Thursday, September 22, 2022

Correcting the Record: USS Cumberland Lost 123 Sailors at the Battle of Hampton Roads

By Hunt Lewis
HRNM Volunteer
USS Cumberland rammed by CSS Virginia (Library of Congress)

When USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) on March 8, 1862, approximately a third of the crew were lost. Lost also were all personnel records. All that was known was the number of officers and men aboard at the start of the battle.

The ship’s commanding officer, Commander William Radford, had to report circumstances of the loss of his ship and number of Sailors killed or drowned. Lacking an accurate muster roll on which names could be called out, and a count made of those who made no response, Commander Radford did the next best thing. He mustered and took a count of the survivors and subtracted that count from the number of men attached to the ship at the beginning of the battle.

Final page of the muster roll, indicating the number of killed and drowned aboard USS Cumberland on March 8, 1862 (Library of Congress)

The muster consisted of 255 handwritten names on six pages. On the last page is the annotation:

            "Officers and men when action commenced          376
                do              do                  do          over               255
                                                       killed or drowned        121

              This is a large number and I am hoping more men will be found.
                                                        (signed) Wm. Radford,

The 121 fatalities has been reported in official records for 160 years, but this muster roll of survivors contains an error. On the first page of the muster, two officers were listed as having died in the battle, but when we counted up every name on the muster roll, we found that Radford accidentally counted the two men as survivors. Chaplain John Lenhart was listed as drowned and Master’s Mate John Harrington shown as killed. Because these two men were killed but accidentally counted among the survivors, the correct count of survivors should have been 253 rather than 255. Thus, the number of Sailors killed when USS Cumberland sank on March 8, 1862, stands at 123. With that conclusion, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum will begin using the corrected number of 123 in all future historical documents and exhibits. 

First page of the muster roll, listing the officers. When we added up the number of Sailors listed in this entire muster roll, we realized Commander Radford had accidentally counted Lenhart and Harrington as among the living. (Library of Congress)

Thursday, September 8, 2022

USS Santee: The Fleet Oiler that Became an Aircraft Carrier

By CAPT Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Volunteer

In early May 1960, USS Santee (CVEH 29) ended a trans-Atlantic tow by the German salvage tug Seefalke at a ship breakers in Bremerhaven[i] and was subsequently dismantled for scrap, thus ending a long career. The voyage, which began on April 18, 1960, at the Navy Reserve Fleet in Boston, started inauspiciously when the towline parted and had to be reattached and the crossing begun anew. It was a sad end for the war-weary ship, whose final configuration and utilization was far different from what its builders initially planned.
USS Santee (AO 29) underway in Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia, 99 days prior to entering Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) to be converted to aircraft carrier (NNSY)
The period between 1934 and 1940 was hectic, characterized by emerging hostilities world-wide. The major goal of U.S. Navy planners during this turbulent era was nothing less than renewal of the United States Navy quantitatively and qualitatively, together with strengthening national defense. The fleet was to be initially increased in size by 20 percent,[ii] thus providing additional combatant ships and fleet auxiliaries. The shore establishment was likewise to be augmented. The first and second Vinson Acts and the Vinson Walsh Two Ocean Navy Act of 1940 funded these mandatory goals. These acts were formulated against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of mainland China and the Nazi annexation of Austria, known as Anschluss. In fact, the Vinson Walsh Act was signed 18 days after the fall of France.[iii] Among other things, that act provided for construction of two Iowa-class battleships, 18 aircraft carriers and conversion of 100,000 tons of ships for other purposes.[iv]

Concurrently, the Maritime Commission under Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy, who later became Ambassador to the Court of St. James, announced a major program. This called for the Commission to build twelve so-called “National Defense Tankers” in four civilian yards from Massachusetts to Newport News, Virginia. The procurement contract of $37,000,000, funded in part by Standard Oil of New Jersey and the U.S. Maritime Administration, was signed by officials of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, known commonly as “Esso,” though it was understood that the ships might be operated by companies other than Esso. The Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania, built SS Seakay, later renamed USS Santee (AO 29). The two other ships constructed were USS Chenango (CVE 28) and USS Cimarron (AO 24). Sponsored by Mrs. Charles L. Kurz, wife of the Chairman of Keystone Transportation, Seakay was launched on March 4, 1939, and delivered to Keystone 25 days later.[v]

