Other Traditions of the United States Naval Services

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Bells and Watches

The term "watch" has three basic meanings in the Navy.  Most basically, a watch is the fundamental unit into which the shipboard day is divided," during which a segment of the crew takes turns on duty.  There are seven watches in the day, five of four hours each and two, the "dog watches," of two hours each.  The dog watches ensure that no one is on watch throughout the period for the evening meal as well as that no one has to stand the mid watch night after night.  The seven watches, as laid down in OpNavInst 3120.32C, Standard Organization and Regulations of the United States Navy (SORN) are:
Mid Watch Midnight-0400
Morning Watch 0400-0800
Forenoon Watch 0800-1200
Afternoon Watch 1200-1600
First Dog Watch 1600-1800
Second Dog Watch 1800-2000
Evening Watch 2000-Midnight

(As a matter of curiosity, the Royal Navy uses different names for some of these watches.  What the U.S. Navy calls the "evening watch" is the "first watch" in the Royal Navy, "mid" is "middle," and "second dog" is "last dog.")

For at least six centuries, time has been signalled aboard ship by the striking of bells each half hour, one bell per half hour, with eight bells signifying the changing of the watch (except for the change from the first to second dog watches).  For example, two bells in the forenoon watch would signify 9:00 a.m., five bells in the afternoon watch would be 2:30 p.m., and so on.  Bells are rung in pairs:  "ding-ding [pause] ding-ding [pause] ding" for five bells, for instance.  The officer of the deck (that is, the senior officer on watch) seeks the captain's permission before striking eight bells at the end of the morning, forenoon, and second dog watches.  Today bells are not struck between taps and reveille.

In the U.S. Navy, bells are sounded throughout the two dog watches in a continuous one-through-eight sequence.  The Royal Navy, however, starts over with one bell at 6:30 p.m. in the "last" (i.e., second) dog watch, then rings two at 7:00, three at 7:30 and eight at 8:00.

"Watch" also refers to the basic division of the ship's company into two halves, designated port and starboard, for the sharing of shifts of duty as well as to the group of crewmen actually on duty at a given time.

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Honors and Salutes

Tending the Side

When a senior officer or official formally visits a ship of the Navy, he or she is normally "piped over the side" by a boatswain's mate and a number of sideboys corresponding to the visitor's rank as shown on the table of honors.  This process is a ritual throwback to the days when coming aboard a ship meant either climbing up a rope ladder or being hoisted aboard in a boatswain's chair.  Sideboys were mustered to assist if necessary in pulling the visitor bodily over the side.  The tale goes that the more senior the officer, the greater the weight to be lifted, and accordingly the more sideboys mustered.  Sideboys were first formally prescribed in the U.S. Navy by the 1843 Rules and Regulations, but had clearly been provided from the very birth of the service.

Well before the visiting dignitary arrives, the boatswain's mate of the watch sounds the call "Pass the word" over the shipboard loudspeaker system, known as the 1MC, and passes the word "Lay to the quarterdeck the sideboys." The sideboys line up facing each other in two rows, with the boatswain's mate positioned behind the outboard sideboy in the forward row.  The boatswain's mate then pipes "Alongside," timing it to end when the boat reaches the foot of the accommodation ladder or the car arrives at the shore end of the brow.  When the visitor's head appears at the level of the quarterdeck (or when he reaches a designated point on the brow or accommodation ladder), the boatswain's mate begins piping "Over the Side" and he, the sideboys, and all other persons on the quarterdeck salute.  If the boatswain's mate uses his right hand to hold the call (pipe), he may salute left-handed.  The piping continues until the visitor has passed between the two rows of sideboys and is greeted by the officer of the deck; salutes are held throughout, as well as through any musical honors and gun salute that may be rendered.  The  process is repeated in reverse when the visitor departs, with the boatswain's mate piping "Over the Side" as the guest passes through the sideboys and "Away" as his boat or vehicle gets under way.

