Some 20 years ago, my mother gave me a secondhand, vintage U.S. Navy peacoat. I've never been particularly interested in military history and have, for most of my life, been an avowed pacifist. But I loved the coat — It was made of a sturdy, fine grade of wool, and was much warmer than comparable weight new coats — and I still wear it.
I had owned the coat many years before I ever looked in the small inside breast pocket where the U.S. Navy label was stitched. There, unbeknowst to me for so many years, were the original owner's orders to report for active duty, dated Dec. 18, 1962: Marvin Specht, a naval reservist from Reading, Pa. had to be in Norfolk, Va. and the U.S.S. Willard Keith, by Jan. 13, 1963.
Early in my career as a journalist I had been presented with a story that was a mystery to be solved — what had happened to a migrant worker who had last been heard from in Central New York where the picking circuit had taken him in the early 1960s — and the discovery of the active duty orders in the hidden pocket of my peacoat prompted the same desire to delve into history for an answer, no matter how partial.
What the coat tells me
Once, during the SEPTA strike of 2009, standing in line for hour to get down to the platform, a woman several people ahead of me turned and asked me where I had been stationed. It turns out she had been one of the first women to enlist in the Navy after the October 1978 court ruling that overturned statutes that forbade women from serving on ships. I felt a bit ashamed that I was wearing the coat without earning it (as I've felt on several other occasions when people have assumed I served and treated me with undeserved fraternity), but she was kind and explained what the insignias meant. I hadn't yet found the paperwork that would prompt me to look for more information about the former owner and the ship on which he served.
The propeller blades indicate that Specht served as a machinist's mate, which meant he operated, maintained, and repaired the ship propulsion machinery, along with other equipment and machinery on the ship. The cardinal chevrons indicate a Petty Officer,Second Class, a junior noncommissioned officer with specific technical expertise. Even without the accompanying paperwork, it is possible to tell that this is an older peacoat since, lamentably, I'm told the quality of the wool used in the newer Navy peacoats isn't as good.
What the paperwork tells me
U.S. support troops started being sent to Vietnam in 1961 and led to a full escalation in 1964. Since Specht was ordered to report for duty in early 1963 (and the completed physical stamps indicate he did indeed report), I first imagined he'd served in Vietnam. But the more research I did, the less likely that became.
Unlike the wars that preceded it (and those that have succeeded it), active reservists weren't mobilized except in response to the Pueblo incident and Tet offensive in 1968. Perversely, because young men were being drafted to serve in the Armed Forces, the government saw no need to send the volunteer reservists to Vietnam. Which is undoubtedly why, according to David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal (both professors at the Center for Research on Military Organization), "joining the reserves came to be seen during Vietnam as a way to avoid conscription, fulfill the citizenship responsibility of military service, and avoid going to war."
The ship Specht was assigned to was the U.S.S. Willard Keith (DD 775), an Allen M. Sumner class naval destroyer, which were first built during World War II and distinguished from previous detroyers by "enormous firepower that could be directed forward — four 5-inch barrels or even six at longer ranges, as the after mount could be trained forward to fire over the mast," according to the Destroyer History Foundation. The USS Willard Keith was built, launched and commissioned in 1944. The USS Willard Keith participated in the Cuban Quarantine Operation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but by 1963 she was used as a Naval Reserve training ship. Ergo Specht's orders. (In an interesting aside, after the U.S. Navy decommissioned the destroyer in 1972, the Colombian Navy then commissioned it and kept it in service until 1977, when it was scrapped.)
But, the badge with Specht's assignment (photo at the top of post) was never sewn onto the coat, and while I understand that must mean something, I don't know what to deduce from it.
I, of course, googled Marvin F. Specht. It is not an uncommon name in the greater Reading area and I found a number of intriguing snippets of other Marvin Spechts' lives in newspaper archives. An obituary from the Reading Times, for example: "MANTANA H. (Heydt) BECKER, 52, wife of Jessiah G. Becker, died yesterday of a heart attack while hanging up clothes on the wash line in the rear of her home in NEW BERLINVILLE. She was found lying in the back yard by her grandson, Marvin Specht. who returned home from school during the noon lunch hour...." The date is too early — October 24, 1939 — to have been the owner my coat. And the Marvin Specht mentioned as a clarinetist in a school band (Pottstown Mercury of January 15, 1950) could easily be him, but just as easily not.
I discover that many of the folks who worked with the engines, turbines and machinery on the USS Willard Keith were exposed to asbestos dust (the ship was fireproofed with asbestos insulation) and have developed mesothelioma. Perhaps the reservists on the ship were less exposed, I don't know, and I stop myself from digging any further.
Marvin Specht — whomever he was and wherever he ended up after his stint on the USS Willard Keith — owned my coat. It is a good coat. Full of untold stories.