Search Results for uss vincennes
Patrolling For USS Vincennes Veterans: A Subtle Naval Aviator Find
In reviewing the archive of previous articles on this site, it is becoming apparent to me that a few trends have truly taken shape with both the subject matter and the items that I have been pursuing for my collection. Specializing or focusing one’s collection helps provide direction, structure and boundaries for pursuits that will empower collectors to have discipline when “cool” pieces or “good deals” surface but are outside of the lines. As has been previously recommended, focusing prevents collectors from being overwhelmed and crowded-in with too many items. Perhaps readers can already determine the direction of this article without reading further and maybe those who choose to continue from this point will be rewarded with a compelling story or information about a piece.
I make no secrets about the sort of pieces that I pursue with my collecting interests and I am reminded constantly by friends, family and colleagues that I have been effective in communicating my activities. When I received a private message from a collector colleague regarding an auction listing that detailed a uniform item from a naval aviator who had served aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) before World War II, I was compelled to check into the auction. When I attempted to access the link to the auction listing that accompanied the message, the listing had closed, though without a bid being submitted.
The item shown in the listing was a naval officer’s service dress blue uniform jacket. The sleeve cuffs were each adorned with three, same-sized gold bullion stripes, indicating that the original owner held the rank of a line officer commander. On the left breast of the jacket is a custom-made ribbon bar that told of the officer’s service which included duty before, during and after World War II (through the Korean War). Inside the right side of the jacket, the Naval Uniform Shop – Brooklyn label with the name, “J. Ramee” along with the date that it was either ordered or made (November 8, 1955). The tailor’s information specifying the customer’s request is imprinted on the label (in addition to the commander’s name and possibly his service number): blue gaberdine material and including customized aviator’s wings and ribbons – both secured in place. All of the information on the label matched the construction of the jacket with one significant exception, the lack of aviator’s wings.
A close inspection of the photos within the listing reveals the ghost-imprint of the former placement of bullion wings which where, quite obviously removed by a militaria collector in search of a quick profit. While the uniform jacket has some monetary value to militaria collectors, those who specialize in the adornments (collar devices, warfare devices such as wings, combat badges, etc., medals and ribbons and sleeve insignia) seldom desire a full uniform (or the commitment to preservation and storage such pieces require) for their collection. This “Ramee” jacket was quite obviously chopped for its most valuable element.
What drew my attention to the uniform jacket was the same aspect that led my collector colleague to reach out to me regarding the listing. A cursory search for information regarding Commander J. Ramee produced fantastic results. Besides Ramee being a very unique name (the only one listed in the Naval Officers Registers during the period of time in which this man served was John Ramee), it was one of his earliest assignments that stood out to me – he served aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) from 1937-38 soon after earning his aviator’s wings. This aspect certainly piqued my interest in the jacket however that was quickly tempered by the fact that the auction had already closed prior to me viewing the listing. With prompting by my fellow collector and my wife, I sent an inquiry to the seller in an effort to determine availability and if there was a willingness to negotiate a mutually beneficial price. After an exchange of messages, the jacket was on its way.
Who was Commander John Ramee? I am compelled to research every item in my collection, especially those pieces that are tied to individuals. Before the jacket arrived, I proceeded to learn as much about this naval aviator as I could find. Through sources such as Ancestry, Google and my growing online archive of U.S. Naval Academy annuals (known as the “Lucky Bag”), I was able to gather a fair amount of information regarding Commander Ramee’s service.
John Francis Wyman Ramee entered flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1935 (he was in class 80) and graduated in 1936 with his wings of gold and was subsequently stationed aboard the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) as an aviator, flying the ship’s catapult-launched SOC Seagull scout float planes. Graduating as part of the United States Naval Academy’s class of 1933, Ensign Ramee was most-likely bitten by the flying bug while serving aboard his first ship, USS Saratoga (CV-3), the third United States aircraft carrier. It was aboard this ship where the young naval officer witnessed the Navy’s developing combat air tactics via the various Fleet Problems (these were essentially extensive war games) the Saratoga participated in. By the time Ramee was set to detach from the carrier, The Sara’s new commanding officer was Captain William “Bull” Halsey who most-likely would have signed his detaching orders.
As with his time aboard the lead ship in the heavy cruiser class (USS New Orleans), John Ramee flew the relatively new biplane scout aircraft, the Curtiss SOC Seagull which was affixed with a large, center-line float with outboard opposing outboard wing-mounted floats for stability during taxiing, take-offs and landings. The USS Vincennes carried four of the aircraft and, due to the fold-ability of the Seagulls’ wings, two could be stored in each of the ship’s two small hangars. Unsuccessful in locating specific details of Ramee’s assignment dates, it appears that he might have been present at the time of the ship’s commissioning (February 24, 1937). In a post-career (published after 1972) retrospective for the USS Wasp (CV/CVA/CVS-18), a summary of Ramee’s career noted his mentioning of the USS Vincennes’ post-shakedown cruise to the North Atlantic with port visits to Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland (the ship also visited Le Havre, France and Portsmouth, England) as highlights of his time aboard the CA-44.
With Ramee’s next duty assignment listed as VP-44 (most-likely a detachment that was then stationed at Seattle, WA) in 1939, I was reminded of a 1938-dated photo that I acquired years ago showing the bulk of the USS Vincennes’ crew positioned and posed in the after section of the ship. The large print is so clear that one can discern faces for most of the visible men in the photo. Armed with a photo taken from the 1933 Lucky Bag, I began to zoom into each officer in search of the pilot. After a cursory pass, one man in particular kept drawing my attention. Glancing down at his chest, an aviator’s wing pin is affixed to his left chest. Obviously, there is more to the facial recognition practice than I have experience with, but I am fairly certain that the man in the USS Vincennes crew photo is John Ramee.
