Monthly Archives: September 2017

Interested in European Military Headgear?


One of the most exciting aspects of militaria collecting for me is when I can locate an item that can be connected to one of my family members’ military service. To date, I have predominantly made those connections with my ancestors who served in the United States Armed Forces.  However, when I started searching for relevant militaria pieces (that would be relevant to my Canadian or British veteran ancestors), I discovered that if I had deep enough pockets, there would have been an opportunity to obtain something that could be associated with my 4th great-grandfather who served with the legendary 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch.

With the research that I’ve conducted during the last several years, I’ve been focusing on those of my ancestors with military service. I’ve been following each branch of the tree, tracing back through each generation, some of which first reached the colonial shores in the late 1600s from Western Europe. Without boring you with the details, I have been successful in locating ancestors who served and fought in almost every war since the establishment of the colonies, including the French and Indian War.

As a veteran of the US Navy, my interest has been centered on those of my ancestors who wore the uniform of the United States. What I didn’t count on was finding veterans who fought for what my American ancestors would have called “the enemy.” One ancestor in particular was a member of one of the elite British units (which is still in existence) and fought against the forces of the US during the War of 1812. I discovered that still another of my American ancestors was taken prisoner by the British and actually met the enemy ancestor (I know, this sounds confusing).

During one of my subsequent militaria searches, I discovered an online auction house that had a listing for foreign military headgear that were some of the most beautifully pristine pieces I have ever seen. Not being educated in foreign militaria, I was caught up in the aesthetic aspects of each piece while I was almost completely ignorant as to authenticity, time period of use, or even the military history of the piece. But one lot in particular caught my attention.

This feather bonnet and glengarry cap of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot is in pristine condition. It, along with dozens of other foreign military headgear pieces will be available at auction in early September (source: Rock Island Auction Company).

Prominently displayed as part of the group was an Officer’s Feather Bonnet and Glengarry Cap that was from 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, The Black Watch, the unit which dates back to the early 18th century. Both headpieces featured ornate badges with the unit number prominently emblazoned at the center of the design. The condition of the hats were so spectacular that they appeared to be recent manufacture, however the quality of the items spoke to their age.

As I read the auction description, disappointment soon set in as I learned that the cap dated to 1885 and the bonnet was from the turn of the 20th century, probably from 1900. Any disappointment that I may have felt in learning of the relative recency of the pieces was assuaged by the reality that the lot probably sold for a price that is unrealistic for my budget (I didn’t bother following it through the auction close). It is okay to dream every once in a while, isn’t it?

Before I can start investing in anything from the 18th and 19th centuries, I need to spend a lot of time and resources solidifying my research on my ancestors.

I also need to start playing the lottery.

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The Obscure War – Collecting the War of 1812


One of my hobbies – truth be told,  it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.

This banner depicts Commodore Perry in a long boat with enlisted sailors. Banner was produced as part of the Centennial celebration of the War of 1812 (source: Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command).

Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.

Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1  (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.

During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.

My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?

By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.

One of the pistols used by William Henry Harrison during his service in the War of 1812.

While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).

To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.

I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.

History Must be Preserved; Militaria, Monuments and Memorials


I am struggling against the dark and heated current that is sadly sweeping across our society and this nation. I do not want to engage in any sort of political discussion or debate with people due to the direction that having such conversations will invariably be taken. Divisiveness is a tool that is employed to cause strife and to cause implosion among a people. When did we become so angry that we have such disregard for our fellow humans? It seems that thought is no longer engaged prior to speaking or writing a response to another human being.  Every word uttered or written by anyone is dissected and and examined through an opaque and colored magnifying glass that obscures all of the exquisite elements of the author. Instead of seeing a fellow human being who is in possession of equal ability, intellect and faculties, people are being dismissed for holding a thought, skin color, gender, belief, social background life-experience or any other element of diversity and promptly labeled as they are shouted down. Yes, I am truly struggling.

This is a blog about militaria collecting which is for me, a vehicle for sharing researched history for the purpose of its preservation. I prefer to learn from history rather than to ignore and dismiss it as irrelevant. I have been fascinated by historical elements and how they shaped our society. I recognize that the history of mankind is wrought with darkness and shameful incidents, horrible atrocities and events that cannot be excused nor ignored. It seems that today, our society is spending most of its effort and energy focusing on the negative history of one group of humanity while overlooking context, other facts and details that broaden the narratives that would impact (i.e. weaken) the points being put forth. At what point do we stop and see what is right within our communities? Why are we tolerating open hatred and targeting people with violence? I cannot sit idle and not address what is happening.

