Category Archives: Ribbons

Gaultney Brothers Sacrifice; USS Arizona, Iwo Jima and the USS Vincennes


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.

Iwo Jima 1945 – the 3rd and 4th Marine Division Cemetery was beautifully laid into the volcanic soil. Though David Gaultney was laid to rest here, he (along with all of the Marines buried here) would ultimately be removed from the island and relocated (U.S. Navy photo).

PFC David Gaultney’s Marine Corps boot camp photograph, taken in April of 1945 (image source: The Pantograph).

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.

Gunner’s Mate Third Class Ralph Gaultney died from wounds sustained aboard the USS Arizona during the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack (image source: The Pantograph).

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 Gaultney’s ship, the USS Arizona shown transiting the Panama Canal some time before her 1930s modernization (M. S Hennessy Collection).

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.

Steaming towards Guadalcanal in August 1942, the USS Vincennes (CA-44) dressed in her camouflage paint scheme, escorts the troop transports carrying the First Marine Division (M. S Hennessy Collection).

Initially listed as missing in action, Machinist Mate 1/c Leonard Gaultney perished when his ship, USS Vincennes (CA-44) was sunk on the night of August 8-9, 1942 near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands group (image source: The Pantograph).

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.

A grim reminder of naval warfare, this list of those USS Vincennes sailors who remained missing months after the ship was lost in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8-9, 1942. MM1/c Leonard Gaultney is listed among the MIA.

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.

The boxed American Defense Service Medal and liberty card group from USS Vincennes (CA-44) survivor, Fireman 3/c Charles Henry Findlay.

USS Vincennes (CA-44) survivor, Charles H. Findlay, Fireman 3/c (image source: imthistory.org).

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.

Listed among the survivors, Fireman 3/c Findlay made it through the battle and sinking and went on to fight the enemy, serving aboard the USS Santa Fe.

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.

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“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.

 

References:

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.