Category Archives: US Navy
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.
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
My affinity for early Twentieth Century U.S. Navy Uniforms, especially those from the enlisted ranks, is increasing even if I am financially restrained from pursuing my most desired pieces when they surface onto the market. On some rare occasions, an artifact that I would love to add to my collection is listed and flies beneath the radar of fellow collectors leaving me the opportunity and wherewithal to bring it home.
I have written several articles (including considerable research for each) related to elements of uniforms from the first few decades of the last century ranging from rating badges, enlisted jumpers and head coverings and yet there is much that I am still discovering. The overwhelming focus of this site has been directed at naval artifacts and my collection is heavily weighted with U.S. Navy artifacts however I cannot consider myself to be an expert in these areas. One item of the enlisted naval uniform that I have much to learn about is surrounding the dress blue cap, known by many as the “Donald Duck Hat” or simply, the flat hat.
To delve into the full history of enlisted headwear and the entire life of the dress blue cap, I would need to write a multipart series of articles in order to give the hat its proper due (perhaps that will be a future project?). For the purposes of this post and to reflect the pieces that I have in my own collection, this article will be constrained with a narrow and specific focus.
Though flat hats were an integral part of the enlisted naval uniform for well over a century, it has been more than a half-century since the Navy retired them from usage. The earliest references to the flat caps were seen in the Navy Uniform Regulations of 1833 as the Navy began to standardize wear for seaman and petty officers.
ART. 601. The outside dress clothing of the petty officers, seamen, ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys, shall consist of blue cloth jackets and trowsers (sic), blue vest, blue cloth cap or black hat, black handkerchief, and shoes, when the weather is cold; when the weather is warm, it shall consist of white frock and trowsers, black or white hats, or blue cloth caps, as the commander may direct, having regard to the convenience and comfort of the crew, black handkerchiefs and shoes.
In the 1833 regulation, there is no specific mention of “flat hat” as the term itself wasn’t part of the vernacular in use regarding the headwear at the time. Of the two references (in bold) referring to blue or black headwear, the cloth cap is the early example of what we know today as the flat hat. “Black hat” is referencing the various broad brimmed black tarpaulin headwear that were worn for several decades by enlisted sailors in the mid-to-late 1800s. These are actually (sennit) straw hats that were coated with tar that provided the sailor with a waterproof head covering that could withstand the rigors of shipboard life. The caps were adorned with a ribbon that was the forerunner of the hat talley that would be seen on the flat hats.
As the uniforms evolved with technology, the hats advanced. Painting straw hats with tar began give way to new methods for waterproofing such as creating a tarpaulin cover. Further advancements that helped in the reduction uniform expenditures and conserving the very limited space aboard ship but allowing sailors to have a single hat instead by making the hat convertible from a standard sennit to a waterproof one. by fitting the hat with a two-piece cover fabricated from oilskin or oilcloth fabric provides the desired effect.
Aside from the black (flat straw) hats, sailors also began wearing blue cloth cap that was the forerunner of what was later known as the dress blue hat for enlisted personnel. By the time the American Civil War began, the blue cloth caps were the most commonly worn hats by petty officers and seaman. The long ribbons that encircled the black hats were transitioned to shortened (without the extended streaming tails) versions and some were adorned with the name of the sailor’s ship name (sans “U.S.S.”) added by hand using gold paint. Late in the Civil War, there were some instances of entire crews having their talley’s embroidered (with gold bullion) in lieu of the painted vessel names. The gold wire-bullion embroidery became common (though still not standardized) with for flat hats in the 1883 naval uniform regulations. Another aspect of the blue caps was that they were soft and formless leaving sailors to customize their caps to suit their individual style by adding stiffeners or filling (almost pillow-like) to give them a personalized shape. In 1866, the black hat tarpaulin hats were no longer used.
As the American Navy was advancing from wooden hulls and sail to ships made of steel and powered by steam, the uniforms worn by crews changed with their needs. Changes to the dress blue hat were made in 1883 that remained, keeping the flat hat’s appearance consistent for the next 40 years. The U.S. Navy didn’t have the uniform supply system in place that exists today (which truly came into being as World War II was looming on the horizon in 1940) leaving sailors subject to acquiring or even making various uniform components. Flat hats conformed to a regulation standard but would vary in the diameter of the top (9 to 11 inches) which differed as it conformed to the size of the sailor’s head. Dress blue hats included a broad leather sweatband that is seldom visible in surviving caps due to the cotton shirt lining that has been sewn in for both comfort and to conceal the damage to the cowhide (due to sweat and repeated, prolonged usage).
In the years leading up to the Great War, the flat hats became more standardized with cotton linings being sewn in at the manufacturers, effectively eliminating the variations of various printed patterns on the linings for subsequent caps. Still, sailors would either heavily customize their caps with almost gaudy embroidery and fancy needlework (typically on the crown) however such embellishments were unauthorized for wear aboard ship. Caps with these decorations were worn ashore and during liberty or leave periods. Though modern Navy regulations have all but eliminated the personalization of uniforms, sailors have always found a way to add their own custom touches over the last century and a half. Flat hats with such personal flair are exceedingly scarce and never fail to draw the interest of collectors.
