Monthly Archives: October 2016

Pappy’s Mameluke


Perhaps no other (U.S.) branch of service reveres their dress sword or sabre as much as the United States Marine Corps. Likewise, no other branch has quite the history as do the Marines with regards to their beautifully appointed blade, the Mameluke.

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Dating back to the days of hand to hand combat when Marines had a prominent presence aboard U.S. Navy warships, swords and sabres were a required arsenal element issued to both officers and regular, enlisted men. In the age of sail, enemy ships would draw within gun range, firing upon each other with cannons in an effort to disable their opponents’ ability to maneuver and make way. Once the enemy was disabled, boarding of the vessel for capture was usually the goal. Victorious in the gun battle, the ship would be positioned alongside the prey and the boarding parties, already armed and assembled, would initiate hand-to-hand fighting as they poured over the gunwales to take their prize. Firing single-shot pistols and brandishing their swords and sabres, the Marines would overpower the wounded ship’s crew to capture their prize.

Today, swords are only used by officers and enlisted men in the Marine Corps for ceremonies and formal occasions. For officers’ wear, that sword is known simply as the Mameluke (pronounced: ma’am-uh-luke).  With its origins dating back to 1805 when Presley O’Bannon, a Marine veteran of the Barbary War, was presented a sword by Prince Hamet (viceroy of the Ottoman Empire) following the Battle of Derne. In 1825, 5th Marine Corps Commandant Archibald Henderson adopted a sword (that was modeled after O’Bannon’s Ottoman gift) for wear by officers. With very little design change, the Mameluke is the second longest tenured sword in the U.S. military service; the Army’s model 1840 has been in consecutive service since inception while the older Mameluke was set aside from 1859-1875.

Arguably, the Mameluke is one of the most collectible U.S. military swords due to its unique design, aesthetic qualities and very limited quantities. Even more collectible are those swords whose original owners were Marine Corps legends.

Boyington's engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar's museum (USMC photo).

Boyington’s engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar’s museum (USMC photo).

Imagine perusing a local garage sale where you happen to spot a military scabbard with a sword handle protruding. You see grasp the handle, examining the condition and notice the distinctive white, hooked handle with a cross-shaped gilded hilt. You begin to recognize that you are holding a Mameluke. Curious to see if there is any engraving present, you withdraw the blade from the scabbard. Checking the grimy, corroded surface inches below the hilt you spot, “G. Bo…” You rub the verdigris and dirt from the surface, “…y…ing…t…” Your heartbeat quickens as your mind races, as you string the letters together. You clear the last bits of the loose filth to see the remaining letters, “…o…n.” Your mind screams, “G. BOYINGTON!!!…this is Pappy Boyington’s sword!!”

Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington during World War II.

Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington during World War II.

Fortunately for historians and the Boyington family, this did happen. One of the family’s friends found and purchased Medal of Honor Recipient, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s Mameluke at a garage sale  and gave it to his son, Greg Boyington, Jr. A few years ago, Boyington Jr. donated the sword (along some of the ace’s other personal belongings) to the legendary aviator’s squadron, Yuma, Arizona-based VMA-214. The Blacksheep now have the sword safely on display along with a handful of Boyington’s personal militaria. Personally, I would have had a difficult time letting go of such an important piece of history

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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.

Tale:

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>

Dick Portillo, shown with military memorabilia in his Oak Brook office Sept, 8, 2016, is on a quest to determine whether a gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island is that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack and who was shot down in 1943. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Dick Portillo, shown with military memorabilia in his Oak Brook office Sept, 8, 2016, is on a quest to determine whether a gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island is that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack and who was shot down in 1943. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

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.

A gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island could be that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

A gold tooth discovered on a Pacific island could be that of Japanese Cmdr. Isoroku Yamamoto. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

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.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (

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)?

References:

Navy Cracker Jacks: No Toy Surprise


Today marks the 241st anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy. What better way to celebrate and honor the best branch of the U.S. armed forces than to discuss this service’s enlisted uniforms?

In writing this blog, I am (happily and willingly) forced to expand my knowledge in a great many areas of military history that I otherwise would have overlooked. As I embark on a new article, I am presented with the opportunity to delve into learning about uniform details and nuances that I’d previously had little or no exposure to. One aspect of this post has finds me diving into uncharted territory (for me).

