Category Archives: Warships or Vessels
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.
While reading a discussion on a militaria forum regarding a World War I veteran’s medal group (that at that time had recently been listed for sale by Bay State Militaria), I was reminded that so much in military collecting is out of reach for my budget. This particular collection of artifacts contained the Army officer’s decorations and medals which included the Distinguished Service Cross, Belgian Order of the Crown, Knights level, Belgian Croix de Guerre, three awards of the French Croix de Guerre, United States Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Legion of Honor, Knights class and many other decorations. Not only was this group considerably out of my reach but I couldn’t even afford to purchase this soldier’s WWI Victory medal (which included ten clasps, documenting the battles he participated in) if it had been parted out. The group was listed for just under $6,800 and based upon the amount of history the buyer acquired (yes, it sold very shortly after it was listed), it was worth every penny.
The career of the veteran was not only significant during his time in uniform but in his work after he served. In reading his history-making accomplishments as noted, one could see why this grouping commanded such a high listing price:
- “This Officer was decorated while attached to the British during advanced Chemical Training in 1918. He then personally led the first American Chemical Weapons Attack in History as Company Commander of B Company, 1ST Gas and Flame Regiment.”
- “A very historic grouping with a famous painting of this Officer by Joseph Cummings Chase which is in itself a treasure. This portrait was one of 125 painted in France in 1918-19 by Joseph Cummings Chase. approximately 75 ended up in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is one of just a few known to be in Private Hands.”
This WWI Army officer’s (his name was not disclosed) group is purely museum quality as this officer also played a significant engineering role (during the interwar period) on New York’s George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel construction projects.
Meanwhile, back in the realm where I live (known to me simply as reality), my World War I collection consists of a few items that were affordable and have visual appeal. With my family serving in every American conflict dating back to the War for Independence, I try to locate objects that will display well and have some sort of connection to my family’s military heritage.
Two pieces that fit my criteria (as stated above) and met my budgetary constraints are these WWI-specific wool flannel pillow covers. As it turns out, their similar designs complement each other quite well and will look fantastic on my office wall.
Pillow covers were quite popular during World War II with most designs being simple silk-screened patterns or pictorials on silk material. Typically, these were gifts purchased by the service members and sent to family and sweethearts as reminders of the loved one away at war. During the war, these were mass-produced and can be acquired without severely crippling your collecting budget.
Commemorating a wide variety of subjects such as military branches of service, forts or military bases, ships or aircraft, pillow covers have been dated to the first few years of the twentieth century. The early examples tend to be constructed from a wool flannel with lettering and designs stitched to the face.
While the common designs of WWII (such as the more generic “Army” and “Navy” versions) will be plentiful and therefore inexpensive, the more ornate or specific they are, the price will be higher. With Navy ships of significance (such as the USS Arizona or Enterprise) expect to pay a premium.
Because I am known within my family and circle of friends as the military-history person, I am on the receiving end of artifacts from those who know about my interests. From the moment that I was gifted with my maternal grandfather’s WWII navy uniforms and decorations (which can be seen in this post) and my grand uncle’s Third Reich war souvenirs, my appreciation for military history was ignited.
Over the years, I have either received or been approached to determine my interest in becoming the steward of historical family military items which have included, uniforms, medals and decorations, weapons (along with artillery rounds and small arms ammunition), flags, documents and other historical pieces. Some of the most special items that I have inherited have been photography (albums and individual photos). With the last box of items that were part of two family estates (my paternal grandparents and a step-relative), I received a nearly two-foot long, vintage panoramic photograph (known as a yardlong photo due to their length: these images can be nearly thee feet in length) of a U.S. Navy crew, professionally positioned and posed pier-side in front of their destroyer.
For the first half of the 20th Century, a common practice within the military was to capture, in photographs, an entire company, regiment, even battalion of soldiers. The same holds true with the compliment of naval vessels with divisions, departments or even the full crew (obviously, size of the ship and on-duty personnel dictate who is present in a photo). The photographs were taken with cameras that allow the lens to be pivoted or panned from side to side in order to span the entire width of the subject, exposing a very large piece of film. As with the negative, the resulting images were elongated and fairly detailed (most often, these were contact prints, the same size as the negative). However the extremities of the photographs were slightly distorted or lacking in crisp lines due to the chromatic aberration that is almost unavoidable. For the most part, the elongated images are quite detailed and almost without exception, faces are recognizable when the military units were captured within these yardlong photographs. There are still photographers creating panoramic images using vintage cameras and film.
The photograph that I received was in an old frame, backed with corrugated cardboard and pressed against the glass pane. As I inspected the image, I noticed the ship in the background behind the crew that was posed in their dress white uniforms. Noting the blue flaps and cuffs on the enlisted jumpers, I knew that the photo was taken in the 1930s. My eyes were drawn to the two life-rings that were held by sailors on each end of the image, displaying the name of the ship; USS Smith and the hull number, 378. From researching my paternal grandmother’s siblings, I discovered that both of her brothers had served in the U.S. Navy and were both plankowners of the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Smith (DD-378). Dating the image will take a little bit of work (there are no indications of when it was taken – not in the photographer’s marks on either corner nor written on the back). However, I do know when the ship was commissioned, when my uncles reported aboard and departed the ship. Discernible in the image on my uncles’ uniforms are some indications of rank. I can tell that the older brother (who enlisted in 1932) is a petty officer (he reported aboard as a Seaman 1/c) and the younger brother was still a seaman (I can’t see the cuffs of his uniform to determine the number of white piping stripes present) as noted by the blue cord on his right shoulder. I should be able to narrow down the period once I can go through the massive service records to locate dates of rank. However, my initial assessment is that the photo might have been captured near the time of commissioning or, perhaps to commemorate a change of commanding officers.
Being an archivist for my ship and the recipient of some fantastic artifacts, I have been contacted by folks seeking to provide me with images to preserve within my photo archive. A few years ago, a gentleman emailed requesting to send to me a copy of a yardlong photograph that his father, a WWII navy veteran, owned from his time in service. The image was of the second cruiser (USS Vincennes) that was named for the city in Southwestern Indiana. The Cleveland-class light cruiser, hull number 64, had been laid down as the USS Flint but was changed during construction following the loss of the heavy cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island on August 8-9, 1942. The light cruiser was completed and commissioned on January 21, 1944 and served gallantly through WWII and was decommissioned in September of 1946. The man who contacted me had the ship’s photo scanned at a high resolution and sent the image file to me (on a thumb-drive along with a full-size print).
I am not a collector of yardlong photography but when the images are contextual to the areas that I do collect, I am happy to be able to acquire them. Receiving the image of the Smith and finding my grandmother’s brothers in the photograph motivated me to promptly hang it with my other family military history. In scanning the image for this article, I am reminded that I need to have it properly framed with archival materials to allow it to be preserved for generations to come.