Friday Find: Captain Heck's naval ceremonial sword

Photo of Nicholas H. Heck’s USN ceremonial sword on a black background with the NOAA logo in the upper left corner and the Friday Finds graphic in the lower right corner.

Nicholas H. Heck’s USN ceremonial sword. (Image credit: NOAA Heritage)

This early 20th century naval ceremonial sword belonged to Captain Nicholas H. Heck, an officer of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) and US Naval Reserve Force whose work revolutionized hydrographic surveying. During the World War I-era, naval officers carried these swords in ceremonies or parades when marching in formation with sailors who were under arms.

Black and white photo portrait of Nicholas H. Heck. He sits with his left arm resting on the arm of a chair, looking straight into the camera.
Nicholas H. Heck (Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

Heck began his USC&GS career as a civilian in 1904. When the USC&GS Corps was created in 1917, Heck received a commission as a Lieutenant and shortly thereafter was transferred to the United States Naval Reserve Force for duty in World War I. He was transferred back to the USC&GS in early 1919 where he worked until his retirement in 1945 and achieved the rank of Captain. During his time with the USC&GS, Heck developed the wire-dragging survey method and later introduced radio acoustic ranging, a method for determining a ship’s location at sea.

Black and white photo of Nicholas H. Heck in the field, as he performs  a wire-drag survey aboard the contract sloop Nena Rowland in 1913. He stands to the right of a large pulley, speaking with another man standing to the left.
The only known photograph of Nicholas H. Heck (right) in the field, as he performs  a wire-drag survey aboard the contract sloop Nena Rowland in 1913. (Image credit: NOAA)

This sword is based on the 1852 design, as prescribed in the Navy’s uniform regulations. “For all Officers--shall be cut and thrust blade, not less than twenty-six nor more than twenty-nine inches long, half basket hilt, grip white: Scabbards of black leather. Mountings of gilt; and all as per pattern.”

Three photos of details on Nicholas H. Heck's ceremonial sword. Photo 1: The blade with his name inscribed near the hilt. Photo 2: The sword hilt, showing the letters "USN". Photo 3: The end of the scabbard with a small fish curved around it.
Details of Nicholas H. Heck’s USN ceremonial sword. (Image credit: NOAA Heritage)

After its founding in 1970, the NOAA Corps adopted a similar design for its ceremonial sword.  The NOAA Corps sword may be worn with both the blue and white dress uniforms and is commonly used for ceremonies like changes of command, retirements, and cutting cakes at NOAA Corps birthday celebrations.

NOAA Survey Ships Rude & Heck next to each other in the ocean with nothing but sky behind them.
NOAA Survey Ships Rude & Heck, which often performed wire-drag surveys together. Circa 1960. (Image credit: NOAA)

In 1967, the USC&GS auxiliary survey vessel USC&GSS Heck was entered into service and named for Captain Nicholas H. Heck. The Heck remained part of NOAA’s fleet until 1995.

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