Category Archives: Medals
Under the cover of early morning darkness on August 7, 1942, John Harris McKinney, Jr., was at his 5-inch gun mount aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) as she steamed slowly in a column formation along the northern coast of the largest southeastern-most island in the Solomons. Reports poured over the sound-powered phones in rapid succession to the bridge-talker relaying manning status of the ship’s crew at their battle stations. When the order to commence firing was given, the ship was rocked as massive fireballs grew rapidly and extended some 50-yards outward as the first shells left the barrels as the large 8-inch projectiles sped towards their targets on shore positions.
Vincennes and her sister New Orleans Class cruisers, USS Astoria and USS Quincy were joined by the heavy cruiser USS Chicago and other ships as the naval guns fired away to soften the enemy positions on Guadalcanal. The naval gunfire bombardment was in advance of sending waves of landing craft that would place the men of the First Marine Division onto the Guadalcanal beach between Koli and Lunga Points.
While the Vincennes’ main batteries sent volley after volley onto Guadalcanal targets, McKinney, was scouring the darkened skies, anticipating the arrival of enemy aircraft. John H. McKinney was a former enlisted man who was appointed to the rank of Warrant Officer (W-1) on January 6, 1941, a little more than a month prior to reporting aboard Vincennes after spending the first of his prior nine years as a fire controlman. The 5-inch mount where McKinney was assigned was one of the ship’s eight guns that were primarily used to provide anti-aircraft protection. It was not long after sunrise that the Imperial Japanese Mitsubishi G4M2a Model 24 “Betty” bombers from Rabaul appeared on the horizon after their nearly 700-mile flight and began to wreak havoc on the landings.
As the Japanese Betty bombers pressed their low altitude attack at just 25-50 above the surface of the water, some enemy planes were successful in penetrating the onslaught of fire from the ship. Dodging enormous splashes from the rounds that impacted the surface of the water ahead of the aircraft, Vincennes managed to avoid hits from the attackers’ aerial bombs as well as a torpedo. Vincennes’ gunners were accurate, downing eight enemy bombers during the two days while providing protective support of the First Marine Division’s landings.
When Vincennes was first painted by the bright searchlights from the cruisers and destroyers of Japanese Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force on August 9, just before 2:00 AM, main battery gun crews were immediately ordered to fire on the source. A split-second after the blinding muzzle flash from Vincennes 8-inch batteries began to dissipate and crews’ eyes started to readjust to the darkness, the ship was rocked by the sudden impact of enemy projectiles and subsequent explosions as the deadly accuracy of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s gunners took an immediate toll on the American cruiser. “The first Jap hit smashed our sky aft [rear ranged finder] to pieces,” Electrician’s Mate 3/c Milton A. Schneller of Chicago, Illinois described the attack. “Then we took a torpedo right in our guts and shuddered again” the sailor described the onslaught to an Associated Press reporter.
Almost immediately as the enemy shells began to strike the ship, a pair of torpedoes fired from the Japanese cruiser Chōkai struck Vincennes and crippled her with heavy damage and flooding amidships. Fires broke out in the ship’s hangers as the four Curtis SOC scout planes along with the aviation fuel stores giving the enemy gunners a perfectly illuminated target. “Another direct hit and all lights went out. Shells and torpedoes, meanwhile, were coming fast. Number one fire room was hit directly after (to the rear) of us,” Schneller recalled the enemy onslaught, months later.
As salvo after salvo of enemy fire pounded the American cruiser, Vincennes’ gunners did manage to score a hit on the cruiser Kinugasa damaging her rudder machinery. “We kept getting hit. Men up on the sky control (located high up on the ship’s superstructure) kept dropping. They were scattered around the decks,” Schneller described the horror in the October 12, 1942 article. “One of the officers went to take some of the men from [to] a sick bay, but there wasn’t any sic bay left. It had got a direct hit.” A third torpedo fired from the cruiser Yūbari struck Vincennes and dealt her the blow that spelled her end
In under 20 minutes, Vincennes had taken more than 100 hits and three torpedoes as the Japanese task force ceased their attack and turned northwest, back towards New Guinea having decimated the two allied naval groups protected the Guadalcanal approaches. Vincennes was dead in the water, listing and engulfed in flames. Carnage was everywhere. Recounting the attack six decades later, one surviving veteran remembered the decks being slick with blood and strewn with debris and body parts from his shipmates. The pilothouse where the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Riefkohl was positioned before the attack was obliterated by naval gunfire though he survived the destruction.
The ship was without power as Captain Riefkohl issued the order to abandon ship. Many men struggled to make their way to a point where they could safely leave the ship. Sailors attempted to open hatches and scuttles to allow trapped men to escape the burning and sinking ship. Some entered below decks spaces and were successful in locating wounded men bringing them to the ship’s exterior, helping them into the water.
