Ship Ceremonies

Ship Ceremonies

The information contained herein is quoted from Social Usage and Protocol Handbook: A Guide for Personnel of the U.S. Navy (OPNAVINST 1710.7 dated 17 JUL 1979)

Navy tradition dictates that each ship constructed for the service be honored on four historic ceremonial occasions: keel-laying, christening (or launching), commissioning, and decommissioning. Various directives pertaining to these events are issued periodically, and one should check with the District Commandant's office for local guidance.

Questions often arise concerning the proper wording of invitations and the agenda for the ceremony. Fortunately, existing regulations do not predetermine the precise sequence of activities or establish inflexible protocol stipulations. Responsible officials are given a comfortable latitude to produce a ceremony distinctively Navy in heritage and significance, yet singular in its specific circumstances. The information impartecl in this chapter is intended to represent not a rigid standard so much as a concept of what has been done in the past in order to provide a guide to what is traditional and appropriate for the situation.


The first milestone in the history of a ship is the generally simple ceremony which marks the laying of the keel. The invitation is issued by shipyard officials and the ceremony conducted by them. The builder may be the commander of a naval shipyard or the president of a private company.

Invitation. The following is an annotated sample of a typical ceremony: and correctly worded invitation to a keel-laying

The Commander, Charleston Naval Shipyard
requests the honor of your presence
upon the occasion of the laying of the
keel of the destroyer
by the Honorable ___________________ 2
_______________________________ 3
at the Charleston Naval Shipyard
on Tuesday, the tenth of August 4
at half past twelve o'clock

1 The ship's prospective name, without the designation USS, is indicated here, if known; otherwise her type and number are given, e.g, DD-2215.
2 Indicate the name of the speaker. Use the title "Honorable" only when it is appropriate to the status of the speaker,
3 Show the title of the speaker, if any, e.g., The Secretary of the Navy.
4 Some officials with a view to the historic nature of the event, choose to include the year. When used, it should appear on the line following the date, written as "nineteen hundred and seventy-nine".

Program: A sample program for a keel-laying ceremony with annotation as to participants is shown below:

National Anthem
Welcome and introduction of principal speakerPresident of the shipbuilding company or commander of the naval ship yard.
AddressPrincipal speaker
Authentication of the keel-layingOptional. If included, the principal guest, generally the speaker, will affix a name plate or inscribe his initials on the keel.
Movement of the keel into position on the shipway.Performed by workmen.
Announcement that the keel "Has been truly and fairly laid"Announced by the speaker or the president of the shipbuilding company.


In this second significant ceremony, the recently constructed ship is solemnly dedicated, named, and committed to the sea. There are many variations in launching programs, even as to whether it is known as a launching or christening or both. The desires of the shipbuilder and of the Navy as well as existing circumstances will determine its final form. It should be noted that the designation of U.S. Ship (USS) is not properly used with the ship's name at this point, for she has not yet been accepted into naval sewice.

Invitation. The following example of a launching invitation is typical:

The Commander, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,
requests the honor of your presence
at the launching of the submarine
on Saturday, the twenty-first of July nineteen hundred and eighty 5
at half past ten o'clock at
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Mrs. Robert Thomas Williams, Sponsor 6

5 Indication of the year is optional.
6 Sponsors are generally prominent women of the community who, during the Ceremony, name the vessel and break a bottle of wine against the ship's bow as the ship slides into the water.

Program. The following elements constitute most launching programs, although the sequence of events and participants can be altered:

National Anthem
WelcomeShipyard official
Introduction of the speakerDistrict commandant
AddressPrincipal speaker
Introduction of the sponsor (and matrons of honor)Shipyard official or district commandant

A common variation and elaboration of these parts is found in the ensuing example:

Attention sounded
Opening RemarksDistrict Commandant
Address on the ship's namesake and history of former ships' of the nameGuest speaker
Attention sounded
Introduction of the sponsor, matron of honor, and representative of the society of sponsorsDistrict Commandant or other speaker
Presentation of gift from Navy yard
employees 7
Attention sounded
Anchors Aweigh
Star-Spangled Banner

7 Presentation of a gift to the sponsor may instead be made at the reception which follows the ceremony.


The third and most important ceremony in the history of a ship admits her to the U.S. Navy. The essence of the ceremony is her acceptance by the Navy, entitling her thereafter to fly the commission pennant and to be designated a U.S. Ship.

