Category Archives: Decorations, Awards and Badges

“Blue Seas, Red Stars” Details How The Soviet Union Honored Heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic

Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II by David A. Schwind (image source: Schiffer Publishing).

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.

Convoy WS-12: A Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over the convoy, while it was en route to Cape Town, South Africa, 27 November 1941. The convoy appears to be making a formation turn from column to line abreast. Two-stack transports in the first row are USS West Point (AP-23) — left –; USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) and USS Wakefield (AP-21). Heavy cruisers, on the right side of the first row and middle of the second, are USS Vincennes (CA-44) and USS Quincy (CA-39). Single-stack transports in the second row are USS Leonard Wood (AP-25) and USS Joseph T. Dickman (AP-26). US Navy Photo.

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:

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.

The photography reveals the details of the individuals’ awards and decorations along with other service-related pieces that breathe life into the narratives of each veteran.

The book is printed on beautiful heavy-stock coated paper which provides a wonderful measure of clarity to the text and helps the colors of the awards to leap from the pages.

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.

Order your copy today!


A Piece of Memphis Belle’s Heart

In the sub-freezing temperatures, you find yourself watching for them. Anxiety has long-since set in and your heart-rate is rapid causing you to draw quick, short breaths from the cold oxygen flowing into your mask. You’re thinking back to the darkness of the early-morning hours, reviewing all of the landmarks as you check the heading. At 35,000 feet, your aluminum tube is barreling ahead, amidst a cloud of familiar shapes, at nearly 200 miles per hour. Your body is no longer aware of the vibrations and deafening roar of the four Wright Cyclone radial engines and their steady drone. You’ve been through this same routine (as if any of this can be considered “routine”) two dozen times before.

Sighting numerous Focke Wolfe 190 fighters was sadly a common occurrence for B-17 crews.

Suddenly, excited chatter is piped directly to your ears via the cold headset. Your fellow crew-members have sprung to life as they call them out – the dreaded camouflage-painted Focke-Wulf Fw 190 bearing the black cross of Germany. The flight of attackers begins to assail the surrounding B-17F aircraft in your group. You reach for the trusty Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun as you scan the skies for the attackers.

Gripping the handle of the gun with your fleece-lined leather gloves, you begin to train the weapon as you search for the enemy. You try to fight back the fear while looking through the Plexiglas nose, seeing another Flying Fortress rollover into its deadly dive. You don’t have time to look to see if there are any chutes, yet you are hold on to a shred of hope that those men do somehow manage to survive…

The crew of the Memphis Belle pose in front of the aircraft that returned from 25 deadly missions over German-held positions. Captain Evans is pictured, second from the right in the back row.

52,000 Americans perished in the air over Europe during World War II over the span of three and a half years. Contrast that to 58,000 Americans who lost their lives during the entire Vietnam War. It is difficult to imagine that bomber crews had to complete 25 bombing missions before they could be sent home. More than 750,000 bombing sorties were flown by U.S Army Air Force aircraft over Europe and just under 10,000 bombers were lost. The odds were infinitesimal that one aircraft could survive all of those missions and return home during the war. One of those B-17s that achieved that mark was the famed Memphis Belle (Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress Serial 41-24485) – the first heavy bomber to do so. The monumental feat was the subject of a William Wyler documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, released in 1944 to American audiences by Paramount Pictures.

Though I attempted to paint a picture of what it was like for these men, words could never come close to describing that experience. A single mission was harrowing for these amazing men. I often wonder which was more unnerving – the first mission or the twenty-fifth and final one. For Captain Vince Evans, sitting in the bombardier chair for those several harrowing hours on May 19, 1943 on a raid over German port-city of Kiel on the Jutland peninsula.

Many questions surrounded this jacket as to its authenticity. Some collectors were quite doubtful while still others suggested that it was genuine (source: eBay image).

When an item from one the 10-member crew of the Memphis Belle, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. A few years ago, what appeared to be a cut-down, tailor-made officers jacket complete with period correct insignia and devices was listed at auction. Inside the jacket was a label with Captain Evan’s personal information, including his Army serial number (ASN). One issue some collectors raised with this listing was the seemingly incorrect ribbon bar. One important piece absent from the bar was Captain Evan’s Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) ribbon which was awarded to all ten crewmen. Vince would subsequently receive an additional DFC. The ribbon for the Air Medal is also absent devices which Evans would have had to indicate multiple awards.

The Captain Evans jacket label shows his name and service number (source: eBay image).

