Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out

Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out

By David OMalley
Oct 26 2019
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There is an old marketing slogan used by florists worldwide that has been in use for years: “Say it with Flowers!” The carrier-equipped navies of the world have a better way to express sympathy, love, admiration, pride, patriotism and commemoration—they SAY IT WITH SAILORS!

The following story was written by Dave O’Malley and originally appeared on Vintage Wings of Canada website.

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to work. The Navy ratings who work there risk death in any number of ways—propeller strikes, engine intake ingestion, ordnance explosion, fuel fire, arrestor cables removing limbs, aircraft losing control and on and on. Every few minutes a 35,000 pound airplane literally crashes to the deck, airplanes are moving, propeller discs are threatening decapitation or de-limbing. People are everywhere. Flame, heat, deafening noise, fumes, toxins and danger are omnipresent. On top of all this are layered high winds, driving rain, a heaving deck and even the dark of night. It’s not the place to be if you are preoccupied by something other than the one part you have in this choreographed mayhem. It’s not the place to be if you are not aware of your surroundings.

So why, then, is it that the aircraft carrier’s flight deck can also become a thousand foot long, thousand sailor-strong, sentimental Hallmark greeting card? How can the most dangerous working environment also be the same place that a crew can send a message to a little boy dying of cancer, or birthday greetings to a Queen, or even just letting their mothers know they are thinking of them? I am speaking of the long-entrenched and truly weird practice of the aircraft carrier spell-out. Tim Dubé, military historian and former Navy cadet, explains the history of the spell-out: “This is an evolution of the custom of ‘manning the rails,’ itself an evolution of ‘manning the yards’ when sailors would climb the masts and position themselves along the spars or yards to render honours. It’s also done as a form of honour when entering a harbour to show no hostile intent—if you are manning the rails, you can’t be manning the guns. With aircraft carriers not really having rails, it would make sense to ‘say it with sailors,’ particularly if there was a bridge to pass under like the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco.”

The art of arranging large groups of sailors on the deck of an aircraft carrier is a practice long entrenched in the world of carrier operations. It is not known when this practice began, but a recent article in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space website suggested it may have started around the end of the Second World War. To be fair, they admitted it may have been earlier, but they were not sure. In my quest to find photographs of aircraft carrier flight deck spell-outs, I came across one photograph of the USS Lexington (CV-2) with her decks cleared of aircraft and a few hundred of her sailors turned out in dress whites and lined up quite artistically to spell-out the word NAVY. I probably will never know if this is the first example of a spell-out on a carrier deck, but the date is nearly ten years before the end of the war—1936 to be exact. The early date and the fact that they are spelling out perhaps the most simple of all words a navy crew could spell (NAVY) leads me to postulate that this may be one of the first deck spell-outs.

Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
This is the earliest image I was able to find on the internet of an aircraft carrier carrying out a “flight deck spell-out.” Here, USS Lexington (CV-2), the first of the Lexington-class carriers, spells out NAVY—the most basic of words known to the United States Navy. It is possible, because of the simplicity of the message and the early date—17 September 1936—that we are looking at one of the first, if not the first, examples of the flight deck spell-out. Lexington is dead in the water off Long Beach, California. Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph (# NH 67420) via

The practice has come a long way since then. Today, it is a tradition that every carrier in the US Navy, and indeed in most aircraft carrier-equipped navies of the world, carries out. The first time it was thought of, I can imagine the Captain of the ship (let’s just say it was Lexington) thinking to himself, “I’ve got a floating parade ground 888 feet long and 107 feet wide. I have 2,800 bored sailors and airmen. I have a ship’s photographer and any number of aircraft that can climb above this deck. What can I do to create a photo that will get attention for the Lady Lex, the Navy and my crew?” My guess is it went something like that but now, nearly 80 years later, it is a tradition practiced by every crew of every aircraft carrier in every navy. Even the submariners are doing it… but one can imagine the limitations a submarine forces on creativity. Not so the carrier.

