A Mere Symbolic Plank: A Navy Ship Plankowner’s Perception


A burst of fireworks above amidships as the radars and equipment spring to life following the Vincennes being placed into commission on July 6, 1985 (image source: US Navy).

Not too long after the ship commissioned, crew members ordered these personalized mugs with “plankowner” beneath the ship’s crest.

As a navy veteran and a part of a ship’s commissioning crew (termed “plankowner”), by tradition, I am entitled to receive a piece of the deck planking when “my” ship is put out of service and dismantled or broken up. In the days when wood-planking was installed on the external (top-side) decks, sailors were actually eligible to receive a section of the teak wood decking material from the Navy Department when the ship was scrapped. Modern warships however, are devoid of wooden deck coverings having steel or aluminum surfaces covered with non-skid material and paint. In light of this, the Navy no longer provides plankowners with the mementos from their ships.

Since the Navy no longer provides sailors with planks, they are left to settle for the symbolic certificate and various paraphernalia (ship ballcaps, Zippo lighters, shirts, coffee mugs, etc.) that is emblazoned with “Plankowner.” Most sailors are satisfied with these representative pieces as reminders of their service aboard their ships, regardless of their synthetic importance. Some sailors still seek pieces of their ship as actual, tangible reminders of the vessels they spent years of their lives serving aboard. But there are challenges to acquiring actual pieces.

One of the plankowner items – a Zippo-brand belt buckle – is engraved with the ship’s name, hull number and “Plankowner” along with the image of the ship.

Ideally, when ships are stricken from the the Naval Vessel Register, they would be transferred from inactive maintenance storage locations to a ship recycling facility (a private company that is awarded a contract) for dismantling. The persistent plankowner (or collector) would then be able to work with the management at the scrapping facility to acquire a piece. In a perfect world, this scenario works nicely. However, nothing really works perfectly.

Not all decommissioned ships head for the scrapper’s cutting torch. Some ships are leased or sold to friendly nations. Some are used as sacrificial training targets, struck by an array of missiles and naval gunfire before finding their way to the ocean floor. Others were set in place (by way of explosive charges) as artificial reefs (a practice that was terminated in 2012 due to environmental concerns) providing habitat for marine life and attractive destinations for SCUBA divers. Obtaining a piece of the ship in any of these instances is next to impossible. Collectors seeking to remove a piece of a reef ship might want to check the local laws to ensure that they won’t be facing legal issues for such an activity.

The navy ship on which I served (for the first sea tour of my career) was decommissioned in 2005 after slightly less than 20 years of service. Being present that day to see her crew physically disembark the vessel thereby effectively shutting her down, was a surreal experience for me. In those moments, I recalled two decades earlier when my shipmates and I walked from the pier, up the brow and to our stations and placing her into active service. The ship and I had come full circle. Walking her quiet and empty decks after the ceremony, I began searching for a piece that I could take with me – something significant yet small enough to conceal (sailors have a knack for the art of procurement), but there was virtually nothing to be had, save for a t-wrench for a sealed deck-drain and an monkey-fist from the flag bag in the signal bridge (both pieces found their way into my camera bag).

Fresh from the shipping box, the mast light still needed cleaning. The original wiring can be seen protruding from the electrical fitting.

In the seven years since her decommissioning, I was finally able to connect with a person with ties to the ship breaker contracted by the Navy to dispose of the ship (the ship was dismantled from 2010-2011). The person I contacted afforded me the opportunity to acquire a piece with significance – one of the ship’s mast lights. This particular light had been mounted on the ship’s foremast providing a nighttime visual navigation element for other ships’ crews to observe. Having been a lookout watch-stander early in my career, I recall looking up to see the forward light glowing overhead as we steamed through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Though my light has no physical markings indicating that it was actually taken from my ship, I do have provenance (from the person who provided me the with the light) to connect the light to the Vincennes. Cast entirely from bronze, the piece is considerably stout, weighing north of 25 pounds. I re-wired the fixture to accommodate a residential 110-volt current (including a dimmer) and hope to have it mounted to a wooden base. The finishing touch will be to affix the light base with a brass plate complete with engraved with details of the ship. In its new life, the mast light will continue to provide light and serve as a reminder of the once proud ship on which it served.

