Monthly Archives: October 2016
Strange Gold: A Tooth with a Story
Merriam Webster defines History as:
1: tale, story
2a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes
b: a treatise presenting systematically related natural phenomena
c: an account of a patient’s medical background
d: an established record <a prisoner with a history of violence>
3: a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events <medieval history>
4a: events that form the subject matter of a history
b: events of the past
c: one that is finished or done for <the winning streak was history> <you’re history>
d: previous treatment, handling, or experience (as of a metal)
The very first definition; the first word used to define history is quite interesting.
1 obsolete : discourse, talk
2a : a series of events or facts told or presented : account
b (1) : a report of a private or confidential matter <dead men tell no tales> (2) : a libelous report or piece of gossip
3a : a usually imaginative narrative of an event : story
b : an intentionally untrue report : falsehood <always preferred the tale to the truth — Sir Winston Churchill>
Collectors of militaria are always fascinated by the pieces within their collection. (They) we are constantly seeking the history of each object to:
- Connect collection items to historical persons
- Understand how the object is contextually associated to an event or events
- Increase intrinsic value in order to resale an item for profit and financial gain
The idea of being in possession of an item that was carried, worn or used during a significant historical event – a pivotal battle or a crippling defeat – helps to connect the person holding, touching or viewing the object to history in a very tactile manner. Many of my collector colleagues possess pieces in their collections that would be centerpieces of museums due to their historical significance. In my own collection, I have a few pieces that are connected to notable events but not on the order magnitude (of the subject) of this article.
I wrote an article where I focused on the odd and strange militaria items that would otherwise seem bizarre (for anyone to collect) to laymen and casual observers. Yesterday, I read a Chicago Tribune article (Does Chicago hot dog king have WWII Japanese admiral’s gold tooth? – by Ted Gregory, September 18, 2016) that captured my immediate attention. The compelling tale about a team of eight history enthusiasts that made their way to Papua New Guinea, trekked through the dense jungle to Admiral Yamamoto’s plane crash site and by chance, located a gold-encased tooth in the well-picked-over Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” attack bomber. This story seemed to dovetail quite nicely into what I discussed in my previous article – that a tooth from a deceased “enemy” hero certainly fits my idea of a militaria collection oddity.
To be in the possession of the tooth of a long-dead Japanese “god-like” hero from World War II would be exciting yet somewhat morbid. However, I am rather skeptical as to the potential of the item that was recovered at the crash would be Yamamoto’s (there were eleven men aboard this aircraft) yet I agree that the possibility does exist. There are conflicting reports as to the status of the Admiral’s body when discovered: Early documents (from the IJN doctor who examined the deceased Admiral) mention only a chest-area gunshot wound and that his body was otherwise intact. It was mentioned that other than the obvious mortal wound, Yamamoto appeared to be sleeping, still buckled into his seat, clutching his katana. Subsequent reports mention a substantial gunshot wound to his jaw (which could have dislodged the tooth in question).
The man who is in possession of the tooth, Dick Portillo (if you have never eaten at the restaurants that he founded and recently sold, you are missing out), who purchased the tooth from the owners if the crash site, is hopeful to be able to successfully extract and match the DNA of the tooth to the Admiral in order to authenticate his claim. I question the willingness of the Japanese government and Yamamoto’s decedents to participate in Portillo’s efforts, and if they do, what their motivation would be.
Until any authentication of the tooth is completed, the tooth resides in the collection of Dick Portillo along with what appears to be a wonderful selection of arms (as is visibly displayed on his office wall). If validated, Portillo said that he will give the tooth to the Japanese government, most likely to be repatriated (perhaps to be part of the Isoroku Yamamto Memorial Museum collection). I wonder what will become of the tooth if there is no cooperation or if it proves to be from another passenger of the Betty? Will it remain a part of his collection – a piece of history with two stories (Portillo’s and the Japanese passenger)?
