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In a Navy with Lots of Traditions, a Small, Very Personal One Continues
Feb 27, 2021
by Dave Ress
Some Navy traditions are formal, polished bright with age, such as the two lines of saluting senior officers on the USS Gerald R. Ford who bid farewell to Capt. J.J. Cummings after he recently handed over command.
Some are less obvious, but still there — like the way Rear Adm. John Meier, the Ford’s first captain, kept an eye on his former command and spoke at Cummings’ change of command ceremony, or the way retired Capt. Thurraya Kent checked on her former Norfolk-based command of specialist staff officers after she was posted to the Pentagon a few years back.
Her watch led her to role in a smaller, more informal Navy tradition.
What Kent found, looking back, was a younger officer she thought exemplified everything a Navy officer should be.
And so, when Kent retired in 2019, she passed a symbolic item on to Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg — a sword that’s been passed from retiring officer to younger, rising officer since 1941, when an engineering specialist named Ed Hahn started his sword on its journey.
Earlier this month, with Cragg’s retirement, she passed the sword on to an officer she’d crossed paths with over the years, including a stint in Afghanistan.
“It’s a tradition that’s lasted eight decades,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be cool if it lasted another century?”
The officer who got the traveling sword, Cmdr. Ben Tisdale, says that’s the plan.
Leadership in the Navy is a matter of generations and of continuity. Hahn’s idea was that his sword would be a way of encouraging officers — in particular, those specialists who, like Cragg, rise from enlisted ranks to become critical staff officers supporting the Navy’s mission.
It’s much the same reason, said Kent, that when officers earn a promotion, many will pass on the shoulder boards indicating their old rank to a younger officer.
So Hahn, when he retired in 1970, passed the sword to another engineering officer, Dan Frame. When Frame retired in 1980, he passed it on to another “mustang” — up from the enlisted ranks — newly commissioned engineering officer Del Renken.
“I felt pretty honored,” Renken said.
Renken kept the sword for a quarter century, through postings to shore-side maintenance facilities, teaching at officer candidate school, and tours as chief engineer on USS Kiska and USS Peleliu before retiring as commanding officer of the maintenance facility at Ingleside, Texas.
There, he met — and was impressed by — Kris Winter, his executive officer, the No. 2 on the station. When he retired from the Navy, he passed the sword to her.
Two years later, she passed the sword to Vickie Lewis, who held it for 12 years, eventually passing it on to Kent. Lewis was serving as the top security officer on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower when she met Kent.
After her own posting to the Pentagon, Kent kept hearing about a young officer who had stepped into her old job as executive officer of a Norfolk unit that dispatched public affairs officers to support sailors on critical missions — everything from working with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to humanitarian missions to Haiti after that nation’s devastation in a hurricane.
She got to know Cragg even better when they teamed up to organize a mentoring program for staff officers.
“I was impressed by the way she always looked after her sailors, and by her focus on the mission,” Kent said.
When Kent told Cragg she’d be the next steward of the sword, it came as a surprise to Cragg; but its real meaning didn’t hit her until the day of Kent’s retirement, when the sword changed hands.
Just as it happened for Tisdale.
“Jennifer saw me in a parking lot, and told me what she planned, but it didn’t really hit me,” he said. “Then, she gave me the sword, and told me I was to hold it in trust, not keep it ... When I saw all those names on it, that’s when I understood.”
It’s an understanding, Kent said, that is reflected in a poem that’s often read at retirement ceremonies.
It’s the poem that starts “For twenty years, this sailor has stood the watch,” and that ends with the line: “Shipmate you stand relieved, we have the watch” along with the command “Boatswain ... Standby to pipe the side, shipmate’s going ashore.”
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Photo caption: Cmdr. Brent Jackson, left, former commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) turns over the officers sword carried by Chung-Hoon namesake, Rear Adm. Gordon Pai'ea Chung-Hoon, to Cmdr. Stephen Henz during the Chung-Hoon change of command ceremony on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Henz relieved Jackson as the skipper of the ship named in honor of Hawaiian native Rear Adm. Gordon Pai'ea Chung-Hoon, recipient of the Navy Cross and Silver Star in World War II for conspicuous gallantry and extraordinary heroism as commanding officer of USS Sigsbee (DD 502) from May 1944 to Oct. 1945. (Charles Oki/U.S. Navy)
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