Patrolling For USS Vincennes Veterans: A Subtle Naval Aviator Find
In reviewing the archive of previous articles on this site, it is becoming apparent to me that a few trends have truly taken shape with both the subject matter and the items that I have been pursuing for my collection. Specializing or focusing one’s collection helps provide direction, structure and boundaries for pursuits that will empower collectors to have discipline when “cool” pieces or “good deals” surface but are outside of the lines. As has been previously recommended, focusing prevents collectors from being overwhelmed and crowded-in with too many items. Perhaps readers can already determine the direction of this article without reading further and maybe those who choose to continue from this point will be rewarded with a compelling story or information about a piece.
I make no secrets about the sort of pieces that I pursue with my collecting interests and I am reminded constantly by friends, family and colleagues that I have been effective in communicating my activities. When I received a private message from a collector colleague regarding an auction listing that detailed a uniform item from a naval aviator who had served aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) before World War II, I was compelled to check into the auction. When I attempted to access the link to the auction listing that accompanied the message, the listing had closed, though without a bid being submitted.
The item shown in the listing was a naval officer’s service dress blue uniform jacket. The sleeve cuffs were each adorned with three, same-sized gold bullion stripes, indicating that the original owner held the rank of a line officer commander. On the left breast of the jacket is a custom-made ribbon bar that told of the officer’s service which included duty before, during and after World War II (through the Korean War). Inside the right side of the jacket, the Naval Uniform Shop – Brooklyn label with the name, “J. Ramee” along with the date that it was either ordered or made (November 8, 1955). The tailor’s information specifying the customer’s request is imprinted on the label (in addition to the commander’s name and possibly his service number): blue gaberdine material and including customized aviator’s wings and ribbons – both secured in place. All of the information on the label matched the construction of the jacket with one significant exception, the lack of aviator’s wings.
A close inspection of the photos within the listing reveals the ghost-imprint of the former placement of bullion wings which where, quite obviously removed by a militaria collector in search of a quick profit. While the uniform jacket has some monetary value to militaria collectors, those who specialize in the adornments (collar devices, warfare devices such as wings, combat badges, etc., medals and ribbons and sleeve insignia) seldom desire a full uniform (or the commitment to preservation and storage such pieces require) for their collection. This “Ramee” jacket was quite obviously chopped for its most valuable element.
What drew my attention to the uniform jacket was the same aspect that led my collector colleague to reach out to me regarding the listing. A cursory search for information regarding Commander J. Ramee produced fantastic results. Besides Ramee being a very unique name (the only one listed in the Naval Officers Registers during the period of time in which this man served was John Ramee), it was one of his earliest assignments that stood out to me – he served aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) from 1937-38 soon after earning his aviator’s wings. This aspect certainly piqued my interest in the jacket however that was quickly tempered by the fact that the auction had already closed prior to me viewing the listing. With prompting by my fellow collector and my wife, I sent an inquiry to the seller in an effort to determine availability and if there was a willingness to negotiate a mutually beneficial price. After an exchange of messages, the jacket was on its way.
Who was Commander John Ramee? I am compelled to research every item in my collection, especially those pieces that are tied to individuals. Before the jacket arrived, I proceeded to learn as much about this naval aviator as I could find. Through sources such as Ancestry, Google and my growing online archive of U.S. Naval Academy annuals (known as the “Lucky Bag”), I was able to gather a fair amount of information regarding Commander Ramee’s service.
John Francis Wyman Ramee entered flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1935 (he was in class 80) and graduated in 1936 with his wings of gold and was subsequently stationed aboard the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) as an aviator, flying the ship’s catapult-launched SOC Seagull scout float planes. Graduating as part of the United States Naval Academy’s class of 1933, Ensign Ramee was most-likely bitten by the flying bug while serving aboard his first ship, USS Saratoga (CV-3), the third United States aircraft carrier. It was aboard this ship where the young naval officer witnessed the Navy’s developing combat air tactics via the various Fleet Problems (these were essentially extensive war games) the Saratoga participated in. By the time Ramee was set to detach from the carrier, The Sara’s new commanding officer was Captain William “Bull” Halsey who most-likely would have signed his detaching orders.
