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Commanding the Waves: The Legacy of Surface Warfare Officers

By Daniel N. Garas, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command

The United States Navy is known for a colorful and illustrious history with opportunities in numerous warfare communities. But since its inception, the Navy has been known for fighting on the high-seas, and surface warfare remains our heart and soul. Much like it was 242 years ago, sea control is the precondition to all other Navy operations.  Today’s surface warfare officers (SWOs) balance navigation, tactics, complex technical systems and maintaining the readiness of their people to fight a warship as a team. In an effort to pay homage to our past and provide a link to our current Surface Force Strategy, ‘Return to Sea Control’ that is leading the way for our future fighting force, we’ve compiled a list of just a few of the officers that paved the way for the SWO ethos of today and have ships named in their honor.

John Paul Jones
From raiding the shores of England itself, to his fateful battle with the Serapis, Jones created an international reputation for winning victories when he was outmanned, outclassed, and outgunned by the most powerful fleet on earth. During his engagement with Serapis Jones’ situation was dire within the first hour. His ship, Bohomme Richard was shot to pieces, on fire and sinking.

Never one to shy away from a fight, Jones created an international reputation for winning victories when he was outmanned, outclassed, and outgunned by the most powerful fleet on earth.


When asked to surrender, Jones’ refusal became legendary. Although the exact phrase itself is still debated, “I have not yet begun to fight” is attributed to him and portrays the determination and iron will he demonstrated in battle. Jones’ phrase and his fighting legacy still serve as an inspiration to today’s U.S. Naval officers.

USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53)


Edward Preble

Soon after the United States was born, the country’s resolve was tested by the Barbary Pirates.  In 1790, the pirates became so brazen that President Thomas Jefferson sought congressional approval to dispatch the Navy to take care of the problem. Already a seasoned pirate-fighter, Preble led a seven-ship, thousand-man squadron in a blockade of the harbor of Tripoli.

Though he had a hot temper and loved to fight, Preble brought a level of professional seamanship and discipline to the U.S. Navy that influenced several future naval officers who became known as “Preble’s Boys.”


Not content with sitting around for a siege and being taunted by pirates, Preble, who was known for his fiery temperament, attacked the harbor. Through a series of daring raids, his men caused severe damage and inflicted heavy causalities; a direct result of strenuous training and bold thinking. Ever the taskmaster, Preble was known for running a tight ship. He brought a level of professional seamanship and discipline to the U.S. Navy that influenced several future naval officers who became known as Preble’s boys.


USS Preble (DDG 88)

Stephen Decatur
One of the “Preble’s Boys,” Decatur was catapulted to national fame after he lead a raid that was so audacious during the First Barbary War, it was proclaimed by British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, “the most bold and daring act of the Age.” On February 16th, 1804, Decatur sailed a small ship next to the captured ship USS Philadelphia. Philadelphia had run aground the previous October and Decatur had no intention of letting the Tripolitans turn the ship into a floating fortress. Decatur’s mission was to board, capture and burn the frigate.

During the First Barbary War, Decatur led a raid so daring it was called, “the most bold and daring act of the age” by British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson himself.


During the mission, his small force was spotted by pirates aboard Philadelphia but seized the initiative. The pirates were dispatched after a quick fight and Decatur’s crew set the ship on fire. Thus denying its use by the enemy. Following a narrow escape, the raid was deemed a complete success and the Americans suffered no casualties. For his leadership and bravery in the First Barbary War, Stephen Decatur, at the age of 25, became the youngest naval officer in history to be promoted to Captain and would go on to enjoy success in the War of 1812 and the Second Barbary War.

USS Decatur (DDG-73)


Matthew C. Perry
Often called “The Father of the Steam Navy,” Perry is best known for leading a naval campaign that never fired a shot. On July 8, 1853, Perry displayed America’s modern fleet and advance firepower to the Japanese when he led four ships into the harbor at Tokyo Bay. More so, Perry emphasized his resolve to use them if needed. The Japanese relented and signed several treaties that provided protections for stranded or shipwrecked sailors and reestablished regular trade with the western world.

