Category Archives: Militaria Collecting and the Law

History Must be Preserved; Militaria, Monuments and Memorials


I am struggling against the dark and heated current that is sadly sweeping across our society and this nation. I do not want to engage in any sort of political discussion or debate with people due to the direction that having such conversations will invariably be taken. Divisiveness is a tool that is employed to cause strife and to cause implosion among a people. When did we become so angry that we have such disregard for our fellow humans? It seems that thought is no longer engaged prior to speaking or writing a response to another human being.  Every word uttered or written by anyone is dissected and and examined through an opaque and colored magnifying glass that obscures all of the exquisite elements of the author. Instead of seeing a fellow human being who is in possession of equal ability, intellect and faculties, people are being dismissed for holding a thought, skin color, gender, belief, social background life-experience or any other element of diversity and promptly labeled as they are shouted down. Yes, I am truly struggling.

This is a blog about militaria collecting which is for me, a vehicle for sharing researched history for the purpose of its preservation. I prefer to learn from history rather than to ignore and dismiss it as irrelevant. I have been fascinated by historical elements and how they shaped our society. I recognize that the history of mankind is wrought with darkness and shameful incidents, horrible atrocities and events that cannot be excused nor ignored. It seems that today, our society is spending most of its effort and energy focusing on the negative history of one group of humanity while overlooking context, other facts and details that broaden the narratives that would impact (i.e. weaken) the points being put forth. At what point do we stop and see what is right within our communities? Why are we tolerating open hatred and targeting people with violence? I cannot sit idle and not address what is happening.

I am an American first and foremost. I have ancestry that is as diverse as the nation of my birth. I love my country enough to have served her in uniform as did so many of my ancestors dating back to before this country was founded. I am a descendant of people from Western and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East and the Ivory Coast of Africa.  My ancestors arrived here of their own free will in search of religious freedoms as they escaped persecution in their homelands. My ancestors arrived here against their will in the chains of human bondage. Regardless of how my people arrived here, I am proud to be a product of all of these people and choose to honor all of them by being a good husband, father, son and citizen. I will show respect towards my fellow Americans – my neighbors and countrymen. In the preservation of military history, I hope to capture and share the stories of other Americans (not just my forbears) and the sacrifices they made to keep our citizens (Americans and the rest of the world) free from (real) tyranny. In order to identify and remind people what tyranny looks like, the preservation of the artifacts and relics from the nations who embraced it must take place within the confines of the public space, museums, places of learning and within our homes. My wife’s family knows the sting and pain of tyrannical (maniacal) rule all too well being of Eastern European Jewish descent with those who remained in their homeland falling victim to the atrocities of one of the most horrifying tyrants of modern history.

There is not a single person who is right in this image. This is not what our veterans served and died for.

Watching our nation tear itself apart by drawing lines of division by levels of melanin, ancestral heritage or other absolutely uncontrollable circumstances is asinine to say the least. To suggest that any human is incapable of rising up from despair and poverty undermines every God-given talent or characteristic that are inherent within all people and is equally asinine. Blaming anyone or anything for your own choices and decisions is the same as to suggest that individual achievement was not the result of that person’s efforts or drive. True, there are few who have a seemingly easier road to their success but there are others who have inherited incredible wealth and circumstances only to end up destitute. We are products of our own decisions. While each of us has a unique set of circumstances and has faced tremendous obstacles (yes, some have had more than others), what matters most are the decisions we make and the actions that we take for ourselves.

Serving in the uniform of the United States armed forces provides service members with an equal set of rules, standards, policies and laws for which to benefit from. Opportunities are equal for each person within their occupation, rank and duty station. There are also obstacles that stand in their way (I faced several of my own throughout my career) but to suggest that one segment of the population has it better in the service than others is utterly false. I don’t dismiss the individual examples of racism, sexism or other issues that arise. These are individual examples and not the norm. Myopia drives the generalization and subsequent branding that there exists an unequal playing field within the ranks. It is simply not true and in viewing the people who fill the positions of leadership across all branches is contrary to the perverse narratives pushed forth. When I see the segregation of the armed forces that lasted through WWII and the racism that ensued in the years following desegregation, I see how far our military has come and the diverse-yet-unified force that we now have is proof. When I served decades ago, there were no lines of color any more.  I am not foolish enough to believe that racism didn’t exist at that time but it certainly was not apparent.

Admiral Frank Fenno’s Naval Academy baseball medal from 1924.

In my collecting, I strive to tell the entire story (for example, Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece and Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). My love of military (and baseball) history is the culmination of the good that is present within both of these areas of historical focus. Each was once wrongfully segregated and are now shining examples of unified groups of people from diverse backgrounds that have come together for a common and united goal. I take the good with the bad in order to provide balance (good and evil both exist). Telling the full story is why I have chosen to maintain in my collection the Nazi artifacts that were captured by my uncle during his service as an Army Intelligence officer during WWII. It is also why I believe that collectors should still be able to buy and sell these artifacts, despite how offensive the sight of such imagery might be to some people.

