Monthly Archives: September 2016
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”*
I started this blog as a continuation of a similar effort that I undertook (as a paid gig) for a large cable television network. I spent some time contemplating a suitable name for this undertaking, settling on The Veteran’s Collection for a number or reasons. The simplest of those reasons was to express my interest in militaria and how my status as a veteran guide both my interests and desire to preserve history.
Often, I equate my collecting of military items in the vein of being a curator of military history and the role that the military has played in the securing and preserving of basic freedom for our nation (and for the people of other nations who have been trying to survive under repressive regimes). In gathering and collecting these items, it may appear to some that I am glorifying war. Having in my possession weapons (firearms, edged weapons, munitions, etc.) might signify glorification to the untrained eye however these items are part of the overall story being conveyed by collection.
I am a fairly soft-spoken person when I am out in public (though people who truly know me would have a difficult time believing this). When political conversations emerge near me (when waiting in line or casually walking past strangers in public settings) I have heard, on many occasions, discussions focus on perceptions of men and women who serve ( low-key or have served) in the armed forces. Often times, gross mis-characterizations regarding people in uniform begin to emerge as the dialog devolves into denigration of active duty and veterans as being war-hungry criminals, bent on killing innocents (women and children). I can’t count how many times I have stood in line, listening to people in front of me expressing how frustrated they are when they see a soldier in uniform ahead of them receiving a discount for a food item or service equating their time in service as legalized murder.
I served ten years on active duty and had two deployments into a combat theater, one of which I and my comrades were engaged by the enemy. In all of those ten years, I cannot recall a single person whom I served with who desired or wished to see combat. We prepared and trained for it hoping to never see it. I don’t think that I have ever met a combat veteran who wanted to talk openly about their time under fire. To have the uneducated civilian boil down our willingness to don the uniform, train for years while understanding fully that at some point during our service, we could see the horrors of combat as being blood-thirsty war-mongers only serves to show the extent of their ignorance.
I recently read two articles today concerning veterans of World War II who have (or had) committed their remaining years educating people about the horrors of war that each of them faced.
The first article was about one man, an IJN fighter ace Kaname Harada, who took every moment that he had left in order to do what the Japanese government is failing to do; educating younger generations to warn them about being drawn into future wars. “Nothing is as terrifying as war,” he would state to an audience as he spoke about his air battles from Pearl Harbor to Midway and Guadalcanal. As I read the article, I zeroed in on a chilling quote by one of Harada’s pupils, Takashi Katsuyama, “I am 54, and I have never heard what happened in the war.” He cited not being taught about WWII in school, continuing, “Japan needs to hear these real-life experiences now more than ever.” I am baffled that a man who is a few years older than me was not taught about The War in school.
In the second article, Army Air force fighter pilot, Captain Jerry Yellin, who like Harada, is educating young people about what he sees as futility of war. He is concerned that young Americans do not have an understanding of the realities of war nor what it is like to fight. “We’re an angry nation,” said Yellin. “We’re a divided nation: Culturally, monetarily, racially and religious-wise we’re divided.” What the veteran of 19 P-51 missions over Japan said (in another article) regarding war is often lost on those who are pacifists (at any and all costs) and lack understanding, “War is an atrocity. Evil has to be wiped out.” He continued, “There was a purity of purpose, which was to eliminate evil. We did that. All of us. So, the highlight of my life was serving my country, in time of war.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Both of these men clearly understand the cost of war and the hell that they faced when they took up arms and yet neither of them could be characterized with the ridiculous “war mongers” moniker often applied to warriors.
The reasons that people collect militaria are as diverse as each of the hobbyists’ backgrounds. The community of collectors can be completely aligned and in lock-step with each other on some militaria discussion topics and in near animus opposition on others. I tend to stay away from collecting medals and decorations; specifically, anything awarded to a veteran (or, posthumously to his family) due to how a great number of collectors commoditize certain medals (Purple Heart Medals, specifically). I withhold judgment as I abstain from even discussing the medals in question. For the laymen, a Purple Heart is awarded to service members wounded or killed in action. Collectors attach increased value for medals awarded (engraved with the recipient’s name) for posthumous medals; if the person is notable or was killed in a famous or infamous engagement, the value compounds (there are several other contributing factors that influence perceived monetary value).
Purple Heart Medals are a very sensitive area of military collecting and nearly every medal was awarded to combat veterans – soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who were serving in a war or wartime capacity. There are several collectors who use their Purple Heart collections to demonstrate the realities of the personal cost of war. These caretakers of individual history, such as this collector, painstakingly preserve as much of the information surrounding the WIA and KIA veterans, often maintaining award certificates and even the Western Union telegrams that were presented to the recipients’ parents or widows. Seeing a group with the documentation together is heart-wrenching.
