Category Archives: Military Art

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.

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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!

Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers


While reading a discussion on a militaria forum regarding a World War I veteran’s medal group (that at that time had recently been listed for sale by Bay State Militaria), I was reminded that so much in military collecting is out of reach for my budget. This particular collection of artifacts contained the Army officer’s decorations and medals which included the Distinguished Service Cross, Belgian Order of the Crown, Knights level, Belgian Croix de Guerre, three awards of the French Croix de Guerre, United States Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Legion of Honor, Knights class and many other decorations. Not only was this group considerably out of my reach but I couldn’t even afford to purchase this soldier’s WWI Victory medal (which included ten clasps, documenting the battles he participated in) if it had been parted out. The group was listed for just under $6,800 and based upon the amount of history the buyer acquired (yes, it sold very shortly after it was listed), it was worth every penny.

From a painting by noted artist, Arthur Cummings Chase, to the array of medals, decorations and ephemera, this WWI Army officer’s grouping is nothing short of spectacular (image source: Bay State Militaria).

The career of the veteran was not only significant during his time in uniform but in his work after he served. In reading his history-making accomplishments as noted, one could see why this grouping commanded such a high listing price:

  • This Officer was decorated while attached to the British during advanced Chemical Training in 1918. He then personally led the first American Chemical Weapons Attack in History as Company Commander of B Company, 1ST Gas and Flame Regiment.
  • A very historic grouping with a famous painting of this Officer by Joseph Cummings Chase which is in itself a treasure. This portrait was one of 125 painted in France in 1918-19 by Joseph Cummings Chase. approximately 75 ended up in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is one of just a few known to be in Private Hands.

This WWI Army officer’s (his name was not disclosed) group is purely museum quality as this officer also played a significant engineering role (during the interwar period) on New York’s George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel construction projects.

Meanwhile, back in the realm where I live (known to me simply as reality), my World War I collection consists of a few items that were affordable and have visual appeal. With my family serving in every American conflict dating back to the War for Independence, I try to locate objects that will display well and have some sort of connection to my family’s military heritage.  

Two pieces that fit my criteria (as stated above) and met my budgetary constraints are these WWI-specific wool flannel pillow covers. As it turns out, their similar designs complement each other quite well and will look fantastic on my office wall.

Pillow covers were quite popular during World War II with most designs being simple silk-screened patterns or pictorials on silk material. Typically, these were gifts purchased by the service members and sent to family and sweethearts as reminders of the loved one away at war. During the war, these were mass-produced and can be acquired without severely crippling your collecting budget.

Commemorating a wide variety of subjects such as military branches of service, forts or military bases, ships or aircraft, pillow covers have been dated to the first few years of the twentieth century. The early examples tend to be constructed from a wool flannel with lettering and designs stitched to the face.

While the common designs of WWII (such as the more generic “Army” and “Navy” versions) will be plentiful and therefore inexpensive, the more ornate or specific they are, the price will be higher. With Navy ships of significance (such as the USS Arizona or Enterprise) expect to pay a premium.

 

Yardlong Photography and the Military: Family Military History Discovery in Less than a Yard


Because I am known within my family and circle of friends as the military-history person, I am on the receiving end of artifacts from those who know about my interests. From the moment that I was gifted with my maternal grandfather’s WWII navy uniforms and decorations (which can be seen in this post) and my grand uncle’s Third Reich war souvenirs, my appreciation for military history was ignited.

Over the years, I have either received or been approached to determine my interest in becoming the steward of historical family military items which have included, uniforms, medals and decorations, weapons (along with artillery rounds and small arms ammunition), flags, documents and other historical pieces. Some of the most special items that I have inherited have been photography (albums and individual photos).  With the last box of items that were part of two family estates (my paternal grandparents and a step-relative), I received a nearly two-foot long, vintage panoramic photograph (known as a yardlong photo due to their length: these images can be nearly thee feet in length) of a U.S. Navy crew, professionally positioned and posed pier-side in front of their destroyer.