In the 1930s, as it still is today, the aircraft carrier was the height of technology, a magnet for the press, politicians, the curious, the young ladies and the young men of America. Just as soon as the first flight deck spell-out photo was taken, there is no doubt that it appeared in Navy magazines like “All Hands” and was a huge hit with local and national newspapers. Copying the idea was guaranteed to happen. By war’s end, carriers returning home were sending flight deck spell-out messages to their home ports or new ports of call.

My earliest memory of seeing a carrier flight deck spell-out was the now famous image of America’s first nuclear-powered carrier and her attendant nuclear powered task force steaming together at high speed across the ocean with the massive deck of USS Enterprise hosting a thousand or more sailors in brilliant white uniforms formed up to spell out E=mc2, the famous mass-energy equivalence formula, first proposed by Albert Einstein and considered a fundamental formula of the Nuclear Age. Alongside steamed two other ships of the line that were also powered by the atom—USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge. The ships were demonstrating the capabilities on the new Navy by circumnavigating the planet without refuelling. Enterprise’s deck was immense, the aircraft—Vigilantes, Crusaders and Skyhawks—were all arranged in an artistic arrowhead design. The formation of the letters and number was perfection. The sun was shining. It blew my mind.

Over the past few months, I had been researching a couple of stories about aircraft carriers and began to come across many photographs of this strangely compelling practice of getting ship’s crews to form letters on the decks to send messages to people on shore. I started collecting them in a folder. Then I came across a page on Wikipedia where someone had collected scores of these photographs in one place, many of which I had in my folder. These photos also had US Navy press release-style captions attached, indicating that the media or public affairs people of the US Navy often got involved in these spell-outs… at least after the fact.

I also went repeatedly to a site called, an excellent unofficial website which has collected statistics, cruise logs, photographs and anecdotes of nearly every ship ever to sail with the United States Navy. It is an astonishing collection of information and images and certainly one of the better, if not the best, site of this type I have found. I highly recommend a visit to the site, as it will draw you in for hours on end.

Scouring the entries for every aircraft carrier, I found many fine examples of the spell-out. I also noticed a few things. Escort carriers rarely were the canvas for a spell-out. Spell-outs on decks devoid of aircraft are not nearly as impressive as ones with aircraft. Some were exquisitely perfect, while others were remarkably sloppy. Some carriers were more active in the practice than others. The one thing that was common to all of these images was the clear message of pride in one’s ship and one’s navy.

Here now, for your enjoyment, are only some of the many photographs of aircraft carrier spell-outs I was able to discover over the past year.

There is an old marketing slogan used by florists worldwide that has been in use for years: “Say it with Flowers!” The carrier-equipped navies of the world have a better way to express sympathy, love, admiration, pride, patriotism and commemoration—they SAY IT WITH SAILORS!

Dave O’Malley, with thanks to and Kevin Nesdoly

The Port Of Call Shout-Out

 For me, the greatest and most powerful of the great carrier flight deck spell-outs are those that give a massive shout-out to the ports of call they are arriving at or departing from. They are crowd favourites indeed. Like a rock star who shouts out “Hey Ottawa! We’re happy to be here tonight!” or “Hey Des Moines! Those Iowa girls are the cutest!” or “What’s up Green Bay, how about them Packers?” a carrier shout-out is never interpreted as manipulative and is always embraced by the community. Often the carrier creates the spell-out while approaching the city, passing under her bridges, below her lofty buildings. This is designed to get as much attention as possible… perhaps to get the word out to the pretty girls.

The ship usually puts up their own aircraft or helicopter, but sometimes newspaper photographers will take their own photographs from a bridge or high point. Regardless, the photographs are soon to appear in the port’s daily newspapers and, more often than not, are picked up in others across the country.

Here, starting with some good old hometown Canadian shout-outs, are some of the finest I could find on God’s gift to the curious—the internet.

Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
When I started searching for aircraft carrier flight deck spell-outs, I was hoping to find a few that related to Canada. The Royal Canadian Navy operated only three carriers after the Second World War—Warrior, Magnificent and Bonaventure. While I found a couple of deck spell-outs on HMCS Bonaventure, I would also have to rely on American carriers for some Canadian content. Here USS Coral Sea (CV-43) pays a friendly visit to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1960, shortly after her recommissioning, and her crew makes us proud by spelling out a shout-out to their neighbours from the north. Photo: US Navy and
I added this image of the same deck spell-out of USS Coral Sea in Vancouver to illustrate why 90% of the photographs in this story are taken from the port side of the carrier—the island superstructure blocks out the message, making for a poor photograph. Photo: US Navy and
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
USS Valley Forge (CVS-45) pays a visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her crew lined up in navy blue uniforms and white gob hats spelling out “HELLO HALIFAX” on her flight deck, 10 July 1959. Valley Forge, flying the flag of Rear Admiral John S. Thach (creator of the Thach Weave, a combat flight formation that could counter enemy fighters of superior performance, and later the big blue blanket, an aerial defense against Kamikaze attacks), was accompanied by the rest of Task Force ALFA, including seven destroyers and two submarines. Altogether, about 4,000 US Navy sailors were in Halifax for the six-day visit. The bars down by the waterfront must have been hopping during those six days. Photo: US Navy via
USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (Swanky Franky, Rosie or sometimes Foo de Roo) arrives off the coast of Nice, France in October of 1951 and offers up a salute: VIVE LA FRANCE for all the beautiful French girls. I can’t think of a nicer (pun intended) port to call at than the beautiful city on the French Riviera. Photo: US Navy
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
In a rather rough looking Pacific Ocean, USS Bon Homme Richard, the “Bonny Dick,” sends her crew out to spell a greeting to her home port of San Diego, California after her return from her 1962–63 Western Pacific Cruise. Photo: US Navy
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
In 1992, the United States Navy was pulling out of their Subic Bay base in the Philippines. One of the last ships to leave was the carrier USS Independence (CV-62) as the US Navy relinquished control to the Philippines. Crew members stand on deck, using the angled flight deck lines to line up their goodbye message: “FAREWELL SUBIC.” Photo: US Navy
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
The USS Kearsarge, an Amphibious Assault Ship, steams off the brackish water of the Hudson River with a greeting for the next port of call—New York City. A US Navy press release tells the story: New York Harbor (May 24, 2006)—Sailors spell-out the message “I Love New York” on the flight deck aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) as they enter the harbor for Fleet Week New York City 2006. Fleet Week has been sponsored by New York City since 1984 in celebration of the United States sea service. The annual event also provides an opportunity for citizens of New York City and the surrounding Tri-State area to meet Sailors and Marines, as well as witness first-hand the latest capabilities of today’s Navy and Marine Corps team. Fleet Week includes dozens of military demonstrations and displays, including public tours of many of the participating ships. Photo: US Navy
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
USS Hancock (CV-19), an Essex-class long hull carrier, was named after two previous ships of the US Navy, both sailing vessels named for John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Here, two days before entering the harbour at Sydney, Australia, her crew stands to on deck to spell out the name of her next port of call. There is no doubt that this photograph was supplied to newspapers in Sydney as a goodwill image, something which likely made their welcome even warmer. Hanna was moored at Sydney in May of 1971 during one of her Vietnam cruises. Photo: US Navy via and Robert M. Cieri
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We Speak Your Language.

Not all spell-outs are written in the alphabet or language that we Westerners think is the only one. In fact, if you want your 1,000 sailor message to be understood in Yokosuka, Athens or Brunsbüttel Roads, you best form it up in the language and even the alphabet of the girls you want to impress. Sometimes, you want to transliterate the message so that both sides can understand what is being said… SAYONARA for instance was used a number of times by carriers heading home from duty in Japanese waters. And then, if you happen to be a Chinese or Indian aircraft carrier crew… spell it your way!

Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
One of the favourite greetings in a language other than English seems to be the Hawaiian greeting “Aloha” with several examples shown in this story. The Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) is seen here moored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, her crew spelling out “Aloha” on her flight deck in cursive script. It is rare indeed to find examples of a deck spell-out in lower case letters. Photo: US Navy
Say It With Sailors! The Tradition of the Aircraft Carrier Deck Spell-Out
On the People to People tour of late 1961–early 1962, USS Essex also visited Rotterdam. Here she is gliding down the Maas River in the company of her escort destroyers. As Christmas was upon them, the members of the crew stand on deck and spell out GOEDE KERST—Merry Christmas in Dutch. It’s impressive if you can actually identify a font used in a spell-out. In this case, it’s the same as the one they used in the previous photograph—Eurostyle Light. Photo: US Navy
USS Midway
You say Hello, I’ll say Goodbye. Sailors, spelling out SAYONARA, form a message of farewell on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CV-41) as the ship heads out to sea after leaving US Naval Station, Yokosuka, Japan, for the last time. Midway, which had been based in Japan since 1973, was replaced by USS Independence (CV-62). Photo: US Navy
USS George Washington
George Washington could never tell a lie. Here, her crew spells out in Japanese characters their joy at being in Japan. A US Navy press release with the photo explains: YOKOSUKA, Japan (Sept. 25, 2008) Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) form the phrase “HAJIMEMASHITE,” which means “GREETINGS–NICE TO MEET YOU” in Japanese, as they arrive at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan. George Washington and Carrier Air Wing 5 will be operating from Fleet Activities Yokosuka as the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier. Photo: US Navy
USS Intrepid
USS Intrepid (CV-11), a short hull Essex-class carrier, wishes Italians BUON NATALE—Merry Christmas—while off Naples, Italy in 1961. The “Fighting I” can now been seen as a floating museum in New York harbour. Image via USS Intrepid Cruise Book 1961–62, US Navy/
INS Vikrant
The crew of the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant of the Indian Navy spells out her name, विक्रांत, which means Courageous in Sanskrit. She was a light fleet carrier of the Majestic-class, built in England (as Hercules) and commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1961. The Vikrant was decommissioned on 31 January 1997 after 36 years of service in the Indian Navy. She steamed 499,066 nautical miles, the equivalent of 15 times around the world. The carrier is currently subject to a campaign to preserve her for posterity—the only wartime-constructed British aircraft carrier to be under possible preservation. Photo and info from
The new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises while her crew spells out in the Chinese alphabet the words CHINESE DREAM. This carrier was originally laid down as the Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier Riga for the Soviet Navy, and was launched on 4 December 1988 and renamed Varyag in 1990. The stripped hulk was purchased in 1998 by the People’s Republic of China and towed to Dalian Shipyard in northeastern China. After being completely rebuilt and undergoing sea trials, the ship was commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Nany (PLAN) as Liaoning on 25 September 2012. Photo: Chinese Navy
USS Kitty Hawk
In 2008, USS Kitty Hawk departed Japanese waters, where she had been based, and headed home to retirement. Kitty Hawk came into service in 1961 and supported US missions in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. The warship spent decades patrolling the Pacific and Indian oceans. The spell-out is Hajimemashite Nihon (Greetings Japan), probably from when the carrier first arrived on station in Japan. Photo: US Navy

Ain’t Too Proud to Brag or Commemorate an Anniversary

One of the only ways a crew member of a famous carrier can show proof of his part in an accomplishment such as a quarter million deck landings is by assembling with his mates on deck and spelling it out for the world to see and for a ship’s photographer to capture. Whether it’s an anniversary, a milestone, an award, a pile of awards or final ride into the sunset, the flight deck spell-out photo is the finest take-home a sailor can receive.

Throughout North America and Europe, there are hundreds of thousands of family albums with faded or discoloured photographs showing a deck full of sailors in some alphanumerical message, and beneath may be a handwritten note: “Dad is in the letter ‘X’ of BOXER.” For all those exceptional men and women on carriers who “Ain’t Too Proud to Brag,” here is a selection of some of the finest I found on the web.