Regardless of the minor shortcomings, the jacket is believed (by several collectors) to be genuine and was more than likely set aside by Evans after the war in favor of a newer uniform. The correct (or better yet, original) ribbon bar was probably removed (by Evans) for wear on the new uniform.

Following his WWII service, Evans began working with Wyler in his new profession as a writer in Hollywood with two films to his credit: Chain Lightning (starring Humphrey Bogart) and Battle Hymn (starring Rock Hudson). Evans served in the USAF Reserve until his discharge (at the rank of major) in 1953. Sadly, Major Evans would perish (along with his wife, Margery and their 21 year-old daughter, Venetia) in a small airplane when it crashed a few miles short of the Santa Ynez Valley airport in 1980. What the Luftwaffe and Nazi anti-aircraft gunnery could not do, a series of atmospheric conditions did. It was never determined who was in control of the aircraft (Evans or the flight instructor) at the time of the crash.

The Memphis “Belle lost one of her sweetest members” wrote Colonel Robert Morgan (in his book, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot), “a large piece” of her heart went down that day.

More than 40 bids from buyers eager to land a piece of history so closely-tied to the famed aircraft drove the final sale price to $1,026.97 which for many militaria collectors is a bargain considering the notoriety of the Memphis Belle and her crew.

Airborne Radiomen

This Aviation Radioman distinguishing mark adorns the sleeve of a seaman 1/c jumper from WWII. Men and women trained to service and operate specific radio equipment for naval air forces during WWII (source: eBay image).

A simple scan of the topics of the articles that I have written over the last (nearly) six years of this site reveals that I am heavily biased towards militaria artifacts from naval service. In reviewing the books that are in my personal library, the overwhelming subjects are naval history (the runner-up topic being baseball). Within the sphere of naval militaria collecting, enlisted uniform-items dominate what I possess – rating badges, patches, hats, caps and covers and of course, the uniforms themselves.

I have a personal connection that fuels my interest in a specific area of Navy ratings – including the development of the technology that surrounds that area: radio and RADAR – and my collection is dominated by the associated job specialties. I have written about the development of radar and the radarman rating and radiomen due to the several uniforms that I have within my collection, my family history and my own interest in the application of the technology for combat advantage.

Three of my WWII chief petty officer uniform jackets are part of my predominant radioman and radarman militaria collecting focus.

Established in 1942 and enduring throughout WWII, the Aviation Radioman rating is an example of the Navys rapid technological advancement and the need to train and man the ranks accordingly.

Within the radio and RADAR arena of my collecting, I have barely touched upon these jobs as they apply to naval aviation. In terms of airborne technology, World War II saw rapid advancement in the equipment and adoption and usage to gain an edge against enemy forces. One of the ratings that played a significant role in this arena was the Aviation Radioman which was established in all grades (third, second, first class and chief petty officers) in January 1942 after recognizing the need to differentiate these radiomen from their shipboard counterparts. As with the sea-going radiomen, the field of ArMs were split between those who operated the equipment (Aviation Radiomen) and those who were skilled technicians (Aviation Radio Technician) and yet they wore the same rating insignia. In some instances, the sailors had perform in both capacities. As with the shipboard and submariners, certain aviation radiomen were aircrewmen – part of the crew that served on missions within the aircraft.

Stephen R. Walley, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class (of Albany, NY) spoke about his naval career during a May 20, 2006 interview with the New York State Military Museum. Walley’s pathway to becoming and ArM was fairly typical, stating that when he enlisted (in September, 1942) to serve, he opted to train as a Radioman in the Navy. After completing his basic training in Newport, RI, Mr. Walley was sent to four months of schooling for shipboard radio training. ”Upon completion of that course, I came out as a Radioman third petty officer.” Walley said of his early career. “At the last week of the course,” Stephen continued, “we had people come in from naval school in Memphis, Tennessee asking for volunteers to become Aviation Radiomen.” Six to eight of Walley’s graduating class from radioman school reported to Memphis for ten weeks of aviation training, learning additional skills for communication and operating aircraft radio and comms equipment. Because airborne RADAR technology was in its infancy at the time of Walley’s career, he had two additional weeks of education in operating and maintaining equipment to be prepared when the fleet aircraft would be outfitted with the highly secret gear.

