Category Archives: Ribbons

“Bluestar. Put all your clients in it”


“Bluestar. Put *all* your clients in it.” – Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox in the 1987 20th Century Fox film, “Wall Street.” ((Initial theatrical release December 11, 1987. Screen capture. © 1987 Twentieth Century Fox. Credit: © 1987 Twentieth Century Fox)

One thing I am sure of, I am glad that I don’t have to compete against the likes of Gordon Gecko (or Bud Fox’s insider trading) when it comes to purchasing militaria. But something about this blue star interests me.

While the film, Wall Street was a blockbuster hit in the late 1980s it certainly isn’t the subject of this article. As I sought to reconstruct the decorations that were awarded to my uncle, a 30-year navy veteran who served from 1932 to 1962, I spent a fair amount of effort for accuracy not only in the awards but also with the period-correct specificity. One such award, when it was instituted was slightly different from what it is today.

With the signing of Executive Order 9050 on February 9, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved one of the most recognizable and most-senior (in order of precedence)  unit awards for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC). The initial criteria for this award read:

“The Secretary of the Navy is hereby authorized and directed to issue a citation in the name of the President of the United States, as public evidence of deserved honor and distinction, to any ship, aircraft, or other Naval Unit and to any Marine Corps aircraft, detachment, or higher unit, for outstanding performance in action on or after October 16, 1941.”

Just twenty days later, President Roosevelt extended a branch-specific version of the award to be available for the United States Army (Executive Order 9075).

This Marine was awarded but a Navy Presidential Unit Citation and Navy Unit Commendation NUC). A star on the NUC denotes a second award however this one is oddly a PUC blue star (image source: U.S. Militaria Forum).

Both forms of the PUC were created as ribbon-only devices (meaning that there is no associated medal pendant), intended to be presented to a unit that distinguished (Merriam-Webster defines this as “marked by eminence, distinction, or excellence”) itself in combat against an enemy. Though this criteria would be further defined in 1957 by President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10694, the awarding of these ribbons remains limited with very few units receiving the distinction since World War II.

When the Navy’s award was initially instituted in 1942, it was done so with a unique appliance added to the ribbon. With most Navy and Marine Corps decorations, a star is representative of additional awards received. A single bronze star device added to a ribbon indicates that the wearer received the award twice while a silver star affixed would show five of the same award. In the case of the Navy’s PUC, when it was initially presented to the personnel of the decorated unit, it was done so with a single blue-enameled star device. Subsequent awarding procedure then followed protocol by affixing additional blue stars, departing from the standard procedure for other ribbon decorations.

My Uncle s award letter for the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon shows the specific mention of the blue star.

These examples of the Army Presidential Unit Citation demonstrate the differences between the two. The Army’s version features a blue ribbon with a gold metal frame. Subsequent awards are denoted with an oakleaf device (source: eBay image).

Collectors understand that it is typical for scarce, exceptional items to be highly pursued and the Navy PUC ribbon with the blue enameled star falls right in line. For the last two years, I’ve been seeking to complete a ribbon “rack” for my uncle’s display with this early variant of the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon. During that span of time, I have only seen one ribbon and star listed at auction. As I watched for my moment to bid on the ribbon, the price exceeded my threshold three days before the close, ending up  more surpassing my budget fivefold.

Something tells me that Charlie Sheen’s Wall Street character, Bud Fox wasn’t referring to this wonderfully scarce ribbon device in his efforts to burn Gecko.

 

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Affordable, Quick and Easy Display and Storage for Your Collection


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).

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 (ArmyNavyMarine 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.

The simplistic yet functional aspects of Riker cases and mounts provide collectors with the ability to display large numbers of pieces held firmly in place (source: Cowan Auctions).

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.

Displaying patches, such as these Vietnam War-era pocket suspended pieces, is easy (source: Beezman | Wehrmacht Awards).

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.

This Riker case contains a nice collection of WWI Imperial German medals and decorations. The collector added a more decorative backing material to add some character to the display (source: Mike Huxley | Pickelhaubes.com).

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.

Are the Best Sources of Militaria Online?


