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Sometimes Home-front and Sweetheart Pieces Are the Best Items Available


The USS Tacoma (C-18) taken shortly after her commissioning. The photo (an RPPC) is part of the author’s archive,

As much as I enjoy the brief naval warship histories that are available online, where they are lacking is often the area where my research needs them to be more complete, especially when there are artifacts that require deeper investigation. One of the ships that I am constantly on the watch for associated or connected artifacts was an early Twentieth Century protected cruiser. The USS Tacoma (C-18) was the fifth vessel of the six-ship Denver Class cruisers (hull numbers C-14 through C-19) that were placed into commission in a fourteen-month span between November 1903 to February of 1905. Oddly enough, the Tacoma was commissioned second (chronologically) behind USS Cleveland (C-19) which was the first to be placed into active service.

Artifacts from the USS Tacoma are very scarce. Apart from the occasional press photograph, few pieces become available on the collector market. Unlike other more famous warships of this era (such as the USS Maine), the Tacoma is a relatively unknown ship. Another contributing factor to the lack of USS Tacoma material could be its brief service life and untimely and sorrowful demise.

For many reasons, I have taken a concerted interest and have been on the hunt for just about anything that is even remotely contextual. In the last decade, I have been able to acquire memorabilia (rather than militaria artifacts directly obtained from the USS Tacoma or veterans who served aboard her) that is more along the lines of homefront or sweetheart pieces such as this ornate silver spoon.

This portrait (printed as a real photo postcard or RPPC) was taken between 1904 and 1913 and shows two sailors. Note the flat hat tally of the seated sailor which denotes the ship he is assigned to (the cruiser USS Tacoma).

In the last several months, I have been able to secure two pieces that fit into these categories. The first, a vintage real photo postcard (RPPC) portrait of two sailors in their dress blue uniforms. The apprentice seaman that is seated is wearing a flat hat complete with the tally around the hatband that denotes the name of the ship. The sailor standing next to him is also wearing his flat hat but, being the more salty and experienced sailor, he has customized his to be more relaxed in its appearance by removing the stiffener. With the top having a slouched appearance, the ship’s tally is concealed.

Dating this photo to a specific year is somewhat difficult however it is rather easy to narrow down the range of years by using the visible clues on the subjects, themselves. The USS Tacoma served for just under 20 years (commissioned on January 30, 1904 until she broke apart having run aground on Blanquilla Reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico on January 16, 1924) which is a broad range of time. Fortunately, enlisted uniforms underwent some significant regulations changes during that period of time.

Noting the standing sailor’s rank insignia (his badge which indicates his job specialty known in the Navy as a “rating”), there are a few elements surrounding the design of the badge and the location that, when compared with various changes to these specific areas, the era from which this photo originates is determined to be within the first decade of the ship’s service. This particular second class petty officer is a machinist’s mate which is part of the engine room force. Prior to the uniform regulations of 1913, ship’s crews were divided into two watch-standing sections (when one section is on duty, the other is either sleeping or performing daily shipboard tasks) that were known as “port” and “starboard” sections. The petty officers in those sections would wear their rating badge on the corresponding sleeve (left sleeve for port, right for starboard). With the regulations changes, the watch-standing correlation was abolished and all non-seaman branch ratings were moved to the left sleeve.

A deeper analysis of the sailor’s uniforms raises some questions regarding visible anomalies. The cuff piping on the MM2/c’s jumper top is clearly visible (the three stripes represent all three of the lower grades of non-rated seaman that he progressed through) and yet his collar and flap are blank similar to that of an un-dress jumper which should not have piping on the collar flap (and would have cuff-less sleeves).

1913 U.S. Navy Regulations – Dress White Jumper specifications.

Another interesting uniform configuration lies with the dress of the seated apprentice seaman’s under shirt – a blue knit sweater with a drawstring tied into a bow at the neckline. After pouring through the uniform regulations, I was unable to determine any stipulations governing such a configuration. Sailors were adept at customizing their uniforms to suit their personalities and level of personal comfort due to the more permissive standards of the era. With present-day regulations, uniformity and appearance is more controlled and restrictive and would negate such customized approaches.

The photograph itself wouldn’t garner much collector attention as it is merely a portrait of two unnamed sailors. To a collector of USS Tacoma memorabilia, the RPPC is golden. Perhaps a bit more interesting for some specialized collectors are home-front or sweetheart pieces (items made or purchased as remembrances of a loved one who is away from home, serving in the armed forces). Decorative and commemorative pillow covers were commonly purchased by service members for their mothers or sweethearts with the idea that a a reminder of the veteran is close at hand (kept on their bed or adorning the couch). These pieces were manufactured by vendors and sold on or near military bases and were quite common from the 1930s through the 1950s. Though commemorative pillow covers were made in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, they weren’t as prevalent.

This pre-WWI silk pillow cover is quite unique. The flags shown within the design seem to indicate its age.

When this cover was listed, it stood out and immediately drew my attention due to the brilliant colors and design along with the flags of the world. Immediately, I recognized the depiction of the ship and was astonished by the unique size and the patriotic imagery. Dating the piece is a bit of a challenge though it can certainly be narrowed down based upon the the details with what is depicted. Due to the warranted animosity towards the antagonists of the Great War, it is highly doubtful that anyone would market something that contained the flags of these aggressors.

