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.
After publishing more than 100 articles (this is my 106th, to be precise), it is odd that I would make a U-turn and head back to a topic that I should have posted when I commenced this militaria-writing venture. There are many times when I find myself in conversations with people when I am explaining my unusual interest of gathering artifacts that were used in the armed forces in some capacity. I have touched on various aspects of my own rationale behind my interests in several posts, however nothing as fundamental or foundational to what lies at the root of my interest. Though I have been actively collecting artifacts since 2008-9, my interest in militaria began many years earlier.
What is Militaria? Merriam-Webster defines it as “military objects (as firearms and uniforms) of historical value or interest.” The definition of the word is fairly ambiguous and vague when one considers what could fall into the category of military objects.
The categories of military objects can be quite expansive ranging from matchbook covers and photographs to uniforms and weapons. There is something for anyone interested in almost any aspect of military history. As with most collectibles, militaria objects can cross over into multiple categories which can bring larger audiences and have significant influence on pricing. For example, in the area of military patches, militaria collectors can find themselves competing with Disney collectors for Walt Disney-designed aviation squadron patches from World War II. Vintage photograph collectors may be competing with the militaria collector for the same WWI yard long images.
Crossover collectability is good for the hobby as it provides opportunity to focus on specific interests that may be out of the mainstream for either facet. While many militaria hobbyists gather M-1 helmets, insignia, or edged weapons, very few seek out matchbooks.
My own interest in militaria was fostered during my quest to uncover the details surrounding the military service of my ancestors and family members. I also inherited a number of personal effects (militaria) from a few of those veterans which drove me to document their service. As with collecting, one item led to another and soon I found myself piecing together shadow boxes honoring their service and assembling their uniforms for display purposes.
Where do your interests lie? Nineteenth century, Napoleonic wars? Eighteenth century British naval officer uniforms? Medals and decorations of the former Soviet Union? Or perhaps your interests lie in the current conflicts of the United States (Iraq and Afghanistan). One can specialize in assembling the various uniforms for WWII women’s services such as W.A.C., W.A.V.E.S. or W.A.S.P.– but be prepared to pay premiums for these hard-to-find items. Whatever your interest, you should find a collecting niche that aligns with your interest.
Unless you inherited a museum full of artifacts, narrowing your collecting is advisable with the considerable financial outlay you will be facing as you expand or fill in the gaps in your collection. Instead of broad categories such as anything World War II-related, one can be very specific and pursue items from the U.S. Army 4th infantry division. Uniforms, insignia, notable personalities, valor medal recipients or any number of special interests would make the hunt exciting and possibly keep costs manageable.
My collection consists of uniform items, medals, ribbons, documents and photos. All of which has context or tie-in to my family history. In addition to the displays and groups I have assembled, I also have acquired some items that have piqued my interests (or distracted me). While I haven’t purchased any of them, I did manage to obtain a nice group of Third Reich militaria that was “liberated” by one of my relatives, a U.S. Army officer. But in keeping with my focus, I haven’t pursued any additional items to add to that theme.
Follow your heart and your interest!
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.