Lawrence B. Brennan, USCS #L-6221
My interest in naval covers developed in the early 1960s as my father encouraged me to write for ships’ postmarks as an outgrowth of my earlier hobby of collecting US and UN stamps and first day covers. Having served in the Navy in both World War II and the Korean War he explained simply to write to the ship care of FPO New York or San Francisco. With first class postage at five cents, a cover cost little more than a dime. To further encourage my “interest” he offered to pay for the stamps if I would practice penmanship one hour a day during summer vacation. I used an old mimeographed list of ships’ histories from Naval History Section to write for many of my first covers. While the practice did little to improve my penmanship, a fact verified by many teachers and secretaries over the years, it sustained my interest in naval covers and allowed me to memorize the names and hull numbers of many of the World War II era ships that remained part of the fleet well into the 1970s.
The illustrated cover (below) is one I sent to USS Intrepid in 1966; while an early cover it is not the earliest since it has a rubber stamp return address. That came later.
For the first few years I collected alone, unaware of the existence of the USCS despite visits to some of the larger stamp shows in New York City. I rarely bought covers from dealers at shows or on Nassau Street. Probably it was around 1967 when I became aware of the USCS through a Farragut Chapter booth at a large show in New York, possibly the ASDA show. In any event, I joined as a “J” or Junior member while I was in high school. While I never became involved with Farragut Chapter as it wound down, soon thereafter a few local collectors met to form America Chapter on Staten Island, where I lived until I went on active duty. Perhaps credit must go to Larry Briend, his friend L. J. “Skippy” Yurasits, and my grammar school classmate Chipper Kenny and his father who helped form the nucleus of our chapter. Based upon this experience I am firmly convinced that a chapter is essential to maintain a healthy interest in collecting. While left alone I have found that my interest waxes and wanes but absent the gentle nudge of fellow collectors there is little to rekindle the flame. America Chapter was active from about 1970 through the time I left in January 1978 to go on active duty. We sponsored more than 200 covers, primarily building events for some of the KNOX class DEs/FFs, all the SPRUANCE class DDs, the LHAs, the Newport News built SSNs, the nuclear carriers and cruisers also built at Newport News. We also did covers for events such as Navy Day, the anniversary of the capture of U-505, the sinking of BISMARCK, Coral Sea and Midway. My mother suffered through the daily mess of mail and covers on the table, our chapter working parties and she helped write the addresses legibly on many of the chapter covers. The 1970s were great days to sponsor covers and with the friendly assistance and competition from nearby Nathan Hale Chapter we were able to turn out many covers. Looking back more than 30 years, some of the cachets still appear respectable while others clearly needed some mature editing. We dealt with some fine printers and the quality of the art work, primarily provided by Skippy Yurasits while serving on board CORAL SEA (CVA-43) off Viet Nam and then LUCE (DDG-37 ex DLG 7) was consistently excellent. Subsequent printers, however, were not so helpful in framing the art. America Chapter unfortunately got tied up with Fred Karcher printing some of its earlier covers. We supplied the artwork which he kept for his own use on his infamous and questionable covers. After a handful of chapter covers printed in Karcher’s unmistakable raised ink and multicolor fashion we switched to local printers who did the work by offset and letter press – some much better than others.
We went to events by car, often driving to and from Boston or Newport to visit ships or attend commissionings. We also attended Nathan Hale chapter meetings, generally leaving with a prized and free cover of the latest submarine event courtesy of John A-Z Milewski. John was a great guy and a wonderful mentor. He always coded his ads in the philatelic press by changing his middle initial. Whenever I corresponded with him I would cover the alphabet perhaps to confuse his record keeping. All the Nathan Hale folks, who have contributed so much to the USCS during the past 30 plus years, have become lifelong friends and sources of encouragement; a particularly kind thing for them to do for a high school student.
After three years of college at Fordham University I received a B.A. magna cum laude in history and political science. I had a summer and part time job with The National Committee on American Foreign Policy working with the dean of political scientists, Professor Hans J. Morgentheau and briefly with the former CNO, Admiral E. R. Zumwalt, USN (Ret.). I moved from the West 60th Street entrance at Lincoln Center to the West 62nd Street entrance at Fordham Law School, graduating in 1977. During my years in college and well into law school I continued to service thousands of America Chapter covers; we often prepared more than 500 covers per event and occasionally as many as 1,000 covers for things like the commissioning of NIMITZ and the launch of DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER. Little did I know that within a few years my life would become entwined with NIMITZ. Eventually, the demands of school work, the naval reserve and my impending active duty caused me to turn over the cachet sponsorship to Carl Ganong, who moved to Staten Island from the Bronx, and Larry Briend. Having spent six years in college and law school within the same two square blocks in Manhattan, while commuting more than three hours every day, I looked forward to surviving the bar exam – actually it is the review course not the examination which is to be dreaded – and then going on active duty.
