Talk Story


Good ship Abercrombie
takes to the waves

WHEN I read that a U.S. Navy tugboat has been named after Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie, I couldn't suppress a smile. Congressman Abercrombie's image, despite the red tie and blue blazer in his official photo, doesn't exactly jibe with naval spit and polish. Maybe it's the beard and ponytail.

It may disappoint some that our U.S. representative's moniker is pinned on a lowly tugboat. Tugs, after all, are often named after birds (for example, the Whippoorwill, Woodcock, Seagull and Tern) or rivers (the Allegheny, Penobscot, Patuxent and Potomac).

It's not as if the Navy has overlooked Hawaii. There's the ammunition ship Kilauea, the oiler Henry J. Kaiser and nuclear submarines Kamehameha, Honolulu and Hawaii.

Congressmen haven't been shunned, either. Ballistic missile subs are named after U.S. Reps. John C. Calhoun and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson.

Of course, Calhoun, serial vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, also was a senator. Unlike Abercrombie, however, Calhoun never was named Favorite University of Hawaii Professor.

After five terms in the House, Scoop Jackson also moved to the Senate and was ranking Democrat on its Armed Services Committee for many years.

Jackson, however, never served on the Honolulu City Council, as Abercrombie did without being indicted.

NATURALLY, THE NAVY takes care of its own and names many ships after admirals. The destroyer John S. McCain is named after two of them: John S. McCain Sr., who stood on the deck of the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrender was signed, and John S. McCain Jr., a submariner who eventually surfaced at CINCPAC.

The McCain doesn't claim Sen. John McCain, yet, but I predict a hat trick.

Some ships are named after relative unknowns, such as the guided-missile frigates Samuel B. Roberts and Rodney M. Davis and the container ship Pfc. James Anderson Jr.

Coxswain Roberts won the Navy Cross for successfully, though fatally, decoying Japanese fire during a Marine evacuation. Davis and Anderson, both Marines, won Congressional Medals of Honor for falling on grenades to save their comrades during the Vietnam War.

There's a tradition of naming Navy frigates after self-sacrificing heroes, including the Reuben James, named after a sailor who saved his captain's life in Tripoli in 1804. When a Barbary pirate aimed his sword at Lt. Steven Decatur, Boatswain's Mate James stepped in and took the blow instead.

Although Abercrombie's war record is a blank slate, he worked as a waiter, custodian, probation officer, college lecturer, professor, construction apprentice program director and special assistant to the state superintendent of education before launching his political career.

WHILE THERE are millions of boats named after women, few naval vessels have the honor. An exception is the special missions ship Mary Sears, named after the Navy's first oceanographer, a WAVE commander.

More often than not, American warships take the names of states, cities, presidents and historic battles. For example, there's the battleship Arizona, the cruiser Indianapolis, the carrier Reagan and the Aegis cruiser Lake Erie.

Some, like the ocean surveillance vessels Impeccable, Indomitable and Victorious, follow the British tradition of naming ships with glorious adjectives. The cargo ship Bob Hope and, now, the tugboat Neil Abercrombie, are more down to earth.

The Thomas the Tank Engine folks missed an opportunity by not claiming Neil first. They have a James, Mavis, Percy and Bertie, but no locomotive named Neil.

He'd fit right in with Thomas, whose creators describe as "a cheeky, fussy little engine" who "often gets into scrapes, usually by being overeager to do things best left to bigger and more sensible engines."

That's our Neil.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

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