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.”

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