The Last “Prize” Awards in the U.S. Navy?
The awarding of prize was an ancient naval custom. Essentially, the officers and men of a
warship that captured an enemy vessel were allowed to divvy up the loot. Although the complex formula governing the division
of the spoils gave the lion’s share to the officers, and particularly the
captain, a rich prize could easily leave even an ordinary cabin boy with a
year’s pay in his pocket.
For much of its history the United States Navy awarded
prize. But in 1900 it was decided to
abolish the practice, on the grounds that often those who ran the greatest risk
had the least chance to claim prize. For
example, during the Spanish-American War, the men who served on blockade off Santiago and then fought the
Spanish Fleet on July 3, 1898,
received no prize, while the crews of some cruisers that had intercepted
defenseless merchant ships on the high seas, did quite nicely.
Nevertheless, a case could be made that the U.S. Navy
actually awarded prize money in 1947. It seems that in November 1941,
while on "Neutrality Patrol" in the waters between Brazil and Africa,
the light cruiser Omaha (CL-4) and the destroyer Somers (DD-381) came
upon a merchant ship flying the U.S. flag, and bearing "Willmoto –
Philadelphia” on her stern. As the appearance of the ship did not match
the silhouette in the recognitions books, a boarding party was sent from Omaha. The
vessel turned out to be the German motorship Odenwald, on a blockade
running mission. As the Americans clambered aboard, the ship's crew tried
to scuttle her, but the Yankee sailors were too quick, and quickly got things
Oldenwald was taken to Puerto
Rico. An admiralty court ruled that since the ship was
illegally claiming American registration, there was sufficient grounds for confiscation.
At that point, some sea lawyers got into the act. Observing that the
attempt to scuttle the ship was the equivalent of abandoning her, they claimed
that the crews of the two American ships had salvage rights, to the tune of $3
million. This led to a protracted court case, which was not settled until
1947. At that time it was ruled that the members of the boarding party
and the prize crew were entitled to $3,000 apiece, the equivalent today of over
$25,000 according to the Consumer Price Index, but easily nearly twice that on
the basis of the prevailing “minimum wage,” while all the other crewmen in Omaha
and Somers were entitled to two months’ pay and allowances at their then
By then, both Omaha and Somers
had already gone to the scrap yard.
Military Pay, England and France, 1150-1300
Historically, even the most patriotic troops like to be paid, and this was certainly the case for men serving in England or France during the height of the Middle Ages. Figures here cover roughly the reigns of the early Plantagenets in England, Henry II,. Richard I, John, Henry III, and Edward I, and of the last of the “true” Capetians in France, Louis VII, Philip II, Louis VIII, St Louis IX, Philip III, and Philip IV. This was a period in which, when not fighting each other, the French and English indulged in civil wars on an impressive scale.
|Wrrior’s Daily Wages,|
England and France, 1150-1300
|1150|| England|| 2s|| 3d|
|1165|| England ||2s|| 8d 4d |
|1170|| England ||2s ||3d|
|1195|| England|| 4s|| 7d|
|1202|| France|| 7s 6p|| 10d|
|1215|| England|| 8s ||8d|
|1250|| England|| 8s|| 8d |
|1295|| France|| 10s-15s|| 12d|
|1300|| England ||8s-16s|| 12d|
|Key: On this table, figures originally given in various local coinages have all been converted to livres tournais, worth about £4 sterling; s, shilling, of which there were 12 to the pound; d, penny, of which there were 20 to the shilling, and thus 240 to the pound.|
Looking at the figures, a man-at-arms, knights and mounted squires, would seem to have done a lot better than a foot soldier. But that’s actually an erroneous impression. In fact, a foot soldier was not doing badly at all in this period. His pay was about the same as that for a common day laborer, and the soldier would be drawing pay for every day he was on campaign, whether or not he performed any useful military duties, whereas a day laborer would often be idle, and thus unpaid. Some notion of the purchasing power can be gained by noting that in 1253, 2 pence was enough to buy about six pounds of bread.
A man-at-arms, on the other hand, was in very serious trouble if he tried to live off his pay. Aside from being accustomed to a more luxurious life style, he had to have several horses which could easily cost £50 apiece, and take care of a fairly elaborate kit, that could easily cost as much again, and maintain a servant or two, who would also require mounts..