The mighty Vincennes’ guns now silent, the veteran of the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal battles, was burning out of control and sinking and most of her crew were adrift among the floating wreckage and oil slicks.
In his log of the attack, Riefkohl subsequently wrote: “The magnificent Vincennes, which we were all so proud of, and which I had the honor to command since 23 April 1941, rolled over and then sank at about 0250, 9 August 1942, about 2½ miles east of Savo Island … Solomons Group, in some 500 fathoms of water.”
Admiral Mikawa’s attack yielded incredible results as his task force dealt the U.S. Navy their worst surface battle loss in its history. The Navy’s losses that night were substantial as the USS Quincy and USS Astoria were also sunk while the Chicago and two destroyers were heavily damaged and left out of action. The cruiser HMAS Canberra was so heavily damaged that she had to be scuttled leaving the total allied casualties that night to be nearly 1,200 men missing or killed in action and four cruisers lost.
With Vincennes resting in the depths of what would become known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” her crew were adrift and struggling to survive in the darkness. “We were in the water. There was a guy close to me,” Francis M. Williamson of Petersburg, Virginia mentioned in the aforementioned news story. “He had almost his whole body shot away. Once he said very quietly, ‘I can’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes more. I got a hundred dollars in my pocket here if it’ll do you fellows any good.’ But nobody took it,” said Williams.
Later that morning, two American destroyers began to pick up the survivors but had to temporarily break from the rescue in order to pursue a periscope sighting and to drop depth charges. Another survivor, Hager described harrowing situation as the men were huddled together in the water with some in a life raft and others in the water, hanging on to the sides. When a destroyer arrived at the scene early that morning, fear among the men ensued as Hager informed them of the enemy’s propensity of machine-gunning survivors. As the ship drew near, the sound of small arms and .50 caliber machine gun fire was heard by the men in the raft. Just before they jumped into the water to escape being shredded in they thought would be a hail of bullets, one of the survivors realized the ship was American. A crewman aboard the ship yelled that the water was churning with sharks and the gunners aboard the ship were protecting the survivors. “They said the sharks were after a wounded offices and they machine-gunned them to save him.” Hager described an earlier encounter that occurred during the darker hours of the morning. “I don’t know whether it was a shark or not,” he said, “but while I was out there in the water, I saw a white streak heading for me and I did some fast swimming to get back to the raft.” Questions remained for Hager concerning other survivors in the water near him as he concluded his encounter, “I never saw the two men who swam with me after that.”
Once the wounded and water-logged men were aboard the rescue ships and the dead floating In the waters surrounding Savo Island were accounted for, the human losses became more apparent as musters were taken to determine the numbers. With 322 of the nearly 800 officers and enlisted missing or killed in action, notifications would not reach the families for some time. Official reports of the crew status were submitted to the Navy on September 3, 1942 as the survivors were sent back to Pearl Harbor. Triaging the wounded, some of whom were severely burned, meant that some men would be spending months in hospitals on Oahu while others would be shipped back to the mainland for recuperation and further disposition. Some of the survivors took advantage of the 30-days of rest and recuperation (R&R) due them following the loss of their ship while others were more eager to return to the fight, opting for immediate new assignments.
In the following weeks, teams of military personnel were dispatched to more than homes around the country bearing news of loss. One such official visit occurred at 640 Sadler Avenue in Los Angeles at the home of John Harris McKinney, Jr. where his wife, Rubye Lee and four-year-old son, John Harris McKinney III resided. Perhaps even more heart breaking than receiving a KIA notification, Mrs. McKinney was informed that her husband was missing in action.
While it is not known which five-inch mount Gunner John H. McKinney, Jr. was assigned to, all eight of the anti-aircraft guns were highly vulnerable to enemy fire due to them being fully exposed. Unlike the main batteries which were armor-protected and the gun crews were beneath the armor-plated decks, McKinney and his crew were exposed to the elements with a nominal bulwark scatter shield that was meant to provide a barrier to reduce exposure to splintering decks and structure. The location of the five-inch mounts placed them at amidships in the shadows of the two stacks or in other words, at the enemy aiming point. It is highly-likely that McKinney was killed at the outset of the Japanese attack as many of the early shots were landed in this area.
On October 13, 1942, Gunner McKinney, formerly listed as missing in action, his name was published in the Los Angeles Times among those who were killed in action. Mrs. John H. McKinney would be presented with a Purple Heart Medal bearing an engraving on the reverse of the pendant. At the end of the war, McKinney’s widow would have also received any decorations that he was due which would have included the World War II Victory Medal.
