12 Facts You May Not Know About the Navy on its 240th Birthday

Sailors man the rails on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. Navy photo

Sailors man the rails on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. Navy photo

Steadfast to the bitter end, Navy tradition isn’t all rum punch and pollywogs. For its 240th Birthday, here are 12 things you may not know about the United States Navy:

1. Volunteering, then volunteering again

If you’re pulling duty on a submarine, it’s not by chance. Due to the claustrophobic and technical nature of the assignment, any Navy personnel serving on a submarine asked to do so.

2. The first admiral was …

David Farragut, who has a rich military history that spanned the War of 1812 and the Civil War, was the first admiral in the United States Navy. Some great Farragut trivia includes (1) joining the Navy at age 9, (2) being one of Abraham Lincoln’s pallbearers and (3) coining the famous quote “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”


3. Bravo Zulu means “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. So explain gun salutes …

Sailors fire a 40 mm saluting cannon. Navy photo

Sailors fire a 40 mm saluting cannon. Navy photo

Often confused with the three-volley salute seen performed at military funerals, the 21-gun salute is a different ceremony entirely. Performed with cannons, the gun salute originates in the days of wooden ships and broadside cannons, when if a ship fired a volley in salute, it was powerless to defend itself for as long as 20 minutes while it reloaded the battery. When approaching ships fired a 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.

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 Washington’s Birthday, 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 total an odd number.

5. Fouled anchors

CPO_collarIf an anchor is fouled, it means the line or chain is wrapped around the shank and fluke arms. This indicates the anchor is no longer suitable for use. These retired anchors are usually displayed for decorative purposes on base 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 story behind the art

Though tattoos are discouraged in today’s Navy, sailors for hundreds of years tattooed themselves as souvenirs to show where they’d been and what they’d gone through. Here is a short (and far from comprehensive) list we collected from sources around the Web of imagery you may encounter among saltier sailors, along with what each item means.

  • Swallows: Home (each denotes 5,000 miles at sea)
  • Compass/Nautical Star: Never losing one’s way (each denotes 10,000 miles 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
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
  • 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
  • Pin-up girls: Company at sea/port call
  • Hula girls: Sailed to or ported in Hawaii
  • Dagger through a swallow: Signifies a lost comrade
  • Pig and chicken: Superstition to keep from drowning
  • The words “HOLD FAST”: Signifies a deckhand’s tight grip on the lines

7. Mind your Ps and Qs

Sure, you want to write your lowercase letters correctly, but this wasn’t originally a grammar warning. Instead, 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 and also staying somewhat sober as to keep an accurate count on what one had consumed.

8. The Civil War had a significant naval strategy component

It may have been the North against the South, but the Atlantic Ocean still came into play. The Union went into the war with a plan to blockade the Confederacy’s coastal ports while also advancing south via the Mississippi River.

9. A sign inside the camo

Navy tests a new lookMuch like the Marine Corps camouflage pattern upon which the Navy version was developed, Navy “digis,” as they are often called, have tiny Navy emblems printed inside the pattern. Next time you’re close to a sailor, see if you can spot one.

10. Tossing a Dixie Cover under the Bridge

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

11. In the Navy there are no windows, walls or bathrooms

The Navy has rich diction, but don’t get it mixed up. Ships don’t have walls; they have bulkheads. They don’t have windows; they have portholes. Your left side is your port side and the 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. If you need a toilet, you will find that in the head, and the rack is where you sleep.

12. The Legend of Bill the Goat

United_State_Naval_Academy_Logo-sportsBill the Goat has been the 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. Two ensigns were entrusted to have the goat stuffed, but got distracted by a Naval Academy football game. One of the ensigns allegedly dressed up in the goatskin and pranced around at halftime. The crowd loved it and Navy won the game.

Daddy’s Home! USO Helps with Surprise Father’s Day Weekend Homecoming for Seabee

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Spencer Bouchard came to the USO to record a video. He left with a rapidly forming plan.

Bouchard, a construction electrician petty officer third class in the Navy Seabees, stopped by USO Yokosuka earlier this spring to record a USO/United Through Reading Military Program video for his infant son, Noah. While there, he spoke with the USO staff about surprising his family back in the states. He had a special date in mind: June 20. Not only was it the Saturday before Father’s Day, but it was also Noah’s first birthday party. The USO staff at Yokosuka helped set him up to record the video, which he ended by asking his wife, Courtney, to turn around, knowing he’d be behind her to greet her.

Bouchard’s parents were in on the surprise and helped facilitate the plan while keeping it secret from his wife, Courtney, for three months.

“It was quite the process,” Bouchard said. “I had to be cautious [about what I said] when I Skyped Courtney.”

The Seabee flew from Japan to San Francisco and finally to Cleveland on June 20, where he was greeted by a trio of USO of Northern Ohio volunteers and his parents around 6 a.m. Bouchard’s mom and dad snuck him into their home — which is across the street from Courtney’s parents’ house, where she and Noah are living during the deployment.

By the time Bouchard woke up, Noah’s Mickey Mouse-themed party was already coming to life, with about 40 guests and a few photographers trickling in. Around 1:30 p.m., Bouchard’s mother, Tamara, asked everyone to face the garage where Courtney and Noah were going to watch a special greeting from her son. Bouchard’s father, Paul, was on the phone with him when the DVD started playing and gave him his cue to walk over.

Just as the video was wrapping up, he walked in.

Happiness ensued.

“[She was] shocked and incredibly happy,” Bouchard said. “She was just crying. All the stress she had from [coordinating] Noah’s birthday party and all the stress she had from me being away kind of just disappeared in that one second she saw me.”

