Monthly Archives: March 2017
Most people who know me would agree with the statement that I take pleasure in the obscurity and oddities in life. If there is any sort military or historic significance, my interest is only fueled further.
Militaria collectors have heard the same story told countless times by baffled and befuddled surviving family members – the lost history of an object that (obviously) held such considerable personal significance that a veteran would be compelled to keep the item in their inventory for decades. For one of my veteran relatives, that same story has played out with an item that was in among the decorations, insignia and other personal militaria, preserved for fifty-plus years.
When I received the box of items, I quickly inventoried each ribbon, uniform button, hat device and accouterments that dated from his World War I service through the Korean War. The one item that caught me by surprise was a long, slender lead projectile with a mushed tip.
It was clear that this blackened item was a small arms projectile. Based on size comparison with 9mm and 7.62 rounds, it was more along the lines of the latter, but it was clearly not a modern AK/SKS (or other Soviet-derivative). Perhaps it was a 7mm or smaller round? Without any means to accurately measure the bullet, I cannot accurately determine the bore-size or caliber. I’ll have to leave that for another day.
Further examination of the object proved to me that it was bullet that had been fired and had struck its target, causing the tip to blunt. While I am not a ballistics expert, I have seen the markings that firing makes on a bullet. This round clearly has striations that lead me to believe that it has traveled the length of a rifled barrel. It also possesses a crimping imprint, almost at the halfway-point on the projectile.
So what does all this information mean? Why did my uncle hang on to it for all those years? Had this been a bullet that struck him on the battlefield? Had it been a near miss?
My uncle passed away 20 years ago and the story surrounding the bullet sadly died with him. Since he bothered to keep it, so will I along with other pieces in a display that honors several of my family members’ service.
For the most part, militaria collectors enjoy anonymity and prefer to keep their collections private, sharing them with a scant few trustworthy people. Those whose collections include ultra-rare pieces tend to avoid the public exposure for good reason.
As someone with a passion for history, specifically United States military history, I enjoy viewing the work of other collectors and soak up the details of each piece they are willing to share with me. It brings me absolute joy to hold an item that is tied to a notable person or a monumental event as I try to picture the setting from where the piece was used. I often wonder how many times the piece has changed hands over the course of its existence. Not wanting to pry or press the collectors, I seldom inquire as to how they came to own the piece.
Some of you may wonder why a collector might choose to keep his work out of the public eye.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this area of collecting is the very personal nature of a vast number of pieces – meaning that items such as medals or decorations might be engraved or inscribed with a veteran’s name. While this personalization benefits the collector in that they have a means to research the item when tracing its “lineage” back to the original owner, it can also be a detriment.
I have witnessed situations where a collector posted a named piece on the web only to be contacted by a person claiming to be the next of kin of the original owner, while telling a sad (and sometimes convincing) story of how the items were sold or taken without their knowledge. Or worse yet, the original owner, perhaps suffering from age-related mental issues, let the items go during a lapse in judgement, depriving the child the ability to preserve the items. Demands, sometimes accompanied by threats of legal action, are subsequently directed toward the collector in an effort to acquire the pieces. There is no rock-solid way for the collector to validate the claims.
In some instances, I have seen collectors happily repatriating militaria objects back to family members once the ownership claims have been substantiated. A few of those collectors, having made significant investments into acquiring the pieces, went as far as to gift the items to the family without seeking any sort of compensation.
As I turned on my computer today to check the news and catch up on emails, I noticed a developing story surrounding a prominent militaria collector whose collection I touched on a few weeks ago. It seems that a San Antonio man has filed a lawsuit against musician Phil Collins, seeking financial damages due to an alleged theft of Alamo relics from the trunk of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The suit names Collins as one of four defendants, who ultimately acquired the pieces from a San Antonio militaria dealer (also named as a defendant).
- Musician at center of Alamo discord
- Local collector Don Ray Jank files lawsuit naming Phil Collins, others
- Phil Collins’ Alamo Book ‘Rock Solid,’ McMurry Professor Says
I won’t delve into the nature or details of the suit, but there is some history of the collector making accusations toward the dealer in the past, and this could be perceived as a personal conflict between the plaintiff and the dealer, but without having much knowledge of the case, I will not speculate as to who did what to whom as that is a matter for the courts to decide. What I do find fascinating is that the plaintiff is not seeking the return of his alleged “stolen” relics.