Following his tour on the Vincennes, Ramee spent a few years attached to Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) which, according to his bio (in the USS Wasp book) was located in Seattle (most likely at Naval Air Station Sand Point), however, the squadron history states that it wasn’t established until 1941. A follow-on assignment for Ramee saw him flying with VP-33 detachment (based at NAS Coco Solo, Panama) during the Neutrality Patrols, leading up to the United States entry into World War II. With War raging in two theaters, Ramee spent time with different commands lending his time in different capacities (including temporary duty aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11) following her August 1943 commissioning.
For nearly two years, Lieutenant Commander Ramee served as an aviator and assistant air officer aboard the newly commissioned USS Wasp (CV-18) (note: Ramee’s bio mentions his receipt of a Navy Presidential Unit Citation ribbon though the Wasp was not awarded the decoration). His final wartime assignment was located back in the Pacific Northwest as part of the “Commissioning Detail” (pre-commissioning crew) serving as the air officer for the USS Commencement Bay (CVE-105) during her construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards at Tacoma, Washington, which was located on the shores of her namesake body of water.
John Ramee’s naval aviation career continued in the years following the end of the war with service at Naval Air Station Quonset and aboard the seaplane tender USS Abermarle (AV-5) serving as the ship’s operations officer and making a return to his roots. Promoted to the rank of commander in 1948, Ramee found himself serving overseas at Naval Air Base Guam followed by assignments with the Chief Intelligence Section in the Office of Petroleum Programs as well as with them munitions board of the Joint Petroleum before he finally retired in 1959, having served 26 years on active duty.
While my research trail for Commander Ramee has reached its end (there are deeper dives that can be done but they require additional resources) and I have essentially discovered enough about him to have a fairly decent overview of his naval career. One area of Ramee’s service (including his four years at Annapolis) that I had been hopeful to find surrounded athletics – specifically baseball. Commander Ramee coached and played basketball while at flight school in Pensacola and at NAS Quonset as well as being a highly competitive seniors tennis player in the late 1950s. Later in life, Ramee’s passion for flight never diminished as he owned and flew is own Stinson aircraft.
Curiosity combined with the desire to accurately document Commander Ramee’s service does fuel my compulsory desire to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request a summary of his service and awards in the near future. The discrepancy between Ramee’s awards and decorations affixed to his dress uniform and the mention of being awarded the PUC ribbon (which is absent from those on the jacket – see listing below) might indicate that there are other decorations that might be missing (such as an air medal).
- Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon
- American Defense Medal (with hole from missing device)
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal – WWII (7 campaigns)
- World War II Victory Medal
- National Defense Service Medal (Korean Wartime service)
- Philippine Liberation Medal – World War II
Besides Ramee’s own naval career, he comes from a family of servants to the nation. He was born on December 4, 1911 in the Philippines to Per Ramee, a Swedish immigrant (class of 1904, West Point) and Frances Ruth Wyman, the daughter of a Civil War veteran from Minnesota. At the time of John’s birth, John’s father, Per was a young officer serving in the U.S. Army. Per Ramee would serve and see action in both World Wars and would be joined in the armed forces by his three other children:
- Eric Per – Colonel, U.S. Army, West Point Class of 1935 (Silver Star Recipient, WWII)
- Ruth – Major, U.S. Army Air Forces, USAF (WWII, Korea)
- Paul Wyman, Colonel U.S. Army (WWII, Korea, Vietnam)
With the cold research trail, the remainder of Commander Ramee’s life will remain untold. A final mystery surrounding the retired naval aviator is the location of his final resting place. With all of his siblings and his parents accounted for, it seems somewhat odd that John would be, as of yet, the only one of Per and Frances Ramee’s children (the oldest and the last to pass away) to not be interred.
As soon as Commander Ramee’s jacket arrived, I began searching for a suitable replacement bullion wing to restore the jacket to its proper state. Another friend and collector colleague happened to be visiting the largest militaria convention in the United States (the Ohio Valley Military Society’s Show of Shows) which prompted me to reach out to see if he could source a suitable replacement on my behalf. After approximately an hour, three photos of bullion naval aviator wings were in my messenger app. A short time later, the wing that I selected was in my hands, ready to be placed on Ramee’s jacket (I can’t help but imagine another pilfered uniform jacket with a missing wing).
Perhaps this story isn’t a repeat after all and it merely shines a spotlight on a specific area in which I focus my collection. Commander Ramee was a naval aviator who served along with thousands of fellow naval aviators during WWII. He never earned a valor medal nor did he become an ace. Ramee fulfilled a lengthy career of service (30 years if one counts his four years at the Naval Academy) like millions of American young men and women have. What sets him apart for me is that he served two of those years aboard the namesake-cruiser that preceded my own. It is an honor to be the caretaker of his his uniform.
Gaultney Brothers Sacrifice; USS Arizona, Iwo Jima and the USS Vincennes
Retrospective-type articles that touch upon a central topic or theme are useful for both the reader and author, especially within sites such as The Veteran’s Collection as the pulling together of related content and subject matter can shed new light and expose facts that were overlooked or previously hidden. The negative aspects of self-promotion come to light when it is very obvious that authors have run out of ideas and, rather than to have aging content remain on the front or home pages of their sites, publish fluff in order to keep up the appearance of fresh content. Another reason could be to reflect upon old content while attempting to relevantly connect it to a current event.
If readers delve into the content of this site they would discover that navy-centric militaria outnumbers the articles published within this site the the better portion of those pieces focused upon a four ships bearing the same name. Within this author’s collection are a handful of artifacts from one of the four – the second ship – to carry the name Vincennes around the globe and into war. Although my collection does encompass artifacts associated with a few other ships (those vessels aboard which members of my family served), this particular warship holds special meaning and thus is at the center of my collection focus.