Operation That’s My Dress: Female Troops, Military Spouses Get Styled Up at USO Event

NEW YORK–As a busy mom and public affairs officer in the Navy, Petty Officer 1st Class Bickiana Patton doesn’t have many opportunities to show off her feminine side. But thanks to the USO — and sponsors Sherri Hill, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren — Patton was able to let her hair down and enjoy an afternoon of fashion and pampering at USO Operation That’s My Dress at Fleet Week New York 2015.

“I have to admit, it was wonderful,” Patton said. “The USO helped me feel like a diva today.”

Now in it’s third year, USO Operation That’s My Dress, which normally caters to military teens attending formal events, has expanded to include events tailored towards female service members and military spouses.

“There are many, many sacrifices these women make to serve our country or to go with their husband,” said USO of Metropolitan New York Vice President of Programs Ray Kennedy. “And today is a way to make sure we know that we value them, we understand their femininity and we want to make them feel beautiful inside and outside.”

The afternoon of glitz and glam kicked off with a performance by the USO Show Troupe and a fashion show featuring professional models and the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA titleholders. After the show, attendees enjoyed hair and make-up demonstrations by professional stylists before heading upstairs to find the perfect dress. Spouses and female service members were event treated to free accessories by JTV jewelry to complete their look.

“My husband and I are transferring very soon, so just to be able to do this before we move … we just want to thank you,” said Coast Guard spouse Casey Van Huysen.

Safe From the Madness: USO of Illinois Gives Stranded Military Spouse a Place To Stay During Crazy Weekend

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband,

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer. Photo courtesy Siobhan Brennan-Sharer

When Siobhan Brennan-Sharer visited her husband in Chicago for Valentine’s Day weekend this year, nothing seemed to go as planned.

From the delay of her initial flight to Chicago from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to getting tangled in a 40-car pileup in freezing weather, Brennan-Sharer’s reunion with her husband — who she hadn’t seen in a month and half — was anything but magical.

“It was an all-around crummy weekend,” Brennan-Sharer wrote in an email. “Not how I wanted to spend the weekend with my husband.”

Improbably, things got even worse.

At the end of the weekend, Brennan-Sharer said her goodbyes and headed back to Chicago O’Hare International Airport for her flight home. When she arrived, Brennan-Sharer discovered her flight was cancelled and she wouldn’t be able to fly out until the next day.

Her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer, was on duty and couldn’t come pick her up. She called her mother, a retired Marine, for advice on what to do next. Her mom said to find the USO.

Brennan-Sharer headed to the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center, where she was greeted by volunteers who told her she could spend the night at the 24-hour center while waiting her flight. One volunteer even spent time chatting with Brennan-Sharer when she noticed she was crying.

“After all that had happened that weekend, it was awesome to walk in, see friendly faces that helped me and made me feel safe,” Brennan-Sharer wrote.


“I was there for about 18 hours all together,” she wrote, “and it was great to be somewhere away from home and feel safe and not having to worry about how much extra this canceled flight was going to cost me.”

During her stay, Brennan-Sharer met a number of USO volunteers, including police officer Tim Walsh and his 7-year-old son, Rylan Walsh, who had skipped his Boy Scout pizza party to volunteer with his dad.

Brennan-Sharer — whose father is also a police officer — was particularly touched by the father-son duo, and gave Tim Walsh a challenge coin from her father’s sheriff’s department.

“[I] said he could keep it or give it to his little boy,” she wrote. “He [also] wanted to send me a patch and a challenge coin as [well], so I gave him my information and he just sent [the items] to me a few weeks ago.”

Even though her weekend didn’t go exactly as she had hoped — the airline even lost her luggage on her flight home — Brennan-Sharer still thinks fondly about her time at the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center.

“It was definitely a great place to just catch my breath from the crazy weekend,” she wrote.

Helicopter Rides, Crazy Food Pairings and Troops: Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. Talk About Their USO Travels

Comedians and USO tour veterans Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. have dozens of great stories about traveling the world to entertain troops on USO tours.

At the beginning of May, the duo was part of the USO’s first entertainment tour to Iraq since 2011.

In this video, Byrne and Wood discuss the allure of riding in military helicopters, the wild world of DFACs (dining facilities) and why they keep going overseas to perform shows.

Former Airman Found His Way Home Thanks to Chance Meetings at USO Centers

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith has started some of his most memorable travel adventures at airport USO centers.

But they weren’t planned that way.

On one trip, Smith was traveling home to Ohio to attend a friend’s funeral. A delay forced him to miss his connecting flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. After trying to reschedule for the following day, he realized he might not make it home in time for the service. He went to the airport’s USO center to clear his head. While relaxing at the center, Smith started chatting with a Marine who he recognized from his first flight.

“I talked to him and found out that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral on the same day, but one town over,” Smith said. “We figured out that if we took turns sleeping and driving, we could make it to Ohio by morning.

“We went from being complete strangers, to renting a car together and driving seven hours and 400 miles across the country.”

And it wasn’t the last time this happened. On another trip home, this time to see his family for the holidays, Smith found himself sitting in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport USO facing a similar situation.

Due to a series of flight delays, Smith and two soldiers he met at the USO were stuck at the Florida airport and were told they should anticipate missing their connecting flights home from Atlanta the next morning. Instead of spending their holiday time at the airport, the trio decided to rent a car and drive to Atlanta so they could catch their connecting flights.

“We all made our flights and got to see our families for Christmas instead of just New Year’s,” Smith said.

Another USO visit also led Smith to talk with a major who helped spark his involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Smith has been mentoring his Little Brother for over a year now.

“I’m very grateful that the events turned out the way they did, because I probably wouldn’t have met him any other way,” Smith said.

“Some of my best memories from nine years in the Air Force were in airport USO facilities,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post.