The Collins case underscores yet another pitfall of making one’s collection available for public review. Aside from opening the door for questions as to the authenticity of some of his pieces, this collector has exposed himself to challenges from anyone who might choose to make an ownership claim against him.
When confronted by a henchman in a scene from the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) notices the fancy blade-wielding skills of his opponent. Unimpressed by the acrobatics and the fancy blade-twirling bad-guy, Indy retrieves his revolver from his holster firing a single, well-placed shot, dropping the adversary nonchalantly.
I don’t profess to have knowledge of the type of sword wielded by unimportant character in that film nor do I have expert knowledge in the field of military edged weaponry. What I do have in my scabbard is the ability to use the research tools at my disposal – which comes in quite handy when given an arsenal of knives, swords, bayonets and bolo knives.
A few years ago, I was asked to catalog and obtain value estimates of some militaria pieces that were part of a family member’s collection. He had passed away some time before and his executor was carrying out the responsibilities of handling the estate. In the previous years, I had only seen a few items from the collection so I was surprised when I saw what was there for me to review. After completing my work on behalf of the state, I later learned that I was to receive some of the pieces that I had appraised, much to my surprise.
Of the blades I had inherited, three were quite unique, different from the rest of the pieces. Two of the three blades were almost identical in form and the other was a slight departure from the others. What set these blades apart from the rest was machete-like design with more size toward the end of the blade, giving the blade a bit of weight toward the end of the blade rather than at the center or toward the hilt. The design of these blades were fashioned after the weapon of choice of the Filipino resistance fighters from the revolt that started at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898.
Known simply as bolo knives, the U.S. military-issue blades were less weapon and more utilitarian in function.
Now in my collection, the oldest of the three knives is the M1904 Hospital Corps Knife. Though many people suspect that the broad and heavy blade was important to facilitate field amputations, this thought is merely lore. Along with the knife is a bulky, leather-clad scabbard with a heavy brass swiveling brass belt hanger. My particular example is stamped with the date, “1914” which is much later in the production run. The M1904 knives were issued to field medical soldiers as the United States entered World War I in 1917.
The second knife is less bolo and more machete in its design. The M1910 bolo was designed and implemented for use as a brush-clearing tool. Some collectors reference the M1910 as a machine-gunner’s bolo as it was employed by the gun crews and used to clear machine gun nests of foliage and underbrush. My M1910 bolo is date-stamped 1917 and includes the correct leather-tipped, canvas-covered wooden scabbard.
The last bolo in my collection is probably the most sought-after of the three examples. Stamped U.S.M.C. directly on the blade, these knives were issued to U.S. Navy pharmacist’s mates who were attached to U.S. Marine Corps units. This detail leads many collectors to improperly conclude that the markings on the blade clearly indicate that the knives were made for the Marines. While this is indirectly true, the U.S.M.C. markings represent the United States Medical Corps, a branch of the U.S. Navy. On the reverse side, the blade is date-stamped, “1944” making the blade clearly a World War II-issued knife.
Although the blades are relatively inexpensive, they are considerably valuable to me as they come from a family member’s collection and were handed down to me. Though I do not have a desire to delve too far into edged weapons-collecting, I added to my collection by acquiring a pair of US Navy fighting knives to round out my collection. In future posts, I will cover these two types of knives, swords and sabers and even a few bayonets.
A question was recently posed by militaria collector from the UK asking how Americans feel “about important artifacts which are part of US cultural history being in the private collection of a British musician.” The question was in direct response to a March 2012 publication of a 416 page volume, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, that details musician Phil Collins’ extensive collection of historic artifacts directly related to the 1836 battle at the Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio, Texas, simply known as the Alamo.
Like many American kids of the post-World War II generation, I’ve always related the Alamo to Hollywood-produced entertainment such as Disney’s Davy Crockett (1954-55) and The Alamo(1960), glamorizing the historical characters such as David “Davy” Crockett (played by Fess Parker or John Wayne) and James “Jim” Bowie (Kenneth Tobey or Richard Widmark) and their legendary fight with Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. Glorified in these portrayals are the manner in which each of the two main characters fought and ultimately died alongside their comrades. American youth would be inspired to don faux coonskin caps and buckskin outfits as they act out the scenes.
