Blog Archives

Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off


I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).

I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.

Armored Cruiser No. 11, shown here in 1909, was originally named USS Washington, and was later reclassified as a heavy cruiser and renamed USS Seattle (source: Library of Congress image).

While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.

Judging from the auction listing photo, the cover of my new vintage cruise book is in nearly pristine condition (source: eBay image).

Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.

As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.

Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).

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.

 

Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats


My military collecting focuses almost entirely on documenting my family’s service with both a narrative and visual materials. One of the products of my research will ultimately be a hardbound, four-color book complete with original photographs of these veterans and displays of their uniforms and artifacts. You’ll have to take my word that this is a lengthy undertaking, considering that most of my subjects are long-deceased, requiring interaction with the National Archives and a lot of lag time waiting for the requested service records and materials.

As I began assembling a representative group portraying my uncle’s service in the United States Navy, I soon realized that I would have to collect several uniforms as he went from an Apprentice Seaman to a Chief Warrant Officer during his thirty years of service. For this article, I am going to cover one aspect of the assembled group : headwear.

My uncle enlisted in 1932 and remained on active duty throughout World War II. By 1941, he had advanced to first class petty officer radioman. His specialty was in intelligence and he had been with Joe Rochefort, having attended the Navy’s highly secretive and fledgling cryptologic school in the 1930s. He was meritoriously promoted to chief petty officer (CPO) for his efforts supporting the commander of Task Force 16 during the Battle of Midway. In 1944, he was promoted again to Radio Electrician, Warrant Officer (grade W-1).

Possessing that information, I knew that I had to collect some chief petty officer uniforms as well as some difficult to find warrant officer items. To complete those sets, headgear could pose a significant challenge. I first had to determine what a W-1 (the Navy discontinued this rank at the war’s end) would wear as I had personally never seen the uniform. I referred to some reference material that provided some basic information, but not the specifics regarding all of the hat components for this grade. I could select either (or both) a combination or garrison cap.

With a khaki jacket in my possession and the appropriate epaulettes (shoulder boards) that are affixed to the jacket’s shoulders, I knew that I wanted to have at the very minimum, a garrison cover. Current Chief Warrant Officers’ garrison cover devices include the naval officer’s crest on one side and the rank bar on the opposing side. The rank bar devices did not exist yet during the war (instituted in the 1950s) so I was at a loss for what they wore. I contacted some navy uniform experts who informed me that the W-1 would wear only their specialty devices (in this case, the radioman insignia). During WWII, these devices are mirrored, meaning that they both “point” forward yet look the same from either side. Current devices are not mirrored – Chief Radio Electricians wear two of the same device – one is upside down.

I located a vintage set of the devices and pinned them to the WWII-vintage Navy khaki garrison cap that I had previously obtained. The hat was now complete.

6780958138_dce152675c_b

WWII-Era U.S. Navy Radio Electrician Warrant Officer’s Garrison Cap.

I turned my attention to the combination cover (some erroneously call the Navy caps “visor caps”) which is a hat with a visor that may be simply altered to match the uniform by replacing the cover with the appropriate color/material cover. Chiefs and officers could feasibly own a single hat frame (the sweatband/frame/visor) and simply change from white to blue or khaki (also grey or green) to align with the uniform of the day. I wanted to create a combination cap to go with this uniform as it looks classy.

I located a standard officer’s dress blue cover with the wide gold chin strap and the line officer’s crest. I already had a nice example of this cap so I decided that this would be a good base to create the warrant hat. Any alterations I made could easily be reversed to return it to its original state. I also kept the original owner’s name placard in the holder inside the hat. I found an original W-1 hat band and a 24k large hat insignia as well as the unique ½-inch gold chin strap (all vintage components). I disassembled the hat and replaced the appropriate parts with the newly acquired components.

6927142749_75b648227c_b

WWII U.S. Navy Warrant Officer’s (W-1) Combination Cover

One last cover I focused on was the CPO hat. Examining numerous period-photographs, I locked onto the hat that I wanted to acquire or assemble. Through the assistance of a friend, I was directed to an early WWII CPO combination cap with a grey cover that was well-enjoyed by a family of moths. The sterling silver hat device was outstanding as was the remainder of the hat. I purchased the hat and obtained a set of covers (blue, white and khaki) to accompany the three CPO uniforms (all chief radioman). Now I could display each chief uniform with using a single combination cover.

