Because I am known within my family and circle of friends as the military-history person, I am on the receiving end of artifacts from those who know about my interests. From the moment that I was gifted with my maternal grandfather’s WWII navy uniforms and decorations (which can be seen in this post) and my grand uncle’s Third Reich war souvenirs, my appreciation for military history was ignited.
Over the years, I have either received or been approached to determine my interest in becoming the steward of historical family military items which have included, uniforms, medals and decorations, weapons (along with artillery rounds and small arms ammunition), flags, documents and other historical pieces. Some of the most special items that I have inherited have been photography (albums and individual photos). With the last box of items that were part of two family estates (my paternal grandparents and a step-relative), I received a nearly two-foot long, vintage panoramic photograph (known as a yardlong photo due to their length: these images can be nearly thee feet in length) of a U.S. Navy crew, professionally positioned and posed pier-side in front of their destroyer.
For the first half of the 20th Century, a common practice within the military was to capture, in photographs, an entire company, regiment, even battalion of soldiers. The same holds true with the compliment of naval vessels with divisions, departments or even the full crew (obviously, size of the ship and on-duty personnel dictate who is present in a photo). The photographs were taken with cameras that allow the lens to be pivoted or panned from side to side in order to span the entire width of the subject, exposing a very large piece of film. As with the negative, the resulting images were elongated and fairly detailed (most often, these were contact prints, the same size as the negative). However the extremities of the photographs were slightly distorted or lacking in crisp lines due to the chromatic aberration that is almost unavoidable. For the most part, the elongated images are quite detailed and almost without exception, faces are recognizable when the military units were captured within these yardlong photographs. There are still photographers creating panoramic images using vintage cameras and film.
The photograph that I received was in an old frame, backed with corrugated cardboard and pressed against the glass pane. As I inspected the image, I noticed the ship in the background behind the crew that was posed in their dress white uniforms. Noting the blue flaps and cuffs on the enlisted jumpers, I knew that the photo was taken in the 1930s. My eyes were drawn to the two life-rings that were held by sailors on each end of the image, displaying the name of the ship; USS Smith and the hull number, 378. From researching my paternal grandmother’s siblings, I discovered that both of her brothers had served in the U.S. Navy and were both plankowners of the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Smith (DD-378). Dating the image will take a little bit of work (there are no indications of when it was taken – not in the photographer’s marks on either corner nor written on the back). However, I do know when the ship was commissioned, when my uncles reported aboard and departed the ship. Discernible in the image on my uncles’ uniforms are some indications of rank. I can tell that the older brother (who enlisted in 1932) is a petty officer (he reported aboard as a Seaman 1/c) and the younger brother was still a seaman (I can’t see the cuffs of his uniform to determine the number of white piping stripes present) as noted by the blue cord on his right shoulder. I should be able to narrow down the period once I can go through the massive service records to locate dates of rank. However, my initial assessment is that the photo might have been captured near the time of commissioning or, perhaps to commemorate a change of commanding officers.
Being an archivist for my ship and the recipient of some fantastic artifacts, I have been contacted by folks seeking to provide me with images to preserve within my photo archive. A few years ago, a gentleman emailed requesting to send to me a copy of a yardlong photograph that his father, a WWII navy veteran, owned from his time in service. The image was of the second cruiser (USS Vincennes) that was named for the city in Southwestern Indiana. The Cleveland-class light cruiser, hull number 64, had been laid down as the USS Flint but was changed during construction following the loss of the heavy cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island on August 8-9, 1942. The light cruiser was completed and commissioned on January 21, 1944 and served gallantly through WWII and was decommissioned in September of 1946. The man who contacted me had the ship’s photo scanned at a high resolution and sent the image file to me (on a thumb-drive along with a full-size print).
I am not a collector of yardlong photography but when the images are contextual to the areas that I do collect, I am happy to be able to acquire them. Receiving the image of the Smith and finding my grandmother’s brothers in the photograph motivated me to promptly hang it with my other family military history. In scanning the image for this article, I am reminded that I need to have it properly framed with archival materials to allow it to be preserved for generations to come.
