Category Archives: Decorations, Awards and Badges

Reaching the Pinnacle of Militaria Collecting


This uniform group belonged to Rear Admiral Robert Copeland who received the Navy Cross for his heroic attack (while in command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts and the destroyers of “Taffy 3″) against a Japanese battleship force in the Battle off Samar (source: D. Schwind).

I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.

Flight suit belonging to Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Colonel Francis Gabby Gabreski.

I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?

In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.

This jacket belonged to Major General George S. Patton Jr.

In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.

Extreme Collections

For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.

Showing Off Your Collection is Not Without Risk


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.

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

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).

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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.

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

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.

Introductory Flight – Collecting Aviator Wings


From the top: Command Pilot, Senior Pilot and Pilot of the US Army Air Force. The naval aviator “wings of gold” are really set apart from its USAAF counterparts.

From the top: Command Pilot, Senior Pilot and Pilot of the US Army Air Force. The naval aviator “wings of gold” are really set apart from its USAAF counterparts.

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.

A nice example of a World War i balloon pilot’s single wing of the Army Air Service.

A nice example of a World War i balloon pilot’s single wing of the Army Air Service.

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.

This stunning 8th Air Force 2nd Lieutenant’s uniform has a beautiful example of a silver bullion wing. In fact, all of the (typically metal) devices are made from silver bullion thread.

This stunning 8th Air Force 2nd Lieutenant’s uniform has a beautiful example of a silver bullion wing. In fact, all of the (typically metal) devices are made from silver bullion thread.

This display features WWII USMC ace, Major Bruce Porter’s decoration and medals with his naval aviator “wings of gold.”

This display features WWII USMC ace, Major Bruce Porter’s decoration and medals with his naval aviator “wings of gold.”

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.

During World War II, women pilots were needed to ferry aircraft from the manufacturers to the troops, saving the experienced aviators for front-line combat. This beautiful WASP uniform features pilot wings.

During World War II, women pilots were needed to ferry aircraft from the manufacturers to the troops, saving the experienced aviators for front-line combat. This beautiful WASP uniform features pilot wings.

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.

No Campaigning Here: Badges for Military Service Members in the White House


As our nation draws nearer to Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017 we are settling down from an election cycle that saw voters increasingly blasted with political advertisements on television and radio along with the landscape being polluted with the signs of candidates from local, state and federal elections. Now that the streets and neighborhood landscape has been cleared of all the pro- or anti-candidate signs with only the die-hard, disillusioned still driving their cars   with bumper stickers from their failed candidates, hoping to wake up to a different outcome. The time of year that I loathe the most has come to an end.

The obsolete White House Service Badge features a natural metal seal on the white field. When this bade was retired in 1964, it was replaced with the Presidential and Vice Presidential Service Badges.

The obsolete White House Service Badge features a natural metal seal on the white field. When this bade was retired in 1964, it was replaced with the Presidential and Vice Presidential Service Badges.

As much as I have disdain for that season, there is a segment of collectors who thrive on the materials that are produced to grab the undecided voters’ attention and sway them to cast votes in the candidate’s favor. Does it work? That is a subject of much debate, but the materials created can be a treasure trove for collectors, especially when it comes to candidates for the office of the President of the United States.

As the above election items are clearly NOT my forte, there are some militaria pieces that hold my interest. Though they are connected to our nation’s highest office, these uniform accouterments have nothing to do with any individual president.

The obsolete White House Service Badge features a natural metal seal on the white field. When this bade was retired in 1964, it was replaced with the Presidential and Vice Presidential Service Badges.

On June 1, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10879 establishing the Presidential Service Badge or PSB (and the associated Presidential Service Certificate). Prior to the issuance of the PSB, U.S. military personnel assigned duty at the White House offices including…

…were issued the White House Service Badge (WHSB). The design of this badge incorporated a gold-colored medallion with a field of white with the eagle of the presidential seal superimposed over the center.

There is no arguing that this is one of the most beautifully designed U.S. military badges and it is a pleasure to have one in my collection.

There is no arguing that this is one of the most beautifully designed U.S. military badges and it is a pleasure to have one in my collection.

