Category Archives: US Navy
What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.
My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:
- What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
- Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
- Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
- Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?
My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home. Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.
One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).
As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.
It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.
One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.
The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.
Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.
Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.
One thing I am sure of, I am glad that I don’t have to compete against the likes of Gordon Gecko (or Bud Fox’s insider trading) when it comes to purchasing militaria. But something about this blue star interests me.
While the film, Wall Street was a blockbuster hit in the late 1980s it certainly isn’t the subject of this article. As I sought to reconstruct the decorations that were awarded to my uncle, a 30-year navy veteran who served from 1932 to 1962, I spent a fair amount of effort for accuracy not only in the awards but also with the period-correct specificity. One such award, when it was instituted was slightly different from what it is today.
With the signing of Executive Order 9050 on February 9, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved one of the most recognizable and most-senior (in order of precedence) unit awards for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC). The initial criteria for this award read:
“The Secretary of the Navy is hereby authorized and directed to issue a citation in the name of the President of the United States, as public evidence of deserved honor and distinction, to any ship, aircraft, or other Naval Unit and to any Marine Corps aircraft, detachment, or higher unit, for outstanding performance in action on or after October 16, 1941.”
Just twenty days later, President Roosevelt extended a branch-specific version of the award to be available for the United States Army (Executive Order 9075).
Both forms of the PUC were created as ribbon-only devices (meaning that there is no associated medal pendant), intended to be presented to a unit that distinguished (Merriam-Webster defines this as “marked by eminence, distinction, or excellence”) itself in combat against an enemy. Though this criteria would be further defined in 1957 by President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10694, the awarding of these ribbons remains limited with very few units receiving the distinction since World War II.
When the Navy’s award was initially instituted in 1942, it was done so with a unique appliance added to the ribbon. With most Navy and Marine Corps decorations, a star is representative of additional awards received. A single bronze star device added to a ribbon indicates that the wearer received the award twice while a silver star affixed would show five of the same award. In the case of the Navy’s PUC, when it was initially presented to the personnel of the decorated unit, it was done so with a single blue-enameled star device. Subsequent awarding procedure then followed protocol by affixing additional blue stars, departing from the standard procedure for other ribbon decorations.
Collectors understand that it is typical for scarce, exceptional items to be highly pursued and the Navy PUC ribbon with the blue enameled star falls right in line. For the last two years, I’ve been seeking to complete a ribbon “rack” for my uncle’s display with this early variant of the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon. During that span of time, I have only seen one ribbon and star listed at auction. As I watched for my moment to bid on the ribbon, the price exceeded my threshold three days before the close, ending up more surpassing my budget fivefold.
Something tells me that Charlie Sheen’s Wall Street character, Bud Fox wasn’t referring to this wonderfully scarce ribbon device in his efforts to burn Gecko.
- Sea Service Medals: Military Awards and Decorations of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard May 1, 2009 by Fred L. Borch and Charles P. McDowell
- A Complete Guide to United States Military Medals, 1939 to Present: All Decorations, Service Medals, Ribbons and Commonly Awarded Allied Medals of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard
Although I am not much of a ephemera collector or fancy myself a philatelist, there are certain aspects of these areas of collecting that interest me. More specifically, if there are ephemera or postal items that connect with or align to my focus areas, I try to grab them in an effort to augment my collection.
People might see the term ephemera and wonder what it means. What sort of item can be characterized or classified as such? In order to answer that question, at least for myself, I proceeded to search the internet. One of the first items within the search results was the organization that is dedicated to these collectors, the Ephemera Society of America, who characterizes it this way:
“Ephemera includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.”
For this article, the specific categories (presented among the group’s list of 26) that I am touching on are photographs, postcards, and brochures. In some cases, a few of my items (such as real photo postcards) span multiple categories.
In 2009, I published my first book (and hopefully, many more to come though much time has passed since then without a subsequent offering) about the naval warships that bore the name USS Vincennes. In the process of assembling my collection of artifacts that would be used to provide the readers with some visual references, I realized that I had amassed a significant group of items relating to the CG-49. I also realized that though I had a smattering of items, I was really lacking in anything associated with, at the very least, the two WWII cruisers. This realization catapulted me into active militaria collecting that was very focused.
Since I started writing about militaria, I have authored articles (see below) that include a smattering of some of the items from my own USS Vincennes collection.
- Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece
- Collecting U.S. Navy Uniform Ship Identifiers
- Remember Me When You Sleep… Sweetheart Pillow Covers
- Spark Your Collection: Military-Themed Zippos
- A Mere Symbolic Plank: A Navy Ship Plankowner’s Perception
The items documented in these posts represent a growing and well-rounded and ever-increasing group of Vincennes-related militaria and would make for a nice arrangement or display. With my ephemera and philatelic additions, this collection (and any subsequent displays I might set up) takes on a more vibrant and colorful appearance.
The philatelic pieces (covers) from the CA-44 cruiser all date from the late 1930s and provide a documented timeline of the ship’s early years of service. The cover from the CL-64 documents the launching of the second Vincennes cruiser in 1943. Combining the ephemera (photographs) and philatelic pieces, my collection has depth and dimension.
One of the more interesting artifacts in my collection is a postcard that published during the war. When I saw the postcard listed for sale, I noted that it was being sold by someone located in Japan and the text of the listing was lacking details but the title and the artwork were enough to motivate me to submit a bid. The postcard’s face featured an artistic depiction of three American cruisers, wrecked and burning among shell-geysers (as the Japanese ships pressed their attack upon the wounded American cruisers) that, while meant to serve as propaganda, was actually close to what truly happened. I asked a friend translate the Japanese text which revealed the title of the image as, “Night (Attack) Warfare at Tulagi.” The caption states that the painting was displayed at the second Great East Asia War Art Exhibition, which was held in 1943.
The ships that are depicted in the image are (unknown to the Imperial Japanese Navy officials at the time) the USS Quincy, USS Astoria (CA-34) and the USS Vincennes. All were left disabled and burning after a night engagement by Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force at Savo Island. This painting was a propaganda piece that was more fact than inflated story-telling as the attack was the largest surface defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy during WWII.
I was quite surprised to find such a piece existed and was elated to obtain it for my collection.
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.
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).
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.