Glossary - USS Tuscaloosa CA-37 - USS Wichita CA-45 - WWII heavy cruisers

Basic Glossary for the landlubbers among us and brief description of large WWII ships.

This is by no means a complete or rigorous glossary.  It is intended to make it a little easier for those of us who fall somewhere between having seen maybe a few episodes of Gilligan's Island and McHale's Navy and having graduated the U.S. Naval Academy.

At the bottom of this page is a quick overview of large U.S. WWII warships.

toward the stern (back) of the ship.


a column of armor that protects the ammunition hoist, and upon which the turret rotates; the armored ammunition lift.

the greatest width of a ship.

although not a precise term, a small floating craft.  DON'T ever say "boat" to a veteran of a large navy ship to refer to a large navy vessel.  They will correct you.  Just remember, a ship has lifeBOATS on it.  However, submarines, although technically ships, are traditionally referred to as boats.

the forward part of a ship.


when talking about BIG guns, their size is measured by the diameter (width) of the hole in the barrel (bore) of the gun, measured in inches or millimeters (1 inch-25.4 mm).  If easier for you, just think of the diameter of the shell fired by the gun.  When talking about big guns, "caliber" is the ratio of the length of the barrel of the gun to the diameter of the bore of the gun (thus, size times caliber equals the length of the barrel).  "Caliber" has a different meaning for firearms such as handguns, rifles and machine guns where the bore is not greater than one-half inch.  In those cases, caliber is the diameter of the bore expressed as a decimal portion of an inch (.45 caliber is a little less than a half-inch).


a group of ships built (for the most part) to a common design, typically named for the first ship of that design.


that part of the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Iceland.


essentially, a ship's weight as determined by how many tons of water she displaces when in the water.  [physics note:  a floating object at rest always displaces an amount of liquid equal in weight to the weight of the object.  That is the equilibrium that keeps it floating.]  The three most common types of displacement are standard displacement, light displacement and full displacement.  Their definitions vary with time and place, but you can think of standard displacement as weighing the ship when it is manned and pretty much ready to go, and light displacement as weighing the ship empty without crew, munitions, food or fuel, etc., and full displacement as weighing the ship fully stocked.

"Tons" would refer to "long tons" of 2,240 pounds.  If you want to imagine the volume of a ship's displacement, remember that seawater is more dense than fresh water (8.56 lbs./gal and 64 lbs./cu. ft for seawater compared to 8.33 and 62.4 for fresh water).  Thus, a ship with a 10,000 ton displacement (i.e. weighing 10,000 tons) is displacing 350,000 cubic feet or more than 2.6 million gallons of seawater.  This would be the volume of the ship below the waterline.  [physics question:  would a ship ride higher or lower in fresh water compared to seawater?]


the depth of a ship in the water; the smallest depth of water needed to allow a ship to clear the bottom.


toward the bow (front) of the ship


the centerline of a ship running from front to back.

KEEL LAID DOWN (laying the keel):

the official start of the building of a ship by starting construction on the bottom portion of the ship; what placing the cornerstone is to a building.


a measure of speed equal to one nautical mile (6076 feet) per hour, about equal to 1.15 land miles per hour.


distance from the bow (front part) to the stern (back part).


approximately 6076 feet (1.15 land miles), equal to one minute of latitude at the equator.  [Here's a math problem:  there are 60 minutes in degree and 360 degrees around the world.  There are 5280 feet or 1760 yards in a mile.  How many feet, yards or miles is the circumference of the earth?]


Naval Operating Base.


the left side of a ship when looking forward.  Also, a harbor.


the arrangement of ships with large warship(s) surrounded by smaller ships, usually including destroyers, to protect the large warship(s) from the enemy.


a larger vessel usually thought of as being used for ocean travel. See BOAT.


firing the big guns from a battleship or cruiser on an enemy position on shore. 


a ship's fastest speed measured in knots (nautical miles per hour).  A nautical mile is somewhat longer than a land mile, so a knot is equal to about 1.15 miles per hour.


the right side of a ship when looking forward.


the forward most part of the bow (front part of a ship).


the part of the ship farthest in back.


These definitions are quite general and intended just to give you a start in understanding the larger ships of WWII.

a ship designed to operate and maintain fixed-wing aircraft (i.e. an airplane as distinguished from a helicopter) with a large flight deck.  Their hull designation is CV and CVx .  Remember, even battleships and cruisers such as Tuscaloosa and Wichita had some spotting aircraft (seaplanes) launched from a catapult and recovered with a crane.

a large ship designed to be equipped with the most and biggest guns and be heavily armored.  Their hull designation is BB.  This ship was the powerhouse of offensive ships.

during the WWII-era, consider cruisers to be smaller than battleships and having 6" or 8" guns.  Due to history of various naval treaties before WWII, heavy cruisers would have 8" guns and light cruisers would have 6" guns.  Their hull designation was CA (for heavy cruisers) and CL (for light cruisers).  This ship is both defensive for protecting battleships and aircraft carriers, and offensive as the primary large ship in a group.

originally, torpedo-boat destroyers.  These ships were designed to be fast, and heavily armed in its primary role as protecting larger ships from enemy ships, planes and submarines.  Their hull classification is DD. Destroyer Escorts (DDE) were added during WWII as an inexpensive mass-produced way to provide additional protection for fleets and convoys. 

a submersible vessel.  Their hull classification was SS.



The naming sources for ships as well as their hull designations has undergone numerous changes before, after and even during World War II, and has not always been consistent.  As such it is not possible to provide a totally accurate summary.  Nevertheless, the chart below is a good starting place when considering WWII-era ships.



CV Fleet Carrier - at least 40 aircraft Famous Americans, Battles and Ships
CVL Light Carrier- less than 40 aircraft Famous Americans, Battles and Ships
CVE Escort Aircraft Carrier Bays and World War II Battles
CVB Battle (large) Aircraft Carrier Famous Americans, Battles and Ships


CA Heavy - has guns larger than 6 inches but not larger than 8 inches US Cities
CL Light - has guns not larger than 6 inches US Cities
DESTROYER DD   Naval Leaders and Heroes
DESTROYER ESCORT DE   Naval Leaders and Heroes, and often destroyers lost or people killed in WWII
SUBMARINE SS   Fish or other denizens of the deep

For a general discussion of ship naming in the US Navy, click here.

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