The uniforms of the United States Navy, particularly the enlisted version, has maintained relative consistency in its design for more than 160 years. From the bell-bottom trousers and the collar flap to the various trim and appointments, today’s modern design has remained consistent with the original, functional aspects of those early uniforms.

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

Today’s jumper blouse design was incorporated with the collar flap which was used as a protective cover to protect it from the grease or powder normally worn by seamen to hold hair in place during the twenty years prior to the start of the Civil War.

Piping and stars were added to the flap while the flat hat (affectionately referred to in the 20th century as the “Donald Duck hat”) became a standard uniform item during this period. In the late 1880s, the white hat (or “dixie cup”) was introduced, essentially solidifying the current configuration we see today. Prior to World War II, the blue cuffs were dropped from the white uniform and the flap was switched to all white with blue stars. By 1962, the flat hat was gone.

A collector colleague steered me to an online auction listing for an absolutely stunning Civil War-era white (with blue trim) U.S. Navy cracker jack uniform. Constructed from linen, these white uniforms were hard pressed to survive the rigors of shipboard use, let alone 1.5 centuries. Examples such as these are extremely rare and carry considerable price tags.

Since I’ve been collecting, I have seen a handful of late nineteenth century Navy uniforms listed at auction. While most of them are blue wool, I have seen a smattering of dress whites.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the Navy expanded its fleet and global reach requiring increase of manning. That expansion means that collectors today have greater opportunity (and to pay lower prices) to locate period examples. These later uniforms were constructed using better materials in order to perform better in the harsh, mechanized and considerably dirty shipboard climate. Blue uniforms were constructed from heavy wool while linen was dropped in favor of cotton-based canvas material for the whites.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

Today’s enlisted dress uniforms while representative of the pre-Civil War origins, they are quite sanitary and less desirable for collectors. Gone is the heavy wool for the dress blues. The dress whites are polyester, also called “certified navy twill” or CNT. One saving grace is that the white Dixie cup hats are virtually unchanged since their introduction, making them nearly non-distinguishable from early examples.

Happy birthday to all of those who served before me and since my time in uniform. Happy birthday to my shipmates and happy birthday to the United States Navy!

See other U.S. Navy Uniform Topics:

 

Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?


Until last week, I have been reluctant with this blog to delve into matters that touch on politics (my first politically-focused article was published yesterday – as of writing this article). The subject of this article has me approaching the line of demarcation (between politics and collecting) and I believe that I was able to keep the content weighted heavily in facts with a slight peppering of opinion interspersed between them as I began to address my concerns regarding the highly controversial decision (that is the central theme of this post) that was announced last week. This blog has a decent following and the stats indicate that a lot of people are searching for information pertaining to Navy ratings and badges (and discovering this site) leaving me soliciting readers to be heard by commenting after you finish reading the post.

With four articles written (see list below) about United States Navy Ratings and Rating Badges, I didn’t see myself delving back into this subject quite so soon. With recently announced changes to the Navy’s enlisted rates and rating structure – a complete overhaul – I am compelled to dive into the subject from my perspectives both as a veteran sailor and a collector.

From the moment that the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Masterchief Petty officer  of the Navy (MCPON) announced that the Navy would be dissolving the 241-year-old tradition of identifying enlisted personnel by their job title (known in the Navy as “rating”), the uproar from veterans, retirees and active duty personnel was instantaneous and deafening. There is no doubt that if you were paying attention to social media on September 29, 2016 you most-likely saw someone lamenting the impending changes and their outrage directed towards the navy leadership for even considering the idea, let alone moving ahead with implementation of a plan to disestablish a tried, true and loved tradition.

Who Cares About 241 Years of Tradition?
Aside from the current leadership, most all sailors care about the preservation of vaunted and successful customs and traditions that set the Navy apart from the other branches of the armed forces. In the earliest days of the naval service, rated sailors have been called by their job titles – specifically, boatswains’ mates (pronounced, “bosun’s” mates) have been so called since 1775. It is a matter of pride to be known by the work that is performed. I remember when I advanced to Operations Specialist, Third Class (“OS3”), it was a matter of pride. No longer was I known as a Seaman and, not just a petty officer, but that I had attained the rating and rate; the culmination of performing my duties; getting qualified on every aspect of my job that was possible, studying and achieving proficiency. This mentality continues and builds as sailors advance through the pay-grades, evolving into an expert that subordinates and seniors alike learn to depend upon. Despite the job title or function, the sailors in each of these ratings own considerable pride in being referred to by their rating. To have that all stripped away and be known only as “petty officer (third, second, first) class” systematically removes sailors’ pride. If I was still serving, instead of being OS1 (Operations Specialist First Class), I would just be “Petty Officer” with an innocuous (hidden) designation; “B440.”

