Thursday, November 18, 2021

In the Collection: Life Vest and Mess Kit from the Second World War

By Toni Deetz Rock
Deputy Director/Curator

In 2013, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum accessioned an interesting artifact into our collections. We accepted a life vest and mess kit (2013.007.213.1). The two artifacts are set in a shadowbox and the plaque reads, “USED BY MAURY A. NOTCH / A SURVIVOR OF THE USS HORNET / 10-26-42 / ALSO SURVIVED USS PRINCETON / 10-24-44.”

Maury A. Notch survived two ship sinkings with these items, his U.S. Navy-issued life vest and mess kit. (HRNM)
The life vest is a design known as a “Mae West.” The design includes a lightweight rubberized outer casing, and canisters of gas activate when needed to inflate synthetic bladders in the interior. Straps are located in strategic places to keep the vest in place during use. Peter Markus, an American business owner from Minnesota and an avid boater, patented the design in 1928. Markus intended to create a more comfortable life vest. He recognized that many people avoided wearing the older kapok or cork models because they were extremely bulky and restricted physical movement.

The U.S. and British military quickly adopted the model patented by Markus. The U.S. Navy made one adaptation to the original design: the Navy began producing the vests in a bright yellow color. The bright color would allow rescue teams to spot survivors more easily in open water. Navy fliers were the first to adopt the use of these vests, followed quickly by all other services. Although the life vest was highly profitable before WWII, Markus cancelled his patent, allowing the U.S. Government to produce the vests without paying additional royalties.
This hand-written label, "M A Notch," identifies the owner of the life vest, CAPT Maury A. Notch, USN, SC, Ret. (HRNM)
These life vests saved countless U.S. lives during the Second World War. One striking example is this specific life vest, which stood witness to at least two significant events of WWII. It is marked with the name “M A Notch” and is stamped with the manufacture date of June 1942. The bottom of the mess canister has a handwritten note, which reads, “USED THIS AS A / SURVIVOR OFF / USS HORNET OCT 26 ’42 / NOOMEA, NEW CALEDONIA.” Noumea, New Caledonia, was a critical supply stop in the South Pacific during WWII.
The mess kit is labelled to commemorate the sinking of the USS Hornet (CV 8) on October 26, 1942. (HRNM)
USS Hornet (CV 8) is known for launching the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and participating in the Battle of Midway. During the Solomon Islands Campaign, Hornet participated in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. There, Japanese torpedoes and dive bombers damaged Hornet badly, and the ship eventually sank. USS Hornet remains on the ocean floor, and until recently, the ship’s exact location was unknown. It was located in 2019 near the Solomon Islands. Maury Notch was deployed on Hornet at the time it was sunk, and he was among the Sailors who evacuated to safety.

Two years later, almost to the day, Notch was aboard USS Princeton (CVL 23). Princeton supported the occupation of Baker Island and conducted strikes on Makin and Tarawa the same month. In October 1944, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese attacked USS Princeton. Princeton burned for so long and so brightly that the U.S. Navy torpedoed the ship to keep it from being a beacon to the enemy.

We do not know much about Maury Notch’s career. We do know he was a Supply Corps officer, survived both sinkings, and retired with the rank of Captain. More research into his time aboard both ships is still needed. This set of artifacts stands as witness not only to Maury Notch’s experience, but to the experience of hundreds of U.S. Sailors in the Pacific during World War II.

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