SS Seakay operated on the West Coast of the United States delivering crude oil to refineries until early October 1940, and on the 18th of that month it was sold to the United States Navy for conversion to a fleet oiler. Seakay’s commanding officer was Commander William Gibb Bartlett Hatch, a 1913 Annapolis graduate who had earlier commanded the destroyers Toucey and Blakely. He had been praised as an “easygoing and a nice man” by his commanding officer, Vice Admiral Elliot B. Strauss.[vi] The ship and its crew carried out the normal duties of a fleet oiler until March 19, 1942, when Seakay entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) and was decommissioned for conversion to a “Baby Flattop,” as the original CVEs were initially nicknamed.
USS Santee (ACV 29), re-designated CVE 29 on July 15, 1943, anchored in Hampton Roads. (NNSY)
The conversion process involved removal of the forward and after deckhouses, installation of a flight deck with forward and after aircraft elevators, establishment of a hangar deck, and construction of a small bridge and pilothouse on the starboard side of the flight deck about two thirds of the way to the bow. Santee was recommissioned an Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier (ACV) on August 24, 1942, and in the words of its new commanding officer, Captain William Dodge Sample, “shook loose from the Yard” on September 13, 1942. Even so, another month was consumed undergoing shakedown training, with NNSY personnel aboard until the workmen were finally “shaken off” and practice flights might be undertaken.[vii] Flight operations were limited and very few experienced aviators were embarked.
Flight deck of USS Santee showing SBD-3 Dauntlesses and Wildcats with Torch markings near the fuselage stars (NHHC)
Following shakedown, the ship began its journey to war to be a part of Task Group 34.2, involved in the November 1942 invasion of North Africa commonly known as Operation Torch. The initial three days at sea, bound for Bermuda, for rendezvous with other group elements, was marked by a violent storm off Cape Hatteras that brought “howling winds,” and the ship “rolled and pitched, sometimes alternately and sometimes together,” convincing the greenhorn sailors that they would be lost. On the third day, Santee reached calm waters at Bermuda, and during a short respite repaired storm damage such as stove in ship’s boats and attempted to load additional aircraft. During the attempt to load an SBD-3 Dauntless, the hoist cable parted and the aircraft fell to the deck of an alongside lighter, and no other aircraft were loaded.[viii] On October 25, 1942, the ship left Bermuda, bound for Africa. The transit period was used for limited practice flying, and it was marred on October 30th by the accidental dropping of a depth charge from a Dauntless, which detonated close aboard, damaging homing and other navigational equipment—casualties that became significant for the ship’s later employment and mission execution.[ix]
Map of objective area, Safi, Morocco (History of the U.S. Navy in WWII, Samuel Eliot Morison)
Santee, its ship’s company, and its embarked aviation squadrons were called “the greenest of the green” among the carriers involved in Torch by Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. There were only five experienced aviators aboard and there was only one practice flight of six aircraft undertaken during the transit. Together with the navigational equipment casualty noted above, it led to the ship’s being assigned to provide close air support and combat air patrol to the Southern Attack Group, which was to land troops at Safi. The objective of the landing and others in Morocco was to wrest control of North Africa from the German-sponsored French government established at Vichy in 1940. Aviators from Santee flew fewer sorties that any of the carriers and by November 11, 1942, when offensive operations ended, it had lost 21 of the 31 aircraft embarked.[x]
LCDR John Thomas Blackburn in 1943 as commanding officer of Fighter Squadron Seventeen (NHHC)
On November 8, 1942, seven Wildcat aircraft left the ship at daybreak. Five could not make it back to the ship. Four landed at Magazan airfield and their crews became prisoners. One crashed at sea, and USS Monadnock (CM 9) rescued the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Tom Blackburn, on November 11. One developed an oil line casualty and was lost without a trace, while one was shot down. Its crew burned the ill-fated machine, encountered an American patrol, and an LST returned the crew to the ship.[xi] Another flight left on the same day, ran out of fuel, and landed at the Safi airfield, where all nine planes bogged down in the soft, bumpy landing field.
LCDR John Thomas Blackburn being returned to USS Santee in a coaling bag by highline on November 11, 1942, after spending 64 hours in the ocean after a crash (NHHC)
On November 9, 1942, Lieutenant Commander Joseph A. Ruddy carried out a hazardous, low-level reconnaissance flight on the Marrakech airfield. Although his aircraft was struck by ground fire, he made a second approach and made a direct hit on the hangar, inflicting considerable damage, and later attacked a column of enemy trucks he observed, which were bound for Safi. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his achievements. On November 11, 1942, after an armistice had been declared, Santee aviators struck Marrakech a final time and destroyed twelve aircraft on the airfield. The Southern Attack Group assault was one in which, according to Admiral Morison, “everything clicked.” The operational commander Rear Admiral Lyal Davidson observed that:

