Answer Man: Vet wonders about his Navy service number

News-DemocratMay 24, 2013 

I enlisted in the Navy in 1940 in Poplar Bluff, Mo. I was sworn in in St. Louis and received a service number of 337xxxx. Ever since, I've wondered what that number designated. After nearly 75 years, can you finally enlighten this old vet? -- L.M., of Belleville

With pleasure -- and gratitude as we observe another Memorial Day weekend.

As it turns out, a simple, logical numbering system had to be completely revamped because it would not have been able to handle a national emergency. Sure enough, soon after the new method started, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the Navy was in the middle of World War II.

Here's what happened -- and what your number means:

Naval service numbers began in 1920, about a year after World War I ended. At first, they were going to assign numbers 1 to 500 retroactively to retired officers who had fought in the war, but for reasons unknown this never happened and the numbers were never assigned.

Instead, the Navy began issuing the lowest numbers to active duty officers. For example, the first number on record -- 532 -- went to a Capt. Samuel R. Colhoun. By the time World War II broke out these numbers had reached 125000.

For regular enlistees, they decided on a seven-digit number just like the one they gave you. Initially, the first digit was to signify the decade that you enlisted followed by a six-digit personal ID.

As a result, they began giving the first million retroactively to those who had served during the Spanish-American War and World War I. These numbers were issued alphabetically so a sailor named Clayton Aab received service number 1000001.

This worked well for a while. In the 1920s, sailors received seven-digit numbers starting with "2" as planned. But by the early 1930s, the Navy realized they would need far more numbers than a million in a decade should a war break out. So, they launched a new plan -- and here's where you came in.

Using all numbers between 3000000 and 9999999, the Navy began assigning large blocks of numbers to various recruiting stations around the country. The St. Louis area was given the numbers 3358001 to 3410000 to hand out, according to Tim Nenninger, chief of the textural records reference staff at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

It's sort of like paper money. If you look at the serial number on a dollar bill, the letter before the number will tell you which of the 12 Federal Reserve banks was responsible for printing that bill (H signifies St. Louis).

So, simply put, the first three digits of your service number designate the recruiting area, and your 337xxxx falls within the St. Louis range. Nenninger isn't positive what the last four numbers mean, but he assumes they were probably assigned in order as people enlisted.

In 1972, the Navy abandoned service numbers in favor of Social Security numbers. I hope this clears up your mystery -- and thank you for your service.

Why doesn't Valhalla Cemetery fix its fountain facing South Belt West? It seems they're concentrating so much on their new entrance off Frank Scott that they're neglecting the older sections. -- J.B., of Belleville

It won't be ready for the beloved Avenue of Flags this weekend, but don't think for a minute that the cemetery is neglecting that beautiful fountain.

Just like a swimming pool, the fountain's foundation has developed a crack and no longer holds water, according to Ed Allen, the cemetery's general manager. Making matters worse, thieves made off with the copper fountain ring that produced the display.

But Allan expects the fountain will come back to life by July 4 -- or perhaps as early as Father's Day. Like any homeowner planning a remodeling job, Allan is anxiously awaiting a contractor to finish a few previously scheduled projects. A new ring is on the way as well.

"All these things take time," Allan said. "We have 60 acres of roads and water lines and trees and shrubbery. You prioritize and sometimes you have to put out a fire that's a little bigger than the one someone else is looking at. We want it fixed as badly as the public does."

Today's trivia

In what computer would you have found the first hard disk drive? What year?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: As a Hall of Fame infielder, Cal Ripken Jr. owns the American League record for most double plays by a shortstop -- 1,682. Unfortunately, as a hitter, he also owns the Major Record for grounding into the most double plays, 350. In fact, he was the last Oriole to bat at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium on Oct. 6, 1991 -- and grounded into a twin killing. Slugger Hank Aaron owns the National League record with 305. Another interesting stat: St. Louis Cardinals' Vince Coleman and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki share the Major League for fewest double plays grounded into by a rookie (3) while former Redbird Albert Pujols set the National League mark for most rookie DPs with 21 in 2001. Cardinal catcher Ted Simmons and Philadelphia Athletics' Dave Philley share the MLB record for hitting into the most double plays in a season by a switch-hitter, 29.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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