it means the line or chain is wrapped around the shank and fluke arms of the anchor. This indicates the anchor is no longer suitable for use. These retired anchors are usually displayed for decorative purposes on bases or in Navy communities. The symbol is also part of the chief petty officer rank insignia. When used in body art, the fouled anchor represents a tour across the Atlantic Ocean.

6. The Stories Behind Navy Tattoos

Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 2nd Class Levingston M Lewis

Tattoos are often used by Navy sailors to symbolize significant moments or accomplishments during their service.

For hundreds of years, sailors have joined in the longstanding cultural tradition of tattooing themselves as a way to show where they’d been and what they’d gone through during their service. Today, the Navy is the least restrictive U.S. military branch in terms of tattoo regulations. Here is a short (and far from comprehensive) list of images often used in tattoos by Navy sailors, as well as their meaning:

  • Swallows: Home (each tattooed swallow denotes 5,000 miles underway at sea)
  • Compass/Nautical Star: Worn so that one would never lose their way back to port (each compass/nautical star denotes 10,000 miles underway at sea)
  • Trident: Special warfare
  • Rose: A significant other left at home
  • Twin screws or props on one’s backside: Propels one forward through life
  • Rope: Deckhand (often tattooed on the left wrist)
  • Octopus: Navy diver
  • Dolphin: Wards off sharks
  • Sharks: Rescue swimmer
  • Polar Bear: Sailed the Arctic Circle
  • Dragon: Sailed the Pacific
  • Fouled Anchor: Sailed the Atlantic
  • Shellback Turtle: Crossed the equator
  • Gold Dragon: Crossed the International Dateline
  • Gold Turtle: Crossed the International Dateline and the Equator where they intersect
  • Emerald Fouled Anchor: Crossed the Prime Meridian
  • Emerald Turtle: Crossed the Prime Meridian and the Equator where they intersect
  • Full-Rigged Ship: Sailed around Cape Horn
  • Helm: Quartermaster
  • Hula Girls: Sailed to, or ported in, Hawaii
  • Dagger Through a Swallow: Signifies a lost comrade
  • Pig and Chicken/Rooster: Superstition to keep from drowning
  • The Words “HOLD FAST”: Signifies a deckhand’s tight grip on the lines

7. Mind your Ps and Qs

No, this isn’t a grammar rule – it’s a warning for sailors to be on their best behavior. According to the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, it was a way of keeping bar bookkeepers – and their seafaring patrons – honest in waterfront taverns. In centuries past, sailors often had bar tabs on credit, with barkeepers making marks next to each patron’s name under “P” for pint and “Q” for quart. “Minding one’s Ps and Qs” meant both settling up your debts and also staying somewhat sober as to keep an accurate count on what one had consumed – and to behave as an upstanding member of the U.S. Navy should.

8. The Civil War Saw Significant Naval Battles – and Strategy

Photo credit U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

U.S. Navy sailors from the USS Hunchback on the James River during the Civil War, pictured here in approximately 1864 or 1865.

Although the American Civil War is most commonly thought of as battles occurring in places like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Atlantic Ocean still came into play during the war. The Union – that is, the national U.S. Navy – grew 600% to meet the demands of the Civil War and entered the fray with a plan to blockade the Confederacy’s coastal ports while also advancing south via the Mississippi River. In the end, the U.S. Navy played a significant role in the Union’s victory over the insurrectionist Confederate army.

9. Tossing a Dixie Cover Under the Bridge – a Navy Superstition

For many new sailors, crossing under the Coronado Bridge in California (or any other bridge near home port) marks a moment of reflection. Should the sailor stay in the Navy or get out? Because sailors are often superstitious, many leave the decision up to the sea by tossing their cover into the water. If it floats, the sea is asking them to stay. If it sinks, it’s time to move on from service.

10. In the Navy, There Are No Windows, Walls or Bathrooms

The Navy has rich diction, but don’t get it mixed up; that is, once you enter the Navy, sailors must learn a whole new language. Ships don’t have walls, they have bulkheads. Ships also don’t have windows, they have portholes. Your left side is your port side and your right side is starboard. The mess deck is where you eat and the deck is where you walk. Above your head is an overhead, not a ceiling or roof. And if you need a toilet, you will find that in the head – but the rack is where you sleep.

11. The Legend of Bill the Goat

Bill the Goat has been the U.S. Naval Academy mascot since the early 1900s. Legend has it that a Navy ship once had a goat for a pet, and on the way home to port, the goat died. This goat was so beloved that the sailors saved its skin and planned to have it mounted upon their return. Two ensigns were entrusted with the goat skin but, on their way to the taxidermist, stuffed, but got distracted by a Naval Academy football game.

Photo credit DVIDS/EJ Hersom

The U.S. Naval Academy mascots, Angora goats, stand on the sideline during the 113th Army-Navy game in 2012.

During halftime, one of the ensigns decided to wear the skin and romp about in the stands; the crowd loved it, and Navy later won the game, with its victory largely credited to the goat’s antics. Goats have continued to represent the U.S. Naval Academy ever since.

- This story was originally published on USO.org in 2015. It has been updated in 2021.

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