In the fall of 2020, The Veteran’s Collection was contacted by a man regarding a medal that he had in his possession. The man, having exhausted his efforts to reunite the medal with the recipient’s family, desired to place it care of a person or organization where it would be preserved in an honoring manner. Due to the significant number of our published articles focused upon artifacts related the three Navy cruisers named Vincennes, the man who contacted us believed that the medal that he held would find a place of honor among our USS Vincennes collection.
Following a handful of email and phone conversations with the man we understand that the medal cane to be in his possession from his former business partner but the details of how the partner obtained it were not known.
Viewing the photos of the medal that were sent to us combined with sound measure of caution, we began to explore every possible avenue of research to ensure that the medal was not reported stolen or missing. Researching the veteran was also necessary to ascertain the nature of his service and to ensure that the veteran was indeed aboard the ship and awarded the medal.
With due diligence performed over the course of several weeks researching genealogy and family history, notices or discussions of theft and consulting a Purple Heart Medal expert, we reached an agreement with the contact for modest compensation. Within a few days the purple heart medal was shipped.
Once we received and opened the carefully packaged decoration, a sense of pain and loss filled the surrounding air. There was a sense of the unfathomable moment when McKinney’s widow beheld the medal for the first time, knowing that her husband and the father of her young son would never come home. The finality that came with this medal that is awarded in recognition of veteran’s combat wound or loss punctuated the moment when Mrs. McKinney was first notified that her husband was missing. Having this in our collection added a somber dimension which is a principle reason that we have never previously pursued posthumous decorations.
John Harris McKinney, Jr. was born on April 10, 1912 in Dalhart, Texas to John and Audie Bell. McKinney graduated from Mercedes High School in 1930 and enrolled into an Reserve Officer Training Corps program in San Antonio. John enlisted into the U.S. Navy late in 1932 and completed recruit training and Naval Training Station San Diego, California. Apprentice Seaman McKinney was assigned to the Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on May 21, 1933. On January 26, 1936, McKinney was detached from the Augusta and reported aboard the repair ship, USS Vestal (AR-4) on March 12, 1937. The gap between ship assignments may have been spent on a shore command and during this time, he married the former Rubye Lee Hedrick in San Pedro, California on July 8, 1936. After completing his first term, McKinney, now rated as a fire controlman third class, reenlisted on June 20, 1936. McKinney’s career path and advancement was accelerated despite the peacetime Navy’s limited manning. John and Rubye welcomed their son, John Harris McKinney, III on December 5, 1937. Detached from Vestal on November 14, 1939, Fire Controlman first class McKinney was sent to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C., Long Island City and at Schenectady, New York. Following his completion of schools, McKinney was commissioned as a warrant officer (W-1), Gunner. With ten years of service, Gunner McKinney was halfway to retirement and a pension.
On February 12, 1941, Gunner McKinney reported aboard CA-44, USS Vincennes, and was assigned to one of the ship’s eight 5-inch gun mounts.
In consulting our copy of David A. Schwind’s outstanding authoritative work, Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous Awards of the Purple Heart Medal in the Second World War to analyze the specifics of the Gunner McKinney medal, we noted the style of the engraving and the design of the planchette. Through our research we noted that McKinney’s posthumous decoration is a Navy Type-1 Purple Heart Medal. The hand engraving includes the veteran’s rank, full name and service branch along with artistic flourishes is an example of early wartime style, characterized by Scwhind as Type-1c.
The medal itself is in good overall condition showing signs of wear on the raised edges and surfaces of the George Washington bust and some along the edges. On the planchette obverse, the plastic surround shows slight contraction from the edges and nominal surface scratches. The enamel in the laurels and the coat of arms located at the top of the planchette (beneath the suspension) is intact. The reverse of the planchette shows a fair amount of gold erosion surrounding the engraving as well as on the raised edges of the lettering, shield and laurels. The ribbon drape is heavily soiled and worn and unfortunately, the gilt sterling silver brooch was missing.
Another of the more important aspects missing from McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal is the small purple Navy type-1 presentation box. Judging by the condition of what arrived, it would be a safe assessment to suggest that the original presentation box deteriorated or was discarded decades ago. Regardless of the condition and the missing elements, the medal, according to Mr. Schwind, is a bit of a scarcity and highly desired among collectors due to it being an early Navy medal and an early engraving awarded to a warrant officer.
Seeking further consultation led to a colleague offering us the correct, type-1 brooch, ribbon and suspension ring to effectively restore McKinney’s medal. The replacement brooch, ribbon and suspension ring were had been removed from another type-1 Navy Purple Heart Medal and were in fantastic condition. By simply removing the existing suspension ring and replacing it with the new piece, the Gunner McKinney medal was made whole.