Singer, songwriter and drummer Phil Collins (of rock band Genesis) was one of those kids growing up watching the onscreen portrayals of Davy Crockett. Fascinated by the Alamo and the siege and battle that took place there in February and March of 1836, Collins was drawn to collecting militaria when he discovered a Crockett autograph for sale while on tour with Genesis, “I didn’t know this stuff was out there, that you could own it,” he noted. Phil had been bitten by the militaria collecting bug and the resulting, spectacular Alamo-specific collection that he spent decades assembling is unequaled.
In March of 2012, Collins diverted from his musical creativity and ventured into writing about his militaria passion. He published his first book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey which is packed with hundreds of pages of beautiful photography and illustrations documenting the depth and breadth of his collection. Though his book is listed for $120, it can be found for less than $40.
Regarding the question that was posed at the beginning of this post, my response is that there exist monuments, buildings, graves and other large, tangible items and places to view and visit that are related to this historic, tragic event in our history. The individual artifacts such as in the collection of Mr. Collins have been in private collections and out of view of the general public all along. There are probably thousands of individual pieces remaining in private collections that are or can be connected to this event and are still unviewable by the general public.
I see what Phil Collins has done in publishing his book as an act of sharing treasures that have never previously been made available to the public. While the book has (for me, at least) a considerable price tag, I still see this work as a gift to fans of history. Through his efforts, we get to have something tangible that provides us with a look at a slew of items that probably wouldn’t have been assembled together without Phil’s decades of effort.
I applaud his interest in American history, militaria collecting, the Alamo collection and his work on this book.
Since the early twentieth century, all of the branches armed forces of the United States have been bolstered by service men and women who are highly skilled, reaching the pinnacle of their specialized area of expertise. From aviators, to paratroopers, to submarine crew members and combat infantrymen, all are easily recognizable by the devices and pins affixed to their uniforms.
Since the advent of military flight and the employment of aviators in war-fighting aircraft, leadership within the ranks realized that there was a need to provide a uniform accouterments to set these special and unique servicemen apart from the rest of those in uniform.
During World War I, the Air Service (U.S. Army) began issuing qualified pilots a winged pin device to attach to the left breast of their uniform blouse. The device was constructed in silver-colored metal (mostly silver or sterling silver or embroidered in silver bullion thread) with two ornately feathered bird wings attached to either side of a shield, which had 13 stars in a field over 13 stripes. Superimposed over the shield were the letters, “U.S.” This wing design would remain in use throughout the Great War.
During the interwar period (1919-1941), the U.S. Army Air Corps wings were more standardized, dropping the U.S. lettering and simplifying the design. The shape of the shield became more standardized though it would vary depending upon the manufacturer. The Air Corps also began introducing varying degrees of the pins that signified the experience of the aviator. In addition to the existing pilot badge, the senior pilot (which added a five-point star above the shield) and command pilot (with a five-point star inside a wreath) badges were issued.
- World War II Army Pilot Wing Variants
- World War II Army Senior Pilot Wing Variants
- World War II Army Command Pilot Wing Variants
The new naval aviation service also adopted a wing device for their aviators that incorporated a similar design (bird wings attached to a shield with stars and stripes) but with an anchor, arranged vertically, extending from behind the shield with the ring and stock above and the crown and flukes below. Most of these early wings were constructed in a gold metal (sometimes actual gold) or embroidered using gold bullion thread. The navy wings of gold remain virtually unchanged to present day, with variations occurring between various manufacturers.
With a little effort, new collectors can quickly educate themselves as to the nuances of the (World War II to present) coveted, yet relatively affordable, wings. Many of the naval (which include USMC flyers) and air corps/forces wings from WWII can be had for prices ranging from $50-$100 depending on the scarcity or abundance of the variant.
Due to the incredible desirability and rarity of wings (i.e. extremely high dollar values) from the first World War, these pieces are some of the most copied and faked militaria items. Some of the examples are so well-made (in some cases, by skilled jewelers) that expert collectors have difficulty discerning them from the genuine artifacts. The best advice before acquiring a WWI piece is to consult an expert. Also, be sure that the seller is reputable and will offer a full refund if the item is determined to be a fake.