Militaria collecting can be very personal as many of the items, like medals (such as the Purple Heart) actually belonged to a person who served. In my collection, I have uniforms from men who served from as far back as the early 1900s up to and including the Vietnam War (not including my own as seen in this previous post) with the majority centered on World War II. Nothing could be more personal than the uniform worn by the veteran. Having personal items, in my opinion, enhances the collecting experience because of the desire to research what that service member did when they served. Uncovering a person’s story is to understand the sacrifice and cost of leaving family behind to serve rather than glorifying war itself.
Also in my collection are artifacts that were brought back by the veterans from the theater in which they served. While to some people, viewing these items may conjure negative and visceral responses, they still serve to tell a story that shouldn’t be forgotten. One of my relatives returned from German having recovered a great many pieces from the Third Reich machine after it was defeated by May of 1945. Still, this is not celebrating war nor the defeat of a (now former) foe.
There are other facets of my collection that are touch on the functions of engagement and combat; specifically armament and weapons. I have a few pieces that I inherited that, at some point, I will be delving deeper (on this blog) as they do fascinate me. I need to spend some time expanding my knowledge a bit more in order to present these pieces with a modicum of understanding (alright, I’ll admit that I don’t’ want to sound uneducated on my blog). Frankly, weapons are not my forte’ but what I own (a small gathering of edged weapons and ordinance), I have spent some time learning about them.
Preserving history is paramount to helping following generations to both understand the cost of war and that, while doing what is necessary to avoid future wars, serves to illustrate that nations not only should but must take a stand against tyranny and evil.
* Military Memoirs of a Confederate, 1907, Edward Porter Alexander
Taking inventory of my previous blog postings, I find an overwhelming majority of the topics I’ve covered were focused primarily on militaria that is not in the reachable price range for most collectors. These posts have been in stark contrast to my most recent acquisitions, most of which are well below $50 (including shipping costs).
In reality, most of the collectors I know are adept at rooting out the bargains at yard sales, surplus and antique stores, and various other sources. Rather than shelling out loads of cash to online sellers and taking on shipping costs, these collectors locate some very hard-to-find, and in some cases, high dollar items and groups for a pittance.
One of my collector colleagues spends time sniffing around in bargain bins in a surplus store near one of the local military installations, and once managed to locate a few sets of experimental U.S. Army combat uniform sets for less than $10.00. Subsequently, he discovered that the uniforms were rare and highly sought-after by collectors of current and modern uniforms, and could easily yield several hundred dollars per shirt and trouser set. His find was merely a matter of timing and experience as he recognized that these uniforms had subtle differences from their standard-issue counterparts.
For some collectors (like me), possessing and budgeting for the time to spend scouring these locations for the bargains is difficult. We compensate by letting our browsers and searches do the legwork in discovering the low-priced pieces. Knowledge and experience also comes into play for us as we are able to discover items in listings that are incorrectly identified or tagged by the sellers helping to keep the buyer competition to a minimum.
Still, timing and patience are ultimately the key in finding low-priced pieces. I have been in search of a set of World War II vintage U.S. Navy enlisted dress whites with a ship’s cook third class (SC 3/c) rate and rating badge in good condition for a few years. Such a set would be a great augmentation for the uniform display I am assembling to honor my grandfather. While I already have two sets of his actual dress blues (one is standard Navy-issue and the other is his tailor-made, custom set), his whites were lost to time. When an online auction for a set of whites meeting my criteria was listed for less than $10.00, I began watching, hoping that the competition would be low and I set my snipe bid.
Just a few days ago, I received notice that the auction closed and my bid had been accepted as the winner. I acquired the uniform for less than $11.00 (plus a few bucks more for shipping costs) and I was amazed that this set would sell for such a low price when so many had sold for well over $50.00 during my previous years of searching.
The bargains are still out there for those who arm themselves with knowledge and patience and have a little bit of luck.
To suggest that veterans and sailors of the U.S. Navy have an affinity for their ships would be a gross understatement. It would be difficult to stroll through any public area without seeing a former navy man sporting a ball cap with a USS ___ (fill in the blank). I have seen men well into their late 80s proudly carrying the name of the ship they served aboard, emblazoned across their foreheads, and as I write this, I am proudly wearing one of my own ship’s ball caps.
Navy ship ball caps are quite commonplace. Many of them have icons or symbols between the name and the hull number designator that make them unique to each specific ship. Some of the symbology might have nothing to do with the ship, instead being representative of the commanding officer or the crew. As far as I’ve determined, ships’ crews have been wearing the named caps aboard ship with utility (dungarees) since the 1960s.
