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USS ROWAN Zippo lighter

Date: 1961
Overall: 55 × 40 × 12 mm, 57 g
Medium: Aluminium, paint
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Jeff Allan
Classification:Tools and equipment
Object Name: Lighter
Object No: 00054806
Related Place:Australia, United States,

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    A souvenir Zippo brand lighter for USS ROWAN (DD 782), a Gearing-class destroyer that visited Sydney for the Coral Sea commemorative events in 1961.

    This cigarette lighter from USS ROWAN is one of a collection of similar lighters and memorabilia collected by Vanessa Roberson from 1950 as souvenirs from visiting ships, predominantly US Naval vessels, into Sydney Harbour.
    The lighter was housed in its original box with an inscription inside reading “To Var, From Don with love, 3-5-1961”.
    SignificanceSouvenir of visit to Sydney in 1957 by USS ROWAN, a Gearing-class destroyer that visited Sydney for the Coral Sea commemorative events in 1961 and would be only the second nuclear submarine to visit Australia.

    HistoryUSS ROWAN IV (DD-782). USS ROWAN was a Gearing-class destroyer laid down in March 1944 by Todd Pacific Shipyards; Inc., Seattle, Washington, launched in December 1944 and commissioned in March 1945. ROWAN served in Korea and Vietnam, being awarded four and eleven battle stars respectively for service in these wars. USS ROWAN visited Sydney on at least one occasion, taking part in the annual Coral Sea commemorative events in 1961 together with USS GURKE, USS SOMERS (both destroyers), USS SOUTH ERLAND (a radar pocket destroyer) and USS SAGO. The latter, an atomic submarine, had just completed a series of Seato (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) anti-submarine exercises and was only the second nuclear submarine to visit Australia.

    This commemorative lighter for USS ROWAN was part of collection belonging to Vanessa Roberson. Her story is told here by her grandson, Jeff Allan:

    "My grandmother spent her last 10 years in a fog of dementia, but I could still squeeze a memory from her, even a cackle, if I mentioned the navy balls of the '50s.
    They were the brightest spots in her life. She lived in Sydney's King Cross, just minutes away from where the navy - and visiting navies - used to dock their ships at the city's naval base.
    The excitement and glamour of an incoming fleet brightened an otherwise poverty stricken life.
    Vanessa Roberson, known as Zena to her family, Van to her friends, grew up in country New South Wales. Born in 1912, she married early and spent her days cooking for the farm workers on her property.
    She would rise early, collect eggs and milk, prepare breakfast for 20 men and take it out to the back paddocks, returning only in time to begin the process over again for a cooked lunch. The rest of her time was spent washing, cleaning and looking after her only son.
    Meanwhile, her husband openly slept around town and had little time for her. At some stage, in her late 30's, Vanessa left. She arrived at Sydney's Central station with a son under one arm and a wooden mantle clock under the other.
    Cleaning out my father’s flat recently, I came across an old briefcase among a pile of junk headed for the tip. My father, Vanessa's only son, now 80, was doing a big-out and had no t8ime for "sentimental crap". My brother and I made five trips to the tip that day, and I hoarded anything that looked like it might have belonged to my grandmother, shoving it under the seat of my car.
    back home that night, I opened the briefcase and found my Nan's life inside: American Zippo lighters from the 1950's and 1960's, some in their original boxes, some not, each engraved with the US Navy ship's insignia, all with small notes listing the captain's name, the ship and the date.
    (She was an excellent note-keeper. It makes me ponder what our children will find of us? Will we even leave handwritten records? Will a thousand digital photos on a USB contain the same wonder as a single black-and-white photo of my grandmother posing by a train?)
    A suitcase I managed to salvage contained hundreds of letters, original ship boarding brochures and scallop-edged invitations to the navy ball (God knows what else my father threw out).
    Names became real people. There was Rocky, a captain who escorted my grandmother on board the USS ARNEB, while engaged in Operation Deep Freeze, the US Navy's mission to Antarctica. He squired Vanessa around town and gave her several lighters, including a beautiful art deco mother-of-pearl version. He pursued her for marriage but she was never to go into that institution again.
    She would write to these men long after they had sailed away, and they would write back regularly, in warm letters telling of their voyages, of crime-riddled Chicago or tropical Pago Pago, and they would always enclose a ship's lighter, per her request.
    Whenever I saw my Nan, even as she faded so far that she didn’t know who I was, I could still make her laugh. I only had to mention the Coral Sea Ball. She may have been bed- bound in a nursing home but for Vanessa Roberson, a happy dreamer formerly of Cooma New South Wales, latterly Kings Cross, in her mind it was 1957 and she was dancing with Rocky."
    Jeff Allan, The Australian Financial Review, 19 December 2015.

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