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Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions

Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions

by William P. Mack, Royal W. Connell
Since it was first published in 1934, this book has become firmly established as the primary source for sailors and civilians interested in naval ceremonies, customs, and traditions.


Since it was first published in 1934, this book has become firmly established as the primary source for sailors and civilians interested in naval ceremonies, customs, and traditions.

Product Details

Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
5th ed
Product dimensions:
6.27(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.31(d)

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By Royal W. Connell William P. Mack


Copyright © 2004 Royal W. Connell and William P. Mack
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The Interrelationship of Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions, and Usage

May we not who are of their brotherhood claim that in a small way at least we are partakers of their glory? Certainly it is our duty to keep these traditions alive and in our memory, and to pass them on untarnished to those who come after us. Rear Adm. Albert Gleaves, USN

The United States Navy has a tradition and a future. We look with pride and confidence in both directions. Adm. Chester Nimitz, USN

Throughout life, traditions, ceremonies, customs, and usage exert a profound influence upon human behavior. The effect is particularly marked in such professions as the military. Organizations that impose discipline lend themselves to passing on and perpetuating venerated customs, heroic traditions, and dignified ceremonies. Such stimuli, when appreciated and properly applied, inculcate ideals and esprit de corps of incalculable value.

Throughout our society, however, ceremonies are diminishing. Not so long ago, religious, fraternal, and other organizations provided a constant stream of ceremonial punctuation to our lives. Weddings and funerals, anniversary and memorial meetings, speeches and parties, parades and wreath layings have dwindled in popularity. The trend in the hurry-up world we live in is to tone down any recognition of the milestones in life, for a wide variety of reasons: not enough time, too much bother, it seems an imposition on others, and on, and on, and on. But the end result is that we have cheapened the milestones themselves in the process.

Pride in a great tradition serves well in chaotic times. Pride in the "outfit" and knowledge of the exploits of heroic soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have gone before are the warp and weft of tradition; these are the things that impel Americans today to go forth and do likewise. As the English statesman Disraeli said: "Nurture your minds with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes."

The naval officer of the twenty-first century is required to devote more and more time to keeping abreast of a profession that becomes increasingly complex with the advance of technology. The personal factor remains strong, however. Human beings still drop bombs and fire missiles, and men and women still must sail on, and under, the seas and fly today's aircraft.

The Navy, emphasizes its customs and traditions in times of peace, because the memory of them inspires men and women in times of stress and in battle. The effect that old customs had on the formulation of naval regulations is a marked example of the influence of tested usage. The courtesy of the sea and the worth of ceremony rest mainly on how they bind us to the past and at the same time lend an air of dignity and respect in official relations, whether at home or abroad. There are no greater "goodwill ambassadors" than the visits of U.S. ships to foreign ports. Here is where dignified and time-honored nautical ceremonies play their part, because ceremony is to a marked degree the cement of discipline, and upon discipline the service rests. Tradition, when coupled with courage and pride, gives to the officer corps its highest incentive to carry on both in peace and in war. It is good for us to ask ourselves: "Am I living up to the best traditions of those who have gone before?"

The finer traditions of other years provide support and inspiration for the carrying out of the Navy's high mission. An examination, however cursory, of the loyalty and devotion, both individual and collective, to the brotherhood that has passed on gives striking evidence of the tremendous worth of the traditional ethics of the naval code. President Theodore Roosevelt once said: "Every officer in the Navy should feel in each fibre of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination, and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows." Those who wear the Navy blue will find much that puts iron in character and enhances professional value if they take time to look closely at the brilliant tapestry of naval tradition.

Tradition is especially important in this age when awesome responsibility can be placed on the very young. Young Marines have been required to execute national tasking in situations unique in American experience. In conflicts such as Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, junior officers were launched in aircraft loaded with powerful weapons, and charged with making accurate delivery on military targets. In the uncertain world of fighting an enemy that is no longer identifiable by nationality, but is a faceless terrorist, only a strong grounding in the ways of those who have preceded us will carry us through. Only strong tradition firmly based on a code of ethics and morals can bring military professionals through safely.