When sailors are required to be in their dress uniforms, identifying them with their associated commands is a requirement… especially when sailors behave like, well… sailors in foreign ports. Present-day enlisted dress uniforms must be adorned with a unit identification mark (UIM) patch on the top of the shoulder of the right sleeve. This regulation has been in place since the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Prior to World War II, the navy employed a much more stylish format of placing the command names on their enlisted sailors. From the 1830s to 1960, sailors wore with their dress blue uniforms a flat hat, affectionately known as the “Donald Duck” hat. Though it wasn’t authorized, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, sailors began to adorn their flat hats with a ribbon (known as a tally) that displayed the name of the ship and was worn only when on liberty (“shore leave” to you landlubbers). Eventually, the tallies were acknowledged within the naval uniform regulations, standardizing their appearance and wear.
By 1941 and the outbreak of World War II, the rapid expansion of the fleets with many new ships under construction and being delivered to the fleet, the Navy did away with the ship names on the tallies, standardizing all with “U.S. Navy” (there is some speculation that secrecy of ship movement drove the Navy to implement this change).
Ship-named tallies are highly sought after by collectors, pushing prices on some of the more famous (or infamous) vessels well into the ranges of multiple-hundreds of dollars, regardless of condition. Due to the delicate nature of the tallies’ materials and the exposure to the harsh marine environment, the gold threads of the lettering tend to darken and tarnish. The ribbon construction was typically made with silk, so they don’t stand up well to the ravages of several decades of time and storage.
In the last few years, a tally showed up in an online auction for the first time in more than a decade of staking out anything related to USS Vincennes. Until then, I had my doubts as to whether the Navy had allowed the pre-war crew to have the tallies for their ship, even though it was in service since February of 1937, four years before they were abolished. Sadly, the selling price surpassed my maximum bid by nearly triple the amount.
Hopefully, I don’t have to wait as long until I see another USS Vincennes tally!
(Note: This is first installment of a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War)
- Part 1 – Shadow Boxing – Determining What to Source
- Part 2 – Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
- Part 4 – Boxing My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
For me, collecting militaria has been an adventure of discovery as I learn about who my ancestors were and what they did to contribute to the freedoms we enjoy in the United States today. As I’ve stated in earlier posts, my research began with the receipt of a handful of militaria pieces and documents for two of my relatives who served in the armed forces.
Rather than simply store the items in a drawer or closet, I wanted to assemble and display them in such a manner as to succinctly describe their service. Seeking to be as complete as possible, I sent for the service records for both relatives so that I could fill in the gaps if there were any missing decorations from what I already possessed. Upon receipt of the records from the National Archives, I noted that there were, in fact, several awards that had never been issued to either veteran (many service members were discharged at the war’s end war, prior to the decorations being created and subsequently awarded) and promptly obtained the missing pieces.
In preparation for assembling the displays, I was motivated to learn all that I could about others in my family who served. As I worked on my family tree, I began to discover that there were veterans at each successive prior generation who served. From Vietnam to the Korean War, World War II to the Great War, from the Civil War, the war of 1812 and finally, the American Revolution, I had ancestors who were participants. At the prompting of my kids’ inquiries as to who these people were and what they did, I embarked on a mission to assemble tangible representations of some of the notable veterans in the family lineage – including uniform items, awards and decorations.
Limited by financial resources and storage space, I needed to choose the people from our past that would garner my collecting attention. This decision has caused me to abstain from purchasing some of the items that I found very interesting but couldn’t justify acquiring (after all, I am not creating a museum in my home).
One of my recent discoveries is that veteran in my lineage served in a storied regiment during the American Civil War. This unit, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was the only mounted regiment to be equipped with the lance as their primary weapon, prompting the nickname of Rush’s Lancers (Lt. Colonel Richard Rush was the unit’s first commanding officer). While my ancestor wasn’t a distinguished veteran or officer (he was a corporal), he did serve throughout most of the war, participating in many of the bloodiest battles.
I have been pondering how I could create a tasteful, yet small assembly of items that would provide an authentic and visually appealing display. What sort of items are available (and that I could afford) that would fit into a smaller shadow box and tell a story of my great, great, great grandfather’s service?
Taking into account that my relative was a member of the Union Army, I could pursue pieces of the Union uniform such as buttons or other devices. I would need to focus on cavalry as their buttons are different from those of the infantry. If I was fortunate enough to locate one at a reasonable price, I could obtain the kepi hat device. Including excavated items such as ammunition rounds for weapons carried by cavalry (such as .52- or .56-caliber carbine or .36- or .44-caliber revolver rounds) that were found on one of the unit’s battlefields would be a terrific accent to the display. Ideally, I’d like to get my hands on the blade from a lance, but with the lofty price (one was sold at auction in 2005 for $1,440.00) they command, I will have to abstain. If I can locate a period-correct Civil War medal, it would be icing on the cake.
No matter the direction that I ultimately decide to take, I know that I will be spending the next several months scouring the online dealers and auction sites to acquire the pieces. In the meantime, I await my great, great great grandfather’s service records so that I can (hopefully) nail down his service and create an accurate display.