Learning Pearl Harbor: Naval Terms and Words To Know

January 18, 2018

Reading through accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack can sometimes feel like you're reading a different language. Naval terms like “aft,” “stern,” and “moored” pop up often, but since they aren’t used in everyday conversation, it’s understandable to not know exactly what they mean. Words like these—and many others—help enrich the picture of the Pearl Harbor attack.

When you visit Pearl Harbor, having an understanding of basic nautical vocabulary helps you to feel more connected to the exhibits and memorials you’re experiencing.


Refers to something being towards the front (bow) of the ship.
Example: The USS West Virginia was forward of the USS Oklahoma at the time of the attack.


Refers to something being towards the tail (stern) of the ship.
Example: The USS Arizona was aft of the USS Nevada along Battleship Row.


Refers to the central section of a naval vessel.
Example: The USS Nevada sustained fire damage amidships.


Naval terms

Hickam Field barracks during Pearl Harbor attack

A structure where service members live.
Example: On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, many servicemen were still sleeping in their barracks when the Japanese attacked.







The front-most part of a vessel.
Example: A near-miss off the USS Arizona’s bow was mistakenly believed to be a torpedo hit.


The rear of a nautical vessel.
Example: The USS Tennessee was moored at the USS Maryland's stern.


The forward part of the main deck. Pronounced “fohk'sul.”
Example: The USS Nevada sustained damage to her forecastle during the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Crow’s Nest

Pearl Harbor Battleship USS Pennsylvania

USS Pennsylvania, crow's nest intact, after the attack.

Located near the top of the main mast, the crow’s nest was a place for a lookout to see greater distances.
Example: Aboard the USS Pennsylvania, Mickey Ganitch watched the attack on Pearl Harbor unfold from the ship’s crow’s nest.








Laid Down

Also known as “laying the keel.” Laying down marks the formal beginning of a ship's construction.
Example: The USS Nevada was laid down on November 4, 1912.


USS Arizona launch June 19, 1915

Once construction is complete, a vessel is first transferred to water during her launch or launching ceremony.
Example: The USS Nevada was launched on July, 11, 1914.


Regarding a Navy vessel, commissioning is the ceremony placing her in active service. Decommissioning is the act of taking her out of service.
Example: The USS Nevada was commissioned on March 11, 1916 and decommissioned on August 29, 1946.


When the name and hull number of a US Navy vessel is removed from the Naval Vessel Register.
Example: The USS Nevada was stricken on August 12, 1948.


When a service member is away on an authorized absence.
Example: Many sailors were ashore on leave when the Japanese attacking force flew into Pearl Harbor.


Refers to the food preparation area of a vessel.
Example: Mess Attendants were working in the galley when the first bombs started falling at Pearl Harbor.

Mess Hall

Crew mess hall USS Missouri

The dining area for service members on base and aboard ships.
Example: At 0755, many sailors aboard their ships were enjoying breakfast in the mess hall when sounds of war began to be heard from outside.






When a boat is held in place via cable or rope.
Example: There were seven battleships moored alongside Ford Island when planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked.

Naval Vessel Register

The official inventory of all active ships in the service of the United States Navy.
Example: On December 1, 1942, the USS Arizona was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register.

Boatwain’s Mate

Boatswain's Mate insignia

Refers to a sailor who is tasked with supervising multiple, general duties aboard a Navy vessel. Typically oversees crews carrying out painting, maintenance, and cargo loading and unloading, among other duties.

Example: Joe George, the man responsible for rescuing six men from the USS Arizona, was a Boatwain’s Mate aboard the USS Vestal.

Petty Officer

Serves as a direct supervisor to seamen serving aboard naval vessels. Split into three classes and three senior grades, including Chief Petty Officer, Senior Chief Petty Officer, and Master Chief Petty Officer.
Example: Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Warwick Crowder ordered sailors aboard the USS Oklahoma to put out fires that burned on the deck.


Battleship Row USS Vestal

Nevada is furthest left. Just aft, Vestal is at Arizona's port side.

The left side of a nautical vessel when facing the bow. Port bow refers to the front left, and port quarter refers to the rear left.
Example: The port bow of the USS Arizona experienced the near miss of a Japanese bomb, though the port quarter was hit moments later.






The right side of a nautical vessel when facing the bow. Starboard bow refers to the front right while starboard quarter refers to the rear right.
Example: The USS Maryland was moored along the starboard side of the USS Oklahoma.


When two vessels are moored side-by-side, the one closest to shore is considered inboard.
Example: On the morning of December 7, 1941,the USS Tennessee was inboard of the USS West Virginia.


When two vessels are moored side-by-side, the one farthest from shore is considered outboard.
Example: On the morning of December 7, 1941,the USS Oklahoma was outboard of the USS Maryland.


Moving from a lower deck to an upper deck.
Example: To escape damage done to the battleship’s hull, sailors of the USS Oklahoma attempted to go topside.


Refers to when a boat is moving.
Example: After being repaired and relaunched, the USS West Virginia got underway to join the war in the Pacific.

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