"The Southern Attack Group was able to land at Safi with but two naval casualties and no material damage other than 8 landing craft…and with comparatively light casualties (8 killed in action and 75 wounded in action) among Army Assault troops is attributable to Divine Providence, good weather, surprise, retention of the initiative and accurate and overpowering gunnery."[xii]
Cover of Record of Dockings, Drydock No. 3, NNSY (NNSY)

There is some indication that Admiral Davidson was not impressed with carrier aviator performance and used aircraft from battleship USS New York (BB 34) and the cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL 41) to execute certain missions, such as sinking the Vichy submarine Medeuse. In any event, on November 13, 1942, with its part in Torch complete, Santee left the theater, bound for its Norfolk homeport. It reached home station on November 24, 1942, two days before Thanksgiving. The NNSY Drydock log shows that Santee was docked on December 8, 1942, for voyage and battle damage repairs and was undocked four days later.[xiii]
Page from log book showing Santee as part of Operation Torch (NNSY)
World War Two was far from over for the versatile ship. Following an extended stand down period, it began operations in the South Atlantic the day after Christmas 1942 to interdict enemy merchant shipping and counter hostile naval activity. Santee was also involved in various convoy operations in the Atlantic over the next year. Particularly noteworthy is a period of a few days following November 17, 1943, when it escorted USS Iowa (BB 61) with President Franklin Roosevelt, who was bound for the Tehran conference. Following delivery of P-38 fighter planes to the United Kingdom at Glasgow on January 9, 1944, it transited the Panama Canal on the 18th and 19th of February and served in the Pacific. It had amassed, in America’s first World War Two offensive operation, a considerable record of operational achievement in the time since its sea change from oiler to carrier completed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.[xiv]

Note from the author: Special thanks to Marcus Robbins, NNSY, and Dave Kavanagh for their assistance with the research of this blog.