Airborne radiomen required additional training in aerial gunnery school in order to be proficient in providing protection from enemy fighter aircraft. Dive (Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver) and torpedo bomber (Grumman TBF Avenger and Douglas TBD Devastator) aircraft were equipped with .30 caliber machine guns (the Avenger two gunners – the ArM would typically man the ventral-mounted .30 cal versus the dorsal .50 caliber gun) which would be the primary responsibility of these radiomen when enemy aircraft were present. Aerial gunnery school was an additional ten weeks where upon completion, these men would either choose or be selected (based upon the candidates’ height) for their aircraft assignments. The shorter men, up to 5’-9” were better suited for the cramped cockpits of the carrier-based aircraft and the taller men were assigned to train for the large, land and sea-based planes (such as the Consolidated Catalina PBY and the PB4Y-2 Privateer).

There were three crew members: (1) pilot, (2) turret gunner and (3) radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner – an aviation radioman.

With nearly 21,000 carrier-based aircraft (out of more than 56,000 naval combat aircraft), the need for ArMs was substantial. Not only was the demand for manning aircrews but also for the maintenance staff within the squadrons. In addition, aviation radiomen would fill positions in support of the airwing communications within the radio spaces of the embarked aircraft carriers. Add to this demand, manning requirements for the dozens of naval air stations and facilities in the continental United States and in the Pacific theater meant that there were countless thousands of men and women who served as aviation radiomen during the war.

In some instances, aviation radiomen served as pilots of aircraft (primarily filled by naval aviators and enlisted naval aviation pilots), such was the case for CArM Johnnie E. Mattis during the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 when he was piloting his torpedo bomber in a harrowing attack on a Japanese carrier, scoring a hit against tremendous odds. In all, more than 650 medals of valor (for the Navy, these include the Bronze and Silver Star medals, Navy and Marine Corps medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Medal of Honor) were conferred upon aviation radiomen for their service above and beyond the call of duty during WWII.

Navy Cross Recipients:

With the rapid advancement in technology in the Navy and the massive expansion of ratings leading up to and during World War II, changes were afoot for Aviation Radiomen in the years immediately following the War. The peacetime navy ranks experienced considerable contraction as more than 70% (2.3 million) of those serving at the War’s end were discharged back into civilian life. In 1945, the Aviation Radioman rating was renamed to Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate while still wearing the same mark.

This early WWII eight-button chief aviation radioman jacket has a beautiful bullion rating badge. The chief is seemingly missing a hashmark but he only served during World War II . Also featured on this jacket are the combat aircrew pin and the chief’s ruptured duck discharge patch (note that the combat aircrew wing and ribbons were added solely for the purposes of display. The sailor named in the jacket spent the duration of the war at Naval Air Station San Juan, PR).

As with the changes in Radioman rating (Electronics Technician’s Mate which was the technician side of the RM rating from 1942-1945 – was split out in 1948, creating the new ET or Electronics Technician), a new rating was established from the Aviation Radioman rating in 1948; Aviation Electronics Technician (AT).


DATE 8/14/45* 6/30/46 6/30/47 6/30/48 6/30/49 6/30/50
BATTLESHIPS 23 10 4 2 1 1
CARRIERS, FLEET 28 15 14 13 11 11
CARRIERS, ESCORT 71 10 8 7 7 4
CRUISERS 72 36 32 32 18 13
DESTROYERS 377 145 138 134 143 137
FRIGATES 361 35 24 12 12 10
SUBMARINES 232 85 80 74 79 72
MINE WARFARE 586 112 55 54 52 56
PATROL 1204 119 74 50 50 33
AMPHIBIOUS 2547 275 107 86 60 79
AUXILIARY 1267 406 306 273 257 218
SURFACE WARSHIPS 833 226 198 180 174 161
TOTAL ACTIVE 6768 1248 842 737 690 634

*     V-J Day (source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Year Active Naval Personnel
1940 160,997
1941 284,427
1942 640,570
1943 1,741,750
1944 2,981,365
1945 3,319,586
1946 978,203
1947 497,773
1948 417,535
1949 447,901
1950 380,739

When the Navy began to specialize the enlisted ranks in the late 1800s, special marks were incorporated to denote the skills of the enlisted sailors. This WWII aviation radioman 3/c uniform has the distinguishing mark of an aerial gunner on the right sleeve.

This aviation radioman seaman 1/c wore a Radarman distinguishing mark on the lower right sleeve of his uniform.

Collecting ArM rating badges, distinguishing marks, devices and uniforms along with other, more significant items such as named/engraved decorations (Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Heart medals) is rather rewarding, considering that the rating essentially existed for the duration of WWII. For my collection, I have acquired a selection of various rating badges and two named uniform items. While I have a sparse collection of navy decorations, both of the two uniform tops; one, a chief aviation radioman technician (CArT) and the other, a ArM3/c (with an aerial gunner distinguishing mark) were great additions even though they were stripped of decorations.

