Mementos of Ships Saved For Posterity

Story Number: NNS030806-08Release Date: 8/6/2003 7:57:00 PM
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By Marie Dumontet, Naval Historical Center Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- While the decommissioning ceremony of a ship will last a few hours, the artifacts collected from it will last far in the future.

And the job of collecting these historic items from decommissioned ships belongs to the Curator Branch of the Naval Historical Center (NHC).

For example, USS Constellation (CV 64) will be decommissioned this week after 41 years at sea and towed to Bremerton, Wash.

"The USS Constellation is a major naval unit and the last aircraft carrier built in New York Naval Shipyard," said Frank Thompson, curator. These two characteristics make it a unique ship, and one of the reasons why several of its artifacts will be transferred to a non-profit organization in New York.

Since January 2003, 11 ships have been decommissioned and four are on the way, including Constellation. These decommissioned ships will supply the NHC with numerous artifacts for preservation in its collection for loan to local museums across the country.

The whole process begins each year in May at the Ship Disposition Review Conference, when the curators learn which ships will be decommissioned. This is the first step in the decommissioning process that enables curators to plan their part in it.

Once the decision of decommissioning is fixed, the branch follows the instructions of OPNAVINST 4770-5F, which lists the different potential artifacts to be found on the ships. Used as a guide, it gives the general items that have to be preserved.

One of the ship's officers is in charge of this specific process, and the contact person known as the decommissioning (DECOM) coordinator. The branch's staff works in close collaboration with the DECOM coordinator to determine which items will be preserved.

Decommissioning often involves research by Curator Branch members into the ship's history to help define the right artifacts to preserve.

If needed, the curator branch staff can visit the ships to have a better idea of the artifacts they will transfer to the NHC.

"Generally, we try to visit one ship per class and those that played a major role in the Navy," said Thompson.

The number of artifacts collected by the NHC varies from ship to ship. The number can run from a couple dozen to, in some cases, a couple hundred.

"For the USS Constellation, we expect over a hundred items, including the ship's bell, last flags and material relating to her role in Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Thompson.

Amongst the different collected artifacts, we can find: the ship's bell, builder's plaque, last national ensign and deck flags, fleet trophies, torpedoes and other diverse equipments.

"The two most significant items which are often asked by reunions are the ship's bell and the builder's plaque," said Thompson.

The builder's plaque gains its importance through significant details engraved on it, such as the starting construction date, the launch date and date of commission, as well as the place of construction and sometimes the origin of the name.

In the past, the Base Realignment and Closure Program (BRAC), launched after the end of the Cold War to reduce the size of the U.S. fleet, affected the workload. But currently, it is the ship's history and government policies that determine the number of items that are collected per ship, and thus the needed branch effort.

Although the artifacts usually go into storage initially, they generally do not stay there long. Veteran's organizations, museums and other qualifying groups often want them to remember the ships story, and stimulate a sense of pride in its past crew members.

For related news, visit the Naval Historical Center Navy NewsStand page at

USS Constellation (CV 64) returns to its homeport in San Diego
Official U.S. Navy file photo of USS Constellation (CV 64) returns to its homeport in San Diego following a successful seven month deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Constellation will be decommissioned after 41 years at sea and towed to Bremerton, Wash. The job of collecting historic items from decommissioned ships belongs to the Curator Branch of the Naval Historical Center (NHC). They expect to collect over a hundred items from the Constellation, including the ship's bell, last flags, and material relating to her role in the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
June 2, 2003
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