[i] Weser Kurier, May 5, 1960.
[ii] Public Law 75-528 of May 17, 1938
[iii] The Vinson-Walsh Act, Public Law 76-757, was the largest naval procurement bill in United States History and increased the size of the fleet by 70%
[iv] “Peacetime Naval Re-Armament 1933-39, Lessons for today,” Naval War College Review, Volume 72, Spring 2019, pp 88-103.
[v] “Standard Oil Contracts to Build Twelve Fast Tankers,” From Bulletin of Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Historical Society, May 1940.
[vi] Reference to Commander William G.B. Hatch, USN at page 85, Oral History of Vice Admiral Elliott B. Strauss, USN, in Oral Histories of the United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland
[vii] United States Naval Operations in World War II, Operations in North African Waters, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, USN (Ret.) p. 133-155; See Docking Log Norfolk Naval Shipyard for August 20, 1942, slightly before its commissioning. The first flight was made on September 24, 1942.
[viii] “A Torch for Africa,” Archives of the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, p.34.
[ix] Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Volume VI, Historical Sketches R-S, p.326
[x] Operations in North African Waters, p. 150
[xi] CVE Piper, Escort Carrier Sailors and Airman’s Association, June 20, 2020
[xii] Ibid. p. 133.
[xiii]Record of Dockings, Drydock 3, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, December 8 and 12, 1942
[xiv] On July 8, 2022, prior to completion of this essay, the Museum was visited by the granddaughter of Petty Officer Jethroe Midgette, a former Gunner’s Mate who served in USS Santee (CVE 29) during Torch. She related that her grandfather served aboard not only during Torch but for the entire war.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A New “Great White Fleet”: Harnessing Navy Humanitarianism for the Cold War

By Zac Cunningham
School Programs Educator

On December 16, 1907, the Great White Fleet sailed from Hampton Roads on its voyage around the world. Among this fleet of U.S. Navy warships were 16 new steel battleships, all painted white.[1] With this fleet, the United States demonstrated its new naval technology and its new status as a global imperial power. The U.S. also sought to win the goodwill of the nations the fleet visited.[2] The most notable way the fleet tried to win goodwill was through humanitarian assistance provided to the victims of a catastrophic earthquake on Sicily. The goodwill mission and humanitarian actions of the Great White Fleet were long remembered and, half a century later, inspired a call for “A New Kind of Great White Fleet.”
USS Connecticut (BB 18) leading the original Great White Fleet (NHHC)

Street in Messina, Sicily, photographed in January 1909 and showing damage caused by the December 28, 1908 earthquake. (NHHC)
USS Culgoa, stores ship for the Great White Fleet, at Messina, Italy (Sicily) in January 1909 to render assistance to the victims of the December 28, 1908 earthquake. (NHHC)
On July 27, 1959, Life magazine enthusiastically announced a “Bold Proposal for Peace.” Explicitly harkening back to the early 20th-century’s Great White Fleet, Life’s editors called for “a ‘New White Fleet’ . . . with a new mission.” As dramatically illustrated on the magazine’s cover, this new fleet’s unarmed, white-painted ships “would sail around the world with food for the hungry, medical facilities for the sick and injured, and technicians to help underprivileged peoples improve their own lot.” The fleet would “harness America’s productive goodwill and energies to help ensure peace and combat the spread of Communism.”[3]
Cover of the July 27, 1959 issue of Life. (Time Inc.)
On the next eight pages, Life outlined how the fleet could be created and how it would work. Linking the new to the old once again, the article imagined the fleet responding to a natural disaster like an earthquake, just as the original Great White Fleet did. In a color drawing stretching across two of the magazine’s oversized pages, earthquake victims are cared for on the fleet’s hospital ship. In the background, helicopters conducting rescue operations take off from a small aircraft carrier and landing craft make their way to shore where a large fire can be seen.[4]
A two-page Illustration in the July 27, 1959 issue of Life imagines how a New White Fleet might respond to an earthquake in Southeast Asia. (Time Inc.)
Life’s New White Fleet plan called for:

“six ships to start with—the hospital ship, complete with operating room, X-ray facilities and medical wards; the carrier; a small destroyer escort to provide coastal communities with emergency power; a cargo vessel loaded with stores of food and clothing; a transport converted into a floating technical school to help improve the local standard of living; and a supply vessel to replenish the fleet.”

In ports of call on regular voyages, local patients and doctors would come aboard for treatment and training in illnesses and diseases beyond the capabilities of the local medical system. If a disaster struck elsewhere, the fleet would abandon its planned schedule of port visits to sail immediately to the site of the disaster.

While its ships would come from the U.S. Navy, Life cautioned that the New White Fleet would not be a military fleet. By limiting its military nature, the magazine hoped the world’s non-aligned nations that were hesitant to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union might still welcome the fleet’s assistance.

Military connections were part of the proposal from the very beginning, however. In fact, a U.S. Navy officer first suggested the need for a New White Fleet. This officer, Commander Frank Manson, shared his non-official views about the fleet as part of Life’s story.[7]
Commander Frank Manson (Life)
The idea came to Commander Manson while serving as Special Research Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations. In December 1957, he happened upon some photos of World War II hospital and auxiliary ships and then he talked with a Navy doctor just back from Southeast Asia. Regarding that region’s medical conditions, Manson asked the doctor, “Would hospital ships help?” After an enthusiastic yes, the commander drove home, expanding the idea beyond hospital ships into a fleet of humanitarian vessels “designed to make the benefits of the free enterprise system available to the entire human race.”[8]

He shared the idea with leaders in industry, labor, politics, and the military, including a retired admiral, at least two U.S. senators, and other assorted congressmen, all unnamed. In the article, Life reported separately that Senators George Aiken (D-Vermont) and Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) plus Representatives William Bates (R-Massachusetts) and Ed Edmondson (D-Oklahoma) were calling for the Eisenhower administration to provide surplus government vessels to the fleet.[9]

Humanitarianism motivated Manson and Life only so far. Manson felt that showcasing the material well-being of the U.S. could help it catch back up to the Soviets in the Cold War’s propaganda contest. Ultimately, he believed the New White Fleet would help build peace on a people-to-people level beyond governments.[10] For its part, Life ambitiously dreamed the fleet could win more goodwill for the U.S. than even the Marshall Plan.[11]

The New Great White Fleet, however, would remain just a dream. It was never formed. Only the hospital ship SS Hope, which the Life article cast as the first ship in the fleet, became operational.
SS Hope (Library of Congress)
As recounted in a previous blog post, the Eisenhower administration gave former Navy hospital ship USS Consolation (AH 15) to the non-governmental organization Project HOPE. Renamed the Hope, it sailed to several non-aligned nations in the 1960s and early 1970s and carried on—not on the scale of the dreamed of New White Fleet—the legacy of the original Great White Fleet’s goodwill mission.

[1] “The Great White Fleet,” Naval History and Heritage Command, [accessed June 30, 2022].
[2] John E. Moser, “Theodore Roosevelt Launches the Great White Fleet,” Teaching American History website, [accessed June 30, 2022].
[3] “A New ‘Great White Fleet,’” Life, July 27, 1959, 17.
[4] Life, 17-19.
[5] Life, 19.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Manson, Frank A., Capt., USN (Ret.),” U.S. Naval Institute, [accessed June 30, 2022]; Life, 20.
[8] Life, 21.
[9] Life, 21, 24-25.
[10] Life, 21.
[11] Life, 19.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Book Review: Cats in the Navy

By Scot Christenson
Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM Docent
Cats in the Navy is published by Naval Institute Press. Find out more at: 
Cats in the Navy is a short, whimsical book filled with photographs that cat lovers will enjoy. Each photo is accompanied with a short write-up about that specific cat and a more detailed paragraph on the facing page that describes that cat’s role in the Navy. The author is obviously a cat-lover as several photos are from his own personal collection.

The first chapter of the book provides an overview of the history of cats at sea, going back over 3,000 years to ancient Egyptian seafarers. The author focuses most of his book on United States and British Navy ships with cats embarked during WWI and WWII and the inter-war period. 

The next portion of the book explains the various tasks assigned to the ship’s cat (e.g., elimination of rodents that spread disease, storm warning, crew morale, and companionship). Just the right amount of information is given to each of the highlighted cats. A short paragraph highlights a unique characteristic of that feline and is accompanied with a photograph of the cat and its often humorous interaction with the crew.
One page from Cats in the Navy, showing the types of images and writing included in this book (Naval Institute Press)
The final section of the book is devoted to some “heroic” cats and is fetchingly titled “Claws of Fame.” Their heroic actions (at least in the eyes of their shipmates) deal mainly with cats being viewed as “good luck charms,” especially after surviving a ship’s collision, engagement with the enemy, battle damage, or sinking.