- Pacific Wrecks: G4M Model 11, Betty (manufacture #2656, Tail # T1-323)
- Operation Vengeance
- Video: Yamamoto’s Wreck Site
- Aces Against Japan: The American Aces Speak
- Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor
- The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945
California Congressman Demonizes Collectors with Introduction of a Bill
When citizens perceive what they think to be a travesty or tragedy, they scream to their lawmaking-representatives to create laws in order to make changes that will help them to feel good that they did something positive. It is a common action among Americans to want to bring about changes, to right wrongs and to make society more safe. We feel better about ourselves when we stood up and participated in the process. Sadly, the only thing positive with many of these actions are that those scant few people can feel good while the rest of society has to deal with the negative ramifications and unintended consequences brought about by these actions.
This week new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8) to address what he and a select few Americans feel is a troubling trend – the sale of Purple Heart Medals (PHM) among collectors. HR 6234 (known as the “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act”) if passed would “prevent merchants from profiteering from the sale of military-issued Purple Hearts, eliminating the market and making it easier to return them to their rightful owners.” Taken at face-value, this seems to be a very noble goal. Who wouldn’t want Purple Heart Medals returned to their rightful owners?
“These military collectors cheapen the Purple Heart by buying and selling this symbol of sacrifice like a pack of baseball cards,” said Cook, who served 26 years in the Marine Corps before joining Congress, rising to the rank of colonel and receiving two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. – See: Selling Purple Hearts would be illegal if this bill becomes law
One of the underlying beliefs of the bill’s sponsor and his supporters is that militaria collectors are profit-seeking undesirables who buy and sell these vaunted medals, capitalizing on the specific aspects surrounding the awardees’ circumstances (for which the medal was given) such as:
- If the veteran was killed in action (KIA)
- If the battle in which the veteran was wounded (mortally or otherwise) was notable or pivotal
- If the veteran was note-worthy:
- a famous or semi-famous service member
- a member of a notable military unit or vessel
In viewing advertisements of PHMs for sale, these facts are often presented in the medals’ descriptions not too dissimilar to features of a used automobile, rendering them seemingly insensitive and cold. I admit that even I am put-off when I see how they are exhibited as available for purchase.
Regardless of the manner in which the medals are listed, most of the collectors that I have encountered are not only sensitive regarding the nature of these medals and the reason that they exist and are awarded, they go to great lengths to gather the facts surrounding the medals in order to emphasize the veterans’ service and the gravity of the price that is repeatedly paid by them for our nation. The steps that are taken by these collectors in order to preserve the history is extremely honoring and very sensitive towards the veteran and the surviving family members (in the case of KIAs-awarded medals).
There are many militaria collectors who also wore the uniform of this country. Many of them, like me, take pride in our service and that of others and we strive to preserve the history that is being discarded by families of veterans (and even the veterans themselves). One of my colleagues, a fellow Navy veteran, is pursuing his next book project (his most recent work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, is a similar, monumental undertaking that recognizes those American servicemen who were decorated by the Soviet Union for heroic acts in convoy and anti-submarine duty in the North Atlantic during WWII) that focuses entirely on the Purple Heart Medals that have been awarded to service men and women who were killed in combat. Many of the hundreds of medals that he has personally photographed for this book are in the hands of collectors who want to see the stories of the awardee preserved and shared in perpetuity.
Bear in mind that I make that statement as both a collector and as someone who is very sensitive about the issue of PHMs being bought and sold (due to the somber nature of why these medals are awarded, owning a medal that is connected to such significant personal loss is too painful for me to see past). Aside from the “For Sale” listings where the current owner painstakingly describes as much detail surrounding the veterans’ service and how they fell in combat, I also have difficulty when I read about an excited collector’s “find.” There is a fair amount of gray area between celebration of landing a medal that helps the collector tell a particular story (in their collection’s area of interest) and one that a collector picked for a very insignificant amount but will garner significant profit when it sells. I know that I am not the only collector who struggles when we see this on display. I also don’t mean to disparage any fellow collector for what brings them excitement and joy with their collection.
