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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.

 

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Airborne Radiomen


This Aviation Radioman distinguishing mark adorns the sleeve of a seaman 1/c jumper from WWII. Men and women trained to service and operate specific radio equipment for naval air forces during WWII (source: eBay image).

A simple scan of the topics of the articles that I have written over the last (nearly) six years of this site reveals that I am heavily biased towards militaria artifacts from naval service. In reviewing the books that are in my personal library, the overwhelming subjects are naval history (the runner-up topic being baseball). Within the sphere of naval militaria collecting, enlisted uniform-items dominate what I possess – rating badges, patches, hats, caps and covers and of course, the uniforms themselves.

I have a personal connection that fuels my interest in a specific area of Navy ratings – including the development of the technology that surrounds that area: radio and RADAR – and my collection is dominated by the associated job specialties. I have written about the development of radar and the radarman rating and radiomen due to the several uniforms that I have within my collection, my family history and my own interest in the application of the technology for combat advantage.

Three of my WWII chief petty officer uniform jackets are part of my predominant radioman and radarman militaria collecting focus.

Established in 1942 and enduring throughout WWII, the Aviation Radioman rating is an example of the Navys rapid technological advancement and the need to train and man the ranks accordingly.

Within the radio and RADAR arena of my collecting, I have barely touched upon these jobs as they apply to naval aviation. In terms of airborne technology, World War II saw rapid advancement in the equipment and adoption and usage to gain an edge against enemy forces. One of the ratings that played a significant role in this arena was the Aviation Radioman which was established in all grades (third, second, first class and chief petty officers) in January 1942 after recognizing the need to differentiate these radiomen from their shipboard counterparts. As with the sea-going radiomen, the field of ArMs were split between those who operated the equipment (Aviation Radiomen) and those who were skilled technicians (Aviation Radio Technician) and yet they wore the same rating insignia. In some instances, the sailors had perform in both capacities. As with the shipboard and submariners, certain aviation radiomen were aircrewmen – part of the crew that served on missions within the aircraft.

Stephen R. Walley, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class (of Albany, NY) spoke about his naval career during a May 20, 2006 interview with the New York State Military Museum. Walley’s pathway to becoming and ArM was fairly typical, stating that when he enlisted (in September, 1942) to serve, he opted to train as a Radioman in the Navy. After completing his basic training in Newport, RI, Mr. Walley was sent to four months of schooling for shipboard radio training. ”Upon completion of that course, I came out as a Radioman third petty officer.” Walley said of his early career. “At the last week of the course,” Stephen continued, “we had people come in from naval school in Memphis, Tennessee asking for volunteers to become Aviation Radiomen.” Six to eight of Walley’s graduating class from radioman school reported to Memphis for ten weeks of aviation training, learning additional skills for communication and operating aircraft radio and comms equipment. Because airborne RADAR technology was in its infancy at the time of Walley’s career, he had two additional weeks of education in operating and maintaining equipment to be prepared when the fleet aircraft would be outfitted with the highly secret gear.

Airborne radiomen required additional training in aerial gunnery school in order to be proficient in providing protection from enemy fighter aircraft. Dive (Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver) and torpedo bomber (Grumman TBF Avenger and Douglas TBD Devastator) aircraft were equipped with .30 caliber machine guns (the Avenger two gunners – the ArM would typically man the ventral-mounted .30 cal versus the dorsal .50 caliber gun) which would be the primary responsibility of these radiomen when enemy aircraft were present. Aerial gunnery school was an additional ten weeks where upon completion, these men would either choose or be selected (based upon the candidates’ height) for their aircraft assignments. The shorter men, up to 5’-9” were better suited for the cramped cockpits of the carrier-based aircraft and the taller men were assigned to train for the large, land and sea-based planes (such as the Consolidated Catalina PBY and the PB4Y-2 Privateer).

There were three crew members: (1) pilot, (2) turret gunner and (3) radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner – an aviation radioman.

With nearly 21,000 carrier-based aircraft (out of more than 56,000 naval combat aircraft), the need for ArMs was substantial. Not only was the demand for manning aircrews but also for the maintenance staff within the squadrons. In addition, aviation radiomen would fill positions in support of the airwing communications within the radio spaces of the embarked aircraft carriers. Add to this demand, manning requirements for the dozens of naval air stations and facilities in the continental United States and in the Pacific theater meant that there were countless thousands of men and women who served as aviation radiomen during the war.

In some instances, aviation radiomen served as pilots of aircraft (primarily filled by naval aviators and enlisted naval aviation pilots), such was the case for CArM Johnnie E. Mattis during the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 when he was piloting his torpedo bomber in a harrowing attack on a Japanese carrier, scoring a hit against tremendous odds. In all, more than 650 medals of valor (for the Navy, these include the Bronze and Silver Star medals, Navy and Marine Corps medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Medal of Honor) were conferred upon aviation radiomen for their service above and beyond the call of duty during WWII.