I am an American first and foremost. I have ancestry that is as diverse as the nation of my birth. I love my country enough to have served her in uniform as did so many of my ancestors dating back to before this country was founded. I am a descendant of people from Western and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East and the Ivory Coast of Africa.  My ancestors arrived here of their own free will in search of religious freedoms as they escaped persecution in their homelands. My ancestors arrived here against their will in the chains of human bondage. Regardless of how my people arrived here, I am proud to be a product of all of these people and choose to honor all of them by being a good husband, father, son and citizen. I will show respect towards my fellow Americans – my neighbors and countrymen. In the preservation of military history, I hope to capture and share the stories of other Americans (not just my forbears) and the sacrifices they made to keep our citizens (Americans and the rest of the world) free from (real) tyranny. In order to identify and remind people what tyranny looks like, the preservation of the artifacts and relics from the nations who embraced it must take place within the confines of the public space, museums, places of learning and within our homes. My wife’s family knows the sting and pain of tyrannical (maniacal) rule all too well being of Eastern European Jewish descent with those who remained in their homeland falling victim to the atrocities of one of the most horrifying tyrants of modern history.

Watching our nation tear itself apart by drawing lines of division by levels of melanin, ancestral heritage or other absolutely uncontrollable circumstances is asinine to say the least. To suggest that any human is incapable of rising up from despair and poverty undermines every God-given talent or characteristic that are inherent within all people and is equally asinine. Blaming anyone or anything for your own choices and decisions is the same as to suggest that individual achievement was not the result of that person’s efforts or drive. True, there are few who have a seemingly easier road to their success but there are others who have inherited incredible wealth and circumstances only to end up destitute. We are products of our own decisions. While each of us has a unique set of circumstances and has faced tremendous obstacles (yes, some have had more than others), what matters most are the decisions we make and the actions that we take for ourselves.

Serving in the uniform of the United States armed forces provides service members with an equal set of rules, standards, policies and laws for which to benefit from. Opportunities are equal for each person within their occupation, rank and duty station. There are also obstacles that stand in their way (I faced several of my own throughout my career) but to suggest that one segment of the population has it better in the service than others is utterly false. I don’t dismiss the individual examples of racism, sexism or other issues that arise. These are individual examples and not the norm. Myopia drives the generalization and subsequent branding that there exists an unequal playing field within the ranks. It is simply not true and in viewing the people who fill the positions of leadership across all branches is contrary to the perverse narratives pushed forth. When I see the segregation of the armed forces that lasted through WWII and the racism that ensued in the years following desegregation, I see how far our military has come and the diverse-yet-unified force that we now have is proof. When I served decades ago, there were no lines of color any more.  I am not foolish enough to believe that racism didn’t exist at that time but it certainly was not apparent.

Admiral Frank Fenno’s Naval Academy baseball medal from 1924.

In my collecting, I strive to tell the entire story (for example, Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece and Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). My love of military (and baseball) history is the culmination of the good that is present within both of these areas of historical focus. Each was once wrongfully segregated and are now shining examples of unified groups of people from diverse backgrounds that have come together for a common and united goal. I take the good with the bad in order to provide balance (good and evil both exist). Telling the full story is why I have chosen to maintain in my collection the Nazi artifacts that were captured by my uncle during his service as an Army Intelligence officer during WWII. It is also why I believe that collectors should still be able to buy and sell these artifacts, despite how offensive the sight of such imagery might be to some people.

This country is a nation of laws that are derived under the guise of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the same). No where within these founding documents is the idea that being offended is illegal. In fact, the First Amendment guarantees the right of freedom of speech which is quite often employed for the purpose of offending certain groups of people. One form of protected speech is the freedom of self-expression that includes art. Many artists enjoy this protection and use it as a means to take shots at groups of people with which they have disdain for (politicians, for example). Being offended is highly subjective and very personal. One person may find a painting of a sunrise to be offensive (this is a real-world example that I have witnessed) while the next person would see the sheer beauty in the artist’s presentation, ability and the visual meaning seen in such a display. How would we craft legislation to protect the one individual from being offended by the painting?

Still Flying: Both the Japanese naval ensign and rising sun flags fly over these JMSDF destroyers. Do the children of WWII veterans killed in POW camps call for the banning of these flags?