One person in particular who is celebrating the introduction of this bill and is hopeful to see it passed is Zachariah Fike (Captain, Vermont National Guard) who is the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization whose mission is to return Purple Heart Medals to the awardees or their families. “We are absolutely humbled to see Private Corrado Piccoli being honored through this bill by Congressman Cook,” reads a Facebook post (dated October 3, 2016) by Fike’s organization. Fike has historically been in opposition of collectors, stated to NBC News in 2012, “’It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”’ In my near-decade of collecting, I have learned that Fike’s assessment (of medal collectors) is the rare exception rather than the norm.
There is little doubt that Congressman Cook is responding in lockstep with Fikes (who has been vocal in his frustration with collectors’ who did not surrender their medal collection to him) and believe that in banning the sale of these medals will compel collectors to hand them over to organizations and people who are bent on returning them to families. What these well-intentioned people have overlooked is that so many families are the ones who have divested the heirlooms to begin with. For many reasons such as:
- No connection to the distant, deceased relative
- The family suffered a falling out with the veteran (broken marriage, the veteran abandoned his family, etc.) and the medal is a painful reminder
- The survivors are opposed to war, the military and anything that is connected to or associated with it
- Would rather see the medal and history preserved by a collector who has demonstrated this capability
There are many stories of medals being discovered in the most deplorable situations; some of the worst being discovered in dumpsters and curbside garbage cans. As the only one who had an interest in the military history of my family, I was bequeathed militaria from my relatives that included Purple Heart Medals (one of my uncles was wounded in action during both WWI and II). No one else cared. Now I am responsible to ensure that these items are cared for at the end of my life. If this bill passes and no one wants to inherit these items (and with the glut of nearly two million medals being in the same situation as mine), where will they end up?
What happens when Fike comes calling on the family having “recovered” a PHM from a collector only to find that doing so, causes grief with the people who wanted to rid themselves of the item(s) to begin with. What becomes of the medals then? How does this proposed law deal with the collections of PHMs when the collectors pass away and have no future collectors to transfer the medals to? According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the current estimation is that there have been more than 1,800,000 Purple Heart Medals awarded since 1932. Of those, how many thousands reside within individual militaria collections and what is to become of them? What percentage of those are unwanted by the families?
One of the unintended consequences of the previously established laws (banning the sale of the Congressional Medal of Honor [CMOH]), countless American artifacts have left our shores and landed in the hands of foreign collectors undoubtedly to ever return to our shores. The law that prevents the sale (similar to the one proposed by Congressman Cook will force collectors (who are seeking to recoup all or part of their investment) to locate buyers outside of the United States. Worse yet, some domestic CMOH collectors who have been in the possession of their medals predating the law (that prohibits the sale) have since been discovered by the federal authorities; their medals confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the FBI.
Banning the sale does very little in reaching the stated goal – to facilitate the return of the Purple Heart Medals to veterans and families. It also creates a problem for law enforcement. With 1.8 million medals in existence, how do they discover transactions, track ownership of medals and what becomes of those recovered who have no surviving family with which to receive said “missing” medal?
Despite what Captain Fike stated about collectors, his actions contradict him in regards to how he truly considers militaria and medal collectors. His push to locate a legislator to take such short-sighted and drastic steps to ban the sale of these artifacts are a direct assault of collectors that will have long-term negative impact on his non-profit organization’s noble efforts. The bill will also include penalties for veterans and families who attempt to sell these medals; there are no exclusionary provisions nor exceptions. Congressman Cook and Captain Fike appear to be targeting (whom they deem to be) the victims in the Purple Heart trade along with the collectors.
My voice hardly matters and no one would bother to take note of what I have to say in regards to this issue. Nevertheless, I believe that this good-intentioned law is ill conceived and will ultimately make it more difficult to restore the medals to the families and veterans who want to see them returned.