Almost to a fault, I am an online shopper, especially when I shop for birthday and Christmas gifts. I compare prices and seek out the best deals (inclusive of shipping costs) and try to find the best blend of economy, availability and convenience before I commit to a purchase. If I can avoid visiting a store in person and still find a bargain, I am satisfied. However, there are still merchants that I do enjoy patronizing (my local bike shop, for one) in person.

An overwhelmingly large percentage of my articles here and on my baseball militaria site cover my acquired artifacts that were predominantly sourced via online auctions. Seeking the militaria pieces that I am interested in outside of auctions can be a fruitless task for a person who doesn’t have the patience for garage, yard and estate sales. There are a few military surplus stores in my region as well as a local militaria business (that is seemingly never open) but they typically sell and buy modern items. What other sources are there?

Several years ago when I was becoming active in militaria collecting, I was invited to tag along with some veteran-friends (they are all Vietnam vets) to drive a few hours to a military antiques show held at the Jackson Armory in Portland, Oregon. I was overwhelmed by the number of tables that were filled with artifacts from present-day and back to the Civil War. Not only were there American items but also pieces from other nations’ armed forces, captivating my attention for hours as I walked (and re-walked) each row. I arrived at the show without a single objective – I had nothing targeted as I didn’t know what to expect and as a result, left empty-handed.  However, I did leave the show with a new understanding of the possibilities for locating pieces if other sources are do not yield results.

At this year’s show, there were considerably fewer tables of militaria for sale which coincided with the show’s small attendance.

As with other collectible shows (antiques, sports memorabilia, vintage toys, etc.), these gatherings are dominated by collectors and experts who are seeking to buy, sell and trade their pieces and since they are (mostly) private sellers, they don’t have the operating costs that brick-and-mortar business have to cover with their transactions. Items sold by individuals are generally less-expensive as they lack mark-up pricing.

With so few customers to engage with, vendors socialized among themselves. Though the show was smaller than previous years, there was plenty for me see.

This beautiful CAC uniform (along with the cap from the same period) immediately caught my attention.

Aside from seeking specific items for my collection, I have since discovered that I enjoy attending militaria collectors shows just to be able to converse in person with other collectors and people who are passionate about preserving history. This was the case last month when I made plans to attend a local, semi-annual show, hosted at the Olympic Flight Museum in Olympia, WA. Considering that most of what I am presently seeking (military baseball artifacts) is seldom seen within militaria collections, I had no expectations heading into this show. The last time I attended, my son (a budding military history buff and part-time collector) accompanied me but he has since left the nest and embarked upon his own military career. Desiring to spend more time with my best-friend and wife, I asked her if she would join me. I should mention that I am blessed to be married to someone who shares my passion for history and encourages me with my interests (and sometimes assists with the editing of my writing when she is available).

It has been nearly four years since my last visit and upon entering (this year), my initial observation, compared to what I saw in 2014, I noticed that there were about half the number of tables. After a few hours of carefully viewing what was for sale along with a fantastic display of a Coast Artillery Corps (CAC) collection (artifacts from now-defunct local coastal forts), I purchased a few small pieces to add to my collection of WWII naval officers metal collar and cap insignia and headed out to take my wife to my favorite local Mexican restaurant for lunch.

I am a veteran of the Cold War and seeing these Soviet medals being sold made me smile a little as I recalled the images of Russian officers with (seemingly) 60 pounds of medals pinned to their uniforms (see: https://bit.ly/2J0La8g).

With the Olympic show happening twice each year, the local opportunities are rather limited. I might consider driving to the Portland show in the future but that is about the farthest distance that I would consider traveling for militaria.  If you reside on left side of the continent, The West Coast Historical Militaria Collectors Show (billed as the largest gathering of military collectibles west of the Mississippi) might be a worthwhile place to seek the obscure or rare pieces that have eluded you.

If you have been a collector of militaria for more than a few years, chances are you have heard about The Show of Shows (SOS). The SOS is the largest gathering of militaria collectors and dealers and is hosted annually by the Ohio Valley Military Society. Imagine, countless rows of tables filled with all manners of militaria being offered for sale. If one cannot find pieces to complete a collection at such a show, then it is either extremely rare or non-existent.

For my humble searches, I will continue with my online pursuits of military artifacts (along with future birthday and holiday gifts)

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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