There are militaria collectors who focus on very specific artifact types such as wing devices. Still, some may hone in more tightly, choosing to keep their collecting on naval wings (of which, there are countless variations throughout the 100+ years of existence). Within my “museum,” I have a few navy wings and among them is one WWII-era combat aircrew wing device.

“The insignia featured a banner across the top on which eligible sailors could affix up to three stars signifying individual combat awards.  Aircrews engaging enemy aircraft, singly or in formation; engaging armed enemy combatant vessels with bombs, torpedoes or machine guns; and engaging in bombing or offensive operations against fortified enemy positions were qualified to wear a combat star, with unit commander approval, on their aircrew breast insignia.”

This seaman first class aviation radioman jumper shows that he was a radar technician for airborne radar equipment. This is the first example of an ArM that I have seen with the radarman distinguishing mark.

In performing the research or this article, I made several discoveries and learned how overlooked by collectors and historians alike, these men are. The distinguished actions and sacrifices made by the naval aviators (piloting the aircraft) seem to have overshadowed the duties performed by the flying radiomen of the United States Navy during the second world war.

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Learning to Listen to that Quiet Voice of Reason: A Medal That Wasn’t Quite Right

You see the militaria item and at first glance, it looks great. Your heart starts racing as you begin to realize that you’re finally getting your hands one a highly sought-after piece of history. Understanding the story behind the piece, the sweat begins to bead on your forehead. “Could this be one of those?” you question yourself. The convincing thoughts race through your mind as you begin to dig through your wallet for the credit card thinking,“I am sure of it!”

Fighting back any thoughts of doubt, you hurriedly pay for the treasure. Once in your hands, you begin to begin to examine the details. The doubts come rushing back along with the possibility that regret will soon follow. This scenario is bound to happen, even to the most seasoned experts. Eventually, every collector will experience the letdown upon the discovery that they rushed into a purchase ignoring all the education and experience that would have protected them from buying a fake.

My experience came last year when I spotted a much coveted Navy Expeditionary Medal with the rare Wake Island clasp affixed to the ribbon. The medal (with the clasp) was awarded only to those sailors and marines who served in defense of Wake Island in December, 1941 from the 7th to the 22nd.

More than 450 Marines and nearly 70 naval personnel bravely repelled multiple Japanese aerial and naval bombardments and landing assaults as the Japanese attempted to wrest the island away from the U.S. forces. Severely outnumbered more than five  to one, the Americans finally surrendered Wake to the enemy. Suffering 120 killed in action and 50 wounded, the Americans inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese forces sinking two destroyers and two patrol boats as well as heavily damaging a light cruiser. Japanese landing forces suffered 820 killed and more than 330 wounded in action.

My 1950s HLP-made Navy Expeditionary Medal with the fake Wake Island clasp.

My “fake” medal consists of a late 1950s authentic Navy Expeditionary medal with HLP (for the maker, His Lordship Products, Inc.) stamped into the rim of the planchet. The details of the strike are quite fine and even the most subtle areas of the design are quite crisp. The planchet is significantly thicker than a modern strike and is devoid of the modern synthetic antiquing. The brooch indicates that it is from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s.

To compare, this Wake Island clasp for the Navy Expeditionary Medal appears to be authentic. Note the crisp lettering and sharpness to the detail of the rope-border (source: eBay image).

Where the trouble with this medal starts to surface is with close examination of the Wake Island clasp. Ignoring the Rube Goldberg hack-job on the reverse (which can be overlooked…I have seen other claps butchered, although not quite as bad as this), the face is where I should have focused my initial attention.

Upon a close examination of the field (of the clasp), I noticed the bumpy surface between the lettering and the edge where it should have been smooth. I also noticed that the lettering and the rope-design that surrounded the face all looked blurry or soft (as opposed to being crisp and sharp). All of these issues should have set off alarm bells in my head. All of these discernible issues indicate that the clasp was a forgery  – a product of sand mold-casting, which is a cheap reproduction method that is routinely employed in these forgeries.

I will chalk this episode up as a lesson learned. I am keeping this medal in my collection as both a reminder and a nice “filler” as I will probably never be able to afford an authentic example. Everything else about the medal, suspension and clasp is makes this an otherwise very nice example of an early Navy Expeditionary Medal.

Answering the Call of Remembrance Through Collecting

The line to get inside the Alamo is typically long but it does move quite fast. It is odd to see the city tower above the 18th Century structure.