As with his time aboard the lead ship in the heavy cruiser class (USS New Orleans), John Ramee flew the relatively new biplane scout aircraft, the Curtiss SOC Seagull which was affixed with a large, center-line float with outboard opposing outboard wing-mounted floats for stability during taxiing, take-offs and landings. The USS Vincennes carried four of the aircraft and, due to the fold-ability of the Seagulls’ wings, two could be stored in each of the ship’s two small hangars. Unsuccessful in locating specific details of Ramee’s assignment dates, it appears that he might have been present at the time of the ship’s commissioning (February 24, 1937). In a post-career (published after 1972) retrospective for the USS Wasp (CV/CVA/CVS-18), a summary of Ramee’s career noted his mentioning of the USS Vincennes’ post-shakedown cruise to the North Atlantic with port visits to Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland (the ship also visited Le Havre, France and Portsmouth, England) as highlights of his time aboard the CA-44.
With Ramee’s next duty assignment listed as VP-44 (most-likely a detachment that was then stationed at Seattle, WA) in 1939, I was reminded of a 1938-dated photo that I acquired years ago showing the bulk of the USS Vincennes’ crew positioned and posed in the after section of the ship. The large print is so clear that one can discern faces for most of the visible men in the photo. Armed with a photo taken from the 1933 Lucky Bag, I began to zoom into each officer in search of the pilot. After a cursory pass, one man in particular kept drawing my attention. Glancing down at his chest, an aviator’s wing pin is affixed to his left chest. Obviously, there is more to the facial recognition practice than I have experience with, but I am fairly certain that the man in the USS Vincennes crew photo is John Ramee.
Following his tour on the Vincennes, Ramee spent a few years attached to Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) which, according to his bio (in the USS Wasp book) was located in Seattle (most likely at Naval Air Station Sand Point), however, the squadron history states that it wasn’t established until 1941. A follow-on assignment for Ramee saw him flying with VP-33 detachment (based at NAS Coco Solo, Panama) during the Neutrality Patrols, leading up to the United States entry into World War II. With War raging in two theaters, Ramee spent time with different commands lending his time in different capacities (including temporary duty aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11) following her August 1943 commissioning.
For nearly two years, Lieutenant Commander Ramee served as an aviator and assistant air officer aboard the newly commissioned USS Wasp (CV-18) (note: Ramee’s bio mentions his receipt of a Navy Presidential Unit Citation ribbon though the Wasp was not awarded the decoration). His final wartime assignment was located back in the Pacific Northwest as part of the “Commissioning Detail” (pre-commissioning crew) serving as the air officer for the USS Commencement Bay (CVE-105) during her construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards at Tacoma, Washington, which was located on the shores of her namesake body of water.
John Ramee’s naval aviation career continued in the years following the end of the war with service at Naval Air Station Quonset and aboard the seaplane tender USS Abermarle (AV-5) serving as the ship’s operations officer and making a return to his roots. Promoted to the rank of commander in 1948, Ramee found himself serving overseas at Naval Air Base Guam followed by assignments with the Chief Intelligence Section in the Office of Petroleum Programs as well as with them munitions board of the Joint Petroleum before he finally retired in 1959, having served 26 years on active duty.
While my research trail for Commander Ramee has reached its end (there are deeper dives that can be done but they require additional resources) and I have essentially discovered enough about him to have a fairly decent overview of his naval career. One area of Ramee’s service (including his four years at Annapolis) that I had been hopeful to find surrounded athletics – specifically baseball. Commander Ramee coached and played basketball while at flight school in Pensacola and at NAS Quonset as well as being a highly competitive seniors tennis player in the late 1950s. Later in life, Ramee’s passion for flight never diminished as he owned and flew is own Stinson aircraft.
