Category Archives: US Navy

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:

A General’s Naval Beginnings: My Named Seaman 2/c Aviation Radioman Uniform


I often grapple with what to focus a particular article upon as I sit down to write. I like to keep fresh content on this site and part of that process is for me to attempt to strike a balance with topics that might be of interest to readers and collectors while not leaning too heavily in any direction. Regardless of how much I strive to achieve this, I invariably end writing about what I prefer to collect and what interests me the most.

With my recent post regarding the aviation radioman rating and the uniforms that I presently hold within my collection, I am finding that today’s piece is going to be seasoned with some fresh redundancy considering that the most recent uniform item acquisition that I have is one from a sailor who began his career in this rating specialty. This particular uniform was unique in that in both what it lacked and what it possessed; something that I had not seen on a Navy uniform prior to happening upon this auction listing. The two Aviation Radioman uniforms in my collection have “crows” affixed to their sleeves: one, a third class petty officer and the other a chief petty officer. The new acquisition was from a seaman first class (non-petty officer) which is easily determined by the three stripes of piping on the cuff and the distinguishing mark of the ArM on the left shoulder (positioned where the sailors’ future petty officer mark would be).

This jumper is the first Aviation Radioman/Technician uniform that I have seen that includes the Radarman distinguishing mark.

Affixed to the lower left sleeve of this uniform, the distinguishing mark denotes Harpainter’s training and qualifications with radar equipment for naval aircraft.

Aside from the rating mark on the shoulder, this uniform was adorned with an additional mark – that of a radarman distinguishing mark (DM) – located on the lower left sleeve, a few inches above the cuff. Aside from the ArM redundancy, this DM has been the subject of several previous articles on The Veteran’s Collection (see: Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations, Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rates and Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen). perhaps due to my own service as today’s iteration of the rating, Operations Specialist. When I saw the listing with these two elements, and its typical-low price, I was ready to buy it, solely on these factors. The seller also included a photo of the uniform tag and the name of the original owner along with a brief overview of the veteran’s career.

“A very nice jumper with both an aviation radioman rate on the shoulder and radar operator specialty on the cuff. Best part is that it’s named on the Naval Clothing Factory tag and I was able to pull his bio off the internet. His service began in the US Navy during WW2 training as an aircrewman. After WW2 he entered law enforcement and the US Army reserve and had a distinguished career at both. He served as an MP officer during the Korean War and retired as a Reserve Brigadier General. The jumper is in very good condition. Please email if you have any questions.”

I didn’t, for a second, consider buying the uniform based upon the seller’s story as I was ready to take it solely for the marks. Once I performed some searches on the web, Fold3 and Ancestry, seeking out the sailor’s information, I was able to confirm that this uniform did come from the reservist Brigadier General, Robert E. Harpainter.

Robert E. Harpainter, Brigadier General, USAR, retired (image source: San Jose Police Benevolent Association, Farsider).

General Harpainter was almost too young for World War II service (he was born in 1927) as he enlisted into the Navy in 1945 following his graduation from Berkeley High School. According to his 2016 obituary, he attended schools for both aviation radioman (rating) and aerial gunner training. I suspect that due to the lengthy of time required for his rating and specialty training, ArM seaman 1/c Harpainter most-likely never made it to the fleet prior to the end of the war. What makes this uniform even more special (for me, at least) is that Robert Harpainter, after graduating from his post-WWII undergraduate studies (at San Jose State University and University of California at Berkeley), he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, serving with the military police in the Korean War as a military police platoon leader,security officer and assistant camp commander, as well as with the UNC-MAC Advance Camp during the prisoner exchange. His army service included command of the 496th Military Police Battalion; chief of staff and deputy commander of the 221st Military Police Brigade.By the time Mr. Harpainter’s military service was completed, he attained the rank of Brigadier General (in the California State National Guard) completing assignments as the commanding officer of the Northern Area Command from June 1987 through 1988 and finishing as Deputy Commander – Operations, State Military Reserve.

General Harpainter is shown (far left) in this San Jose Police Benevolent Association image.

Though I have assembled a fair summary regarding General Harpainter’s career, more complete research, especially his WWII naval service, would help me to piece-together awards and decorations that he would have received at the time of his discharge.  In lieu of a Freedom of Information Act request (submitted to the National Archives), I can safely assume that he received, at the very least, the American Campaign and World War II Victory medals.

The Naval Clothing Factory tag showes that it is correct for the World War II era, has R. E. Harpainter, Seaman Second Class markings.

