Category Archives: Military Art

Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington


What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.

My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:

  1. What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
  2. Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
  3. Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
  4. Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?

My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home.  Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.

A cabinet card photograph of the USS Washington that has been hand-toned (colorized) shows the white-and-buff color-scheme of the day (before the Navy transitioned to haze gray). This image has some moisture damage on the right side.

This real photo postcard of the USS Washington (taken while she lies at anchor off of Seattle, her future namesake) is one of my favorite photos of the ship.

One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).

As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.

It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.

Distracted by the fantastic blue and gold colors along with the name of the ship, I initially believed the pillow dated to the early decades of the 20th century (source: eBay image).

One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.

The only original image of the WWII battleship, USS Washington (BB-56) that I have in my collection, shows the bow of the most-decorated non-carrier of WWII slicing through the slightly rough seas of the Pacific. Her two forward mounts of her main battery appear almost diminutive in the absence of objects of scale.

The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.

Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.

Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.

 

 

 

 

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Jungle Art: Painted WWII Pith Helmets


A close-up of th 6th Marine Division insignia painted onto a USMC veteran’s helmet. This veteran served in one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, Okinawa (source: eBay image).

In a recent online auction, an amazing example of a veteran-painted pith helmet sold for less than $150. Had this helmet been a period correct M1 helmet, there is no telling how much attention it would have drawn from collectors or what incredible amount of money it would have fetched.

Hawley Products Company, one of the manufacturers of M1 helmet liners, made these fiberboard headgear “sun” helmets for use as protection from the intense sunlight and torrential downpours of the South Pacific tropical islands. Due to their lightweight design and construction, the term ‘helmet’ hardly seems applicable when compared to the beefy, bulky nature of the steel pot.

Here is a very nice example of a painted pith helmet with the Marine’s name stenciled across the bill (source: eBay image).

Piths were issued to all branches and were available in two colors or tones. Green was predominantly issued to naval personnel while khaki or light brown went to army and army air forces people. Marines could be seen wearing either color as they were issued whatever was available within the supply system or they adapted to the limited stores-issue and found creative ways to <em>requisition</em> (I use this term quite loosely as some Marines were rather resourceful in cutting through the red tape of the supply system) them.

A close-up of the Guadalcanal Pith and the EGA (source: eBay image).

As with any creative service member deployed away from loved ones and home, artistic expression tended to be revealed on available mediums. Piths, not meant for combat, were viable canvases for these artists to modify with their own personal embellishments. Wearers <em>tended</em> to be rear echelon service-members rather than front-line combatants, but some did don the helmet near the fight. Sometimes the fight came to them while they were engaged in other in-the-rear activities.

Though not as nicely embellished as the Okinawa pith, this Guadalcanal helmet would be a great addition to any collection (source: eBay image).

If you’re seeking to add a visually stunning helmet to your collection but can’t afford to splurge for the painted steel pot, these pith will certainly add diversity and originality to any display. With patience and diligence applied to your searching techniques or saved searches, you will find the perfect addition.

Showing the top of the Guadalcanal pith helmet (source: eBay image).

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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.

 

Researching to Establish Provenance: A Cigarette Box with Historical Connections


While much of my militaria collection consists of family-connected items (such as uniforms, decorations, documents and photographs) I also have some oddities that serve to add interest and perhaps to make a display more visually aesthetic. In reviewing the (online displays of) collections from other enthusiasts, it is quite easy to see that many of them have focused their attention upon such areas as service branches, theaters of combat, veterans’ groupings, decorations and medals to list the most prevalent.

Crossover collecting can be even more rewarding due to the uniqueness that it offers the enthusiast.  For example, an individual may already be a collector of memorabilia from a commercial company such as Coca-Cola (focusing on signage, advertising, drinkware, etc.) who then discovers a militaria sub-set within that area of collecting. Other areas of militaria crossover can include Tobacciana, Zippo lighters and my personal favorite, baseball.

The piece that I am focusing this article on does fit into a crossover the tobacciana category but hardly signifies that my interests are branching into that area of collecting.  This artifact fits into another crossover facet of collecting that is more my speed: folk art or, in military terms, Trench Art.  As an amateur military historian and someone who enjoys artifacts related to the U.S. Navy, this cigarette box was something of interest to me. I also thought that the piece would look great on my dresser and serve as a storage place for personal items while fitting in alongside of my other antique boxes.

I have owned this silver cigarette box for several years but never spent any significant time researching it.

