Category Archives: Medals
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.
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.
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.
For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.
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.
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.
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”*
I started this blog as a continuation of a similar effort that I undertook (as a paid gig) for a large cable television network. I spent some time contemplating a suitable name for this undertaking, settling on The Veteran’s Collection for a number or reasons. The simplest of those reasons was to express my interest in militaria and how my status as a veteran guide both my interests and desire to preserve history.
Often, I equate my collecting of military items in the vein of being a curator of military history and the role that the military has played in the securing and preserving of basic freedom for our nation (and for the people of other nations who have been trying to survive under repressive regimes). In gathering and collecting these items, it may appear to some that I am glorifying war. Having in my possession weapons (firearms, edged weapons, munitions, etc.) might signify glorification to the untrained eye however these items are part of the overall story being conveyed by collection.
I am a fairly soft-spoken person when I am out in public (though people who truly know me would have a difficult time believing this). When political conversations emerge near me (when waiting in line or casually walking past strangers in public settings) I have heard, on many occasions, discussions focus on perceptions of men and women who serve ( low-key or have served) in the armed forces. Often times, gross mis-characterizations regarding people in uniform begin to emerge as the dialog devolves into denigration of active duty and veterans as being war-hungry criminals, bent on killing innocents (women and children). I can’t count how many times I have stood in line, listening to people in front of me expressing how frustrated they are when they see a soldier in uniform ahead of them receiving a discount for a food item or service equating their time in service as legalized murder.
I served ten years on active duty and had two deployments into a combat theater, one of which I and my comrades were engaged by the enemy. In all of those ten years, I cannot recall a single person whom I served with who desired or wished to see combat. We prepared and trained for it hoping to never see it. I don’t think that I have ever met a combat veteran who wanted to talk openly about their time under fire. To have the uneducated civilian boil down our willingness to don the uniform, train for years while understanding fully that at some point during our service, we could see the horrors of combat as being blood-thirsty war-mongers only serves to show the extent of their ignorance.
I recently read two articles today concerning veterans of World War II who have (or had) committed their remaining years educating people about the horrors of war that each of them faced.
The first article was about one man, an IJN fighter ace Kaname Harada, who took every moment that he had left in order to do what the Japanese government is failing to do; educating younger generations to warn them about being drawn into future wars. “Nothing is as terrifying as war,” he would state to an audience as he spoke about his air battles from Pearl Harbor to Midway and Guadalcanal. As I read the article, I zeroed in on a chilling quote by one of Harada’s pupils, Takashi Katsuyama, “I am 54, and I have never heard what happened in the war.” He cited not being taught about WWII in school, continuing, “Japan needs to hear these real-life experiences now more than ever.” I am baffled that a man who is a few years older than me was not taught about The War in school.
In the second article, Army Air force fighter pilot, Captain Jerry Yellin, who like Harada, is educating young people about what he sees as futility of war. He is concerned that young Americans do not have an understanding of the realities of war nor what it is like to fight. “We’re an angry nation,” said Yellin. “We’re a divided nation: Culturally, monetarily, racially and religious-wise we’re divided.” What the veteran of 19 P-51 missions over Japan said (in another article) regarding war is often lost on those who are pacifists (at any and all costs) and lack understanding, “War is an atrocity. Evil has to be wiped out.” He continued, “There was a purity of purpose, which was to eliminate evil. We did that. All of us. So, the highlight of my life was serving my country, in time of war.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Both of these men clearly understand the cost of war and the hell that they faced when they took up arms and yet neither of them could be characterized with the ridiculous “war mongers” moniker often applied to warriors.
The reasons that people collect militaria are as diverse as each of the hobbyists’ backgrounds. The community of collectors can be completely aligned and in lock-step with each other on some militaria discussion topics and in near animus opposition on others. I tend to stay away from collecting medals and decorations; specifically, anything awarded to a veteran (or, posthumously to his family) due to how a great number of collectors commoditize certain medals (Purple Heart Medals, specifically). I withhold judgment as I abstain from even discussing the medals in question. For the laymen, a Purple Heart is awarded to service members wounded or killed in action. Collectors attach increased value for medals awarded (engraved with the recipient’s name) for posthumous medals; if the person is notable or was killed in a famous or infamous engagement, the value compounds (there are several other contributing factors that influence perceived monetary value).
Purple Heart Medals are a very sensitive area of military collecting and nearly every medal was awarded to combat veterans – soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who were serving in a war or wartime capacity. There are several collectors who use their Purple Heart collections to demonstrate the realities of the personal cost of war. These caretakers of individual history, such as this collector, painstakingly preserve as much of the information surrounding the WIA and KIA veterans, often maintaining award certificates and even the Western Union telegrams that were presented to the recipients’ parents or widows. Seeing a group with the documentation together is heart-wrenching.
