By Frank Thompson, Deputy Assistant Director for Collection Management, Naval History and Heritage Command
Throughout my long career at the Naval History and Heritage Command (and its predecessor organization, Naval Historical Center) I have had many memorable experiences, both good and bad. None resonates more with me than the saga of the historic flag from USS Taylor (DD 468). Outwardly, the flag is little different from the many other United States flags found in our collections. It bears the scars of hard use; its hoist and canton with forty-eight stars are faded and discolored. Its fly is frayed and soiled. By contemporary standards, the flag is well past its prime. Yet, this flag has a history beyond its provenance that continues today.
How could something so ordinary in appearance have such a powerful impact? The story begins in August 1945 when USS Taylor escorted the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) into Tokyo Bay to accept the surrender of the Japanese Empire. On the day of the ceremony, September 2, 1945, Taylor ferried Allied war correspondents to the Missouri and was present alongside during the signing. Seventy-three years later, one of Taylor’s few surviving World War II veterans would describe to me the sight of the massive fly-over by hundreds of US aircraft at the time of the ceremony. The flag flying from the ship’s mast that day is the subject of this story. After the surrender ceremony, Taylor, like many ships that made up the United States Navy returned home. Before a year had passed, the ship was decommissioned and become part of the mothball fleet (she later was recommissioned and served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars). The flag from September 2, 1945, however, was retained by one of the crewmen. In 1977 veterans of USS Taylor began holding reunions and the forty-eight star flag flown during the Japanese surrender became a focal point. At the 1988 reunion, Captain Chuck Smith, then Deputy Director of the Naval Historical Center, and an alumnus of Taylor (1958-1962) persuaded the flag’s custodian to donate it to the Naval Historical Center. Captain Smith related to me how he brought the flag back and personally presented it to Mr. Henry Vadnais Head of the Curator Branch at that time. In November of 1988, the flag was formally accessioned and cataloged into the Navy’s artifact collection.
It is at this point where the story takes an unpleasant turn. Staff and financial resources were very limited during those days. With the end of the Cold War, the workload in the Curator Branch increased dramatically with no additional resources to offset a growing backlog. Automation of the artifact collection records was still in a fairly primitive state and beset by problems too numerous to relate here. In this environment, we, unfortunately, were not able to locate the Taylor flag when requested by the association in 2002. Given the limited staff resources, there was precious little we could do. Our inability to locate the flag would be a major sore point between the association and the Naval Historical Center for the coming years. In 2009, when I assumed the Head Curator position, I decided it was time to try a new approach. The Naval Historical Center itself was undergoing profound changes. In 2008, Naval Historical Center was reorganized and became today’s Naval History and Heritage Command a year later. My staff and I looked at the branch’s past budget submissions and engaged Comptroller in what the Curator staff needed in order to more effectively collect and maintain Navy’s history. Our effort resulted in a multi-year project called the Artifact Baseline Reset (ABR) to conduct a detailed inventory validation of the Navy’s artifact collection, something that had never been done since its inception in 1908. Increased resources, staff and finances, became available in Fiscal Year 2012. At the Taylor reunion in 2012, Captain Jeffrey Gaffney, then Deputy Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, gave a presentation on the changes happening at the command as well as an update on the search for the flag.
The Taylor flag became an ex-officio symbol of why the ABR project was needed. As new staff joined the Curator Branch, the story of the Taylor flag search became a central theme and finding it became a major goal. As work began on the ABR, we faced a couple unexpected challenges, but as a team, the search for flag unified us and became something we all worked towards. After an internal realignment and the commands acquisition of a much larger and newer Collection Management Facility in Richmond, VA, the pace of the ABR began to pick up significantly.
On the afternoon of April 17, 2018, I received the long awaited phone call from Tonia Deetz-Rock, the manager at the Collection Management Facility. While conducting the inventory of crate M345, the Curators located the missing Taylor flag! Director Sam Cox notified the USS Taylor Association. In May, the Curator Branch transferred the flag to the Conservation Branch for a condition assessment and treatment proposal. Once approved, conservators David Krop and Yoonjo Lee did a magnificent job stabilizing the flag and developing a pressure mounting for its display. With the conservation work completed by the end of August, the command would at long last be able to provide the flag for display at the Taylor reunion.
This October, our collective goal became a reality. Melissa Weissert, Curator at the Collection Management Facility, and I travelled to represent the command at the reunion. Along with five Sailors from the nearby Navy Operational Support Center, Fort Carson, we finally were able to display a piece of the crew’s history! Melissa and I spent the entire day interacting with the Taylor veterans, answering questions about the flag, the conservation process and the frame. Especially moving was the interactions we had with one of the ship’s surviving World War II crew, Michael Dejiacomo. Later that evening, at the association’s business meeting, I gave a presentation on the 2013-2018 efforts to find and preserve the flag. Afterwards, Melissa and I joined the Association around the flag for a cake cutting and toast. It was a particularly moving experience that; we felt extremely honored to be part of. Afterwards, as we were packing the flag for return to Richmond, many of the veterans came to thank us again for not just finding the flag, but for its conservation, and the gesture to accompany it to the reunion. One of the wives remarked to me that, given my long involvement in the search, I must also have a sense of closure. She was very much correct.
The next morning, as Melissa and I were heading to the airport, we talked about the experience of the day before. For Melissa, it was an incredible opportunity to interact with the veteran community. For me it was an opportunity to restore faith between the command and an organization that trusted us to care for one of their most cherished artifacts. For both of us, the experience served as a reminder that each of the objects entrusted to our care represents far more than a sum of individual pieces and parts. Each object has its own story to tell.