Monthly Archives: February 2017
Provenance and Research Matters: WWII USAAF Aviator’s Cap
I doubt there are many collectors who have NOT experienced the current run that I’ve been on, though I certainly feel alone in this rut.
Over the past several months, I have been seeing some amazing online auction listings of seldom-seen militaria pieces. It seems that with each week that passes, an item gets listed that falls into one of my many robot-searches, alerting me to investigate and research the piece. After the necessary due diligence, I am reeled-in and decide what I can afford and get set to place my highest bid (yes, I use a sniping program). After a few days of waiting, I receive the dreaded notice that I had been outbid milliseconds after mine was placed.
Aside from the disappointment of being outbid, the other all-too-familiar letdown that I have been experiencing is the discovery of pieces that would fit perfectly into my collection but the price never seems to align well with my budget. Illustrating this point was when a stunning World War II-vintage aviator’s ball cap, complete with hand-painted squadron artwork was listed at auction.
When I first laid eyes on the khaki ball cap, I was immediately captivated by the hand painted checkerboard pattern surrounding the squadron insignia. Though the design was monochromatic, the design appeared amazingly crisp overlaying the painted-yellow background. My interests lie predominantly with naval history so my expertise is lacking with regards to knowledge of Air Corps squadrons. The “437th inscribed within the insignia was very difficult to research with investigative results being sketchy at that time. Since then, I was able to research further that the hat could most likely have come from an airman who served with the 437th Fighter Squadron (of the 414th Fighter Group) that flew P-47 Thunderbolts in protection of B-29s in the Pacific Theater (in the 20th Air Force).
With no experience in these caps, I had no idea of the range of value for this cap. The one thing that put me off a bit was the initial bid price of $750. On one hand, it seemed to fit my perception of value, but without ironclad provenance (it had none) or any way to confirm the squadron identity, the price started to seem quite high. Too many questions coupled with the lack of sound seller-history, I couldn’t begin to ponder placing a bid even at half the asking price.
Since I first saw the cap, the seller has (unsuccessfully) listed the cap for auction a second time with a lower price. With being listed twice and not a single bid, one could infer that the cap isn’t worth the risk. But something in me keeps me guessing and wondering.
Perhaps I’ll just wait for the next amazing listing to pass on (or be passed on).
WWI Aero Trophies: Aviation Artifacts of Aero-Warriors
Archaeologists could agree that in some form or fashion, militaria collecting has been around seemingly since men have gone to war. Though the concept may not have been seen as collecting, at a base level, man has maintained combat-related artifacts to remind him of battles won or brothers-in-arms that were lost. Not only has man sought to remember his warring past, he has long maintained the spoils of war by removing specific items of his vanquished opponent’s body as it laid on the field of battle.
When some of the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were opened and the contents were inspected and cataloged, among the gilded, religious and life-story items were weapons of war. Free from the worries and troubles of earth, anthropologists and Egyptologists surmised that the military pieces were objects that heralded the deceased king’s victories. Within the tomb of the most widely known pharaoh, King Tutankhamen (or “Tut”), among several depictions of him in combat, was his beautifully ornate chariot that would, more than likely, have been used in battle as documented throughout his burial treasure.
With the advancement of technology came the modern version of the chariot during World War I, the airplane. The warrior who battled from the seat of these modern machines, though differently equipped, had much in common with the brave Egyptian warriors of ancient times as they bravely piloted their flying machines into the center of the fray. In the quiet of the battle’s aftermath, these warriors would, if possible, descend from their winged chariots to survey their opponent’s wreckage, tearing or cutting strategic pieces of the fabric that contained specific identifying marks that helped to tell their story to both their squadron mates and to their leaders, providing quantifiable evidence of their success.
In many cases, these aerial opponents would extend honors that were reserved for their own fallen heroes, to their vanquished enemies. When Manfred von Richthofen, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Army Air Service) was killed when his Fokker Dr1 was downed, members of the Royal Air Force took custody of his remains. To a casual observer viewing his funeral service, it would have appeared that a renowned British war hero was being laid to rest by the varying honors being rendered to this fallen adversary. However, the preservation of his aircraft was overlooked as souvenir hunters quickly rendered the nearly undamaged plane a shamble as they haphazardly dismantled it.