HMCS Bonaventure
On the 50th or golden anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy, sailors of HMCS Bonaventure (CVL-22) spell out a tribute: 1910 RCN 1960. While Bonaventure never saw action during her career, having only peripheral, non-combat roles, she was involved in major NATO fleet-at-sea patrols during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photo: Royal Canadian Navy courtesy Dan Linton and
USS Boxer
The crew of USS Boxer (CVA-21) celebrates 75,000 aircraft landings during the carrier’s deployment to the Western Pacific from 3 June 1955 to 3 February 1956 with Carrier Air Group 14 (CVG-14). The milestone landing was made on 19 November 1955 by Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Charles R. Smith and his crewman, Roland W. Parker, flying an AD-1 Skyraider of Composite Squadron 35. Photo: US Navy
USS Independence, USS Saratoga, and USS Intrepid
USS Independence (CVA-62), USS Saratoga (CVA-60), and USS Intrepid (CVA-11) join together to commemorate 50 years of navy aviation. Each carrier carries a component of the message for a very impressive three ship spell-out. The USS Intrepid still exists nearly 55 years since this shot—as a floating museum in New York City. Saratoga and Independence, both Forrestal-class carriers, still await final disposal as scrap or possibly as reefs for divers. Photo: US Navy
USS Ranger
One might assume that this image of USS Ranger (CV-61) has something to do with the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program), more popularly known as Top Gun. However, USS Ranger’snickname is Top Gun, and here she celebrated a quarter century since her commissioning in 1957 by having her crew creatively stand and spell out TOP–GUN 25. The image comes from a Navy calendar of the following year. Photo via
USS Ranger Restore Hope
USS Ranger, along with USS Eisenhower, seemed to be the “spellingest” ship in the Navy with a half dozen spell-outs found on the internet. Here, during Operation Restore Hope off the coast of Somalia, she lets folks know why she is there. Photo: US Navy via
Ranger Thanks America
More than 1,000 crew members spell out “RANGER THANKS AMERICA” on the flight deck of USS Ranger (CV-61) in 1987–88. This was done to send a message of thanks to all the people who sent letters and cards to the ship. The fan mail was the result of a letter which appeared in the newspaper column “Dear Abby” in December of 1987. The letter asked for mailed support for troops stationed away from families and Abigail Van Buren, the writer, gave a list of units and addresses that letters and cards could be sent to—including USS Ranger. The letter is as follows:
“Dear Abby: For most of us, the Christmas season is a joyous time, but for the thousands of American servicemen and women stationed abroad and at sea, it can be depressing and lonely.
As the national chairman of the 1987 America Remembers Campaign, I want to encourage the folks at home to send Christmas and Hanukkah cards and letters to servicemen and women who are far from home. Last year, through Operation Dear Abby II, your readers flooded the mails with more than 2 million pieces of mail, which we distributed to our troops.
Abby, I spent Christmas in Germany with American GIs who received mail from Operation Dear Abby II, and I wish you and your readers could have seen the smiles and tears as the mail was distributed on Christmas Eve! This year, we need your help more than ever. We want our servicemen and women to know that the folks back home remember and support them. Can the troops count on you and your readers for Operation Dear Abby III? Please say yes.”Photo: US Navy via
USS America
In 1986, the crew of USS America and members of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1) stood together for a spell-out commemorating 75 years of naval aviation with “75th FLY NAVY.” Four pairs of F-14 Tomcats create four diamond shapes surrounding the spell-out, reinforcing the fact that this was the Diamond Anniversary of aircraft serving in the Navy. Photo: US Navy
On Feb. 17, 2011, Enterprise steams with a spell-out message to the world on the 50th anniversary of nuclear power in surface ships of the United States Navy. Enterprise is the first and oldest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and celebrated its 50th birthday on 25 November 2011. Enterprise was inactivated on 1 December 2012 at Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia and will become the first nuclear-powered carrier to be decommissioned. Photo: US Navy

How do You Spell Ship’s Pride?