When the Continental Navy began in 1775, there were officers and men and two designated ratings of enlisted men. Once the hostilities ended, Congress agreed that there was no longer a need for a navy, voting to disband it in 1785.

  • Armorer – In use in 1775; established 1797;
  • Boatswain’s Mate – In use in 1775; established 1797

The new nation experienced renewed aggression from England and tensions grew between the United States and France compelling the government to take action, passing the Naval Act of 1794 to build six warships (known as the original “Six Frigates“). By 1797, the Navy began to establish an enlisted rating structure, solidifying the tradition and practice that was in place until last week. In addition to the boatswains mate and armorer, the newly established rates at that time were:

  • Boy
  • Carpenter’s Mate
  • Cockswain (sic)
  • Cook
  • Cooper
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Master-at-Arms
  • Master’s Mate
  • Midshipman
  • Ordinary Seaman
  • Quarter Gunner
  • Sailmaker’s Mate
  • Seaman
  • Steward
  • Yeoman of the Gunroom

As the Navy changed operational procedures and modernized throughout its existence, so did the enlisted rating structure. It wasn’t until 1841 when the Navy established insignia for rated sailors. The design called for an eagle facing left (from the wearer’s perspective) with wings pointed down, while perched on a fouled anchor. It was to be worn half way between the elbow and shoulder on the front of the sleeve. Rated Petty officers in the following wore the badges on their right sleeve:

  • Boatswain’s Mates
  • Gunner’s Mates
  • Carpenter’s Mates
  • Masters at Arms
  • Ship’s Stewards
  • Ship’s Cooks

…while the following petty officers wore the badge on their left uniform sleeve:

  • Quarter Masters
  • Quarter Gunners
  • Captains of the Forecastle
  • Captains of Tops
  • Captains of the Afterguard
  • Armorers, Coopers
  • Ship’s Corporals
  • Captains of the Hold

In the following years (through the Civil War and beyond), the Navy continued to mature the rating badges by adding specialty marks (symbols that represented the sailor’s job). By the mid 1880s, the manufacture of petty officer marks were contracted to private companies, alleviating the need for the petty officers to hand-embroider them. The transition from sail to steam created the need to create new ratings to meet the rapidly changing technological advances. Navigation, communication and gunnery improved and sailors specialize creating new specialties. The Navy adapted and so did the sailors as they took pride in their jobs and uniforms.

For another century and a half, sailors have not only identified themselves by the mark on their sleeve during their careers, their passion and loyalty towards their rating continues throughout their lives. Though veterans of other branches might hold their specialty in high regard long after their service, it doesn’t compare to that of the Navy veteran. One glance at any veteran-memorabilia catalog reveals what sailors demand – t-shirts, polo shirts, ball caps, vehicle decals and challenge coins emblazoned with rating insignia.

his rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a "B440." The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

This rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a “B440.” The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

When the CNO and MCPON unceremoniously pulled the plug on the enlisted classification system, there were in excess of 90 active ratings in use. Since the ratings were officially established in 1797, more than 700 have been used.  As a collector, I wonder what changes are forthcoming that will have impacts on the items that I am interested. As Mark D. Faram and Sam Fellman of the Navy Times noted, “the moves leaves the enlisted force’s foremost symbols as the petty officer crow and the chief petty officer anchors.” The writers continue, “It remains unclear what will happen to the ratings badges that feature iconic rating insignia that officials are considering changing. An engineman’s gear. An information systems technician’s sparks. These images were beloved by many and inspired countless tattoos.” Apparently, we have to wait and see what will become of our unique (to our branch of the armed forces) sleeve insignia. Will the Navy remove the distinguishing/specialty marks that currently reside between the eagle and chevrons? Since the goal is to make the enlisted structure more in line with the Army, Air Force and Marines (see: Hello, Seaman: Navy Ditches Ratings After Review – Military Times, 9/29/2016), would they simply reduce our insignia to just chevrons, also eliminating the eagle?

