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 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
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.
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 navsource.org, 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
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 Navsource.org 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
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!
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
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.
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.
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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