 

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Here’s an Idea…Visit a Memorial or Monument for Memorial Day This Year!


One of the most shocking areas to visit in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is the memorial to those who were missing in action or were lost in naval battles and were either buried at sea or went down with their ships or aircraft. “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God. | * indicates Medal of Honor award.”

Historically, when I wrote an article regarding Memorial Day, I would publish it during that weekend or as close to the actual day as possible. I chose to take a slightly different approach with today’s post as I am hopeful that I can perhaps influence one or more readers to depart from the weekend getaway plans for camping, fishing, boating, hiking, etc. altering them to include an activity that would cause them to remember and reflect upon their own freedom and that for some American families, this particular holiday is but a painful reminder of the cost of freedom.

An airman poses next to a wrecked American Sherman tank on the shore of Saipan in 1944. This tank remains in place, nearly 75 years later.

When the guns fall silent and the now grizzled and weary combat veterans return home from war, time begins to erode the harsh realities the combatants lived and breathed on the field of battle. As the memories become distorted and faded, faces of those lost in combat are difficult to recall. Though, for many the scars never heal. The battle remains as vivid and crisp throughout the decades. But for the citizens who remained on the home-front, all is easily forgotten.

On the now-silent battlefields of the world wars, reminders can still be found even as the surrounding environment engulfs and enshrouds them. On land and in the surrounding waters of some South Pacific islands, visitors can still locate relics of war. Artillery shells and plane crash sites dot the landscape in places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu. Carcasses and hulks of tanks and AMTRACs (amphibious armored tracked vehicles or LVTs) remain partially or entirely submerged in the reefs of Saipan and Tarawa. But these are far from permanent or honoring remembrances.

The Guadalcanal American Memorial was dedicated in 1992 as a tribute to American and Allied troops who lost their lives in the Guadalcanal Campaign. (Image courtesy of Solomons Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust)

Throughout the many years and decades following the American Civil War, veterans were drawn, compelled by lingering painful memories, returning to the battlefields to retrace their bloody footprints and to reunite with others from their units who were following their own compulsions. By the early 1900s, full-blown reunions were happening in places like Gettysburg as once youthful, sworn enemies came together as aged friends. These old veterans, motivated by their efforts decades earlier, began raising funds with the idea to erect monuments and memorials to commemorate their units’ deeds and to remember those lost during the conflict. Today, there are countless monuments located at the various battlefield sites as well as spread throughout the nation, particularly within the participating states.

The final resting place for the majority of the men who were killed at the Little Big Horn battlefield site is marked with this granite obelisk which contains the names of the men who are interred beneath it.

As the United States has sent men (and women) off to war throughout the last century, the tradition of erecting memorials and monuments has continued both on foreign soil (with local consent and cooperation) and domestically. With the assistance of the military, the American Battle Monuments Commission, state and local governments,  and various veteran service organizations, monuments have been erected in all fifty states as well as within several U.S. territories. 

I make a point of locating local monuments to remind myself that the statistics that are easily found on the internet are more than that to the people of their hometowns. Names etched in stone or cast in bronze are reminders of the very personal cost of war. Sons (and now daughters) who will never return home to their families and loved ones – their names are displayed that we will never forget.

Some local monuments have national significance as they are symbols of the rally-cries – “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember the Arizona!” – that took us to war. In San Antonio, the Alamo mission is faithfully preserved. At Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial sits astride the sunken ship, recalling the Day of Infamy. In my hometown, a small, nearly forgotten memorial stands as a reminder of war that most of my generation have no knowledge of.

“Remember the Maine!”
In a local park, there stands a small pedestal holding a ten-inch naval gun shell that was removed from the sunken armored cruiser, USS Maine (ACR-1).  The sinking of the ship was an impetus that vaulted the United States into a war with Spain, two months later (though the cataclysmic explosion that that destroyed the Maine remains a mystery that some experts believe could have been merely a crew-caused mishap or accident).

