I can think of few images that better represent an American Bluejacket more than the famous statue of a sailor in his peacoat with the collar turned up and his hands in his pockets. I remember the controversy when the Lone Sailor was first unveiled. Purists were quick to point out that the guy not only had his hands in his pockets but the buttons were undone and he generally looked a bit like a sailor on his way home that was tired of the sea. His grim expression seems to strengthen the notion that he was not the happiest person on the pier.
Yet in a moment, he captured the heart of many sailors that have left their home and served in what is best described as challenging to one’s soul and one’s physical being. Ever since man learned that a correctly designed craft could break the bonds with the land, men and now women have found the joy and the suffering that comes with the trip. And the boredom which probably occupies quite a bit of a sailors life.
The Navy announced last year that it was going to phase out the peacoat. I have to be honest and admit that I went through some emotional soul searching when the announcement was made. From a practical standpoint, the decision made some sense. After all, with modern fabrics and design capabilities, there are many more effective coats available that would exceed the ancient design and materials which make up the peacoat.
Yet, the coat is still listed in current Uniform Regulations
The Navy Peacoat
A double-breasted, hip length coat made of dark blue authorized fabric with a convertible collar, a set-in pocket in each forefront, and a single row of four 35-line black plastic anchor buttons down the right front and three on left. Men’s Peacoat buttons to the right.
So where did the coat get its name?
According to a 1975 edition of the Mariner’s Mirror, the term pea coat originated from the Dutch or West Frisian word pijjekker or pijjakker, in which pij referred to the type of cloth used, a coarse kind of twilled blue cloth with a nap on one side.
Another theory, which is mostly favored by the US Navy, is that the heavy topcoat worn in cold, miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from “pilot cloth” – a heavy, coarse, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. This was sometimes called P-cloth from the initial letter of pilot, and the garment made from it was called a P-jacket – later a pea coat. The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth.
That’s a long time. That’s a lot of tradition. For a young man of eighteen years of age, being issued one of these was a family tradition. The coat I was issued was nearly the exact same coat as my Grandfather and my Father. In fact, one of my favorite pictures of Dad is when he was my age and stationed in the Finger Lakes Region of New York in the winter of 1945. I am pretty sure he was glad for the heavy wool in that very cold climate.
I thought about that coat a bit last night as I looked up at my Lone Sailor statue on the mantle. Not sure why other than the fact that the heat was blowing to overcome the weather outside. I remembered looking at the pile of clothes they had just issued me and coming to grips with the fact that this government issue outfit would be my main gear for the next four years. (I had no idea that it would stretch to more than twenty years at that point.)
It was June of 1972 and the Company was instructed to wear our cotton whites. But June of 1972 in Great Lakes was not a very warm time. In fact, it was colder there than parts of winter back in Pennsylvania. When we were in our off time (which wasn’t very often) that heavy coat actually came in pretty handy. I would find that to be true a number of times over the next few years.
The garment they gave me in boot camp smelled faintly like mothballs. There was a government label inside that had a place to write your name and number with a stencil pen. There was a precise way to fold it as well.
All Navy sailors learn quickly that space on boat a ship is very precious and limited so we had to learn the exact best way to fold our clothes. In the years since I have retired, I collect old Bluejackets Manuals and as far back as I can see with the ones I have collected, this folding thing has been around forever.
Some of the uniforms I was issued are long since gone from fashion. The Navy gave us something called utility uniforms. They were supposed to be more durable than dungarees but no one actually liked them. Frankly, they made us look like some kind of third rate Navy sea scouts instead of sailors. I was never so happy to ditch a uniform than when those went away.
The same with the miserable undress blues which were made of the coarsest and least wearable wool ever created. I often imagined some Senator made a killing by voting to provide unwearable wool to the Navy that came from his brother in laws chintzy factory.
The peacoat was special though. It was a lot like a wearable blanket. And a shelter from the wind and rain. The letter W comes to mind when I think back to that jacket.
Wool, Waterproof, Warm, Windproof, Wearable, Worldly
It was how we identified when we were out and about. In a crowd, you all looked the same or at least you did until you noticed that Petty Officer’s wore their distinctive rating badges. Those badges became something to strive for. A bluejacket for a bluejacket. It wasn’t armor but sometimes it felt like it.
I was glad for that jacket while I was in Great Lakes that Fall and early winter. I was even gladder when I went to New London for submarine school. But I quickly found that it was nothing more than a space absorber in my seabag when I went to Charleston. It didn’t make the trip to Hawaii not did it go with me as I sailed the oceans of the Pacific. I would use it in later years, but only when it was dictated.
I wore all kinds of foul weather gear as I changed submarines, homeports, and advanced through Chief to Chief Warrant Officer. I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a Bridge Coat when I went to Scotland but that never came to pass. It would have been a waste anyway since I soon transferred to an older submarine tender where I spent three years in an engine room surrounded by hot diesel engines and other equipment that tested the crew all of the time.
I still have the peacoat I was issued.
To be honest, it doesn’t fit anymore. I like to think that the wool has shrunken over the years but that’s a lie. Success and life have contributed to my girth increasing beyond the point where anything I once wore might even barely fit. Yet I can’t throw it away. Maybe someday when the nephews are cleaning out the junk form our house they will laugh a little at Uncle Bob’s tendency to hold on to stuff that no one cares about anymore. Kind of like the Navy wanting to get rid of the peacoats. No one seems to care anymore.