Navy Cross Recipients:

With the rapid advancement in technology in the Navy and the massive expansion of ratings leading up to and during World War II, changes were afoot for Aviation Radiomen in the years immediately following the War. The peacetime navy ranks experienced considerable contraction as more than 70% (2.3 million) of those serving at the War’s end were discharged back into civilian life. In 1945, the Aviation Radioman rating was renamed to Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate while still wearing the same mark.

This early WWII eight-button chief aviation radioman jacket has a beautiful bullion rating badge. The chief is seemingly missing a hashmark but he only served during World War II . Also featured on this jacket are the combat aircrew pin and the chief’s ruptured duck discharge patch (note that the combat aircrew wing and ribbons were added solely for the purposes of display. The sailor named in the jacket spent the duration of the war at Naval Air Station San Juan, PR).

As with the changes in Radioman rating (Electronics Technician’s Mate which was the technician side of the RM rating from 1942-1945 – was split out in 1948, creating the new ET or Electronics Technician), a new rating was established from the Aviation Radioman rating in 1948; Aviation Electronics Technician (AT).

 

DATE 8/14/45* 6/30/46 6/30/47 6/30/48 6/30/49 6/30/50
BATTLESHIPS 23 10 4 2 1 1
CARRIERS, FLEET 28 15 14 13 11 11
CARRIERS, ESCORT 71 10 8 7 7 4
CRUISERS 72 36 32 32 18 13
DESTROYERS 377 145 138 134 143 137
FRIGATES 361 35 24 12 12 10
SUBMARINES 232 85 80 74 79 72
MINE WARFARE 586 112 55 54 52 56
PATROL 1204 119 74 50 50 33
AMPHIBIOUS 2547 275 107 86 60 79
AUXILIARY 1267 406 306 273 257 218
SURFACE WARSHIPS 833 226 198 180 174 161
TOTAL ACTIVE 6768 1248 842 737 690 634

*     V-J Day (source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Year Active Naval Personnel
1940 160,997
1941 284,427
1942 640,570
1943 1,741,750
1944 2,981,365
1945 3,319,586
1946 978,203
1947 497,773
1948 417,535
1949 447,901
1950 380,739

When the Navy began to specialize the enlisted ranks in the late 1800s, special marks were incorporated to denote the skills of the enlisted sailors. This WWII aviation radioman 3/c uniform has the distinguishing mark of an aerial gunner on the right sleeve.

This aviation radioman seaman 1/c wore a Radarman distinguishing mark on the lower right sleeve of his uniform.

Collecting ArM rating badges, distinguishing marks, devices and uniforms along with other, more significant items such as named/engraved decorations (Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Heart medals) is rather rewarding, considering that the rating essentially existed for the duration of WWII. For my collection, I have acquired a selection of various rating badges and two named uniform items. While I have a sparse collection of navy decorations, both of the two uniform tops; one, a chief aviation radioman technician (CArT) and the other, a ArM3/c (with an aerial gunner distinguishing mark) were great additions even though they were stripped of decorations.

There are militaria collectors who focus on very specific artifact types such as wing devices. Still, some may hone in more tightly, choosing to keep their collecting on naval wings (of which, there are countless variations throughout the 100+ years of existence). Within my “museum,” I have a few navy wings and among them is one WWII-era combat aircrew wing device.

“The insignia featured a banner across the top on which eligible sailors could affix up to three stars signifying individual combat awards.  Aircrews engaging enemy aircraft, singly or in formation; engaging armed enemy combatant vessels with bombs, torpedoes or machine guns; and engaging in bombing or offensive operations against fortified enemy positions were qualified to wear a combat star, with unit commander approval, on their aircrew breast insignia.”

This seaman first class aviation radioman jumper shows that he was a radar technician for airborne radar equipment. This is the first example of an ArM that I have seen with the radarman distinguishing mark.

In performing the research or this article, I made several discoveries and learned how overlooked by collectors and historians alike, these men are. The distinguished actions and sacrifices made by the naval aviators (piloting the aircraft) seem to have overshadowed the duties performed by the flying radiomen of the United States Navy during the second world war.

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Why Do You Collect Militaria?


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.

One might focus solely on collecting patches (or shoulder sleeve insignia – SSI). These are the Marine Divisions (1-6). Shown are two versions of the 2nd MarDiv. Three of these patches are wool felt.

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.

This embroidery-embellished USS Newark flat hat group garnered significant attention when it was listed at auction. Having a piece like this in my collection would be a fantastic addition
(Source: eBay image).

