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History and Heritage

USS Winston Churchill

Why the Navy named a ship after a British prime minister

In 2001, the Navy commissioned its 18th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Winston Churchill (DDG 81). The ship is currently the only vessel in the fleet that honors a foreigner. Here are a few reasons why.


1. Born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England, Nov. 30, 1874, Winston Churchill was the child of Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, younger son of the duke of Marlborough, and Jennie Jerome, an American heiress. According to a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, through his mother, Churchill could not only claim ancestors who fought against the British in the American Revolution, but also a little Native American blood (according to family tradition). Following the attacks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, Churchill told a joint session of Congress that "I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

2. Churchill was something of a famous war hero. After attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, he became a cavalry officer in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars and served around the world, both in the British army and as a war correspondent. For example, anticipating the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Churchill travelled to South Africa in 1899. He was eventually captured as a prisoner of war and interned in Pretoria. In December, Churchill and two other inmates escaped. After stowing aboard a freight train and hiding in a coal mine, Churchill eventually made it to safety in Portuguese East Africa. He chronicled the experience in "Hero on the Empire."

3. Over the course of 66 years, Churchill made 16 visits to the United States. He traveled here as soldier, lecturer, politician, tourist, world leader, wartime ally and elder statesman. By his own account, America was "a very great country ... not pretty or romantic, but great and utilitarian."

4. Before he became prime minister, Churchill held a multitude of positions in Parliament, many defense related. His roles included minister of defense, first lord of the admiralty and chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee. By the time World War II broke out in 1939, he was ready to lead Britain as a wartime prime minister and also coordinate with the Allies, according to the International Churchill Society.

5. Over the years, Churchill got to know many American politicians, including presidents from William McKinley to John F. Kennedy. His relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt is the most famous, and one of the key elements of the Allied partnership. The British Broadcasting Corporation credits the two men, together with the third "Big Three" member, Joseph Stalin of the USSR, with the ultimate victory of World War II.

6. According to The Daily Telegraph, after Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he had to win the anti-British U.S. over to his side. He wrote Roosevelt two or three letters a week and, faced with a choice between begging and inspiring the Americans, he chose to push an image of a brave island race winning against almost insurmountable odds. "We shall get the Americans in by showing courage and boldness and prospects of success and not by running ourselves down," he said in a British Defence Committee meeting in May 1941, as reported by the book "Winston's War" by Max Hastings.

Behind the Name: Winston Churchill



7. Months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and Churchill were already working together to foil the Nazis. Though Roosevelt refused to commit to joining the war, he and Churchill drafted the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between the two world powers about how the world would look after the war was won.

8. The U.S. still helped Britain by giving its future ally 50 destroyers under Roosevelt's Lend Lease program in March 1941. The act authorized the president to transfer arms or any other defense materials for which Congress appropriated money to "the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States."

9. On Sept. 14, 1944, Roosevelt and Churchill initialed a document called the Hyde Park Aide Memoire that outlined the collaboration between the U.S. and Great Britain in the development of an atomic bomb, later known as the Manhattan Project. The document stated this project would be kept secret, especially from the Russians, and it included the possibility of using the bomb against the Japanese, which Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, ultimately decided to do to in August 1945. The war ended less than a month later.

10. Roosevelt had died in office the previous April, so he missed the jubilant celebrations that followed. Churchill himself wrote, "It is cruel that he will not see the Victory which he did so much to achieve." In his eulogy to the president, the British prime minister also said, "in Franklin D. Roosevelt, there died the greatest American friend we have ever known."

11. Churchill coined the phrase "special relationship," in reference to the Anglo-American alliance. "I come to the crux of what I have traveled here to say," he said in what has become known as his Iron Curtain Speech, delivered at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946. "Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States."

12. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy deemed Churchill, who would die two years later, an honorary citizen of the United States. "In enjoining me to perform this happy duty, the Congress gives Sir Winston Churchill a distinction shared only with the Marquis de Lafayette," Kennedy said in a speech. "The grandeur of Sir Winston's life is its own testimony. No statement by Congress or president can add luster to the name of a man whose deeds and words will forever embody the deepest courage, the deepest wisdom and the deepest hope of our century."

13. On Nov. 19, 1995, during a visit to the United Kingdom, President Bill Clinton announced to Parliament that a new U.S. Navy ship would be named after Churchill. The ship would be the first destroyer and only the fourth United States Navy warship ever to be named after a British citizen. In fact, USS Winston Churchill was the first ship to be named after any non-American citizen since 1975.

14. USS Winston Churchill's coat of arms celebrates the relationship between ship and statesman. The cross of St. George and the fleur-de-lis are from Churchill's augmentation of his ancestor's coat of arms. The red cross on the white field is a reference to the flag of St. George. The gold lion over the field of red is a nod to the heritage of Great Britain. The lion shows strength, courage and determination. The nebuly represents the sky and clouds, which recall how Britain endured German airpower in the Battle of Britain. Finally, Churchill's reputation as an inspiring war leader, talented statesman, orator and author is referred to by a stylized book, according to the ship's website.

Behind the Name: Winston Churchill