After the war, Gunner McKinney’s widow, Rubye Lee (Hedrick) McKinney married another Navy man, Harry E. Wageman on November 7, 1946. At some point thereafter, the former WWII Sea Bee veteran adopted John and Rubye’s son, John H. McKinney, Jr., changing his name to John McKinney Wageman. Seven days after his 43rd birthday, John McKinney Wageman, a geophysicist working in the petroleum exploration industry in Houston Texas, succumbed to metastatic brain cancer, exacerbated by bilateral pneumonia. Gunner McKinney’s son outlived him by thirteen years and left behind a widow, Molly R. (Matlock) Wageman and the couple apparently had no children.
It is astonishing that families let go of the reminders of their military heritage and history. Unfortunately, it is quite common to see military uniforms, certificates, records and even decorations and medals discarded in the trash, donated or sold, once the veteran has passed away. It is unknown what path Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal was set upon leaving us to assume that upon John McKinney Wagemen’s passing in 1980 or that of his mother in January 2000, the medal could have gone in any number of directions. Regardless, the Purple Heart Medal did not proper care or storage judging by the condition when we received it.
A few weeks ago, the Ohio Valley Military Society held its annual Show of Shows in Louisville, Kentucky. Unable to attend the show, we reached out to a few of our colleagues in the area who were attending to see if they could be on the lookout for the proper presentation box among the hundreds of tables of militaria. Within a few hours of making our request, a suitable box was found and shipped a few days later. With the medal placed in the box (along with the original ribbon and suspension), McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal has been returned to the state it was in nearly 80 years ago.
Gunner John Harris McKinney has been at rest with his shipmates at what today is known as Iron Bottom Sound nearly 3,500-feet beneath the surface. In January 2015, the Paul Allen-fund Research Vessel Petrel located and photographed the wreck of USS Vincennes (CA-44) and documented how she came to rest on the sea floor. One of the most poignant images captured by the Petrel crew showed one of Vincennes’ 5-inch guns still trained as if her crew were ready to send another round toward the enemy.
With his final resting site known and his Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal restored, the Veteran’s Collection will be determining the final disposition of the decoration to ensure that it will be honored, properly cared for and viewable in perpetuity.
Retrospective-type articles that touch upon a central topic or theme are useful for both the reader and author, especially within sites such as The Veteran’s Collection as the pulling together of related content and subject matter can shed new light and expose facts that were overlooked or previously hidden. The negative aspects of self-promotion come to light when it is very obvious that authors have run out of ideas and, rather than to have aging content remain on the front or home pages of their sites, publish fluff in order to keep up the appearance of fresh content. Another reason could be to reflect upon old content while attempting to relevantly connect it to a current event.
If readers delve into the content of this site they would discover that navy-centric militaria outnumbers the articles published within this site the the better portion of those pieces focused upon a four ships bearing the same name. Within this author’s collection are a handful of artifacts from one of the four – the second ship – to carry the name Vincennes around the globe and into war. Although my collection does encompass artifacts associated with a few other ships (those vessels aboard which members of my family served), this particular warship holds special meaning and thus is at the center of my collection focus.
Commissioned in 1937, the New Orleans Class heavy cruiser (classified as such due to her main battery consisting of eight inch guns) USS Vincennes (CA-44) plied the peacetime seas for more than four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Despite the elapsed time since she was placed into service, many of her crew at the start of World War II were plankowners (they were part of the original crew, present at the time of commissioning) though personnel turnover was occurring and a steady rate. New crew members were replacing veterans whose enlistments were ending or were rotating to different commands. Wartime manning requirements, impacted by combat operations, increased for many vessels by as much as twenty percent.
For the aging USS Arizona (BB-39), the near 2,300-man crew was proud that their ship carried the flag of Commander Battleship Division One, Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Arizona had been serving the U.S. Navy for more than 25 years having been placed into commission in 1916; though she never fired her massive 14-inch guns at an enemy target – not even during World War I. Three-and-a-half weeks after Thanksgiving Day in 1941, the losses of WWII would begin to touch American lives throughout the country.
In late March of 1945 in the small town of Le Roy located in McLean County, Illinois which lies just north of dead-center of the state (about 140 miles southeast of Chicago), the small farming town was feeling the economic effects of the war with rationing in full swing and a large percentage of the area’s young, able-bodied men serving and fighting in far-off lands. Le Roy’s lone celebrity, Broadway star Betty Jane Watson (cousin of Jean Stapleton of 1970s television’s All in the Family fame) gained attention in the previous year playing the role “Gertie” in Oklahoma! and was now working as singer, performing (singing) with with bands in Chicago. Le Roy was a fairly quiet and peaceful town as families awaited word from their sons, fathers, brothers and uncles who were serving in the European and Pacific theaters, hopeful of good news.
