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Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington


What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.

My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:

  1. What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
  2. Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
  3. Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
  4. Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?

My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home.  Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.

A cabinet card photograph of the USS Washington that has been hand-toned (colorized) shows the white-and-buff color-scheme of the day (before the Navy transitioned to haze gray). This image has some moisture damage on the right side.

This real photo postcard of the USS Washington (taken while she lies at anchor off of Seattle, her future namesake) is one of my favorite photos of the ship.

One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).

As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.

It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.

Distracted by the fantastic blue and gold colors along with the name of the ship, I initially believed the pillow dated to the early decades of the 20th century (source: eBay image).

One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.

The only original image of the WWII battleship, USS Washington (BB-56) that I have in my collection, shows the bow of the most-decorated non-carrier of WWII slicing through the slightly rough seas of the Pacific. Her two forward mounts of her main battery appear almost diminutive in the absence of objects of scale.

The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.

Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.

Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.

 

 

 

 

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Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off


I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).

I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.

Prior to her reclassification, the (then) USS Washington (ACR-11) rests at anchor near her future namesake, Seattle, WA (author’s collections).

While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.

Judging from the auction listing photo, the cover of my new vintage cruise book is in nearly pristine condition (source: eBay image).

Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.

As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.

Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).

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.

Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen


Many people collect U.S.Navy rating badges and many other folks collect ephemera. Still other collectors pursue metal insignia and uniform devices. But the question I have is, how many of them combine all three “genres” of militaria collecting into one, singular focus?

As a ten-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and an amateur military historian, I’ve researched a vast number of subjects ranging from basic minutia to emotionally gut-wrenching and personally significant stories with historical context that I find utterly fascinating. During my naval career, I performed my job without so much as a fleeting thought regarding the historical aspects of my chosen specialty. Navy enlisted men and women receive schooling and training to perform specific job functions to meet the needs of each unit or command. These ratings (similar to the Army’s Military Occupational Specialty or MOS) are denoted on each sailor’s sleeve insignia with a unique emblem symbolizing certain characteristics of that specialty.

My own rating, Operations Specialist, seemed to be (to me) quite ordinary and less historic as compared to traditional ratings such as boatswain’s mates, gunners mates and machinist mates. I was none too interested in discovering any of the historical aspects or the development of my rating beyond what was presented in my training manuals. Other than the basic historical narratives (also presented in the training manual) regarding the history of naval radar, I didn’t give it much thought. Despite this lack, I did manage to excel at my job and advance in a timely manner.

The foremast of the USS Washington (BB-56) showing the SG radar antennae on the foreward face of the tower. As documented in Muscant's book, the placement of this unit was cause for a significant sector blindspot, leaving the ship vulnerable during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November of 1942 (U.S. Navy image).

The foremast of the USS Washington (BB-56) showing the SG radar antennae on the foreward face of the tower. As documented in Muscant’s book, the placement of this unit was cause for a significant sector blindspot, leaving the ship vulnerable during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November of 1942 (U.S. Navy image).

What turned me onto the historical backstory of my rating was an insignificant story that I read about the installation of radar onto the USS Washington (BB-56) as told in the pages of Ivan Musicant’s 1986 book, Battleship at War: The Epic Story of the USS Washington. What was revealing to me was how radar was installed onto the ship and essentially turned over to untrained operators and technicians. In his book, Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine, Medal of Honor recipient Admiral Richard O’Kane made considerable mention of the submarine’s unreliable radar and the continuous need for the boat’s radiomen (the technicians and operators) to service the wonder-device. Both of these books planted a seed that my navy job had an important history that was berthed during World War II and developed into a key job function in today’s radar-reliant naval service.

Radarmen can trace their beginnings to the Electrician's Mate (EM) rating. This World War I era EM first class bears the distinguishing mark indicating that the sailor was a radio operator and technician. Shipboard radio technology was in its infancy at this time and in the ensuing decades, a specific rating would be created.

Radarmen can trace their beginnings to the Electrician’s Mate (EM) rating. This World War I era EM first class bears the distinguishing mark indicating that the sailor was a radio operator and technician. Shipboard radio technology was in its infancy at this time and in the ensuing decades, a specific rating would be created.

When I added the activity of collecting to my interests, I cultivated a new desire that prompted me into new research directions. One could say that when I was bitten by the rating badge-collecting bug, my interest was tempered by context. I focused on ratings that had connection to me such as my grand-uncle (post-WWI musician), grandfather (ship’s cook), brother-in-law (machinist’s mate), two uncles (radioman) and my own. Along with those rating badge pursuits, I picked up some of the more highly sought-after rates whose ranks were filled by more than their share of heroic blue jackets, such as hospitalmen, aviation radiomen. However, I found myself drawn to the historical aspects of my own rating, originally known as ‘Radarman’.

This EM/1c rating badge dating from the WWI timeframe shows the four electrical sparks of the radio operator/technician distinguishing mark affixed directly below the bottom chevron.

This EM/1c rating badge dating from the WWI time-frame shows the four electrical sparks of the radio operator/technician distinguishing mark affixed directly below the bottom chevron.

The Radarman rating (abbreviated as RdM) was officially established in 1943 after radar became more widely adopted aboard ships and submarines, and was at that time finding its way onto naval aircraft. The demand for highly skilled and trained operators and technicians prompted the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel to create a program to send qualified personnel to the fleet to better utilize the secret weapon. The rating badge that was subsequently created employed a borrowed feature from the radioman rating as it referenced the close connections to the communications technology. Also, many of the early Radarmen had previously served as Radiomen. The badge symbol used the electrical spark bolts (three rather than the four seen on the Radioman’s insignia) with an overlaid arrow indicating the directional detection aspects of the job, indicating the rating’s origins and the technology from radio.

This Radarman first class rating badge is date-marked with "1944" embroidered on the reverse of the first chevron.

This Radarman first class rating badge is date-marked with “1944” embroidered on the reverse of the first chevron.

In 1946, the Navy updated the insignia, incorporating the oscillator symbol while carrying over the arrow insignia. In 1973, change impacted this rate once again as BUPERS split the rate, removing the technicians (rolling them into the electronics technician rate) and those who were skilled as Electronic Warfare (ESM, ECM and ECCM) specialists as EWs. Those who remained were re-designated as Operations Specialists (OS) yet the rating badge remained and continues at present.

A selection of my Radarman rating badges. All are from during and immediately following the end of WWII.

A selection of my Radarman rating badges. All are from during and immediately following the end of WWII.

My collection of OS militaria began with what remained from my time in the service: insignia that was never applied to my uniforms. I began to pursue badges from WWII and worked my way forward to the 1960s and 70s as I picked up some special bullion versions. I searched for insignia from the rating’s roots and then onto ephemera, such as rate training manuals from several eras. I have managed to save some of the tools of the trade in the area of navigation, such as compass and dividers, parallel rulers, and nautical charts. I am still seeking an OJ-194 NTDS (Naval Tactical Data System) console for my office (OK, perhaps this would be overkill).

After WWII, the radarman With manufacture dates ranging from the 1940s, this selection of Radarman/Operation Specialist badges includes current-issue SSI.

Following the war, the Navy broke away from the lightning bolts of the radioman rating and embraced the oscilloscope and maintained the arrow of the original badge, By the early 1970s, the rating was split out – segmenting the technicians into their own rating (Electronic Technicians or “ET”) and the electronic warfare operators (EW) into their own. Radarman was disbanded in favor of Operations Specialist.

I always keep my eyes open for anything that might augment this collection without breaking my budget or fill the floorspace in my home. At some point, I would like to assemble this collection in order to create a well-rounded display that is representative of this rating.

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