Commissioned in 1937, the New Orleans Class heavy cruiser (classified as such due to her main battery consisting of eight inch guns) USS Vincennes (CA-44) plied the peacetime seas for more than four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Despite the elapsed time since she was placed into service, many of her crew at the start of World War II were plankowners (they were part of the original crew, present at the time of commissioning) though personnel turnover was occurring and a steady rate. New crew members were replacing veterans whose enlistments were ending or were rotating to different commands. Wartime manning requirements, impacted by combat operations, increased for many vessels by as much as twenty percent.
For the aging USS Arizona (BB-39), the near 2,300-man crew was proud that their ship carried the flag of Commander Battleship Division One, Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Arizona had been serving the U.S. Navy for more than 25 years having been placed into commission in 1916; though she never fired her massive 14-inch guns at an enemy target – not even during World War I. Three-and-a-half weeks after Thanksgiving Day in 1941, the losses of WWII would begin to touch American lives throughout the country.
In late March of 1945 in the small town of Le Roy located in McLean County, Illinois which lies just north of dead-center of the state (about 140 miles southeast of Chicago), the small farming town was feeling the economic effects of the war with rationing in full swing and a large percentage of the area’s young, able-bodied men serving and fighting in far-off lands. Le Roy’s lone celebrity, Broadway star Betty Jane Watson (cousin of Jean Stapleton of 1970s television’s All in the Family fame) gained attention in the previous year playing the role “Gertie” in Oklahoma! and was now working as singer, performing (singing) with with bands in Chicago. Le Roy was a fairly quiet and peaceful town as families awaited word from their sons, fathers, brothers and uncles who were serving in the European and Pacific theaters, hopeful of good news.
At the home of William Gaultney that March, things may have been quiet for the farmer-turned-road-construction worker’s family as an ominous word arrived from the War Department. From an island that until February 19, 1945 very few, if any, Americans had ever heard of, word made its way to Mr. Gaultney, via the Secretary of the Navy that his second youngest son, Private First Class David J. Gaultney was killed in combat on Iwo Jima. Nineteen year-old David was serving with “A” company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Third Marine Division) having transferred to the unit weeks before (in January) as a replacement rifleman as the unit was rearming and refitting following their heavy combat operations on Guam in late July-early August of 1944. David J. Gaultney enlisted in April of 1944 and attended recruit training in San Diego that same summer before transferring to the Sixth Replacement Draft in preparation to serve in the Pacific. David turned 19 in October as he was training to fight in the Pacific but his life would be cut short four months later. David’s father was left to grieve without his wife, Nellie who had passed away (at age 54), just 25 months earlier, afflicted by heartbreak due to the heavy toll her family had already suffered in the War.
For William Gaultney, the notification of David’s loss on Iwo Jima was nothing new and one can assume that when the telegram arrived, the hesitation to open it eleven months after his son, David left for service in the Marine Corps was near-crippling for him, considering the two previous notifications that were sent to his home by the War Department, starting with word from Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The scene portrayed on screen in the film, Saving Private Ryan as the U.S. Army car kicks up a dust cloud as it proceeds up the Ryan family farm road with Mrs. Ryan understanding what was coming; something terrible had happened to (perhaps her thoughts regarding) one of her sons. Instead, she is gripped with anguish, dropping to the porch as she reads the note handed to her by the Army officer telling her that three of her four sons had perished in combat. While the Gaultney family weren’t hit with such a magnitude as was shown in the film. However, Mrs. Gaultney suffered through two losses in less than a year with her oldest son, succumbing to his wounds (on Christmas Eve, 1941) that he sustained aboard his ship, the USS Arizona (BB-39) on December 7.
Ralph Martin Gaultney was the second of William and Nellie Gaultney’s children to enlist to serve in the armed forces. Ralph joined the Navy on January 16, 1940, nearly two years before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Following his training, Ralph reported aboard the aging battleship on the eve of Fleet Problem XXI (the 21st in the series of large scale naval exercises conducted since 1923 and shifted to the Hawaiian waters in 1925) and would serve aboard the ship during her overhaul (in Bremerton, WA) from late 1940 to early 1941 when Admiral Isaac Kidd hoisted his flag aboard the ship (Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh assumed command of the ship in February). The last time that Gunners Mate Third Class Ralph Gaultney would put to sea with the ship was just days before the attack. Twenty one year old Gaultney would linger for two weeks his ship was destroyed, succumbing to his wounds on December 24. Though Ralph was oldest son (there were seven children; four sons and three daughters) and the first of the Gaultney boys to perish, he wasn’t the first to join the military.
Machinist’s Mate 1/c Leonard Gaultney had been serving in the Navy since he enlisted on September 1, 1938. Following his training, he reported aboard one of the Navy’s newest New Orleans Class heavy cruisers, the USS Vincennes (CA-44) while she was undergoing an overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in east San Francisco Bay. Having been in commission since February 24, 1937, most of the ship’s company that were present with Gaultney had been there for two years and were plankowners. When Vincennes left Mare Island, she made her way back to the Atlantic Fleet (via the Panama Canal) to serve in Neutrality Patrols as well as to retrieve some of France’s wealth (gold) for safe storage in the United States in anticipation of a German invasion. Leonard Gaultney’s ship paid a visit to Cape Town South Africa to receive yet another large shipment of gold (this time as a payment) from the United Kingdom as compensation for arms in support of their war against Germany and Italy (WWII). When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, (then) Machinist Mate 2/c Gualtney’s ship was escorting a British convoy to South Africa, arriving two days later. In March of 1942, Vincennes arrived in San Francisco to join Task Force 18 and would escort USS Hornet and USS Enterprise to Japan for Colonel Doolittle’s air strike on Tokyo in April of 1942. With Japan still on the offensive, Leonard Gaultney would see action in the Battle of Midway as she screened the USS Yorktown, fighting off the Japanese air attacks. By August of 1942, USS Vincennes escorted the amphibious forces carrying the First Marine Division to the Solomon Islands. On the morning of August 7, Gaultney heard the main batteries of Vincennes commencing the shore bombardment in preparation for landing the Marines on Guadalcanal’s beachhead. During the day, Vincennes’ 5-inch and 40mm guns shot down a “Betty” bomber that was part of a Japanese air strike on the American ships landing the troops.