Militaria collecting can be very personal as many of the items, like medals (such as the Purple Heart) actually belonged to a person who served. In my collection, I have uniforms from men who served from as far back as the early 1900s up to and including the Vietnam War (not including my own as seen in this previous post) with the majority centered on World War II. Nothing could be more personal than the uniform worn by the veteran. Having personal items, in my opinion, enhances the collecting experience because of the desire to research what that service member did when they served. Uncovering a person’s story is to understand the sacrifice and cost of leaving family behind to serve rather than glorifying war itself.
Also in my collection are artifacts that were brought back by the veterans from the theater in which they served. While to some people, viewing these items may conjure negative and visceral responses, they still serve to tell a story that shouldn’t be forgotten. One of my relatives returned from German having recovered a great many pieces from the Third Reich machine after it was defeated by May of 1945. Still, this is not celebrating war nor the defeat of a (now former) foe.
There are other facets of my collection that are touch on the functions of engagement and combat; specifically armament and weapons. I have a few pieces that I inherited that, at some point, I will be delving deeper (on this blog) as they do fascinate me. I need to spend some time expanding my knowledge a bit more in order to present these pieces with a modicum of understanding (alright, I’ll admit that I don’t’ want to sound uneducated on my blog). Frankly, weapons are not my forte’ but what I own (a small gathering of edged weapons and ordinance), I have spent some time learning about them.
Preserving history is paramount to helping following generations to both understand the cost of war and that, while doing what is necessary to avoid future wars, serves to illustrate that nations not only should but must take a stand against tyranny and evil.
* Military Memoirs of a Confederate, 1907, Edward Porter Alexander
Note: This the third installment of a multi-part series covering my research and collecting project for one of my ancestors who was a veteran of the American Civil War:
- Part 1 – Shadow Boxing – Determining What to Source
- Part 2 – Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win
- Part 3 – Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service
Researching a person’s history who has been deceased for 107 years is difficult at best. Delving into the military service of a person who is an American Civil War veteran, while challenging, is a few percentage points easier, provided you understand the discoverable information. Where things become a test of one’s patience is the task of using the discoveries to create and encapsulate that person’s service with an artifact display – a shadow box to provide an aesthetic visual representation.
I’ve assembled three shadow boxes (and contributed to a fourth) that detail the service of my veteran relatives, incorporating pieces that were handed down to me and augmenting them with replacement items that were once lost to time. One of the boxes I created included my own medals, ribbons and assorted pieces from my decade of naval service. All three of the collections I created currently hang on display in my home office to tell a story for my family and guests about the years of service proudly given to our nation.
Through my continuous research into my family’s heritage and genealogy, I’ve uncovered details regarding ancestors who wore our nation’s uniform dating all the way back to the War for Independence. In the last few months, I zeroed in on the Civil War, identifying several family members who volunteered to gird themselves in the blue, heavy wool of the Union army. As noted in earlier posts (Civil War Shadow Box Acquisition: “Round” One is a Win and Due Diligence – Researching My Ancestor’s Civil War Service), several details began to emerge when I focused on my great, great, great grandfather’s service in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in the 70th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.
Pressing into the details in the last few weeks, I learned that though my GGG grandfather was discharged in February of 1863 due to a disability he received during his service with the cavalry regiment, he again volunteered for a stint in the defense of his home state during General Robert E. Lee’s summer invasion of Pennsylvania. My ancestor responded to President Lincoln and Governor Andrew Curtin’s emergency call for temporary service (90 days) as a home guard force, serving with a light artillery company with the Department of the Susquehanna. It appeared that he was compelled to continue to fight though he’d already seen the ill effects of war at places such as Malvern Hill and Sharpsburg.
In the years following the war, veterans were drawn to the quiet battlefields and to their surviving comrades as the impact of the fighting and the bonds forged in combat were too strong. Soon, the former soldiers formalized their “reunions” with the founding of an organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). This organization would last for 90 years from its inception in 1866, advocating and lobbying for the veterans and their needs until the last veteran finally passed away in 1956. My GGG grandfather was a proud member of the GAR and would ultimately benefit from their efforts, being cared for during the last two years of his life in the soldier’s home in Dayton, Ohio.
One discovery I made was that in 1905, my 3x-grandfather made a trek from the soldier’s home to his hometown in Pennsylvania to, according to his obituary, say his goodbyes to his family as he didn’t feel that he’d survive the coming winter. Being a native of Reading, Pennsylvania and a member of the GAR, I deduced (based upon the details in the obit) that he, more than likely, used the trip to say goodbye to the men he had served with. The GAR happened to be holding a national encampment reunion in Reading and he would undoubtedly have made use of the trip for both purposes.
Taking into account the new details, I decided that I would add to the growing list of display items for my shadow box project by incorporating one of the encampment medals from that 1905 Reading gathering. Searching the internet, I managed to locate one in an online auction, submitting the winning bid earlier this week.