At the home of William Gaultney that March, things may have been quiet for the farmer-turned-road-construction worker’s family as an ominous word arrived from the War Department. From an island that until February 19, 1945 very few, if any, Americans had ever heard of, word made its way to Mr. Gaultney, via the Secretary of the Navy that his second youngest son, Private First Class David J. Gaultney was killed in combat on Iwo Jima. Nineteen year-old David was serving with “A” company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Third Marine Division) having transferred to the unit weeks before (in January) as a replacement rifleman as the unit was rearming and refitting following their heavy combat operations on Guam in late July-early August of 1944. David J. Gaultney enlisted in April of 1944 and attended recruit training in San Diego that same summer before transferring to the Sixth Replacement Draft in preparation to serve in the Pacific. David turned 19 in October as he was training to fight in the Pacific but his life would be cut short four months later. David’s father was left to grieve without his wife, Nellie who had passed away (at age 54), just 25 months earlier, afflicted by heartbreak due to the heavy toll her family had already suffered in the War.
For William Gaultney, the notification of David’s loss on Iwo Jima was nothing new and one can assume that when the telegram arrived, the hesitation to open it eleven months after his son, David left for service in the Marine Corps was near-crippling for him, considering the two previous notifications that were sent to his home by the War Department, starting with word from Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The scene portrayed on screen in the film, Saving Private Ryan as the U.S. Army car kicks up a dust cloud as it proceeds up the Ryan family farm road with Mrs. Ryan understanding what was coming; something terrible had happened to (perhaps her thoughts regarding) one of her sons. Instead, she is gripped with anguish, dropping to the porch as she reads the note handed to her by the Army officer telling her that three of her four sons had perished in combat. While the Gaultney family weren’t hit with such a magnitude as was shown in the film. However, Mrs. Gaultney suffered through two losses in less than a year with her oldest son, succumbing to his wounds (on Christmas Eve, 1941) that he sustained aboard his ship, the USS Arizona (BB-39) on December 7.
Ralph Martin Gaultney was the second of William and Nellie Gaultney’s children to enlist to serve in the armed forces. Ralph joined the Navy on January 16, 1940, nearly two years before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Following his training, Ralph reported aboard the aging battleship on the eve of Fleet Problem XXI (the 21st in the series of large scale naval exercises conducted since 1923 and shifted to the Hawaiian waters in 1925) and would serve aboard the ship during her overhaul (in Bremerton, WA) from late 1940 to early 1941 when Admiral Isaac Kidd hoisted his flag aboard the ship (Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh assumed command of the ship in February). The last time that Gunners Mate Third Class Ralph Gaultney would put to sea with the ship was just days before the attack. Twenty one year old Gaultney would linger for two weeks his ship was destroyed, succumbing to his wounds on December 24. Though Ralph was oldest son (there were seven children; four sons and three daughters) and the first of the Gaultney boys to perish, he wasn’t the first to join the military.
Machinist’s Mate 1/c Leonard Gaultney had been serving in the Navy since he enlisted on September 1, 1938. Following his training, he reported aboard one of the Navy’s newest New Orleans Class heavy cruisers, the USS Vincennes (CA-44) while she was undergoing an overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in east San Francisco Bay. Having been in commission since February 24, 1937, most of the ship’s company that were present with Gaultney had been there for two years and were plankowners. When Vincennes left Mare Island, she made her way back to the Atlantic Fleet (via the Panama Canal) to serve in Neutrality Patrols as well as to retrieve some of France’s wealth (gold) for safe storage in the United States in anticipation of a German invasion. Leonard Gaultney’s ship paid a visit to Cape Town South Africa to receive yet another large shipment of gold (this time as a payment) from the United Kingdom as compensation for arms in support of their war against Germany and Italy (WWII). When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, (then) Machinist Mate 2/c Gualtney’s ship was escorting a British convoy to South Africa, arriving two days later. In March of 1942, Vincennes arrived in San Francisco to join Task Force 18 and would escort USS Hornet and USS Enterprise to Japan for Colonel Doolittle’s air strike on Tokyo in April of 1942. With Japan still on the offensive, Leonard Gaultney would see action in the Battle of Midway as she screened the USS Yorktown, fighting off the Japanese air attacks. By August of 1942, USS Vincennes escorted the amphibious forces carrying the First Marine Division to the Solomon Islands. On the morning of August 7, Gaultney heard the main batteries of Vincennes commencing the shore bombardment in preparation for landing the Marines on Guadalcanal’s beachhead. During the day, Vincennes’ 5-inch and 40mm guns shot down a “Betty” bomber that was part of a Japanese air strike on the American ships landing the troops.
