On July 4, 2019, the USS Constitution Museum opens a new exhibit featuring interviews with the diverse group of individuals who make up USS Constitution’s current active-duty crew. In the exhibit, sailors describe, in their own words, what it is like being in the U.S. Navy and working aboard the oldest commissioned warship afloat.
Emma Hoernlein figures it was inevitable she would join the navy. After all, four generations of her family served before her, including a great-grandfather who survived the sinking of an escort carrier in WWII. She was already enrolled in college when she attended her twin brother’s graduation from boot camp, but she liked what she saw and decided to enlist.
“It was one of those things that was kind of just bound to happen,” Hoernlein said. “Seventy-six years of sea service is a long time and I always tell people that’s when my career originally started.”
Following boot camp, the 19-year-old was selected to serve aboard USS Constitution, the nation’s oldest commissioned warship. Now a year into her two-year duty, she is immersed in tasks that her family members likely never experienced in their naval careers.
“I’m among one of the very few sailors in the United States Navy that will be a true square rig sailor,” she said. “And that comes with traits such as knowing how to line handle and set a square sail and how to climb the shrouds and furl a sail.”
Duty on board USS Constitution is unlike that on any other ship in the modern fleet. Few of Constitution’s crew members are actually engaged in tasks associated with their normal navy jobs, and many are putting off more specialized job training in order to be there. Hosting more than half a million visitors a year on the ship’s decks, Constitution’s crew are, in many ways, the most publicly visible face of the U.S. Navy. In addition to their daily work on board the ship, Constitution’s 79 crew members serve as naval ambassadors and representatives at a dizzying array of special events, from veterans’ funerals, to professional sports games, to educational programs at schools across the country.
“It’s a gift,” said Pamela Hensley, a hull technician trained to work on pipes and plumbing. “Every day is different. Nothing’s ever the same. You get about thousands of guests a day, so you just don’t know what to expect.”
Visitors to the ship are often curious about who makes up the current active duty crew, but there is no single answer. They come from as far away as Bosnia and from as near as Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some are first generation immigrants; others come from families with generations of naval service. Some joined the navy because they wanted to serve, while others joined for educational opportunities, a chance to travel, or a shot at a better life.
“I joined the navy basically to hit reset,” said Josh Hammond, who has been in the navy for 17 years and recently completed a three-year duty as a mass communications specialist on Constitution. “I wasn’t really the greatest of citizens. And I knew that I had to change things. The direction that I was going definitely wasn’t going to take me somewhere that I would want to be proud of. So I joined the navy to try and learn a trade as well as give myself a little bit of discipline and basically just rework my entire life. And I think I’ve done pretty well so far.”
About half the crew are fresh out of boot camp. The rest come with years of experience serving on ships at sea or on naval bases around the world. The one thing they all have in common is that they were hand selected by the ship’s command, following a rigorous application and interview process, to serve on “Old Ironsides.”
“You have to love history,” said Executive Officer John Benda. “You have to have comfortability in front of the public. You cannot be afraid of heights.” No matter their background or career goals, each sailor assigned to USS Constitution leaves their imprint on the ship’s long history.
“The magnitude of what we’re doing here, I don’t think any of us comprehend,” said Olivia Manley. Rated as an aerographers mate, Manley would normally be collecting weather data, but is serving as a public affairs photographer on Constitution. “I think it’s kind of funny. I’m 21, she’s 221. Just to see the difference is like going back generations where you see a family portrait of the grandmother, the mother, the daughter, you know, and the grandkids and everything like that. And this is like a huge family portrait for all of us. And that’s kind of how I like to look at it. It’s amazing.”
Today’s Crew: USS Constitution, a new exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum, will open on July 4, 2019.
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.