6780979352_53c9301e92_b

World War II-Era U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Combination Cover.

The remaining uniform left to tackle (for this relative, at least)? A dress blue or white jumper with neckerchief and white hat.

A Whale of a Tooth: 19th Century Naval Scrimshaw


Where does the time go? I know that my writing schedule has been severely impacted by home and work priorities (this column is nowhere near being a day job for me) and other facets of life routinely draw my attention away from my love of military history. However, my interest never truly wanes or strays very far from this passion and yet when I checked to see that my last posting was more than three months ago, I realized that I need to get back on the horse and get the creative juices stirred.

I can’t blame writer’s block or submit any grandiose excuses for not writing. I merely de-prioritized my militaria collecting during the 90-day time span. Though my acquisition pace has slowed during the last half-year, I only suggest that I’ve become hyper selective about what I add to the expanding pile. With the smattering of pieces coming through the door, I found myself asking the question, “what should I write about?”

Not wanting to overload the Veteran’s Collection with an overwhelming theme, I have been putting forth an effort to balance the various subjects. My best efforts aside, I find that my posts are skewed toward the Navy (where I served) with some of those topics focusing on a specific ship. Regardless, after a few moments of careful consideration, I decided that instead of talking about a new (to my collection) piece, I would spend some time with something that eluded me a few years ago (the subject just happens to be in a few of my wheelhouses). Missing out on this piece has haunted me since the online auction bidding surpassed my meager budget.

Without going into detail as to what fuels my interests (read my About page for those details), I’ll jump right into today’s topic.

I can bet that half of those who read this column (all four of you) are familiar with the widely popular PBS television production, Antiques Roadshow and have viewed episodes where 19th century maritime folk art objects have been viewed and appraised. One of the most popular types of that particular folk art is scrimshawed marine mammal bones (or teeth/tusks). Needless to say that along with popularity (and scarcity) of these pieces comes an array of reproductions and outright fakes onto the market. Applying the caution of a mariner skirting the shoal waters, one needs to be very knowledgeable before navigating into these waters.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The ship design in the center is clearly that of an 1820s United States Navy sloop of war (source: eBay image).

When this item was listed in an online auction, I was shocked that it lasted without being taken down by the host as genuine scrimshaw violates their established policies that forbid the sale of items made from protected animals. In reading the seller’s description, I noted that it was being sold as a piece that was manufactured from man-made materials rather than from a whale bone or tooth. However, in examining the photos of the piece, it was clearly NOT sourced from synthetics, though I couldn’t be certain without a hands-on inspection. Hoping to get clarification from the seller, I resorted to asking specific questions only to be rebuffed with a message that reiterated the details in the listing’s description.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The inscription reads, “United States Exploring Expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, 1838 | Antarctica | 1842. USS Vincennes” (source: eBay image).

The subject of the scrimshaw artwork is what drew me to the piece from the beginning. The illustrations on either side of the “whale tooth” were made to commemorate the United States very first foray into global exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition was led by the US Navy’s polarizing figure (of that era), LT Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842 and consisted of men from several biological and geological scientific disciplines along with illustrators, geographical surveyors and naval officers and men aboard six US Navy vessels – the flagship being the sloop of war, USS Vincennes.

On one side of the tooth is a rather elaborate design of the three-masted sloop (a port-side view) that is centered among an array of flags with an eagle perched above an American-themed shield holding arrows and an olive branch which is very reminiscent of 19th century designs. On the reverse is an unrolled scroll that appears to be a banner with the US Ex. Ex, Wilkes’ name, the dates and “Antarctica” emblazoned across. Immediately beneath the scroll is the name of the expedition’s flagship, “USS Vincennes.”

I grappled with deciding to bid on the object. There was no definitive manner in which to determine the authenticity or if it was, in fact, a mocked up piece of plastic. I was left to weigh all of the evidence and draw conclusions (aside from the fact that the seller stated that it wasn’t the real thing which could easily be that person’s subverting of the online auction site’s rules).

USS Brooklyn Scrimshaw

An example of an 19th Century whale’s tooth scrimshaw depicting the USS Brooklyn (source: dukeriley.info)

Scrimshawed Whale's tooth.

