Commissaries celebrate Navy’s 242 years of service
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Oct. 13 is the 242nd anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Navy by the Continental Congress in 1775. Since that day, the Navy has grown from 12 ships to become the world’s pre-eminent naval force.
Millions of Americans have served in the Navy, establishing a superb record of valor, sacrifice and distinguished service during conflicts from the American Revolution to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
Before the Navy established its own commissary operations, sailors aboard ship struggled with procuring decent food. In the days of sail, shipboard fare during long voyages was monotonous and nutritionally deficient, often becoming spoiled or infested with weevils or maggots. Sailors therefore eagerly anticipated visiting a port of call – either foreign or American – where they could obtain fresh, tasty, healthful foods.
When in port, even if the men didn’t leave their ships they could buy goods from civilian vendors – known as “bumboat men” and “bumboat women” – who rowed, paddled or sailed out to visiting ships in small craft known collectively as “bumboats.” From those boats, these merchants conducted business with the sailors on deck. They sold all manner of local goods, from fish and lobsters to pineapples and coconuts. Although the vendors provided a valuable service, many charged exorbitant prices.
During the round-the-world voyage of the “Great White Fleet” from 1907 to 1909, the Navy realized that bumboats could not adequately serve the needs of larger ships that carried bigger crews. Even before the fleet’s return, Congress took steps to establish “ships’ stores” aboard every vessel to take the place of the overseas bumboats, and sales commissaries – called “ships’ stores ashore” – at ports in the United States. The “stores ashore” were similar to sales commissaries the Army had established in 1867. At Navy, Marine Corps, and Army stores alike, food items were sold to soldiers, sailors and Marines of all ranks, “at cost.”
The first Navy commissary opened in 1910, and commissaries have grown with the Navy for the last 107 years. At first, these stores operated more like warehouses, where clerks pulled items from the shelves for the customers.
Self-service began to gain popularity in the late 1920s and became widespread in the 1940s. Modernized commissaries comparable to civilian grocery stores, along with professionalized permanent store staffs, began to appear after the stores came under the authority of the Navy Ships’ Store Office in 1946, the Navy Retail System Office in 1969, and the Navy Resale and Services Support Office in 1979.
the armed forces’ mission expanded around the world, commissaries followed. The stores have existed at more than 1,000 different locations on every continent except Antarctica. Originally created for active-duty personnel, commissaries gradually became available to military retirees and to immediate family members of all eligible commissary shoppers. They are especially important to military families in high cost of living areas in the United States, and to those living overseas.
The stores’ importance increased with the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973, and again after the Reserve and National Guard received full-time shopping privileges in 2003.
NAVRESSO managed Navy commissaries until the creation of the Defense Commissary Agency, which centralized all the services’ commissaries in 1991. Today, DeCA provides the commissary benefit for all the armed forces, saving individual authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually when compared with civilian supermarkets. This benefit helps attract and retain quality military personnel.
Members of the Navy community, along with their peers in the other armed services, may shop at any of DeCA’s nearly 240 commissaries at U.S. military installations around the world. There are 60 such stores at Navy bases, plus one at the Joint Reserve Base at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, Texas.