The deck spell-out was made for sailors wanting to tell the world about their ship and its accomplishments, its comebacks, its patriotism and its nickname. When a deck spell-out uses the name of the ship these days, it is likely that the image will be shared with the entire crew so that they may send it to family members via e-mail. In days gone by, the spell-out photo would have been printed at cruise’s end and handed out or used for a ship’s postcard or even Christmas card.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a selection of carrier deck spell-outs over the decades, from nuclear-powered super-carrier to escort carrier. Some are perfectly formed, others… well, let’s just say penmanship is not everyone’s forte. One thing that is common to all, however, is the powerful sense of belonging.

Teddy Roosevelt
Of all the nicknames of American fleet carriers over the years, by far my favourite is that of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. As you will remember from your history class, Teddy Roosevelt once said that a man and indeed a nation should “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The quote, speaking to negotiating peacefully while simultaneously threatening with the “big stick,” was first used by Roosevelt in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair on 2 September 1901,four days before the assassination of President William McKinley who died eight days later, which subsequently thrust Roosevelt into the presidency. There can be no bigger stick one could have in one’s arsenal than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and her complement. I also appreciate the crew’s excellent penmanship! Doing a spell-out in cursive lettering definitely calls for some planning and laying out of the design on the deck. The aircraft carrier was transiting the Atlantic Ocean on her way home to Norfolk, Va., after a six-month deployment in the Adriatic Sea and Arabian Gulf. Photo: US Navy
USS Eisenhower
Of the scores of photos I found on the web, it seems that the one aircraft carrier with the most spell-outs was USS Eisenhower. I found SIX individual spell-outs from the Ike and all were in honour of their namesake. Here the crew turns out in immaculate dress whites to spell out the famous slogan from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (Ike) election campaign. The other Eisenhower spell-outs follow. Photo: US Navy
The USS Eisenhower celebrates the year 2010 with the date and five stars created by organizing the coloured deck crew shirts. Eisenhower was one of only nine generals in the US Army, Navy or Air Force to receive a 5-star ranking. The 5-star rank was created during the Second World War because of the awkward situation created when some American senior commanders were placed in positions commanding allied officers of higher rank. US officers holding five-star rank never retire; they draw full active duty pay for life.The five-star ranks were retired in 1981 on the death of General Omar Bradley. Photo: US Navy
USS America
An overhead aerial view of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS America (CVA-66) between 1965 and 1968, when the ship operated the Douglas A-4C Skyhawk, visible forward. America was one of four Kitty Hawk-class super-carriers built for the United States Navy in the 1960s. Wikipedia elaborates: America held the distinctions of being the last US super-carrier built not named after a person, and being the first large aircraft carrier since Operation Crossroads in 1946 (the nuclear test in the Pacific) to be expended in weapons tests. In 2005, she was scuttled southeast of Cape Hatteras after four weeks of tests, despite a large protest of former crew members who wanted to see her instituted as a memorial museum. She was the largest warship ever to be sunk. Photo: US Navy
USS Ronald Reagan
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), lovingly referred to as the“Gipper,” cleared of all her aircraft, sends out a birthday greeting to the late President Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, on the occasion of his 100th birthday on 6 February 2011. Reagan was first elected president in 1980 and again for a second term in 1984. He died on 5 June 2004 at the age of 93. The bare deck spell-out is not, in my mind, as impressive as when the message is combined with the aircraft of the air group aboard. Photo: US Navy
A simple message, but a proud one. USS Independence, known to her crew and air group as Indy, as she heads for a port visit at Freemantle, Australia, having served in the North Arabian Sea. Photo: US Navy
USS Leyte
The crew of USS Leyte (CV-32), in sharp dress blues and white gob hats, spells out the name of the ship on the forward part of the flight deck while she lays at anchor at Sasebo, Japan, during her Korean War cruise in 1950–51. The best part of this image is the bristle of wings and propellers of Carrier Air Group Three (CVG-3) in the background—Grumman Panthers in the foreground and Chance Vought Corsairs and others aft. Photo: US Navy
USS Coral Sea
In 1960, the crew of USS Coral Sea (CV-43), in dress blues, spell out her name as she cruises gracefully in Puget Sound. Photo: US Navy via
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Seasonal Greetings