Musical Honors

The 1821 Rules and Regulations for the Naval Service were the first to provide for a form of musical honors to senior officers and officials, prescribing for two ruffles on the drums.  The 1833 edition elaborated a more complete system of musical honors:  a march for the President, Vice President, or cabinet officer; three ruffles for the Board of Navy Commissioners or a commander in chief; two ruffles for a commander of a squadron other than a commander in chief; and one ruffle for a division commander or a captain of the fleet (what we would today call a chief staff officer or chief of staff).  By 1863, this was elaborated, in the case of the President, Vice President, a foreign sovereign, or a cabinet officer to a sequence of three ruffles, as well as a march.  The 1870 regulations added one more ruffle and stipulated the playing of "the national air" rather than "a march" for senior civilian officials.  The same regulations established the current practice of matching the number of an admiral's ruffles to the stars on his flag, except that commodores still received two rather than one.

The modern practice is to play the number of ruffles and flourishes equal to the number of stars of the official's or officer's rank. (Most senior civilian officials who are entitled to honors are four-star equivalents.) Ruffles (on the drums) and flourishes (by bugle or band) are played simultaneously. Following the ruffles and flourishes, the march prescribed for the official being saluted is played, as listed in the table of honors. For example, this is the sequence for a rear admiral. If a gun salute is to be fired, it commences at the last note of the march.

Gun Salutes

The tradition of firing blank rounds from the gun batteries of both ships and fortifications as a form of salute goes back almost to the earliest days of naval guns.  It apparently originated as a sign of good faith; by discharging your guns, you temporarily disarmed yourself and thereby showed yourself to have peaceful intentions.  The number of guns varied from situation to situation and country to country--for many years, ships would fire up to seven guns and shore fortifications (which could store more powder) would return salutes with up to three guns for each fired by the ship.  The earliest record of an American warship exchanging salutes with a shore installation occurred in October 1776, when a Continental schooner was saluted by the Danish battery at St. Croix, Virgin Islands.  It was not until 1818 that the U.S. Navy issued regulations on this subject, requiring that "an officer appointed to command in chief shall be saluted on hoisting his flag."  Those regulations also prescribed a 21-gun salute for the President, conforming to the number of guns that had been established as the royal salute in the British service but also corresponding to the number of states in the Union at the time, 19 for the Vice President, and 17 for cabinet members and governors.  The 1821 revision changed the President's 21 guns to one gun for each state (23 at the time) and added provisions for salutes of 15 guns for major generals, 13 for brigadier generals and commodores on separate service, nine for other commodores, and seven for captains.  An 1823 order provided for a 15 gun salute to the Board of Naval Commissioners visiting a ship as a body.  The 1833 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy raised the Vice President's salute to 21 guns, cabinet members' to 19, and the Board of Navy Commissioners to 17.  It also provided for salutes of 17 guns for full admirals, 15 for vice admirals, and 13 for rear admirals, notwithstanding that none of these ranks existed at the time in the U.S. Navy.  Finally, in 1843, by which time the number of states had reached 26, a new set of regulations returned the President's entitlement to the internationally recognized 21 guns, dropped the Vice President back to 19 and cabinet officers back to 17.

Salutes in the naval services are fired at five second intervals, except in the case of minute guns fired for funerals or memorials.  Gun salutes are not fired between sunset and 8:00 a.m., on Sundays, or in ports where they are prohibited by local law or regulations.

Today, gun salutes are fired by the Navy under the following circumstances:

Passing Honors

Ships passing within 600 yards of a ship displaying the flag of a senior official, or within 400 yards of a boat flying the flag or pennant of a civil official, a flag officer, or a unit commander, render "passing honors."  Depending on the rank of the official being honored, this may entail anything from a simple hand salute by persons on the quarterdeck (in the case of a boat carrying a unit commander) all the way up to manning the rail, parading the guard and band, and playing "Hail to the Chief" (in the case of the President).   Passing honors are also rendered to ships flying the flags of foreign heads of state on the same basis as to the President (except that the foreign national anthem substitutes for "Hail to the Chief") and to foreign warships.  The sequence of rendering passing honors is:
Junior Ship Signal Senior Ship Signal
Sounds "attention" to starboard or port Bugle call "Attention" or 1 whistle for starboard, 2 whistles for port    
    Sounds "attention" to port or starboard Bugle call "attention" or 2 whistles for port, 1 whistle for starboard
Sounds "hand salute;" guard presents arms; band (if required) sounds off with prescribed music One short note on bugle or one short whistle    
    Sounds "hand salute" One short note on bugle or one short whistle
    After three seconds, or after band completes music, sounds "Two;" salutes terminated Two short notes on bugle or two short whistles
Sounds "Two;" salutes terminated Two short notes on bugle or two short whistles    
    "Carry on" Three short whistles
"Carry on" Three short whistles    
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Boat Gongs

