Thursday, January 26, 2023

Tito Puente: Mambo King and Sea-Going Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Before he became the “King of Latin Jazz,” Ernest Anthony Puente Jr., better known to the world as Tito Puente, served his country in the Navy during World War Two. Puente, who was born in New York’s Spanish Harlem in 1923, developed an ear for music at a young age. Listening to Puerto Rican and Cuban music on the radio, Puente also developed a love of the big band music that was growing in popularity. Puente was a natural when it came to music, learning multiple instruments, including his signature instrument, the timbales. Developed in Cuba in 1900, the timbales are shallow single-headed drums with a metal casing. They are tuned much higher than the single-headed tom-toms (which are typically found on a trap set).

Young Tito Puente playing the timbales (

By the time he was 13 years old, Puente was working as a professional musician. He got his first big break as a professional playing with the Machito Orchestra as the drummer in the early 1940s. The Machito Orchestra, formed by Frank “Machito” Grillo in 1939, combined Afro Cuban Jazz with traditional salsa music. The popularity of this hybrid genre continued to grow with fans; however, Puente’s roll as the drummer was put on hold when he was drafted into the Navy in 1942.

Frank "Machito" Grillo and his orchestra (

Nineteen-year-old Tito Puente completed his basic training and received orders to USS Santee (ACV 29). Puente was one of the ship’s buglers and during his time aboard Santee, he became a co-leader of the ship’s band. The Hampton Roads-based carrier would take Puente and the crew to the shores of North Africa during Operation Torch in 1942, and into the Pacific during the Battles of Leyte Gulf in 1944 (Santee was actually hit by a Kamikaze during the battle) and Okinawa in 1945. USS Santee received two battle stars for service in the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, seven battle stars for service in the Pacific, and a Presidential Unit Citation. Puente served aboard Santee from 1942 to 1945.

Seaman First Class Puente aboard USS Santee (

After the war, Puente received an honorable discharge and used his GI Bill to attend the Juilliard School of Music. While at Juilliard, Puente studied orchestration, conducting, and music theory. He graduated in 1947, and in 1948 formed his own band called the Tito Puente Orchestra. In 1958, Puente released his best-selling album Dance Mania. In 2002, Dance Mania was added to the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings preserved by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to life in the United States. Dance Mania also made the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Album cover from The King of the Cha-Cha Mambo (

Tito Puente had a fifty-year career in the music business as a musician, songwriter, bandleader, and producer. He was also a pioneer of combining his beloved Latin and big band music into one fused style. His talent as a performer carried over to film and television. He played himself in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, and he appeared in a two-part episode of The Simpsons. Puente received numerous awards during his career, including five Grammy Awards, an induction into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. Puente recorded over one hundred albums and performed with music legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones. Of his many hit songs, probably the most memorable are "Babarabatiri," "Ran Kan Kan," and "Oye Como Va." Tito Puente was a gifted musician and performer, and also a member of the Second World War’s Greatest Generation.

Tito Puente with Armand Assante in the film The Mambo Kings (

Thursday, January 12, 2023

HRNM Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Event: Building CSS Virginia

By Jim Beute

One of the best things that ever happened to my son Andrew and myself was attending the HRNM Lego Shipbuilding event back in 2014. We had a lot of fun, and it started us on a shared hobby that we’ve enjoyed together for eight years now. As our building skills and our pile of bricks have grown over those years, we challenge ourselves to build bigger and better creations for all the different Lego events that we now attend. The time that I’ve spent as a volunteer docent has sparked my interest in the Battle of Hampton Roads, and in the CSS Virginia as well.

Starting with the goal to “Build a big, cool model of CSS Virginia out of Lego for the HRNM Event!”, my first step is to nail down the scope of the model (how big, how cool) within the design constraints (the actual CSS Virginia design), the budget (my pile of bricks), and the project schedule (4 February deadline). The figure below depicts how my little Systems Engineer brain relates these concepts to each other, and the decisions that I reached for this model.

Jim's thoughts about creating his next big Lego build

Bigger is almost always better with Lego models, since it allows greater precision when making constant compromises of scale when building with Lego bricks. Building at minifigure scale (1:42) allows much more interesting models with lots of small plastic human interaction within the model to bring it alive for the audience.