There are many folks who enjoy collecting uniform groups of general officers (and admirals) and I can certainly understand how they can be drawn to the uniforms (they are rather ornate and their awards and decorations are unique) and the appeal of being in possession of something tangible and representative of a veteran’s lengthy career having attained a rank towards or at the top of all ranks. This particular uniform is clearly not ornate in the upper echelon of any rank structure but it does help to tell the beginning of the story of such a veteran in that he was compelled to answer his nation’s call as a young high school graduate and never ceased. As a civilian (and active reservist), Mr. Harpainter served as a law enforcement officer for 15 years as he pursued his undergraduate and juris doctor degrees. The remainder of his professional career, General Harpainter served as a senior deputy district attorney with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for 22 years. As I reviewed the general’s memorial and online tributes, a comment made by Harpainter’s partner (from his time as a police officer), Bob Moir (retired lieutenant, SJPD 1954-1985) wrote, “Always in the Veterans Day parade in Nov (sic) each year with is military uniform and shinning star.”

What’s next for me with this uniform? I enjoy seeing a uniform displayed properly (which for me means that I like to possess the proper decorations) so I will be requesting information pertaining to this veteran’s naval service. I am fairly certain that there will be, at the very least, two ribbons (the American Campaign and World War II Victory) however, there could be other elements (such as a combat air crew wing device) as indicated by details within Harpainter’s obituary and publicly-available biographical information.

It is rewarding to find (what appears to be) an insignificant uniform that was completely overlooked by other collectors and to be able to preserve part of the history of notable veteran.

“Blue Seas, Red Stars” Details How The Soviet Union Honored Heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic


Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II by David A. Schwind (image source: Schiffer Publishing).

Many of the stories found within the pages of this site, while centered upon artifacts and items that once belonged to veterans – some those pieces possess researchable history that is traceable to the individual. If you’ve read any of these articles, you know that as much as is possible, I try to provide a snapshot of the military careers of the service members, inclusive of their decorations and awards they received. Acknowledging the achievements of the military member or those of the units for which they were assigned, or the campaigns these men and women participated in, while a common practice within this realm of military service, it is somewhat foreign in the civilian sector.

Medals and decorations are a common focus of militaria collectors – especially medals that are engraved (i.e. named) as valor medals typically are at the time of presentation to the service member – due to their unique and very specific historical nature.  A group of medals and ribbons that were worn by a veteran provide a visual narrative – a tangible representation of the career of a service member showing, at the very least, when and perhaps where the individual served, if he or she served in combat or was decorated for service above and beyond the norms of duty. There are many areas of focus within the sphere of collecting decorations. Some may zero in on a specific era, military branch, discipline or specialty (aviators, armor, etc.) or specific medal awardees (Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross or other valor medals) or those who were killed in action (Purple Heart medals awarded to those who were killed or listed as missing in action).  Though I am in possession of several decorations, I am not a collector of medals and ribbons. All that I have were either inherited (I am the steward/archivist for family history) as part of a relative’s group or were acquired as part of my restoration efforts to preserve the full story of a family member’s service.

A veteran myself, I recognize that the preservation of my own decorations is part of my responsibility to maintain the family legacy and history of service. With the exception of the decorations awarded to my father (a Vietnam combat veteran who is very much alive and well), I have been given the task of maintaining these priceless family artifacts which are inclusive of the medals and ribbons that I earned and received during my service. I couldn’t imagine seeing family history such as this falling into the hands of collectors rather than being preserved by our following generations.

It may be just my perception but it seems as though there is a steady stream of military-history books being released throughout each year with increasing frequency. With the passing of the World War II generation and their stories fading away, our nation’s interest in them, fueled by stories and films that dominated the national conscience from the mid 1990s through the middle of this decade, too has waned. The stories of the common soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have all but been forgotten.  The attention in military stories has turned toward the more recent conflicts in the Middle East is more prevalent as the generation who fought and served in these conflicts is reaching (military) retirement age. However, there are still good stories from WWII that remaining to be told and a recent publication, though now a few years old, deserves my readers’ attention.