Although technically considered a form of communication and not honors, boat gongs are similar to honors in that their number corresponds to the rank of the individual being announced.  As the person being announced approaches the ship, the word is passed over the 1MC, "[Title] arriving," and a bell is struck the number of times corresponding to the number of sideboys to which the person would be entitled:  eight for a vice admiral or above, six for a rear admiral or rear admiral (lower half), four for a captain or commander, or two for an officer below the grade of commander.  The title used is the same as for a boat hail.  As with the bells signaling the half-hours of the watch, the tones are sounded in pairs.  A captain commanding a destroyer squadron would thus be announced, "DesRon-2 arriving," DING-DING (pause) DING-DING.  One final "DING" is then struck when the person's foot touches the deck.  The same procedure is followed upon departure, "[Title] departing" and the sounding of the bell.  Boat gongs are sounded only between reveille and taps.  If honors are being rendered (e.g., the visitor is to be piped over the side), the arrival announcement is made as his or her boat or vehicle approaches the ship and the announcement is "[Title] approaching."

The use of the short form of title makes for some interesting announcements, especially with foreign VIPs; hearing the announcement, "Russian Navy arriving" undoubtedly caused some double takes until those within hearing registered that a U.S. ship was being visited by the Russian Navy Commander in Chief.

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Mourning and Funerals

Half-Masting the Ensign and Other Ceremonies of Mourning

Additional information on flag-related mourning customs and procedures for half-masting can be found on the page on flag-related customs.
Position of Deceased National Ensign Half-Masted Gun Salute
President, former President, or President-elect By all ships and stations for 30 days from date of death On the day after notification, one gun every half hour from 0800 until sunset, fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.  On the day of the funeral, 21 minute guns fired at noon.
Vice President, Chief Justice or retired Chief Justice, or Speaker of the House of Representatives By all ships and stations for 10 days from date of death. Nineteen minute guns at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, member of the Cabinet, former Vice President, a member of the top Congressional leadership, or the Secretary of a military department By all ships and stations from the day of death until interment. Nineteen minute guns at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.
Chairman or former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; fleet admiral or general of the Army or Air Force; Chief or former Chief of Naval Operations; Commandant or former Commandant of the Marine Corps By all ships and stations from the day of death until sunset on day of funeral. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by flagship or station commanded, or as designated by senior officer present
Governor of a state, territory, commonwealth or possession By all ships and stations within the Governor's jurisdiction from the day of death until interment. Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased's official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
United States Senator or Representative or other delegate to Congress By all ships and stations in the metropolitan area of the District of Columbia and in the applicable state, congressional district, territory, or commonwealth Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased's official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
Other civil official entitled to a gun salute on an official visit By ships and stations in the vicinity when directed by the senior officer present or other competent authority Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased's official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
Flag or General Officer in command By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity, from day of death until sunset of day of funeral or removal of body from the vicinity. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by flagship or station commanded, or as designated by the senior officer present.
Flag or General Officer not in command By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, from the beginning of the funeral to sunset of that day. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by a ship or station designated by the senior officer present.
Unit commander not a flag officer or a commanding officer By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, from the beginning of the funeral to sunset of that day. Seven minute guns, fired during the funeral, by the flagship or the ship or statoin commanded, or by a unit designated by the senior officer present.
Other persons in the naval service By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, during the funeral and for one hour thereafter.  

Naval Funerals Ashore
The basic elements of a naval funeral ashore consist of the following elements:

Burial at Sea

After the crew is summoned by passing the word, "All hands bury the dead," the ship is stopped and its ensign is lowered to half mast.  The casket, covered with an ensign, is placed on a plank, the foot extending over the side of the ship.  After the words of committal, "we commit his body to the deep..." the board is tilted so the casket slides from under the ensign into the sea, the burial detail grasping the hoist of the flag so that it remains on the board.  The three volleys are then fired over the spot where the casket entered the water and "Taps" is sounded.  The ensign is then closed up to the truck and the ship resumes its course and speed.  The ensign used for the burial is then folded and cased and later presented to the next of kin.