Bestowing honor upon fallen adversaries was practice by the Allies’ opponents, the Germans. Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former president and colonel (from the Spanish-American War’s Rough Riders), was an aviator in the 95th Aero Squadron, flying pursuit aircraft such as the French-made Nieuport 28. After he was shot down during an engagement, his flight of twelve was jumped by seven German fighter planes. Roosevelt received two fatal bullet wounds to his head and his aircraft rolled over and spiraled to the ground. His subsequent funeral service was witnessed by a fellow American soldier, Captain James E. Gee (110th Infantry) who had earlier been taken prisoner:
“In a hollow square about the open grave were assembled approximately one thousand German soldiers, standing stiffly in regular lines. They were dressed in field gray uniforms, wore steel helmets, and carried rifles. Near the grave was a smashed plane, and beside it was a small group of officers, one of whom was speaking to the men. I did not pass close enough to hear what he was saying; we were prisoners and did have the privilege of lingering, even for such an occasion as this. At the time, I did not know who was being buried, but the guards informed me later. The funeral certainly was elaborate. I was told afterward by Germans that they paid Lieutenant Roosevelt such honor not only because he was a gallant aviator, who died fighting bravely against odds, but because he was the son of Colonel Roosevelt whom they esteemed as one of the greatest Americans.”
Collecting aviation artifacts from WWI is becoming increasingly difficult as nearly a century has elapsed since the armistice was signed. The soft materials that made up the uniforms and accouterments are under continuous attack from the ravages of time and every manner of decay brought on by insects and ultraviolet exposure. Museums in the last few decades have done amazing work at acquiring the best examples of surviving armament and other hardware to provide their audiences with incredible displays and depictions of the Great War. When the rarest pieces arrive in the marketplace, the heavy competition ensues driving the prices skyward.
In an older episode of the History Channel’s Pawn Stars (the “Stick to Your Guns” episode), a woman enters the shop with a rolled-up section of old fabric emblazoned with a hand-painted representation of an American flag. She tells the story of her American serviceman relative darting over to a recently wrecked plane to cut out the flag, saving it from the ensuing fire resulting from the crash.
In providing the requested provenance, she presents a pair of World War I dog tags. One of the tags shows the information for her ancestor while the other contains the personal identification of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. The Pawn Stars segment could easily lead viewers to draw the conclusion that the flag was removed from Roosevelt’s wreckage but that would be a considerable leap based upon the story of the retrieval and the burning aircraft. It would have been difficult for American to do so, considering that Roosevelt crashed behind enemy lines.
Ultimately, the Pawn Stars folks purchased the flag (the price was well into four figures) despite the lack of connection to Roosevelt. In my opinion, they probably overpaid for the piece but considering that it was destined for Gold & Silver Pawn Shop owner Rick Harrison’s personal collection, it wasn’t too much of a reach.
Forecasting Patchy Skies: Sew-on Naval Aviation Heraldry
Since I began this blog, I’ve covered various aspects of military-patch collecting. From shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) to rank and rating badges, this area of collecting has something for every level of collecting, from the beginner with a scant budget to the experienced one who collects each and every obscure variation of his or her favorites.
One of my personal favorites in collecting patches, even though the size of my collection disagrees, is naval aviation squadrons (including the U.S. Marine Corps) due to the colorful (pun intended) embellishments and symbolism representing each squadron. These patches represent a lengthy history in heraldry and the history of navy flight dating back almost to its very beginning.
The tradition and history of these patches and insignia is acknowledged by U.S. Navy leadership in the Chief of Naval Operations Instructions (OPNAVINST) 5030.4G, as it states:
“The practice fosters a sense of pride, unit cohesion and contributes to high morale, esprit de corps and professionalism within the Naval Aviation community. It also serves as an effective means of preserving a command’s tradition, continuity of purpose and recognition, as traced through its lineage.”
As early as the 1920s, United States naval aviators have employed visual graphics and heraldry complete with symbolism and characterizations of traits, behaviors and/or projections of the personality of their individual squadron commands. Often portraying ferocity or satire, these emblems would be displayed within the confines of the squadron office or the personnel’s common areas to encourage unity within the ranks.
