Naval Terminology: Manning the Rail

October 26, 2018
by Jason Alghussein

Every branch of the United States Military has its own traditions. For the US Navy, Manning the Rail is an old practice that has gained special meaning at Pearl Harbor. While it may not be a phrase you hear often, if at all, in everyday life, when you’re visiting Pearl Harbor, it’s possible that you might even see the tradition in action.

Origin of the Tradition

Manning the Yards in honor of Hawaii's Queen Kapi'olani and Princess Lili'uokalani as they board City of Rome, 1887

Manning the Yards in honor of Hawaii's Queen Kapiolani and Princess Liliuokalani as they board City of Rome en route to London, 1887

As with most traditions, Manning the Rail has roots that date back to long before the American battleships of the Pacific Fleet were attacked by Japanese fighters and bombers on December 7, 1941. It started with the tradition of Manning the Yards, and was practiced by navies centuries ago. On a sailing ship, her crew would render honors by standing on the vessel’s yards, or the arms on the masts that hold the sails, when returning to port.

The act had sailors evenly spaced and facing in a specific direction. Often, they were facing a distinguished individual. When the person was in range, the sailors would let out three cheers in their honor. Manning the Yard was often a way for the sailors to welcome and honor an arriving individual.

The Tradition Evolves

Much has changed since the days of sailing vessels, and so Manning the Yards had to evolve as well. That’s how Manning the Rail came about. It’s the same concept, but instead of standing atop the yards, sailors line up along the rails and superstructure of the ship. Just as they did on the yards, while manning the rail, sailors let out a cheer for their guest. Typically, the act is reserved for the President of the United States, heads of state of foreign nations, and members of a reigning royal family. When a ship is simply leaving or entering port, sailors take part in the less formal At Quarters.

Manning the Rail at Pearl Harbor

Chinese Sailors manning the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) as they arrive in Pearl Harbor

Chinese Sailors manning the rail aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor

The tradition of Manning the Rail has evolved to include another special circumstance. As vessels pass by the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, sailors stand along the rails and superstructure and render honor to the sunken vessel resting beneath the memorial. The act of Manning the Rail while passing the USS Arizona Memorial is performed by ships of the US Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. Even foreign vessels arriving in Pearl Harbor for military exercises have participated in Manning the Rail.

USS Arizona (BB-39) is memorialized at Pearl Harbor as one of the most tragic losses of December 7, 1941. She lost 1,177 crewmen, accounting for nearly half the death toll of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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