Remaining focused with collecting can be a challenge, especially when it comes to militaria. If you are a die-hard fan of military history, it becomes quite difficult to keep composed when unique pieces of history become available. However, when one of those unique items surface that actually does directly tie-in to one’s principal areas of collecting, it cannot be passed up.
During the first four of my ten years of naval service, I was blessed to be assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the U.S. Navy’s newest (at that time) cruiser – the first to be assigned to the Pacific Fleet – the USS Vincennes. My assignment was handed to me as I was graduating from my naval training school and, at that time, I had no idea of the history of the name of that ship. It was a name that I struggled to pronounce correctly.
Upon reporting in to the command located in San Diego, where the ship was to be homeported upon completion, I was quickly immersed into the history of the ship’s name and bowled over by the sheer excitement and passion for the legacy of the citizens of the Indiana city from where the ship drew her name. I was also immediately connected to a 500-member-strong group of World War II veterans (who had served aboard either of the two WWI cruisers that also bore the name), all of which had incredible pride for this ship. These men and their wives had played a significant role in convincing the navy leadership to name the third ship of the Ticonderoga class cruisers to honor three previous front-line navy warships that had also carried the name Vincennes.
Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been immensely interested in anything pertaining to the three previous USS Vincennes warships. I’ve collected press photos, news articles, first day postal covers and other ephemera that are somehow connected to the ships. Seldom have I seen items with more direct significance than something that actually came from the ships as preserving the history during their service was neither a thought, or in the case of the CA-44 – which was sunk by the Japanese at Savo Island on August 9, 1942— possible. A few months ago, an interesting piece surfaced that had historical significance and direct ties to the CA-44. More than likely, it was aboard the ship as part of a daily routine. While it isn’t anything that is correlated to a battle or naval engagement, the importance of this piece did provide some ancillary historical details regarding the configuration changes made to the weapons and other shipboard systems.
Listed on an online auction site was, at least for me, was the holy grail. It is a binder containing work orders for electrical jobs during an overhaul period in 1939. Contained within are forms and handwritten work orders specifying upgrades and configuration changes made to the ships electrical systems. Some work orders detail modernization of weapons systems that would meet the changes to the geopolitical landscape and the escalation of war in Europe and Asia.
I was fortunate that my bid was high enough to beat out others but was still in line with my budgetary limitations.
The binder provides me with a fantastic vantage point as I continue to document the history of these great warships and is a great addition to my tiny Vincennes collection.
Regardless of how much knowledge you may possess, making good decisions about purchasing something that is “collectible” can be a risky venture ending in disappointment and being taken by, at worst, con-artists or at best, a seller who is wholly ignorant of the item they are selling. Research and gut-instinct should always guide your purchases for militaria. Being armed with the concept that when something is too-good-to-be-true, it is best to avoid it. I recently fell victim to my own foolishness when I saw an online auction listing for an item that was entirely in keeping with what I collect.
I am very interested in some specific areas of American naval history and one of my collecting focus centers around a select-few ships and almost anything (or anyone) who might have been associated with them. One of those ships (really, four: all named to honor the Revolutionary War battle where American George Rogers Clark was victorious in Vincennes, IN), the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) is one in particular that I am constantly on the lookout for.
In early September (2016), a listing for an item that surfaced in one of my saved searches results, caught my attention on eBay. The auction description made mention of a book, Savo: The incredible Naval Debacle Off Guadalcanal, that happens to be one of the principle, reliable sources for countless subsequent publications discussing the August 8-9, 1942 battle in the waters surrounding Savo Island. Though I read this book (it was in our ship’s library) years ago, it is a book that I wanted to add to my collection but until this point, never found a copy that I wanted to purchase. What made this auction more enticing was that this book featured a notable autograph on the inside cover. In viewing the seller’s photos, I noted that the dust jacket was in rough shape but the book appeared to be in good condition (though the cover and binding were not displayed). There were no bids and the starting price was less than $9.00.
