Author Archives: VetCollector
“The future naval officers, who live within these walls, will find in the career of the man whose life we this day celebrate, not merely a subject for admiration and respect, but an object lesson to be taken into their innermost hearts. . . . Every officer . . . should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.” President Roosevelt uttered these words (on April 24, 1906) within the confines of the United States Naval Academy at the re-interment of the of remains of the man who is known today as the father of the US Navy, Captain John Paul Jones.
Framing an artifact with historical context helps me (and hopefully readers of The Veteran’s Collection) to better understand the importance of an object or artifact. Rather than dive straight into an item, I find that setting the stage helps to provide perspective, so please bear with me.
As a militaria collector whose primary interest lies in US Navy artifacts, the idea of possessing anything from the Continental Navy is an aspiration that is almost too lofty to consider. The sheer scarcity of objects precludes ordinary collectors like me from pretense of forays into the Revolutionary-era collecting. Seeking out musket balls and powder horns from the Continental Army is one thing, but the minuscule number of patriot participants in the naval service (in comparison to that of the ground soldiers) equates to an incredibly limited volume of available artifacts for collectors.
Considering my financial position and the reality that just about any piece (that I would contemplate as being worthy of my interest) from the Revolutionary War is well out of my reach helps to keep me focused on artifacts that are both within my area of focus and budget constraints. However, on occasion, I do find myself wandering about through dealers’ internet sites and online auction listings from the 1775-1783 time-frame. Very seldom do I find anything that captures my attention which is something that happened not too long ago.
In school, we learned about the famous exploits of Captain Jones (born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, he added the surname Jones after emigrating to the Virginia Colony in the 1770s) with the notable sea battles between his ships and those of the Royal Navy. His legendary response to the surrender inquiry (“Has your ship struck?”) by the enemy commander of the HMS Serapis (Captain Richard Pearson), “I have not yet begun to fight!” will forever be cited in U.S. Naval lore. But most American school children are not educated on what became of Jones following his war service and his ultimate untimely demise.
Following the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris that brought about peace between Great Britain and the newly established United States, the need for maintaining a navy was lost on (most) congressional members. By 1785, the Continental Navy was disbanded and the last ship (Alliance) was sold off. Jones found himself in Europe (assigned to collect prize money on behalf of Continental Navy privateer sailors) without a command. After a short stint serving Empress Catherine II of Russia as an admiral in the Russian navy (along with some controversial legal troubles), John Paul Jones retired to Paris at the ripe old age of 45 in 1790. Two years later, the great Revolutionary War captain was found dead in his Paris apartment having succumbed to interstitial nephritis.
Jones was buried in the French royal family’s cemetery (Saint Louis Cemetery) with considerable expense to M. Pierre François Simonneau, who was incensed that the American government wouldn’t render the honors due such a national hero at his passing. Simonneau said that if America “would not pay the expense of a public burial for a man who had rendered such signal services to France and America” he would pay (the large sum of 462 Francs) himself.
With the collapse of the Louis XVI’s monarchy soon after Jones’ death and burial, the cemetery was sold and after a few years was largely forgotten. Decades passed and John Paul Jones’ grave was lost to decay and years of neglect.
In 1897, General Horace Porter was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to France by President McKinley. Soon after his arrival in Paris, Porter took personal interest in the pursuit of Jones grave while gathering official and private documents (much of it was conflicting) pertaining to his death and burial.
“After having studied the manner and place of his burial and contemplated the circumstances connected with the strange neglect of his grave, one could not help feeling pained beyond expression and overcome by a sense of profound mortification. Here was presented the spectacle of a hero whose fame once covered two continents and whose name is still an inspiration to a world-famed navy, lying for more than a century in a forgotten grave like an obscure outcast, relegated to oblivion in a squalid corner of a distant foreign city, buried in ground once consecrated, but since desecrated by having been used at times as a garden, with the moldering bodies of the dead fertilizing its market vegetables, by having been covered later by a common dump pile, where dogs and horses had been buried, and the soil was still soaked with polluted waters from undrained laundries; and as a culmination of degradation, by having been occupied by a contractor for removing night-soil.”
After years of research, Porter was confident that he had narrowed down the approximate grave site location. In 1905, excavation work began as archaeologists began digging beneath a building that had been constructed over the cemetery. Upon unearthing a third coffin (they knew that Jones had been buried in a costly lead casket), the men opened it and found a well-preserved body that matched all the details of the man they sought. Porter wrote, “For the purpose of submitting the body to a thorough scientific examination by competent experts for the purpose of complete identification, it was taken quietly at night, on April 8, to the Paris School of Medicine (École de Médecine) and placed in the hands of the well-known professors of anthropology, Doctor Capitan and Doctor G. Papillault and their associates, who had been highly recommended as the most accomplished scientists and most experienced experts that could be selected for a service of this kind. I of course knew these eminent professors by reputation, but I had never met them.”
