Military Monikers

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.


  1. I purchased an old UPS van which had sat out in the desert sun for years. It was an old International, round body with sliding doors up front and on the right side. Back doors swung open fully- just a perfect van to haul dirt bikes, coolers and all my buddies. One weekend while camping in the high desert, someone said we looked like a SWAT team- to which another instantly rubbed "SQUAT" on the pigment-faded side of the van. I was from then on known as SQUAT Commander. Golden Oak leaves on my camo cover...

  2. Just to let everyone know, Choker Carter is a real person. In 1983 he was my Division Officer onboard the USS Cleveland (LPD-7). By this time he had worked his way up through the ranks to Lieutenant Commander but he was still one tough SOB. Once in Hong Kong we were tying up to a mooring bouy and the line parted, this hit LTCDR. Carter straight in the chest and we all thought he was a dead man. He picked himself up dusted himself off and ordered us to resplice the line and start over again. Choker Carter was one tough cookie but he was also one of the best damn officers that I had the pleasure of knowing in my 22 years of service. By the way, the story of how he got his nick name is very true.

  3. I was stationed on a ship as an MM2 and we were in the Philly Navy Yard. Every day I'd stop by the local bakery at about 5AM and purchase donuts. I'd take them into the ship and sell them for a quarter each (cost was a nickel!). I'd sell the coffee for a quarter too. The yardbirds would buy me out quickly and eventually I'd sell many dozens per day making more money than my pay per month. This was back in '75 when coffee prices went through the roof. I'd have the supply officer order extra coffee grounds. I then went out into the Yard repair shops and trade coffee for the parts we couldn't get budget for. One day a Yardbird that frequented my machinery space "donut shop" was in one of the shops and he gave me the moniker - RACKETS - because I traded coffee for everything. It stuck to this day as I have a front license plate with RACKETS engraved on it. I'm in sales now and its a good conversation starter. The Navy Yard is now the HQ & factory site for Tastykake pastries. Go figure!

  4. I was standing in the chow line in Quang Tri South Viet Nam, when another soldier looked at my name tag and said outloud "Cunningham" a few seconds went by and he said aloud again "Clever Pig" There were several troops in the line, and all of a sudden I was known to my fellow troops as "Clever Pig" . Bob Cunningham

  5. Stationed on a U.S. Army tugboat in Thailand in '69-70, I was tagged with the moniker L.A., because I was from a suburb of Los Angeles, CA. We had several guys with colorful nicknames; Moose, Peach, Rocky. Some guys tried to establish a cool nickname for themselves. One tried very hard to get everyone to call him Hawkeye, but that never worked and someone would tag them with a much less cool and flattering moniker.

  6. Stationed with the 1st Marine Brigade in the early seventies, I enjoyed participating in the occassional Smoker. At one such event, that happened to be refereed by pro wrestler Sammy Steamboat, I was introduced to the crowd as Rocky Heenan. My opponent was Mountain Martin. That nickname degenerated to just "the Rock" stuck for over 2 yrs.

  7. During my second sea tour, my ship went into the yards for extended repairs and overhaul. Part of my job was to inspect my division's spaces and identify damage and other discrepancies, which I jotted on a standard form. Apparently my handwriting was much worse than I thought, because my fellow BM2 could not decipher my notes. He turned to me and asked me what a "bajewstis splice" was. I explained to him that I was noting a broken splice in the cableway, but it was too late. To this day, I am Bajewstis to my fellow second and third class petty officers.

  8. When I got up to Great Lakes for bootcamp I was the only red head in my Company and my brother company so I got the nick name of Big Red. I always hated my hair color before bootcamp and this actually helped me alot through boot. Six fellow sailor's I went through boot with followed me to my first duty station and so the name followed. By the next day I think the entire base was calling me big red and it followed me through the fleet. I am now a college student in Police Science program and the professors and students ask what I would like to be called and I still find myself saying Big Red please.

  9. In the Air Force as a supply person, we were asked to get, have and issue all that was required, that being said was the qualifier. I never said "no" to a request and if we did not have it, it was gotten for issue. I will use #@! for letter symbols and you just figure along and you will know my military moniker...."fu@#adu . I hope this is not to strong for our female readers, but I was on a small base where there were no ladies in work areas except dependents (we were respectful not to carry nicknames outside work areas) and they were not in daily professional contact with us, so the moniker stuck. In almost everything that I did, I did the exeptional and was tagged that with esteem. "Look at that fu@#adu do it". There it is, one of the bad ones that sticks, even today forty-five years later. I STILL DU, because I've gotten better, not older.

  10. When I arrived at my permanent station, Bussac Chemical Depot, Camp Bussac France in the 50's, I was introduced to "Preheat" who was the short-termer, while I was the new long-termer. The Depot supplied chemical munitions and equipment to the Army forces in Europe which included smoke generators. Preheats job was to test the equipment before shipment and when he was testing one of the generators that wouldn't start, decided to preheat it with a wood burning fire beneath it. Unfortunately the smoke generator caught on fire and was destroyed and thus his nickname Preheat. He was also the caretaker of a 10-12 pound shot-put, which he received when he arrived as the long-termer. When he was shipped stateside a couple months later, I became the new caretaker until I shipped out 3 years later.

  11. Hi I just read your comment and I am looking for any info on my biological father William E Coleman. He was stationed at Camp Bussac between 53 and possibly late 54 or early 55.My mother Renee Marie Louise Daude worked at the camp. Any info would be greatly appreciated . Feel frre to e-mail me at

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