With his bull neck, bulging muscles and steely eyes, the chief petty officer cast an intimidating shadow over Rod Kesanen and the other Navy recruits. They stood ramrod straight by their racks as he addressed them.
“My name is ‘Choker’ Carter!” he bellowed. “And do you know why they call me by that name?” He looked at the recruit leader standing just inches away.
Quick as a cat, Carter grabbed the recruit leader by the neck and tossed him onto a nearby bunk. For the next 10 or so seconds, Carter pinned the man down while half-choking him. “That,” he said, staring again at the recruits, “is why they call me ‘Choker’ Carter.”
The message was clear to the startled recruits: shape up, pronto. That meant wrinkle-free blankets, tidy shelves, a spotless compartment. Otherwise, risk the wrath of “Choker” Carter. Recalling that summer day in 1969, Kesanen can’t help but laugh. He never did learn Carter’s real first name. No matter. The nickname left an indelible impression on him.
“When you look back on the incident, it’s comical,” says Kesanen, now a building contractor in Blaine, Minn. “But at the time, there was nothing funny about it.”
Nicknames have long been part of military lore. Evidence suggests soldiers have given pet names to their buddies or themselves since the Civil War or earlier. Some sobriquets applied to entire groups: doughboys, grunts, jarheads.
Cleveland Evans, former president of the American Name Society, says nicknames often arise when people are in close proximity for extended periods.
“In the military, you’re often working and living with someone 24 hours a day. The more you know someone, the more you’re familiar with their quirks and foibles.” These are key ingredients for a good nickname.
Frank Nuessel, a University of Louisville professor and author of “The Study of Names,” says nicknames can serve as a counterpoint to the impersonal, dogtag touch of military discipline – name, rank and serial number.
“Nicknames can help develop camaraderie, teamwork and bonding, where people are looking out for their buddies,” says Nuessel, editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics (the study of proper names). “Conversely, negative nicknames could label or ridicule someone,” psychologically scarring folks for years.
Derogatory, humorous, descriptive or just plain strange, military nicknames come in all varieties. Behind almost every one is a story. Here are a few:
Chuck Dare was head-over-heels in love. Or so he thought in 1971. The object of affection was his girlfriend from Lincoln Park, Mich.
He was so goo-goo-eyed that his Army buddies at Fort Knox, Ky., started calling him “Tramp,” as in the male half of Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” an animated movie starring two lovey-dovey dogs. “I kind of acted like that smitten dog for a while,” Dare recalls. “They started kidding me and calling me ‘Tramp,’ and that’s when I really turned up the ‘Lady’ references. I would say, ‘I’ve got to go call my ‘lady’ or write my ‘lady’ a letter.”
Dare, from Gainesville, Texas, is commander of American Legion Post 42 and a co-founder of American Legion Riders. “Tramp” Dare ended up breaking up with “Lady” while he was stationed in South Korea. But the nickname survives today. Hundreds know him only as “Tramp,” a nickname he grew into, he says.
“I started running around and drinking beer and chasing women,” he quips.
Carl “Bagger” Nelson, 91, received his military moniker in 1942. One of his World War II buddies still calls him by that nickname.
It all started when he was drafted by the Army and ended up in the First Infantry Division – the “Big Red One” – composed mostly of soldiers from Brooklyn, N.Y. Nelson hailed from Richmond, Va.
“I had a buck sergeant who used to tease me that I talked differently than the guys from Brooklyn,” says Nelson, who now lives in Chalfont, Pa. “He said, ‘But you don’t sound like those guys from the Deep South who have a real strong Southern drawl. I think maybe you’re a carpetbagger.’”
During the Civil War, Southerners were known to dub those Yankees who headed south to profit from the conflict “carpetbaggers.” In Nelson’s case, the multisyllabic nickname was too cumbersome, so it was quickly shortened to “Bagger.”
“I took the nickname in good fun,” says Nelson, a D-Day veteran who received the Purple Heart for wounds he received in France. “I was constantly teased, but it was a happy time with those guys.”
Back in the United States, Nelson and his wife mail out dozens of Christmas cards to his Army buddies every year. He’ll address himself as “Bagger” Nelson on the front envelope, a reminder of a special kinship from days gone by.
“There is an informality when someone calls you by a nickname,” Nelson says. “There’s also exclusivity. Not many men on this planet know me as ‘Bagger.’”
In his mid-20s, the lanky Bryan Reinholdt didn’t look anything like a grandmother while serving in Iraq in 2005. Yet the Army Reserve sergeant, who worked as a parts distributor for Apache helicopters, called himself “Grandma,” and the nickname stuck. He even had a tag sewn on his lightweight flight suit.
Why? “Most everyone enjoys what comes from Grandma’s kitchen,” explains Reinholdt, a Louisville, Ky., resident and Legionnaire. “I was merely ‘cooking up’ something good for everyone by supplying them with the parts they needed.”
At first, those seeking parts were mystified by the “Grandma” flight tag. And by the flight suit, normally reserved for pilots or officers. However, they appreciated Reinholdt’s attempt at humor, a homage to his beloved grandmother, Patricia, who died in 2008.
“Once people got close enough to read my flight tag, they could see I wasn’t an officer,” Reinholdt says. “Then when ‘Grandma’ registered with them, they would unfailingly laugh, although it was probably more of a confused laugh.
“Nicknames help lighten things up and take away from the doldrums of being deployed. Joking around also makes the time go by faster. And when you’re spending that much time together, it helps you avoid getting on each other’s nerves.”
To this day, Gary White is astonished by the supersized strength of a Navy boatswain’s mate known as “Magilla Gorilla.” A petty officer third class in 1968, White was a shipmate of “Magilla” on a guided missile frigate that roamed the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.
“Magilla” was tagged with the nickname because he reminded shipmates of the popular 1960s TV cartoon character. A veteran of hard-labor logging camps, the so-called deck ape with the pronounced forehead and jaw was a 200-pound mass of muscle.
“If he hit you on the arm in everyday horseplay among friends, you never forgot it,” White says.
White, who lives in Houston, once saw “Magilla” grab a rope that was tethered to four 5-gallon cans of paint from a storage area five decks below. He not only hoisted the 180 pounds of paint using a hand-over-hand technique, but also a 120-pound man standing atop the cans. When the load reached the main deck, “Magilla” calmly lifted the man from the opening with his left hand while maintaining a grip on the cans with his right.
“It was like watching a silverback gorilla pull a tree out of the ground,” White marvels.
The hard-working “Magilla” was good-humored, even-tempered and rarely challenged. Even after a late night of liberty, he kept his strength in check.
“If you really got him angry, he knew he could probably break you in half,” White says. “So he’d just walk away.”
Harvey Meyer is a freelance writer in St. Louis Park, Minn. He contributes to general-interest, consumer, business and higher-education magazines.