Although they might appear to be, tally ribbons were never tied to flat hats. A closer examination of the ribbons reveal that the ribbon was wrapped around the outside of the cap (even with the sweatband), trimmed and the ends tucked beneath the bow that was already secured to the cap with a stitch. Once secured beneath the bow ribbon would be stitched around the circumference of the hat.
In 1933, the design of the flat hats changed once again with more standardizing in the shape and materials of the hat. Gone from the flat hats were the broad, head-size dependent thin and very flat top along with the printed cotton fabric lining. Also, the rigid hat stiffeners were changed leaving a more slouchy, beret-like appearance. The design gave the hat a pronounced for and aft appearance with the front portion of the top rising upwards, seemingly drawing more attention to the tally. The tallies also experienced a material change from the gold bullion wire ship and command names in favor of a gold colored thread, producing a low-profile lettering across the face of the talley that did not discolor with tarnish or verdigris. By 1940, the U.S. was rapidly growing its forces and building ships in an effort to catch up to the immense threat that was spreading in Europe and the Pacific. Ships of all classes were under construction in shipards up and down both coasts. To reduce the difficulties in managing ship identifyers for enlisted caps for each existing, under construction and planned naval vessel, the decision was made to eliminate the ship names from tallies and replace them with “U.S. Navy.” It has been suggested that this change was done as a security measure surrounding ship-movement but the notion that the presence of uniformed sailors in a port would be more obvious than the large battleships or aircraft carries is somewhat ridiculous.
One of my most recent flat hat acquisitions was one that I happened upon a few hours before the online auction listing was set to close. The dress blue cap was one that fit perfectly within my Navy collecting focus (see: Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington). The flat hat, a post-1933 design included a tally that indicated it was from the USS Seattle and yet there are a few questions regarding the hat design and tally combination. To help illustrate these questions, I have summarized the timeline of the ship below.
USS Washington/USS Seattle Timeline
- 1906, August 7 – Commissioned USS Washington (ACR-11)
- 1916, November 9 – Renamed “Seattle”
- 1920, July 17 – Reclassified (CA-11)
- 1927, August 29 – Changed Status to Receiving Ship
- 1931, July 1 – Classification changed to “Unclassified”
- 1941, February 15 – Reclassified (IX-39)
- 1946, June 28 – Decommissioned from active service
- 1946, July 19 – Stricken from Naval Register
- 1946, December 3 – Sold and eventually scrapped
USS Seattle’s reclassification from a combatant ship (a heavy cruiser) to a receiving ship transformed her role in regards to crew assignments. The mission of a receiving ship is two-fold: to serve as a location to receive newly inducted recruits as their personnel records are established, they are issued uniforms and initial training is conducted before they are sent on for to complete training and assignment to their permanent command. The other role of a receiving ship is to serve as a location for sailors who are nearing the end of their enlistments to be processed out of the naval service, having been transferred from their commands to await discharge. Receiving ships also served as locations for judicial proceedings such as courts martials. Sailors who were processing in would have most likely been issued dress blue caps with a generic “U.S. Navy” tally to be worn until they reached their permanent duty station. Depending upon the time that it takes to outprocess, sailors awaiting discharge would have worn the tally of their last command.
In attempting to determine the age of the cap and tally, it could only be pinpointed a range of years between 1933 and 1940 due to the time-period for the pattern of the hat (1933-1963) and the elimination of ship names from cap tallies. With some researching of the sailor’s name (“FELDT”) stenciled to the backside of the leather sweatband, the date range could be narrowed down by searching the ship’s muster rolls. It is most-likely that Feldt was part of the crew of the Seattle responsible for the in and out processing of the transient sailors that were temporarily assigned to the ship.
On April 1, 1963, the Navy unceremoniously brought about the end of the the dress blue cap, having been relegated to an item that sailors stuffed into their seabags, seldom seeing wear since being issued at bootcamp. Since the World War II, the white hat (lovingly referred to as the “Dixie Cup”) was popularized due to its ease of wear and that it could be rolled up and stowed into the back of the trousers, concealed beneath the jumper when in doors and not in use. With the vast numbers of wartime films depicting sailors in their dress whites and blues wearing their white hats cocked forward, aft or to the side, rolled edges, or hand-formed to a number or shapes, the versatility of the white hat (worn with all of the enlisted uniforms while the flat hat was only worn with dress and undress blues) drove the dress blue cap out of use. So many of the caps were made during WWII that the Navy supply system was still issuing them into the early 1960s.
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- Collecting U.S. Navy Uniform Ship Identifiers
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- Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver
- Headgear of the Sea Services – Gieringer Collection
Navy Uniform Head Coverings
- Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats
- 125 years of Deckplate Leadership: Chief Petty Officers of the U.S. Navy
- The Militaria Collector’s Search for the White Whale