This country is a nation of laws that are derived under the guise of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the same). No where within these founding documents is the idea that being offended is illegal. In fact, the First Amendment guarantees the right of freedom of speech which is quite often employed for the purpose of offending certain groups of people. One form of protected speech is the freedom of self-expression that includes art. Many artists enjoy this protection and use it as a means to take shots at groups of people with which they have disdain for (politicians, for example). Being offended is highly subjective and very personal. One person may find a painting of a sunrise to be offensive (this is a real-world example that I have witnessed) while the next person would see the sheer beauty in the artist’s presentation, ability and the visual meaning seen in such a display. How would we craft legislation to protect the one individual from being offended by the painting?

Still Flying: Both the Japanese naval ensign and rising sun flags fly over these JMSDF destroyers. Do the children of WWII veterans killed in POW camps call for the banning of these flags?

In the United States, no laws exist that ban the symbology of those regimes that our military vanquished. Unlike many nations in the European Union, the image of the swastika has not been outlawed despite the fact that beneath that banner, countless millions of people were systematically and brutally murdered (including members of my wife’s family). Similarly, the rising sun of the Empire of Japan also has not been banned (nor has it been eradicated from Japan like the Swastika was from Germany) despite that nation’s mass killings of three to ten million Asian civilians (in China, Korea and the Philippines). In the post-World War II months, service members returned home from the European and Pacific theaters with souvenirs from our fallen enemies, stuffed into their duffel and sea bags. Many of these pieces were emblazoned with the symbols of the tyrannical, murderous regimes. The Japanese Maritime and Ground Defense Forces still fly the flag of the rising sun. Japan flies their symbol throughout the world at their embassies and even during the Olympic games and yet not one protest or cry of racism is offered within our shores. One of my relatives suffered through years of torture within prison camps in the Philippines, languished in a Hell Ship and then spent the remainder of WWII in two different torture camps in Japan after surviving the defense of Corregidor and the Bataan “Death March.” Thousands of allied troops perished from torture, brutal beatings, executions and suffered having their bodies cannibalized before they perished from the excruciating pain.  Despite these war crimes, the Rising Sun of Japan is still proudly flying (yes, I do realize that it is the national symbol and was established in the late 19th century) and as far as I know, there are no bans on the sale of Japanese WWII militaria in EU or the U.S.

A recent Dublin Times news article was published regarding an auction listing of Third Reich militaria in Dublin, Ireland that included imagery of the despised WWII German symbol. A local resident saw the auction and was considerably upset to see the items let alone have the knowledge that they were listed to be sold. While it is understandable that the person who was voicing his objection to the display and sale  as the man’s mother was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of six, she was placed on a train to Treblinka, but escaped. His great-grandparents and great-uncle all died in Auschwitz. This man, born and raised after his mother’s flight to safety and freedom had never seen the historical items in the same context that his family had. The wounds are deep and it is understandable. My wife and I had concerns of a similar reaction when I inherited my uncle’s war souvenirs. Upon their arrival in our home, my wife grew concerned about her grandmother’s feelings regarding the pieces knowing that she still remembered her family that was murdered in Europe. However, when she arrived at our home and my wife spoke about the objects, her first response was, “I’d like to see it all.” After sharing the uniforms, flags, hats, documents, etc. with her, she sensibly commented, “these items didn’t kill my family. People did,” she spoke frankly. “This is just history,” she remarked, swiftly dismissing our concerns. We are all different and react and respond differently to situations and my wife’s grandmother’s response isn’t the measuring-stick for what should and should not be traded or displayed in terms of militaria and history. In that vein, the opinion of the gentleman in Ireland should not dictate the rights of others.

Tearing down and destroying history, regardless of how dark and terrible is no different from what the Third Reich did in the 1930s in these book burning parties.

Watching the events unfolding surrounding the statues of Confederate legends has left me scratching my head as to all the new-found offense. I know that racism is (sadly) alive and seemingly doing better than before (my wife and I have both experienced it throughout our lives) and yet I still cannot fathom how statues factor so centrally in the push against it.

What is next for us? Shall we tear up the Constitution and Bill of Rights because of the authors’ slavery-legacy and that emancipation wasn’t included before ratification?

Rather than contextualize the reasons the statues were erected and what took place in the months and years following the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in terms of reconciliation and reconstruction, our current culture disregards history altogether and raises these inanimate objects as the reasons that racism is still being perpetuated. What people fail to understand is that once we start this pattern of destroying everything that is offensive, there is no stopping. I am left wondering, “who decides what is offensive?” If someone has an opposing perspective or viewpoint, do we remove their rights as citizens and send them to be re-educated? I personally know a few people who were “guests” of the communist Vietnam reeducation camps and have heard about what takes place. Some of my friends who support the removal of statues have also been very outspoken about the Constitution being outdated and no longer valid (due to the author, James Madison, having been a slave owner) leaving me aghast. What will their beliefs be when a person comes to power who they do not agree with after the eradication of our founding document?

