Monthly Archives: January 2017
After years of searching for a simple uniform accouterment, I am feeling that the possibilities of completing a uniform recreation are far less than I had hoped. When I began my project in 2009, I figured that locating a fairly standard uniform patch would be a simple venture. As I reviewed the photo, seemingly nothing on my uncle’s uniform was rare or would be difficult to source. At the end of four years, I have learned that I may have to place this project on perpetual hold. Where did I go wrong?
When I received a photo (taken in August of 1952) of my uncle receiving an Army Commendation Medal from a colonel, I knew that I wanted to assemble a uniform jacket with his full military decorations. Around the same time I got the photo, an enormous package arrived from the National Archives which contained a large stack of documents that encapsulated my uncle’s service spanning three wars and nearly 20 years.
Reviewing the service records and the photo, I decided that I wanted to put together a uniform that was representative of what my uncle wore at the conclusion of his service in the army. Considering that my uncle enlisted to serve in World War One, I figured that the greatest challenge I faced was in locating the period-correct ribbons with the appropriate devices: the correct campaign stars. I already possessed a good portion of my uncle’s metal devices (rank, corps insignia) along with several period-correct ribbons and medals which meant that it shouldn’t take long to acquire what was still needed.
In possession of the uniform jacket, I began to take stock of each item before I would begin to sew on any of the patches. From the unit insignia (the GHQ patch) to the all of the various devices, I was ready to go…or so I thought. There, glaring at me like Darren McGavin’s sultry major award, gleaming brightly in the window of the front room from A Christmas Story, I was missing the overseas stripes that would be representative a soldier who served overseas for multiple wars.
One might ask, “What is so significant about this uniform item?” The overseas service bar (or chevron for World War I service) was issued for each block of six months served by a soldier in a combat zone. In the case of my uncle’s uniform, the photo shows that he wore three chevrons and five overseas service bars. With each stripe or chevron representing six months, my uncle served in a combat theater for three chevrons and five bars, or a total four years.
When I embarked on my quest to gather facts and information about my ancestors’ service to this country, I never intended to become a collector of militaria. In acquiring and assembling uniform items for these visual recreations, I found myself the recipient of some odd pieces that would, at the very least, raise some eyebrows. At worst, I could blow myself and my home to pieces (well, not really…read on).
Last week, I posted about inheriting some vintage military edged weapons. Along with the various fighting knives, swords, bolos and bayonets, I was a given the opportunity to take home two objects that were quite different from everything else in my family member’s collection. The two objects had been displayed alongside the wood stove, exposed to considerable long-term heating and cooling for many years. By now, some of you might have realized that I am referring to artillery rounds.
As I’ve stated in previous postings, I am by no means an expert in all things militaria. However, my research skills certainly provide me the means to identify the artillery items. With common sense as my guide, I knew enough that I wanted to ensure that the items were inert – meaning “not live or possessing any explosive capabilities.”
Prior to handling any ordnance it is HIGHLY recommended that collectors have verification of the inert status of the item. There are some good resources online that can provide collectors with guidance prior to making the leap into this highly specialized area of militaria.
- Introduction to Collecting Artillery Shells and Shell Casings
- Collecting Ammunition and Explosive Ordinance
- A Guide to Ammunition Collecting
There are many examples where live ordinance was discovered in homes, brought home as souvenirs of service and left behind, to be discovered by family members or new occupants of the residence. Imagine the horror of the discovery learning that the item was live. This happens quite often as indicated by the countless news articles available online. Here’s a sampling:
Along with brass and other empty shell casings that I managed to save from my time on active duty, these pre-World War One artillery pieces are a nice complement to my collection:
Is there truly such a thing as being too greedy? Can someone be overcome with coveting? I am certain that the pursuit of objects (of my desire) is a pathway that I should try to avoid (or, at the very least, make a concerted effort to avoid), but in some cases, the end result is a boot print in your own derriere after passing on the opportunity to acquire a beautiful piece of militaria.
A few years ago, a relative of mine who was a militaria collector (specifically, Civil War) passed away after a lengthy illness. At the time of his passing, his collection included Spanish-American War rifles, post Civil War belt buckles, and an assortment of edged weapons spanning more than 100 years and representing multiple branches of service.
Knowing that I have a passion for military history and military collectibles, though I am by no means an expert, my family asked for my assistance in identifying certain items and assessing values for the estate. Notebook, pen and Blackberry (with a built-in, crummy low-resolution digital camera) in hand, I made my way over to my relative’s home to begin my work.
Prior to my arrival, all of the militaria pieces had been gathered (piled) into one of the rooms and I was immediately overwhelmed by what was there. Separating the items I could easily identify from those that needed research, I began to document and inventory everything. I knew that because of the assistance I was rendering, I’d have the first opportunity to purchase anything that interested me, should the beneficiary choose to sell.
Diving into the edged weapons, I quickly jotted down the details – M1904 Hospital Corps bolo, M1910 Bolo Machete,M1913 Patton Sabre, WWII USMC Pharmacist’s Mate Bolo, many types of bayonets… the list went on. The two pieces that really caught my attention were very old. One, an M1832 Foot Artillery sword and a Model 1860 Cavalry Trooper’s sword. Both were in pristine condition.