Showing a vintage whale’s tooth scrimshaw mounted to a cork base. Note the similar themes (to the USS Vincennes tooth) and the odd number of stripes on the shield (source: Wikimedia).

The cons

  • The tooth is very bright for an early 19th century piece. Most scrimshawed items tend to yellow with time. After 170 years, the bone/tooth material should be much darker.
  • Taking a look at the artwork design, what gave me reason to pause is that the artist departed from the widely used American themes within his design. The eagle’s shield is lacking the correct number of stars and stripes (shown are three and 11, respectively).
  • The wooden base (which appears to be of dark walnut) that the tooth is mounted to seems to be fairly modern; almost new, conditionally.
Early 19th century flag

This early 19th century flag depicts the three-starred shield and 9 stripes yet the eagle faces his right shoulder (source: NAVA).

The pros

  • As someone who, for the last two decades, has been searching for anything pertaining to any of the US Navy warships that bore the same name, this is the only scrimshaw that I have encountered that had any reference to the ship or the expedition. Uniqueness is definitely a plus in that if someone was going to bother manufacturing fakes of this nature, there would, most-likely be multiple examples appearing on the market.
  • The cons that I listed above can be explained. The artist may not be as detail-oriented when it comes to the thirteen stars and stripes. However, the direction that the eagle’s head faces is accurate for the time (facing its left shoulder). The illustration of the ship is very accurate to that of the 1820s U.S. sloop of war (designed by Samuel Humphreys) which leads me to believe that the artwork is correct to the period.
  • The base could have been merely a replacement or an addition by a subsequent owner.
  • The piece may have been stored in a cool, dark location for most of its existence, which could possibly account for the lack of typical aging effects.
USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The walnut base appears to be a fairly recent addition as it shows no signs of aging (source: eBay image).

After several days of careful consideration, I decided that it was worth a nominal investment risk and configured my bid snipe program accordingly. Within a few hours of the auction close, the bidding (from multiple parties) surpassed my maximum and I watched this beautiful piece of scrimshaw slip into someone else’s hands for several hundred dollars above my limit. It seems that other collectors had arrived at the same conclusion that I had and the benefit of owning such a nice piece far exceeded the risk that it might not be authentic.

For me, this whale tooth was not to be.

Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII


Patch collecting is one of the most affordable aspects of militaria collecting and can be a highly rewarding venture to delve into the history and variations that are available. I am, by no means a serious collector of patches opting instead to be selective about the embroidered and colorful pieces of uniform history.

While the overwhelming majority of militaria collectors who have interests in patch collecting are primarily focused on United States Army unit and rank insignia, a smaller portion of us enjoy the eclectic realm of U.S. Navy enlisted rank insignia and the very colorful and meaningful progression of their designs through the ages. That historical progression along with all of its nuances is enough to fill a book (see U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982
, by John A. Stacey) so with today’s article, I am instead zeroing in on a specific design from a seemingly specific era.

In the modern US Navy, rating badges are consistent in appearance and wear. From the design elements (eagle, specialty mark and chevrons) to the materials they are constructed from, they are all consistent. While this concept places emphasis on the uniformity of appearance and the unit-mindset (that all crew members work together as a single entity), it does restrict the ability for sailors to express and exhibit a measure of individuality and personal pride in their uniform appearance. The current rating insignia (in my opinion) have a rather sterile and sanitized appearance as they are all manufactured by a single source using one design pattern for each and every piece that is made. However, in previous years, sailors had much more freedom to instill their own spices into their uniforms.

Pre-1913 Navy Rating Badges

This selection of pre-1913 dress white Navy rating badges demonstrate the scarlet chevron (eliminated in 1913) and the left-leaning eagle (discontinued in 1941). Photo source: US Militaria Forum

Rating badge collectors might focus their approach from casting a wide net (collecting everything that comes their way) to obtaining every single variety of a specific rating over the course of its existence. I find my collecting efforts to be even more specific as I seek only a handful of specialties (Radarman, Radioman, Ship’s Cook and Pharmacist’s Mate along with a few others)  from varied eras (WWI-WWII) on select uniform choices (such as dress blues, whites or khakis). Though my choice of eras might seem rather specific, a closer look at the uniform regulations and the changes imposed during that time-frame reveals that the design of the ratings experienced several iterations.

