Category Archives: Military Historical Publications

Mending a Damaged Heart: Gunner McKinney’s Posthumous Purple Heart Medal


USS Vincennes (CA-44), August 1942 in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal (courtesy of Brent Jones).

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.

USS Vincennes fires a salvo in support of U.S. Marine landings on Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942 (Courtesy of Brent Jones).

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.

Two of USS Vincennes (CA-44) Curtiss SOC Seagulls secured to one of the ship’s catapults (The Veteran’s Collection).

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.

Still illuminated by the Japanese search lights, USS Quincy is down by the stern and aflame following Admiral Mikawa’s attack. Flames from the burning Vincennes can be seen on the horizon to the left of Quincy (U.S. Navy photo).

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.

The first page of the USS Vincennes MIA List submitted on September 3, 1942 shows Gunner McKinney as he was first reported being missing in action (source: “A Log of the Vincennes,” Donald Dorris, 1947).

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.

Removed from the packaging, the Purple Heart Medal showed signs of many years of neglect. Though McKinney perished nearly 80 years ago, it was still a somber moment to see and hold his posthumous decoration for the first time (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

USS Vincennes (CA-44) in May, 1942 at Pearl Harbor with one of her SOC Sea Gulls taxiing away from the ship (The Veteran’s Collection).

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.

The gilding is clearly worn on the extreme edges of the planchette and surrounding the engraving (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

They ornate type-1c engraving is unique to early wartime Navy Purple Heart Medals awarded to sailors who were killed in action (The Veteran’s Collection).

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.

Our “new” presentation box is in good condition comparable to that of the medal it now holds. (The Veteran’s Collection).

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.

Paper and Postcards – Telling a More Complete Military Story


USS Quincy (CA-39) photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. To the left of the image, USS Vincennes (CA-44) can be seen burning in the distance (image source: Naval History and Heritage Command | NH 50346).

Although I am not much of a ephemera collector or fancy myself a philatelist, there are certain aspects of these areas of collecting that interest me. More specifically, if there are ephemera or postal items that connect with or align to my focus areas, I try to grab them in an effort to augment my collection.

People might see the term ephemera and wonder what it means. What sort of item can be characterized or classified as such? In order to answer that question, at least for myself, I proceeded to search the internet. One of the first items within the search results was the organization that is dedicated to these collectors, the Ephemera Society of America, who characterizes it this way:

“Ephemera includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.”

For this article, the specific categories (presented among the group’s list of 26) that I am touching on are photographs, postcards, and brochures. In some cases, a few of my items  (such as real photo postcards) span multiple categories.

In 2009, I published my first book (and hopefully, many more to come though much time has passed since then without a subsequent offering) about the naval warships that bore the name USS Vincennes. In the process of assembling my collection of artifacts that would be used to provide the readers with some visual references, I realized that I had amassed a significant group of items relating to the CG-49. I also realized that though I had a smattering of items, I was really lacking in anything associated with, at the very least, the two WWII cruisers. This realization catapulted me into active militaria collecting that was very focused.

Since I started writing about militaria, I have authored articles (see below) that include a smattering of some of the items from my own USS Vincennes collection.

The items documented in these posts represent a growing and well-rounded and ever-increasing group of Vincennes-related militaria and would make for a nice arrangement or display. With my ephemera and philatelic additions, this collection (and any subsequent displays I might set up) takes on a more vibrant and colorful appearance.

The philatelic pieces (covers) from the CA-44 cruiser all date from the late 1930s and provide a documented timeline of the ship’s early years of service. The cover from the CL-64 documents the launching of the second Vincennes cruiser in 1943. Combining the ephemera (photographs) and philatelic pieces, my collection has depth and dimension.

The Japanese produced postcards depiction of the Savo Island battle is not too far from the reality (see the Japanese photo of the Quincy burning and foundering – above) of what took place overnight, August 8-9, 1942.

One of the more interesting artifacts in my collection is a postcard that published during the war. When I saw the postcard listed for sale, I noted that it was being sold by someone located in Japan and the text of the listing was lacking details but the title and the artwork were enough to motivate me to submit a bid. The postcard’s face featured an artistic depiction of three American cruisers, wrecked and burning among shell-geysers (as the Japanese ships pressed their attack upon the wounded American cruisers) that, while meant to serve as propaganda, was actually close to what truly happened. I asked a friend translate the Japanese text which revealed the title of the image as, “Night (Attack) Warfare at Tulagi.” The caption states that the painting was displayed at the second Great East Asia War Art Exhibition, which was held in 1943.

The reverse of the Savo Island battle postcard. I have been meaning to re-send a higher resolution scan my friend so that it too, can be translated.

The ships that are depicted in the image are (unknown to the Imperial Japanese Navy officials at the time) the USS Quincy, USS Astoria (CA-34) and the USS Vincennes. All were left disabled and burning after a night engagement by Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force at Savo Island. This painting was a propaganda piece that was more fact than inflated story-telling as the attack was the largest surface defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy during WWII.