Sunrise in the waters between the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Savo would be MM1/c Gaultney’s last along with 331 of his USS Vincennes shipmates. That evening, the group of ships protecting the northern approach to Tulagi and Savo Islands (consisted of USS Astoria CA-34, USS Quincy CA-39 and HMAS Canberra) were caught by surprise when a Japanese cruiser task force commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa came upon them in the dark of night (at 01:55 am). Highly trained and proficient in night combat, the Japanese attacked and within minutes had all four ships heavily damaged, burning and sinking after opening fire with guns and Long Lance (Type 93) torpedoes. Vincennes sustained massive hits from the Japanese cruisers setting her on fire and presenting an even easier target for the IJN torpedomen to aim for. Vincennes was struck by two Type 93 torpedoes near her main spaces and she began to take on water. Fifty-five minutes later, USS Vincennes disappeared beneath the waves (at 02:50). It is not clear whether MM 1/c Gaultney made it into the water or went down with the ship though the latter is more likely considering his work space was struck by one of the torpedoes. The resulting explosion and ensuing flooding made it nearly impossible for the men who managed the propulsion systems to survive the damage let alone escape.
Some time after receiving the official notifications from the Navy (or War) Department, Mr. and Mrs. Gaultney would have been presented with their sons’ posthumous decorations (which were, most likely Purple Heart Medals). A third medal would have been presented to Mr. Gaultney in 1945 leaving him with three engraved medals – one for each son. Hopefully, all three medals have remained within the family, handed down and preserved to ensure that the memories of each of the Gaultney boys and the immense sacrifice made by this family is never forgotten. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the family to have let go of the pain of terrible loss by divesting the reminders or simply tucking them away from sight. Under such circumstances, families have been known to give Purple Heart medals (PHM) away, sell or even discard them. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the Gaultney medals are preserved as part of a militaria collection.
Collecting artifacts such as Purple Heart medals from service members who were killed in action is not something that interests many collectors due to the sensitive nature of the pieces and the pain and suffering (for both the one who was lost and their surviving family members) that is represented with the decorations. Though I have personal awards and decorations from sailors who served aboard the Vincennes, the pieces that I have are from two men who survived and the medals are not PHMs.
Several years ago, I was able to land a small group from a sailor, Fireman Third Class Charles Henry Findlay, who served aboard the heavy cruiser Vincennes from March of 1941 and survived its sinking. The two pieces in the group include one of his decorations, the American Defense Service Medal (ADSM) and a liberty card issued to the young sailor. One aspect of this group that collectors must keep in mind is that the ADSM is not engraved or marked with the recipient’s name (they are never personalized) which makes this particular medal difficult to prove that it was specifically awarded to Findlay.
What became of Fireman Findlay after being rescued from the waters that would be dubbed, “Iron Bottom Sound?” He, along with more than 50 of his USS Vincennes shipmates, were assigned to the USS Santa Fe (CL-60), a Cleveland Class light cruiser that was commissioned in November of 1942.
Though the aged and worn Navy Good Conduct Medal (NGCM) has been long separated from its suspension, drape and brooch, this medal, awarded to Seaman First Class William John Wennberg in 1939 is a great piece for my USS Vincennes (CA-44) collection. Seaman Wenneberg enlisted into the Navy on October 8, 1935 from his hometown in Chicago, Illinois, though he shown reporting aboard the Vincennes on February 24, 1937 (which corresponds with the ship’s commissioning date making him a plankowner), sixteen months after his navy career began. No muster sheets are available for Wennberg which makes his career path difficult to track until he shows up again as he reported to Receiving Ship New York on December 13, 1941, the day after he began his second enlistment. It appears that he spent a few years out of the Navy, living in New York (according to records discovered on Ancestry) and was married. Wennberg was assigned to another cruiser, USS Columbia (CL-56), the second ship of the Cleveland Class light cruisers. William Wennberg remained a seaman (equivalent to today’s E-3) from 1937 until 1945 (except for his two year break in service) when he was serving aboard the new heavy cruiser, USS Bremerton (CA-130) when he was rated as a Ship’s Serviceman Laundry 1/c.
An interesting aside, both Findlay and Wennberg served aboard Cleveland Class light cruisers following their time aboard the Vincennes. Though the coincidence isn’t that significant, the Navy chose to return the name Vincennes to the Pacific as leaders re-named the under-construction USS Flint (CL-64) to USS Vincennes, the tenth light cruiser of the 27 Cleveland Class warships. “Vincennes” and hundreds of her survivors were surviving crew were back in the fight.
For the Gaultney family, the war was over with their notification of David’s death on Iwo Jima though the grief from their terrible loss would never cease. In December of 2018, a pair of Illinois state republicans (state Senator Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Representative Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth) sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 65 which was to name the portion of I-74 that runs through Le Roy, Illinois the Gaultney Brothers Memorial Highway. The resolution passed unanimously in both the Illinois Senate and House, as reported by the Pantograph newspaper on December 31st.