Curiosity combined with the desire to accurately document Commander Ramee’s service does fuel my compulsory desire to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request a summary of his service and awards in the near future. The discrepancy between Ramee’s awards and decorations affixed to his dress uniform and the mention of being awarded the PUC ribbon (which is absent from those on the jacket – see listing below) might indicate that there are other decorations that might be missing (such as an air medal).
- Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon
- American Defense Medal (with hole from missing device)
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal – WWII (7 campaigns)
- World War II Victory Medal
- National Defense Service Medal (Korean Wartime service)
- Philippine Liberation Medal – World War II
Besides Ramee’s own naval career, he comes from a family of servants to the nation. He was born on December 4, 1911 in the Philippines to Per Ramee, a Swedish immigrant (class of 1904, West Point) and Frances Ruth Wyman, the daughter of a Civil War veteran from Minnesota. At the time of John’s birth, John’s father, Per was a young officer serving in the U.S. Army. Per Ramee would serve and see action in both World Wars and would be joined in the armed forces by his three other children:
- Eric Per – Colonel, U.S. Army, West Point Class of 1935 (Silver Star Recipient, WWII)
- Ruth – Major, U.S. Army Air Forces, USAF (WWII, Korea)
- Paul Wyman, Colonel U.S. Army (WWII, Korea, Vietnam)
With the cold research trail, the remainder of Commander Ramee’s life will remain untold. A final mystery surrounding the retired naval aviator is the location of his final resting place. With all of his siblings and his parents accounted for, it seems somewhat odd that John would be, as of yet, the only one of Per and Frances Ramee’s children (the oldest and the last to pass away) to not be interred.
As soon as Commander Ramee’s jacket arrived, I began searching for a suitable replacement bullion wing to restore the jacket to its proper state. Another friend and collector colleague happened to be visiting the largest militaria convention in the United States (the Ohio Valley Military Society’s Show of Shows) which prompted me to reach out to see if he could source a suitable replacement on my behalf. After approximately an hour, three photos of bullion naval aviator wings were in my messenger app. A short time later, the wing that I selected was in my hands, ready to be placed on Ramee’s jacket (I can’t help but imagine another pilfered uniform jacket with a missing wing).
Perhaps this story isn’t a repeat after all and it merely shines a spotlight on a specific area in which I focus my collection. Commander Ramee was a naval aviator who served along with thousands of fellow naval aviators during WWII. He never earned a valor medal nor did he become an ace. Ramee fulfilled a lengthy career of service (30 years if one counts his four years at the Naval Academy) like millions of American young men and women have. What sets him apart for me is that he served two of those years aboard the namesake-cruiser that preceded my own. It is an honor to be the caretaker of his his uniform.
A Mere Symbolic Plank: A Navy Ship Plankowner’s Perception
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.
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).
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.
Drawing in Recruits: Posters and Broadsides
Tonight, as I was finishing up some research for one of my genealogy projects, I found myself clicking through a series of online auction listings of militaria that would look absolutely fantastic hanging on the walls of my “war room.” My mind began to wander with each page view, imagining the various patriotic renderings, designed to inspire the 1940s youth to rush to their local recruiter to almost single-handedly take on the powers of the Axis nations.
Recruiting posters are some of the most collected items of militaria as their imagery conjures incredible emotional responses, such as intense national sentiment, inflamed hatred of the new-found enemy or a sense of call of duty. The colorful imagery of these posters inspires considerable interest from a wide range of collectors, in some cases driving prices well into four-digit realms.
Most Americans are familiar with the iconic imagery of Uncle Sam’s “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army” that was created and used in the poster by James Montgomery Flagg, making its first appearance in 1916, prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. While this poster is arguably the most recognizable recruiting poster, it was clearly not the first. Determining the first American use of recruiting posters, one need not look any further than the Revolutionary war with the use of broadsides, one of the most common media formats of the time.