Sunrise in the waters between the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Savo would be MM1/c Gaultney’s last along with 331 of his USS Vincennes shipmates. That evening, the group of ships protecting the northern approach to Tulagi and Savo Islands (consisted of USS Astoria CA-34, USS Quincy CA-39 and HMAS Canberra) were caught by surprise when a Japanese cruiser task force commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa came upon them in the dark of night (at 01:55 am). Highly trained and proficient in night combat, the Japanese attacked and within minutes had all four ships heavily damaged, burning and sinking after opening fire with guns and Long Lance (Type 93) torpedoes. Vincennes sustained massive hits from the Japanese cruisers setting her on fire and presenting an even easier target for the IJN torpedomen to aim for. Vincennes was struck by two Type 93 torpedoes near her main spaces and she began to take on water. Fifty-five minutes later, USS Vincennes disappeared beneath the waves (at 02:50). It is not clear whether MM 1/c Gaultney made it into the water or went down with the ship though the latter is more likely considering his work space was struck by one of the torpedoes. The resulting explosion and ensuing flooding made it nearly impossible for the men who managed the propulsion systems to survive the damage let alone escape.
Some time after receiving the official notifications from the Navy (or War) Department, Mr. and Mrs. Gaultney would have been presented with their sons’ posthumous decorations (which were, most likely Purple Heart Medals). A third medal would have been presented to Mr. Gaultney in 1945 leaving him with three engraved medals – one for each son. Hopefully, all three medals have remained within the family, handed down and preserved to ensure that the memories of each of the Gaultney boys and the immense sacrifice made by this family is never forgotten. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the family to have let go of the pain of terrible loss by divesting the reminders or simply tucking them away from sight. Under such circumstances, families have been known to give Purple Heart medals (PHM) away, sell or even discard them. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the Gaultney medals are preserved as part of a militaria collection.
Collecting artifacts such as Purple Heart medals from service members who were killed in action is not something that interests many collectors due to the sensitive nature of the pieces and the pain and suffering (for both the one who was lost and their surviving family members) that is represented with the decorations. Though I have personal awards and decorations from sailors who served aboard the Vincennes, the pieces that I have are from two men who survived and the medals are not PHMs.
Several years ago, I was able to land a small group from a sailor, Fireman Third Class Charles Henry Findlay, who served aboard the heavy cruiser Vincennes from March of 1941 and survived its sinking. The two pieces in the group include one of his decorations, the American Defense Service Medal (ADSM) and a liberty card issued to the young sailor. One aspect of this group that collectors must keep in mind is that the ADSM is not engraved or marked with the recipient’s name (they are never personalized) which makes this particular medal difficult to prove that it was specifically awarded to Findlay.
What became of Fireman Findlay after being rescued from the waters that would be dubbed, “Iron Bottom Sound?” He, along with more than 50 of his USS Vincennes shipmates, were assigned to the USS Santa Fe (CL-60), a Cleveland Class light cruiser that was commissioned in November of 1942.
Though the aged and worn Navy Good Conduct Medal (NGCM) has been long separated from its suspension, drape and brooch, this medal, awarded to Seaman First Class William John Wennberg in 1939 is a great piece for my USS Vincennes (CA-44) collection. Seaman Wenneberg enlisted into the Navy on October 8, 1935 from his hometown in Chicago, Illinois, though he shown reporting aboard the Vincennes on February 24, 1937 (which corresponds with the ship’s commissioning date making him a plankowner), sixteen months after his navy career began. No muster sheets are available for Wennberg which makes his career path difficult to track until he shows up again as he reported to Receiving Ship New York on December 13, 1941, the day after he began his second enlistment. It appears that he spent a few years out of the Navy, living in New York (according to records discovered on Ancestry) and was married. Wennberg was assigned to another cruiser, USS Columbia (CL-56), the second ship of the Cleveland Class light cruisers. William Wennberg remained a seaman (equivalent to today’s E-3) from 1937 until 1945 (except for his two year break in service) when he was serving aboard the new heavy cruiser, USS Bremerton (CA-130) when he was rated as a Ship’s Serviceman Laundry 1/c.
An interesting aside, both Findlay and Wennberg served aboard Cleveland Class light cruisers following their time aboard the Vincennes. Though the coincidence isn’t that significant, the Navy chose to return the name Vincennes to the Pacific as leaders re-named the under-construction USS Flint (CL-64) to USS Vincennes, the tenth light cruiser of the 27 Cleveland Class warships. “Vincennes” and hundreds of her survivors were surviving crew were back in the fight.
For the Gaultney family, the war was over with their notification of David’s death on Iwo Jima though the grief from their terrible loss would never cease. In December of 2018, a pair of Illinois state republicans (state Senator Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Representative Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth) sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 65 which was to name the portion of I-74 that runs through Le Roy, Illinois the Gaultney Brothers Memorial Highway. The resolution passed unanimously in both the Illinois Senate and House, as reported by the Pantograph newspaper on December 31st.
