Shredding History Part III – Dwindling with Time


In this final segment of my three-part series (see parts I and II), I am focusing on the availability of military uniforms and how the numbers diminish over time.

The WWI uniform of LT Marc A. Lagen, 1st Army Air Service, Balloon Pilot on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

The WWI uniform of LT Marc A. Lagen, 1st Army Air Service, Balloon Pilot on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

Countless millions of Americans have worn the uniform of our armed services dating back to the War for Independence and forward to the current conflict in Afghanistan.  It is difficult to determine how many people have worn the uniform in that span of time. However, focusing solely on the times of war when the ranks swelled to build effective fighting forces, we can approximate that nearly 36.3 million men and women (and children) served.

These figures are approximations (gleaned from several sources):

  • Revolutionary War: 95,000 (Continental, militia and naval service combined)
  • War of 1812: 500,000
  • Mexican War: 100,000
  • Civil War: 2.3 million (combined U.S. and Confederate)
  • Spanish American War: 300,000
  • World War I: 4 million
  • World War II: 16 million
  • Korean War: 1.8 million
  • Viet Nam: 8 million (over 2.8 million served in-country or offshore)
  • Desert Storm: 800,000
  • Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom: 2.4 million
WWI Ace Joe Wehner's Distinguished Service Cross medal, helmet, Goggles and face mask situated at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

WWI Ace Joe Wehner’s Distinguished Service Cross medal, helmet, Goggles and face mask situated at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Considering these numbers, one could easily see that the potential exists for a considerable pool of garments to draw from in order to accommodate museums, collectors and companies like Bands for Arms. Analyzing these figures, we can deduce that WWII uniforms are plentiful and hardly something that could be considered rare. From WWII forward with 29 million in uniform (not counting the all-volunteer forces between the conflicts) there should be an enormous stockpile…but is this truly the case?

I doubt that anyone has conducted any studies as to how many veterans stowed their uniforms away upon completion of their service versus how many tossed them into the trash. Over the years, I have polled (unscientifically, mind you) veterans and determined that the numbers are relatively small, perhaps one in ten who preserved their uniforms. We can’t just take that 10% figure and deduce that 1.6 million WWII uniforms exist today, especially when nearly seven decades have elapsed.

Major General George S. Patton II's Jacket.

Major General George S. Patton II’s Jacket.

In the militaria collector community, we are regularly hearing stories of World War II uniforms making their way into trash cans and dumpsters as these veterans pass and their families have no connection or understanding of their family members’ service. Some of the vintage uniforms are so far deteriorated (moth-eaten, water-damaged, etc.) that folks simply discard them, failing to preserve any of the patches buttons, decorations or other historic features that may be salvageable.  In the post WWII-era, children loved to “play army” and would dress up in dad’s uniform or don some of the surviving field gear, not considering the historical significance or need for preservation. No one truly considered any archival aspects of these items as they were through with war when they returned and sought to get on with their lives.

In the time-frame prior to World War II, uniform availability is almost non-existent.  Trying to locate an authentic Civil War uniform from the Union Army, while not impossible, is a considerable challenge. To locate a Confederate piece is even more challenging. I know of a collector who knew of a fellow collector that was in possession of a Civil War-era Navy uniform from an enlisted sailor. The uniform was what is considered a “liberty” uniform – one that is worn ashore as it isn’t issue or authorized for use aboard ship. The piece is genuine and named to sailor and it is very rare which made for a rather steep purchase price when its owner decided to sell.

The uniform of WWI U.S.M.C Sergeant who served with the 5th Marine Brigade.

The uniform of WWI U.S.M.C Sergeant who served with the 5th Marine Brigade.

With each passing year, more uniform items are forever lost. Collectors come and go as do museums and with them also go these precious artifacts. Nothing lasts forever.

Collectors and museum curators realize that the pool of WWII artifacts is drying up and as a result, work diligently to preserve what they can. One can imagine the cringing that occurred when the collectors learned of the destruction of the vintage uniforms by Bands for Arms. Similarly, it is difficult to observe the destruction of modern-day uniforms for the same purpose, especially considering that roughly 10% are kept, regardless of the time-frame.

I will maintain my own uniforms along with those of my family members (in my possession) for as long as I care about such things. But, who is to say that my children will continue my efforts or simply donate or dispose of them when I am gone?

Is preserving militaria worth the effort or are these items merely pieces of textiles and materials? This is a quandary militaria collectors face.

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Posted on February 19, 2016, in General Militaria Collecting, Other Militaria, Uniforms, World War II and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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