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.

I acquired these WWII vintage Chief Radioman uniforms to create a representative display recognizing another family member’s service. Though I did inherit many family military artifacts, I do still try to either have a representation or simply complete what is missing from what I received.

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!

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.

Finding the “Lady Lex,” One Piece at a Time


A few weeks ago, our nation honored the 75th anniversary of the sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. In the past few years, we have marked significant anniversaries of victories from WWII, the War of 1812 and this year we will begin recognizing the centennial of the U.S.entrance into the Great War. For collectors, these occasions spur us to evaluate our own collections while attempting to be discerning of sellers’ listings who are also trying to capitalize on the sudden interest.

In May of this year, 75 years will have elapsed since the first significant clash between the opposing naval forces of Japan and the United States in the Coral Sea. Leading up to this battle, the Navy had suffered losses in The Philippines, Wake Island and Guam followed by the sinking of the USS Houston (in the battle of Sunda Strait) all of which were leaving the U.S. extremely vulnerable and nearly incapable of mounting a naval offensive.

The Lady Lex is rocked by an enormous explosion during the Coral Sea battle, May 8, 1942 (Photo: Naval Historical Center).

The Lady Lex is rocked by an enormous explosion during the Coral Sea battle, May 8, 1942 (Photo: Naval Historical Center).

USS Lexington (CV-2) provides electrical power to the City of Tacoma (WA) during a severe drought and subsequent electricity shortage - December 1929 - January 1930 (Photo: Tacoma Public Library).

USS Lexington (CV-2) provides electrical power to the City of Tacoma (WA) during a severe drought and subsequent electricity shortage – December 1929 – January 1930 (Photo: Tacoma Public Library).

Beginning with a joint effort between the US Army Air Force and the US Navy, the fight was taken to the Japanese home front with an B-25 air strike launched from the USS Hornet. But the direction of the war was seriously in doubt and Navy brass knew that inevitably, a direct naval engagement with the Japanese fleet were very near on the horizon.

Navy code-breakers had discovered the Imperial Japanese forces intended on taking Port Moresby in New Guinea and quickly dispatched Task Forces (TF) 11 and 17 to join up with TF 44 near the Solomon Islands and proceed West toward the Coral Sea. Over the course of May 3rd through 8th, the ensuing engagements between US and IJN forces resulted in substantial losses for both sides, including a carrier from each navy.

This 1934 postal cover commemorates the Lexington's East Coast cruise of 1934 (photo: eBay).

This 1934 postal cover commemorates the Lexington’s East Coast cruise of 1934 (photo: eBay).

For the U.S. Navy, that carrier was the USS Lexington, CV-2. Though not the first purpose-built aircraft carrier (that distinction goes to the USS Ranger CV-4), Lexington was the first to be originally commissioned as a flat top. The Langley (CV-1) had a previous life as a collier, the USS Jupiter, for seven years from 1913 to 1920. The “Lady Lex”, as she would come to be known, laid down as a battle cruiser but was reconfigured during construction and was commissioned in 1927 as the US Navy’s second carrier, CV-2.

The result of the Coral Sea Battle was that the Navy was left with just two operational carrier: Hornet and Enterprise, as the Yorktown also suffered substantial damage in the battle requiring repairs. Less than a month later, the tables would be turned on Japan with the major American victory at Midway.

The loss was not only felt by her crew and navy strategists, but also by communities, such as Tacoma, Washington. For 31 days during winter drought conditions, the Lexington was sent to aid the city’s citizens by generating power ’round the clock, helping to keep their homes lit and warm. Many of those beneficiaries of the electrical power assistance were devastated by the news of her loss.

Today, few artifacts remain from the Lady Lex. Militaria collectors would be hard-pressed to obtain anything specific to the ship, instead having to settle for obtaining USS Lexington veterans’ personal effects or uniform items, surviving ephemera, philatelics, or vintage photographs. For many naval collectors, the hunt for anything from this historic ship can very rewarding. Some artifacts can be found by happenstance as was the case with this Curtiss SB2C Hell Diver, recently pulled from the Lower Otay Reservoir near San Diego, discovered by a fisherman who observed the plane’s outline on his fish-finder.

Armed with patience and time, collectors could assemble a nice group of artifacts to pay proper respect to the Lady Lex and the men who served aboard this historic ship.

UPDATE March 5, 2018: Paul Allen’s Undersea Exploration team that has been searching and discovering the wrecks of the Pacific War, finding such infamous sunken vessels as the USS Indianapolis and the lost ships from the Battle of Savo Island (USS Vincennes, Astoria and HMAS Canberra), announced today that they have located and filmed the wreck of the USS Lexington (CV-2) at the bottom of the Coral Sea in nearly two-miles of depth.