The use of broadsides, some with a smattering of artwork, continued to be utilized well into (and beyond) the Civil War with both the Army and Navy seeking volunteers to fill their ranks. With the advancement of printing technology and the ability to incorporate full color, the artwork began to improve, adding a new twist to the posters, providing considerable visual appeal. By the turn of the twentieth century, well-known artists were commissioned to provide designs that would evoke the response to the geopolitical and military needs of the day.
Adding to the appeal for many non-militaria collectors is artist cache associated with many of the recruiting poster source illustrations. The military brought in the “big guns” of the advertising industry’s graphic design, tapping into the reservoir of well-known artists; if their names weren’t known, their stylings had permeated into pop culture by way of ephemera and other print media advertising. In addition to James Flagg, some of the most significant (i.e. most sought-after and most valuable) Navy recruiting posters were designed by notable artists such as:
Sadly, with my limited budget and my unwillingness to horse-trade any of my collection, these posters are somewhat out of my reach. It goes without saying that condition and age along with desirability have direct impact on value and selling prices. Some of the most desirable posters of World War II can sell for as much as $1,500-$2,000. For the collector with deeper pockets, Civil War broadsides can be had for $4,500-$6,000 when they become available. I have yet to locate any of the recruiting ephemera from the Revolutionary War, so I wouldn’t begin to speculate the price ranges should a piece come to market.
Discouraged as I may be in my quest to secure one of these treasured prints, I may be better off seeking quality reproductions to adorn the vertical white-space of my war room. However, a few years ago I received a reproduced war-bond drive poster – the original was created to encourage Hoosiers to buy bonds to name a new cruiser to honor the (then) recently sunk USS Vincennes.
Note: All images not sourced are provided courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
A Legacy: Vincennes Wardroom Silver
More than three months into The War, the United States was reeling from suffering substantial and demoralizing losses at Pearl Harbor and again in the Sunda Strait (with the loss of the USS Houston CA-30). The U.S. was in dire need of stopping the bleeding and gaining a moral victory in order to build momentum for what was to become a nearly half-decade long war.
When the keel of the (then, future) USS Vincennes (CA-44) was laid, she was the pride of the small, Southwestern Indiana town of the same name. The citizens embraced her and her future crew, adopting the men who would serve aboard her as their own sons. When she was christened (launched), the daughter (Miss Harriet Virginia Kimmell) of the city’s mayor broke the ceremonial bottle of champagne on her bow, officially naming the heavy cruiser. More than two years later when the ship was commissioned and placed into service (February 24, 1937), the citizens raised funds to purchase and present a gift, a silver tea and coffee service, to the officers of the ship.
With the outbreak of war and the peacetime navy morphing to address the combat needs, USS Vincennes transferred from her home fleet duties within the Atlantic Ocean to augment the Pacific fleet following the losses suffered in the opening days and weeks of the war. As part of readying the ship for service against the Japanese, the Vincennes paid a visit to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, in San Francisco Bay for additional combat upgrades. In conjunction with the changes being made to the ship, the compliment of officers and men was being increased and with space being a premium and the probability of combat engagement with the enemy being almost certain, the silver service and other items were removed from the ship and placed into storage for the duration of the war.
Soon afterward, the Vincennes would take part in some of the most pivotal actions in an effort to stem the Japanese Eastward expansion beginning with the Doolittle Raid, (aiding in the aftermath of) the battle of Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway and the US Marines’ first offensive, Guadalcanal. On the evening of the 2nd night of the landings, the Vincennes would sustain hundreds of Japanese naval gunfire hits and being pierced by the enemy’s Long Lance torpedoes, leaving a blazing, sinking inferno.
Five decades later, the surviving veterans of the lost cruiser would be instrumental in ensuring that the name of their beloved lost ship would be carried to sea aboard a modern cruiser of the Ticonderoga class. At her commissioning in 1985, the city of Vincennes would once again gift the preserved silver service to their newest ship, the USS Vincennes (CG-49) to be used by the officers and visiting dignitaries and guests throughout her twenty-year life.
