By William F. Hanna
December 7, 2021, marks the eightieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The strike killed more than 2,300 military personnel and heavily damaged the Navy’s Pacific fleet. The next day Congress declared war on Japan and shortly thereafter the U.S. was fully involved in the Second World War.
Half of the Americans who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor were killed aboard the USS Arizona when a Japanese bomb penetrated the battleship’s main deck and detonated the many tons of ammunition stored below. So devastating was the blast that the navy found it impractical to either extricate the bodies or repair the vessel, and so to this day the sunken ship remains at her berth on Battleship Row. Over the past eight decades the wreck has become an iconic symbol of American resilience as well as a solemn memorial to the more than 1,000 sailors and marines who are still entombed there.
And that was why a Cincinnati auction house raised an uproar in November 2009, when it announced that an upcoming sale would feature a collection of 24 lime-encrusted pieces of silverware that had been salvaged from the officers’ wardroom of the Arizona. Among the items to be offered were a candlestick, a sauceboat, a tray and two lids, each so pitted that a manufacturer could not be identified. Also on the auction block, however, were seven saucers made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, of Providence, R.I., and a teapot that bore the maker’s mark of Reed & Barton Silversmiths, of Taunton, Mass.
A cascade of outrage greeted the news of the auction, scheduled for December 9, 2009, as Pearl Harbor survivors, veterans’ groups, politicians and nationally syndicated columnists voiced their objections to the sale of anything taken from the Arizona. The ship was a gravesite, they said, and the memory of those who died aboard it shouldn’t be cheapened by selling pieces from the wreck. Equally controversial was the question of when, and by whom, had the silverware been removed from the ship.
Here at the Old Colony History Museum, we followed the story closely, but for us there was an additional point of interest. We decided to learn as much as we could about the USS Arizona’s relationship with Reed & Barton. Much to our surprise we found that it began decades before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
According to historian James F. Vivian, by the late 19th century it was customary for both individuals and groups to donate money toward the presentation of gifts to U.S. Navy warships. In fact, writes Vivian, by 1912 the combined value of shipboard ceremonial silver services, etc., approximated $450,000, with the cost of individual presentations averaging between $8,000 and $9,000. It was in that year that Arizona became the nation’s forty-eighth state, and when the Navy revealed that one of two new battleships would be named in honor of the new state, business and civic leaders began discussions about a ceremonial shipboard gift from the people of Arizona.
The keel of the USS Arizona was laid in March 1914 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the ship was launched in June of the following year. The Navy announced that the battleship would be commissioned in New York Harbor in October 1916. Five months prior to the commissioning, officials at Reed & Barton Silversmiths stepped forward with a proposal to outfit the new ship with an elegant silver service manufactured according to exact specifications required by a committee of the Arizona Board of Trade.
There was much to like about the company’s offer. Reed & Barton silver already graced the tables of many U.S. Navy vessels, including several battleships, so the company’s reputation was beyond reproach. Additionally, the price quoted for a 66-piece ceremonial silver service for the new ship was just $7,861, a savings of one-third off the regular rate. Finally, Reed & Barton promised to have the job completed by July 4, 1916. That would leave plenty of time for Arizonan promoters to take some of the finished pieces on a statewide fundraising tour before the ship was commissioned.
While all of this suited the committee members, there were two other matters they sought to incorporate into the arrangement. First, they wanted to acknowledge copper mining as their state’s leading industry. The result was Reed & Barton agreeing to fuse and plate some of the pieces with burnished copper as the principal ingredient. This was done with the serving platter as well as the punch bowl and its twelve goblets. Also, to accompany the silver service, they wanted to commission a 39-inch silver plated statue of a hard rock miner, tools in hand, standing on a 17-inch base. These final two requests pushed Reed & Barton’s quoted price up to approximately $9,000, but the committee members were confident they could raise the money so the deal was finalized.
While the USS Arizona was indeed commissioned in the autumn of 1916, it would be three years before the ceremonial silver service took its place onboard. First, committee members found that Arizonans weren’t nearly as excited about the project as they had hoped. Fund raising dragged throughout 1916 and into the summer of 1917, to the point, writes Professor Vivian, where officials at Reed & Barton considered legal action to collect the remainder of what was owed the company. By the time that problem was resolved, the U.S. was fully involved in World War I. Setbacks necessitated by wartime, coupled with the complicated sailing schedule of the Arizona, delayed the presentation of the silver to December 27, 1919. On that date, in New York Harbor, Captain John H. Dayton officially accepted the silver service on behalf of the ship’s complement and the U.S. Navy.
Reed & Barton’s ceremonial silverware sailed on the Arizona from 1919 until 1940, when it was removed as part of a “strip ship” procedure conducted in Bremerton, Washington to prepare the battleship for war. The Arizona sailed for Pearl Harbor shortly afterward. The silver was first placed in storage and then was briefly used aboard the USS Tucson. It was finally returned to Arizona in 1953, where it remains on permanent display at the Arizona Capitol Museum.
So, if the silver service was removed in 1940, what about the salvaged Reed & Barton teapot that was going up for auction in December 2009? The most likely explanation is that there were at least two categories of silverware in use aboard U.S. Navy ships during that period. The first type was the elegant ceremonial service that was brought out only on special occasions, such as a change of command or visits by presidents and other dignitaries. That is what was removed from the Arizona in 1940. The second variety was the less expensive, everyday silverware used by the ship’s complement of officers. The Arizona was staffed by approximately 100 officers, so the amount of silverware assigned to their wardroom and mess area would have been substantial. This was where the salvaged teapot was found, and it’s highly probable that many more pieces manufactured by Reed & Barton (as well as other companies) remain with the ship.
Finally, when and by whom, were the 24 pieces of silverware removed from the ship? As controversy over the proposed sale erupted, the auction house explained that the items had been consigned by the family of a Navy diver who had worked to remove oil, guns and munitions from the wreck during 1942 and 1943. In the course of this dreadful and extremely dangerous work, divers were called upon to throw heaps of junk and litter brought up from the wreck onto garbage scows to be hauled out to sea and dumped. Believing that this would be the ultimate fate of the silverware, the diver had claimed the pieces as wartime souvenirs.
When the diver, a 30-year Navy veteran, returned home, he brought the silverware with him. He died in 1963, and it stayed with the family until 2009, when a relative was stricken with leukemia. At that time, having no idea of the trouble that would follow, the family decided to sell the 24 pieces.
In the end, the Arizona silverware, including the Reed & Barton teapot, was never auctioned. When the Navy announced that its lawyers would examine ownership rights to the salvaged pieces, and because public opinion continued to trend against the sale, the auction company returned the silver to the family with the recommendation that they donate it to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. A National Park Service official at that site reports that no such donation has yet been made.
A helpful source of information on the ceremonial silver service manufactured by Reed & Barton is found in: James F. Vivian, “The Arizona Obligation: The Story of the State’s Gifts to the USS Arizona.” The Journal of Arizona History, Vol. 43, №3 (autumn 2002): 237–250; 252–262.