Fortunately, while on active duty I had a few occasions to keep up my interest in naval covers. Importantly, I did not let my membership in the USCS expire but certainly my schedule and interest did wax during these four years. I was serving in USS SANTA BARBARA (AE-28) when President Carter was embarked in USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN-69) and she came alongside for her first UNREP. Watching a high speed CVN breakaway was breathtaking. Woody Allen is right when he notes that 90% of success in life is just showing up. I spent nearly a year and a half as a trial and defense counsel at the Naval Legal Service Office Charleston, South Carolina. Other than prosecuting the CO and XO of USS PETREL (ASR-14) for poaching lobster while operating with NR-1 off New London, defending some junior officers, an occasional Marine, and prevailing on an insanity defense of a missile technician on board one of the SSBNs, I found duty in Charleston had little to do with the core trinity of the Navy: sailors, ships and aircraft. While I was at NLSO Charleston the Commander, Sixth Naval District was relieved of his judicial authority for unlawful command influence. I would hear little of Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann until the summer of 2004 when he became the public leader of Swiftboat Veterans for Truth. In any event, I had filled out a dream sheet indicating a desire to go to sea and the slave traders at BUPERS jumped at the opportunity to find some breathing fleet LT willing to take a pay cut by surrendering his Basic Allowance for Quarters and go to sea for two years. At that time Navy JAG consisted of about 500 officers and we didn’t yet have movies with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson or our own television show; we only had about 13-15 sea billets – the carriers and the numbered fleets.
After six years of solid Jesuit education at Fordham college and law school, I was getting paid to have the most demanding and exciting two year post-graduate course, starting at 26 years of age, taught by some of the toughest and most demanding men I would ever meet – test pilots, nuclear trained officers and a few former POWs from Hanoi. Fifteen of the officers from the wardroom would become flag officers; two would earn four stars – one as CNO and another as CINCPAC. Two years on board NIMITZ were just great – not that I fully appreciated it at the time; as the only lawyer on board I not only acted for the ship but also as Staff Judge Advocate for the embarked flag. We did part of a Med cruise – working as assistant shore patrol officer with the squadron XOs was demanding but fun; aviators don’t do things the same way but it’s always a memorable adventure. High points of the cruise included: paying a claim when the brow fell on the Admiral’s vintage VW, calling another flag at home on Sunday morning in port about the loss of the cruiser TEXAS’s captain’s gig with the teak deck and toys donated by H. Ross Perot, briefing the NJP appeal for a light attack squadron XO in a fatal air crash, getting stuck ashore in a winter storm in Naples with no money in working khakis, losing aircraft and flight deck crew to tragic mishaps, and buying guns in Naples for the air wing in preparation of our redeployment to the Indian Ocean, 144 consecutive days underway – then a record, launching the RH53 helicopters into Iran during the Iranian hostage rescue mission, the failure to follow-up with air strikes, the recovery of the eighth helo on our flight deck the following morning, the two cans of beer per man on our 100th consecutive day at sea thanks to Secretary of the Navy J. Edward Hidalgo, who with Assistant Secretary Joseph Doyle, served in ENTERPRISE in 1945 when a kamikaze struck her forward elevator destroying the beer in the magazine and effectively ending ENTERPRISE’s combat role in World War II, the return to Norfolk with President Carter’s speech on the flight deck, the release of “The Final Countdown” filmed on NIMITZ, a North Atlantic Cruise following a short turn around followed by a yard period, workups, an EA6B crash on the flight deck on 26 May 1981 resulting in 14 deaths, many serious injuries but leading to Navy’s “Zero Tolerance” anti-drug program and finally the workups for another Med Cruise during which two F14A Tomcats from VF41 shot down two Libyan Fitters in the Gulf of Sidra. Good things come to an end and I left active duty returning to New York and the practice of admiralty and maritime law in August 1981. My collecting interests were challenged while on active duty. I sent for a few things, ordered some covers, received a few sent by friends but the late 1970s and early 1980s were days in the collecting desert.
During the past quarter century, I have been an admiralty and maritime lawyer in New York City. I have been at two firms for the bulk of that time in addition to a two year tour with the U.S. Department of Justice. Most of my cases have been large marine casualties – collisions, sinkings, groundings, explosions and fires. The work is worldwide, challenging and often intellectually rewarding. Some of my cases as well as my Navy JAG practice have involved warship casualties such as the collision between USS CORAL SEA and the tanker NAPO, the USS JACKSONVILLE and M/V GENERAL Z. DOGAN collision and the F/V EHIME MARU USS GREENEVILLE collision. Also, I have continued my career in the U.S. Naval Reserve [recently renamed Navy Reserve and finally taking my “R”, as I approach statutory retirement within FY 2006] as an international law and admiralty law lawyer.
