An Old Navy Peacoat

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

Growing up on Navy bases as a kid, there were always sailors about, wearing peacoats. A peacoat is a heavy wool short topcoat, which is dark Navy blue in color and has a set of double-breasted anchor inscribed buttons on the front.

In 1970 my father, then an active duty Master Chief, was assigned to Great Lakes Naval Training Base, just 40 miles north of cold, windy Chicago. So when we moved there from sunny South Carolina while I was in high school, my first request was for my own peacoat. That peacoat is still hanging in my parent's basement. The problem is, I was a little thinner in my younger days and the old size 36 peacoat does not fit anymore.

The name peacoat comes from the type of material that the coat is made of. It was called pilot cloth, which eventually became known as "Pee" cloth. Sailors first called them pea jackets and then just peacoats. They are made of 30-ounce wool, so they are very heavy and warm. I found a picture dated 1881 with some US sailors wearing peacoats, so the coat has been in Navy service for a long time.

I was in the "Antiques on the Square" shop in Altus, Oklahoma (the most south west corner of the state) this fall when I found an absolutely pristine Navy peacoat in my size. I told my wife if she was looking for something to get me for Christmas, I would love to have the coat. I was back in the store a few weeks later and it was gone. I wrongly believed this was the end of my owning that peacoat.

On Christmas morning there was my new-old peacoat. While inspecting the coat I found the original owner's name and service number stenciled on the inside. I figured it had to be old because it was an actual "service number," not a social security number that all military personnel use now a days. The military stopped using service numbers in the 1960s.

I called my father and he advised me he knew all about stenciling peacoats. While he was going through boot camp he spent one of his twelve weeks of basic Naval training performing "service week." This meant that for seven days all he did was stencil uniforms. He told me he worked so hard stenciling that he wore blisters on his fingers. Because the peacoat has a black lining he had to set up a special white stencil just to mark this one uniform item. The white stenciled name in my new peacoat is J.M. Strunk. Written on an inside label is John Martin Strunk. So now I know that the coat once belonged to Seaman Basic John Strunk.

I figured the Navy veteran who received this coat during his basic training was from the local Altus, Oklahoma area and perhaps I could find out something about this former sailor. Going back to "Antiques on the Square" I was surprised to learn that the peacoat was bought after answering a newspaper add in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Over 15 years ago Seaman John Strunk, who was in his 70s at the time, was selling off parts of his life and the peacoat was being offered to strangers. I spent quite a lot of time trying, with no luck, to track down Seaman Strunk. I have no idea if he is still alive or what other veteran related items he has sold off over the years.

Air Force veteran Leon Freeman purchased the peacoat from Seaman Strunk and eventually brought it to Altus. His widow Mary Ann Freeman advised me her husband had always wanted a Navy peacoat and Seaman Strunk's coat was in virtually unused, new condition. The buttons on a peacoat tend to show wear because of scratching. The buttons on Seaman Strunk's peacoat look like they just came out of the box. The great condition was what attracted my attention the first time I saw this peacoat.

A third old military veteran now owns this wonderful piece of naval history. The peacoat is going to be worn, but worn very carefully.

I can envision Seaman Strunk standing the four-to-eight watch topside on his W.W.II ship as it heads for England on convoy duty. Its wet and cold, he has his watch cap pulled down over his ears and the big collar of the peacoat turned up to keep him warm. Seaman Strunk got to come back after his war and bring his peacoat home with him. I have it now and will take very good care of it. Thank you, Seaman John Strunk and Airman Leon Freeman. The peacoat tradition will continue.

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Copyright 2005 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.