There are two major steps in the commissioning process. Initially, the builder, tums the ship over to the commandant of the district. The latter, who is the intermediary between builder and prospective commanding officer, receives the ship and commissions her. The commandant then turns the ship over to the prospective commanding officer who accepts her, assumes command, and proceeds to act as host for the remainder of the ceremony.

Invitation. There are two forms which commissioning invitations commonly take. The principal difference between them lies in the consideration of who is the host for the ceremony and in whose name, therefore, invitations are extended. In practice, the first portion of the ceremony, including the commissioning itself, is the responsibility of the commandant of the naval district. For this reason, invitations citing the commandant as one of multiple hosts are often used; however, those tendered in the name of the commanding officer, officers, and men are at least equally traditional.

Although acceptance as a U.S. Ship does not occur until midway in the ceremony, invitations customarily use the designation USS (without periods) with the ship's name.

The invitation may be engraved on full size, heavy white paper, similar in style to a wedding invitation, or as is more usual, on a white invitation card which is entirely plain or topped by a replica of the commission pennant.

Example 1:

The Commandant, Fifth Naval District,
the Commanding Officer and Ship's Company 8
request the honor of your presence
at the commissioning of 9
at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Norfolk, Virginia
on Monday, the fifteenth of August nineteen hundred and seventy-one
at half past one o'clock

8 "The Comrnanding Officer, Officers and Crew" is an acceptable alternate second line. It is unnecessarily exclusive to extend the invitation to the ceremony in the name of only the "Commanding Officer and Officers", as is sometimes done.
9 It is incorrect to use the definite article before a ship's name inasmuch as there is but one of the name in commission at any given time.

Example 2:

The Captain, Officers and Crew of
request the honor of your presence
on the occasion of the commissioning of
Boston Naval Shipyard, Boston, Massachusetts
on Saturday, the tenth of May nineteen hundred and eighty
at three o'clock
Please present this card
at the Henley Street Gate

10 The desired uniform may be specified here, or such other information as "Cameras not permitted".

Program. An annotated sample program for commissioning is shown below:

Band selections
Welcome and introduction of the district commandantBuilder or shipyard commander.
Introduction of distinguished guestsDistrict Commandant
Reading of commissioning directiveDistrict Commandant
Ship commissioningDistrict Commandant
Raising of colors, Union Jack, and commissioning pennant
National Anthem
Acceptance of command, reading of orders, and assumption of commandCommanding Officer
Setting the watchCommanding officer and executive officer.
Rendering of honors/personal flag of VIP/SOP brokenCommanding officer orders
Introduction of principal speakerCommanding Officer
AddressPrincipal speaker
RemarksCommanding Officer
Presentation of gift(s)11
Band Selections

11 At this point in the ceremony gifts are often presented to the ship by the sponsor, by state, city or community officials, or by the shipbuilder.


Still another ceremony terminates the active naval service of ships other than those lost at sea. A decommissioning is generally a somber occasion and far less elaborate than any of the others discussed here.

Program. The main parts of the ceremony which are again subject to reordering are:

Arrival honors (if appropriate)
National Anthem
IntroductionCommanding Officer
Remarks (such as resume of the ship's history)Commanding Officer or other speaker
Reading of ordersCommanding Officer
RemarksCommandant or authority accepting custody.
Decommissioning and relinquishment of commandCommanding Officer

An abbreviated ceremony which varies slightly from the foregoing is as follows:

Arrival honors (if appropriate)
National Anthem
Introduction and Remarks (orders read)Commanding Officer
National Anthem
Colors lowered
Transfer to the Reserve FleetCommandant or authority accepting custody.