True American spirit is shown by those who risk everything to help their fellow countrymen in need. Politics don’t seem to be a factor for either the rescuer or rescuee.

As I watch Hurricane Irma bear down on Florida and find myself worrying and praying for my brothers (military comrades), family and friends who are directly in her path, I await to see how our dividing nation comes together (as they did last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey) to help one another. We are stronger than those who seek to divide us. We are a singular, unified nation.

My apologies to my long-time readers who wasted those last three minutes reading through this post. While some my think that I crossed into the political sphere in this space, I actually strove to avoid politics entirely in order to draw attention to our need to pause for a moment, take a breath and spend time in reflection and educating ourselves about history; all of it. We live in a time where information and knowledge is at our fingertips and so few people bother to delve into more than just a misleading headline, social media post or meme. Please challenge what you hear, see and read. Be the voice of reason in your sphere of influence rather than the one with the jerrycan of petrol in search of a fire.

We can do better. We can come together.

 

 

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California Congressman Demonizes Collectors with Introduction of a Bill


The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved.

The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded since 1932 to veterans who were wounded or killed in action in WWI through the current conflicts. Showing the reverse of the PHM with the words, “For Military Merit” and the space beneath where it is traditionally engraved with the recipient’s name and rank.

When citizens perceive what they think to be a travesty or tragedy, they scream to their lawmaking-representatives to create laws in order to make changes that will help them to feel good that they did something positive. It is a common action among Americans to want to bring about changes, to right wrongs and to make society more safe. We feel better about ourselves when we stood up and participated in the process. Sadly, the only thing positive with many of these actions are that those scant few people can feel good while the rest of society has to deal with the negative ramifications and unintended consequences brought about by these actions.

This week new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8) to address what he and a select few Americans feel is a troubling trend – the sale of Purple Heart Medals (PHM) among collectors. HR 6234 (known as the “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act”) if passed would “prevent merchants from profiteering from the sale of military-issued Purple Hearts, eliminating the market and making it easier to return them to their rightful owners.” Taken at face-value, this seems to be a very noble goal. Who wouldn’t want Purple Heart Medals returned to their rightful owners?

“These military collectors cheapen the Purple Heart by buying and selling this symbol of sacrifice like a pack of baseball cards,” said Cook, who served 26 years in the Marine Corps before joining Congress, rising to the rank of colonel and receiving two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. –  See: Selling Purple Hearts would be illegal if this bill becomes law

One of the underlying beliefs of the bill’s sponsor and his supporters is that militaria collectors are profit-seeking undesirables who buy and sell these vaunted medals, capitalizing on the specific aspects surrounding the awardees’ circumstances (for which the medal was given) such as:

  • If the veteran was killed in action (KIA)
  • If the battle in which the veteran was wounded (mortally or otherwise) was notable or pivotal
  • If the veteran was note-worthy:
    • a famous or semi-famous service member
    • a member of a notable military unit or vessel

In viewing advertisements of PHMs for sale, these facts are often presented in the medals’ descriptions not too dissimilar to features of a used automobile, rendering them seemingly insensitive and cold. I admit that even I am put-off when I see how they are exhibited as available for purchase.

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans' photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

This Purple Heart Medal collector goes to great lengths in order to demonstrate to the public the terrible costs of war and the personal sacrifices made by Americans. By providing viewers with the ability to see the medals, view the veterans’ photos and read their story, this collector, like countless others, ensures that the individual American history is not lost to time. (Source: ToHonorOurFallen.com/Edward L. Maier III)

Regardless of the manner in which the medals are listed, most of the collectors that I have encountered are not only sensitive regarding the nature of these medals and the reason that they exist and are awarded, they go to great lengths to gather the facts surrounding the medals in order to emphasize the veterans’ service and the gravity of the price that is repeatedly paid by them for our nation. The steps that are taken by these collectors in order to preserve the history is extremely honoring and very sensitive towards the veteran and the surviving family members (in the case of KIAs-awarded medals).

There are many militaria collectors who also wore the uniform of this country. Many of them, like me, take pride in our service and that of others and we strive to preserve the history that is being discarded by families of veterans (and even the veterans themselves). One of my colleagues, a fellow Navy veteran, is pursuing his next book project (his most recent work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, is a similar, monumental undertaking that recognizes those American servicemen who were decorated by the Soviet Union for heroic acts in convoy and anti-submarine duty in the North Atlantic during WWII)  that focuses entirely on the Purple Heart Medals that have been awarded to service men and women who were killed in combat. Many of the hundreds of medals that he has personally photographed for this book are in the hands of collectors who want to see the stories of the awardee preserved and shared in perpetuity.