Considered “Father of the steam Navy,” Perry was also a big advocate of education and established curriculum for the Naval Academy and supported an apprentice system to train newly enlisted seamen.


But it was Perry’s actual ongoing ambitions that made his most famous mission possible; modernization. Years prior to that revolutionary appearance in Tokyo Bay, his advocacy for the steam engine and his foresight to promote naval education for officers and enlisted Sailors sealed his legacy. Perry helped establish the professional naval curriculum for the United States Naval Academy and supported an apprentice system to train newly enlisted seamen. Once promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate USS Fulton (1837), which he commanded after its completion. Commanding a new ship for a new era, he laid the foundation for his profound expedition.

USNS Matthew Perry (T-AKE-9)


Arleigh Burke
The namesake for a class of guided-missile destroyers, Burke’s contributions to surface warfare date back to his service in WWII. After studying America’s first engagements with the Imperial Japanese Navy, Burke determined uncertainty and hesitation were the biggest problems plaguing the U.S. Fleet. The loss of initiative, he surmised, would cost commanders opportunities to inflict more damage. Burke experienced this personally at the Battle of Blackett Strait when his radar operator made first contact with an enemy ship but hesitated to fire. A battle unfolded and while the Americans were victorious, Burke was displeased with his own hesitation. This led Burke to famously quip, “the difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds.”

Eager to fight, Burke pushed his officers to go on the offensive and be more aggressive, famously saying, “the difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds.”


Afterwards, Burke’s standing orders to his task force were, “Destroyers to attack on enemy contact WITHOUT ORDERS from the task force commander.” Eager to fight, Burke pushed his ships to the limits and after a mechanical incident slowed him down he earned the nickname, 31-knot Burke. Originally meant to be a gibe, it became a term of endearment and symbol of his aggressive nature.

USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)


Elmo Zumwalt

The youngest Chief of Naval Operations, Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt was perhaps best known for the sweeping social reforms he made to the Navy. After a successful career in World War II, he became Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam in September of 1968. Tackling the challenges of a brown-water Navy command with out-of-the-box thinking made him willing to embrace new ideas.

Through unofficially policy directives known as “Z-grams,” Zumwalt set the scene for a reformed Navy.


Later as CNO, he continued to be a trailblazer. Through policy directives unofficially known as “Z-grams,” Zumwalt set the scene for a reformed Navy. Under his leadership, living conditions in the Navy improved, women gained new opportunities and assumed key leadership positions, and demeaning and abrasive U.S. Navy regulations  negatively impacting Filipino and African American Sailors’ of the time were eliminated. The impact of his reforms on the Navy was immediate. When he took command of the Navy in 1970, enlistment rates were at an all-time low; when he retired four years later, re-enlistment rates had tripled. Known as a true “Sailors’ Admiral,” Zumwalt’s forward-thinking changed the Navy.

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000)


Commander Gordon Chung-Hoon
Born of Chinese-Hawaiian lineage and a 1934 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Chung-Hoon commanded the destroyer USS Sigsbee (DD-502) in the Pacific Theater during  World War II. Chung-Hoon possessed a clear internal compass that guided his leadership. His step-son would later remark, “He did things only because they were the right things to do.”

Chung-Hoon saved his crippled ship (DD-502) and it’s crew during the Battle of Okinawa.

On April 14th, 1945, kamikazes attacked Sigsbee off the coast of Okinawa with one plane crashing into her stern. The crash knocked out one of the ship’s engines and crippled the other. The damaged ship became a magnet for kamikazes seeking easy prey. Chung-Hoon ordered his antiaircraft batteries to put up a wall of fire, while coordinating damage control efforts so the ship could withdraw from battle. Because of his actions, the ship made it to port under her own power and Chung-Hoon received the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest medal and the nation’s second highest combat decoration for his actions. Chung-Hoon retired in 1959 as a two-star admiral and the nation’s first Asian-Pacific American flag officer. The Navy honored him in 2004 by naming a guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93).

USS Chung-Hoon (DDG-93