Collecting, for me, focuses upon telling the story of those who can no longer do so for themselves. Preserving and displaying along with researching and documenting artifacts from service men and women helps to preserve their memories as does renaming a stretch of well-traveled highway does.
- Paper and Postcards – Telling a More Complete Military Story
- Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors
- Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece
- A Legacy: Vincennes Wardroom Silver
USS Vincennes Under the Microscope
Those who know me on a personal basis understand my affinity for a specific U.S. naval warship. Technically speaking, that interest lies with four combatant vessels, all of which were named to honor the site of a Revolutionary War battle (more accurately, a campaign) that ended the British assaults on the remote Western colonial front. That location in present-day Southwestern Indiana would later become the seat of the Northwest Territorial government in the town of Vincennes.
My connection to this ship’s name extends all the way back to the place of my birth which was also the location of the commencement of an extensive 1840 charting survey of Puget Sound (in Washington State). Locations and geographical features surrounding my home were named by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (commander of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842) and members of his team when the sloop of war, USS Vincennes (along with other ships of the expedition) was in the Sound. I can even cite some Baconesque connections with great, great, great-grandfather who served in the Ringgold Light Infantry (after he was discharged from his cavalry regiment following a disabling injury). The Ringgold name was inherited from Samuel Ringgold, Expedition-member Cadwalader’s older brother (yes, I realize that this is very convoluted).
My personal connection (to the ships named Vincennes) was solidly established when I was assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the CG-49. During the first several months (leading toward the 1985 commissioning date), like many of my shipmates, I was exposed to the history of the ship’s namesake and established personal relationships with veterans of the WWII cruisers of the same name. Collecting items from “my” ship was purely functional in that I was proud to purchase t-shirts, lighters, ball caps and other items (from the ship’s store) that bore the name or the image of the ship’s crest. Many of the items I purchased in those days proudly remain in my collection while a few did manage to fade away.
I am constantly on the lookout for artifacts that are connected to these ships (the heavy cruiser: CA-44, the light cruiser: CL-64) and occasionally, some quality pieces (beyond the plethora of typical postal covers) surface on the market. Fortunately, I have been successful in obtaining a few of these items, though the competition has been fierce. The ones that got away were quite stunning.
The infrequency of appearances of pieces from the two WWII cruisers pales in comparison to anything related to the 19th Century sloop-of-war. During the past decade of searching for anything related to the USS Vincennes, I have only seen one item connected to the three-masted warship. While searching a popular online auction site, a rather ordinary, non-military item showed up in the search results of one of my automated inquiries. The piece, a wood-cased field microscope from 1830-1840, bore an inscription that connected it to the assistant botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition, William Dunlop Brackenridge.
Admittedly, I am not in the least bit interested in a field microscope as militaria collector, but the prospect of owning such a magnificent piece that would have been a fundamentally important tool used during the United States first foray into exploration was an exhilarating thought. At its core, the goal of the (1838-1842) U.S. Ex. Ex. was to chart unknown waters, seek the existence of an Antarctic continent and discover and document unknown species of flora and fauna. Brackenridge’s field microscope would have been a heavily used item as he and his assistants would most-certainly examine the various characteristics of plant species at a microscopic level.
Authenticity and provenance is certainly a major concern when purchasing a piece like this and the listing made no mention of any materials or means to verify the claim. However, in searching for similar microscopes, there was sufficient comparative evidence to support the time-frame in which the Brackenridge instrument was made. The box and the engraving seems to be genuinely aged and appears to resemble what one would find from a 170 year old example.
In my opinion, the investment was well-worth the risk and I was poised to make my maximum bid (invariably draining my discretionary savings) knowing that the closing price would exceed what I could ultimately afford. The auction closed with the winning bid ($810.58) exceeding my funds by a few hundred dollars, though I suspect that the winner had a far higher bid in place to guarantee victory.
I am a realist yet remain hopeful that I won’t have to wait another decade before another sloop-of-war piece comes to market.
A Legacy: Vincennes Wardroom Silver
More than three months into The War, the United States was reeling from suffering substantial and demoralizing losses at Pearl Harbor and again in the Sunda Strait (with the loss of the USS Houston CA-30). The U.S. was in dire need of stopping the bleeding and gaining a moral victory in order to build momentum for what was to become a nearly half-decade long war.
When the keel of the (then, future) USS Vincennes (CA-44) was laid, she was the pride of the small, Southwestern Indiana town of the same name. The citizens embraced her and her future crew, adopting the men who would serve aboard her as their own sons. When she was christened (launched), the daughter (Miss Harriet Virginia Kimmell) of the city’s mayor broke the ceremonial bottle of champagne on her bow, officially naming the heavy cruiser. More than two years later when the ship was commissioned and placed into service (February 24, 1937), the citizens raised funds to purchase and present a gift, a silver tea and coffee service, to the officers of the ship.
With the outbreak of war and the peacetime navy morphing to address the combat needs, USS Vincennes transferred from her home fleet duties within the Atlantic Ocean to augment the Pacific fleet following the losses suffered in the opening days and weeks of the war. As part of readying the ship for service against the Japanese, the Vincennes paid a visit to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, in San Francisco Bay for additional combat upgrades. In conjunction with the changes being made to the ship, the compliment of officers and men was being increased and with space being a premium and the probability of combat engagement with the enemy being almost certain, the silver service and other items were removed from the ship and placed into storage for the duration of the war.
Soon afterward, the Vincennes would take part in some of the most pivotal actions in an effort to stem the Japanese Eastward expansion beginning with the Doolittle Raid, (aiding in the aftermath of) the battle of Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway and the US Marines’ first offensive, Guadalcanal. On the evening of the 2nd night of the landings, the Vincennes would sustain hundreds of Japanese naval gunfire hits and being pierced by the enemy’s Long Lance torpedoes, leaving a blazing, sinking inferno.