“All petty officers shall wear on the outer garment a rating-badge, consisting of a spread eagle placed above a class chevron. In the interior angle of the chevron, under the eagle, the specialty mark of the wearer shall be placed. The badge shall be worn on the outer side of the right or left sleeve, half way between the shoulder and elbow. Petty officers of the starboard watch will wear the badge on the right arm; those of the port watch on the left arm.”  – Regulations Governing the Uniform of Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers,  and Enlisted Men of the United States 1886

Dating back to 1886, the design (as cited in the uniform regulations) of the eagle called for its wings to be spread. The eagle’s head also now faced toward its left shoulder (having previously faced to the right) and would do so until 1941 when regulations then called for the head to point to the wearer’s front (regardless of the sleeve it was to be worn…more on that later).

Coxswain

WWI-era Coxswain rating badge that has been cut to form a shield shape. Photo source: US Militaria Forum

Prior to 1913, ships’ crews were divided into two watchstanding sections and were designated with terms that corresponded with the left (port) and right (starboard) sides of the ship which dictated which sleeve the sections’ petty officers would wear their rating badges. From 1913 onward, all petty officers whose specialties were in the Seaman Branch (such as Boatswain’s Mate, Coxswain, Gunner’s Mate, Turret Captain and Quartermaster) were right-arm ratings while all others in the Artificer Branch and Engine Room Force wore theirs on the left sleeve. What can make this confusing for new collectors is finding a rating badge (such as an electrician’s mate) with the eagle pointing toward the left shoulder. Finding this rating badge affixed to a dress blue jumper with it worn on the left sleeve would narrow the time-period down (given the embroidered pattern of the eagle had the eagle sitting completely vertical on the perch) to the inter-war era.

Though the practice started years before, during World War I, rating badges were customized by petty officers by trimming them from the traditional 5-sided shape (rectangle with the bottom corners cut away to form a point) to a contoured pattern. Fancy hand-stitching was then applied to follow the new shape (many times in the shape of a shield) providing a highly stylized appearance on the jumper shirt. As with many fads, this adornment fell out of practice as the Navy specified the pentagon shape and dimensions in a specific change (dated 16 February 1933) to the Navy Uniform Regulations.

In 1941, the Navy changed the eagle to point to the wearer’s front specifying that all non-Seaman Branch petty officers’ ratings have the eagle look to its right shoulder (rather than to the left). The Seaman Branch (which had grown to include Fire Controlman, Mineman, Signalman, Torpedoman’s Mate). In addition to the eagle’s direction, the eagle no longer included the slouched (or leaning) posture that had existed for decades.Though there is no provenance to support this, the idea for these changes was to have the eagle positioned for fighting (facing the enemy and standing tall).

WWI-era Ship's Cook second class

Note the left-leaning eagle on this WWI-era Ship’s Cook second class rating badge.

Pharmacist's Mate 2/c

This dress white Pharmacist’s Mate 2/c rating badge is pre-1941 as noted by the left-facing eagle and its slight right-lean on the perch.

 

During WWII, a handful of manufacturers provided dates embroidered directly onto the back of rating badges which nullifies the need for researching.

Pharmacist's Mate 1/c - WWII-era.

Following the release of the 1941 uniform regulations, the non-seaman branch ratings’ eagles were switched to face forward as the badge (as worn on the left sleeve).

Radarman 1/c

This Radarman 1/c was made in 1944 as noted by the embroidered date on the reverse.

I have merely scratched the surface with these details. There are pages-worth of content that I could provide that provides additional points and factors to pay attention to in order to discern the date of manufacture (and use) of the rating badge, such as:

  • Cloth material (enlisted dress blue material changed between WWI and WWII, additional materials were introduced for WWII, etc.)

  • Rating Specialties (ratings were added/retired throughout this period)

In 1947, the most significant change that indicated a desire for uniform appearance across enlisted ranks was moving all ratings to the left arm with the eagle facing forward.  The distinction between the Seaman Branch and all other petty officers was removed.

In the months to come, I will be providing additional articles in order to provide you with more insight into collecting rating badges and how to discern them without having to rely on others.

—-
All images are the property of  their respective owners or M. S. Hennessy unless otherwise noted. Photo source may or may not indicate the original owner / copyright holder of the image.