Finding this framed yardlong photo was a pleasant surprise. It took me a second or two to spot the lettering on the life-rings to know that this was my uncles’ ship. Moments later, I found them both, posed with their shipmates.

For the first half of the 20th Century, a common practice within the military was to capture, in photographs, an entire company, regiment, even battalion of soldiers. The same holds true with the compliment of naval vessels with divisions, departments or even the full crew (obviously, size of the ship and on-duty personnel dictate who is present in a photo). The photographs were taken with cameras that allow the lens to be pivoted or panned from side to side in order to span the entire width of the subject, exposing a very large piece of film. As with the negative, the resulting images were elongated and fairly detailed (most often, these were contact prints, the same size as the negative). However the extremities of the photographs were slightly distorted or lacking in crisp lines due to the chromatic aberration that is almost unavoidable. For the most part, the elongated images are quite detailed and almost without exception, faces are recognizable when the military units were captured within these yardlong photographs. There are still photographers creating panoramic images using vintage cameras and film.

The photograph that I received was in an old frame, backed with corrugated cardboard and pressed against the glass pane. As I inspected the image, I noticed the ship in the background behind the crew that was posed in their dress white uniforms. Noting the blue flaps and cuffs on the enlisted jumpers, I knew that the photo was taken in the 1930s. My eyes were drawn to the two life-rings that were held by sailors on each end of the image, displaying the name of the ship; USS Smith and the hull number, 378. From researching my paternal grandmother’s siblings, I discovered that both of her brothers had served in the U.S. Navy and were both plankowners of the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Smith (DD-378). Dating the image will take a little bit of work (there are no indications of when it was taken – not in the photographer’s marks on either corner nor written on the back). However, I do know when the ship was commissioned, when my uncles reported aboard and departed the ship. Discernible in the image on my uncles’ uniforms are some indications of rank. I can tell that the older brother (who enlisted in 1932) is a petty officer (he reported aboard as a Seaman 1/c) and the younger brother was still a seaman (I can’t see the cuffs of his uniform to determine the number of white piping stripes present) as noted by the blue cord on his right shoulder. I should be able to narrow down the period once I can go through the massive service records to locate dates of rank. However, my initial assessment is that the photo might have been captured near the time of commissioning or, perhaps to commemorate a change of commanding officers.

This yardlong image (a scan and a reproduction print) was sent to me by the son a of a veteran who served aboard the USS Vincennes (CL-64) during WWII.

This image was shot using a panoramic camera though it technically isn’t a yardlong photograph. The crew of the USS Vincennes (CA-44) is posed on the ship’s fantail, after 8″ turret and superstructure which is a nod to how many naval crew photos were posed in the late 19th Century.

Being an archivist for my ship and the recipient of some fantastic artifacts, I have been contacted by folks seeking to provide me with images to preserve within my photo archive. A few years ago, a gentleman emailed requesting to send to me a copy of a yardlong photograph that his father, a WWII navy veteran, owned from his time in service. The image was of the second cruiser (USS Vincennes) that was named for the city in Southwestern Indiana. The Cleveland-class light cruiser, hull number 64, had been laid down as the USS Flint but was changed during construction following the loss of the heavy cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island on August 8-9, 1942.  The light cruiser was completed and commissioned on January 21, 1944 and served gallantly through WWII and was decommissioned in September of 1946. The man who contacted me had the ship’s photo scanned at a high resolution and sent the image file to me (on a thumb-drive along with a full-size print).

I wish I could have landed this photo of the USS Tacoma (CL-20) crew from 1920, four years before her demise on Blanquilla Reef, Vera Cruz, Mexico.

I am not a collector of yardlong photography but when the images are contextual to the areas that I do collect, I am happy to be able to acquire them. Receiving the image of the Smith and finding my grandmother’s brothers in the photograph motivated me to promptly hang it with my other family military history. In scanning the image for this article, I am reminded that I need to have it properly framed with archival materials to allow it to be preserved for generations to come.

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.

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.