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.
Collecting patches is a significant and one of the oldest segments of the militaria hobby. So much so that they established an organization (in the late 1930s), the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors (ASMIC), to better facilitate the exchange of the patches and metal insignia from American military uniforms.
Prior to World War I, U.S. armed forces were only adorned with rank insignia (chevron patches on sleeves for enlisted, collar devices and epaulettes for officers). During the Great War, units began affixing cloth insignia to their shoulders to provide visual indication of the unit to which they were assigned. This practice quickly spread as the war began winding down late in 1918 and became widely adopted, not only in the U.S. Army, but also the Marine Corps and some Naval personnel.
In World War II, the expansion of incorporating insignia to identify aircraft squadrons and other smaller units (versus Army regiments or divisions). These “logos” were caricatures that embodied general traits of the unit, their mission or even their founding leadership. Aircraft squadron insignia from WWII, naval squadrons in particular, are some of the rarest and most sought-after patches by collectors.
By the 1980s, unit insignia had become quite commonplace across all units within the US armed forces branches. In the Navy, as each new ship was placed into service, accompanying them was an officially designed and approved unit crest that bore visual representations of the ship’s name. Subsequently, the ships’ stores (where the crew members buy personal supplies, snacks and ship-branded merchandise) would offer, for sale, fully-embroidered patches of the crest.
When a ship is decommissioned (put out of service), the logos and subsequent merchandise cease to be available (other than in secondary markets). Nostalgic veterans and collectors not wanting to wait for one or two of the ship’s patches to become available in online auctions are left with scant few options. This was a situation that I recently had the joy of resolving for my former shipmates who were more than two decades removed from serving aboard our ship, the cruiser USS Vincennes.
In the past few years, an Asian-made (poor) representation of the patch was being sold infrequently in online auctions. This patch a terrible facsimile of the original as it lacked all the detail of the ship’s crest. The seller had that audacity to charge more than $10 (plus shipping) for this poor quality example. A few of my shipmates, desperate to fill a void in their ship memorabilia collection, ponied up the funds and buying the pathetic patches.
Recognizing an opportunity to remedy this issue, I went through a lengthy process of locating the original manufacturer and soliciting bids based upon the original patch design. Today, I was happy to report to my shipmates that the patches would be in their hands within a few days. The shipment of authentic ship crest insignia had arrived.
Some of you might be asking, “Is this really militaria if you’re just having it made?” I can attest that though these are newly manufactured, the patches are no different from those made (by the same manufacturer, by the way) two and a half decades ago.