At my city’s War Memorial Park (interestingly, the Maine monument is not located here), a large bell hangs with the name of a navy ship and the date of which the ship was commissioned, cast into its face. Very few details are known about this ship, only that it was a protected cruiser and that it was lost when it became entrapped on a reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico, breaking apart in a heavy storm. The ship, named for this city, was commissioned in 1903 and served in World War I, ran aground lodging herself on a reef as it approached the port in 1924. Some suspect that the navigation aids marking the channel had been moved by Mexican revolutionaries. The commanding officer of the ship, Captain Herbert G. Sparrow, gave his life, refusing to leave the ship, hopeful that the USS Tacoma could be saved. Along with the captain, four radiomen lost their lives while the rest of the crew had been evacuated under the orders of the captain.

Some collectors I know, spend lifetimes attempting to bring home the uniforms, medals and other militaria items as they assemble displays to honor their hometown heroes, utilizing the names etched on their local monuments.

This memorial Day, along with paying respects to those lives who were lost in service to our nation, I encourage you to locate the monuments and memorials in your local areas and pay a visit to at least one:

As you will note, the above list has nothing from the Korean or Vietnam wars as there are only a handful that exist throughout our country. As the planning for the Iraq and Afghanistan War memorial is planning and development (it was approved by Congress a few years ago), it seems that our nation is truly forgetting about those from the most recent conflicts and becoming increasingly indifferent towards service men and women and our veterans. Apathy and complacency becomes animosity and sadly our nation is already in the early stages of that transition.

Viewing the original mooring quay that the USS Arizona was tied to (when she was attacked) from within the memorial.

Collecting, preserving, researching and documenting military artifacts is another vehicle by which a small segment of the population honors those who served. This passion can serve to maintain the face of the veteran in conjunction with the sacrifice and service. Monuments and memorials provide communities with a focal point with which to assemble and remember the many generations of our fellow citizens who never returned home to their families. Memorial Day serving as a vehicle with which to re-center our citizens’ understanding of service and self-sacrifice and the very real cost of freedom.

I emphatically encourage Americans (natural born, naturalized and would-be citizens) to embrace this nation’s history. One of the best ways with which to learn about the sacrifices that were made throughout our nation’s founding and preservation is to visit the monuments and memorials dedicated to those who gave their last full measure of devotion that we all would live and cherish our freedom.

The USS Arizona Memorial is lighted at dusk with the USS Vincennes (CG-49) moored across the South Channel at Hotel Pier.

The original source of the cliche’ that is often repeated on Memorial and Veteran’s Day, “Freedom is not free,” seems to be author-less. However, it is my belief that the origins of that thought stem from yet another oft-recycled excerpt from a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson (on November 13, 1787 to William S. Smith):

“..what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Granted, Jefferson was referring to rebellion and revolution, however the sentiment applies to the restoration of freedom in foreign lands and the preservation of it for our own. The blood of patriots has been spilled since our nation was founded recommencing with the War of 1812 on through to present day. Standing on the hallowed battlefield grounds within our shores, once can gain a sense for the horrors of war an the sacrifices made by our great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.  This heritage belongs to all Americans, despite their nation of origin. Along with their freedom, they also inherit the history and legacy that is represented by the memorials and monuments found within our nation’s cemeteries, battlefields and public spaces, located domestically and abroad: American Battlefields and Monuments Commission: Cemeteries and Memorials.


Other related Veteran’s Collection articles:

Memorials and monuments references and resources:

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Enlisted Aviators: Naval Aviation Pilots and Insignia


One of collectors’ most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era (and prior), the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP).

In the past six months, news stories centered on the increasing pilot-shortage issues faced by the United States Air Force have been frequently published in the media ranging from the Military and Air Force Times to mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Fox News. With the severe cuts made to the armed forces in the last decade combined with retirements and a vibrant aviation industry, luring aviators from their Air Force careers to more financially lucrative civilian jobs, the stick and rudder vacancies are mounting leaving leadership to think creatively in order to fill the empty seats.

Not since World War II has the Air Force turned to the enlisted ranks to source candidates to pilot aircraft. In 2016, USAF leadership commenced a program to begin training (E-5 and up) enlisted drone pilots in an effort to free up experienced officers for candidacy as manned aircraft aviators. Leadership announced an expansion of the enlisted drone pilot program in January.