There is no doubt that social media and news outlets will be dotted with posts and stories marking the 76th anniversary of the Day of Infamy – the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrounding military installations on the Island of Oahu – throughout this day. Though, I wonder if our nation’s youth are on the verge of forgetting about this event as we are losing sight of other terrible events that were perpetrated upon our citizens. Fortunately, forgetting about Pearl Harbor hasn’t quite happened yet as there are still WWII veterans, specifically Pearl Harbor Survivors remaining among us.

USS Maine ACR-1 – Havana Harbor, 1898

In the United States’ past history with such events, the meanings behind rallying cries such as “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember the Maine” are nearly lost to history. While visiting San Antonio this past summer, my family toured the Alamo and revisited the story of the siege and the ensuing battle that left no survivors among those who were defending the mission and fort. Without getting to far off track, the somberness of in the feeling one receives when walking through the building and the grounds is palpable but not the same as what is experienced when standing on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial.  Not too far from my home lies a monument – a memorial of sorts – from the USS Maine; the disaster that became the catalyst that propelled the United States into a war with Spain in 1898. This monument, a mere obelisk with naval gun shell mounted atop is easily overlooked by park visitors as it is situated a considerable distance from other attractions within the park. Remember the Maine?

The USS Arizona Memorial is situated on piers astride of the wreckage of the ship. The barbette of turret #3 is visible.

Visiting such locations always presents opportunities for me to learn something that I didn’t know before – details that one cannot grasp with the proper context that resides within the actual location of the event that took place there.  Even though I had previously visited the Alamo (when I was very young), I had no memories of it and the entire experience was new and overwhelming. In contrast, the last visit that I made to the USS Arizona Memorial was my fourth (and the first with my wife) and I was still left with a new perspective and freshness of the pain and suffering that the men endured as their ships were under attack or while they awaited rescue (some for days) within the heavily damaged or destroyed ships. Unlike the Alamo, when one steps foot on the Arizona Memorial, they are standing above more than a structure that was once a warship of the United States. Beneath the waves and inside the rusting hulk are more than 1,100 remains of the nearly 1,200 men who were lost when the ship was destroyed.

Emerging from the waves are a pair of bollards from the starboard side of the forecastle of the wreckage of the USS Arizona, visible from the memorial.

This piece of the USS Arizona is on display at the Indiana Military Museum.

Interest in the USS Arizona (and the attack on Pearl Harbor in general) remains quite considerable for most historians. For militaria collectors, the passion to preserve the history of the ship and the men who perished or survived the ship’s destruction continues to increase. When any item (that can be directly associated with a sailor or marine who served aboard her) is listed at auction, bidding can happen at a feverish rate and the prices for even a simple uniform item can drive humble collectors (such as me) out of contention. Where the prices become near-frightening is when the items are personal decorations (specifically engraved Purple Heart Medals) from men who were killed in action aboard the ship on that fateful day. While any Pearl Harbor KIA grouping receives considerable attention from collectors, men from the Arizona are even more highly regarded. It is an odd phenomenon to observe the interest that is generated, especially when the transaction amounts are listed.  While I certainly can understand the interest in possessing such an important piece of individual history, I am very uneasy when I see the monetized aspect of this part of my passion.

Not wanting to focus on the financial aspects or my personal concerns regarding medals that are awarded to the surviving families, I have seen many collectors who painstakingly and beautifully research and preserve the personal stories of each sailor who was lost and for that individual’s specific medal.  A handful of these collectors display these medals and personal stories with the general public which, I suppose can be likened to a traveling memorial to the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Without seeing such displays, it is very difficult to understand the magnitude of the personal sacrifices that are made by those who serve in the armed forces.

This group from a USS Arizona survivor contains the sailor’s photo album and distinguishing marks from his uniform (image source: US Militaria Forum).

This RPPC of the USS Arizona is one of two photographs from my uncle’s navy album from the 1920s.

Within my own collection are two photographs of the USS Arizona that were part of my uncle’s collection from when he served aboard three different battleships (Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California) during his navy career (from 1918-1929), all three ships that were later present when the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941. While I am certainly interested in the preservation of the history of this day, seeking Pearl Harbor or more specifically, USS Arizona pieces is not something that I am interested in with my militaria collecting. Instead, I spend time reflecting on what the service members within the ships, at the air bases and the citizens surrounding Oahu must have endured during the hours of the days, weeks, months and even years following the attacks.

One of two photos from my uncle’s navy photo album shows the USS Arizona transiting the Panama Canal.

Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember the Arizona!

For more on militaria mollecting of these significant events, see: