The pea coat is one my favorite designs in the entire history of men’s wear. Like many garments we wear today, this distinctly masculine, iconic garment has its roots in the military. Characterized by its dark blue color, broad collar and lapels, six-button double-breasted closure and vertical “slash” pockets, the pea coat was originally worn by European sailors before making its way to the U.S. Navy.
Through the 1970s, the original Navy-issue pea coats were made with a densely woven, very durable, 30 ounce wool known as “Melton cloth” with a somewhat velvety nap. Nowadays, pea coats you find at the surplus or even from designer labels are made with a typically lighter weave or even a polyester blend, producing a decidedly coarser and less durable finish.
At a flea market in the late 1990s, I found the best pea coat I’ll ever have. The woman who sold it to me had a rack of them, all original Navy issue, all vintage. To my good fortune, the one in the best condition also happened to fit me very nicely. It was $80.
Aside from its remarkably good condition, its fantastic fit and its irresistible price, my vintage coat had something extra special: a history. Sewn into the coat’s lining was a label from the Clothing Supply Office of the U.S. Navy. The label indicated the coat’s size (38) along with the officer’s name and service number. My coat had originally belonged to a Naval officer named Charles Way, service number 492-98-21.
Back in 2013, after owning the coat for more than fifteen years, I finally did some research. After a little poking around, I learned that the Navy stopped issuing service numbers some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, making this coat at least as old as I am. I eventually found a website called The Navy Log and searched for Charles Way. I found him. Born on January 19, 1940, Seaman Charles C. Way, Jr. was from Enola, PA, and served in the U.S. Navy Reserves from June of 1958 to June of 1960. The pea coat was surely brand new when it was issued to Mr. Way back then.
In the years I owned the coat, I wore it a lot. For over two decades, it was my regular go-to when temperatures fell between 35 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Buttons had come off (all original and saved) and seams had blown out repeatedly. I had them all repaired, often more than once. The shell of the coat kept its great shape overall, while the lining really started to show its age with some fraying in a few corners. A less sentimental owner would have probably just had the coat re-lined. But here’s the thing: in addition to the irreplaceable sewn-in label from the Navy’s Clothing Supply Office, Mr. Way actually hand-wrote his name in the lining with some kind of marker: “Charley Way.” It might seem weird to some people, but the idea of getting rid of it struck me as disrespectful. So I always kept it, just how Charley Way left it.
Based on his years served, Mr. Way likely didn’t see any combat action. But I couldn’t help but wonder where this coat was worn. On a ship in exotic (but cold) locations? On what ship?
Several years ago, I did do a search and found a profile for Charles Way in Pennsylvania on LinkedIn. I sent him a message, introducing myself and briefly explaining the story of the pea coat, but I never got a response.
By late 2022, after 25 years in my wardrobe, the coat finally gave up. Seams kept coming undone, and the the shell was becoming visibly threadbare in certain areas, especially around those seams. Maintaining it was becoming more time-consuming and costly. I debated and debated, but I ultimately decided to let it go, donating it to the wonderful people at Housing Works here in NYC.
Shortly after I said goodbye to the ultimate pea coat, I found myself getting curious about Charlie Way again. I did some digging and found a short obituary in Penn Live / Patriot-News that began like this: “Charles C. Way, Jr., age 82, passed away at home on June 2, 2022. He was born January 19, 1940 in Enola, PA…” This was my guy. After all this time, I finally found him, and he died the same year I had parted with his pea coat. I would have loved to have been able to reach out to him and share photos of his coat with him, show him where he wrote his name on the lining and hear any stories he had about his time in the Navy.
I did learn this in the obituary:
Charlie joined the U.S. Navy reserves with his brother Jay Way in March 1957 in his junior year at Enola High School where he graduated in 1958. He served aboard the Destroyer USS Henley DD 762 and USS Stickell DD888.Legacy.com
Because of all this… because of how beautifully it was designed, because of how well it was made, because of how good it felt to wear it, because it kept me stylishly warm for 25 years, because of its history with a U.S. Navy seaman who originally owned it from 1958 to 1960, that vintage $80 pea coat will probably be the most valuable garment I will have ever owned.
Now to find a suitable replacement…
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