One guiding principle for Lego kits and for my own models is that there should always be some fun or interesting feature that is a pleasant surprise. I have decided to “cut away” the starboard side to show the interior decks and spaces and to have a working engine room with pistons turning the propeller shaft. This decision quadrupled the complexity of the model, but it should significantly increase human interest and interaction with the model.

The decision to build a cut-away interior made it important to find good, detailed plans and drawings of the Virginia. The resources and helpful staff at HRNM, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, and the Mariners’ Museum helped me to find the best drawings and books available. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any complete interior drawings for the Virginia, and the available source materials often contradict each other. Carl Park faces this same dilemma in Ironclad Down. To fill in the gaps, he extrapolates from the limited construction drawings by John Porter such as the one shown below, pre-conversion drawings of USS Merrimack, and additional clues from crew memoirs.

This Porter drawing came from a digitized version at Eastern Carolina University (

While Carl Park provides the most complete composite sketch of the Virginia interior available, his efforts are more focused on ship construction than operational use. Even his composite makes extensive use of “Compartment Configuration Unknown” throughout the berth deck. Since I must build something there, I’ve put on my old ship’s ballcap and tried to imagine what a feasible arrangement for messing and berthing would be, extrapolating from the same limited sources. The picture below shows what I came up with. I’m sure there are many errors, but in my research, I’ve learned that every model of the Virginia falls back upon the artist’s imagination at some point.

CSS Virginia (Jim Beute)

Over the years, I have also learned to build modularity into the design of larger models. An 8-foot Lego ironclad looks great on the coffee table, but it needs to fit through doors in order to share it with others. I’ve built the Virginia in five easy pieces for transport. The four sections shown below snap together, and the casement then snaps onto the hull.

CSS Virginia in pieces (Jim Beute)

In addition, there is a bin of accessories (cannon, minifigures, etc.) that are then added to complete the scene. Minifigures and motion turn the static model into a historic scene of Civil War mayhem and chaos as shown below. Hopefully that will bring some of this history alive for the kids at the event. Lego doesn’t make Confederate minifigures, but they do make a variety of rebel scum from the Star Wars universe. This keeps the model from being too serious and allows for “find the Wookie” easter eggs that will lead people into spending a lot more time studying the interior of an ironclad than they would otherwise.

Closeup of the interior (Jim Beute)

Building the Virginia was a fun and educational experience for me. Come out to the HRNM Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Event on February 4th for a closer look!

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Reading a Museum Artifact: What Commander John Graf’s Flight Jacket Can Tell Us

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

In addition to providing insight into the past, artifacts help us form a closer connection with a historical narrative. But what if we do not have that narrative context? Today we will look at an artifact on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in the Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit, our current special exhibit about the U.S. Navy’s role during the Vietnam War. One of two flight jackets in the gallery, this G-1 style flight jacket belonged to Commander John “Jack” Graf, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1945. Graf was a Photographers Mate who commissioned as an officer in 1958. A flight jacket provides a snapshot of an aviator’s service. Using this jacket, we’ll explore how to “read” an artifact and how that examination can be a window into the artifact owner’s career.

CDR John Graf’s leather G-1 style flight jacket, on display at HRNM (HRNM)

At its most basic, this is a leather jacket with a fur-lined collar. Generally, only pilots and aircrew personnel receive and wear this kind of garment. These jackets came about in response to the extreme conditions present when flying at altitude.[i] Based on the materials and design, this is a “G-1” flight jacket (a general designation for a range of variants), which tells us that it was made sometime after 1947 when the “G-1” style came into being.[ii] The leather flight jacket ceased being used during missions as cockpits changed and new fabrics and technologies were developed. Thus, this style of flight jacket became more a status symbol than necessary equipment. The nameplate on the left breast provides the name, rank, and service of the owner. In this case, J.G. Graf, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, owned this jacket. A close inspection shows the letters “JG” scratched off after the rank, indicating that Graf acquired the jacket while a Lieutenant (Junior Grade), and instead of having a new nameplate made and sewn on, he chose a more expedient remedy.