The author includes a few ‘catchy’ phrases but doesn’t go overboard with naval terms such as aircraft carrier bow and waist cats, catenary in refueling lines, or cat’s paws on the water. All-in-all, this is a fun book for pet lovers of all ages and there is sufficient research to suggest that those interested in naval history will also enjoy the read.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Sea Stories: The Bonnie Dick

By David J. Scherer
HRNM Volunteer

It was not long after joining the volunteer crew of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum that I was asked to write a few memories of my time aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31), aka "The Bonnie Dick." I suppose my bragging about a ship many years long gone prompted one of my fellows to ask me to put it on paper.
USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31) during sea trials (U.S. Navy)
Everything needs a starting point. Mine was in the autumn of 1957 when six friends and I boarded a commercial plane in Denver for a hop to San Francisco and the naval transfer station at Treasure Island. We had no idea where we would be a week hence. We were fitted with a new sea bag and given strict instructions to stick around until departure orders came through. All but one of us were earmarked for Yokosuka, Japan, and the USS Bon Homme Richard.

My Denver friends were assigned flight deck duty, the most dangerous positions on a carrier at sea. I reported to the OI Division (operations and intelligence). I would be inside, working behind a back-lighted status board. Listening to the room duty officer talking to our aircraft operating within 10 miles of our ship, I noted pertinent facts on a transparent status board, printing backwards: Pilot, plane side number, call sign, time launched, fuel state, any pertinent information, time aboard . . . do it right the first time. I loved it.

My Bon Homme Richard was the second of three ships bearing the name. The first dates to 1776 and John Paul Jones. The third and probably last ship to bear the storied name burned at the San Diego Naval Base in 2020 and was decommissioned in 2021.
John Paul Jones on the first Bonhomme Richard (NHHC)
A naval ship at sea is a fine place to make and keep friends for a lifetime. In my case it was Dave Duffy from Everett, Washington, an unrated prankster and one whose middle name was MISCHIEF. Duffy bore a notable resemblance to the Hollywood heartthrob James Dean, and he made it work for him ashore. Duffy was not beyond creating havoc whatever the location. My pal Duffy and I went a long way as buds and made many memories together. He helped me bury my mother. Not long ago, I buried him.

The biggest show in town always draws a crowd. That is how it was for an aircraft carrier cruising the Taiwan Strait in October 1957. It certainly drew a handful of notables on the 19th of that month. That was when a COD (carrier on board delivery aircraft) came aboard the Bonnie Dick and deplaned the likes of US Navy Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, Chief of Naval Operations. Admiral Burke attracted some of our friends: the assault carrier Kearsage, the anti-submarine carrier Princeton, helicopter carrier Thetis Bay, cruisers Roanoke and Rochester, and the guided missile cruiser Los Angeles. Each ship's captain was picked up by helicopter to take lunch with the chief aboard the Bon Homme Richard. As you might imagine, I was not invited.

Instead, I turned to matters that would serve me. I studied for my upcoming test for petty officer third class and air traffic controlman. I passed both and then learned I would be transferred to a fighter squadron at NAS Moffat Field, California. Unfortunately, there is no such animal as air traffic controlman in a fighter outfit.
Dave Scherer with the Operations and Intelligence team aboard Bon Homme Richard. Dave is immediately behind the officer in the center. (Bon Homme Richard cruise book)
As fate would have it, my new air group reported aboard its aircraft carrier: the Bon Homme Richard, CVA 31. I just moved across the passageway. Why not? We were billeted across from my old division. I never left my former brothers in navy blue, but I did not get my old job. My new squadron skipper kept his billet filled by assigning me as keeper of the squadron ready room. I cleaned the place, acquired the movies, ran the projector, kept the icebox filled with geedunks (teeth-rotting goodies), typed and photocopied the next day's flight schedule, slipped a copy under each pilot's stateroom door, and kept my nose clean until the ship returned to California and I, after two years aboard, to Colorado.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Please Petty Officer Third Class, Don’t Hurt ‘Em