Because this work treats custom, ceremonies, tradition, and usage, both in a general sense and in detail, it may be helpful to define the terms. To begin with, custom is defined as "repetition of the same act or procedure, established manner or way." Customs are to a major degree authoritative and often stand in the place of law and regulations for the conduct of groups of people. Customs may change, however, as do fashions and manners, either for better or for worse. Custom has an important role in all systems of jurisprudence. An ancient legal maxim states that "custom is the best interpreter of the law."

Usage is best defined in comparison with custom. In its simplest sense, usage means an accepted way of acting-hence the English phrase, "ancient usages of Parliament." In our present context it is applicable to procedures or ceremonies. Under English law, usage, unlike custom, does not imply immemorial existence or general prevalence. Usage is sometimes considered as the habits of individuals or classes, such as those engaged in a particular trade or business, while custom is seen as the habit of communities or localities. One could therefore say, "The naval usage of playing the national anthem at the end of receptions became a custom in the community." However, the Navy would say, "It has always been our custom."

Usage in the Navy usually refers to matters of general etiquette, social procedures, or correctness in matters of correspondence, generally with the intent of determining the best accepted practice. "Try to do it right," Madame Celnart, an expert on manners, once said. "The grand secret of never-failing propriety of deportment is to have an intention of always doing right." This implies a sincere effort to conform to the best usage at home and abroad, and requires observation and application.

Tradition comes from the Latin tradere, "to hand down." In the context of the Navy, therefore, we assume that traditions are accumulated experiences and deeds passed on from sailor to sailor "both in memory and reality." Some cynically view tradition as "whatever was being done the day before I entered the service"; it is sometimes said that "it only takes three years to be a tradition at the Naval Academy." But tradition is more than whatever a personal memory can cover.

A secondary definition of tradition, applicable to "members of professions" and others, is "the accumulated experience, advance, or achievement of the past." For the Navy, this accumulated experience, some of which will be shown to date back to man's earliest adventures on the sea, constitutes a huge reservoir of fact and fancy from which has flowed the stream of deeds, ceremonies, and sea language that is our naval heritage. A not altogether regrettable conservatism, typical of all navies, has enabled ours to pass on to future generations our established customs and traditions. For the Navy, they constitute the essence of heroic enterprise, moral fiber, pride in the service, and correct deportment.

Apart from the spiritual value of this legacy, there is one of everyday practicality. Customs of the service have the full effect of law when they fulfill the naval legal definition. The Manual for Courts-Martial (2000 edition, art. 134) includes this statement in the article "Breach of Custom of the Service": "In its legal sense, 'custom' means more than a method of procedure or a mode of conduct which is merely of frequent or usual occurrence. Custom arises out of long established practices which by common usage have attained the force of law in the military or other community affected by them."

Ceremonies that originated in fear and awe are accepted today in military organizations as dignified gestures of respect to the symbols of the state and the state's officials. Ceremonies are a function of discipline. Definitive regulations exist for important ceremonial occasions and are tributes to worthy tradition. It follows that if the respect for lawful authority and the symbolism of the flag are worthy of preservation, they must be revered by their defenders: half-measures will not do.

A worthy member of the armed forces has pride in uniform, pride in service, and pride in his or her respect for the flag. Of the eighteenth-century British Admiral Lord Jervis, the Earl of St. Vincent, master seaman and classic disciplinarian, Capt. A. T. Mahan writes:

He wisely believed in the value of forms, and was careful to employ them, in this crisis of the mutinies, to enforce the habit of reverence for the insignia of the state and the emblems of military authority. The discipline of the cabin and wardroom officer is the discipline of the fleet, said the admiral [St. Vincent]; and savage almost were the punishments that fell upon officers who disgraced their cloth. The hoisting of the colors, the symbol of power of the nation, from which depended his own and that of all the naval hierarchy, was made an august and imposing ceremony.... Lord St. Vincent made a point of attending always, and in full uniform; a detail he did not require of other officers ... the very atmosphere the seamen breathed was saturated with reverence.