Bear in mind that I make that statement as both a collector and as someone who is very sensitive about the issue of PHMs being bought and sold (due to the somber nature of why these medals are awarded, owning a medal that is connected to such significant personal loss is too painful for me to see past). Aside from the “For Sale” listings where the current owner painstakingly describes as much detail surrounding the veterans’ service and how they fell in combat, I also have difficulty when I read about an excited collector’s “find.” There is a fair amount of gray area between celebration of landing a medal that helps the collector tell a particular story (in their collection’s area of interest) and one that a collector picked for a very insignificant amount but will garner significant profit when it sells.  I know that I am not the only collector who struggles when we see this on display. I also don’t mean to disparage any fellow collector for what brings them excitement and joy with their collection.

One person in particular who is celebrating the introduction of this bill and is hopeful to see it passed is Zachariah Fike (Captain, Vermont National Guard) who is the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization whose mission is to return Purple Heart Medals to the awardees or their families. “We are absolutely humbled to see Private Corrado Piccoli being honored through this bill by Congressman Cook,” reads a Facebook post (dated October 3, 2016) by Fike’s organization. Fike has historically been in opposition of collectors, stated to NBC News in 2012, “’It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”’ In my near-decade of collecting, I have learned that Fike’s assessment (of medal collectors) is the rare exception rather than the norm.
There is little doubt that Congressman Cook is responding in lockstep with Fikes (who has been vocal in his frustration with collectors’ who did not surrender their medal collection to him) and believe that in banning the sale of these medals will compel collectors to hand them over to organizations and people who are bent on returning them to families. What these well-intentioned people have overlooked is that so many families are the ones who have divested the heirlooms to begin with. For many reasons such as:

  • No connection to the distant, deceased relative
  • The family suffered a falling out with the veteran (broken marriage, the veteran abandoned his family, etc.) and the medal is a painful reminder
  • The survivors are opposed to war, the military and anything that is connected to or associated with it
  • Would rather see the medal and history preserved by a collector who has demonstrated this capability

There are many stories of medals being discovered in the most deplorable situations; some of the worst being discovered in dumpsters and curbside garbage cans. As the only one who had an interest in the military history of my family, I was bequeathed militaria from my relatives that included Purple Heart Medals (one of my uncles was wounded in action during both WWI and II). No one else cared. Now I am responsible to ensure that these items are cared for at the end of my life. If this bill passes and no one wants to inherit these items (and with the glut of nearly two million medals being in the same situation as mine), where will they end up?

What happens when Fike comes calling on the family having “recovered” a PHM from a collector only to find that doing so, causes grief with the people who wanted to rid themselves of the item(s) to begin with. What becomes of the medals then?  How does this proposed law deal with the collections of PHMs when the collectors pass away and have no future collectors to transfer the medals to? According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the current estimation is that there have been more than 1,800,000 Purple Heart Medals awarded since 1932. Of those, how many thousands reside within individual militaria collections and what is to become of them? What percentage of those are unwanted by the families?

One of the unintended consequences of the previously established laws (banning the sale of the Congressional Medal of Honor [CMOH]), countless American artifacts have left our shores and landed in the hands of foreign collectors undoubtedly to ever return to our shores. The law that prevents the sale (similar to the one proposed by Congressman Cook will force collectors (who are seeking to recoup all or part of their investment) to locate buyers outside of the United States.  Worse yet, some domestic CMOH collectors who have been in the possession of their medals predating the law (that prohibits the sale) have since been discovered by the federal authorities; their medals confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the FBI.

Banning the sale does very little in reaching the stated goal – to facilitate the return of the Purple Heart Medals to veterans and families. It also creates a problem for law enforcement. With 1.8 million medals in existence, how do they discover transactions, track ownership of medals and what becomes of those recovered who have no surviving family with which to receive said “missing” medal?

Despite what Captain Fike stated about collectors, his actions contradict him in regards to how he truly considers militaria and medal collectors. His push to locate a legislator to take such short-sighted and drastic steps to ban the sale of these artifacts are a direct assault of collectors that will have long-term negative impact on his non-profit organization’s noble efforts. The bill will also include penalties for veterans and families who attempt to sell these medals; there are no exclusionary provisions nor exceptions. Congressman Cook and Captain Fike appear to be targeting (whom they deem to be) the victims in the Purple Heart trade along with the collectors.

My voice hardly matters and no one would bother to take note of what I have to say in regards to this issue. Nevertheless, I believe that this good-intentioned law is ill conceived and will ultimately make it more difficult to restore the medals to the families and veterans who want to see them returned.

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