Unit Awards for Commissioned Vessels: A brief history

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas
Defense Logistics Agency Public Affairs

As military awards for individuals began to see an increase in popularity after the Spanish American War, so did awards for commissioned vessels.

As ships began to earn more honors, they began displaying these in various forms.

Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Rachel Gillen, a Sailor assigned to the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40), paints one of the ship's anchors gold Aug. 11, 2014, in recognition of Frank Cable receiving the retention excellence award. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg House/Released)

Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Rachel Gillen, a Sailor assigned to the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40), paints one of the ship’s anchors gold Aug. 11, 2014, in recognition of Frank Cable receiving the retention excellence award. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg House/Released)

One of the most visible displays is the Retention Excellence Award (previously known as the Golden Anchor Award). The Joint Fleet Maintenance Manual states that deployable ships are authorized to paint their anchors gold as a symbol of earning the award for sustaining superior levels of retention.

Other forms, such as campaign streamers are less recognizable.

According to Naval History and Heritage Command, campaign streamers are decorative strips attached to military flags to recognize particular achievements or denote a ship’s participation in an operation. The streamer is often inscribed with the name and date denoting participation in a particular battle, military campaign, or theater of war. The color of the streamer is usually chosen to match the associating campaign’s medal or ribbon.

As ships earned multiple campaign medals and ribbons, they began to outwardly display these awards, much like an individual, on the vessel’s bridge. Just like individuals, ships display their achievements according to the awards’ precedence prescribed by the Navy.

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) participated in numerous actions earning a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, and 20 engagement stars, making her the most decorated U.S. ship of World War II.

Additionally, she was awarded with a British Admiralty Pennant as a token of respect. The Enterprise is the only ship outside the Royal Navy to receive the honor since its creation more than 400 years ago.

While the Enterprise has the most awards of any U.S. ship from World War II, Navy records indicate that the title of the most highly decorated vessel goes to USS Parche (SSN 683), a Sturgeon-class submarine. According to the Parche Association, after her decommissioning in 2004, she was said to be “the most highly decorated vessel in U.S. history” with a total of nine Presidential Unit Citations, 10 Navy Unit Commendations and 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals during her 30 years of service.

In addition to unit citation and medals, crews also compete for Command Excellence Awards. Used to symbolize superior readiness and performance in various areas of seamanship, the accolades are painted in the form of a different colored “E” painted prominently on the bridge wings of the vessel, according to Surface Force Training Manual, Chapter 5, Section 1.

  • Black “E” = Maritime Warfare Excellence Award
  • Red “E” = Engineering/Survivability Excellence Award
  • Green “E” = Command & Control Excellence Award
  • Green “H” = Health and Wellness (Medical) Excellence Award
  • Blue “E” = Logistics Management Excellence Award
  • Yellow “E” = Commander, Naval Surface Forces (CNSF) Ship Safety Award
  • Purple “E” = Efficiency Excellence Award

The manual goes on to state that for each subsequent award, the ship paints an angled line, or hash mark, of the same color below.

Perhaps the most prestigious award for sailors is the Battle Effectiveness Award, otherwise known as the “Battle E.”

Ships bearing the award in the form of a large white “E” have undergone testing in several fields important to naval excellence. The Surface Force Training Manual says that skills such as ship handling, weapons employment, tactics and ability to fulfill mission objectives are judged over the course of a year-long evaluation. Ships that win five consecutive Battle “E”s replace the white “E” and hash marks with a gold “E” and silver star just above.

A ship or unit must demonstrate the highest state of battle readiness to receive the award, and winning it is a source of pride for many Sailors.

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Unit Awards for Commissioned Vessels: A brief history