Procedures for the conduct of naval funerals are found in Navy Regulations, Chapter 12, Section 10; NAVPERS 15555C, Naval Military Funerals; and NAVPERS 15956D, Naval Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Special Honors to USS Arizona

Article 1282 of Navy Regulations directs that all persons on deck aboard ships passing the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, between sunrise and sunset be called to attention, and that those not in formation render the hand salute as the ship passes the memorial, which symbolizes the losses suffered in the surprise Japanese attack on the morning of December 7, 1941.  In addition, it is customary for distinguished visitors to Pearl Harbor to pay tribute at the memorial, normally by laying a wreath in front of the memorial tablets bearing the names of those who were lost aboard the battleship and by throwing a flower lei into the sea above the sunken hull.

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Ceremonies in the Life of a Ship

Keel Laying

The first and simplest ceremony in the life of a ship is that associated with laying the keel.  With modern modular ship construction techniques, there is often no actual laying of the keel to begin the building process, but the ceremony is sitll carried out using the first element of the ship on which construction begins.  The ceremony is conducted by the shipyard building the ship and normally involves an address by a dignitary, such as a member of Congress or government official.  Following the address, the speaker authenticates the keel by affixing a name plate or inscribing his initials on the keel (or whatever part of the ship is being used in lieu of a keel).  This typically takes the form of writing his initials in chalk, after which workmen of the yard use a welding torch to cut the chalked inscription into the metal.  The workmen then move the keel into position on the building way and an announcement is made that "the keel has been truly and fairly laid."

Launching and Christening

The second milestone is the dedication, naming, and launching of the newly completed ship.  The exact procedure depends on the design of the building yard.  Traditionally, the launching takes place by rolling the ship down the ways into the water, but many modern shipyards no longer use this process.  Nevertheless, the launching and christening still take place, modified as necessary.  The launching and christening ceremony are a joint effort by the building yard and the Navy.  The ceremony normally consists of: During the launching and until the ship is commissioned it does not display the commissioning pennant or any other distinctive mark of a warship.  Instead, the house flag of the builder is displayed.  The current practice is for the house flag to fly at the outboard halyard of the port yardarm beneath the national ensign.


A vessel officially becomes a "United States Ship," entitled to use the prefix "USS" before its name, only when it is commissioned, the final rite of passage in the process of bringing a new warship into service. Navy Regulations, article 881, provides the bare minimums of a commissioning ceremony, but the ceremony is normally somewhat more elaborate.  The steps shown in bold in the following description of a typical ceremony are those required by Navy Regulations:


The ceremony of decommissioning a ship terminates its active service, although in many cases decommissioned ships may be placed in reserve and recommissioned many years later in time of need.  Decommissioning ceremonies are generally serious, if not sad, occasions, however, and are conducted far less elaborately than those that bring a ship into service. After the decommissioning, tradition has it that the commanding officer is presented the last commissioning pennant to fly over the ship to keep as a memento.  The crew member with the most years of service keeps the last ensign flown by the ship.

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Change of Command

Article 807 of Navy Regulations requires that "At the time of turning over command, the commanding officer to be relieved will call all hands to muster, read the orders of detachment, and turn over the command to his or her relief, who will read the orders of relief and assume command."  The following is the typical procedure by which this provision is carried out, with the essential elements in boldface: Return to top of page

Holiday Observances

Washington's Birthday (or President's Day)

In addition to full dressing ship and displaying holiday sized colors, all saluting ships not under way and all installations equipped with suitable artillery fire a 21-gun salute at noon on President's Day (the third Sunday in February).  The tradition of firing such a salute in honor of George Washington's Birthday on February 22 arose in the early nineteenth century.  This salute originally consisted of 17 guns in the 1818 regulations but was changed in 1821 to one gun for each state in the Union, to be fired by every vessel in port rated as a sloop-of-war or higher.  By 1833, the time of the salute was fixed at noon.  The 1843 regulations ended the practice of matching this salute to the number of states and instead provided for a 21-gun salute at noon, as it has remained ever since.  The salute has since been shifted, along with the Federal observance of the holiday, to the third Monday in February instead of February 22.