In addition to the two authentic small arms projectiles (a .52 cal Sharps carbine and a .44 cal Colt revolver round) that were found in the battlefields where my ancestor fought, and the 1905 Reading national encampment medal, I have acquired a GAR membership medal to round out the vintage artifacts that will be included in the shadow box. Heeding the advice of a fellow collector, I decided to pursue precise reproductions pieces – a crossed sabres hat device, the regiment and company number and letter devices and yellow cavalry stripes of a corporal – to round out the display.
After the final pieces arrive, I will assemble the display and promptly hang it near the others as I continue to honor those in my family who served.
Additional posts about Jarius Heilig
This weekend, we Americans are being inundated with myriad auditory treats, such as the sound of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill, the roar of the ski boats tearing across the lake, the rapid-clicking of fishing reels spinning, or the din of children playing in the backyard. All of this points to the commencement of summer and the excitement-filled season of outdoor activities, vacations and fun. The bonus is that we get to extend this weekend by a day and play a little harder as that’s what this weekend is all about!
With the opening volleys of artillery (the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter) in the early morning hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, a war of the bloodiest nature commenced within the confines of what was known as the United States of America, but which was anything but united. The division of the states had been years in the making as the founding fathers could hardly agree on the slavery issue when trying to establish a single Constitution that would bind the individual states together as one unified nation. The division led to an all-out conflict—a war that would pit brother against brother and father against son—that wouldn’t cease until almost exactly four years later (at Appomattox on April 10, 1865) and three-quarters of a million Americans were dead (the number was recently revised, up from 618,000, by demographic historians).
In the days, weeks, months and years that followed, the sting of the Civil War would linger as families suffered the loss of generations of men. The Southern States where battles took place had cities that were obliterated. The agricultural Industry was devastated. The business operation surrounding the king crop of the south, cotton, heavily dependent upon slave labor, had to be completely revamped. Many plantations never returned to operation. The Northern industries that had grown extremely profitable and dependent upon the war, churning out uniforms, accouterments, artillery pieces and ammunition, no longer had a customer.
Although the South was undergoing reconstruction and the nation was moving to put the war in the past, and some Americans who lost everything were seeking to start afresh in the West. Like the servicemen and women of the current conflicts, Union and Confederate veterans alike were dealing with the same lingering effects of the combat trauma they had endured. While life for them was moving on, they were drawn to their comrades-in-arms seeking the friendship they shared while in uniform. In 1866, Union veterans began reuniting, forming a long-standing veterans organization (which would last until 1956 when the last veteran died) that would be known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Similarly, Confederate troops would reunite, but wouldn’t formally organize until 1889 with the United Confederate Veterans.
While the country was still engaged in the war, the spouses and mothers of troops, along with their local communities, honored those killed in the war—the scant few that were returned home for burial—by decorating their graves. Freed slaves (known as Freedmen) from Charleston, South Carolina, knew of a tragedy that took place at a prisoner of war (POW) camp where there were more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in captivity and had been buried in unmarked graves. The Freedmen, knowing about the graves, organized and gathered at the burial site to beautify the grounds in recognition of the sacrifices made by the soldiers on their behalf. On May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 Freedmen, Union veterans, school children and missionaries and black ministers, gathered to honor the dead at the site on what would come to be recognized as the first Memorial Day.
“This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” – historian David W. Blight
The largest gathering of Civil War veterans took place in 1913 at the Gettysburg battlefield, marking the 50th anniversary of this monumental battle. Soldiers from all of the participating units converged on the various sites to recount their actions, conduct reenactments, and to simply reconnect with their comrades. Heavily documented by photographers and newsmen alike, the gathering gave twentieth century Americans a glimpse into the past and the personal aspects of the battles and the lifelong impact they had on these men. By the 1930s, the aged veterans numbers had dwindled considerably yet they still continued to reunite. In one of these last gatherings, Confederate veterans recreated their battle cry, the Rebel Yell, for in this short film (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute).
The Militaria Collecting Connection
While collecting Civil War militaria can be quite an expensive venture, items related to these veterans organizations and reunions are a great alternative. One item that is particularly interesting, the GAR membership medal, was authorized for veterans to wear on military uniforms by Congressional action. The medals or badges were used to indicate membership within the organization or to commemorate one of its annual reunions or gatherings.
Over the years following the 1913 reunion, veterans and their families increasingly honored those killed during the war around the same time each year. As early as 1882, the day to honor the Civil War dead (traditionally, May 30) was also known as Memorial Day. After gaining popularity in the years following World War II, Memorial Day became official as congress passed a law in 1967, recognizing Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The following year, on June 28, the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend.
This Memorial Day, rather than committing the day to squeezing in one last waterskiing pass on the lake or grilling up a slab of ribs, head out to a cemetery (preferably a National Cemetery if you are in close enough proximity) and decorate a veteran’s grave with a flag and spend time in reflection of the price paid by all service members who laid down their lives for this nation. Note the stark contrast to the violence experienced on the field of battle as you take in the stillness and quiet peace of the surroundings, observing the gentleness of the billowing flags.