Upon her decommissioning in 2005, the silver service was returned to the city where it is now displayed and cared for. Perhaps one day, another ship will bear the name Vincennes and the set will serve the officers of a new generation of the adopted sons and daughters of the southwest Indiana city.
USS Vincennes Under the Microscope
Those who know me on a personal basis understand my affinity for a specific U.S. naval warship. Technically speaking, that interest lies with four combatant vessels, all of which were named to honor the site of a Revolutionary War battle (more accurately, a campaign) that ended the British assaults on the remote Western colonial front. That location in present-day Southwestern Indiana would later become the seat of the Northwest Territorial government in the town of Vincennes.
My connection to this ship’s name extends all the way back to the place of my birth which was also the location of the commencement of an extensive 1840 charting survey of Puget Sound (in Washington State). Locations and geographical features surrounding my home were named by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (commander of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842) and members of his team when the sloop of war, USS Vincennes (along with other ships of the expedition) was in the Sound. I can even cite some Baconesque connections with great, great, great-grandfather who served in the Ringgold Light Infantry (after he was discharged from his cavalry regiment following a disabling injury). The Ringgold name was inherited from Samuel Ringgold, Expedition-member Cadwalader’s older brother (yes, I realize that this is very convoluted).
My personal connection (to the ships named Vincennes) was solidly established when I was assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the CG-49. During the first several months (leading toward the 1985 commissioning date), like many of my shipmates, I was exposed to the history of the ship’s namesake and established personal relationships with veterans of the WWII cruisers of the same name. Collecting items from “my” ship was purely functional in that I was proud to purchase t-shirts, lighters, ball caps and other items (from the ship’s store) that bore the name or the image of the ship’s crest. Many of the items I purchased in those days proudly remain in my collection while a few did manage to fade away.
I am constantly on the lookout for artifacts that are connected to these ships (the heavy cruiser: CA-44, the light cruiser: CL-64) and occasionally, some quality pieces (beyond the plethora of typical postal covers) surface on the market. Fortunately, I have been successful in obtaining a few of these items, though the competition has been fierce. The ones that got away were quite stunning.
The infrequency of appearances of pieces from the two WWII cruisers pales in comparison to anything related to the 19th Century sloop-of-war. During the past decade of searching for anything related to the USS Vincennes, I have only seen one item connected to the three-masted warship. While searching a popular online auction site, a rather ordinary, non-military item showed up in the search results of one of my automated inquiries. The piece, a wood-cased field microscope from 1830-1840, bore an inscription that connected it to the assistant botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition, William Dunlop Brackenridge.
Admittedly, I am not in the least bit interested in a field microscope as militaria collector, but the prospect of owning such a magnificent piece that would have been a fundamentally important tool used during the United States first foray into exploration was an exhilarating thought. At its core, the goal of the (1838-1842) U.S. Ex. Ex. was to chart unknown waters, seek the existence of an Antarctic continent and discover and document unknown species of flora and fauna. Brackenridge’s field microscope would have been a heavily used item as he and his assistants would most-certainly examine the various characteristics of plant species at a microscopic level.
Authenticity and provenance is certainly a major concern when purchasing a piece like this and the listing made no mention of any materials or means to verify the claim. However, in searching for similar microscopes, there was sufficient comparative evidence to support the time-frame in which the Brackenridge instrument was made. The box and the engraving seems to be genuinely aged and appears to resemble what one would find from a 170 year old example.
In my opinion, the investment was well-worth the risk and I was poised to make my maximum bid (invariably draining my discretionary savings) knowing that the closing price would exceed what I could ultimately afford. The auction closed with the winning bid ($810.58) exceeding my funds by a few hundred dollars, though I suspect that the winner had a far higher bid in place to guarantee victory.
I am a realist yet remain hopeful that I won’t have to wait another decade before another sloop-of-war piece comes to market.