Aviation units are quite diverse across four distinct areas: attack, fighter, patrol and helicopter squadrons. Within these areas are a myriad of functional (active) and decommissioned squadrons with a host of designs. Depending upon the length and breadth of an individual squadron’s service, there could exist dozens of designs and subsequent patch variations. As noted noted within these documents, squadron service history and lineage is incredibly detailed and expansive (histories for fighter and helicopter squadrons are in the works):
As a result of the diversity across the lineages, patch collectors can specialize in very specific areas (such as collecting all Vietnam-era fighter squadrons) or focus on a central design aspect (i.e. any squadron that incorporates an eagle into their design). For me, I look for those squadrons that I had direct contact with during my naval deployments, which include attack, fighter and helicopter squadrons, in the 1980s.
*See related posts:
Finding the “Lady Lex,” One Piece at a Time
A few weeks ago, our nation honored the 75th anniversary of the sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. In the past few years, we have marked significant anniversaries of victories from WWII, the War of 1812 and this year we will begin recognizing the centennial of the U.S.entrance into the Great War. For collectors, these occasions spur us to evaluate our own collections while attempting to be discerning of sellers’ listings who are also trying to capitalize on the sudden interest.
In May of this year, 75 years will have elapsed since the first significant clash between the opposing naval forces of Japan and the United States in the Coral Sea. Leading up to this battle, the Navy had suffered losses in The Philippines, Wake Island and Guam followed by the sinking of the USS Houston (in the battle of Sunda Strait) all of which were leaving the U.S. extremely vulnerable and nearly incapable of mounting a naval offensive.
Beginning with a joint effort between the US Army Air Force and the US Navy, the fight was taken to the Japanese home front with an B-25 air strike launched from the USS Hornet. But the direction of the war was seriously in doubt and Navy brass knew that inevitably, a direct naval engagement with the Japanese fleet were very near on the horizon.
Navy code-breakers had discovered the Imperial Japanese forces intended on taking Port Moresby in New Guinea and quickly dispatched Task Forces (TF) 11 and 17 to join up with TF 44 near the Solomon Islands and proceed West toward the Coral Sea. Over the course of May 3rd through 8th, the ensuing engagements between US and IJN forces resulted in substantial losses for both sides, including a carrier from each navy.
For the U.S. Navy, that carrier was the USS Lexington, CV-2. Though not the first purpose-built aircraft carrier (that distinction goes to the USS Ranger CV-4), Lexington was the first to be originally commissioned as a flat top. The Langley (CV-1) had a previous life as a collier, the USS Jupiter, for seven years from 1913 to 1920. The “Lady Lex”, as she would come to be known, laid down as a battle cruiser but was reconfigured during construction and was commissioned in 1927 as the US Navy’s second carrier, CV-2.
The result of the Coral Sea Battle was that the Navy was left with just two operational carrier: Hornet and Enterprise, as the Yorktown also suffered substantial damage in the battle requiring repairs. Less than a month later, the tables would be turned on Japan with the major American victory at Midway.
The loss was not only felt by her crew and navy strategists, but also by communities, such as Tacoma, Washington. For 31 days during winter drought conditions, the Lexington was sent to aid the city’s citizens by generating power ’round the clock, helping to keep their homes lit and warm. Many of those beneficiaries of the electrical power assistance were devastated by the news of her loss.
Today, few artifacts remain from the Lady Lex. Militaria collectors would be hard-pressed to obtain anything specific to the ship, instead having to settle for obtaining USS Lexington veterans’ personal effects or uniform items, surviving ephemera, philatelics, or vintage photographs. For many naval collectors, the hunt for anything from this historic ship can very rewarding. Some artifacts can be found by happenstance as was the case with this Curtiss SB2C Hell Diver, recently pulled from the Lower Otay Reservoir near San Diego, discovered by a fisherman who observed the plane’s outline on his fish-finder.
Armed with patience and time, collectors could assemble a nice group of artifacts to pay proper respect to the Lady Lex and the men who served aboard this historic ship.
UPDATE March 5, 2018: Paul Allen’s Undersea Exploration team that has been searching and discovering the wrecks of the Pacific War, finding such infamous sunken vessels as the USS Indianapolis and the lost ships from the Battle of Savo Island (USS Vincennes, Astoria and HMAS Canberra), announced today that they have located and filmed the wreck of the USS Lexington (CV-2) at the bottom of the Coral Sea in nearly two-miles of depth.