For a naval carrier crew, there's no better way to spell pride and discipline than for hundreds of airmen and sailors to spell it out, shoulder to shoulder, on the flight deck.
Closing ranks in full white dress (or any other color), they write messages ranging from a single “E” for Excellence to 100-foot-long phrases. Some are done for fun, others for anniversaries or as salutes to fallen comrades. Here, sailors on the USS Enterprise mark the nuclear Navy’s 40th anniversary on their way back from the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
The audience for these grand messages has ranged from the crews themselves to the landlubbers of distant ports of call, who nose to the windows of skyscrapers, or line the Golden Gate bridge, or scale the steep banks of Nova Scotia to see HELLO HALIFAX written in 50-foot letters, using 500 genuine feet.
It’s been going on for at least…actually, no one can say how long. Curtis Utz, head of the archives branch at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C, thinks the earliest descriptions of a flight-deck spell-out date from just after World War II. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t do it earlier,” says Utz.
His colleague Ed Finney is a curator in the Naval Historical Center photographic branch. “I don’t know if it’s what you’d call a tradition, it’s just been done for a long time,” he says. “At some point someone on deck probably figured We’ve got this huge, flat space, and it might be a good place to spell something. Maybe they got the idea from halftime shows at a football game.”
Either way, time on deck is better spent in spelling than swabbing.
See below for a gallery of aircraft carrier spell-outs.
On Memorial Day in 1958, the USS Bennington passes the wreck of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, spelling a tribute to crewmen lost in the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941. The outline of Arizona’s hull and the flow of oil still leaking from her fuel tanks can be seen in the shallow waters.