COATS OF ARMS & CHALLENGE COINS

“The Last Ship” has been filled with symbolism from the very beginning of the show. Everything we see and hear on screen has the potential to be loaded with meaning, and, if you think that something might be a clue, it often is, as explained by Steven Kane at the beginning of last season in an interview with The Film & TV Magazine. “I don’t want to say too much, but everything you see in the first episode – in Japan, the old woman tending to the child, that‘s a very important scene that comes back into play later on. The work that Valkyrie is doing before she dies, both in the mansion and on the plane, will pay off in a big way throughout the season. Little things like that are really important. We see every scene in the first few episodes as an Easter egg, because they all pay off in some way. Everything was done deliberately, so if you’re reading something into it, there’s probably a reason for it!”

And boy, did we read into it all! Facebook groups and Twitter were alight with the latest theory, the fans postulating where they thought everything was going. However, the symbolism didn’t start in season three. The little hidden meanings, Easter eggs and symbolism has always been there, right back in season one, and, oftentimes, in the least obvious of ways.

One of the most symbolism-filled things that we see in every episode, and yet mostly ignore, is the coat of arms of the USS Nathan James herself. The US Navy has a long heraldic history, with it being traditional, for the last hundred years or so, for each ship to have its own, individually-designed, coat of arms and badge/emblem.

USS PINCKNEY

Most of the coats of arms tell a story: each element has specific meaning, usually pertaining to the person for whom the ship is named, or something specific to the ship’s purpose. For example, the USS Pinckney (DDG 91), which has been used as the Nathan James on more than one occasion, was named after Navy Cook 1st Class William Pinckney. Never heard of him? Not really a surprise. A crew member on the USS Enterprise in World War II, Pinckney earned the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross for one incredible, selfless act of bravery: risking his own life to save a fellow crew member in a damaged, burning portion of the ship.

The coat of arms for the USS Pinckney, in fact, bears a reference not only to Pinckney’s heroism (the cross on the crest at the top is a stylised Navy Cross), but also his profession: the black grid on the red background is a nod to a mess grill. Pinckney was a notoriously humble man, and the one thing that he ever showed pride in was the fact that he served in the US Navy, so perhaps it is only fitting that the coat of arms shows us what he was proud of, and not just what he achieved. Also, perhaps there are shades of the character of Bernie “Bacon” Cowley here – who knows?

USS JAME E. WILLIAMS

One thing that most coats of arm have in common is the navy blue border, which is often encircled by either a gold rope or chain links. Navy blue is a direct reference to the US Navy itself, and the gold signifies excellence. If there is a chain surrounding the coat of arms, the number of links is often a reference to the DDG number – Pinckney, for example, has 91 links, and the USS James E. Williams (DDG 95) has 95 links. Each of the above also have an additional locking link at the base.

Another thing common to the coats of arms of many ship is a pair of crossed swords. This is often referred to as “saltire”. However, it’s not as simple as just “crossed swords”! US Navy coats of arms often bear many different kinds of sword, including a Navy officer’s sword, an Enlisted Chief Petty Officer’s cutlass, a US Marine officer’s mameluke, and more besides.

USS RUSSELL

Each sword can hold several meanings, depending on its placement, its orientation, and even who the ship in question is named after! For example, on the coat of arms for the USS Russell (DDG 59), the crossed Naval officer sword and Marine mameluke signify the special relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps in projecting power from the sea. The USS Russell was actually named after a father and son, one of whom served in the Navy and the other in the Marine Corps.The respective swords from each service directly honour the father and son.

USS HALSEY

Another feature popular on ships’ coats of arms is the trident. This symbolises prowess at sea, or, again dependant upon the particular coat of arms or its placement, can be a nod to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. It is particularly prominent on the coat of arms of the USS Halsey (DDG 97), which bears a striking resemblance to the coat of arms of the USS Nathan James herself.

Of course, no ship’s coat of arms would be complete without its motto. The USS Halsey’s, for example, is “Hit Hard, Hit Fast, Hit Often”, referring to her capability and aims within a combat situation. The motto of the USS Pinckney is far more simple: “Proud To Serve”, a direct reference to William Pinckney’s pride in serving the US Navy.

USS ZUMWALT

Not all ships have individual mottos, though. The US Navy’s newest guided missile destroyer, the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), has used the motto “Pax Propter Vim” (“Peace Through Power”). While it reflects the ship’s operational capabilities, it is a tribute to the motto of USS Dewey (DLG 14), later re-classified and designated DDG 45, on which Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, for whom the ship was named, served as commissioning Commanding Officer.

USS NATHAN JAMES

So, at last, we come to the USS Nathan James herself. We see the popular themes: crossed swords, a trident, stars (or mullets, in heraldic terms), the border, the chain links, the motto… We also see the top profile of an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, which is unique. So what does it all mean? What is the story of Captain Nathan James?

photo credit: Triini Selgis

Well, the story is… there is no story. According to Steven Kane, the coat of arms was “designed to look nice, and to reflect that NJ is the ‘spear of the Navy’”. It’s certainly a striking image, and one that has resonated with fans worldwide, if the amount of official merchandise available with the coat of arms on it is anything to go by. So there you have it – there is no big mystery behind the coat of arms, no hidden symbolism – what you see is what you get, in this case! But who knows? Perhaps, someday, we will find out more about who Captain Nathan James was, and be able to tie it into the imagery on the coat of arms.

In our previous interview with Jeffrey Kushon, set decorator, he shared that little Easter eggs and surprises sneak themselves into scenes on occasion. He revealed that, in season one, during a scene in the dining room on board the Russian ship, there was a challenge coin from the USS Nathan James that had been tucked away on the set. In season two, in the episode “Uneasy Lies The Head”, we see Chandler palm a challenge coin to Ray, the leader of the band of children they come across.

Unless you’re in the military, you won’t be alone in not knowing what a challenge coin was up until that point, or its meaning! We decided to take a look at the history of challenge coins, and then at the challenge coins from “The Last Ship” in particular.

CHALLENGE COIN HISTORY

Challenge coins have a long history in the US military, more so than in any other branch of the military in the world. While their exact origin isn’t known, some historians claim that challenge coins originated in the Roman army, which used to reward its soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognise their achievements.

However, the most widely accepted origin story points to them having come onto the scene during World War I. The story goes that a wealthy young lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot tucked the medallion away in a leather pouch around his neck, and, a short while after, his plane was shot down, and he was taken by German soldiers. The Germans took all forms of identification from him, but left the leather pouch around his neck.

The pilot escaped, and, making it to the front line, crossed no man’s land and made it to a French outpost. Not having any verifiable identification, the French were preparing to execute him as a saboteur. However, he showed them the medallion in the leather pouch, and they recognised his squadron insignia. In the end, instead of executing him, they gave him a bottle of wine!

This spurred a tradition within his squadron that each member would always carry his medallion. In order to prove that this was being done one member of the squadron would randomly challenge another to produce his medallion, and, if he could not, he would have to buy a drink for the challenger. This tradition continued throughout the war, and for as long as surviving members of the squadron were alive.

Chandler’s challenge coin from ‘2×09 – Uneasy Lies the Head’

Other stories place the advent of the challenge coin with the Jolly Sixpence Club during World War II, and yet others place it post-Korean Conflict. However, the earliest verifiable evidence lies with Colonel Verne Green, commander of the 10th Special Forces Group-A. In 1969, he had a special coin struck with the unit’s crest and motto, and, until the 1980s, his unit was the only unit with an active challenge coin tradition.

Since then, this tradition has spread throughout the forces, with branches of the US military, units and even individual ships having their own coins. Challenge coins aren’t just used for identification and challenges any longer, though. Today, they’re as likely to be used for reward and recognition, and, as such, can be a valuable tool in building morale.

“The Last Ship” has built a tradition since the very first season. Each year, they have had a number of different challenge coins struck, which are given to cast, crew and, in special circumstances, to people outside of the production. There has been a season coin created for each season, and, in addition, we know that there has been at least one coin created that was specific to Slattery. The production uses the same supplier that is used by the US Navy, in yet another nod to being as authentic as possible. The coins are large, barely settling in the palm of the average hand, and have a weight to them that indicates their quality.

The season one and two coins are relatively unremarkable:

  1. The front of each has a raised image of the USS Nathan James at sea, with the TNT network logo on the ship, against a backdrop of the US flag.
  2. The top of the coin reads “The Last Ship”. The only difference is that one reads “season one” and the other “season two” at the bottom.
  3. The rear of both coins has a raised image of the gun turret from the Nathan James, and read “USS Nathan James” at the top, and “The Spear of the Navy” at the bottom.

The season three coin, however, is something of a departure from this format.

  1. The front has the relief image of the Nathan James at sea, again with the TNT logo, and against the backdrop of the US flag.
  2. It reads “USS Nathan James” at the top
  3. “The Spear of the Navy” is inscribed at the bottom.
  4. On the rear is a coat of arms, not dissimilar from that of the Nathan James.
  5. The gun turret is replaced with a simplified image of the St Louis White House (Culver Studios mansion)
  6. The trident is replaced with “The White House” in text
  7. Below that, is the TNT logo flanked by a laurel wreath.
  8. The crossed swords and motto of the Nathan James are still there
  9. The entire image is surrounded with a larger laurel wreath.
  10. At the base of the coin, above the “season 3” inscription, is a Japanese kanji:

This is the kanji for the number three.

As you can see, just as the show evolves, the challenge coin is evolving, too. We can’t wait to see the season four challenge coin!

Be sure to keep an eye out for more from this occasional series on symbolism in “The Last Ship”, and also for our upcoming exclusive video interviews – coming soon!

 


Thank you to Steven Kane & Jeffrey Kushon for their invaluable help in putting this article together.