Five decades later, the surviving veterans of the lost cruiser would be instrumental in ensuring that the name of their beloved lost ship would be carried to sea aboard a modern cruiser of the Ticonderoga class. At her commissioning in 1985, the city of Vincennes would once again gift the preserved silver service to their newest ship, the USS Vincennes (CG-49) to be used by the officers and visiting dignitaries and guests throughout her twenty-year life.
Upon her decommissioning in 2005, the silver service was returned to the city where it is now displayed and cared for. Perhaps one day, another ship will bear the name Vincennes and the set will serve the officers of a new generation of the adopted sons and daughters of the southwest Indiana city.
Mending a Damaged Heart: Gunner McKinney’s Posthumous Purple Heart Medal
Under the cover of early morning darkness on August 7, 1942, John Harris McKinney, Jr., was at his 5-inch gun mount aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) as she steamed slowly in a column formation along the northern coast of the largest southeastern-most island in the Solomons. Reports poured over the sound-powered phones in rapid succession to the bridge-talker relaying manning status of the ship’s crew at their battle stations. When the order to commence firing was given, the ship was rocked as massive fireballs grew rapidly and extended some 50-yards outward as the first shells left the barrels as the large 8-inch projectiles sped towards their targets on shore positions.
Vincennes and her sister New Orleans Class cruisers, USS Astoria and USS Quincy were joined by the heavy cruiser USS Chicago and other ships as the naval guns fired away to soften the enemy positions on Guadalcanal. The naval gunfire bombardment was in advance of sending waves of landing craft that would place the men of the First Marine Division onto the Guadalcanal beach between Koli and Lunga Points.
While the Vincennes’ main batteries sent volley after volley onto Guadalcanal targets, McKinney, was scouring the darkened skies, anticipating the arrival of enemy aircraft. John H. McKinney was a former enlisted man who was appointed to the rank of Warrant Officer (W-1) on January 6, 1941, a little more than a month prior to reporting aboard Vincennes after spending the first of his prior nine years as a fire controlman. The 5-inch mount where McKinney was assigned was one of the ship’s eight guns that were primarily used to provide anti-aircraft protection. It was not long after sunrise that the Imperial Japanese Mitsubishi G4M2a Model 24 “Betty” bombers from Rabaul appeared on the horizon after their nearly 700-mile flight and began to wreak havoc on the landings.
As the Japanese Betty bombers pressed their low altitude attack at just 25-50 above the surface of the water, some enemy planes were successful in penetrating the onslaught of fire from the ship. Dodging enormous splashes from the rounds that impacted the surface of the water ahead of the aircraft, Vincennes managed to avoid hits from the attackers’ aerial bombs as well as a torpedo. Vincennes’ gunners were accurate, downing eight enemy bombers during the two days while providing protective support of the First Marine Division’s landings.
When Vincennes was first painted by the bright searchlights from the cruisers and destroyers of Japanese Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force on August 9, just before 2:00 AM, main battery gun crews were immediately ordered to fire on the source. A split-second after the blinding muzzle flash from Vincennes 8-inch batteries began to dissipate and crews’ eyes started to readjust to the darkness, the ship was rocked by the sudden impact of enemy projectiles and subsequent explosions as the deadly accuracy of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s gunners took an immediate toll on the American cruiser. “The first Jap hit smashed our sky aft [rear ranged finder] to pieces,” Electrician’s Mate 3/c Milton A. Schneller of Chicago, Illinois described the attack. “Then we took a torpedo right in our guts and shuddered again” the sailor described the onslaught to an Associated Press reporter.
Almost immediately as the enemy shells began to strike the ship, a pair of torpedoes fired from the Japanese cruiser Chōkai struck Vincennes and crippled her with heavy damage and flooding amidships. Fires broke out in the ship’s hangers as the four Curtis SOC scout planes along with the aviation fuel stores giving the enemy gunners a perfectly illuminated target. “Another direct hit and all lights went out. Shells and torpedoes, meanwhile, were coming fast. Number one fire room was hit directly after (to the rear) of us,” Schneller recalled the enemy onslaught, months later.
As salvo after salvo of enemy fire pounded the American cruiser, Vincennes’ gunners did manage to score a hit on the cruiser Kinugasa damaging her rudder machinery. “We kept getting hit. Men up on the sky control (located high up on the ship’s superstructure) kept dropping. They were scattered around the decks,” Schneller described the horror in the October 12, 1942 article. “One of the officers went to take some of the men from [to] a sick bay, but there wasn’t any sic bay left. It had got a direct hit.” A third torpedo fired from the cruiser Yūbari struck Vincennes and dealt her the blow that spelled her end
In under 20 minutes, Vincennes had taken more than 100 hits and three torpedoes as the Japanese task force ceased their attack and turned northwest, back towards New Guinea having decimated the two allied naval groups protected the Guadalcanal approaches. Vincennes was dead in the water, listing and engulfed in flames. Carnage was everywhere. Recounting the attack six decades later, one surviving veteran remembered the decks being slick with blood and strewn with debris and body parts from his shipmates. The pilothouse where the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Riefkohl was positioned before the attack was obliterated by naval gunfire though he survived the destruction.
The ship was without power as Captain Riefkohl issued the order to abandon ship. Many men struggled to make their way to a point where they could safely leave the ship. Sailors attempted to open hatches and scuttles to allow trapped men to escape the burning and sinking ship. Some entered below decks spaces and were successful in locating wounded men bringing them to the ship’s exterior, helping them into the water.