The cigarette box is engraved with “Best Wishes to the Torpedo Captain” along with a griffin and a list of naval aviators and their commands (part of Air Group 153). When I first acquired this piece, I assumed it was made from scrap metal – possibly obtained from an aircraft part – and crafted by a squadron aviation structural mechanic. As the box has since been displayed for the last few years, the surface has tarnished which leads me to suspect that the metal material is silver. The absence of any hallmarks means that the only way to determine the material composition is to perform one or more tests (hopefully) without damaging the artifact.

As with other militaria artifacts, especially named pieces, researching is part of the enjoyment (and sometimes the pain when research hits a dead-end) and though the collector that I purchased this from included some information, I pursued the information further. Examining the engraving, the names are listed out:

COMD’R.  R. A. Teel, CAG 153
L.T. CDR. W.G.  Wright, C.O. VF 153
L.T. CDR. H. M. Jensen, C.O. VBF 153
L.T. CDR. F. D. McGaffigan C.O. VB 153

Judging by the present information, one would think that the odds to identify the box’s original owner might be fairly descent, and with good reason considering that there were nine data points (ten, if one includes the griffin and the presentation statement) to base the research upon. Understanding nomenclature, rank abbreviations and the numerics of naval aviation squadrons is a good starting point. Navy rank abbreviations during WWII were a bit more complex than the simplified modern counterparts. Officer rank structure can be defined easily:

Rank WWII Abbreviation

Current Abbreviation

Ensign Ens. ENS
Lieutenant Junior Grade LT.j.g. LTJG
Lieutenant LT. LT
Lieutenant Commander L.T. CDR. LCDR
Commander COMD’R CDR
Captain CAPT. CAPT

 

For those who are new to naval aviation squadron designations and their meanings, “V” is the designation for fixed wing aircraft.  For the sake of brevity and keeping this post focused on these specific squadrons, I’ll refrain from providing definitions for all WWII naval aviation squadrons.

  • CAG – Commander, Air Group
  • VF – Fixed Wing Fighting Squadron
  • VBF – Fixed Wing Fighting/Bombing Squadron
  • VB – Fixed Wing Bombing Squadron

Commander, Air Group 153 (listed above as “CAG”) with Commander R. A. Teel, was the group commander who was responsible for the squadrons within his group (VF-153, VBF-153 and VB-153). Lieutenant Commanders W.G. Wright, H.M. Jensen and F.D. McGaffigan were commanding officers of the subordinate squadrons reporting up to Commander Teel.  Successfully researching the information (names, squadrons) will certainly help to provide great information but I have no way of determining the original owner of the box (to whom it was presented).  Being geographically located at the farthest reaches from the National Archives or the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC (while still residing within the contiguous United States) limits the scope of research. I am resigned to scouring the fractional data that is available online.

The ultimate goal of my research was to determine the identity of the original owner of the cigarette box which, when I purchased it, was thought to have been one of the aviators named in the engraving. Judging by the inscription, “Best Wishes to the Torpedo Captain,” that title, in my estimation, refers to the commanding officer of the squadron of torpedo bombers.  Being that all of the other listed squadrons were either fighter, fighter-bomber or bomber squadrons, it would seem that the Torpedo Captain would have been the skipper of the Air Group’s VT squadron, which was not engraved onto the box.

Before proceeding further, I sought to confirm that the air group’s assigned VT squadron also shared the same numbering convention.  A quick search led me to a very limited listing of Air Group One Fifty Three (ComAirGrp 153). Indeed, the composition of the group consisted of four squadrons:

  • VB-153 (composed of 15 VSB aircraft, or fixed wing scouting bombers)
  • VF-153 (composed of 36 VF aircraft, or fixed wing fighters)
  • VBF-153 (composed of 36 VF aircraft)
  • VT-153 (composed of 15 VTB aircraft, or torpedo bombers)

While this information was a solid initial step, the source lacked further confirmation regarding any of the engraved names on my box. As I write this article, I await a response from a fellow collector who has access to naval aviation records. Turning my attention to the names listed on the case, I do have a few avenues in which to proceed in order to get a clearer picture of the careers of these naval aviators. When I received the box, inside was a folded-up printout (of a WWII Memorial entry for Francis D. McGaffigan) that provided me with a head start for one of the box’s engraved names.

Captain Francis Daniel McGaffigan (source: WWII Memorial).

Lieutenant Commander F. D. McGaffigan, my research revealed, was born January 13, 1910, to Irish immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating high school, he enlisted as a Seaman Second Class and was assigned to Naval Aviation Elimination Training in Boston (shown in official records as “Squantum”) in January of 1940. According to his memorial page (submitted by a family member), the naval aviator served with a number of commands during WWII. I’ve spotlighting a few:

  • Commanding Officer, Bomber Squadron (VB) 306, flying SBD-5 Dauntless , Solomon Islands
  • Commanding Officer, Bombing Squadron 99, Saipan

McGaffigan’s career as listed by his relative is highlighted with the following post-war assignments. Subsequent research could determine what, if any, wartime service the captain might have experienced prior to the conclusion of his career.

