The following is a guest blog post by Kerry Ward, a liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).
Predating even the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Navy was commissioned in 1775 by the Continental Congress. Starting with a small anti-piracy force with two ships [i], the U.S. Navy now is the largest navy in the world with a fleet of over 430.
As one of America’s most revered institutions, the individuals in the U.S. Navy have been on watch not for self, but for country for the past 242 years. In the same way we celebrate an individual’s birthday- a birthday party just isn’t a party without cake and the U.S. Navy is no exception!
Honoring the heritage and history of the U.S. Navy, it is tradition for the eldest and youngest sailors in the fleet to cut this cake with a sword. A piece of this cake is passed from eldest to youngest Sailor present to signify the passing of experience and knowledge from the old to the young of our Navy.
As we honor today’s celebration, we look at the sailors in the Veterans History Project collection, and mirror the cake cutting ceremony by highlighting one of the eldest Navy veterans in our collection as well as one of the youngest.
Nathan E. Cook was born in 1885, and enlisted in the Navy in 1901 to, as the recruitment posters said, “See the world.” At 15 years old, he didn’t even know how to swim, and had to have his sister sign the enlistment paperwork for him. Starting as an apprentice seaman 2nd class, Cook served in the Navy until 1945, and worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant. Having served in three wars, including the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, Cook sailed the globe four times. He sank German submarines, and rescued a ship and its crew that had been torpedoed.
With many accomplishments and many more near misses, it was a heavy mooring line that produced the most exciting experience of Cook’s service. In 1908, while aboard the USS Kansas, Cook picked up the mooring line only to have his appendix burst. Not sure if they could get him home, the captain wrote to Cook’s wife notifying her that he would be sent home for a proper burial. Packed on ice, Cook made it to Philadelphia for surgery and was back reporting for duty shortly thereafter.
When Cook did his oral history interview, he was the sole survivor of the Spanish American War, and was proudly still wearing his uniform to parades and commemorative events, proving that while time may march on, the call of duty is eternal. When asked what kept him in the Navy for 44 years, his reply was:
There is just something special about the sea.
One of the youngest veterans in the VHP collection is U.S. Navy Corpsman Amber Marie DeLuca. DeLuca was born in 1982, and joined the U.S. Navy in 2000. At 17 years old, DeLuca’s dislike of school prompted her to graduate early and enlist. Fourteen days later, she was preparing for boot camp as her peers were preparing for prom. DeLuca’s score on her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, also known as the ASVAB, allowed her to work as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman.
Although DeLuca is incredibly humble about her experience, she and medics like her have been considered unsung heroes or “cheaters of death” since the establishment of their group in 1940. Corpsman are expected to be physically and mentally prepared at all times as they are trained to serve as the first responders, and often have to remain calm, cool and collected under fire – sometimes literally. It is often remarked that it isn’t if you will need help from a corpsmen, but when.
DeLuca served from 2003 to 2011. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she served with the 1st Medical Battalion in Falluja. While she considers herself very lucky to not have been harmed, either mentally or physically, she has helped several who have been injured. One mention DeLuca makes during her interview is of the toughest Marine she knew, who among other injuries, lost his eyesight and still continued to want to fight.
At 23 years old, DeLuca wanted to reenlist, but stood down in order to take care of her sick mother. Although she was glad to be home, she said she missed the camaraderie, training and allover experience she gained from the U.S. Navy
Though two very different stories, Cook and DeLuca both are shining representations of our naval heritage. From seaman to air traffic control, there are more than 80 different job fields within the Navy. Despite the job, each member’s courage and commitment deserves to be honored—not just today, but every day. From all of us here at the Veterans History Project to all sailors past and present, thank you for your service and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
[i] “Today in Naval History,” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 15, 2017, https://www.history.navy.mil/today-in-history/october-13.html