The mighty Vincennes’ guns now silent, the veteran of the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal battles, was burning out of control and sinking and most of her crew were adrift among the floating wreckage and oil slicks.
In his log of the attack, Riefkohl subsequently wrote: “The magnificent Vincennes, which we were all so proud of, and which I had the honor to command since 23 April 1941, rolled over and then sank at about 0250, 9 August 1942, about 2½ miles east of Savo Island … Solomons Group, in some 500 fathoms of water.”
Admiral Mikawa’s attack yielded incredible results as his task force dealt the U.S. Navy their worst surface battle loss in its history. The Navy’s losses that night were substantial as the USS Quincy and USS Astoria were also sunk while the Chicago and two destroyers were heavily damaged and left out of action. The cruiser HMAS Canberra was so heavily damaged that she had to be scuttled leaving the total allied casualties that night to be nearly 1,200 men missing or killed in action and four cruisers lost.
With Vincennes resting in the depths of what would become known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” her crew were adrift and struggling to survive in the darkness. “We were in the water. There was a guy close to me,” Francis M. Williamson of Petersburg, Virginia mentioned in the aforementioned news story. “He had almost his whole body shot away. Once he said very quietly, ‘I can’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes more. I got a hundred dollars in my pocket here if it’ll do you fellows any good.’ But nobody took it,” said Williams.
Later that morning, two American destroyers began to pick up the survivors but had to temporarily break from the rescue in order to pursue a periscope sighting and to drop depth charges. Another survivor, Hager described harrowing situation as the men were huddled together in the water with some in a life raft and others in the water, hanging on to the sides. When a destroyer arrived at the scene early that morning, fear among the men ensued as Hager informed them of the enemy’s propensity of machine-gunning survivors. As the ship drew near, the sound of small arms and .50 caliber machine gun fire was heard by the men in the raft. Just before they jumped into the water to escape being shredded in they thought would be a hail of bullets, one of the survivors realized the ship was American. A crewman aboard the ship yelled that the water was churning with sharks and the gunners aboard the ship were protecting the survivors. “They said the sharks were after a wounded offices and they machine-gunned them to save him.” Hager described an earlier encounter that occurred during the darker hours of the morning. “I don’t know whether it was a shark or not,” he said, “but while I was out there in the water, I saw a white streak heading for me and I did some fast swimming to get back to the raft.” Questions remained for Hager concerning other survivors in the water near him as he concluded his encounter, “I never saw the two men who swam with me after that.”
Once the wounded and water-logged men were aboard the rescue ships and the dead floating In the waters surrounding Savo Island were accounted for, the human losses became more apparent as musters were taken to determine the numbers. With 322 of the nearly 800 officers and enlisted missing or killed in action, notifications would not reach the families for some time. Official reports of the crew status were submitted to the Navy on September 3, 1942 as the survivors were sent back to Pearl Harbor. Triaging the wounded, some of whom were severely burned, meant that some men would be spending months in hospitals on Oahu while others would be shipped back to the mainland for recuperation and further disposition. Some of the survivors took advantage of the 30-days of rest and recuperation (R&R) due them following the loss of their ship while others were more eager to return to the fight, opting for immediate new assignments.
In the following weeks, teams of military personnel were dispatched to more than homes around the country bearing news of loss. One such official visit occurred at 640 Sadler Avenue in Los Angeles at the home of John Harris McKinney, Jr. where his wife, Rubye Lee and four-year-old son, John Harris McKinney III resided. Perhaps even more heart breaking than receiving a KIA notification, Mrs. McKinney was informed that her husband was missing in action.
While it is not known which five-inch mount Gunner John H. McKinney, Jr. was assigned to, all eight of the anti-aircraft guns were highly vulnerable to enemy fire due to them being fully exposed. Unlike the main batteries which were armor-protected and the gun crews were beneath the armor-plated decks, McKinney and his crew were exposed to the elements with a nominal bulwark scatter shield that was meant to provide a barrier to reduce exposure to splintering decks and structure. The location of the five-inch mounts placed them at amidships in the shadows of the two stacks or in other words, at the enemy aiming point. It is highly-likely that McKinney was killed at the outset of the Japanese attack as many of the early shots were landed in this area.
On October 13, 1942, Gunner McKinney, formerly listed as missing in action, his name was published in the Los Angeles Times among those who were killed in action. Mrs. John H. McKinney would be presented with a Purple Heart Medal bearing an engraving on the reverse of the pendant. At the end of the war, McKinney’s widow would have also received any decorations that he was due which would have included the World War II Victory Medal.
In the fall of 2020, The Veteran’s Collection was contacted by a man regarding a medal that he had in his possession. The man, having exhausted his efforts to reunite the medal with the recipient’s family, desired to place it care of a person or organization where it would be preserved in an honoring manner. Due to the significant number of our published articles focused upon artifacts related the three Navy cruisers named Vincennes, the man who contacted us believed that the medal that he held would find a place of honor among our USS Vincennes collection.
Following a handful of email and phone conversations with the man we understand that the medal cane to be in his possession from his former business partner but the details of how the partner obtained it were not known.
Viewing the photos of the medal that were sent to us combined with sound measure of caution, we began to explore every possible avenue of research to ensure that the medal was not reported stolen or missing. Researching the veteran was also necessary to ascertain the nature of his service and to ensure that the veteran was indeed aboard the ship and awarded the medal.
With due diligence performed over the course of several weeks researching genealogy and family history, notices or discussions of theft and consulting a Purple Heart Medal expert, we reached an agreement with the contact for modest compensation. Within a few days the purple heart medal was shipped.