Memorial Day

The national ensign is flown at half mast aboard all ships and stations beginning at morning colors (or sunrise, in the case of ships under way) on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.  At 12:00 noon, saluting ships and stations with saluting batteries fire a salute of 21 minute-guns.  At the conclusion of this salute, or at 12:20 p.m. if the salute is not fired, the ensign is hoisted briskly to the truck or peak and remains there until sunset.  The first mention of this observance in Navy Regulations appeared in a change published circa 1903.

Independence Day

Independence Day is celebrated by the naval services by full-dressing ship and by the firing of a 21-gun salute at noon by every naval station with a saluting battery and every saluting ship not under way.  This observance dates back to the 1818 Rules, Regulations and Instructions for the Naval Service, which provided for a 17-gun salute to be fired on the Fourth of July, but this was increased to one gun per state, to be fired by every vessel in port rated as a sloop-of-war or greater in 1821.  The 1833 regulations stipulated that the salute was to be fired at noon and, for the first time that all ships in port were to be dressed for the day.  The 1843 regulations dropped the one-gun-per-state salute, providing instead that "Upon the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the colors shall be hoisted at sunrise, and all the vessels of the navy shall, when in port, be dressed, and so continue until the colors are hauled down at sunset, if the state of the weather and other circumstances will allow it.  At sunrise, at meridian, and at sunset, a salute of twenty-one guns shall be fired from every vessel in commission mounting six guns and upwards."  The noon salute was dropped in 1863, but restored in 1870, when the sunrise and sunset salutes were dropped instead.  At the time, "dressing" ship entailed the full display of pennants and flags from stem to stern.  Allowing for the subsequent change in terminology to "full dressing," the observance has remained the same since 1870.
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Dining-In (Mess Night)

The Navy has an official directive, OpNavInst 1710.7, that prescribes the procedure for the formal dining-in or mess night, a formal dinner conducted for members of an organization or unit.  As a formal dinner, dinner dress uniforms, or, for civilians, black tie, are worn.  Although English monasteries and universities are usually cited as the source of origin of the dining-in, such ceremonial dinners have been a part of civic and military life all across Europe for many centuries as a way of building organizational camaraderie and esprit de corps.  In the past, dinings-in were relatively common events aboard ship or in regiments, but modern informality, the trend for officers to have families, and the general spirit of the times has made them increasingly rare.  They are now usually conducted to observe special events or as annual hail-and-farewell occasions.  In addition, it is increasingly common for them to be conducted as "dining-outs," that is, for spouses or dates to be included, which was not the case in the past, when the mess night was exclusively a stag affair.

Although all the U.S. services have dinings-in, there are several elements of the institution as practiced in the Navy that make it different from the customs in the Army and Air Force and even in the Marines.  In many cases these stem from the messing arrangements typically found aboard ship, where the officers except for the captain dine in the wardroom but the captain has his own private mess.  As a result, at a Navy mess night the commanding officer is normally a guest, not, as in the other services, the president of the mess.  In the Navy, it is the executive officer--the second in command--who presides.

Common to all the U.S. services is the position of "Mr. Vice," or, in modern times, "Madam Vice," the vice-president of the mess.  By tradition, Mr. Vice is the junior member of the wardroom, although in recent years the tendency has been for the president to consider wit and presence of mind as well as seniority in designating the officer to fill this role.  Mr. Vice's job is to organize the dining-in, function as sergeant-at-arms and master of ceremonies during the proceedings, second toasts, and enforce the rules of the mess.

After a cocktail hour (alcohol free when conducted aboard ship), a bugler or band plays "Officers Call," followed by marching music.  The officers put down their drinks, put out any smoking materials, and proceed to their places in the dining room, members of the head table waiting until last.  After everyone else is at their places, the president leads in those sitting at the head table, including the honored guest.  When they are all in place, the music stops.  The president raps the gavel for attention and calls on the chaplain to say grace.  Another rap of the gavel signals the members and guests to be seated.  Throughout the dining-in, a fixed code of raps of the gavel signals the members to be silent (three raps), to rise from their seats (two raps), or to be seated (one rap).

