Category Archives: Warships or Vessels

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

Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers


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.

From a painting by noted artist, Arthur Cummings Chase, to the array of medals, decorations and ephemera, this WWI Army officer’s grouping is nothing short of spectacular (image source: Bay State Militaria).

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.

 

Wahoo! A Bounty of Historical and Antique Books!


There are abundance of book dealers and vendors to visit at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and attendees should spend time in each booth to find the treasures they seek.

Having attended many types of collectibles (sports memorabilia, coins, comic books, etc.) and antique shows over the course of the past few decades, I can attest that this event (that held my attention for several hours) was probably the most captivating of them all.

Knowing that I had not previously attended a show of this nature, one of my militaria collector colleagues told me about the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and that there would be book dealers who specialize in military history and associated rare and hard to find publications. Knowing that I’d have an opportunity to locate an out of print work or simply peruse literal pages of military history made attending this show an absolute must.

While the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair is dominated by vintage and collectible books, there is also a considerable amount of ephemera, such as this WWI war savings stamps poster, for sale.

These two late-19th century books are in pristine condition.

Waiting in line to enter the exhibition hall, a staff member briefed the eager crowd about the rules, in order to provide the sellers with a measure of inventory security, to gain admittance: there would be no heavy coats, large bags or loose books allowed in. Once I checked my coat, I walked through the large double doors and my eyes immediately widened. From the highly organized booth spaces, complete with LED-lighted glass display cases and large bookshelves and wall-to-wall carpet, one could tell this wasn’t the typical gathering of vendors.

The very first display that I visited, my eyes were overwhelmed by the pristine, recognizable titles. I began to peer into the gleaming displays featuring books and noted works that were worthy of the bright lights and presentation. Books from the 18th and 19th century in pristine condition were sitting side-by-side with rare, one-of-a-kind manuscripts and documents. Booth after booth, I was continually amazed by each vendor’s wares.

Unfortunately for me, most of the pieces that truly held my interest had price tags well into the thousands (such as the Narrative of the Mutiny aboard His Majesty’s Ship Bounty published in 1790 for a mere $12,500, which was exceptional). Had my bank account been more flush, I would have had a much more difficult time trying to make a decision between the various historic items for purchase.

With a few dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I couldn’t leave the show empty-handed. Having walked the entire show over the course of a few hours, I returned to an earlier-visited vendor who specializes in military books and selected the signed first edition of Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane’s World War II narrative about the legendary submarine, the USS Wahoo and her fearless skipper, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

After visiting the military book vendor’s booth several times, I was drawn to add to my collection of Medal of Honor recipients’ autographs; purchasing Rear Admiral O’Kane’s work on the WWII submarine, the USS Wahoo.

With a few dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I couldn’t leave the show empty-handed. Having walked the entire show over the course of a few hours, I returned to an earlier-visited vendor who specializes in military books and selected the signed first edition of Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane’s World War II narrative about the legendary submarine, the USS Wahoo and her fearless skipper, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

My first edition copy of Wahoo is autographed by Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane.

My feet thoroughly tired and my hunger pangs overwhelming me, my time at the fair drew to a close and I was happy to be leaving with a piece to add to my collection of autographs from notable military veterans.

Yardlong Photography and the Military: Family Military History Discovery in Less than a Yard


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.

Finding this framed yardlong photo was a pleasant surprise. It took me a second or two to spot the lettering on the life-rings to know that this was my uncles’ ship. Moments later, I found them both, posed with their shipmates.

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.

This yardlong image (a scan and a reproduction print) was sent to me by the son a of a veteran who served aboard the USS Vincennes (CL-64) during WWII.

This image was shot using a panoramic camera though it technically isn’t a yardlong photograph. The crew of the USS Vincennes (CA-44) is posed on the ship’s fantail, after 8″ turret and superstructure which is a nod to how many naval crew photos were posed in the late 19th Century.

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 wish I could have landed this photo of the USS Tacoma (CL-20) crew from 1920, four years before her demise on Blanquilla Reef, Vera Cruz, Mexico.

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.