Category Archives: General Militaria Collecting
I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).
I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.
While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.
Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.
As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.
Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).
I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.
I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?
In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.
In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.
For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.
When I was invited to write for A&E’s Collectors Quest collector’s forum as their resident militaria blogger, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. Besides possessing some basic skills with my native tongue (or at least the written word), I knew that I would have a very diverse field from which to extract topics for my columns. With nearly two years researching and writing on an aggressive deadline schedule coupled with my passion for militaria collecting, I developed a fair amount of expertise that I brought to bear when I moved on to my own blog.
From my initial post on this blog (Militaria Collecting: It Isn’t Just Fatigues and Helmets), I mentioned the diversity of the “genre” and how far reaching – extending beyond the bounds of military-specific items – the various categories would be. It is very easy to be myopic as we focus on what we enjoy, forgetting that a specific area of collecting militaria could be part of a larger field of collecting that has very little to do with the military. One of those heavily-collected areas is in the field of cigarette/cigar lighters…more specifically, Zippo lighters.
My introduction to Zippo products came when I was a pre-teen as my uncle, a World War II army combat veteran of the Pacific theater, offered to warm my hands up with a unique device…a hand warmer. Fueled by lighter fluid, the warmer took the bite out of the cold that was causing my hands to stiffen and ache. I marveled at the its soft metal-feel and the warmth it provided. I remember seeing the name emblazoned across the device’s bottom, “Zippo.” My uncle was also a pipe smoker and when he went to light up the fragrant tobacco in his pipe, I again saw the name and it stuck with me for years. My uncle told me of the reliability of the Zippo; that it could still light up in a strong wind. He mentioned that all of his buddies sought them out, often trading battlefield souvenirs for them.
Though I do not smoke (I never have), I own a handful of the iconic, treasured pocket flame-producing implements. All of my specific pieces are lie firmly in the military category of Zippo collecting – specifically U.S. Navy (for those of you who’ve been following my posts, this would be obvious). The depth and breadth of my collection covers all of two ships, only one of which I served aboard, and numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of five pieces, all of which are in new condition (remember, I don’t smoke). I’ve even managed to acquire, though I don’t remember how, a navy-themed Zippo pocket knife.
Plainly and painfully obvious, I don’t possess much knowledge beyond being able to identify a lighter as being a Zippo versus a knock-off. Beyond that, I have to resort to my basic abilities of research to determine the sort of information collectors need: the age of the lighter, scarcity, desirability, condition, etcetera. One of the nice things about a company like Zippo is that they consider both their customers those who use the products and the collectors, producing quality products, standing behind them, and providing collectors with authoritative production data and information, dating back to their infancy in the 1930s.
Interested in collecting Zippo? Try some of these resources to spark your interest::
For me, I will continue on in my collecting pursuits, leaving my lighter collection to remain as is – though I might have to locate a hand warmer to warm my hands and nostalgically reminisce about those days with my uncle, now long gone.
A question was recently posed by militaria collector from the UK asking how Americans feel “about important artifacts which are part of US cultural history being in the private collection of a British musician.” The question was in direct response to a March 2012 publication of a 416 page volume, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, that details musician Phil Collins’ extensive collection of historic artifacts directly related to the 1836 battle at the Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio, Texas, simply known as the Alamo.
Like many American kids of the post-World War II generation, I’ve always related the Alamo to Hollywood-produced entertainment such as Disney’s Davy Crockett (1954-55) and The Alamo(1960), glamorizing the historical characters such as David “Davy” Crockett (played by Fess Parker or John Wayne) and James “Jim” Bowie (Kenneth Tobey or Richard Widmark) and their legendary fight with Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. Glorified in these portrayals are the manner in which each of the two main characters fought and ultimately died alongside their comrades. American youth would be inspired to don faux coonskin caps and buckskin outfits as they act out the scenes.
Singer, songwriter and drummer Phil Collins (of rock band Genesis) was one of those kids growing up watching the onscreen portrayals of Davy Crockett. Fascinated by the Alamo and the siege and battle that took place there in February and March of 1836, Collins was drawn to collecting militaria when he discovered a Crockett autograph for sale while on tour with Genesis, “I didn’t know this stuff was out there, that you could own it,” he noted. Phil had been bitten by the militaria collecting bug and the resulting, spectacular Alamo-specific collection that he spent decades assembling is unequaled.
In March of 2012, Collins diverted from his musical creativity and ventured into writing about his militaria passion. He published his first book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey which is packed with hundreds of pages of beautiful photography and illustrations documenting the depth and breadth of his collection. Though his book is listed for $120, it can be found for less than $40.
Regarding the question that was posed at the beginning of this post, my response is that there exist monuments, buildings, graves and other large, tangible items and places to view and visit that are related to this historic, tragic event in our history. The individual artifacts such as in the collection of Mr. Collins have been in private collections and out of view of the general public all along. There are probably thousands of individual pieces remaining in private collections that are or can be connected to this event and are still unviewable by the general public.
I see what Phil Collins has done in publishing his book as an act of sharing treasures that have never previously been made available to the public. While the book has (for me, at least) a considerable price tag, I still see this work as a gift to fans of history. Through his efforts, we get to have something tangible that provides us with a look at a slew of items that probably wouldn’t have been assembled together without Phil’s decades of effort.
I applaud his interest in American history, militaria collecting, the Alamo collection and his work on this book.
“To the victor go the spoils.” While this quote by (then) New York Senator William L. Marcy was said regarding politics, it has been applied with regularity in reference to the taking of war prizes by the victor at the expense of the vanquished.
The taking of war prizes has been in play since the beginning of warfare and will probably continue into the unforeseeable future. The victorious, ranging from individual soldiers to military units and on up to the entire nation, maintain these treasures as symbolic of the price that was paid on the field of battle. Individuals maintain items as mementos of personal experiences and reminders of their own sacrifices. Some are painful reminders of comrades who died next to them in the trenches or aboard ship.
In recent years, as aging American World War II veterans began to draw closer to their own mortality, thoughts of healing wounds that have remained open since returning home have begun to emerge. Many veterans like Clair Weeks began to see the personal items removed from dead enemy soldiers as having little personal value to them. Seeking to provide the dead enemy soldier’s surviving family members with the captured hinomaru yosegaki or “good luck” flag, Weeks began a quest to connect the item with relatives in Japan.
American museums have also taken steps to repatriate items. In Deltona, Florida, Deltona Veterans Memorial Museum staff are actively pursuing the return of a Japanese sailor’s possessions that were taken from his body by a U.S. Air Force pilot in Iwo Jima. These pieces include a silk, olive green ditty bag that held the sailor’s personal effects, a bamboo-and-paper folding fan, a Japanese flag and a collection of photographs.
During the War of 1812 in a naval engagement between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon, the American frigate was overpowered (with 40-7 of the Americans killed in the battle) and captured by the British sailors. Taken as a prize, the Chesapeake was repaired and commissioned as the HMS Chesapeake. Upon her 1819 retirement from the Royal Navy, she was broken up with some of her timbers used to construct the Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire, England. In 1908, the blood-stained and bullet hole riddled naval ensign was sold at auction to Viscount William Waldorf Astor who, in turn, donated it to the National Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Today, the war prize flag is on public display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
Perhaps a having good, long-standing relationship with the United Kingdom contributed to the positive gesture of the 1996 repatriation of a piece of the Chesapeake’s timber to the United States. Americans can view the wood fragment at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum today.
These stories of war prizes being returned to their nations of origin are uplifting, if not inspiring. But there is another, less “sunny” war prize repatriation story afoot that has the stirred a significant amount of public outcry and resistance from U.S. veterans and military leadership.
Most Americans know very little about the conflict in the Philippines that immediately followed the end of the Spanish-American War in which the Americans received the island nation from the defeated Spanish for the sum of $20m. A small faction of Philippine nationals rose up in resistance to what was perceived as another imperialist ruling foreign nation. Seeking their independence, an uprising led by Emilio Aguinaldo lasted for three years from 1899-1902, yet some attacks on Americans continued for years.
In a coordinated guerrilla attack upon soldiers of the U.S. 9th Infantry stationed in Balangiga (in Eastern Samar), 54 American soldiers were killed while nearly another 25 were wounded. In response to the attack, two U.S. Marine officers initiated a vicious reprisal, ordering all Filipino males 10 years of age and older bearing arms be shot. Both were subsequently courts-martialed. As part of the action against the insurgents, American soldiers captured three church bells that were used as signaling devices for coordinating the Filipino attack. The bells were shipped to the United States and have been central pieces of memorials to honor the soldiers that were brutally killed in the Filipino attack.
Today, the Bells of Balangiga are the central point of controversy, in which the descendants of the insurgents who attacked the U.S. troops are seeking their return to the Philippines to be used to honor their “freedom fighters.” Many U.S. veterans see this as destroying a monument that honored the Americans who were killed and erecting a monument that instead honors their killers.
Since 1997, talks have taken place at the highest political levels between the two nations as the return of the bells could go a long way in garnering political and national relations capital for all involved should the decision be reached to repatriate the cherished bronze castings. Today, the bells remain as placed at what is now known as Francis E. Warren Air Force Base (formerly, Fort Russell).