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Hundreds attend the commissioning ceremony for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Nancy Reagan, wife of the ship's namesake, gave the ship's crew its traditional first order as an active unit of the Navy: "Man the ship and bring her to life."

Ship commissioning is the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service, and may be regarded as a particular application of the general concepts and practices of project commissioning. The term is most commonly applied to the placing of a warship in active duty with its country's military forces. The ceremonies involved are often rooted in centuries old naval tradition.

Ship naming and launching endow a ship hull with her identity, but many milestones remain before she is completed and considered ready to be designated a commissioned ship. The engineering plant, weapon and electronic systems, galley, and multitudinous other equipment required to transform the new hull into an operating and habitable warship are installed and tested. The prospective commanding officer, ship's officers, the petty officers, and seamen who will form the crew report for training and intensive familiarization with their new ship.

Prior to commissioning, the new ship undergoes sea trials to identify any deficiencies needing correction. The preparation and readiness time between christening-launching and commissioning may be as much as three years for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to as brief as twenty days for a World War II landing ship. The USS Monitor, of American Civil War fame, was commissioned less than three weeks after launch.

United States Navy

Commissioning in the early United States Navy under sail was attended by no ceremony. An officer designated to command a new ship received orders similar to those issued to Captain Thomas Truxtun in 1798:

Sir, I have it in command from the president of the United States, to direct you to repair with all due speed on board the ship Constellation lying at Baltimore. It is required that no Time be lost in carrying the Ship into deep water, taking on board her Cannon, Ammunition, Water, Provisions & Stores of every kind -- completing what work is yet to be done shipping her Complement of Seamen and Marines, and preparing her in every respect for Sea ... It is the President's express Orders, that you employ the most vigorous Exertions, to accomplish these several Objects and to put your Ship as speedily as possible in a situation to sail at the shortest notice.

In Truxtun's time, the prospective commanding officer had responsibility for overseeing construction details, outfitting the ship, and recruiting his crew. When a captain determined that his new ship was ready to take to sea, he mustered the crew on deck, read his orders, broke the national ensign and distinctive commissioning pennant, and caused the watch to be set and the first entry to be made in the log. Thus, the ship was placed in commission.

Commissionings were not public affairs, and unlike christening-and-launching ceremonies, were not recorded by newspapers. The first specific reference to commissioning located in naval records is a letter of November 6, 1863, from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to all navy yards and stations. The Secretary directed: "Hereafter the commandants of navy yards and stations will inform the Department, by special report of the date when each vessel preparing for sea service at their respective commands, is placed in commission."

Subsequently, various editions of Navy regulations mentioned the act of putting a ship in commission, but details of a commissioning ceremony were not prescribed. Through custom and usage, however, a fairly standard practice emerged, the essentials of which are outlined in current Navy regulations.

Officers and crew members of the new ship are assembled on the quarterdeck or other suitable area. Formal transfer of the ship to the prospective commanding officer is done by the Naval District Commandant or his representative. The transferring officer reads the commissioning directive, the national anthem is played, the ensign is hoisted, and the commissioning pennant broken. The prospective commanding officer reads his orders, assumes command, and the first watch is set.

Craft assigned to Naval Districts and shore bases for local use, such as harbor tugs and floating drydocks, are not usually placed in commission but are instead given an "in service" status. They do fly the national ensign, but not a commissioning pennant.

In recent years, commissionings have come to be more public occasions. Guests, including the ship's sponsor, are frequently invited to attend, and a prominent individual may deliver a commissioning address. On May 3, 1975, more than twenty thousand people witnessed the commissioning of USS Nimitz (CVN 68) at Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier's sponsor, daughter of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, was introduced, and the President of the United States was the principal speaker. The sponsor traditionally gives the first order to the ship's company: "Man our ship and bring her to life!"

Regardless of the type of ship, the brief but impressive commissioning ceremony completes the cycle from christening and launching to bring the ship into full status as a warship of her nation.

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