USS Monterey
The USS Monterey’s crew does a fantastic job of spelling out the words MARDI GRAS 1953 with perfectly formed letters, excellent kerning and elegant typeface. The Monterey was stationed at the time in Pensacola, Florida as a training aircraft carrier and the crew were likely caught up in the spirit of Mardi Gras. She performed training duties in Pensacola from January 1951 until June 1955. Mardi Gras is not just associated with the city of New Orleans, but is a cultural phenomenon of the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline from Texas to Florida. The French Acadians, having been expelled from the Canadian Maritime Provinces from 1755 to 1764, settled in the coastal regions of Louisiana and then spread their influence and Roman Catholic culture around the Gulf. This spell-out was two weeks before Mardi Gras Tuesday, 1953. Photo: US Navy via
USS Franklin D. Roosevelt
A great shot straight down onto the deck of USS Franklin D. Roosevelt at Christmas time with the crew spelling out MERRY CHRISTMAS… likely for the carrier’s Christmas card, which would have been given out to the crew and the image distributed. I found a couple of newspaper front pages with this image printed. Photo: via and Rick Renner

The Sporting Spell-Out

USS Boxer (LHD 4)
The Army Navy Game is the biggest sporting event in the lives of midshipmen at Annapolis and soldiers at West Point. The expression “Go Navy, Beat Army” is one of the classic phrases associated with the football game. The US Navy, as they have done for 13 out of the past 15 years, beat Army handily in 2008… 34 to nothing. The US Navy press release associated with this photo explains the spell-out: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 11, 2008) Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) spell out “GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY!” on the flight deck to cheer on the midshipmen in the upcoming 109th Army–Navy college football game. Boxer, an Amphibious Assault Ship, was the 6th US Navy ship with that name. The first was originally HMS Boxer and was captured by USS Enterprise in the War of 1812. The fifth in line was USS Boxer, an Essex-class carrier of the Second World War. Photo: US Navy
USS Constellation
If you live in San Diego, you are a Padres baseball fan. In 1998, the hometown Padres went up against the baseball juggernaut of the New York Yankees in the World Series. Crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV-64) spell out “GO PADRES” to show their support for their hometown heroes, the 1998 National League Baseball Champions, while the ship leaved port on 15 October 1998. Sadly, the spell-out did not help and the Padres were swept in four games. It was one of only two times the team had made it to the World Series. They lost to Detroit as well in 1984. Photo: US Navy
HMS Illustrious
At first glance, I took this to be a patriotic encouragement for British sailors and soldiers related to some conflict. I was wrong… sort of. Here aboard HMS Illustrious, 500 members of her crew spell out what seems more of a threat than an encouragement for the English soccer team on the day of their first game against Ecuador in the 2006 World Cup. England did win that match, but lost to Portugal in the second round in Germany. Photo: Royal Navy