Superseding the WHSB in 1964 was the Presidential Service Badge. The badge was a slight departure from the WHSB, changing the field from white to blue and adding a ring of white, 5-pointed stars around the field’s inner circumference. Each PSB is individually and uniquely numbered. Each number is associated to the person to whom that individual badge was issued, making each one trackable. The PSBs come with a three-prong clutch-back to affix it to the wearers’ left breast pocket.

In addition to the staff assignments listed above (for the White House Service Badge), military aides who carry the “Football” and White House military public affairs officers.

Vice Presidential aides, like those serving the President, are also issued a badge that is nearly identical to the defunct White House Service Badge with the difference being a gold (versus silver) colored seal as well as a variation with the gold edge thickness and design.

Just as awarded medals and ribbons, both the Presidential and Vice Presidential Service Badges remain a permanent part of the service members’ uniforms for the remainder of their military careers, even after their duty with the elected officials has been fulfilled.

These badges are fantastic additions to collectors of both militaria and presidential items.

California Congressman Demonizes Collectors with Introduction of a Bill


The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved.

The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved with the recipient’s name and rank.

When citizens perceive what they think to be a travesty or tragedy, they scream to their lawmaking-representatives to create laws in order to make changes that will help them to feel good that they did something positive. It is a common action among Americans to want to bring about changes, to right wrongs and to make society more safe. We feel better about ourselves when we stood up and participated in the process. Sadly, the only thing positive with many of these actions are that those scant few people can feel good while the rest of society has to deal with the negative ramifications and unintended consequences brought about by these actions.

This week new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8) to address what he and a select few Americans feel is a troubling trend – the sale of Purple Heart Medals (PHM) among collectors. HR 6234 (known as the “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act”) if passed would “prevent merchants from profiteering from the sale of military-issued Purple Hearts, eliminating the market and making it easier to return them to their rightful owners.” Taken at face-value, this seems to be a very noble goal. Who wouldn’t want Purple Heart Medals returned to their rightful owners?

“These military collectors cheapen the Purple Heart by buying and selling this symbol of sacrifice like a pack of baseball cards,” said Cook, who served 26 years in the Marine Corps before joining Congress, rising to the rank of colonel and receiving two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. –  See: Selling Purple Hearts would be illegal if this bill becomes law

One of the underlying beliefs of the bill’s sponsor and his supporters is that militaria collectors are profit-seeking undesirables who buy and sell these vaunted medals, capitalizing on the specific aspects surrounding the awardees’ circumstances (for which the medal was given) such as:

  • If the veteran was killed in action (KIA)
  • If the battle in which the veteran was wounded (mortally or otherwise) was notable or pivotal
  • If the veteran was note-worthy:
    • a famous or semi-famous service member
    • a member of a notable military unit or vessel

In viewing advertisements of PHMs for sale, these facts are often presented in the medals’ descriptions not too dissimilar to features of a used automobile, rendering them seemingly insensitive and cold. I admit that even I am put-off when I see how they are exhibited as available for purchase.

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans' photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths in order to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans’ photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

Regardless of the manner in which the medals are listed, most of the collectors that I have encountered are not only sensitive regarding the nature of these medals and the reason that they exist and are awarded, they go to great lengths to gather the facts surrounding the medals in order to emphasize the veterans’ service and the gravity of the price that is repeatedly paid by them for our nation. The steps that are taken by these collectors in order to preserve the history is extremely honoring and very sensitive towards the veteran and the surviving family members (in the case of KIAs-awarded medals).

There are many militaria collectors who also wore the uniform of this country. Many of them, like me, take pride in our service and that of others and we strive to preserve the history that is being discarded by families of veterans (and even the veterans themselves). One of my colleagues, a fellow Navy veteran, is pursuing his next book project (his most recent work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, is a similar, monumental undertaking that recognizes those American servicemen who were decorated by the Soviet Union for heroic acts in convoy and anti-submarine duty in the North Atlantic during WWII)  that focuses entirely on the Purple Heart Medals that have been awarded to service men and women who were killed in combat. Many of the hundreds of medals that he has personally photographed for this book are in the hands of collectors who want to see the stories of the awardee preserved and shared in perpetuity.