After careful examination, the physicians confirmed the identity (of the remains) as being that of the late Captain Jones. By August of 1905, the lead casket (which was placed inside a wooden casket) had arrived in the U.S. and was temporarily laid to rest at the US Naval Academy’s (USNA) Bancroft Hall during an April 24, 1906 ceremony. Jones’ body remained in this location while his final resting place was constructed beneath the USNA chapel. Upon completion of the elaborate and ornate crypt in 1913, the naval hero of the American Revolution was laid to rest at his final location.
By now you might be wondering why I am going to such great length in describing what happened with the naval hero of the American Revolution and what the possible context is regarding militaria. While perusing an online auction site, I stumbled upon a listing pertaining to Captain Jones.
“RARE FATHER OF US NAVY JOHN PAUL JONES LOCK OF HAIR DOCUMENTED BY AUTOPSY DR” – Auction listing title
As I scanned through the various images detailing the different facets included with the piece it began to sink in that the auction lot was highly bizarre and extremely unique (if not macabre). Though seller made a minute attempt to fully describe what the item within the listing, he (or she) opted instead to let the incredibly small images (low resolution, no less) makeup for the lack of details within the text.
From appearances, the lot contained a lock of the Captain’s hair that had supposedly been removed by one of the physicians who performed the 1905 post-exhumation autopsy. Accompanying the lock (which was bound with a ribbon) was the doctor’s hand-written note regarding how he obtained the piece. Along with these two pieces is another handwritten note inscribed by the man who purchased the hair (“H. H. Strigley”) from the physician in January, 1926.
While this listing certainly piqued my interest, I’d shudder at the idea of forking over $3,500 (which I don’t happen to have available) without performing the necessary due diligence in verifying the documentation trail (or maybe a DNA test of the hair would be in order?). Taken at face value, the item would be a fantastic acquisition and quite the conversation piece for naval collectors.
While there is reason to question the validity of such an item, to the right collector, this John Paul Jones group would make a great investment. Perhaps the provenance documents are traceable and can establish enough proof (a hand-writing analysis of the note purportedly drafted by Dr. Papillault)?
Many of the stories found within the pages of this site, while centered upon artifacts and items that once belonged to veterans – some those pieces possess researchable history that is traceable to the individual. If you’ve read any of these articles, you know that as much as is possible, I try to provide a snapshot of the military careers of the service members, inclusive of their decorations and awards they received. Acknowledging the achievements of the military member or those of the units for which they were assigned, or the campaigns these men and women participated in, while a common practice within this realm of military service, it is somewhat foreign in the civilian sector.
Medals and decorations are a common focus of militaria collectors – especially medals that are engraved (i.e. named) as valor medals typically are at the time of presentation to the service member – due to their unique and very specific historical nature. A group of medals and ribbons that were worn by a veteran provide a visual narrative – a tangible representation of the career of a service member showing, at the very least, when and perhaps where the individual served, if he or she served in combat or was decorated for service above and beyond the norms of duty. There are many areas of focus within the sphere of collecting decorations. Some may zero in on a specific era, military branch, discipline or specialty (aviators, armor, etc.) or specific medal awardees (Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross or other valor medals) or those who were killed in action (Purple Heart medals awarded to those who were killed or listed as missing in action). Though I am in possession of several decorations, I am not a collector of medals and ribbons. All that I have were either inherited (I am the steward/archivist for family history) as part of a relative’s group or were acquired as part of my restoration efforts to preserve the full story of a family member’s service.
A veteran myself, I recognize that the preservation of my own decorations is part of my responsibility to maintain the family legacy and history of service. With the exception of the decorations awarded to my father (a Vietnam combat veteran who is very much alive and well), I have been given the task of maintaining these priceless family artifacts which are inclusive of the medals and ribbons that I earned and received during my service. I couldn’t imagine seeing family history such as this falling into the hands of collectors rather than being preserved by our following generations.
It may be just my perception but it seems as though there is a steady stream of military-history books being released throughout each year with increasing frequency. With the passing of the World War II generation and their stories fading away, our nation’s interest in them, fueled by stories and films that dominated the national conscience from the mid 1990s through the middle of this decade, too has waned. The stories of the common soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have all but been forgotten. The attention in military stories has turned toward the more recent conflicts in the Middle East is more prevalent as the generation who fought and served in these conflicts is reaching (military) retirement age. However, there are still good stories from WWII that remaining to be told and a recent publication, though now a few years old, deserves my readers’ attention.