  • Commanding Officer, Bombing Squadron 150, USS Lake Champlain (CVS-33)
  • Commanding Officer, Bomber Squadron 153, USS Kearsarge (CV-33)
  • Air Officer, USS Essex (CV-9)
  • Commanding Officer, Naval Air Reserve Training Unit, NAS Lakehurst (NJ)

Captain McGaffigan’s awards and decorations which include:

  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Medal (3)
  • Naval Reserve Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal (with campaign star)
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory

McGaffigan’s post-naval life commenced with retirement in 1960, and he lived out his year, passing in 2001.

After searching through the careers of the naval aviators listed on the box, it is clear that the name that was absent is the one who was presented with the box from the remainder of those listed, starting with the Commander Air Group (CAG), Commander Richard A. Teel.

Richard Ashley Teel’s 1936 Naval Academy graduation portrait (source: The Lucky Bag).

Commander Richard Ashley Teel was born on Christmas Day, 1913 in Annapolis, Maryland (his father, Roland M. was a boy’s school principal and his mother, the former Susan B. Ashley, was an English immigrant homemaker), and after completing high school (at Severna Park H.S.), he entered the United States Naval Academy in June of 1932. Upon his graduation and commissioning, Teel was assigned to the battleship, USS New Mexico (BB-40). In 1938, LTJG Teel reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola for aviation training. Teel’s first assignment upon receiving his naval aviator’s wings was with the newly formed Bombing Squadron Seven (VB-7) aboard the USS Wasp (CV-7) in 1939. By 1942, VB-7 was redesignated a fighter squadron (VF-71) and was transferred to shore-based operations on Espirtu Santo following the sinking of the Wasp in September of 1942 (she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine). After VF-71 was disbanded, LT Teel was flying from the USS Independence (CVL-22). Considering that Commander Teel is not the focus of this research, I ceased pursuing his career further. I was able to find that Captain Richard Teel retired after thirty years of service on July 1, 1966, and enjoyed another 28 years, passing on August 9, 1994. Richard Ashley Teel’s final resting place (the Naval Academy Cemetery) is not far from his birth home in Annapolis.

Commander Wilson George Wright III.

Lieutenant Commander Wilson George Wright III was born in Ogden, Utah, on May 15, 1916, to Wilson G. and Lelia D. Wright. He graduated from Ogden High School, and attended Weber College for one year and then entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June of 1935, and was commissioned an ensign on June 1, 1939. Following graduation from the Naval Academy, Wilson served one year on the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) and one year on the USS Lamson (DD-367). Wright reported to NAS Pensacola for flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator on December 16, 1941. His first aviation duty was in VF-71 aboard USS Wasp (CV-7) and flew combat missions surrounding Guadalcanal in support of the First Marine Division landings during the invasion of Guadalcanal, August 7-8, 1942. LTJG Wright was aboard when the Wasp was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-19 near San Cristobal Island in the Solomon Islands.

Wright’s next assignment was as Executive Officer of VF-33 which was land-based in the Solomon Islands, flying many combat missions including fighter sweeps and bomber escort missions over Rabaul.

Following six months as a Fighter Type Instructor at the Naval Air Station Atlantic City, he was ordered to the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, Michigan, to start and commission Air Group 97, and served in that unit as the Commanding Officer of Fighter Bomber Squadron 97. He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his service in Air Group 97. Upon the decommissioning of Air Group 97, Wright’s next assignment was as the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 153, followed by a tour as the commanding officer of the Flag Administrative Unit and finally, as the staff personnel officer of Commander Fleet Air Alameda.

Following his retirement, having attained the rank of commander, Wright worked as an engineer and supervisor in the aerospace industry, spending three years with the Lockheed Missile Division on the Polaris Missile project, 17 years with Rockwell Space Division and was involved with the lunar landings and the Space Shuttle programs. He was 95 years old when he passed away on Nov. 2, 2011, and was laid to rest in home state of Utah.

Among Wright’s numerous awards and decorations were:

  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Medal (5)
  • Navy Commendation Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory

The last of the names listed turned out to not only be notable, but he earned the status of an Ace fighter pilot (meaning that he had five confirmed air-to-air enemy kills) during his service with VF-5.