I have been a collector of autographs and have obtained several directly from cultural icons (sports stars, actors, musicians) but my favorites are of notable military figures (recipients of the Medal of Honor [MOH] and other servicemen and women) who distinguished themselves in service to our country. The signature in this book featured a retired naval officer who was the recipient of the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross (surpassed only by the MOH) and who played a significant role in the Battle of Savo Island as he was the commanding officer of the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) and the senior officer present afloat (SOPA) for the allied group of ships charged with defending the northern approaches (to Savo and Tulagi islands). Frederick Lois Riefkohl (then a captain) commanded the northern group which consisted of four heavy cruisers; (including Vincennes) USS Quincy (CA-39), Astoria (CA-34) and HMAS Canberra (D33).
By all accounts, the Battle of Savo Island (as the engagement is known as) is thought to be one of the worst losses in U.S. naval history (perhaps second only to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor) as within minutes of the opening salvos by the Japanese naval force, all four allied ships were left completely disabled and sinking (all would succumb to the damage and slip beneath the waves in the following hours). Though the loss was substantial, the Japanese turned away from their intended targets (the allied amphibious transport ships that were landing marines and supplies on Guadalcanal and Tulagi) missing a massive opportunity to stop the beginnings of the allied island-hopping campaign. The First Marine division was permanently entrenched on these islands, and would drive the Japanese from the Solomons in the coming months.
Captain Riefkohl was promoted to Rear Admiral and retired from the Navy in 1947 having served for more than 36 years. He commanded both the USS Corry (DD-334) and the Vincennes and having served his country with distinction, the Savo Island loss somewhat marred his highly successful career.
As I inspected the book, there were a few aspects that gave me reason for pause. First, the seller described the book as “SAVO by Newcomb 1957 edition” which left me puzzled. Secondly, the Admiral included a date (“May 1957”) with his signature. Recalling that Newcomb’s book was published in 1961 ( See: Newcomb, Richard Fairchild. 1961. Savo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.), I was a bit dismayed by the four-year discrepancy between the date of the autograph and (what the seller determined to be the) first edition published date. I wondered, “how did he determine this date and where did he find this information?” I noted that there was no photograph of the book’s title page accompanying the auction.
I decided to take a gamble that at worst, would result in me spending a small sum of money for an autograph that I wanted for my collection and at best was merely a fouled up listing by an uninformed seller. I pulled the trigger and my winning bid of $8.99 had the book en route (with free shipping, to boot)!
Nearly two weeks later, the package arrived. I reservedly opened the packaging and freed the book from the layers of plastic and bubble wrap. I inspected the ragged dust jacket and removed it to see the very clean cover which didn’t seem to match. I opened the book and viewed Riefkohl’s autograph which appeared to match the examples that I have seen previously. I turned to the title page and confirmed my suspicions. Death of a Navy by an obscure French author, Andrieu D’Albas (Captain, French Navy Reserve). “Death” is not worthy enough to be considered a footnote in the retelling of the Pacific Theater war as D’ Albas’ work is filled with errors. By 1957 (when this book was published), most of what was to be discovered (following the 1945 surrender) from the Japanese naval perspective was well publicized before the start of the Korean War. It is no wonder why Andrieu D’Albas published only one book.
My worst-case scenario realized, I now (merely) have the autograph of a notable U.S. naval hero in my collection. While I could have gone with my gut feelings about the auction listing, having this autograph does offset my feelings of being misled (regardless of the seller’s intentions).
Riefkohl’s Navy Cross Citation:
The Navy Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Frederick L. Riefkohl, U.S. Navy, for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commander of the Armed Guard of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and in an engagement with an enemy submarine. On August 2, 1917, a periscope was sighted, and then a torpedo passed under the stern of the ship. A shot was fired, which struck close to the submarine, which then disappeared
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, secrecy of ship movement drove the Navy to replace the embroidered ship name with simple, “U.S. Navy” text.
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!