Steam rises from a vent at a snow- and ice-covered Little America Station during Operation Deep Freeze III (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Visible below the nameplate is a patch from Operation Deep Freeze III (1957-58). Patches of military garments denote service with specific units or participation in certain official operations. The Deep Freeze operations were part of a long-term international scientific effort to perform research and experiments across several stations in Antarctica.[iii] This included atmospheric study, ice-core sampling, and astronomy in the polar environment. This phase of Deep Freeze coincided with the International Geophysical Year, a larger global scientific effort to study both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Serving in Antarctica is uncommon for Sailors, and the patch’s presence on this flight jacket makes Graf’s career somewhat unique. With the benefit of John Graf’s service history, we know that he did participate in Deep Freeze III, and was part of the “wintering-over” party at Little America Station in Kainan Bay on the Ross Ice Shelf. It was here that Graf commissioned as ensign, making the transition from enlisted to the officer ranks, becoming what is known in the Navy as a “Mustang.”[iv]

USS Independence (CV 62), USS Saratoga (CV 60), and USS Intrepid (CVA 11) celebrate the 50th anniversary of U.S. Naval Aviation (NHHC)

The jacket’s other patches also provide valuable information. The patch on the right shoulder is that of Heavy Attack Squadron 9 (VAH-9), known as the “Hoot Owls.” This patch is datable to the mid-1950s to early 1960s, since the design changed when the squadron was redesignated as RVAH-9 in 1964. On the right breast is the patch of USS Saratoga (CVA 60). Commissioned in 1956, Saratoga was the second aircraft carrier to bear that name. On the left shoulder is the patch of Carrier Air Group 3, known as “Battle Axe.” These three patches are diagnostic due to the overlap of each unit’s service history. VAH-9 was assigned to USS Saratoga from 1957 to 1964 as part of Carrier Air Group 3 (CVG-3). CVG-3 was redesignated as Carrier Air Wing 3, and VAH-9 to RVAH-9 in 1963 and 1964, respectively. Based on this evidence, we can reasonably surmise that Graf served aboard Saratoga as a member of VAH-9 sometime between the years of 1957-1963. With the benefit of Graf’s service history, we know that he served with VAH-9 aboard Saratoga from 1959-1963, during which time USS Saratoga deployed several times to the Mediterranean and was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

OV-1 Mohawk aircraft of the Vietnam era. It was in this type of aircraft that LCDR Graf was shot down and captured during his second Vietnam tour in 1969. (

So, why is this flight jacket in the Vietnam section of HRNM? While this artifact does not reflect CDR Graf’s time in Vietnam, it represents the man who served there. LT Graf first deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as a Naval Intelligence Liaison Officer, during which time he was forced to crash land an O-1 Bird Dog observation plane (with no prior pilot’s training) after the pilot was killed by ground fire. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. LCDR Graf returned to Vietnam in 1969 where on November 15, 1969, both he and the pilot of an OV-1 Mohawk were forced to eject and were captured by North Vietnamese forces. Graf died during an escape attempt in February 1970. John Graf was declared “Killed-in-Action” in February 1978 and posthumously promoted to the rank of Commander. This jacket stands as a physical connection to the life and career of a Sailor, officer, and aviator of the U.S. Navy who served and was lost during the Vietnam War.

[i] This blog about an MA-1 flight jacket on display briefly discusses the origins of the flight jackets, and how they were adapted with changing flight conditions:
[ii] The label inside the collar of the jacket is quite worn, so the specific variant is not immediately discernable. Often, artifacts are only datable to a range of time and not a specific date of creation or use.
[iii] The Cruisebook for Operation Deep Freeze (Task Force 43) is available online at:
[iv] While not official Navy terminology, Sailors who rise in the enlisted ranks and are then commissioned into the officer corps are often referred to as “Mustangs,” or “Mustangers.”

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding—Back in Person in 2023!

By Laura Lawfer Orr
HRNM Director of Education
Building LEGO ships at HRNM's event in 2020 (Photo by Max Lonzanida, HRNM PAO)

Since February 2012, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum has hosted an annual LEGO Shipbuilding event. For the past two years, that event has been virtual—and now, in February 2023, we will be back in person! We’re excited to welcome back our visitors for another free Lego Shipbuilding event. This will be the 11th year we have offered a LEGO Shipbuilding event, and we’re looking forward to many more.