Prior to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ participation in WWII was in support of our European allies – predominantly Great Britain – by way of supplying materials to sustain their fight against the wave of the Third Reich that was washing over Western Europe. When Americans think about the Battle of the Atlantic, it isn’t uncommon for visions of the Allied convoys and the German U-boats operating in “wolfpacks” hunting the defenseless merchant ships come to mind. However, the overall campaign in the Atlantic Ocean was far more involved and following the United States’ declaration of war on the Axis powers, was truly a multinational alliance effort that led to the defeat of Germany. Many Americans participated in the harrowing and dangerous duties in the Atlantic in striving to support the fight in Europe. Convoy after convoy of materials, food and troops departed ports in the United States heading to destinations in Europe (England, Ireland, Russia) and in the Mediterranean faced the threat of being torpedoed by German U-boats who waited for the vulnerable ships to pass by. Shore-based anti-submarine patrols flew supporting missions from each side of the Atlantic providing air cover as far out to see as could be reached but there were still gaps of open seas that were ideal hunting grounds for the wolfpacks.
Convoys consisted of merchant ships, crewed by a mixture of merchant seaman, active-duty naval personnel and the US Navy Armed Guard (serving primarily as gunners, signal men and radio operators), destroyer-escorts, destroyers and, by 1943, small aircraft carriers that possessed the armament and tactics necessary to conduct anti-submarine offensive measures along with their role in providing protection for the convoys.
While there are many publications, documentaries and books that are fantastic in providing great coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic, not much exists regarding the men who served. Historian and fellow militaria collector, David Schwind spent years researching and traveling the United States in order to capture and retell the stories of American sailors who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. The one aspect of his effort that is unique (and was a complete surprise to me) is that each man that he spotlights was recognized by the Soviet Union with some of that nation’s highest honors and decorations. In fact, nearly 220 men who served in these convoys (as part of the United States sea services: Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) were awarded Soviet decorations of varying degrees, such as:
- Order of the Patriotic War
- First Class
- Second Class
- Order of Kutuzov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
- Order of Suvorov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
With the rise of Communism in conjunction with the West’s fight to stem the expansion of the Iron Curtain following WWII, many of these veterans tucked the medals away, opting not to wear them on their uniforms. In his December 2015 work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, Schwind provides individual narratives of each recipient, inclusive of their military careers and post-service lives. Along with the detailed information, he includes extensive photographs of each recipient’s Soviet medals, their presentation boxes, documentation, vintage photographs and images of the medals themselves. David Schwind’s photographic efforts in capturing the details of these incredible medals is nothing short of fantastic and perfectly compliments his extensive research. This book is not merely a compilation of veterans and their medals but rather a very personal presentation of vignettes, photographs and an extensive amount of supporting references.
The book production (by Schiffer Publishing) is first-rate with pages that are substantial and glossy, and printed in full color. The binding is stable and sturdy. Even the endpapers and are impressive with photographs of the veterans’ award cards. After nearly two years of use, my copy of Blue Seas, Red Stars looks like new though I have been through it, cover to cover multiple times and it shows none of the typical signs of use in many books of this size. Speaking of size, Blue Seas’ dimensions are consistent with those of many coffee-table books (9″ x 12″ x 1″) but is far from just a collection of nice pictures. The men who received these Soviet awards were truly heroes and they were so recognized by our WWII ally for their deeds and service above and beyond the call of duty. Many of the heroes in this book will be recognizable to many contemporary navy veterans and history buffs as their names have been affixed to transoms of a few notable combatant naval vessels.
Perhaps the most noteworthy fact of Schwind’s brilliant production is that the of the 217 Soviet medals that were awarded to American sea-service personnel, a significant number of these decorations remain with the veterans’ families and are treasured for their future generations and that more than 100 of the families participated in this project, partnering with the author and granting him access to handle and photo-document these treasures for his book.
It is my hope (especially within the capacity of my responsibility) that other families make the decision to preserve and maintain their family’s legacy and keep these precious awards to be handed down throughout their generations. However, if these pieces are divested, I hope that collectors will make every effort to assume the mantle of historian and continue the legacy where the family left off.
Blue Seas, Red Stars is a great addition to anyone’s library, whether they are a military or naval historian, militaria collector or simply interested in in the little-known relationship between WWII veterans and the Soviet Union’s gratitude bestowed upon them for their service during the war.