I went home and did my research, comparing the photos I snapped against those of the various online and printed references. Adding up the blades and the corresponding values, I set aside the funds in order to pay for the ones I wanted and submitted the work to the estate. I intentionally left off the two oldest blades as I my budget couldn’t accommodate those high-dollar (for me) purchases.
A few months later, the blades that I was seeking to acquire were delivered to me as a gift. The other pieces that I turned away were sold – for pennies on the dollar – to the estate sales company that was contracted to liquidate the personal property. I was heartbroken. The two blades that I really wanted for my collection were sold at such a low price, I could have easily paid for them even if I was required to buy the blades that I had been given.
Because I chose to collect within my means, someone else benefited and made a killing on these two blades. I will think twice before I make this decision again.
As my family members have passed over the past several years, I have managed to acquire a number of antique photo albums and collections of photos of (or by) my family members that nobody else wanted. Most of the images’ subjects were of family gatherings, portraits or nondescript events and contained a lot of unknown faces of people long since gone. As the only person in the family who “seems to be interested” in this sort of history, I have become the default recipient.
My Hidden Treasure
With all the activities and family functions occurring in my busy life, those albums received a rapid once-over (to see if I could discern any of the faces) and then were shelved to gather dust as they had done with their previous owners. Years later, I began to piece together a narrative of my relatives’ military service (a project you will hear about over the course of my blog posts). I have since returned to those albums only to discover a small treasure of military-related images that are serving to illustrate my narrative project. As an added bonus, they are providing me with an invaluable visual reference as I am reconstructing uniform displays to honor these veterans.
Photographs Can Unlock the Secrets
Similarly, militaria collectors strike gold when they can obtain photo of a veteran in uniform that can help to provide authentication as part of the due diligence for a specific group they are investigating prior to an acquisition. A photo showing the veteran wearing a certain Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI), ribbon configuration or even a specific uniform garment can be authenticated if there are visible traits (such as tears or repairs) within the image.
Photographs from GIs in a wartime theater of operations or in combat are fairly rare. Photography was outlawed by theater commanders (due to the obvious security risks if the film or photographs were captured) and space was at a premium as one had to pack their weapons, ammunition, rations and essential gear. So finding the room to safely carry a camera and film for months at a time was nearly impossible. Similarly, shipboard personnel were not allowed to keep cameras in their personal possessions. Knowing the determination of soldiers, airmen and sailors, rules were meant to be broken and, fortunately for collectors, personal cameras did get used and photos were made while flying under the censors’ radar.
If you have deep pockets and you don’t mind paying a premium for pickers to do the legwork, wartime photo albums can be purchased online (dealers, auction sites) for hundreds of dollars. Many times, this can be a veritable crap-shoot to actually find images that have significant military or historical value and aren’t simply photos of an unnamed soldier partying with pals in a no-name bar in an an unknown location. For militaria collectors at least, there is value in the image details.
As you obtain military-centric photos, take the time to fully examine what can be seen. Don’t get distracted by the principal subject – look for the difficult-to-see details. Purchase a loupe or magnifying glass to enable you discern the traits that can reveal valuable information about when or where the photo was snapped. What unit identifying marks can bee seen on the uniforms? Can you identify anything that would help you to determine the era of the uniforms being worn by the GIs?
My Own Success
In assembling a display for one of my relatives, I wanted to create an example of his World War I uniform because the first of his three wars was quite significant in shaping his character for his lifetime. Having already obtained his service records (which span his entire military career, concluding a few years after the Korean War), a book that was written about his WWI unit (published by a fellow unit member) and my uncle’s photo album which was filled with snapshots of his deployment to France, I figured I would be able create a decent uniform representation.
In the various photo album images, I could see his right sleeve rank insignia as well as the overseas stripes on his left sleeve quite clearly. I could even make out his bronze collar service devices or “collar disks” in the photos (since I had his originals, they weren’t in question), but I had no idea of what unit insignia should go on his left shoulder. Not to be denied, I took the route of investigating his unit and the organizational hierarchy, trying to pinpoint the parent unit to which the 63rd Coastal Artillery Corps was assigned. Having located all of that data, I was still unsure of the SSI for the right shoulder.
Temporarily sidetracked from the uniform project, I returned to the photo album and scanned a few of the images (at the highest possible resolution) for use in my narrative. With one of the photos, I began to pay close attention to the left shoulder as I zoomed in tightly to repair 90 years worth of damage…and there it was! At the extreme magnification, I could clearly see the 1st Army patch (with the artillery bars inside the legs of the “A”) on my uncle’s left shoulder. I had missed it during the previous dozens of times that I viewed the photo.
An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle’s WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.
My research now complete, I obtained the correct vintage patches and affixed them to an un-named vintage WWI uniform jacket along with my uncle’s original ribbons and collar devices (disks) to complete this project. Now I have a fantastic and correct example of my uncle’s WWI uniform to display.