For those who collect rating badges and insignia, the discontinued use of them on enlisted uniforms could spark a sudden boost in interest spurring on an increase in demand while driving up prices. At present, collectors have predominately focused their interest in rating badges that predate the current eagle design (often disparagingly referred to as a “sick parrot”) – prior to the design change in the late 1980s. The earlier “crow” designs incorporate an more aggressive and menacing perched eagle and finer details in the embroidery (see: Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII). Another factor that garners collectors’ interest is that many of the distinguishing/specialty marks have been long since disestablished or superseded.  Collectors will be watching for any indication of changes (increased interest, more online auction bidders, etc.) in the market. It may be premature to say that the market appears to not be impacted by last week’s announcement. If the rating badges are altogether eliminated, I suspect that there will be a spate of new collectors influencing prices but it will eventually settle down shortly after. Time will tell.

What is Wrong With The New System?
Many people are wondering why are sailors so adamantly opposed to the new system that is being implemented. Why is there such a visceral and negative response to the impending changes? What began in January, 2016 as a directive by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Maybus to evaluate all of the ratings in order to “ensure they were representative of all sailors and did not discriminate based on gender,” evolved in the elimination of every rating. Rather than to work within the ratings, addressing the directive and fighting to uphold tradition, the MCPON took the easy way out, flippantly recommending (to the SecNav) that simply demolishing the ratings all together “could be be done tomorrow.”

“Make no mistake about it,” MCPON Stevens recalled telling (SecNav) Mabus, “this course of action will be the most labor-intensive, probably the most expensive, certainly the most controversial as well as difficult to accept socially throughout the Navy.”

Stevens had previously presented four scenarios to Maybus that were workable solutions to the directive (removing “man” from 21 specific ratings) before proposing the one that would strike the biggest blow to enlisted morale and to the American taxpayers. Maybus would have the final decision and, according to Stevens, Mabus “sat there a little bit, pondered it, asked a few questions and then decided, in the best interest of the Navy’s future, this was the path he wanted to take.” With that, Navy leadership unceremoniously rendered sailors to be nothing more than generic enlisted people that will no longer be as specialized as they are today.

Rather than focus on the most pressing needs of the navy (preparedness and readiness), the navy instead has shifted gears to be more focused on social issues. This shift in focus has already begun to produce negative results on mission-readiness:

  • Fourth breakdown in US Navy littoral combat ship – “…the Coronado’s incident (suffering an ‘engineering casualty’) means four of the six littoral combat ships in service have suffered mechanical failures in the past nine months.
  • The New $3B USS Zumwalt Is a Stealthy Oddity That May Already Be a Relic – “On the DDG-1000 [Zumwalt-class], with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over…”
  • Why More (Navy) Commanding Officers are Getting Fired (due to misconduct) – “…the presence of the opposite sex has led to an exploding rate of fraternization, at every level. Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken — they stick.”

There are countless instances of sailors dealing with the effects of extended deployments (due to the reduction of the number of combat-ready vessels and aircraft yet an increased demand), reduced morale, radical changes to command structure, and de-funding of maintenance budgets for active ships – all of this is contributing to a naval force that is wholly unprepared to meet any emergent needs that should arise.  Further diminishing morale by removing the enlisted rating system will only serve to continue the downward spiral that could take decades to end.

Contradiction and Irony
The eight-month long effort (January through September) to address Secretary Maybus’ directive to be sensitive to the ever-increasing list of federally recognized genders by removing “man” from rating titles is, at the outset, a failure. Though the leadership did succeed in eradicating the negative connotation from 21 ratings, they doubled-down on “man” for all sailors in pay-grades E-1 to E-3, referring to them all as “seaman,” leaving bluejackets to wonder what was Maybus’ underlying motivation.

 

Previous Articles about Collecting Navy Ratings and Badges:

References:

California Congressman Demonizes Collectors with Introduction of a Bill


The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved.

The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved with the recipient’s name and rank.

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.

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans' photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths in order to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans’ photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

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.

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