It could be folly to rely solely upon the flag illustrations as the credible source for dating the pillow cover. Considering that available reference resources were not as current or contained current variations to draw upon. Also, the imagery is employed as a decorative element rather than to be an authoritative source for flags of the world.

 

Independent of assessing the age of the USS Tacoma pillow cover, the piece itself is near-flawless and shows no signs of wear, age or fading. It is clear that the artifact has been stored away from ultraviolet light and protected from oxidation for nearly a century.

Though not as ornately designed as the obverse, the back panel of the USS Tacoma (C-18) pillow cover resembles the naval Union Jack with the blue field and 49 stars.

The history of the ship and the tragic story surrounding her loss is compelling reason enough to seek out such artifacts. Keeping the story of the Tacoma alive by collecting and sharing artifacts from the ship and her crew is a satisfying aspect to my collecting.

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Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver


When you have a specific area of collecting interest; a focus that keeps your eyes peeled for items that are beyond the realm of the obvious, you will eventually discover the oddities or atypical pieces that you wouldn’t have intentionally sought out. Collecting can be fun when these discoveries surface, prompting you to act quickly in order to secure the piece for your collection.

Since I started collecting militaria, I have progress from a somewhat broad stance; being very unfocused and undiscriminating about what I would acquire. Lacking in direction can be problematic in that your collection grows in such a manner that you have glaring vacancies that would have otherwise helped to convey the story that you want to tell with your collection. For example, one area (of militaria collecting) that has piqued my interest baseball within the armed forces (uniforms, equipment, photographs, ephemera). Because I remain diligent in keeping my attention on this particular sport, I have abstained from allowing myself to be distracted by other sports-related areas. I have passed on several very impressive pieces that are football-oriented and would be great for a military-sports themed collection. However, these items would have detracted from focus while diverting funds away from another piece that would have been a perfect fit.

USS Tacoma Flat Hat

While this pre-WWI flat hat is in rough condition (very faded, misshaped, mothed and shoddy stitching over the ship tally), it is still highly sought after due to the scarcity of the tally. The Tacoma was lost on Blanquilla Reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico following an accidental grounding in 1924. Four of her crew were killed, including her commanding officer, Captain Herbert Sparrow. (Image source: eBay)

Being geographically-centered on my home region, I have been seeking out naval militaria that relates to my home state. Again, what I have been interested in are pieces that have ties to any installation, operation, event, person and, in particular, naval vessels named for cities and geographic features located within my home state. This mini quest has yielded some interesting artifacts that are predominately of the ephemera and antique photographic variety. Two of the most recent pieces (that are not paper or pictures) are not artifacts derived from the ships or the men who served aboard (having a flat hat with a ship’s tally are like gold) but are, instead, commemorative items that may have been presented to crew members.

Sterling Navy Spoons

Two sterling silver commemorative spoons (top: USS Washington ACR-11. Bottom: USS Tacoma Cruiser No. 18)

I am not at all interested in collecting souvenir spoons but I made an exception for these two examples from historic ships.

The inside of the bowl has a very detailed depiction of the cruiser. The reverse of the spoon is engraved with "1907, Helen."

The inside of the bowl has a very detailed depiction of the cruiser. The reverse of the spoon is engraved with “1907, Helen.”

The first spoon that I found a few years ago was in an online auction. The ornate design combined with the silver content made it easier to pull the trigger on purchasing. That it was from a ship with a great history and was named form my hometown made the purchase a no-brainer. The USS Tacoma (Cruiser No. 18) is not only a veteran of five World War One convoys, she also escorted the (then) recently discovered remains of Revolutionary War naval hero, John Paul Jones to the United States from France.

The USS Tacoma spoon is far more ornately decorated with fine details - embelishments of various aspects of Washington State and the city of Tacoma.

The USS Tacoma spoon is far more ornately decorated with fine details – embellishments of various aspects of Washington State and the city of Tacoma.

The second spoon in my collection arrived just a few days ago – again, purchased from a seller in an online auction. This spoon, slightly longer and more broad than the USS Tacoma example, commemorates the Armored Cruiser, USS Washington (ACR-11). This spoon, along with the relief of the ship (in the spoon’s bowl) has “Christmas 1911” imprinted, indicating that the spoon may have been given to crew members for that year’s holiday. By 1916, the USS Washington was reclassified and renamed USS Seattle. She went on to serve as a flagship during Atlantic convoy operations during WWI. After the war, the Seattle would be relegated to training duties and then as a receiving ship before being scrapped during WWII.

The armored cruiser, USS Washington is beautifully captured in relief in the spoon's bowl along with the details commemorating Christmas of 1911.

The armored cruiser, USS Washington is beautifully captured in relief in the spoon’s bowl along with the details commemorating Christmas of 1911.

I have had no success in my research attempts regarding either of these pieces beyond what is imprinted on either one. For now, I am content with having them as artistic enhancements to my collection.

Patrolling for Patches: Seeking the Hard-to-Find Embroidery


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.

USS Tacoma (PG-92)

USS Tacoma (PG-92). (Source: U.S. Navy)

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.

USS Tacoma (PG-92)

This USS Tacoma (PG-92) ship’s crest shows an American Indian and “Tahoma” (Mt. Rainier) in the background. The motto, “Klahow Ya Kopachuck” translates from the Chinook language to “greetings for travelers upon the water.”

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.

The Spirit of 92 - USS Tacoma (PG-92)

This USS Tacoma patch seems to be a recently manufactured item. I have my doubts as to it being an original mid-1970s era creation.

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: