Originally published in Sea History Magazine.
In August of 2020, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC)
was offered a rather unique and spectacular artifact -- a bedsheet
. A common sheet is not very astounding, but the story behind this one explains why this bedsheet is different.
On September 11, 2001
, while the world watched the attacks in New York and the Pentagon, and the loss of Flight 93 in horror, the crew of USS Winston S. Churchill
(DDG 81) was underway off the coast of Plymouth, England, conducting Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) with RFA Brambleleaf
(A81). When Churchill
was notified of the attacks, FOST was cancelled and the ship was placed at THREATCON DELTA, meaning that a terrorist attack had occurred or intelligence suggests one will occur imminently. The crew, thousands of miles away, were unable to assist in any response efforts closer to home.
On September 14 while Churchill
was still on patrol off the coast of Portsmouth, the German destroyer Lutjens
signaled she wished to come alongside Churchill
. Once there, the crew of Churchill
watched as the Lutjens
crew rendered honors to Churchill
, with her crew manning the rails, and the U.S. flag flying slightly higher than Germany’s. Also on the rails, the Lutjens
crew held a white bedsheet, on it was written “We Stand By You” – a powerful expression of unity in a time of crisis and tremendous loss.
After this occurred, then-Congressman Gil Gutknecht from Minnesota, recounted this story on the floor of the House of Representatives. After watching his speech on C-Span, the German ambassador to the United States arranged for a meeting between the Gutknecht and the Lutjens
commanding officer, where the bedsheet was gifted to the congressman. In 2020, Gutknecht contacted the NHHC Curator Branch to offer this historic artifact to the Navy.
Once the bedsheet arrived at the Navy’s Collection Management Facility, the collections management team eagerly began the process to accession and document this new acquisition. Knowing this artifact would likely be exhibited during the upcoming 20-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the bedsheet was turned over to the command’s Conservation Branch for a formal assessment and treatment plan. Senior Conservator Yoonjo Lee took the lead on the treatment, expertly repairing and stabilizing sections of the cotton and linen bedsheet that had damage, as well as relaxing the creases from years of repeated folding. Given the bedsheet’s size of 90 inches by 55 inches, she built a customized panel to accurately photograph the bedsheet. Working together, the Curator and Conservation Branch teams developed a relatively low cost mount that will allow for safe display of this unique artifact.
Of all of the September 11 attack artifacts in the Curator Branch’s collection, this bedsheet is uniquely Navy. It serves as a reminder of a shared human connection, of friends and allies standing together in the darkest moments, and that even an everyday bedsheet can project a powerful, emotional message of hope and solidarity.
Bio: Jeffrey Bowdoin has a M.A. in Maritime Studies from East Carolina University and currently serves as the Curator Branch Head, Naval History and Heritage Command. The Curator Branch is responsible for the Central Artifact Collection of the Navy, encompassing roughly 300,000 artifacts, highlighting the entire history of the U.S. Navy. To learn more about the history of the U.S. Navy, please visit the Naval History and Heritage Command website: history.navy.mil/usnhistory.