Any Reason is a Good Reason

USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown tells the world that helicopters and frogmen from her decks picked Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders from the Pacific Ocean on 27 December 1968. It was 43 minutes after splashdown before the first frogman from the USS Yorktown arrived, as the spacecraft had landed before sunrise. Forty-five minutes later, the crew was safe on the deck of the aircraft carrier. Photo: US Navy
USS Kearsarge (CVS-33)
USS Kearsarge (CVS-33) steams in the Pacific with a greeting to Tokyo, Japan, where the 1964 Summer Olympics were being held at the same time. Her crew assembled on deck to spell “’64 OLYMPICS” bracketed by the Olympic rings on the left and an Olympic torch on the right. Kearsarge, with assigned Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 53 (CVSG-53), was deployed to the Western Pacific and Vietnam from 19 June to 16 December 1964. Photo: US Navy
USS Kearsarge MERCURY-9
The USS Kearsarge spells out a tribute to the MERCURY-9 spacecraft, including a silhouette of the capsule itself. Mercury–Atlas 9 was the final manned space mission of the U.S. Mercury program, launched on 15 May 1963 from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft, named Faith 7, completed 22 Earth orbits before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, piloted by astronaut Gordon Cooper, then an Air Force major. This spell-out took place before the recovery of the capsule by the ship’s helicopters and crew. Kearsarge was the recovery ship for the last two manned Project Mercury space missions in 1962–1963. She completed her career serving in the Vietnam War, earning five battle stars. Photo: US Navy
USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3)
An extremely powerful and haunting spell-out from USS Belleau Wood. Wikipedia gives a good description of the tribute: At sea with USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3) Sep. 6, 2002 — More than 500 Sailors and Marines assemble on the ship’s flight deck to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States by spelling out the now famous quote from Mr. Todd Beamer, “Let’s Roll.” Beamer was one of the heroic passengers on United Flight 93, which crashed in a western Pennsylvania field after he and several other passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from terrorist hijackers. Many believe the terrorists were heading for Washington, D.C…. The ship carries a crew of 1,000 Sailors and more than 1,300 Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The ship can use a combination of helicopters, AV-8B “Harrier” II vertical launch attack aircraft, and amphibious landing craft to send and support Marines ashore during combat and humanitarian operations. Photo: US Navy
HMS Lancaster
After the announcement of the birth of Prince George, who had yet to be named, some of the crew of HMS Lancaster, a ‘Duke’-class Type 23 frigate of the Royal Navy, spelled out the word BOY for want of a name. Lancaster was launched by Queen Elizabeth II on 24 May 1990 and is known as “The Queen’s Frigate,” the Duke of Lancaster being an honorary title of the Sovereign. She sent the message last year on 22 July 2013 when she was on a counter-narcotics mission in the Caribbean. Photo: Royal Navy
USS Nassau (LHA 4)
It’s not always the working crew of a ship that is assembled to do a spell-out for the cameras. In this case the Marines, assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4), spell out “24 MEU PROUD!” Where normally we see white sailors in a spell-out, we now see mud-brown Marines proudly standing at attention.USS Nassau, the “Big Nasty,” was named after the Battle of Nassau (3–4 March 1776), a naval action and amphibious assault by American forces against the British port of Nassau, Bahamas, during the American Revolutionary War. It is considered the first cruise and one of the first engagements of the newly established Continental Navy and the Continental Marines, the progenitors of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Photo: US Marine Corps
USS Nimitz (CVN 68)
At first this looked pretty sloppy for sailors, but then when you understand that 1,000 of these folks are family members, you can grant them a little slack. In March of 2010, sailors and more than 1,000 friends and family members spell out the word “NIMITZ” aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during the ship’s 2010 “Tiger Cruise.” The Nimitz’s Tiger Cruise 2010 was the last evolution in the ship’s eight-month deployment to the Arabian Sea supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. A Tiger Cruise is the chance for family and friends to see up close what the US Navy does on a day-to-day basis. The family members (any family member except girlfriends, wives, husbands, or boyfriends are eligible) travel aboard a fleet carrier to observe sea operations. A Tiger Cruise might take the carrier from Pearl Harbor to San Diego. A deck spell-out would give the carrier’s guests an excellent memento of the experience. During the cruise, the carrier’s guests observed Flight Operations, an Air Power Demonstration, High Speed Ship Manoeuvring, Refuelling at Sea, Air Wing Fly Off and more. Photo: US Navy

Special thanks to Dave O’Malley of Vintage Wings of Canada.

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David OMalley

David OMalley

Dave O'Malley is a manager of Communications and Marketing at Vintage Wings of Canada. Vintage Wings of Canada is an Ottawa-based foundation dedicated to acquiring, maintaining and flying vintage aircraft of historical significance to Canada. All of the foundation aircraft are in flying condition or are presently under rebuilds.

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