I was quite surprised to find such a piece existed and was elated to obtain it for my collection.

 

Wahoo! A Bounty of Historical and Antique Books!


There are abundance of book dealers and vendors to visit at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and attendees should spend time in each booth to find the treasures they seek.

Having attended many types of collectibles (sports memorabilia, coins, comic books, etc.) and antique shows over the course of the past few decades, I can attest that this event (that held my attention for several hours) was probably the most captivating of them all.

Knowing that I had not previously attended a show of this nature, one of my militaria collector colleagues told me about the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair and that there would be book dealers who specialize in military history and associated rare and hard to find publications. Knowing that I’d have an opportunity to locate an out of print work or simply peruse literal pages of military history made attending this show an absolute must.

While the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair is dominated by vintage and collectible books, there is also a considerable amount of ephemera, such as this WWI war savings stamps poster, for sale.

These two late-19th century books are in pristine condition.

Waiting in line to enter the exhibition hall, a staff member briefed the eager crowd about the rules, in order to provide the sellers with a measure of inventory security, to gain admittance: there would be no heavy coats, large bags or loose books allowed in. Once I checked my coat, I walked through the large double doors and my eyes immediately widened. From the highly organized booth spaces, complete with LED-lighted glass display cases and large bookshelves and wall-to-wall carpet, one could tell this wasn’t the typical gathering of vendors.

The very first display that I visited, my eyes were overwhelmed by the pristine, recognizable titles. I began to peer into the gleaming displays featuring books and noted works that were worthy of the bright lights and presentation. Books from the 18th and 19th century in pristine condition were sitting side-by-side with rare, one-of-a-kind manuscripts and documents. Booth after booth, I was continually amazed by each vendor’s wares.

Unfortunately for me, most of the pieces that truly held my interest had price tags well into the thousands (such as the Narrative of the Mutiny aboard His Majesty’s Ship Bounty published in 1790 for a mere $12,500, which was exceptional). Had my bank account been more flush, I would have had a much more difficult time trying to make a decision between the various historic items for purchase.

With a few dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I couldn’t leave the show empty-handed. Having walked the entire show over the course of a few hours, I returned to an earlier-visited vendor who specializes in military books and selected the signed first edition of Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane’s World War II narrative about the legendary submarine, the USS Wahoo and her fearless skipper, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

After visiting the military book vendor’s booth several times, I was drawn to add to my collection of Medal of Honor recipients’ autographs; purchasing Rear Admiral O’Kane’s work on the WWII submarine, the USS Wahoo.

With a few dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I couldn’t leave the show empty-handed. Having walked the entire show over the course of a few hours, I returned to an earlier-visited vendor who specializes in military books and selected the signed first edition of Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane’s World War II narrative about the legendary submarine, the USS Wahoo and her fearless skipper, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

My first edition copy of Wahoo is autographed by Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane.

My feet thoroughly tired and my hunger pangs overwhelming me, my time at the fair drew to a close and I was happy to be leaving with a piece to add to my collection of autographs from notable military veterans.

My Signature Soapbox: Veterans of Valor Autograph Collecting


One of my favorite Medal of Honor recipient autographs is this one from Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

For the current 2017 Major League Baseball season, twenty four players will earn $21,000,000 or more to play the game. Of those, two pitchers; David Price, Boston Red Sox and Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers will earn $30m and $33m (respectively) to collect “outs” for their teams throughout the season (and post-season).

Being the huge baseball fan that I am, I do understand that the MLB season is gruelingly long at 162 games and half of them are on the road, visiting cities stretching across the United States and into Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Life on the road is difficult and has considerable impact on family life with all the time away. While the season typically starts in late March to early April, for the players, it actually begins in February with spring training. If the team makes it to postseason play, that means they are working from mid-February to late October.

Many athletes’ families do not live in the city in which they are playing, further adding to the separation challenges. Players routinely miss out on birthdays, anniversaries and other family gatherings. For roughly eight months of the year, these athletes are subjected to air travel (some aboard chartered team jets) and the nicest hotel rooms. While on road trips, team equipment managers pack and unpack their gear, ensure that their baggage is in their hotel rooms when they arrive and picked up when they depart the various cities.

Meeting 12 of the surviving members of the Blacksheep of VMF-214 was a thrill for me. Ace, Lt. Colonel (Pappy Boyington’s wingman) was quite amusing as he and his wife “attempted” to steal my baby daughter, snickering and laughing as he wheeled her stroller away. All that I had to get signed was this book by notable author, Barrett Tillman.

