Why aren't the men identified by name, and why is the oiler the only one whose name is given in "The Open Boat"?
In Stephen Crane's story, "The Open Boat," we are introduced to four men who have survived the sinking of their ship.
The four occupants of the small life boat are the ship's cook, the oiler (Billie), the ship's injured captain, and a correspondent (reporter).
The story is based upon an actual event Crane personally experienced when a ship he was traveling on sank in 1897. Crane (a newspaper correspondent) was stranded at sea for thirty hours in the company of three other men. One was an oiler by the name of Billy Higgins, who--as occurs in the story--drowns while attempting to swim to shore.
The two reasons I see for the anonymity of the three other men in the boat and the identification of Billie are related.
When men lose their lives at sea, usually at the memorial, the names of those who have died are read aloud to the tolling of a bell. In this way, they are honored and memorialized. Billie is the only member of "this crew" who dies. I believe he is named to memorialize him as would be done for a sailor "lost at sea."
I believe that for Crane, he feels the need to do the same in the pages of his story. Crane identifies the man whose life is lost when he comes so close to being rescued.
A recurring message from the men in the story, as they near the shore, is 'how could we come this far only to die when deliverance is so near...how tragic this would be.' I believe that Crane may well have heard this while he was lost at sea, and that he recognizes the enormous tragedy for just this reason. The rest of the crew survives; Crane pays homage to, and recognizes the valuable life lost, in the person of Billie. The others will be able to return to home and move on--given a second chance, but Billie will go home to rest, with no second chances.
I have just finished this story and had to research about Crane's life. As you probably know the story is based on a horrible boating accident Crane endured. In his real life the oiler did drown and his name was Billy. It seems to make sense that the oiler in the story is given a name out of respect since the person he is based on lost his life in the accident.