Collecting, for me, focuses upon telling the story of those who can no longer do so for themselves. Preserving and displaying along with researching and documenting artifacts from service men and women helps to preserve their memories as does renaming a stretch of well-traveled highway does.
- Paper and Postcards – Telling a More Complete Military Story
- Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors
- Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece
- A Legacy: Vincennes Wardroom Silver
One of the challenges for collectors of militaria, besides trying to find space for storage, is the art of showcasing and displaying these precious artifacts.
Sadly, many collectors spend more time acquiring items and less organizing and displaying their pieces, leaving them to sit in bags or boxes, tucked away (source: All Experts.com).
Most collectors lack the expansive spaces to construct elaborate display cases that allow for propping up mannequins and life-sized dioramas. I’d imagine that the average militaria enthusiast is very similar to me in that their collection consists predominantly of small items. The lion’s share of my assemblage is made up of shoulder sleeve insignia (Army, Navy, Marine Corps and US Army Air Force), navy enlisted rank insignia (crows) and several, various naval devices, among many other pieces which include medals, ribbons and ribbon bars and a few other pins and devices.
One of the most popular display and storage tools that collectors employ are the inexpensive and easily storable two-sided boxes known as Riker cases or mounts. These simple cases are available in a wide array of sizes and dimensions providing collectors with the ability to both store and display smaller pieces, laying them flat against a cushioned polyester fill material.
For the display of items like medals, especially vintage pieces that have become delicate due to decades of decay, placing them in a shadow box with their planchets hanging from the ribbon suspension only serves to accelerate deterioration of the threads of the ribbon. With a Riker case, the medal lays flat and is held in place, keeping the load of the medal firmly against the polyester fill material.
One added benefit of incorporating Riker mounts into your collection storage and display plans is security and theft prevention. If you intend to show your collection in a public forum, sticky fingers are invariably going to find their way to your displays. Leaving valuable patches, medals or pins sitting on a tabletop only guarantees that you will have to replace something. Leaving your precious items displayed inside a Riker case offers your audience easy viewing yet shields you from suffering loss. Due to the case’s diminutive sizes and flat dimensions, they are easily transported between home and the show.
One downside to using Riker cases for your display is that they tend to be rather bland and ordinary, and lack the ability to hang on a wall or prop up on table. Fortunately for collectors there are crafty entrepreneurs who recognize a need for something more stylish that addresses these deficiencies. Home-Museum.com offers these beautiful yet subtle hand crafted wood frames that wrap around Rikers, providing a touch of sophistication.
Bear in mind that while some Rikers incorporate glass (instead of plexiglass), it more than likely lacks UV protection for the contents. Exercise caution when hanging or displaying your Riker-mounted collection, protecting the valuable pieces from the damaging effects of light.
Many of the stories found within the pages of this site, while centered upon artifacts and items that once belonged to veterans – some those pieces possess researchable history that is traceable to the individual. If you’ve read any of these articles, you know that as much as is possible, I try to provide a snapshot of the military careers of the service members, inclusive of their decorations and awards they received. Acknowledging the achievements of the military member or those of the units for which they were assigned, or the campaigns these men and women participated in, while a common practice within this realm of military service, it is somewhat foreign in the civilian sector.
Medals and decorations are a common focus of militaria collectors – especially medals that are engraved (i.e. named) as valor medals typically are at the time of presentation to the service member – due to their unique and very specific historical nature. A group of medals and ribbons that were worn by a veteran provide a visual narrative – a tangible representation of the career of a service member showing, at the very least, when and perhaps where the individual served, if he or she served in combat or was decorated for service above and beyond the norms of duty. There are many areas of focus within the sphere of collecting decorations. Some may zero in on a specific era, military branch, discipline or specialty (aviators, armor, etc.) or specific medal awardees (Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross or other valor medals) or those who were killed in action (Purple Heart medals awarded to those who were killed or listed as missing in action). Though I am in possession of several decorations, I am not a collector of medals and ribbons. All that I have were either inherited (I am the steward/archivist for family history) as part of a relative’s group or were acquired as part of my restoration efforts to preserve the full story of a family member’s service.
A veteran myself, I recognize that the preservation of my own decorations is part of my responsibility to maintain the family legacy and history of service. With the exception of the decorations awarded to my father (a Vietnam combat veteran who is very much alive and well), I have been given the task of maintaining these priceless family artifacts which are inclusive of the medals and ribbons that I earned and received during my service. I couldn’t imagine seeing family history such as this falling into the hands of collectors rather than being preserved by our following generations.