Some of the fun activities include:
  • LEGO Shipbuilding contest. If you want to participate in this competition, you can either bring a ship from home to submit in the contest, or you can build on-site with our museum-owned LEGOs. This is great for kids—and adults—of all ages! All entries must be submitted by 2pm and winners will be announced by 3:30pm. Prizes are LEGO gift cards. If bringing a ship from home, please complete this registration form before the event.
Contest entry from 2020's event (Photo by Max Lonzanida, HRNM PAO)
  • Build Navy Ships with LEGOs. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s staff members have designed 14 Navy ships with LEGOs, all of which are available for you to build on-site using our instructions! The ships are available in easy, medium, hard, and expert difficulty levels. You can view and download some of these instructions on our website.
  • LEGO Ship Displays. Built by professional model-builders, come and see our LEGO ships on display! The Hampton Roads Lego User Group (HARDLUG) will be displaying some of their members’ latest creations.
  • LEGO Robotics. The First LEGO League will be demonstrating some of their creative builds and how their robotics work. See the amazing creations these students make and learn how to use LEGO robotics yourself.
LEGO free play area at the 2020 event (Photo by Max Lonzanida, HRNM PAO)
  • Free-play areas. We’ll have LEGO free play and Duplo free play areas available for fun and creativity! This is where kids can build for the shipbuilding contest, but no contest participation is required to use the free-play areas.
  • LEGO Crafts. Design your own LEGO craft keychain; create a LEGO paper bag puppet; or complete LEGO coloring pages—crafts for all ages!
  • Sensory Room available for those who need a break from the noise of the event.
When: Saturday, February 4, 2023
10am to 4pm

Where: Half Moone Cruise Terminal
1 Waterside Drive
Norfolk, VA 23510

Cost: Free

Registration: Register for free! Registration is recommended for attendees.

Where do I park in downtown Norfolk? Parking is available in the city garages closest to the cruise terminal (Main Street, Plume Street, City Hall Ave.). Parking will cost $5 and will be pay-on-entry. Cash or credit accepted.

Is there food available? We will have several food trucks on-site with snacks and meals available for purchase. Please plan accordingly!

Note: All LEGOs owned by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum must remain at the event.

Questions? Contact Laura via email at

Families work together to build Navy ships with LEGOs (Photo by Max Lonzanida, HRNM PAO)

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Run Silent, Run Deep and The Hunt for Red October: Two Submarine Novels That Made It to the Big Screen

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Captain Edward L. Beach Jr. wrote his first book, Submarine! in 1952. Three years later he wrote his second book, Run Silent, Run Deep. Beach graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939. He served aboard three submarines during World War Two, participating in twelve combat patrols, and received the Navy Cross for his actions. His first book was a collection of war patrols based on his own experiences as well as those of other US submarines that had served during the war. The book received high praise from Time magazine, and Beach’s first attempt as a published author was indeed a success. His second book, Run Silent, Run Deep is considered to be a classic regarding submarine warfare.

Commander Edward Beach, 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)

Run Silent, Run Deep became a bestseller shortly after it was released, and was included on the list of the 250 outstanding books of the year for 1955. The plot of the story revolves around the fictional submarine U.S.S. Walrus and its crew taking on Japanese naval forces in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. The popularity of the book eventually led to a feature film, which began production in 1957. The film version of Run Silent, Run Deep starred Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster (also one of the producers of the film), and was the film debut of comedian Don Rickles. 

The book cover for Run Silent, Run Deep

Released on March 27, 1958, the film was praised by critics for its action and realism regarding undersea warfare. The producers used cutting-edge special effects, as well as consulting active-duty submariners to train the cast. Set designers created realistic sets depicting the working and living conditions aboard a submarine. The director of photography utilized tight shots of the actors portraying the crew, visually demonstrating to the viewing audience the close quarters nature of submarine service. The producers also had access to USS Redfish (SS 395) to film exterior shots, and used authentic submarine equipment in the interior sets.

Run Silent, Run Deep movie poster, 1958 (Wikimedia Commons)

Probably the most noticeable inaccuracy in the film is the age of the characters played by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. At 56 years old, Gable played Commander Edward Richardson, who was based on Edward Beach. In reality, Gable’s character would have been in his 20s during the war. The same could be said for Lancaster, 44 years old during filming, who played the part of Executive Officer Jim Bledsoe.