After the conclusion of the six course dinner (appetizer, soup, fish, main course, salad, and dessert) comes the most distinctive element of the dining-in, the ceremonial toasts.  After dessert and coffee, port decanters (or bottles) are brought in and placed on the tables, along with (traditionally) ash trays.  Mr. Vice then announces, "The wine is ready to pass, Sir."  The decanter is then passed from left to right around each table, never stopping until all the glasses are "charged."  An officer who chooses not to drink wine need not do so, but must fill his glass and at least raise it to his lips at each toast.

When the port has finished its circuit and all the glasses are filled, the president rises and calls for a toast to the President of the United States as commander in chief of the Navy.  Mr. Vice seconds the toast by rising ad saying "Ladies and gentlemen (or gentlemen, if only men are present), the Commander in Chief of the United States."  All then stand and repeat the toast in unison--"The Commander in Chief of the United States"--sip the drink and remain standing while the band plays the national anthem.  All are then seated.

From that point on, the president may call for specific formal toasts or recognize a member of the mess to propose the toast.  If the president proposes the toast, Mr. Vice seconds it.  If a member proposes it, the president seconds it.  Members and guests respond to each toast as for that to the Commander in Chief, by rising, repeating the toast, and sipping the port.  Once the toasts begin, the port continues to be passed so that no one is caught with an empty ("uncharged") glass during a toast.  The formal toasts are drunk in a specified order:  the Commander in Chief (President of the United States), heads of state of foreign guests, the United States Marine Corps, missing comrades, and the Chief of Naval Operations.  Each of these is proposed without mentioning the name of the person being toasted, only his or her formal title.

After these formal toasts, the president of the mess introduces the guest of honor to address the mess.  After his or her speech, it is time for informal toasts.  Members rise and address the president of the mess, "Mr. President!"  On being recognized, the member explains why he wishes to propose the toast--preferably with (in the words of the directive on the subject) "inspired wit and subtle sarcasm"--and ending with the words of the proposed toast.  If the president agrees to the toast, he directs Mr. Vice to second it and the toast is drunk in the same manner as the formal toasts.

When the president decides it is time to end the informal toasting, he raps the gavel three times and commences the "business meeting" portion of the mess, asking Mr. Vice to read the list of offenders against the customs and traditions of the mess.  Offenses include tardiness, smoking at the table before the president announces that the smoking lamp has been lit, arguing over precedence, leaving the dining area without permission, being caught with an uncharged glass, improper toasting procedures, wearing the cummerbund upside down, and so on.  Fines and punishments are imposed by the president as appropriate.

Remaining seated, the president then calls for a toast the United States Navy.  Mr. Vice rises and proceeds to the head table, where he fills each glass with port, starting with the honored guest and ending with the president.  All at the other tables likewise fill their glasses.  The president then stands and fills Mr. Vice's glass.  Mr. Vice then faces the mess and seconds the toast.  All rise, responding in unison, "The United States Navy," drain the entire glass, and remain standing while the band plays "Anchors Aweigh."

The formal part of the evening is then at an end, and the president invites all present to join him at the bar for informal refreshments.  Attendees do not depart, however, until the president and the official guests of the mess have done so.

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The "Customary Phraseology of the Service"

Navy Regulations require that all orders given by persons standing watch be given in the "customary phraseology of the service."  This is not merely a matter of preserving tradition but of ensuring that orders are clearly understood and promptly obeyed.  For example, when the officer conning the ship gives an order to change engine speed, he begins with which engine to change (starboard, port, or all), whether forward or back, and by how much (flank, full, one-third, etc.).  An engine order might thus be given "Starboard ahead one-third, port back one-third;" the lee helmsman, who operates the engine order telegraph that sends the instructions to the engine room, repeats the order, adding "aye aye, sir (or ma'am)."  Steering orders, by contrast, are given in terms not of starboard and port but as right or left:  "right standard rudder," for instance, or "left 20 degrees rudder."  Thus, from the first word out of the conning officer's mouth, the entire watch knows whether the change is to engines or steering and in what direction and can start reacting even before the order is completed.

Announcements over the shipboard public address system, the "1MC," are referred to as "passing the word," and for many messages adhere to strict traditional formulas.

