To suggest that veterans and sailors of the U.S. Navy have an affinity for their ships would be a gross understatement. It would be difficult to stroll through any public area without seeing a former navy man sporting a ball cap with a USS ___ (fill in the blank). I have seen men well into their late 80s proudly carrying the name of the ship they served aboard, emblazoned across their foreheads, and as I write this, I am proudly wearing one of my own ship’s ball caps.
Navy ship ball caps are quite commonplace. Many of them have icons or symbols between the name and the hull number designator that make them unique to each specific ship. Some of the symbology might have nothing to do with the ship, instead being representative of the commanding officer or the crew. As far as I’ve determined, ships’ crews have been wearing the named caps aboard ship with utility (dungarees) since the 1960s.
When sailors are required to be in their dress uniforms, identifying them with their associated commands is a requirement… especially when sailors behave like, well… sailors in foreign ports. Present-day enlisted dress uniforms must be adorned with a unit identification mark (UIM) patch on the top of the shoulder of the right sleeve. This regulation has been in place since the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Prior to World War II, the navy employed a much more stylish format of placing the command names on their enlisted sailors. From the 1830s to 1960, sailors wore with their dress blue uniforms a flat hat, affectionately known as the “Donald Duck” hat. Though it wasn’t authorized, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, sailors began to adorn their flat hats with a ribbon (known as a tally) that displayed the name of the ship and was worn only when on liberty (“shore leave” to you landlubbers). Eventually, the tallies were acknowledged within the naval uniform regulations, standardizing their appearance and wear.
By 1941 and the outbreak of World War II, the rapid expansion of the fleets with many new ships under construction and being delivered to the fleet, the Navy did away with the ship names on the tallies, standardizing all with “U.S. Navy” (there is some speculation that secrecy of ship movement drove the Navy to implement this change).
Ship-named tallies are highly sought after by collectors, pushing prices on some of the more famous (or infamous) vessels well into the ranges of multiple-hundreds of dollars, regardless of condition. Due to the delicate nature of the tallies’ materials and the exposure to the harsh marine environment, the gold threads of the lettering tend to darken and tarnish. The ribbon construction was typically made with silk, so they don’t stand up well to the ravages of several decades of time and storage.
In the last few years, a tally showed up in an online auction for the first time in more than a decade of staking out anything related to USS Vincennes. Until then, I had my doubts as to whether the Navy had allowed the pre-war crew to have the tallies for their ship, even though it was in service since February of 1937, four years before they were abolished. Sadly, the selling price surpassed my maximum bid by nearly triple the amount.
Hopefully, I don’t have to wait as long until I see another USS Vincennes tally!