Monthly Archives: January 2016
My military collecting focuses almost entirely on documenting my family’s service with both a narrative and visual materials. One of the products of my research will ultimately be a hardbound, four-color book complete with original photographs of these veterans and displays of their uniforms and artifacts. You’ll have to take my word that this is a lengthy undertaking, considering that most of my subjects are long-deceased, requiring interaction with the National Archives and a lot of lag time waiting for the requested service records and materials.
As I began assembling a representative group portraying my uncle’s service in the United States Navy, I soon realized that I would have to collect several uniforms as he went from an Apprentice Seaman to a Chief Warrant Officer during his thirty years of service. For this article, I am going to cover one aspect of the assembled group : headwear.
My uncle enlisted in 1932 and remained on active duty throughout World War II. By 1941, he had advanced to first class petty officer radioman. His specialty was in intelligence and he had been with Joe Rochefort, having attended the Navy’s highly secretive and fledgling cryptologic school in the 1930s. He was meritoriously promoted to chief petty officer (CPO) for his efforts supporting the commander of Task Force 16 during the Battle of Midway. In 1944, he was promoted again to Radio Electrician, Warrant Officer (grade W-1).
Possessing that information, I knew that I had to collect some chief petty officer uniforms as well as some difficult to find warrant officer items. To complete those sets, headgear could pose a significant challenge. I first had to determine what a W-1 (the Navy discontinued this rank at the war’s end) would wear as I had personally never seen the uniform. I referred to some reference material that provided some basic information, but not the specifics regarding all of the hat components for this grade. I could select either (or both) a combination or garrison cap.
With a khaki jacket in my possession and the appropriate epaulettes (shoulder boards) that are affixed to the jacket’s shoulders, I knew that I wanted to have at the very minimum, a garrison cover. Current Chief Warrant Officers’ garrison cover devices include the naval officer’s crest on one side and the rank bar on the opposing side. The rank bar devices did not exist yet during the war (instituted in the 1950s) so I was at a loss for what they wore. I contacted some navy uniform experts who informed me that the W-1 would wear only their specialty devices (in this case, the radioman insignia). During WWII, these devices are mirrored, meaning that they both “point” forward yet look the same from either side. Current devices are not mirrored – Chief Radio Electricians wear two of the same device – one is upside down.
I located a vintage set of the devices and pinned them to the WWII-vintage Navy khaki garrison cap that I had previously obtained. The hat was now complete.
I turned my attention to the combination cover (some erroneously call the Navy caps “visor caps”) which is a hat with a visor that may be simply altered to match the uniform by replacing the cover with the appropriate color/material cover. Chiefs and officers could feasibly own a single hat frame (the sweatband/frame/visor) and simply change from white to blue or khaki (also grey or green) to align with the uniform of the day. I wanted to create a combination cap to go with this uniform as it looks classy.
I located a standard officer’s dress blue cover with the wide gold chin strap and the line officer’s crest. I already had a nice example of this cap so I decided that this would be a good base to create the warrant hat. Any alterations I made could easily be reversed to return it to its original state. I also kept the original owner’s name placard in the holder inside the hat. I found an original W-1 hat band and a 24k large hat insignia as well as the unique ½-inch gold chin strap (all vintage components). I disassembled the hat and replaced the appropriate parts with the newly acquired components.
One last cover I focused on was the CPO hat. Examining numerous period-photographs, I locked onto the hat that I wanted to acquire or assemble. Through the assistance of a friend, I was directed to an early WWII CPO combination cap with a grey cover that was well-enjoyed by a family of moths. The sterling silver hat device was outstanding as was the remainder of the hat. I purchased the hat and obtained a set of covers (blue, white and khaki) to accompany the three CPO uniforms (all chief radioman). Now I could display each chief uniform with using a single combination cover.
The remaining uniform left to tackle (for this relative, at least)? A dress blue or white jumper with neckerchief and white hat.
To the informed and educated collector, buying militaria is like traversing a minefield, poking and prodding the ground, seeking to avoid the triggers and tripwires prior to each step. New collectors however plow through the field that is laden with Bouncing Betties without a care in the world and without realizing that they have suffered devastating wounds.
Online selling has opened the floodgates for collectors to more easily locate hard to find (dare I say rare?) items. Included in the vast array of internet listings are sellers seeking to pad their revenue by creating a fantastic story to accompany the item or group.
Other sellers are less nefarious as they attempt to properly list grandpa’s uniform items in hopes that it will be seen by the right buyer as something extraordinary. They think that they know enough of the story of their beloved veteran and fill their auction description with glowing accounts of heroism and touches of greatness for an otherwise ordinary marine, airman, soldier or sailor (I am not disparaging those veterans who, like the majority of our servicemen and women, served bravely regardless of their assignment, unit or theater of service). If there is no accompanying documentation (military records, photos of the item in context) to provide provenance, the story is nice but adds no value to the item.
In some listings (as with the above actual listing), the seller may be trying to pull the wool over the unsuspecting buyers with an inaccurate description which includes a subtle caveat stating that he/she isn’t certain if they have been accurate with the way they have presented the item. This could lead buyers to think, “Aha! I’ve found an item that is worth a lot but I am getting it at a bargain price because this seller doesn’t know what he has!” When in reality the seller does know what they have, but they are merely trolling for a vulnerable customer.
In either of these scenarios, the unsuspecting buyer could wind up severely overpaying for an item that is rather common or mundane. While there is no rock-solid way for militaria buyers to protect themselves from overpaying for an item, educating oneself prior to making a purchase can certainly limit the risk.
Prospective buyers maybe asking themselves, “okay, how do I go about educating myself about militaria?” Fortunately for new (all) collectors, there are several online forums whose membership contains passionate individuals with countless years of experience as well as access to hard-to-find publications who can provide almost instantaneous feedback as to the identity and veracity of an item. Many will offer their knowledge and wisdom to nurture interest and assist in making intelligent purchases.
Some helpful collecting forums:
- http://www.usmilitariaforum.com– All U.S. Military Items, all eras
- http://www.wehrmacht-awards.com– Third Reich medals and decorations
- http://www.walhalla.se– German Helmets
- http://militariaforum.germanmilitariacollectibles.com– German Militaria
- http://www.worldwarmilitaria.com– A general forum for militaria of the world wars
There are many expert communities with websites dedicated to specific types of items such as:
- http://www.asmic.org– ASMIC | The American Society of Military Insignia Collectors
- http://www.omsa.org– OMSA |The Orders and Medals Society of America
A great place to begin your education is at your local library. There are several militaria-based books already in print that can guide you. Consider also reference materials such as era-specific uniform regulations (each U.S. military branch has produced them since the late 19th century) as they have invaluable details on what officers or enlisted personnel wore (or could wear) on their uniforms.
One simple rule to follow is that if it appears too good to be true, it probably is. In the militaria collecting world this is all summed up with one simple phrase, “Buy the Item, not the Story.”