But adherence to customary phraseology extends far beyond the requirements of shipboard operations.  It governs almost every element of day-to-day discourse, even ashore.  The Marine Corps drill manual does not say that one never lets the flag touch the ground, but that colors are never allowed to touch the deck.  Even in office buildings far from sea, sailors habitually refer to walls as bulkheads, ceilings as overheads, halls as passageways, and stairways as ladders.  Moreover, the etiquette of the service has many carefully prescribed formulas by which personnel communicate with each other: The principle of customary phraseology also pertains to the wording of the officer's commission, which has not changed significantly since the revival of the Navy in 1794:
The President of the United States of America
To all who shall see these presents, greeting:

Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of      [name] , I have nominated, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate do appoint [him or her]    [rank]     in the United States Navy, to rank as such from the ___ day of      [month]    , [year].  This officer will therefore carefully and diligently discharge the duties of the office to which appointed by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging.

And I do strictly charge and require those officers and other personnel of lesser rank to render such obedience as is due an officer of this grade and position.  And this officer is to observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time as may be given by the President of the United States of America or other superior officers, acting in accordance with the laws of the United States of America.

This commission is to continue in force during the pleasure of the President of the United States of America, under the provisions of those public laws relating to officers of the Armed Forces of the United States of America and the component thereof in which this appointment is made.

Done at the City of Washington, this _____ day of    [month]   in the year of our Lord _____ and of the Independence of the United States of America the _______.

By the President:
[signature of the Secretary of the Navy]

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Other Ceremonies and Customs

Boat Hails

The watch aboard a ship is responsible for hailing any boat approaching the ship at night to determine the rank of passengers aboard the boat.  This custom originated in the requirement that the ship be prepared for the proper protocolary reception of any senior officer who might be coming aboard.  The required information is conveyed through a series of traditional responses given by the boat's coxswain in response to the cry, "Boat ahoy!"
United States Navy
Royal Navy
Rank of Senior Passenger Coxswain's Reply Rank of Senior Passenger Coxswain's Reply
President of Vice President "United States" Member of royal family "Standard"
Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of Defense "Defense"
Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of the Navy "Navy"
Chief or Vice Chief of Naval Operations "Naval Operations"
Commandant of the Coast Guard "Coast Guard"
Fleet, force or group commander "Fleet" or abbreviated title of command Flag officer "Flag [name of flagship]"
Chief of staff or chief staff officer "Staff" Chief of staff, chief staff officer, or captain of the fleet "Staff [name of flagship]"
Squadron commander "____Ron [number]" (e.g., "DesRon-23"
Commanding officer of a ship "[name of ship]" Commanding officer of a ship "[name of ship]"
Other commissioned officer "Aye, aye"
Petty officer "No, no"
Other enlisted personnel "Hello"
Boat not intending to come alongside "Passing"

Long a matter of custom, the specific boat hails used in the U.S. Navy were first codified in Navy Regulations in 1893.

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Ceremonies and Customs of the Marine Corps

Marine Corps Birthday

None of the U.S. armed services celebrates its birthday with as much pageantry and panache as the Marine Corps.  Under General Order 47, issued by Major General John Lejeune on November 1, 1921, the birthday celebration, commemorating the establishment of the Continental Marines on November 10, 1775, is conducted everywhere Marines are stationed, from headquarters in Washington to the smallest embassy security guard detachment to forward positions in the nation's "small wars."

Birthday Cake Cutting

The centerpiece of the birthday celebration is the birthday dinner and ball, and particularly the main event, the cutting of the birthday cake.  The procedure for this ceremony was formally prescribed in 1952 by the Commandant, General Lemuel Shepherd.

The event opens with a bugler sounding "Attention," upon which the Marines and their guests, except for those participating directly in the ceremony, move into position in the ballroom.  The adjutant orders the bugler to "Sound 'Adjutant's Call!'" whereupon the doors of the ballroom are thrown open and the drummers and trumpeters march in to the strains of the "Foreign Legion March."  When the musicians are in place, the cake escort enters the ballroom to the playing of "Semper Fidelis," the Corps's official march.  At a dinner at a major installation, two colonels enter first, taking position at the far end of the room facing one another.  Then two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and so on, until there are six officers in each row, facing one another across a hollow rectangle.  General officers or other high ranking personnel then enter, forming a row connecting the rectangle at the colonels' end and facing back toward the door, leaving two spaces open in the center.