Prior to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ participation in WWII was in support of our European allies – predominantly Great Britain – by way of supplying materials to sustain their fight against the wave of the Third Reich that was washing over Western Europe. When Americans think about the Battle of the Atlantic, it isn’t uncommon for visions of the Allied convoys and the German U-boats operating in “wolfpacks” hunting the defenseless merchant ships come to mind. However, the overall campaign in the Atlantic Ocean was far more involved and following the United States’ declaration of war on the Axis powers, was truly a multinational alliance effort that led to the defeat of Germany. Many Americans participated in the harrowing and dangerous duties in the Atlantic in striving to support the fight in Europe. Convoy after convoy of materials, food and troops departed ports in the United States heading to destinations in Europe (England, Ireland, Russia) and in the Mediterranean faced the threat of being torpedoed by German U-boats who waited for the vulnerable ships to pass by. Shore-based anti-submarine patrols flew supporting missions from each side of the Atlantic providing air cover as far out to see as could be reached but there were still gaps of open seas that were ideal hunting grounds for the wolfpacks.

Convoy WS-12: A Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over the convoy, while it was en route to Cape Town, South Africa, 27 November 1941. The convoy appears to be making a formation turn from column to line abreast. Two-stack transports in the first row are USS West Point (AP-23) — left –; USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) and USS Wakefield (AP-21). Heavy cruisers, on the right side of the first row and middle of the second, are USS Vincennes (CA-44) and USS Quincy (CA-39). Single-stack transports in the second row are USS Leonard Wood (AP-25) and USS Joseph T. Dickman (AP-26). US Navy Photo.

Convoys consisted of merchant ships, crewed by a mixture of merchant seaman, active-duty naval personnel and the US Navy Armed Guard (serving primarily as gunners, signal men and radio operators), destroyer-escorts, destroyers and, by 1943, small aircraft carriers that possessed the armament and tactics necessary to conduct anti-submarine offensive measures along with their role in providing protection for the convoys.

While there are many publications, documentaries and books that are fantastic in providing great coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic, not much exists regarding the men who served. Historian and fellow militaria collector, David Schwind spent years researching and traveling the United States in order to capture and retell the stories of American sailors who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. The one aspect of his effort that is unique (and was a complete surprise to me) is that each man that he spotlights was recognized by the Soviet Union with some of that nation’s highest honors and decorations. In fact, nearly 220 men who served in these convoys (as part of the United States sea services: Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) were awarded Soviet decorations of varying degrees, such as:

With the rise of Communism in conjunction with the West’s fight to stem the expansion of the Iron Curtain following WWII, many of these veterans tucked the medals away, opting not to wear them on their uniforms. In his December 2015 work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, Schwind provides individual narratives of each recipient, inclusive of their military careers and post-service lives. Along with the detailed information, he includes extensive photographs of each recipient’s Soviet medals, their presentation boxes, documentation, vintage photographs and images of the medals themselves. David Schwind’s photographic efforts in capturing the details of these incredible medals is nothing short of fantastic and perfectly compliments his extensive research. This book is not merely a compilation of veterans and their medals but rather a very personal presentation of vignettes, photographs and an extensive amount of supporting references.

The book production (by Schiffer Publishing) is first-rate with pages that are substantial and glossy, and printed in full color. The binding is stable and sturdy. Even the endpapers and are impressive with photographs of the veterans’ award cards. After nearly two years of use, my copy of Blue Seas, Red Stars looks like new though I have been through it, cover to cover multiple times and it shows none of the typical signs of use in many books of this size. Speaking of size, Blue Seas’ dimensions are consistent with those of many coffee-table books (9″ x 12″ x 1″) but is far from just a collection of nice pictures.  The men who received these Soviet awards were truly heroes and they were so recognized by our WWII ally for their deeds and service above and beyond the call of duty. Many of the heroes in this book will be recognizable to many contemporary navy veterans and history buffs as their names have been affixed to transoms of a few notable combatant naval vessels.

Perhaps the most noteworthy fact of Schwind’s brilliant production is that the of the 217 Soviet medals that were awarded to American sea-service personnel, a significant number of these decorations remain with the veterans’ families and are treasured for their future generations and that more than 100 of the families participated in this project, partnering with the author and granting him access to handle and photo-document these treasures for his book.

The photography reveals the details of the individuals’ awards and decorations along with other service-related pieces that breathe life into the narratives of each veteran.

The book is printed on beautiful heavy-stock coated paper which provides a wonderful measure of clarity to the text and helps the colors of the awards to leap from the pages.

It is my hope (especially within the capacity of my responsibility) that other families make the decision to preserve and maintain their family’s legacy and keep these precious awards to be handed down throughout their generations. However, if these pieces are divested, I hope that collectors will make every effort to assume the mantle of historian and continue the legacy where the family left off.

Blue Seas, Red Stars is a great addition to anyone’s library, whether they are a military or naval historian, militaria collector or simply interested in in the little-known relationship between WWII veterans and the Soviet Union’s gratitude bestowed upon them for their service during the war.

Order your copy today!