Once we received and opened the carefully packaged decoration, a sense of pain and loss filled the surrounding air. There was a sense of the unfathomable moment when McKinney’s widow beheld the medal for the first time, knowing that her husband and the father of her young son would never come home. The finality that came with this medal that is awarded in recognition of veteran’s combat wound or loss punctuated the moment when Mrs. McKinney was first notified that her husband was missing. Having this in our collection added a somber dimension which is a principle reason that we have never previously pursued posthumous decorations.
John Harris McKinney, Jr. was born on April 10, 1912 in Dalhart, Texas to John and Audie Bell. McKinney graduated from Mercedes High School in 1930 and enrolled into an Reserve Officer Training Corps program in San Antonio. John enlisted into the U.S. Navy late in 1932 and completed recruit training and Naval Training Station San Diego, California. Apprentice Seaman McKinney was assigned to the Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on May 21, 1933. On January 26, 1936, McKinney was detached from the Augusta and reported aboard the repair ship, USS Vestal (AR-4) on March 12, 1937. The gap between ship assignments may have been spent on a shore command and during this time, he married the former Rubye Lee Hedrick in San Pedro, California on July 8, 1936. After completing his first term, McKinney, now rated as a fire controlman third class, reenlisted on June 20, 1936. McKinney’s career path and advancement was accelerated despite the peacetime Navy’s limited manning. John and Rubye welcomed their son, John Harris McKinney, III on December 5, 1937. Detached from Vestal on November 14, 1939, Fire Controlman first class McKinney was sent to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C., Long Island City and at Schenectady, New York. Following his completion of schools, McKinney was commissioned as a warrant officer (W-1), Gunner. With ten years of service, Gunner McKinney was halfway to retirement and a pension.
On February 12, 1941, Gunner McKinney reported aboard CA-44, USS Vincennes, and was assigned to one of the ship’s eight 5-inch gun mounts.
In consulting our copy of David A. Schwind’s outstanding authoritative work, Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous Awards of the Purple Heart Medal in the Second World War to analyze the specifics of the Gunner McKinney medal, we noted the style of the engraving and the design of the planchette. Through our research we noted that McKinney’s posthumous decoration is a Navy Type-1 Purple Heart Medal. The hand engraving includes the veteran’s rank, full name and service branch along with artistic flourishes is an example of early wartime style, characterized by Scwhind as Type-1c.
The medal itself is in good overall condition showing signs of wear on the raised edges and surfaces of the George Washington bust and some along the edges. On the planchette obverse, the plastic surround shows slight contraction from the edges and nominal surface scratches. The enamel in the laurels and the coat of arms located at the top of the planchette (beneath the suspension) is intact. The reverse of the planchette shows a fair amount of gold erosion surrounding the engraving as well as on the raised edges of the lettering, shield and laurels. The ribbon drape is heavily soiled and worn and unfortunately, the gilt sterling silver brooch was missing.
Another of the more important aspects missing from McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal is the small purple Navy type-1 presentation box. Judging by the condition of what arrived, it would be a safe assessment to suggest that the original presentation box deteriorated or was discarded decades ago. Regardless of the condition and the missing elements, the medal, according to Mr. Schwind, is a bit of a scarcity and highly desired among collectors due to it being an early Navy medal and an early engraving awarded to a warrant officer.
Seeking further consultation led to a colleague offering us the correct, type-1 brooch, ribbon and suspension ring to effectively restore McKinney’s medal. The replacement brooch, ribbon and suspension ring were had been removed from another type-1 Navy Purple Heart Medal and were in fantastic condition. By simply removing the existing suspension ring and replacing it with the new piece, the Gunner McKinney medal was made whole.
After the war, Gunner McKinney’s widow, Rubye Lee (Hedrick) McKinney married another Navy man, Harry E. Wageman on November 7, 1946. At some point thereafter, the former WWII Sea Bee veteran adopted John and Rubye’s son, John H. McKinney, Jr., changing his name to John McKinney Wageman. Seven days after his 43rd birthday, John McKinney Wageman, a geophysicist working in the petroleum exploration industry in Houston Texas, succumbed to metastatic brain cancer, exacerbated by bilateral pneumonia. Gunner McKinney’s son outlived him by thirteen years and left behind a widow, Molly R. (Matlock) Wageman and the couple apparently had no children.
It is astonishing that families let go of the reminders of their military heritage and history. Unfortunately, it is quite common to see military uniforms, certificates, records and even decorations and medals discarded in the trash, donated or sold, once the veteran has passed away. It is unknown what path Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal was set upon leaving us to assume that upon John McKinney Wagemen’s passing in 1980 or that of his mother in January 2000, the medal could have gone in any number of directions. Regardless, the Purple Heart Medal did not proper care or storage judging by the condition when we received it.
A few weeks ago, the Ohio Valley Military Society held its annual Show of Shows in Louisville, Kentucky. Unable to attend the show, we reached out to a few of our colleagues in the area who were attending to see if they could be on the lookout for the proper presentation box among the hundreds of tables of militaria. Within a few hours of making our request, a suitable box was found and shipped a few days later. With the medal placed in the box (along with the original ribbon and suspension), McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal has been returned to the state it was in nearly 80 years ago.
Gunner John Harris McKinney has been at rest with his shipmates at what today is known as Iron Bottom Sound nearly 3,500-feet beneath the surface. In January 2015, the Paul Allen-fund Research Vessel Petrel located and photographed the wreck of USS Vincennes (CA-44) and documented how she came to rest on the sea floor. One of the most poignant images captured by the Petrel crew showed one of Vincennes’ 5-inch guns still trained as if her crew were ready to send another round toward the enemy.
With his final resting site known and his Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal restored, the Veteran’s Collection will be determining the final disposition of the decoration to ensure that it will be honored, properly cared for and viewable in perpetuity.