Lieutenant Commander Hayden Martin Jensen was born on January 30, 1911, in St. Paul, Minnesota where he attended high school and college. Jensen was commissioned an ensign on August 19, 1939. Having completed flight training, Ensign Jensen was assigned to Bombing Squadron Five (VB-5, part of the Yorktown Air Group), flying the Northrop BT-1 aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-5). By 1941, the young ensign had transferred to VF-5 (the “Stafighters”) as his role changed from a bombing to a fighter pilot, flying the F4F-3 Wildcat. Still assigned to VF-5 when it was transferred to the USS Saratoga (CV-3) in June of 1942, Jensen would meet the enemy in the South Pacific – in the Guadalcanal Campaign – in two separate engagements in August of 1942, twice earning the Navy’s second highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, scoring two enemy kills on August 7, 1942, and three more on August 24. For these engagements, LT Jensen was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. LCDR Jensen assumed command of VBF-153 on March 26, 1945.

LT Hayden Jensen poses with the men of VF-5 aboard the USS Saratoga, July 15. 1942. In a little more than two weeks, Jensen will have his first two of five enemy air kills.

Jensen married the former Henrietta Mathilda Schirmer (also of St. Paul) on December 27, 1938. Still serving on active duty, 38 year-old LCDR Jensen passed away on June 6, 1949, at Naval Hospital Newport, Rhode Island, with his wife, Henrietta by his side. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Among Jensen’s numerous awards and decorations were:

  • Navy Cross Medal (2): see citations
  • Distinguished Flying Cross Medal
  • Air Medal (3)
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal

After reviewing the incredible service details for these four naval aviators, I was convinced that the box never belonged to any of the men listed on the box. Based upon their careers, none could be considered as “The Torpedo Captain” leaving me to pursue the next logical step. As with each naval air group, I confirmed that Air Group One Fifty Three did, in fact, have a torpedo squadron (VT). Cursory internet searches were dead-ends as far as attempting to discover possibilities of assigned commanding officers. Fortunately, I am a member of an amazing group of fellow collectors on the U.S. Militaria Forum where there are folks who possess years of experience and knowledge and have access to records and sources. I posted some requests for assistance and like clockwork, two members answered me and began to fill in the blanks. Instantly, I had the names of two naval aviators who commanded VT-153: LCDR H.C. Madden and his successor, LCDR F.G. Lewis.

The officers and men of Torpedo Squadron 153 (courtesy of Jack Cook).

LTJG Harlan C. McFadden Jr.

LCDR Harlan Curtis McFadden Jr. was born June 29, 1918. After completing high school in Clayton, New Mexico, McFadden pursued his degree in English Literature at the University of New Mexico before enlisting as a naval aviation cadet on July 9, 1941. He began six weeks of elimination flight training at Naval Air Station Long Beach, California and, upon completion, McFadden commenced flight training at NAS Corpus Christi for 44 more weeks. Harlan finished his final 12 weeks of operational flight at NAS Ft. Lauderdale.

LT McFadden was assigned to Torpedo Squadron Three Hundred Five (the “Red Asses”) from 1943-44. On August 1, 1944, when VT-305 was ordered decommissioned, McFadden was transferred to VT-99 along with five fellow flyers and additional enlisted support personnel. Much of his early months of service during the war were spent flying missions over various Japanese strongholds in the Solomon Islands, such as Bougainville and Rabaul. On March 26, 1945, LCDR McFadden assumed command of VT-153 at Naval Auxiliary Air Facility (NAAF) Lewiston in Maine.  One of McFadden’s assigned aviators was LT George H. W. Bush who served with the squadron from March through September of 1945. Ten days after the squadron was activated, Mcfadden was relieved of command by LCDR Lewis. From April 6 through his discharge on September 5, 1945, I have been unsuccessful in locating McFadden’s naval service or why he was relieved of command. In his four years of service as a naval aviator, McFadden saw a total of 14 (four months in the North Atlantic and 10 in the South Pacific). On his separation documents, McFadden stated that he was pursuing a career in commercial aviation.

LCDR Frederick Gary Lewis was born on March 13, 1916, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Though I have had some success in researching Lewis, I have not been as successful in discovering as much detail regarding his life and the breadth of his time as a naval aviator. He was commissioned an ensign on November 14, 1940, and was assigned to the fleet aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) as the Communications Officer. Ensign Lewis was present aboard the ship during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, witnessing the carnage and utter destruction on the ships and facilities surrounding the Pennsylvania, including the tremendous damage inflicted upon the destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375) which were sharing the same drydock as the battleship. As the battleship was floated and directed to San Francisco for repairs, LTJG Lewis reported for flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Once Lewis received his wings of gold, he was assigned as a flight instructor at NAS Ft. Lauderdale where he served for the next twelve months. In December 1943, LT Lewis took command of Composite Squadron Seventy-Eight (VC-78) aboard the USS Saginaw Bay (CVE-82). His only combat action that he experienced was in support of the liberation of the Philippines in October of 1944. Receiving a temporary promotion (to LCDR) prior to relieving LCDR McFadden on April 6, 1945, serving as VT-153’s commanding officer until June 1946.