Utilizing enlisted personnel is certainly not a new idea for sourcing military aviator candidates. Both the Army and the Navy trained non-commissioned and petty officers as aviators prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. In fact, the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (the predecessor to the Flying Service which would become the Army Air Corps) was already engaged in training non-officer personnel as early as 1912, graduating the qualified men as Flying Sergeants. Similarly, the Navy graduated seven petty officers and two Marine Corps sergeants in 1916, launching the program that would evolve into the Naval Aviation Pilot rating.

Throughout WWI, enlisted pilot training continued for the Navy with flyers in ratings (Quartermaster and Machinist’s Mate) designated as aviators. A significant number of the enlisted aviators were offered and accepted commissions as naval officers while a few continued serving and flying as petty officers. In the years after the 1918 Armistice, the Bureau of Navigation (the command responsible for managing and training personnel) issued a policy that would incorporate enlisted and warrant officers as a standard practice for flight training. In a March 12, 1924 Bureau of Navigation Circular, the Navy officially established the rating of Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) for for Chief Petty Officers. As the program continued, the Navy expanded the NAP rating for first class petty officers in September of 1927.

With World War II in full swing and the shift from ship-to-ship fighting became secondary to over-the-horizon, aviation-based offensive tactics expanded the need for pilots exponentially. The Bureau of Navigation further expanded the ratings for NAP to include second and third class petty officers. During World War II, at least 2,200 NAPs earned their wings (according to Bluejackets.com). By 1948 when Congress discontinued the training program for enlisted naval aviation pilots, nearly 3,800 enlisted sailors had completed the training program since it was established. Though there would be no new NAPs  following  April 2, 1948, those existing in the rating who continued to serve on active duty, also maintained their rating and flight status in dwindling numbers. On January. 31, 1981, the last Navy enlisted pilot, ACCM Robert Jones (who had been designated in 1947) retired, closing the book on the  NAP rating and insignia.

One of the most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era is seemingly the Naval Aviation Pilot due to the decidedly high listing prices (some reaching upwards of $400). Whether people are actually paying these amounts is more difficult to determine.

The NAP rating badge consists of the Naval Aviator wings centered beneath the eagle and above the petty officer chevrons (and beneath the CPO arc).  When the mark was established in 1924, the thread-color specification for the winged insignia was gold (or yellow) to match the Naval Aviator gold wing device. In the Bureau of Personnel circular of 12 July 1944, the color of the mark was changed to align it with the all other rating badges (i.e. white thread on dress blues and blue thread on whites).

Aside from the color change of the mark, there are two design differences with the wings. Prior to World War II, the wings had a curved (some collectors call them “drooped”) appearance. Speculation among the collecting community suggest that the straight wing (that matches the appearance of the officer’s metal device) began making its way onto badges after 1942. In John Stacy’s invaluable resource, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885 -1982, the author references suggestions that the curved wing rating badge was used by naval personnel and the curved wing was adopted by Coast Guard NAPs, however provides a caveat that no supporting evidence exists.

I have seven NAP rating badges and photographed each to show both consistency and variation across the same era. All of these are from the 1940s – perhaps all are from WWII.

John Stacey’s referenced comments made by the last NAP, ACCM Robert Jones regarding the different colored wing marks in the rating badges. The “white ones,” Jones commented, ” were (found in) small stores, gold were PX” referring the sources of the different badges. Further comments made by Jones (in Stacey’s book) state that Jones was authorized to wear either the gold or white (colored) rating badge on his dress (blue) uniform when he attained his designation as an AP1/c.

Besides the winged insignia of the NAP, a specialist rating mark was also used for the Aviation Pilot rating. Originally established in 1942 for the Transport Airman rating, the “V” centered in a diamond insignia was re-purposed for the Aviation Pilot ratings for chief, first and second class petty officers from 1948 until it was disestablished in 1962 (BuPers Notice 1440, dated 29 December 1961; effective 1 March 1962).

