Category Archives: Warships or Vessels

Gaultney Brothers Sacrifice; USS Arizona, Iwo Jima and the USS Vincennes


Retrospective-type articles that touch upon a central topic or theme are useful for both the reader and author, especially within sites such as The Veteran’s Collection as the pulling together of related content and subject matter can shed new light and expose facts that were overlooked or previously hidden. The negative aspects of self-promotion come to light when it is very obvious that authors have run out of ideas and, rather than to have aging content remain on the front or home pages of their sites, publish fluff in order to keep up the appearance of fresh content.  Another reason could be to reflect upon old content while attempting to relevantly connect it to a current event.

If readers delve into the content of this site they would discover that navy-centric militaria outnumbers the articles published within this site the the better portion of those pieces focused upon a four ships bearing the same name. Within this author’s collection are a handful of artifacts from one of the four – the second ship – to carry the name Vincennes around the globe and into war. Although my collection does encompass artifacts associated with a few other ships (those vessels aboard which members of my family served), this particular warship holds special meaning and thus is at the center of my collection focus.

Commissioned in 1937, the New Orleans Class heavy cruiser (classified as such due to her main battery consisting of eight inch guns) USS Vincennes (CA-44) plied the peacetime seas for more than four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Despite the elapsed time since she was placed into service, many of her crew at the start of World War II were plankowners (they were part of the original crew, present at the time of commissioning) though personnel turnover was occurring and a steady rate. New crew members were replacing veterans whose enlistments were ending or were rotating to different commands. Wartime manning requirements, impacted by combat operations, increased for many vessels by as much as twenty percent.

For the aging USS Arizona (BB-39), the near 2,300-man crew was proud that their ship carried the flag of Commander Battleship Division One, Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Arizona had been serving the U.S. Navy for more than 25 years having been placed into commission in 1916; though she never fired her massive 14-inch guns at an enemy target – not even during World War I. Three-and-a-half weeks after Thanksgiving Day in 1941, the losses of WWII would begin to touch American lives throughout the country.

In late March of 1945 in the small town of Le Roy located in McLean County, Illinois which lies just north of dead-center of the state (about 140 miles southeast of Chicago), the small farming town was feeling the economic effects of the war with rationing in full swing and a large percentage of the area’s young, able-bodied men serving and fighting in far-off lands. Le Roy’s lone celebrity, Broadway star Betty Jane Watson (cousin of Jean Stapleton of 1970s television’s All in the Family fame) gained attention in the previous year playing the role “Gertie” in Oklahoma! and was now working as singer, performing (singing) with with bands in Chicago. Le Roy was a fairly quiet and peaceful town as families awaited word from their sons, fathers, brothers and uncles who were serving in the European and Pacific theaters, hopeful of good news.

Iwo Jima 1945 – the 3rd and 4th Marine Division Cemetery was beautifully laid into the volcanic soil. Though David Gaultney was laid to rest here, he (along with all of the Marines buried here) would ultimately be removed from the island and relocated (U.S. Navy photo).

PFC David Gaultney’s Marine Corps boot camp photograph, taken in April of 1945 (image source: The Pantograph).

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.

Gunner’s Mate Third Class Ralph Gaultney died from wounds sustained aboard the USS Arizona during the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack (image source: The Pantograph).

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 Gaultney’s ship, the USS Arizona shown transiting the Panama Canal some time before her 1930s modernization (M. S Hennessy Collection).

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.

Steaming towards Guadalcanal in August 1942, the USS Vincennes (CA-44) dressed in her camouflage paint scheme, escorts the troop transports carrying the First Marine Division (M. S Hennessy Collection).

Initially listed as missing in action, Machinist Mate 1/c Leonard Gaultney perished when his ship, USS Vincennes (CA-44) was sunk on the night of August 8-9, 1942 near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands group (image source: The Pantograph).

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.

A grim reminder of naval warfare, this list of those USS Vincennes sailors who remained missing months after the ship was lost in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8-9, 1942. MM1/c Leonard Gaultney is listed among the MIA.

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.

The boxed American Defense Service Medal and liberty card group from USS Vincennes (CA-44) survivor, Fireman 3/c Charles Henry Findlay.

USS Vincennes (CA-44) survivor, Charles H. Findlay, Fireman 3/c (image source: imthistory.org).

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.

Listed among the survivors, Fireman 3/c Findlay made it through the battle and sinking and went on to fight the enemy, serving aboard the USS Santa Fe.

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.

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Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington


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:

  1. What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
  2. Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
  3. Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
  4. 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.

A cabinet card photograph of the USS Washington that has been hand-toned (colorized) shows the white-and-buff color-scheme of the day (before the Navy transitioned to haze gray). This image has some moisture damage on the right side.

This real photo postcard of the USS Washington (taken while she lies at anchor off of Seattle, her future namesake) is one of my favorite photos of the ship.

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.

Distracted by the fantastic blue and gold colors along with the name of the ship, I initially believed the pillow dated to the early decades of the 20th century (source: eBay image).

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 only original image of the WWII battleship, USS Washington (BB-56) that I have in my collection, shows the bow of the most-decorated non-carrier of WWII slicing through the slightly rough seas of the Pacific. Her two forward mounts of her main battery appear almost diminutive in the absence of objects of scale.

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.

 

 

 

 

Paper and Postcards – Telling a More Complete Military Story


USS Quincy (CA-39) photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. To the left of the image, USS Vincennes (CA-44) can be seen burning in the distance (image source: Naval History and Heritage Command | NH 50346).

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.

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.

The Japanese produced postcards depiction of the Savo Island battle is not too far from the reality (see the Japanese photo of the Quincy burning and foundering – above) of what took place overnight, August 8-9, 1942.

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 reverse of the Savo Island battle postcard. I have been meaning to re-send a higher resolution scan my friend so that it too, can be translated.

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.

 

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.

 

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