Fast forward to 1984 and an insurance agent-turned-author by the name of Tom Clancy created another bestselling submarine novel. Like Beach’s Run Silent Run Deep, Clancy’s debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, is primarily about submarines. At the center of the story is a brand new Russian submarine, the Red October, capable of carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles. This submarine’s commanding officer decides to defect to the United States during the height of the Cold War. The book was noted for its authenticity and technical detail in terms of both US and Russian submarines. It might surprise readers to learn that Clancy never served in the Navy. Due to poor eyesight, Clancy was unable to join any branch of the armed services of the United States. He sold his book to the Naval Institute Press of Annapolis, Maryland, for $5,000. The book would go on to sell over 45,000 copies. It became a national bestseller, and even President Ronald Reagan could be counted as a fan of the work.

Tom Clancy (New York Daily News)

In 1990, Clancy’s book became a feature film. Distributed by Paramount Pictures with a production budget of $30 million, the filmmakers also had support and cooperation from the US Navy. The Navy loaned ships, submarines, and a helicopter for filming purposes. This support added additional authenticity to the look and feel of the film, and the benefit of over thirty years of improvement in movie special effects.

Book cover, The Hunt for Red October

The cast of the film included a young Alec Baldwin playing Clancy’s hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, as well as the man who brought James Bond to life on the big screen, Sean Connery. Connery played the veteran Russian submarine captain and would-be defector, Marko Ramius. The film stayed fairly true to the book, and the Navy’s mindset at the time was that perhaps this movie could generate interest in serving in the submarine force much like what Top Gun did for naval aviation. Released on March 2, 1990, The Hunt for Red October was well received by movie goers and critics with a final worldwide gross of over $200 million.

The Hunt for Red October movie poster (

Run Silent, Run Deep and The Hunt for Red October gave readers and moviegoers a glimpse into the world of submarine warfare. Although Hollywood is never “perfect” regarding military films, the strength of these two stories helped provide audiences with some insight to the challenges Sailors faced while serving on submarines during World War Two and the Cold War.

Sean Connery and Alex Baldwin on the set for The Hunt for Red October (

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Book Review: The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard

By James H. Shoemaker
Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM docent
The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) is based largely on the unpublished history of a longtime shipyard public affairs officer. There is little documentation of original research, but it appears that much of the history was gleaned from shipboard logs and annual submissions to higher authority. This lack of historiography is evidenced in the first sentence of the acknowledgment section, which states, “This book does not introduce any new history to the long story of Norfolk Naval Shipyard.” The book was started and handed down over the years with seemingly no one able to make the time to complete the history of NNSY. Credit goes to James H. Shoemaker for completing this project, a service to those who will benefit most from reading the book—the workers who have served at the shipyard.
USS Delaware in Dry Dock #1 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NHHC)
The author does an outstanding job of relating the NNSY’s 255-year history in the context of what was occurring in America and in the U.S. Navy, and provides a good history review for the reader. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book details actions within the shipyard during the Civil War. This chapter delves into the strategic importance of NNSY and highlights significant events at the facility as it twice changed hands during that conflict.
CSS Virginia being built during the Civil War (NHHC)
Presented chronologically, it makes for an easy read but too often bounces from topic to topic, frequently with no transition. For example, on pages 180-181, the author goes from describing USS Arthur Radford entering dry dock for repairs to the wage grade system of NNSY employees. There is no apparent connection between the two as it drifts from one paragraph to the next.

The author devotes three pages to enslaved workers, specifically highlighting mechanic George Teamoh and the positions he held and tasks performed. More detail about specific shipyard workers such as Teamoh and their work would have made the book more interesting. Photographs or drawings of many of the shipyard commanders and short accompanying narratives are interspersed throughout the book but unfortunately, there are few photographs of everyday shipyard workers and even less text about the work they conducted.
USS Shangri-La at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, 1944 (NHHC)
The first chapter identifies numerous locations throughout the NNSY area, but there is no accompanying map that allows the reader to determine their precise sites. The only map is one from perhaps the 1700s and is virtually unreadable. A modern-day map with significant annotated landmarks would be a huge help, especially for the reader not familiar with the area. In fact, the author never provides a definition/distinction of “Tidewater” or “Hampton Roads” which will undoubtedly further confuse many readers. The book suffers from too many photos and drawings, several of poor quality/resolution and some absolutely illegible.

The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard will hold most appeal for its target audience—the personnel who have worked there over the years.