WWII Submarine Flag & Wheel of the U.S.S. Spadefish

Value (2008) | $4,000 Auction$5,000 Auction

GUEST:
These are pieces that were in different parts of the house that we just assembled. They were from my father's ship that he was on, which was the submarine USS Spadefish.

APPRAISER:
Well, it's quite a collection, I got to say. We have here a photo. This is your father, right?

GUEST:
Yes, it is.

APPRAISER:
Here we see him in his summer uniform. There he is in his winter uniform. And what technical service was he in, in the Navy?

GUEST:
He was fire control first class on the sub.

APPRAISER:
So, and then, here we have his logbook, fire control log. And sailors had a lot of time back then, so he had a little time to do some drawing on the cover. There's his submarine. There's some of the engagements they were in, and he put his initials there. It's a neat little book.

GUEST:
Yes, it is.

APPRAISER:
And then, we have this ship's wheel. Now, was this something your father brought home?

GUEST:
No, it isn't. My father passed away in the early '60s, and in the late '60s, my sister was perusing the hobbies magazine, and there was an advertisement for the ship's wheel off the USS Spadefish. So, we went forth and purchased this. We paid $150 for it.

APPRAISER:
Okay. Well, it's a great piece, and there's no question that it's a submarine wheel. And I'd love to do a little bit more research on it, but the story sounds right. Now, what about this last piece?

GUEST:
The flag was brought back by my father. It was in a cedar chest for a long period of time. And I don't know the specific indication of each of the symbols, other than the Spadefish, which was the name of the submarine.

APPRAISER:
Well, it's a great flag, and you got to remember that the submariners were a special class of sailor. They were almost all very, very young. It was very, very dangerous work for obvious reasons. And these flags were generally issued postwar, right as they're getting out of service, as souvenirs. Here we have the Spadefish symbol. And a lot of these caricatures were drawn up and designed by Disney. They did a lot of U.S. Navy. They did a lot of Air Force patches and symbols. This could have been a Disney one. It certainly looks like one, but it would require a little bit more research. Again, we have here the engagements that it was in. These would represent merchant vessels or civilian vessels. Down here would represent military vessels and military engagements, with aircraft or ships. And then, this represents the presidential unit citation that would have been awarded to the entire sub, and as such, the sailors would have been allowed to wear the ribbon on their uniform. And these should reflect battle stars. So, it's a great piece. You've got a little bit of moth damage, but not bad for being stored so long. In terms of value, at auction, conservatively, the flag alone... we're talking about $2,000 to $3,000.

GUEST:
Wow... okay.

APPRAISER:
Possibly more. And in terms of the ship's wheel, with a little bit of research tying it in, same kind of thing. A couple thousand dollars with upside potential.

GUEST:
Okay, interesting.

APPRAISER:
The logbook is great, but of course, it really discusses kind of day-to-day activities.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
It really kind of ties into this collection. It would go with the group. So, all together, easily, $4,000 to $5,000 with great upside potential.

GUEST:
Okay. It's fantastic.

APPRAISER:
You should be proud of your father's service.

GUEST:
I am. That I truly am.

APPRAISER:
Well, thank you.

Appraisal Details

Appraiser
Gary Piattoni, Inc.
Evanston, Illinois
Appraised value (2008)
$4,000 Auction$5,000 Auction
Event
Grand Rapids, MI (August 09, 2008)
Form
Flag, Log
Material
Cloth, Metal, Paper
November 01, 2010: After this segment aired, a viewer wrote in to say she felt the fish depicted on the U.S.S. Spadefish flag was a racist caricature. Appraiser Gary Piattoni did not think this was the case, but it’s a question we felt deserves further attention.

Karl Zingheim, a graduate of the Naval Academy and staff historian at the U.S.S. Midway Museum, offered the following remarks about how the names for ships were chosen: "By the turn of the 20th century the Navy Department had settled into a naming regimen for the wide variety of ship types technology had created. This system set aside state names for battleships, cities for cruisers, and aquatic animal names for submarines. With the onset of World War II and the huge demand for ships of all kinds, including submarines, this naming system was taxed to come up with names to suit a given ship type and still sound appropriately martial. For submarines, this was a special problem since the Navy was placing orders for hundreds and there was a shortage of popular names for fish. "Spadefish” was likely chosen because it was a fish known to mariners, and had a somewhat martial/aggressive-sounding name."

The flag's design has been credited to Paul Majoue, who served on the Spadefish. In the book Spadefish: On Patrol with a Top-Scoring WWII Submarine, by Stephen L. Moore, the story of how the flag was made is recounted, though there is no explanation for Majoue's design choices.

Considering the composition of the Spadefish flag, Zingheim added: "The flag your show displayed is a part of the battle flag phenomena which was the submarine service’s version of what a squadron logo is to aviators. As such, these flags were informal and were often designed by members of the crew with varying degrees of artistic talent and knowledge of what the namesake fish may have looked like. Of all the submarine battle flags I have seen that included fish, one thing that stayed consistent was the inclusion of a white sailor’s hat perched on the creature’s head and the frequent, cartoonish depiction of a generic fish, regardless of what the actual animal looked like. As for the color selection, it appears to be an indirect reference to the ace of spades suit on the playing card, which is traditionally depicted in solid black. Another visual pun is the employment of a spade-type shovel being held by the fish icon, suggesting that he is ready to dig graves for Japanese targets."

To see images of some other World War II submarine battle flags, see:
www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq62-1.htm

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