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.
People start collecting military patches for a number of reasons. Considering that all branches of the United States armed forces use embroidered emblems for a multitude of purposes ranging from markings of rank and rating to unit and squadron insignia, invariably, there is something worthwhile to catapult even the non-militaria collector into pursuing the colorful cacophony of patch collecting.
My own participation in collecting patches originates with my own service in the navy. What began back in those days as an effort to adorn my utility and leather flight jackets with colorful representations of my ship and significant milestones (such as deployments) morphed into a quest to complete a shadow box that would properly represent my career in the service. Many of the patches I acquired while on active duty never found their way into use and were subsequently stashed away. It was not until I began to piece together items from my career that my patch collecting interest was ignited.
Like many other military patch collectors, I expanded my hunt from a narrow focus to a much more broad approach. As I pursued patches for another shadow box project (for a relative’s service) I started to see “deals” on random insignia that I just couldn’t live without. It wasn’t before long that I had a burgeoning gathering of embroidered goodies from World War II ranging from those from the US Marine Corps, US Army Air Corps/Forces and other ancillary US Army corps, division and regimental unit insignia*. For the sake of preserving what little storage space I had available, I throttled down and began to narrow my approach once again.
In keeping with my interest in naval history in concert with my passion for local history (where I was born and raised), my military patch collecting went in a new direction. In the past several years, I have slowly acquiring items associated with several of the ships with Pacific Northwest connections. Aside from readily available militaria associated with the USS Washington, USS Idaho and USS Oregon (all of which have stellar legacies of service). items from the ships named for the various cities (in those states) pose much more of a challenge to locate. When it comes to collecting patches, that difficulty is exponentially increased.
Of the many ships named for locations or features within Washington State, the four ships named for the City of Tacoma leave very little for a military patch collector to find, considering that only one of the four served in the era when navy ship patches came into use. The USS Tacoma (PG-92), a patrol gunboat of the Asheville class was actually built and commissioned in her namesake city, served for 12 years in the U.S. Navy from 1969 to 1981. Though her career was relatively brief, she spent her early years operating in the Pacific and in the waters surrounding Vietnam conducting patrol and surveillance operations, earning her two battle stars for her combat service.
While searching for anything related to the USS Tacoma (all ships) last year, a patch from the PG-92 showed up in an online auction that really spoke to me. It was rather expensive and there were many bidders competing for the patch, so I let it go without participating. A few months later, another copy of the patch was listed prompting me to watch for bids. With no bids after a few days, I set my snipe with the understanding that someone is going to exceed my price. One bid came in seconds before the auction closed but my snipe hit at the very last second which resulted in successful outcome for me (winning the auction). It wasn’t until it arrived that I saw the ink-stamp mark on the back. It might be a bit of a detractor, but it certainly isn’t a deal breaker for this vintage 1970s-era patch. However, the patch I received most recently gives me pause.
The second USS Tacoma patch looked fantastic when viewed online even with the staining. The flag-theme evokes memories of 1975-76 and the celebration of the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On the blue canton, the “PG” encircled by the stars (there are only 10 rather than 13) refers to the hull classification of the ship. Besides the incorrect count of stars, the backing material and the construction of the embroidered edge lead me to believe that this patch was made in Asia. The staining seems as though it was added to the patch to give it some aging.
Another indication of (what I believe to be) the Spirit of 92 patch’s recent manufacture is that it smelled new. I opened the mailing pouch and the scent of new fabric (rather than a musty odor) wafted out which seems quite strange for an old patch.
Regardless of the veracity of the age, both patches are excellent additions to my meager collection.
*Related patch-collecting articles by this author:
- Collecting U.S. Navy Uniform Ship Identifiers
- Collecting Olympics, Militaria-Style!
- Forecasting Patchy Skies: Sew-on Naval Aviation Heraldry
- US Marine Corps Uniform: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia Introduction
- USMC Patch Rarities and Scarcities – What to Look For
- Theater-Made Militaria