Resources:

Discovering Rosalie: A French Model 1886 Lebel Bayonet Emerges from the Attic


The cruciform blade of the Lebel. The point on this bayonet is quite sharp and could easily penetrate the heavy wool fabrics of the era.

After a lengthy run of posts covering United States militaria, it seemed appropriate to take a side-jaunt with an attempt to shed a little light upon military artifacts from another nation’s armed forces. Considering my limited experience with foreign military in general and thus even less knowledge in their militaria, I am decidedly headed into uncharted territory with this article.

This site’s three subscribers (ok, there are considerably more, but I seldom field any questions or hear any sort of feedback from them so it can be difficult to discern the actual number) understand that my collection does have a few pieces of foreign militaria and that rather than me seeking and adding them to my archive, they were handed down to me from an uncle who liberated them as war souvenirs during his service in Word War II (he continued on active duty until 1954 having also served in the Korean War. His military career commended when he enlisted to serve during the Great War).

Stowed away inside of trunks since they were sealed in theater and shipped back to the United States following the German surrender, the artifacts hadn’t seen the light of day since May of 1945. In 1994 when the trunks were discovered and opened, I took on the task to identify and obtain valuations for what was inside, once my jaw was able to close after being awestruck by what we found. Following disposition of some of the more rare pieces, I kept what was unsold and remained in my possession. The majority of those artifacts were Third Reich military with a smattering of my uncle’s personal effects and one odd item (that is the focus of this article), a French Model 1886 Lebel Bayonet.

When French chemist Paul Vieille introduced Poudre B, the first smokeless gunpowder in 1884, he propelled (pun very much intended) small arms technology light-years ahead, helping to usher in a new era of rifle and bullet design. While Vielle’s Poudre B produced more explosive force (more than three times that of conventional black powder) at a significantly reduced rate, the Swiss Army’s Eduard Rubin was developing a new jacketed round that would prevent the bullet from melting (as it traversed the rifle barrel) at the higher velocities created by the new gunpowder. The result of these advances prompted French military leadership to fast-track a new infantry rifle that would leverage these advances. The result was the Lebel Model 1886 or Fusil Mle 1886 M93 rifle.

The Lebel bayonet’s handle is in fantastic condition having been stored away for more than 50 years. At the blade’s hilt are the letters “F” and “C” stamped into the metal.

While the Lebel rifle revolutionized infantry weapons, the accompanying bayonet was more inline with earlier , more antiquated designs. The Épée-Baïonnette Modèle 1886 bayonet employed a unique cross-shaped blade (when viewed from the point) which lacked sharpened edges, employing a lengthy point that was designed to penetrate the thick and heavy wool and leather uniforms of the day. The “Rosalie” as it was dubbed by the French, was in use from the 1880s to well into World War I. So popular was the weapon that it became the subject of adoration and lore, that French Poet Théodore Botrel‘s song, Rosalie was dedicated to the glory of “small French bayonets” and came to prominence in 1914 as World War I was ignited.

“Rosalie is elegant
Her sheath-dress tight-fitting,
Pour a drink!
Adorns her up to the neck
Let us drink then”

The Lebel bayonets were made with 20 ½ inch (52.7 cm) long blades, however they can be found in various lengths due to being re-pointed after tip-breakage during battlefield use. During the mid-1930s, many Lebel bayonets were modernized, reducing the length to be more comparable to newer designs and to reduce weight.

In their original design, the handle of the Lebel bayonets were constructed with a nickel-silver handle and a hooked quillion. However, mid-way through WWI (in 1916), conservation of precious metals for other war-uses led these parts being manufactured from brass. The hooked quillion was subsequently eliminated (during wartime production) as a result of battlefield feedback concerning it being cumbersome and easily ensnared on uniforms and accouterments when used on the enemy.

The length of the blade was well-suited for use at the end of a rifle, but as ready fighting knife in the trenches of WWI, it was awkwardly lengthy prompting many soldiers to cut down the blade length to a more stiletto-type thrusting knife.

As far as the collectibility of this bayonet is concerned, there are several schools of thought ranging from those who avoid the item due to its seemingly abundance and lower values to collectors who see it as a fine representation of weapons-history, worthy of display. A quick glance at online auction listings, prices (at this article’s publishing date), the prices range from $50-300 (with no bids on any of the 20+ items that are available). Obviously, condition, construction and completeness of the bayonet (inclusive of the scabbard and frog) will affect the value.

Collectors could expend a fair amount of their finances seeking out each of the known examples of the Épée-Baïonnette, however I will stand firm with retaining the sole example of Rosalie in my collection. For me, it has more meaning as it was something that my uncle brought back from his service overseas, though I have no insight into whether he acquired it during WWI or WWII.

A Piece of Naval History or Just Macabre?


President Theodore Roosevelt speaks at the 1906 re-interment service for John Paul Jones.

“The future naval officers, who live within these walls, will find in the career of the man whose life we this day celebrate, not merely a subject for admiration and respect, but an object lesson to be taken into their innermost hearts. . . . Every officer . . . should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.” President Roosevelt uttered these words (on April 24, 1906) within the confines of the United States Naval Academy at the re-interment of the of remains of the man who is known today as the father of the US Navy, Captain John Paul Jones.

Framing an artifact with historical context helps me (and hopefully readers of The Veteran’s Collection) to better understand the importance of an object or artifact. Rather than dive straight into an item, I find that setting the stage helps to provide perspective, so please bear with me.

As a militaria collector whose primary interest lies in US Navy artifacts, the idea of possessing anything from the Continental Navy is an aspiration that is almost too lofty to consider. The sheer scarcity of objects precludes ordinary collectors like me from pretense of forays into the Revolutionary-era collecting. Seeking out musket balls and powder horns from the Continental Army is one thing, but the minuscule number of patriot participants in the naval service (in comparison to that of the ground soldiers) equates to an incredibly limited volume of available artifacts for collectors.

Considering my financial position and the reality that just about any piece (that I would contemplate as being worthy of my interest) from the Revolutionary War is well out of my reach helps to keep me focused on artifacts that are both within my area of focus and budget constraints. However, on occasion, I do find myself wandering about through dealers’ internet sites and online auction listings from the 1775-1783 time-frame. Very seldom do I find anything that captures my attention which is something that happened not too long ago.

Engraving of the famous sea-battle involving John Paul Jones based on the painting “Action Between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard” by Richard Paton (published 1780).

“Paul Jones the pirate”, British caricature (engraving) of American naval commander John Paul Jones

In school, we learned about the famous exploits of Captain Jones (born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, he added the surname Jones after emigrating to the Virginia Colony in the 1770s) with the notable sea battles between his ships and those of the Royal Navy. His legendary response to the surrender inquiry (“Has your ship struck?”) by the enemy commander of the HMS Serapis (Captain Richard Pearson), “I have not yet begun to fight!” will forever be cited in U.S. Naval lore. But most American school children are not educated on what became of Jones following his war service and his ultimate untimely demise.

Following the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris that brought about peace between Great Britain and the newly established United States, the need for maintaining a navy was lost on (most) congressional members. By 1785, the Continental Navy was disbanded and the last ship (Alliance) was sold off. Jones found himself in Europe (assigned to collect prize money on behalf of Continental Navy privateer sailors) without a command. After a short stint serving Empress Catherine II of Russia as an admiral in the Russian navy (along with some controversial legal troubles), John Paul Jones retired to Paris at the ripe old age of 45 in 1790. Two years later, the great Revolutionary War captain was found dead in his Paris apartment having succumbed to interstitial nephritis.

Jones was buried in the French royal family’s cemetery (Saint Louis Cemetery) with considerable expense to M. Pierre François Simonneau, who was incensed that the American government wouldn’t render the honors due such a national hero at his passing. Simonneau said that if America “would not pay the expense of a public burial for a man who had rendered such signal services to France and America” he would pay (the large sum of 462 Francs) himself.

With the collapse of the Louis XVI’s monarchy soon after Jones’ death and burial, the cemetery was sold and after a few years was largely forgotten. Decades passed and John Paul Jones’ grave was lost to decay and years of neglect.

