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A Mere Symbolic Plank: A Navy Ship Plankowner’s Perception


A burst of fireworks above amidships as the radars and equipment spring to life following the Vincennes being placed into commission on July 6, 1985 (image source: US Navy).

Not too long after the ship commissioned, crew members ordered these personalized mugs with “plankowner” beneath the ship’s crest.

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.

One of the plankowner items – a Zippo-brand belt buckle – is engraved with the ship’s name, hull number and “Plankowner” along with the image of the ship.

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).

Fresh from the shipping box, the mast light still needed cleaning. The original wiring can be seen protruding from the electrical fitting.

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.

 

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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.

Originally created for Ladies Weekly in 1916, the iconic image of Uncle Sam was incorporated into what is probably the single, most popular recruiting poster that began its run during WWI (source: Library of Congress).

Originally created for Ladies Weekly in 1916, the iconic image of Uncle Sam was incorporated into what is probably the single, most popular recruiting poster that began its run during WWI (source: Library of Congress).

Rather than focusing on the raging war in Europe, this Charles Ruttan-designed poster demonstrates the career and travel opportunities.

Rather than focusing on the raging war in Europe, this Charles Ruttan-designed poster demonstrates the career and travel opportunities.

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.

The citizens of a small Indiana town (Vincennes) raised enough money through a successful bond drive to meet the Secretary of the Navy's financial requirement which resulted in the already under construction light cruiser (CL-64) to be named Vincennes.

The citizens of a small Indiana town (Vincennes) raised enough money through a successful bond drive to meet the Secretary of the Navy’s financial requirement which resulted in the already under construction light cruiser (CL-64) to be named Vincennes.

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.

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These cased, broken champagne bottles were used to christen the cruisers named for the City of Vincennes, IN. The top bottle helped to name the CA-44 and the bottom, CL-64. Both are preserved at the city’s council chambers archive.

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.

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The USS Vincennes’ sterling silver tea and coffee service is on display in the City of Vincennes, Indiana in the council chambers archive.

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.

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The 8″ main battery of the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) commence firing at enemy positions on Guadalcanal; early morning, August 7, 1942.

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.

USS Vincennes - Currier

Colored lithograph published by N. Currier, 2 Spruce Street, New York City, 1845 (source: Naval Historical Center).

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.

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William D. Brackenridge was the assistant botanist for the U.S. Exploring Expedition serving aboard the USS Vincennes from 1838-1842.

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.

Brackeridge Box

The box appears to be missing some of the securing hardware which would help to hold the lid closed (source: eBay image).

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.

William D Brackenridge Microscope Box

The box for the field microscope is inscribed with “Property of W. D. Brackenridge U.S.S Vincennes 1840″(source: eBay image).

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.

Brackenridge Microscope and Box

Showing the eye-piece perspective of the microscope and the wooden box (source: eBay image).

Brackenridge Field Microscope

The microscope sets securely into the accompanying wooden box (source: eBay image).

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.

Recreation or Reorder: Are These Patches Reproductions?


Collecting patches is a significant and one of the oldest segments of the militaria hobby. So much so that they established an organization (in the late 1930s), the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors (ASMIC), to better facilitate the exchange of the patches and metal insignia from American military uniforms.

Prior to World War I, U.S. armed forces were only adorned with rank insignia (chevron patches on sleeves for enlisted, collar devices and epaulettes for officers). During the Great War, units began affixing cloth insignia to their shoulders to provide visual indication of the unit to which they were assigned. This practice quickly spread as the war began winding down late in 1918 and became widely adopted, not only in the U.S. Army, but also the Marine Corps and some Naval personnel.

See:

In World War II, the expansion of incorporating insignia to identify aircraft squadrons and other smaller units (versus Army regiments or divisions). These “logos” were caricatures that embodied general traits of the unit, their mission or even their founding leadership. Aircraft squadron insignia from WWII, naval squadrons in particular, are some of the rarest and most sought-after patches by collectors.

VF-111 Sundowners

This flannel VF-111 Sundowners patch resembles that of an original WWII version (of VF-11), though it seems to be a modern representation.

See:

By the 1980s, unit insignia had become quite commonplace across all units within the US armed forces branches. In the Navy, as each new ship was placed into service, accompanying them was an officially designed and approved unit crest that bore visual representations of the ship’s name. Subsequently, the ships’ stores (where the crew members buy personal supplies, snacks and ship-branded merchandise) would offer, for sale, fully-embroidered patches of the crest.

When a ship is decommissioned (put out of service), the logos and subsequent merchandise cease to be available (other than in secondary markets). Nostalgic veterans and collectors not wanting to wait for one or two of the ship’s patches to become available in online auctions are left with scant few options. This was a situation that I recently had the joy of resolving for my former shipmates who were more than two decades removed from serving aboard our ship, the cruiser USS Vincennes.

Asian-made Vincennes Crest Patch

This terrible patch lacks the detail of the crest. Everything is wrong with this example from the coloring to the design elements and lettering. It is just awful.

In the past few years, an Asian-made (poor) representation of the patch was being sold infrequently in online auctions. This patch a terrible facsimile of the original as it lacked all the detail of the ship’s crest. The seller had that audacity to charge more than $10 (plus shipping) for this poor quality example. A few of my shipmates, desperate to fill a void in their ship memorabilia collection, ponied up the funds and buying the pathetic patches.

Recognizing an opportunity to remedy this issue, I went through a lengthy process of locating the original manufacturer and soliciting bids based upon the original patch design. Today, I was happy to report to my shipmates that the patches would be in their hands within a few days. The shipment of authentic ship crest insignia had arrived.

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USS Vincennes Patch

The new patch seems to be at least the same as the original, if not an improvement.

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Some of you might be asking, “Is this really militaria if you’re just having it made?” I can attest that though these are newly manufactured, the patches are no different from those made (by the same manufacturer, by the way) two and a half decades ago.