The design of the button used on United States Navy uniforms is comprised of an American bald eagle, its wings spread and talons clutching a Luce-type anchor. It is gold in color for Chief Petty Officers, warrant and commissioned officers, and, when I served in the Navy, silver on enlisted uniforms.
During World War II the Secretary of the Navy signed, on behalf of the President, a commission appointing my father as Ensign, U.S. Naval Reserve. This was due to my father’s graduation from the United States Merchant Marine Academy and having earned a license as a deck officer in the United States Maritime Service. The gold buttons on Dad’s USMS uniform were bestowed with a fouled anchor with a star to the left and right, and all elements were surrounded by a rope. Although a Naval reservist, he did not wear the Navy uniform for he served in combat as a Third Mate and quickly upgraded his license to Chief Mate, making him junior only to the ship’s Master.
The year after graduating from our nation’s newest service academy and after serving on other vessels, my father found himself underway on the SS William Libbey on what was becoming a nightmare cruise. The problems were manifold and culminated in the ship’s captain becoming incapacitated by mental illness. The Libbey’s chief mate, my twenty-three old Dad, assumed command of the ship under very arduous conditions. He brought her back to the United States without further incident.
Decades later, I enlisted in the Navy. My uniform included the silver Navy buttons. There is no comparison to my service and that of my father’s. He served during a violent world war, one that included fierce action and great loss of life in the waters he sailed. He fought this war in every theater of operations and his ranks suffered the highest per capita loss of life than any branch of the United States military. I was in the service post-Vietnam when the military seemingly had no mission and definitely low funding, all outcomes of the turbulent 1960’s when the United States was at war again. With herself. Many of the offspring of those involved in the war against the Axis powers rebelled against the establishment, the older generations and the war in southeast Asia.
Dad and his contemporaries were, they say, the greatest generation. It certainly gets no argument from me. Moreover, being the captain of a ship is one of the highest achievements of leadership. Doing so in war causes that individual to stand with exceptional company. My father having done it at that tender age educes lifelong admiration from his youngest son.
Dad passed away at age eighty-seven, nearly six decades after he was discharged from the Naval Reserve, and longer since he last had the conn in a wheelhouse on a ship making top speed. Immediately following the funeral service I stood at the edge of the opening over which his casket temporarily rested reflecting on the countless leadership lessons my Dad imparted to me. Somewhere in those moments, my hand released a silver USN enlisted button that had been on one of my uniforms.
Without anyone seeing what I had done, I turned and stepped away knowing a heartfelt “Thank you” from one sailor to another would rest under the remains of Glenn Cummings. The humble recollections of his wartime service he shared with me when I was young weaved together to become were my first glimpse of what a mission essential environment was. More importantly, I learned how to conduct myself. Bravo Zulu Dad.