During batting practice and pre-game warm-ups, fans arrive early for the chance at obtaining the autograph of their favorite players on a baseball card, ball or scorecard. Autograph hounds seek out the stars of the game to get as many items signed as possible, even hiring kids to obtain as many signatures of the game’s elite players as possible. Autographs of the stars command premium prices when sold on the market. Many of the stars understand this part of the business (yes, the game of baseball is a business) and choose only to sign at arranged events where they are paid fees, commanding thousands of dollars, further padding their multi-million dollar salaries.

By now, you are asking yourself, “what does this have to do with militaria or military collecting?” I ask that you give me a little latitude as I am getting to the heart of the subject.

As a member of the local aviation museum (which is one of the best in the nation), I occasionally attend functions that typically focus on the stars of military aviation. During these events, one or more figures make appearances where they interact with the audience, detailing or describing their escapades in aerial combat or flight operations in support of significant military historical events. The schedule typically follows the format of a presentation in the auditorium, followed by a question and answer session, then an opportunity for the “fans” to get an autograph.

Since I’ve been a member, I have had the opportunity to meet legendary veterans that were significant participants, authors of events that had considerable impact on the outcome of the war. From Marine Corps pilots of the Black Sheep squadron (VMF-214), “sled” (SR-71 Blackbird) drivers, Tuskegee Airmen, and countless Aces from WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. The roster of historical figures is nothing short of impressive. While the queue of autograph seekers isn’t small at these events, it pales in comparison to those seeking signatures of the multi-million dollar ballplayers.

Captain Donald K. Ross, Medal of Honor recipient (for his actions aboard USS Nevada on December 7, 1941) wrote this book about MoH recipients with ties to Ross’ adopted home state.

Is it fair to compare the two? I think it is when we consider the cost of service to our country, especially when one is deployed to a combat zone. The tour of duty isn’t limited to an eight-month season. The training is far more intense and exceedingly more difficult. While batting practice may have its risks (getting hit by a pitch or taking a foul off the foot or leg), ball players aren’t psychologically preparing to protect their own lives or that of their teammates.

Deployments are a far cry from the road trips of their Major League counterparts. Some are cooped up in cramped quarters aboard ship, have to sleep in fox holes, or seek shelter beneath a truck in the desert. Current soldiers, sailors and airmen can spend up to 16 months away from family with occasional access to phones or email for a momentary taste of home. During World War Two, some were in theater for years, on the front lines for months at a time with brief respites mixed in. Mail from home was only an occasional luxury, if at all.

The risks ball players face each time they step out onto the field are real – torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament ), rotator cuff tears, elbow ligament damage and in some rare cases, the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a wild pitch to the head. When compared to what our service men and women face – such as being shot; losing limbs, eyesight or hearing; and death – the multi millionaire athletes’ reality takes a significant backseat.

Another Marine Corps ace and Medal of Honor recipient, Major Joe Foss’ signature in his autobiography is a treasured addition to my collection.

Readers might suggest that my comparisons are patently unfair. My response is that the comparison is meant to provide focus on how we the collectors, place value and emphasis on athletes (and actors, musicians, etc.) over those who have sacrificed so much more. While in the area of autograph collecting, signatures from well-known veterans often command high prices on the resale market, lesser known vets or common military personalities get no attention.

Though he didn’t earn a valor medal for his service in the USMC during WWII, his personal accounts (told in both Ken Burns’ “The War” and Tom Hanks’ “The Pacific” television series) were remarkable. I was happy to receive his signed WWII memoir.

I used to obtain and collect signatures of ball players and amassed quite a collection. Unfortunately, most of the signatures were from prospects who never truly panned out, rendering the collection to more of a humble status in its value. I did manage to obtain some choice stars and hall of fame players. But to me, these pale in comparison to the other more significant inscriptions that I have obtained since I started focusing on veterans.

I doubt that most of the signatures have much in the way of monetary value to autograph collectors, but to me, they are priceless mementos of personal encounters with men who have “been there.” My collection contains autographs from 32 Medal of Honor recipients, two World War II Marine Corps Aces, several WWII, Korean and Vietnam war Navy Cross recipients, several silver star recipients, many prisoners of war and members of the famed “Easy” company (Band of Brothers) veterans and many more.

The personal sacrifices made by these men easily overshadow any significant achievement or career milestone attained by the greatest Hall of Fame baseball player…unless that player also happens to be a combat veteran (my collection contains a few of those signatures as well).

Navy Lieutenant Commander George Gay signed his autobiography in 1982. LCDR Gay was awarded his Navy Cross medal for his squadron’s torpedo dive bomber attack on the Japanese carrier, Kaga. He was the only member of his squadron to survive the attack (all were shot down, including Gay).

I didn’t intend for this posting to be a rant against ballplayers or those who enjoy collecting their autographs. My goal was purely to call attention to the value of those who willingly raise their right hand, swearing to protect this nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic and then proceed to do that very thing. Serving in the military tends to be a very thankless job and when the service member finally hangs up their uniform, there are no invites to attend any All Star weekends for autograph signing sessions.

I surrender my soapbox.

See Also:
Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors