After publishing more than 100 articles (this is my 106th, to be precise), it is odd that I would make a U-turn and head back to a topic that I should have posted when I commenced this militaria-writing venture. There are many times when I find myself in conversations with people when I am explaining my unusual interest of gathering artifacts that were used in the armed forces in some capacity. I have touched on various aspects of my own rationale behind my interests in several posts, however nothing as fundamental or foundational to what lies at the root of my interest. Though I have been actively collecting artifacts since 2008-9, my interest in militaria began many years earlier.
What is Militaria? Merriam-Webster defines it as “military objects (as firearms and uniforms) of historical value or interest.” The definition of the word is fairly ambiguous and vague when one considers what could fall into the category of military objects.
The categories of military objects can be quite expansive ranging from matchbook covers and photographs to uniforms and weapons. There is something for anyone interested in almost any aspect of military history. As with most collectibles, militaria objects can cross over into multiple categories which can bring larger audiences and have significant influence on pricing. For example, in the area of military patches, militaria collectors can find themselves competing with Disney collectors for Walt Disney-designed aviation squadron patches from World War II. Vintage photograph collectors may be competing with the militaria collector for the same WWI yard long images.
Crossover collectability is good for the hobby as it provides opportunity to focus on specific interests that may be out of the mainstream for either facet. While many militaria hobbyists gather M-1 helmets, insignia, or edged weapons, very few seek out matchbooks.
My own interest in militaria was fostered during my quest to uncover the details surrounding the military service of my ancestors and family members. I also inherited a number of personal effects (militaria) from a few of those veterans which drove me to document their service. As with collecting, one item led to another and soon I found myself piecing together shadow boxes honoring their service and assembling their uniforms for display purposes.
Where do your interests lie? Nineteenth century, Napoleonic wars? Eighteenth century British naval officer uniforms? Medals and decorations of the former Soviet Union? Or perhaps your interests lie in the current conflicts of the United States (Iraq and Afghanistan). One can specialize in assembling the various uniforms for WWII women’s services such as W.A.C., W.A.V.E.S. or W.A.S.P.– but be prepared to pay premiums for these hard-to-find items. Whatever your interest, you should find a collecting niche that aligns with your interest.
Unless you inherited a museum full of artifacts, narrowing your collecting is advisable with the considerable financial outlay you will be facing as you expand or fill in the gaps in your collection. Instead of broad categories such as anything World War II-related, one can be very specific and pursue items from the U.S. Army 4th infantry division. Uniforms, insignia, notable personalities, valor medal recipients or any number of special interests would make the hunt exciting and possibly keep costs manageable.
My collection consists of uniform items, medals, ribbons, documents and photos. All of which has context or tie-in to my family history. In addition to the displays and groups I have assembled, I also have acquired some items that have piqued my interests (or distracted me). While I haven’t purchased any of them, I did manage to obtain a nice group of Third Reich militaria that was “liberated” by one of my relatives, a U.S. Army officer. But in keeping with my focus, I haven’t pursued any additional items to add to that theme.
Follow your heart and your interest!
There is no doubt that social media and news outlets will be dotted with posts and stories marking the 76th anniversary of the Day of Infamy – the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrounding military installations on the Island of Oahu – throughout this day. Though, I wonder if our nation’s youth are on the verge of forgetting about this event as we are losing sight of other terrible events that were perpetrated upon our citizens. Fortunately, forgetting about Pearl Harbor hasn’t quite happened yet as there are still WWII veterans, specifically Pearl Harbor Survivors remaining among us.
In the United States’ past history with such events, the meanings behind rallying cries such as “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember the Maine” are nearly lost to history. While visiting San Antonio this past summer, my family toured the Alamo and revisited the story of the siege and the ensuing battle that left no survivors among those who were defending the mission and fort. Without getting to far off track, the somberness of in the feeling one receives when walking through the building and the grounds is palpable but not the same as what is experienced when standing on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial. Not too far from my home lies a monument – a memorial of sorts – from the USS Maine; the disaster that became the catalyst that propelled the United States into a war with Spain in 1898. This monument, a mere obelisk with naval gun shell mounted atop is easily overlooked by park visitors as it is situated a considerable distance from other attractions within the park. Remember the Maine?
Visiting such locations always presents opportunities for me to learn something that I didn’t know before – details that one cannot grasp with the proper context that resides within the actual location of the event that took place there. Even though I had previously visited the Alamo (when I was very young), I had no memories of it and the entire experience was new and overwhelming. In contrast, the last visit that I made to the USS Arizona Memorial was my fourth (and the first with my wife) and I was still left with a new perspective and freshness of the pain and suffering that the men endured as their ships were under attack or while they awaited rescue (some for days) within the heavily damaged or destroyed ships. Unlike the Alamo, when one steps foot on the Arizona Memorial, they are standing above more than a structure that was once a warship of the United States. Beneath the waves and inside the rusting hulk are more than 1,100 remains of the nearly 1,200 men who were lost when the ship was destroyed.
Interest in the USS Arizona (and the attack on Pearl Harbor in general) remains quite considerable for most historians. For militaria collectors, the passion to preserve the history of the ship and the men who perished or survived the ship’s destruction continues to increase. When any item (that can be directly associated with a sailor or marine who served aboard her) is listed at auction, bidding can happen at a feverish rate and the prices for even a simple uniform item can drive humble collectors (such as me) out of contention. Where the prices become near-frightening is when the items are personal decorations (specifically engraved Purple Heart Medals) from men who were killed in action aboard the ship on that fateful day. While any Pearl Harbor KIA grouping receives considerable attention from collectors, men from the Arizona are even more highly regarded. It is an odd phenomenon to observe the interest that is generated, especially when the transaction amounts are listed. While I certainly can understand the interest in possessing such an important piece of individual history, I am very uneasy when I see the monetized aspect of this part of my passion.
Not wanting to focus on the financial aspects or my personal concerns regarding medals that are awarded to the surviving families, I have seen many collectors who painstakingly and beautifully research and preserve the personal stories of each sailor who was lost and for that individual’s specific medal. A handful of these collectors display these medals and personal stories with the general public which, I suppose can be likened to a traveling memorial to the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Without seeing such displays, it is very difficult to understand the magnitude of the personal sacrifices that are made by those who serve in the armed forces.
Within my own collection are two photographs of the USS Arizona that were part of my uncle’s collection from when he served aboard three different battleships (Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California) during his navy career (from 1918-1929), all three ships that were later present when the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941. While I am certainly interested in the preservation of the history of this day, seeking Pearl Harbor or more specifically, USS Arizona pieces is not something that I am interested in with my militaria collecting. Instead, I spend time reflecting on what the service members within the ships, at the air bases and the citizens surrounding Oahu must have endured during the hours of the days, weeks, months and even years following the attacks.
Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember the Arizona!
For more on militaria mollecting of these significant events, see:
- A British Collector of the Alamo – Foreign Collectors of American Militaria
- Remembering (and Collecting) the USS Maine!
- A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?
Most of the militaria and artifacts that I write about are pieces that are in my collection or are historical events that have some sort of personal context or connection. There are times, however that I find myself absolutely fascinated with artifacts in others’ collections that have me absolutely captivated. The subject of my efforts in this piece has me captivated both by the items and their original owner’s participation in history.
Militaria collecting, for me and many other collectors, is about the history. More specifically, it is about the individual and personal connections to historical events. For collectors, seeking out and acquiring artifacts from veterans who participated in pivotal or notable events helps to breathe life into what can otherwise be, for much of the population, a mundane event from the past.
The average American fan of World War II history is familiar with events tied to the more obvious specific dates: December 7, 1941, June 6, 1944 or perhaps even, August 6, 1945. For those of you who might need some hints as your morning coffee or tea has yet to take effect: Pearl Harbor, D-Day and Hiroshima. Most people know about specific campaigns and battles such as Iwo Jima, Midway, Operation Overlord and the Battle of the Bulge.
Considering those details, how many Americans are familiar enough with history to understand that World War II was being fought in Europe for nearly two years prior to the United States Congress’ war declaration on December 8th? For that matter, war was in full swing in Asia for almost five years by December of 1941. With this in mind, how many of the American public understand that though the U.S. was abstaining from the war and clinging to the isolationist stance, U.S. servicemen were, in fact, active and serving in both the Pacific and European theaters?
Perhaps one of the most significant naval pursuits (culminating in two significant battles) during those early years of WWII surrounds the engagement between the navy of Great Britain and the German Kriegsmarine that spanned six days in May of 1941. A prevalent and familiar battle cry that still resonates from that time was the call to “Sink the Bismarck” as the British sought to both avenge the loss of the HMS Hood (at the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24, 1941) and prevent the German ship from succeeding in her mission to disrupt the transatlantic shipping lifeline from North America (Operation Rheinübung). The Royal Navy ultimately prevailed in her mission, ending the German battleship’s short-lived career with the effective employment of carrier-based aircraft to disable the ship followed by naval gunfire to send her to the bottom on May 27.
These naval battles between our ally and the Germans are the subject study by historians and military strategists alike and are frequently popularized with articles, books and television programs, keeping the history on the forefront of cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. But one fact that is seldom discussed is that American naval aviators played a small role in the Royal Navy’s open-ocean victory.
In the early years of Britain’s war with Germany, the U.S. was providing assistance in their fight by sending supplies (food, fuel and military equipment) across the ocean in large convoys. Recognizing the significance of that vital lifeline, the Germans re-employed and improved upon a WWI tactic of utilizing submarines (U-boats) in “wolf-packs” to destroy, or at least, disrupt the movement of the convoys, sending thousands of tons of merchant ships to the ocean bottom. In response, the U.S. began supplying Britain with long-range patrol and bomber aircraft providing an effective counter-tactic, protecting the convoys from the subsurface threats.
Just weeks prior to the Bismarck engagements, the Royal Air Force began taking delivery of American-supplied PBY Catalina flying boats. To expedite training of the RAF flight crews on their new aircraft, the U.S. Navy also sent their own support crews and aviators. Despite the U.S. neutrality at this point in the war, some U.S. Navy aircrews would support the RAF by flying patrol missions in the PBYs.
Days following the Denmark Strait engagement (and the loss of the battlecruiser Hood), a Consolidated-built PBY-5 Catalina departed Oban, Scotland on a patrol mission in search of the Bismarck. PBY “O” with Carl W. Rinehart in command, launched May 26 at 12:15pm on what would become a record-setting (for airborne length of time) and historic flight. Twelve hours later, Rinehart’s crew spotted the Bismarck steaming in the direction of occupied France (the ship had been spotted and position reported hours earlier by another U.S. Navy Catalina pilot, Ensign Leonard B. Smith). Dropping down for a closer look, the Catalina descended from the clouds into a firestorm of anti-aircraft gunnery from the enemy ship, and Rinehart and his co-pilot struggled to maneuver the flying boat to safety.
Remaining in the vicinity of the Bismarck, Rinehart and his crew maintained visual contact with the ship observing the ensuing aerial torpedo assault by the Swordfish aircraft from the HMS Ark Royal on the evening of the 26th. Now with her rudders jammed, Bismarck was unable to continue her course to the safety of German air cover. Over the course of the night, the Royal Navy was able to draw in the attacking surface force and bring about the end of the Kriegsmarine’s pride. Catalina “O” and her crew were present, witnessing the entire last battle of the Bismarck. Low on fuel, Rinehart turned his plane on a heading to return to base. Touching down at 13:40 on May 27, his Catalina had been airborne for more than 26 hours of continual flight.
Rinehart would continue to serve throughout WWII and through the Korean War. He retired from the navy with the rank of captain having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (not for the Bismarck patrol). Captain Rinehart passed away in 1996 at the age of 83 in Pensacola, Florida.
Years later, artifacts from his lengthy naval career surfaced at auction and one collector was fortunate to acquire several items, piecing together this well-rounded group that documents Captain Rinehart’s tenure. Among his decorations and ribbons are Rinehart’s service and campaign medals along with his DFC medal. There are also the usual rank devices and a nice set of gold naval aviator’s wings and other insignia devices all belonging to Rinehart.
For me, the items that truly makes this group stand out are ephemera. This collector was able to obtain Rinehart’s spectacular photo album containing snapshots from his wartime service. While each of these images are one-of-a-kind and represent a seldom seen vantage point into the life of WWII decorated flying boat aviator, they still pale in comparison to the central, most historically significant aspect of Rinehart group, his flight log books.
Thumbing through the pages, there are significant events noted by Rinehart among his various flights and missions including, “Peace Signed Aboard BB USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay V-J Day.” Capping off the log entries is one particular flight with mention of the Bismarck search circled in red colored pencil and the take-off/landing times.
While a grouping from Rinehart’s more notable colleague, Leonard Smith, might bring more attention and monetary value, this group is no less historically significant.
(All photos depicting the Carl Rinehart collection are courtesy of Kurt Stauffer unless otherwise noted)
In researching some of my ancestors’ service in the Union Army, my great, great, great grandfather in particular, I discovered an unrelated story about three artifacts that were “purchased” from their owner having considerable significance in American history.
As the Civil War was in its final hours, General Lee sent his aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall to secure an appropriate location in which to formalize the surrender and capitulation of the Confederate Army and to bring about the end of more than four years of horrific civil war. The site that was selected was the farmhouse which belonged to Wilmer McLean who had relocated to Appomattox Court House, Virginia to get away from the war that had begun, quite literally in his backyard at Bull Run four years prior.
As General Lee and his aide, Marshall waited in the parlor of the McLean house, the victorious yet humble, General Ulysses Grant arrived with his entourage of subordinates which included Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan and his aide, Captain Michael Sheridan. After the exchange of honors and pleasantries, the formalities commenced over the course of three and a half hours, culminating in the exchange of written agreements to the terms of surrender. As the two commanding generals left the house and were departing upon their mounts, the collector activities commenced back inside the parlor.
Understanding the significance of the monumentally historical moment that had just taken place, the burgeoning militaria collectors such as General Edward Ord, the Sheridan brothers (the general and captain), (brevet) Brigadier General Henry Capehart and others began removing the tables and the implements set upon them (candlesticks, ink wells, etc.) unceremoniously providing reimbursements to Wilmer McLean (who had no desire to sell off his furnishings). The cane-bottom chairs were broken apart into bits and pieces with the end results being divvied up among the crowds of relic hunters, leaving McLean’s parlor an empty space.
Collecting war prizes from the vanquished is a long-standing practice that continues to this day and perhaps without the efforts of these eager “collectors,” the artifacts could have been lost to time. Instead, after changing hands numerous times, the table and chair used by General Grant and the chair used by General Lee made their way to the Smithsonian where collectors, historians and history buffs alike can share in what many refer to as the rebirth of the United States of America.