In 1897, General Horace Porter was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to France by President McKinley. Soon after his arrival in Paris, Porter took personal interest in the pursuit of Jones grave while gathering official and private documents (much of it was conflicting) pertaining to his death and burial.

“After having studied the manner and place of his burial and contemplated the circumstances connected with the strange neglect of his grave, one could not help feeling pained beyond expression and overcome by a sense of profound mortification. Here was presented the spectacle of a hero whose fame once covered two continents and whose name is still an inspiration to a world-famed navy, lying for more than a century in a forgotten grave like an obscure outcast, relegated to oblivion in a squalid corner of a distant foreign city, buried in ground once consecrated, but since desecrated by having been used at times as a garden, with the moldering bodies of the dead fertilizing its market vegetables, by having been covered later by a common dump pile, where dogs and horses had been buried, and the soil was still soaked with polluted waters from undrained laundries; and as a culmination of degradation, by having been occupied by a contractor for removing night-soil.”

After years of research, Porter was confident that he had narrowed down the approximate grave site location. In 1905, excavation work commenced as archaeologists began digging beneath a building that had been constructed over the cemetery. Upon unearthing a third coffin (they knew that Jones had been buried in a costly lead casket), the men opened it and found a well-preserved body that matched all the details of the man they sought. Porter wrote, “For the purpose of submitting the body to a thorough scientific examination by competent experts for the purpose of complete identification, it was taken quietly at night, on April 8, to the Paris School of Medicine (École de Médecine) and placed in the hands of the well-known professors of anthropology, Doctor Capitan and Doctor G. Papillault and their associates, who had been highly recommended as the most accomplished scientists and most experienced experts that could be selected for a service of this kind. I of course knew these eminent professors by reputation, but I had never met them.”

After careful examination, the physicians confirmed the identity (of the remains) as being that of the late Captain Jones. By August of 1905, the lead casket (which was placed inside a wooden casket) had arrived in the U.S. and was temporarily laid to rest at the US Naval Academy’s (USNA) Bancroft Hall during an April 24, 1906 ceremony. Jones’ body remained in this location while his final resting place was constructed beneath the USNA chapel. Upon completion of the elaborate and ornate crypt in 1913, the naval hero of the American Revolution was laid to rest at his final location.

By now you might be wondering why I am going to such great length in describing what happened with the naval hero of the American Revolution and what the possible context is regarding militaria. While perusing an online auction site, I stumbled upon a listing pertaining to Captain Jones.

RARE FATHER OF US NAVY JOHN PAUL JONES LOCK OF HAIR DOCUMENTED BY AUTOPSY DR” – Auction listing title

As I scanned through the various images detailing the different facets included with the piece it began to sink in that the auction lot was highly bizarre and extremely unique (if not macabre). Though seller made a minute attempt to fully describe what the item within the listing, he (or she) opted instead to let the incredibly small images (low resolution, no less) makeup for the lack of details within the text.

The rather large framed John Paul Jones group has the lock of his hair prominently displayed among the provenance and images (source: eBay image).

From appearances, the lot contained a lock of the Captain’s hair that had supposedly been removed by one of the physicians who performed the 1905 post-exhumation autopsy. Accompanying the lock (which was bound with a ribbon) was the doctor’s hand-written note regarding how he obtained the piece. Along with these two pieces is another handwritten note inscribed by the man who purchased the hair (“H. H. Strigley”) from the physician in January, 1926.

“Lock of hair of John Paul Jones, founder of the United States Navy. Taken by Dr. Georges Papillault during the autopsy on the remains of Jones. Paris, France 1905” (source: eBay image).

While this listing certainly piqued my interest, I’d shudder at the idea of forking over $3,500 (which I don’t happen to have available) without performing the necessary due diligence in verifying the documentation trail (or maybe a DNA test of the hair would be in order?). Taken at face value, the item would be a fantastic acquisition and quite the conversation piece for naval collectors.

While there is reason to question the validity of such an item, to the right collector, this John Paul Jones group would make a great investment. Perhaps the provenance documents are traceable and can establish enough proof (a hand-writing analysis of the note purportedly drafted by Dr. Papillault)?