Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Recruit's First Year, 1910-1911: The J.T. Van Zile Journal

By Katherine Renfrew
HRNM Registrar

Cover of the J.T. Van Zile journal, 1910-1911 (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)
Jesse Tate Van Zile, “Musician, 2nd Class, USN”, sent this journal home to his family in Athens, Alabama on March 12, 1911. He had kept a daily, detailed record of his first year of Navy life in Hampton Roads, where he was stationed aboard the receiving (training) ship USS Franklin at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Jesse Tate Van Zile, “Musician, 2nd Class, USN, 1918. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)

The journal, along with a scrapbook, photographs, postcards, cap ribbons, and music programs, all part of the Van Zile collection, provides a rare snapshot of what the local area and Navy life for a young recruit was like in 1910. It reflects Van Zile’s day-to-day activities as well as his explorations of the surrounding areas outside the Navy Yard. The first entry begins on June 30, 1910, when Jesse and his brother Leon, “left Athens, friends and loved ones to join the Navy.” They departed Athens via train to the recruiting station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their intent was to enlist as musicians, but the recruiting officer told them that the Navy was not enlisting that rate. Since the brothers did not have enough money for the train ride back home, they enlisted as Apprentice Seamen, hoping they could change their rating. Several days later, they boarded another train headed to Portsmouth/Norfolk, Virginia, arriving on the evening of July 4th. The journal entry for that day reads, “After we finished eating we were taken back to the ‘Dog Hut’ as the fellows call it and turned in our bunks to spend the night with the mosquitoes.”
Page from the journal discussing the brothers’ transfer to Musician School, July 18, 1910. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)

The Van Zile brothers quickly learned how to “sling and lash” their hammocks, “roll and pack” their clothes, stand watch, go to the “grinder” for inspections and drills, “scrub” their “bungalows,” sleep in the “dog hut,” and serve as the “street police.” On July 18, 1910, Jesse and Leon’s hopes to become Navy musicians became a reality when they were transferred to the Musicians School. Jesse wrote, "Have finished my career as an apprentice seaman. Are through carrying a gun and through standing guard for two hours at a stretch."
Band members sailing on Hampton Roads, September 1910. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)
Van Zile and his fellow Sailors experienced many “firsts” on and off duty. A few were: a trip to a dentist office, “bathing” in salt water (Chesapeake Bay), seeing a “Wireless Station,” and a “first glimpse of the ocean” (Ocean View). On Labor Day, 1910, he wrote, “Fourteen of us band boys got permission to use a Gov’t. cutter equipped with sail rigging and I took my first trip in a sailboat.” “Moving pictures” at the YMCA, visiting submarines and battleships in port, and attending football games between crew members and local communities were regular past times. On October 22, 1910, he attended a football game in Newport News between crew members and St. Vincent College. Before the game he explored the town and wrote, “It is the prettiest place around here. Far ahead of Portsmouth and Norfolk.”
Page from the journal discussing Aviation Day, November 2, 1910. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)
One of the more fascinating entries was the brothers’ visit to the “Aviation Meet” on November 2, 1910. Jesse’s journal entry states, “Leon and I went to Norfolk and took the car to the Exposition Grounds. Curtiss made the first ascension just as we got to the grounds going about three hundred feet high and circling the fields four of five times landed safely….It was my first time to see an airship fly and it was fine.” Leon and his brother wrote their name “with pencil” on the “middle rudder between the planes of Curtiss’ machine.” Afterwards, they walked around the grounds and wrote their names on several of the old buildings, and in the tower at the head of the wharf.
A picture of Van Zile’s family and his “Account with Uncle Sam” is found on the last page and inside cover of the journal. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)
It was easy to glean from the journal what was most important to Van Zile—mail, church, and pay day. Mail was mentioned daily. The entry would note when mail was received and from whom, and when mail was sent and to whom. His July 15, 1910, entry reads, “Rec’d my first mail from home today.” If he received no mail for the day, he would always state, “Received no mail.” He attended church services every Sunday morning aboard ship, and Sunday night services at the Methodist Church in Berkley (part of Norfolk). In the back of the book, the last page shows his account with “Uncle Sam,” and a family portrait. Definitely a reminder of home.
USS Utah band members, Philadelphia Navy Yard, April 1911. (Van Zile/HRNM Collection)
The journal ends with the last entry on February 28, 1911. Jesse and Leon are transferred, and leave “…for Hampton Roads to take the Prairie for League Island Navy Yard” (Philadelphia Navy Yard) where they joined the USS Utah band.

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