In the United States, no laws exist that ban the symbology of those regimes that our military vanquished. Unlike many nations in the European Union, the image of the swastika has not been outlawed despite the fact that beneath that banner, countless millions of people were systematically and brutally murdered (including members of my wife’s family). Similarly, the rising sun of the Empire of Japan also has not been banned (nor has it been eradicated from Japan like the Swastika was from Germany) despite that nation’s mass killings of three to ten million Asian civilians (in China, Korea and the Philippines). In the post-World War II months, service members returned home from the European and Pacific theaters with souvenirs from our fallen enemies, stuffed into their duffel and sea bags. Many of these pieces were emblazoned with the symbols of the tyrannical, murderous regimes. The Japanese Maritime and Ground Defense Forces still fly the flag of the rising sun. Japan flies their symbol throughout the world at their embassies and even during the Olympic games and yet not one protest or cry of racism is offered within our shores. One of my relatives suffered through years of torture within prison camps in the Philippines, languished in a Hell Ship and then spent the remainder of WWII in two different torture camps in Japan after surviving the defense of Corregidor and the Bataan “Death March.” Thousands of allied troops perished from torture, brutal beatings, executions and suffered having their bodies cannibalized before they perished from the excruciating pain.  Despite these war crimes, the Rising Sun of Japan is still proudly flying (yes, I do realize that it is the national symbol and was established in the late 19th century) and as far as I know, there are no bans on the sale of Japanese WWII militaria in EU or the U.S.

A recent Dublin Times news article was published regarding an auction listing of Third Reich militaria in Dublin, Ireland that included imagery of the despised WWII German symbol. A local resident saw the auction and was considerably upset to see the items let alone have the knowledge that they were listed to be sold. While it is understandable that the person who was voicing his objection to the display and sale  as the man’s mother was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of six, she was placed on a train to Treblinka, but escaped. His great-grandparents and great-uncle all died in Auschwitz. This man, born and raised after his mother’s flight to safety and freedom had never seen the historical items in the same context that his family had. The wounds are deep and it is understandable. My wife and I had concerns of a similar reaction when I inherited my uncle’s war souvenirs. Upon their arrival in our home, my wife grew concerned about her grandmother’s feelings regarding the pieces knowing that she still remembered her family that was murdered in Europe. However, when she arrived at our home and my wife spoke about the objects, her first response was, “I’d like to see it all.” After sharing the uniforms, flags, hats, documents, etc. with her, she sensibly commented, “these items didn’t kill my family. People did,” she spoke frankly. “This is just history,” she remarked, swiftly dismissing our concerns. We are all different and react and respond differently to situations and my wife’s grandmother’s response isn’t the measuring-stick for what should and should not be traded or displayed in terms of militaria and history. In that vein, the opinion of the gentleman in Ireland should not dictate the rights of others.

Tearing down and destroying history, regardless of how dark and terrible is no different from what the Third Reich did in the 1930s in these book burning parties.

Watching the events unfolding surrounding the statues of Confederate legends has left me scratching my head as to all the new-found offense. I know that racism is (sadly) alive and seemingly doing better than before (my wife and I have both experienced it throughout our lives) and yet I still cannot fathom how statues factor so centrally in the push against it.

What is next for us? Shall we tear up the Constitution and Bill of Rights because of the authors’ slavery-legacy and that emancipation wasn’t included before ratification?

Rather than contextualize the reasons the statues were erected and what took place in the months and years following the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in terms of reconciliation and reconstruction, our current culture disregards history altogether and raises these inanimate objects as the reasons that racism is still being perpetuated. What people fail to understand is that once we start this pattern of destroying everything that is offensive, there is no stopping. I am left wondering, “who decides what is offensive?” If someone has an opposing perspective or viewpoint, do we remove their rights as citizens and send them to be re-educated? I personally know a few people who were “guests” of the communist Vietnam reeducation camps and have heard about what takes place. Some of my friends who support the removal of statues have also been very outspoken about the Constitution being outdated and no longer valid (due to the author, James Madison, having been a slave owner) leaving me aghast. What will their beliefs be when a person comes to power who they do not agree with after the eradication of our founding document?

True American spirit is shown by those who risk everything to help their fellow countrymen in need. Politics don’t seem to be a factor for either the rescuer or rescuee.

As I watch Hurricane Irma bear down on Florida and find myself worrying and praying for my brothers (military comrades), family and friends who are directly in her path, I await to see how our dividing nation comes together (as they did last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey) to help one another. We are stronger than those who seek to divide us. We are a singular, unified nation.

My apologies to my long-time readers who wasted those last three minutes reading through this post. While some my think that I crossed into the political sphere in this space, I actually strove to avoid politics entirely in order to draw attention to our need to pause for a moment, take a breath and spend time in reflection and educating ourselves about history; all of it. We live in a time where information and knowledge is at our fingertips and so few people bother to delve into more than just a misleading headline, social media post or meme. Please challenge what you hear, see and read. Be the voice of reason in your sphere of influence rather than the one with the jerrycan of petrol in search of a fire.

We can do better. We can come together.

 

 

Showcasing Your Militaria Investment


What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.

Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.

When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.

Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.

Take note of the mannequin’s altered ring finger on the left hand that matches Nimitz’ partial amputation from 1916 (source: Naval Academy Museum).

Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.

The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves.  My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.

Spotlight on private collector militaria displays