In 1983 I married Pat Dunne, we’ve moved to New Jersey [but still think of myself as a New Yorker since the bulk of my waking hours are spent in Manhattan most days] we have two challenging but interesting daughters, Mary Kate a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and Elizabeth a freshman at Metuchen High School, I’ve become a member of New Jersey Chapter which has thrived under the inspirational guidance initially of Fill Evans and for the past 20 years of Phil Schreiber [we have many active members including directors John Young and Steward Milstein who cross state lines to attend our monthly meetings. The chapter has a long history of sponsoring wonderful cachets for important events]. My collecting interests and naval reserve career have proportional relationship. The reserve world has been in upheaval since the end of the Cold War. No longer do we drill at local reserve centers counting the number of cement lines between cinderblocks every drill weekend. Since 1990 I have been avoiding reserve centers and most of the time I have been assigned to units in Washington or Newport, each a 500 mile roundtrip drive. Both on the CNO staff [1990-1995] and at the Naval War College [1995-1999, 2001-2003] my collecting batteries have been recharged despite the eight to ten hours drive every drill weekend. I commanded the Naval Reserve Admiralty Law Unit [1999-2001] and the Naval War College (Law) Unit 2001-2003. In Newport, Captain Rommel has become a great friend and mentor. He has helped expand my collecting interests and refine my knowledge but I must concede that Herb has helped expand my collection into an accumulation of over 30,000 covers. Pat, Mary Kate, Elizabeth and I are eternally indebted to Herb and his late wife, Mary, for their many kindnesses particularly during my two weeks of summer active duty during war games at Newport.
As I soon enter my fifth decade of collecting naval covers, I find that I still enjoy sending to ships and squadrons for covers. The embarked Tailhook units are great sources for zappers and covers, particularly while “on the boat.” Clearly this is the legacy of my time in NIMITZ. With the OP Tempo and combat operations for the past two decades it is not hard to be motivated to send to the ships while deployed. Studying the history of covers, particularly those of the wartime era has become a pleasure. The internet has opened countless resources. Not only can covers be found more readily but the Navy History is a wonderful source for information about ships and even about particular events. I have resumed a bit of cover sponsoring after a break of 25 years [see my article in the October 2005 LOG regarding the FDC of USS HALSEY].
I am interested in writing articles for the LOG about covers, historical events and people. It seems that our hobby and my collection are “World War II-centric” because the high point of our hobby was in the years leading up to 1941 and the apogee of the fleet was World War II. I am truly amazed about how many covers, especially those that appear “common”, have a historical aspect when studied briefly. Some of the articles that I am working on now include U.S. Naval Operations in Northern Russia in 1919 about the visit of some Eagle Boats, three SCs [I have covers and correspondence from the XO of one of the SCs] and USS DES MOINES to Archangel and Murmansk and the Dwinia River Force, the sinking of USS PANAY [the first US Navy warship sunk by hostile enemy aircraft based upon the diplomatic exchanges, the investigation (both republished in the Naval War College’s Blue Book) and the post-war “argument” by Japanese naval and army aviators as to responsibility for the bombing], the loss of the ammunition ship USS SEPENS and a comparison with the loss of USS MOUNT BAKER and the Port Chicago explosions, some post Civil War filibuster activity, late 19th century and Spanish American war era correspondence and covers from a naval officer to his wife, unusual relationships between ships [i.e. USS O’CALLAGHAN and USS LABOON – the first to completely solve the connection gets a beer]. During my recently completed active duty at the Washington Navy Yard I was assisted by the staff at Operational History in obtaining aviation records regarding two naval aviators who were lost in action. I hope to present the editor with a follow up to my earlier article on the loss of a Vigilante from RVAH-13 in December 1965 and a further article about a Helldiver pilot who was awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and multiple Air Medals in less than half a year while flying with VB-20 from ENTERPRISE and LEXINGTON. He assisted in the sinking of the sixth and final Imperial Japanese Navy carrier involved in the raid on Pear Harbor, ZUIKAKU, but was lost over Hanin Island, French Indochina [now China] in January 1945.
Still, I am not a collector but merely an accumulator. Really, I have about 30,000 naval covers in my office at home – not organized yet. I promise myself that I will organize these boxes and files and one day, in the near future, I will find the time to begin the process. In the meanwhile, sending for covers, sponsoring a few cachets for a few friends, attending chapter meetings, chatting with fellow collectors in person, on the phone and on line, finding a few great covers from dealers, at auctions and on e-bay takes up a fair amount of my time. I am not quite ready to narrow my collecting interests but my primary emphasis now concerns ships that engaged in combat operations or those that had significant involvement in naval operations. There are lots of new collectors to meet, more covers to find, and inevitably they lead to research and greater knowledge and that is the fun of it all.
by Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, U. S. Navy