Bear in mind that I make that statement as both a collector and as someone who is very sensitive about the issue of PHMs being bought and sold (due to the somber nature of why these medals are awarded, owning a medal that is connected to such significant personal loss is too painful for me to see past). Aside from the “For Sale” listings where the current owner painstakingly describes as much detail surrounding the veterans’ service and how they fell in combat, I also have difficulty when I read about an excited collector’s “find.” There is a fair amount of gray area between celebration of landing a medal that helps the collector tell a particular story (in their collection’s area of interest) and one that a collector picked for a very insignificant amount but will garner significant profit when it sells.  I know that I am not the only collector who struggles when we see this on display. I also don’t mean to disparage any fellow collector for what brings them excitement and joy with their collection.

One person in particular who is celebrating the introduction of this bill and is hopeful to see it passed is Zachariah Fike (Captain, Vermont National Guard) who is the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization whose mission is to return Purple Heart Medals to the awardees or their families. “We are absolutely humbled to see Private Corrado Piccoli being honored through this bill by Congressman Cook,” reads a Facebook post (dated October 3, 2016) by Fike’s organization. Fike has historically been in opposition of collectors, stated to NBC News in 2012, “’It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”’ In my near-decade of collecting, I have learned that Fike’s assessment (of medal collectors) is the rare exception rather than the norm.
There is little doubt that Congressman Cook is responding in lockstep with Fikes (who has been vocal in his frustration with collectors’ who did not surrender their medal collection to him) and believe that in banning the sale of these medals will compel collectors to hand them over to organizations and people who are bent on returning them to families. What these well-intentioned people have overlooked is that so many families are the ones who have divested the heirlooms to begin with. For many reasons such as:

  • No connection to the distant, deceased relative
  • The family suffered a falling out with the veteran (broken marriage, the veteran abandoned his family, etc.) and the medal is a painful reminder
  • The survivors are opposed to war, the military and anything that is connected to or associated with it
  • Would rather see the medal and history preserved by a collector who has demonstrated this capability

There are many stories of medals being discovered in the most deplorable situations; some of the worst being discovered in dumpsters and curbside garbage cans. As the only one who had an interest in the military history of my family, I was bequeathed militaria from my relatives that included Purple Heart Medals (one of my uncles was wounded in action during both WWI and II). No one else cared. Now I am responsible to ensure that these items are cared for at the end of my life. If this bill passes and no one wants to inherit these items (and with the glut of nearly two million medals being in the same situation as mine), where will they end up?

What happens when Fike comes calling on the family having “recovered” a PHM from a collector only to find that doing so, causes grief with the people who wanted to rid themselves of the item(s) to begin with. What becomes of the medals then?  How does this proposed law deal with the collections of PHMs when the collectors pass away and have no future collectors to transfer the medals to? According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the current estimation is that there have been more than 1,800,000 Purple Heart Medals awarded since 1932. Of those, how many thousands reside within individual militaria collections and what is to become of them? What percentage of those are unwanted by the families?

One of the unintended consequences of the previously established laws (banning the sale of the Congressional Medal of Honor [CMOH]), countless American artifacts have left our shores and landed in the hands of foreign collectors undoubtedly to ever return to our shores. The law that prevents the sale (similar to the one proposed by Congressman Cook will force collectors (who are seeking to recoup all or part of their investment) to locate buyers outside of the United States.  Worse yet, some domestic CMOH collectors who have been in the possession of their medals predating the law (that prohibits the sale) have since been discovered by the federal authorities; their medals confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the FBI.

Banning the sale does very little in reaching the stated goal – to facilitate the return of the Purple Heart Medals to veterans and families. It also creates a problem for law enforcement. With 1.8 million medals in existence, how do they discover transactions, track ownership of medals and what becomes of those recovered who have no surviving family with which to receive said “missing” medal?

Despite what Captain Fike stated about collectors, his actions contradict him in regards to how he truly considers militaria and medal collectors. His push to locate a legislator to take such short-sighted and drastic steps to ban the sale of these artifacts are a direct assault of collectors that will have long-term negative impact on his non-profit organization’s noble efforts. The bill will also include penalties for veterans and families who attempt to sell these medals; there are no exclusionary provisions nor exceptions. Congressman Cook and Captain Fike appear to be targeting (whom they deem to be) the victims in the Purple Heart trade along with the collectors.

My voice hardly matters and no one would bother to take note of what I have to say in regards to this issue. Nevertheless, I believe that this good-intentioned law is ill conceived and will ultimately make it more difficult to restore the medals to the families and veterans who want to see them returned.

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