The bugler again sounds "Attention," and the commanding general, accompanied by the guest of honor, enter the ballroom and march halfway down the room.  The senior colonel of the escort commands, "Present arms," and all members of the escort salute while the band renders the appropriate musical honors.  After the honors are completed, the escort is given "Order arms" and the commanding general and the guest of honor move forward to fill the spaces in the center of the general officer's line.  (If the observance takes place in a noncommissioned officers' mess, the ranks of the escort are modified accordingly.)

Once again, the bugler sounds "Attention."  The color guard enters the ballroom and marches to the center of the rectangle formed by the escort.  Once again, the senior colonel of the escort commands, "Present arms."  All salute and the bearer of the Marine Corps color dips it forward as the band plays the national anthem.  The command "Order arms" is then given and the color guard marches forward to the generals' end of the rectangle, countermarches back to the open end in front of the trumpeters and drummers, and takes position there.

A third time the bugler sounds "Attention."  The band begins playing "The Marines' Hymn," and four second lieutenants enter the room pushing a cart bearing the birthday cake and a Marine officer's saber (or noncommissioned officer's cutlass, in an enlisted mess).  The escorts slowly roll the cake to a position in front of the commanding general and the guest of honor, followed by the adjutant, then halt and step back facing inward toward the cake.

When the cake is in place and "The Marines' Hymn" is concluded, the adjutant faces about and reads the traditional birthday message, Major General John Lejeune's General Order 47, the sine qua non of every Marine Corps birthday celebration:

On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of the Continental Congress.  Since that date many thousand men have borne the name Marine.  In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our Corps by calling to mind the glories of is long and illustrious history.

The record of our Corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world's history.  During 90 of its 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation's foes.  From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquillity at home generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres, and in every corner of the seven seas that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our Corps Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term Marine has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the Corps.  With it we also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our Corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age.  So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as thay have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as "Soldiers of the Sea" since the founding of the Corps.

The commanding general then steps forward and gives a short discussion of the significance of the birthday and the guest of honor makes his remarks.  The senior cake escort then takes the sword and gives it to the commanding general.  As the band plays "Auld Lang Syne," the commanding general uses the saber to cut three pieces of cake, giving the first to the guest of honor, the second to the oldest Marine present, and the third to the youngest.

The band strikes up "Semper Fidelis" and the color guard marches forward, then countermarches and exits the ballroom, followed by the commanding general and the guest of honor, then the rest of the general officers.  The cake and its escort then move forward and the members of the escort cut and distribute the rest of the cake to all the Marines and their guests, the band continuing to play throughout.  After the cake is distributed, the band ceases playing, the escort, drummers, and trumpeters march out of the room, and the doors are closed, concluding the cake cutting ceremony.

Honors to Deceased Commandants

Less visible than the ball and cake cutting is the tradition, observed since 1954, of conducting a simple ceremony at the graves of deceased Commandants of the Marine Corps every year on November 10.  At a minimum, a field grade officer, a noncommissioned officer, and a bugler, attired in dress blue uniform, visit each Commandant's grave on that day.  The NCO carries a floral wreath with a scarlet and gold ribbon.  Taking up their positions at the grave, the officer removes his cap and bows his head for one minute's silence.  He then replaces his cap, takes the wreath from the NCO, and places it on the grave.  The officer and the NCO then stand side-by-side and render the hand salute while the bugler plays "Taps."  The ceremonial party then drops the salute and departs.  More elaborate ceremonies are allowed, with honor guard, band, and so forth, if the assets to conduct them are available.  The majority of past Commandants are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but several are buried elsewhere in Washington, several in the Philadelphia area, and one on Long Island.  Although Marine Corps Order 5060.12D prescribes this observance only for past Commandants, it has also become traditional in recent years to conduct a similar ceremony at the grave of one of the Corps's great heroes, Lieutenant General Lewis "Chesty" Puller, even though he never served as Commandant.

Marine Corps Funerals

Marine Corps funerals are conducted essentially according to the same procedures used by the Navy, but with several additional elements: Return to top of page

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Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan