LE MARS, Iowa — When dignitaries gathered in a Wisconsin shipyard last month to celebrate a naval tradition on board the littoral combat ship Sioux City, it raised Lee Mentink’s interest.
The retired Lutheran pastor and Navy veteran has closely followed news reports about the ship bearing Sioux City’s name, but hearing about the mast stepping ceremony led his thoughts to the corroded penny he’s kept for nearly 65 years.
After he shakes it out of a small, brown envelope into his palm, you wonder what's so special about this battered coin.
A small chunk is missing, giving it the appearance of a cookie with a bite taken out of it. You have to look closely to read the words "ONE CENT" on the back. Mentink would like to tell you how old it is, but the side that displays the minting date is too deformed to see it.
Though rough in appearance, it brings back a boatload of memories of traveling the world while in the Navy.
"Those were four formative years that have gone with me all these years. My experiences then, what I did, they made me who I am," Mentink said.
How does the new Sioux City fit in here? In July, the mast stepping ceremony was conducted on the ship. A small, stainless steel canister containing coins, patches and other tokens representing Sioux City, the ship’s sponsor and the Navy, was welded under the ship’s radar mast, making it a permanent part of the ship.
It's a naval tradition dating back to Roman times, when coins were placed under the mast of a new ship so that if the crew were to die at sea, they could pay the mythical ferryman to transport them across the River Styx and into the afterlife. In more recent times, the placing of tokens in the mast is a sign of good luck to the crew.
Mentink knew none of that in 1953.
The transfer of the vessel from the Austal USA to the Navy marks the final milestone before the ship is commissioned in May.
At that time, the Union Grove, Wisconsin, native had been in the Navy for a little over a year after deciding that enlisting in the service as an 18-year-old might get him further in life than working as a hired farmhand.
He wound up on board the destroyer Irwin, serving off the coast of Korea when that war ended. On the way home, Mentink sailed around the world before arriving in Boston, where the Irwin was put in dry dock for an overhaul.
A few days later, Mentink saw a group of officers picking around in the tar where the mast had been removed.
"When they took this stick mast down, the chiefs were down there digging these coins out. I was interested enough to go down and check. My curiosity was up," Mentink said.
After the officers left, Mentink took a look. Inside a bracket, on top of the tar, was the penny.
"It was just kind of laying there, loose," he said. "I think they had dug it out and left it," he said, holding it up between his thumb and index finger.
He'd never heard of the tradition of placing coins beneath a ship's mast.
"I didn't know the reasons for the coins in there until I asked around a bit. I don't know who I asked why the coin was in there. They told me it was in there for luck," Mentink said.
It sounded good to Mentink, who liked to collect coins and other curious things. He figures that acid from the tar ate away at the penny since it was placed there sometime before the ship's commissioning in 1943.
"There's not another penny like this in the world," Mentink said.
It’s been with him since. Mentink was discharged from the Navy in 1956, and, after a few months of working in a foundry in Wisconsin, he enrolled in Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, his first step toward becoming a Lutheran minister. His ministry led him and his late wife, Eleanor, and their family to North Dakota, then Northwest Iowa, where Mentink preached before dozens of congregations before his retirement in 1996.
His interest in ships and sailing never waned. Pictures of clipper ships hang on his wall along with a photo of the Irwin, which he can still feel rocking on the ocean when he closes his eyes.
Mentink looks forward to the day the Sioux City is commissioned into the Navy fleet. A commissioning date has yet to be set, but it’s expected to be this fall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Mentink holds up his tarnished penny, and his eyes begin to shine. He hasn't attended a mast stepping or commissioning before.
He imagines all the pomp and pageantry are a sight to behold. Almost as brilliant as the penny he’s kept as a reminder of his own naval history.