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator
Album cover for MC Hammer’s 1990 album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em (Image from
In the olden days of the year 1990, amidst the breakup of the Soviet Union, reunification of East and West Germany, release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa, and the leadup to the First Gulf War, hip-hop was enjoying what many considered to be its golden era. Numerous artists from this time have become household names. People and groups such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Run D-M-C, and Snoop Dogg enjoyed growing success and international acclaim. Among these titans of the industry, one Stanley Kirk Burrell (aka MC Hammer) was reaching the height of his music career. With the release of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em in 1990, which contained the hit “U Can’t Touch This,” MC Hammer joined the ranks of the top hip-hop artists. Both the album and single reached top spots on U.S. and international charts, catapulting Hammer to a level of unparalleled success. However, before his stellar rise to fame and fortune, MC Hammer had other aspirations and careers, including service in the United Stated Navy.
Young Stanley Burrell (MC Hammer) with “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron. (
Stanley Kirk Burrell was born on March 30, 1962, in Oakland, California, and is the youngest of seven siblings. From his youth, Stanley Burrell pursued his dual interests of music and baseball. He spent much of his time watching the Oakland Athletics baseball team and was even hired as a batboy by the Athletics’ owner, Charles O. Finley. Finley was impressed by the young Burrell and assigned him additional duties around the team’s clubhouse. It is there that Burrell acquired the moniker “Hammer.” Players and staff began calling him “Hammer” due to his resemblance to the legendary baseball player, “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron. After graduating high school in 1980, Burrell attended community college briefly and participated in try-outs for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. When he was not selected to join the team as a player, Burrell found himself at a crossroads. At this critical moment, Stanley Burrell enlisted in the United States Navy.
A P3c Orion flies past Mount Fuji, Japan. VP-47 operated these types of planes while MC Hammer (AK3 Burrell) was a member of the squadron. (
In the Navy, Burrell’s rating was AK, or Aviation Storekeeper.[i] He served as a member of P3 Orion Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Squadron VP-47, known as “The Golden Swordsman.” As an Aviation Storekeeper, AK3 Burrell oversaw maintaining parts and equipment stocks, ordering, and dispensing all that was needed for the successful operation of the squadron. As an ASW squadron, VP-47 conducted antisubmarine and maritime surveillance duties. These duties brought AK3 Burrell, along with the squadron, to Naval Air Station Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, where the squadron was permanently stationed from 1965-1993. AK3 Burrell deployed with V-47 to Japan in support of Task Group 72 and Patrol and Reconnaissance Force in 7th Fleet, where the squadron received praise from commanders of both organizations. After completing his three-year enlistment, and returning to NAS Moffett Field, AK3 Burrell was honorably discharged in 1984.
MC Hammer today continues his music career, as well as invests in A.I. and tech companies. (Image from
After his Navy service, Burrell, now going by the moniker “MC Hammer,” renewed his pursuit of a career in music, and started his own record label called Bust It Records. He eventually started recording for Capitol Records, where his meteoric rise truly began, and he became a household name. Despite some controversy and financial problems during the early 1990s, Hammer has continued his music career with numerous releases from his own Bust It Records and other labels. While many today remember or grew up with MC Hammer’s music, his time in the US Navy is not so well known. Like many other celebrities, Hammer made a choice at a pivotal point in his life to enter military service. While many will only know MC Hammer from his career in entertainment, the people with whom he served in the Navy will probably always remember him as AK3 Stanley Burrell.

[i] The AK rating has since been merged, along with the SK (Storekeeper) and the PC (Postal Clerk) ratings, into the LS (Logistics Specialist) rating.