Saturday, March 8, 2008

Old Navy: A Battle Cry, Not a Brand Name

Roger Lee Crossland (Guest Blogger)

Retired Captain Roger Lee Crossland is the author of the historical mystery Jade Rooster. Captain Crossland served as a SEAL officer in Vietnam in 1971. In 2002, he was mobilized for duty with Naval Special Warfare Group One in Southwest and Central Asia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In civilian life he is a trial lawyer. Captain Crossland says he isn’t old Navy, he just looks that way.

Periodically I see ads for Old Navy ™ clothing on TV, and I bridle. The clothing line has nothing to do with either the Navy, or indeed, anything to do with anything old. The Old Navy label doesn’t even sport an anchor. There isn’t a hint of nostalgia for a phrase that should convey the message of hardened men in hard times, packed in close quarters molded around ordnance and power plants and fighting the forces of nature as well as human forces in faraway places. I suppose I am being thin-skinned, but that brand name just rubs me the wrong way.

The true “old Navy” of the United States began with the publication of Seapower by Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890. The Navy had been dwindling after the Civil War until this influential book helped the American public understand why the United States Navy existed. The old Navy, as the term is used in the Navy, began with what is now called the Naval Renaissance, the turnabout period for the United States Navy at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century.

This past December marked the sixty-sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It also marked one of the high points of the Naval Renaissance. December also marked the centennial of the Great White Fleet’s cruise around the world, which told the World the old Navy was a global force. The American response after Pearl Harbor demonstrated the terrible power of that particular global force.

At the turn of the century, navies were on everyone’s mind. Rarely was the United States Navy the focus of so much public attention. Every boy had a sailor suit and every girl a “middie” blouse. Far Eastern school uniforms were patterned after naval uniforms, the symbol of progress. Grocery stores sold hot items that displayed the image of a sailor to attract customers, products such as Crackerjacks™ and Sailor Boy Oysters™. Children all around the world played with tinplate dreadnaughts.

The ships of the era, hardly toys, were the greatest mobile convergence of technology of the time and steel magic carpets to exotic places. A ship held all the cutting edge technology then known…from electricity to ordnance to steel technology to propulsion to communications to navigation to optics. If you wanted to go anywhere far away, you went by ship. People in the jet age don’t appreciate that. Business men and women today hop on airplanes to Katmandu and it is considered no great accomplishment. At the turn of the century, sailors were the ones who went to the farthest, strangest places and met the most fascinating people.

Warships especially were on the cutting edge. Recruiting posters of the period oozed adventure and displayed sailors with parrots perched on their shoulders or walking next to llamas. Actors like Randolph Scott and Fred Astaire captured the popular imagination in naval uniform, in bellbottom trousers. The United States then extended from coast to coast, so “adventure,” as defined by writers such as Richard Harding Davis, took place outside American borders. A sailor was truly someone special, an adventurer who patrolled the frontiers of the known world, akin to a modern day astronaut with just a tad less theoretical education.

Today we talk of the clash of cultures. This clash is hardly a new phenomenon and actually was part of the allure of the Navy. I set my historical novel, Jade Rooster in 1913, at the height of the Naval Renaissance period. The mystery involves the disappearance of a merchant barque and the discovery of four severed heads in a ship’s boat on the Yellow Sea. and the search for the barque. My story is set at the intersection of a complicated web of clashing cultures whose issues complicate the investigation.

The US and Japan are at odds. Even then, both countries sense the impending struggle for control of the Pacific. Japan is in the midst of a very brutal subjugation of Korea. The Koreans ask for American help, but coal is a very limiting fuel and the US cannot project its power that far. The US is pacifying the Philippines and fighting suicidal Moslem warriors, the Moros, a task that strains its resources.

Steam ships are in competition with sailing ships. Their crews training and routines were very different. Merchant marine sailors and naval warship sailors have little in common. Gritty black colliers are in constant conflict with pristine white warships. Coaling evolutions are dirty and required hours of loading, and worst still, require hours of cleaning. Colliers are the pariahs of the fleet. Warships hate to see colliers coming.

One of my favorite sequences in the book deals with this small clash of corporate cultures. The conflict between the crews of the protected cruiser Baltimore and the collier Pluto reaches a stage where the admiral directs them to work out their differences in a ship’s cutter competition. The rowing race is handled the way grown men engage in competition. No rules and no quarter.

The term “old Navy” has meaning to me. It is a battle cry that harkens to another time, a time of conflict and courage. If I wore the words “old Navy” on the label on the collar of my shirt, the hair on my neck would stand on end. Who knows what dangerous spirits it might invoke from the deep?


marybandan said...

i suppose it s like a nostalgia.old navy... it means smth to me, it means smth else to my dad and it means smth totally different to my grandpa

Mike said...


You are not thin-skinned at all. I feel the same way and created as a personal rebuttal. It is a small personal victory but I like it :)

Keep up the rebellion! ;)
Mike Ward
Commander US Navy, Retired