Mahan again relates how Jervis adhered strictly to custom and ceremony:

To pay outward reverence to the national flag, to salute the quarterdeck as the seat of authority, were no vain show under him. "Discipline," he was fond of quoting, "is summed up in the one word, obedience," and these customs were charged with the observance which is obedience in spirit. They conduce to discipline as conventional good manners, by rendering the due of each to each, knit together the social fabric and maintain the regularity and efficiency of common life; removing friction, suppressing jars, and ministering constantly to the smooth and even working of the social machinery.

Ceremonies are sometimes mistakenly neglected, often as the result of personal humility. Particularly in recent years, the sentiments of "I don't want my shipmates to go to any trouble over me" or "I don't want any big ceremony" are heard more and more often. This attitude can actually be quite selfish, as we see when we realize that a ceremony is often not so much for the honoree as it is for the observers. For instance, older relatives facing impending death, in an effort to spare their survivors pain, sometimes will state that they do not want a funeral to be held, thinking that a funeral means much crying and mourning the loss of the loved one. In fact, such a funerary ceremony can provide a comforting sense of closure to those left behind, a reassurance of either a resurrection or other reuniting that brings peace to those who mourn. An individual receiving a promotion or a medal for his or her actions serves as an example to others in addition to being recognized for individual performance. To cheat those shipmates out of seeing the ceremonial recognition is to be very self-serving. While it may be human nature or the "aw shucks, ma'am" aspect of American culture not to want to be paraded in front of one's family and friends, such refusal also denies them the chance to pay well-deserved homage and therefore lessens in their minds the importance of the action or service being recognized.

There is also a practical justification for the fostering of traditional customs. Think of the difficulty should the officer of the deck be left to decide on each occasion whether the starboard or port side should be the ceremonial side, whether or not to "sound taps" at a funeral, or what side of the quarterdeck should be cleared for the captain. Early customs became established traditions and exact regulations.

When should we change custom and usage? Whenever such change is necessary. A reactionary spirit is only to be commended when it clings to an old tradition, custom, or usage, in certainty that a change will bring about neither enlightenment nor improvement.

Capt. Mahan in his essay Military Rule of Obedience wrote that "the value of tradition to the social body is immense. The veneration for practices, or for authority, consecrated by long acceptance, has a reserve of strength which cannot be obtained by any novel device. Respect for the old customs is planted deep in the hearts, as well as in the intelligence, of all inheritors of English-speaking polity."

The "reserve of strength" pointed out by Mahan should be pondered by the commissioned personnel of each generation. The outstanding officers of the service, from the days of the infant Navy, have never failed to recognize the power of tradition. In a desire to emulate the progenitors of tradition, they become imbued with some of the spirit that prompted the original words and deeds: an imponderable but vital factor that so influences morale that people often die without complaint when they have full knowledge that they have done their duty for country and organization, like those who went before. "Fight her till she sinks and don't give up the ship"; "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead"; "I have not yet begun to fight"; "We are ready now"; "Take her down"; and "Attack! Attack!" are not mere words of sound and fury but rather expressions that carry lofty overtones of valor, self-sacrifice, and proud glory. They are the essence of priceless tradition.

Worthy traditions also cause the voice of conscience to whisper to the patriot: "Can you go and do likewise?" Fate may decide for someone on active service whether the ordeal of decision comes early or late. There may be no fame or glory, for the decision may result only in deeds and actions that will bring fame and glory to others.


Excerpted from NAVAL CEREMONIES, CUSTOMS, and TRADITIONS by Royal W. Connell William P. Mack Copyright © 2004 by Royal W. Connell and William P. Mack. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Royal W. Connell, a retired commander in the U.S. Navy and 1970 graduate of the Naval Academy, served as a mission commander in the E-2 Hawkeye. He currently teaches naval science at Annapolis High School, where he established the city's first NJROTC unit.

William P. Mack, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy and former commander of the Seventh Fleet, served with distinction in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Among his many writing achievements are three Naval Institute professional guides as well as Commodore Kilburnie. He died in 2003.

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