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Capturing History: When Navy Ships Decommission


PUGET SOUND (July 9, 2013) The Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate USS Ford (FFG 54) passes Seattle, Wash. during a transit of Puget Sound during a plank owner’s cruise. Ford is homeported at Naval Station Everett in Everett, Wash. (U.S. Navy photo)

WASHINGTON (NNS) — Each year, U.S. Navy vessels are decommissioned from active service. Though decommissioning of naval ships is a common occurrence for the Navy, it leaves a lingering question for many former crewmembers, naval history buffs and people who are interested in the ships, “What happens now?”

Since the U.S. Navy’s inception in 1775, more than 15,000 ships have served and with those ships come even more Sailors. With each decommissioning, it is Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) mission to collect and protect the artifacts and records that detail the history of the vessel.

Unfortunately, that means plank owners and former crew members may not receive their own piece of history. Mark Evans, NHHC historian and former Sailor, sympathizes with Sailors who contact NHHC in the hopes of obtaining a memento from a decommissioned ship on which they served. “A lot of Sailors feel justifiably eligible after serving all of that time haze grey and underway,” he said “Plank owners especially. Some of the most commonly asked for artifacts from decommissioned vessels are things such as ship’s quarterdeck bells, plaques, national or jack flags and photographs.”

Though it is understandable that many past Sailors wish to have something in their personal collection to help them remember their time onboard their ships, rights to obtaining such artifacts are a common misconception. So, when ships decommission, such as the USS Ford (FFG 54) which decommissions Oct. 31 or USS Thach (FFG 43) which decommissions Nov. 1, their plank owners, those Sailors who were part of the first crew and commission the ships, may not get their “plank.”

Guidelines vary by the type of deck on the ship. In the case of ships with wooden decks, if the veteran has a plank owner certificate or statement of service showing that he was on the ship when it was commissioned, the veteran can write to the NHHC Curator Branch, and request a piece of deck planking. If the veteran meets the above criteria and the Curator Branch has possession of deck planking, the plank owner or his widow can receive a small section of the deck. For more recent ships with metallic decks, the Navy is unable to issue deck sections.

Many staff members of NHHC are well aware of the historic importance of a ship’s objects and have a vested interest in assuring they are cared for properly. Two branches of NHHC are responsible for collecting and maintaining historic materials – the Operational Archives Branch, and the Curator Branch.

The Archives Branch collects, organizes, preserves, studies and shares the Navy’s historically significant records. The Curator Branch collects, cares for, studies and shares the Navy’s material culture – the artifacts that exemplify the Navy’s history.

So what happens when a naval ship is decommissioned? What happens to the records and the artifacts? What happens to the history? “From a historical perspective, we want to preserve the legacy of our ships and submarines,” said Evans. He says that though each staff member in those departments are trained in the handling and care of historic artifacts, preserving the Navy’s history starts with crew members assigned to each vessel.

The decommissioning of ships poses many concerns to NHHC. One of the main concerns is the loss of historical records of the unit through neglect. Another concern is Sailors not knowing what to do with historically significant materials that have been accumulated by the command over the years. “It’s very important that while the Sailors are still on board, they save what they can,” Evans continued.

Also, by law, the ship’s christening sponsor is permitted to receive a small memento from the ship. A small plaque bearing the ship’s name or any similar item readily identified with the ship would be suitable. On commissioning, the sponsor usually presents a gift to the ship. Because of its dual association with the sponsor and the ship, such a gift becomes an important part of the ship’s history.

“The biggest challenge is ensuring that the history of a particular ship is captured and finding something unique pertaining to her history,” said NHHC Museum Specialist Bill Hill. “It is important that ships send not only the required items, but, if possible, specific historical objects or other materials that relate to battles, missions, or operations in which they participated.”

One of the reasons it is so important for official records and historic artifacts of Navy commands to be maintained is to assure they are preserved for study and research by future Navy personnel, researchers, veterans, and the general public.

The number of ships decommissioned each year varies and depends upon the needs of the U.S. Navy, but the procedure for retaining the historic records and artifacts remain the same. “Communication with the decommissioning ship begins many months in advance and both parties coordinate the objects to be sent,” Hill explained. “It is then the responsibility of the ship to send the artifacts to NHHC. NHHC has more than 250,000 catalogued artifacts, which are maintained in an electronic database designed to capture all the pertinent information as it relates to each individual object.”

That information is incredibly important to historians, curators and museum visitors as they relate to how the Navy has helped shape the country. “The history of the Navy is the history of the United States,” Hill said. “The variety of artifacts in the collection help illustrate to the everyday person the depth of sacrifice, the feeling of victory or loss in battle, the immensity and power of the machines and weapons. They tell of the trials and tribulations people just like them endured to reach the North Pole or to explore uncharted waters, to visit new countries and conclude agreements, to fight in the freezing winters in Korea or the steamy South Pacific, or in an ironclad gunboat on the Mississippi or in a wooden hulled warship in battle 100 yards from the enemy.”

He sees the artifacts as a touchstone between the present day and the past. “Artifacts allow people to touch and see a part of history and to imagine themselves in the same situations,” Hill said. “How many of us pictured ourselves landing on the moon with Neil Armstrong, who incidentally was a naval aviator? The artifacts can help illustrate all these situations and bring with them the realization that all these sailors were or are no different than them.”

For more information on ship’s decommissioning procedures, visit the Veterans/Fleet section on NHHC’s home page.

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