How the U.S. Navy Works

Navy History

The Navy draws its lineage to the Continental Navy that fought for the United States against England in the Revolutionary War. A largely jury-rigged Navy made up of non-military vessels pressed into service, the Continental Navy was disbanded at the end of the war. The U.S. Constitution empowered Congress to raise and fund a Navy, which they finally did in 1794. The Department of the Navy was formed in 1798 [source: The Naval Historical Center]. Only one of the original six frigates purchased in 1794 is still in existence. The USS Constitution is still in active duty as a promotional and goodwill vessel for the Navy.

USS Constitution
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship afloat, in Boston Harbor.

The Navy has been heavily involved in every American military conflict, and has contributed to many humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. On December 7, 1941, Navy ships were the target of one of the worst military attacks on U.S. soil when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The Navy has also relied upon a partially civilian corps of engineers, known as the SeaBees, to construct airstrips and other infrastructure crucial to military missions. The SeaBees have built schools, hospitals and power plants throughout the developing world.

Pearl Harbor under attack
Photo courtesy of The National Archives
Pearl Harbor under siege, December 7, 1941.

In 1945, at the peak of World War II, the Navy had a historic high of 3.4 million personnel. Today, the Navy performs its job with about 350,000 personnel [source: The Naval Historical Center]. Navy modernization efforts are focused on making their ships more efficient, allowing them to operate with greatly reduced crew compliments. This will reduce the lifetime operating costs of Navy ships (when you calculate the cost to pay, train, and provide benefits for sailors) by billions of dollars [source: The U.S. Navy.

Family members on the same ship
On November 14, 1942, the USS Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sunk. On board were five brothers from the Sullivan family of Iowa. The unfathomable tragedy visited on the Sullivan family gave rise to a recurring myth – the Navy won’t allow multiple siblings from serving on the same ship. In fact, the Navy has no such rule. However, in the event that multiple family members are enlisted in the Navy, and all but one of them is killed, the surviving member will be transferred to non-combat duty [source: The Naval Historical Center].