It may be just my perception but it seems as though there is a steady stream of military-history books being released throughout each year with increasing frequency. With the passing of the World War II generation and their stories fading away, our nation’s interest in them, fueled by stories and films that dominated the national conscience from the mid 1990s through the middle of this decade, too has waned. The stories of the common soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have all but been forgotten. The attention in military stories has turned toward the more recent conflicts in the Middle East is more prevalent as the generation who fought and served in these conflicts is reaching (military) retirement age. However, there are still good stories from WWII that remaining to be told and a recent publication, though now a few years old, deserves my readers’ attention.
Prior to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ participation in WWII was in support of our European allies – predominantly Great Britain – by way of supplying materials to sustain their fight against the wave of the Third Reich that was washing over Western Europe. When Americans think about the Battle of the Atlantic, it isn’t uncommon for visions of the Allied convoys and the German U-boats operating in “wolfpacks” hunting the defenseless merchant ships come to mind. However, the overall campaign in the Atlantic Ocean was far more involved and following the United States’ declaration of war on the Axis powers, was truly a multinational alliance effort that led to the defeat of Germany. Many Americans participated in the harrowing and dangerous duties in the Atlantic in striving to support the fight in Europe. Convoy after convoy of materials, food and troops departed ports in the United States heading to destinations in Europe (England, Ireland, Russia) and in the Mediterranean faced the threat of being torpedoed by German U-boats who waited for the vulnerable ships to pass by. Shore-based anti-submarine patrols flew supporting missions from each side of the Atlantic providing air cover as far out to see as could be reached but there were still gaps of open seas that were ideal hunting grounds for the wolfpacks.
Convoys consisted of merchant ships, crewed by a mixture of merchant seaman, active-duty naval personnel and the US Navy Armed Guard (serving primarily as gunners, signal men and radio operators), destroyer-escorts, destroyers and, by 1943, small aircraft carriers that possessed the armament and tactics necessary to conduct anti-submarine offensive measures along with their role in providing protection for the convoys.
While there are many publications, documentaries and books that are fantastic in providing great coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic, not much exists regarding the men who served. Historian and fellow militaria collector, David Schwind spent years researching and traveling the United States in order to capture and retell the stories of American sailors who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. The one aspect of his effort that is unique (and was a complete surprise to me) is that each man that he spotlights was recognized by the Soviet Union with some of that nation’s highest honors and decorations. In fact, nearly 220 men who served in these convoys (as part of the United States sea services: Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) were awarded Soviet decorations of varying degrees, such as:
- Order of the Patriotic War
- First Class
- Second Class
- Order of Kutuzov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
- Order of Suvorov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
With the rise of Communism in conjunction with the West’s fight to stem the expansion of the Iron Curtain following WWII, many of these veterans tucked the medals away, opting not to wear them on their uniforms. In his December 2015 work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, Schwind provides individual narratives of each recipient, inclusive of their military careers and post-service lives. Along with the detailed information, he includes extensive photographs of each recipient’s Soviet medals, their presentation boxes, documentation, vintage photographs and images of the medals themselves. David Schwind’s photographic efforts in capturing the details of these incredible medals is nothing short of fantastic and perfectly compliments his extensive research. This book is not merely a compilation of veterans and their medals but rather a very personal presentation of vignettes, photographs and an extensive amount of supporting references.
The book production (by Schiffer Publishing) is first-rate with pages that are substantial and glossy, and printed in full color. The binding is stable and sturdy. Even the endpapers and are impressive with photographs of the veterans’ award cards. After nearly two years of use, my copy of Blue Seas, Red Stars looks like new though I have been through it, cover to cover multiple times and it shows none of the typical signs of use in many books of this size. Speaking of size, Blue Seas’ dimensions are consistent with those of many coffee-table books (9″ x 12″ x 1″) but is far from just a collection of nice pictures. The men who received these Soviet awards were truly heroes and they were so recognized by our WWII ally for their deeds and service above and beyond the call of duty. Many of the heroes in this book will be recognizable to many contemporary navy veterans and history buffs as their names have been affixed to transoms of a few notable combatant naval vessels.
Perhaps the most noteworthy fact of Schwind’s brilliant production is that the of the 217 Soviet medals that were awarded to American sea-service personnel, a significant number of these decorations remain with the veterans’ families and are treasured for their future generations and that more than 100 of the families participated in this project, partnering with the author and granting him access to handle and photo-document these treasures for his book.
It is my hope (especially within the capacity of my responsibility) that other families make the decision to preserve and maintain their family’s legacy and keep these precious awards to be handed down throughout their generations. However, if these pieces are divested, I hope that collectors will make every effort to assume the mantle of historian and continue the legacy where the family left off.
Blue Seas, Red Stars is a great addition to anyone’s library, whether they are a military or naval historian, militaria collector or simply interested in in the little-known relationship between WWII veterans and the Soviet Union’s gratitude bestowed upon them for their service during the war.