Other than Lewis’s permanent promotion to LCDR in 1950, I was unable to find anything further regarding his naval career. Frederick Lewis passed away on April 7, 1978 at the age of 62 in San Leandro, California.

SB2C of VT-153 courtesy of Jack Cook.

After diving deep into each of the men, I had one remaining piece of information left to work through – the insignia of the griffin that was engraved on the top of the cigarette box. I started to seek insignia for all of the listed squadrons. I was able to locate just two insignia and squadron nicknames: VBF-153 was listed as the “Copperheads” though the corresponding insignia that I found didn’t seem to fit the name (more research to follow); VB-153 was known as the “Flying Cannons” and its insignia seemed to fit perfectly.

My contact at the U.S. Militaria Forum provided me with the insignia for VT-153 which added confusion; the “Gremlins” as they were known, did little to support my thought that the griffin on the box bore some significance, however, that isn’t where my trail ended. Following the lineage of each squadron, I found that VA-153 (“A” for attack squadron, the current designation for a carrier-based fixed wing bombing aircraft), which was disestablished in 1977, employed a very similar-looking griffin in their logo. The two griffin appearances is more than likely coincidental but it certainly leaves me with the idea that there is some connection.

Attack Squadron 153’s insignia – a griffin – (as seen on their unit patch) has to be more than mere coincidence considering the similar image on the cigarette box

Ultimately, my research did not provide me with any sort of definitive evidence that I could use to pinpoint the original owner of my silver cigarette box. I am deducing that it was most likely given to LCDR Frederick G. Lewis from his air group colleagues near or after the end of World War II.

Read more about collecting unusual militaria:

Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option


I’ve said it so many times in the past: it is paramount to making wise purchases that collectors research an item prior to handing over hard-earned finances to make a purchase. However, there are occasions within militaria collecting where the collector is stumped by what he or she might be looking at, yet still feel compelled to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire it.

Recently, a very dear friend and fellow collector presented me one of his most recent acquisitions and wanted to get my input as to the markings and what they might indicate. He was stumped by some of the heraldry and details but there were other engraved elements that showed the piece to be from World War I.

The dates of 1914, 15, 16 and 17 automatically rule out this matchbox as being a U.S. trench art piece.

I spent several minutes examining what appeared to be a trench art matchbox. Clearly, the item shown is constructed from brass and was handmade. The brass plates were rolled out and soldered together to form an oblong can-shape with another piece cut and soldered into place at the top. A piece of wood was shaped and fastened to comprise the case’s bottom, and adhered with some sort of clear glue or shellac. Judging from the length of the box, the brass was an unrolled and flattened small arms casings, a very common resource used in trench art making.

What does the crescent and “winged Z” indicate? The hand-tooling is quite ornate and aesthetically pleasing. I’d say that this was a solid score for my friend.

On one side, the maker tooled a pattern and left a smooth shield motif with what appears to be a monogram of the initials, “MB.” At the surrounding corners of the shield are “1914”,” 15”, “16” and “17” which clearly indicates the first few years of World War I.

Etched into the opposing side of the matchbox is what appears to be a crescent or “C” with the opening pointed upward. Inside the crescent are two wings – one, at the bottom, pointing to the left with the top one pointing to the right. Connecting the two wing tips is a heavy line running diagonally, right to left from the top to the bottom. All three pieces appear to form the letter “Z.” Superimposed over the diagonal line is a small numeral two. Over the top of this “winged Z” is appears the year, “1917.” To the top right is a star with radiant beams extending outward to all directions providing a backdrop design. The top panel is etched simply etched with “Champagne”, surrounded by tooled pattern.

The matchbox top has “Champagne” engraved. To me, this clearly indicates that the owner spent a good portion of WWI serving in these battles.

 

I knew that the piece was from WWI and was potentially French or British in origin (it could even be German) due to the dates of the piece, as the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917. Could the crescent indicate Arabic or Islamic participation? Could it be connected to the French Foreign Legion? Does “Champagne” refer to the battles that were fought in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917?

Due to the sheer beauty of this piece, it has proven to be a very wise investment my friend made (at least in my opinion) regardless of his lack of certainty about it. This matchbox will be a fun and interesting research project. Perhaps one of you recognizes the emblems or has any ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts!