Category Archives: Military Art
Five months. Depending upon your perspective, this span of time may seem to be a brief moment or a lifetime. If you are anticipating a well-planned vacation, you count the days down with excitement. If you are completing a career and your retirement date is approaching, you might have some anxiety about the significant change in life that you are facing. For the men on Corregidor in May of 1942, it was the culmination of a long-fought battle that was about to come to an end.
The Japanese had planned simultaneous, coordinated attacks on United States military bases in an effort to subjugate American resistance to their dominance in the Western Pacific. Seeking to seize control of natural resources throughout Asia and the South Pacific, the Empire of Japan had already been marching through China, and having invaded Manchuria in 1931, they continued with full-scale war in 1937 as they took Shanghai and Nanking, killing countless thousands during the initial days of hostilities. American sanctions and military forces, although not actively engaged, stood firmly in the Japanese path of dominance.
The father of my uncle (by marriage), enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and was assigned to the Decontamination Unit of the 4th Chemical Company, one of 204 members of the 5th Air Base Group that had been transferred to the in Far East Air Force in the Philippines in late October. Like many other new privates, this man had enlisted to escape the tight grip of the Great Depression and massive unemployment, seeking steady pay while embracing a new life of service to his country. The Philippine Islands, though remote and thousands of miles away from the comforts of home, represented a certain measure of adventure. He was unaware what the next four years would bring.
On December 8, 1942, Japanese forces landed on Luzon in the Philippines as they kicked off what would become a lengthy campaign in an effort to gain control of the strategic location and to remove the threat of any resistance of their ever-expanding empire by the forces of the United States. Grossly under-prepared for war, the 150,000 troops (a combination of American and Philippine forces) were plunged into battle, defending against the onslaught of the 130,000 well-seasoned, battle-hardened enemy forces.
The American forces were almost immediately cut off from the promised supplies and reinforcements that would never be sent.
Over the course of the next five months, U.S. and Philippine forces fought a losing battle in an almost constant state of retreat as supplies wore thin and troops wore out. Exhausted, beat-up and starving, the defenders (of the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor) were done. Having suffered considerable losses (25,000 killed and 21,000 wounded), General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright indicated surrender by lowering the Stars and Stripes and raising the white flag of surrender. More than 100,000 troops were now prisoners of war in the custody of the Imperial Japanese forces and would endure some of the most inhumane and brutal treatment every foisted upon POWs. My uncle’s father, a young private was now among the captured, on the march to an uncertain future.
The five months of uncertainty and hopelessness that my uncle’s father experienced as a Bataan Defender since hostilities began would become years of daily struggles to survive in prison camps where beatings, starvation and executions were the new normal.
To say that Prisoner of War artifacts are a rarity is a gross understatement. POWs (captives of the Japanese) had to scrounge, steal and beg for basic necessities. Any personal possessions they might have had during the 80-mile forced march were taken once they arrived at makeshift camps. Those few captives who were crafty would manage to conceal small mementos, avoiding detection by the prison guards.
Aside from personal accounts of the atrocities that were told by liberated prisoners after the war, documentation proved helpful in war crime trials of the Japanese camp administrators. Prisoners ferreted away scarce paper and documented brutal acts and names of POWs who were killed or died of disease and starvation. Any of the items that were brought home by these men have tremendous significance as historical records and possess value well beyond a price tag.
May 6, 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the surrender that launched a painful chapter in my uncle’s father’s life that remained with him for the rest of his years. Through my research, I have been able to determine that he was a POW at the Davao Penal Colony until it was closed in August of 1944. By the war’s end, he had been moved to Nagoya #5-B having made the trip to Japan aboard one of the infamous Hell Ships.
He never really talked about his experiences (at least with me). This man chose instead to let the past remain in its proper place. Unfortunately, I don’t know what might have become of any items he may have returned home with. My hope is that if they do exist, his POW artifacts are with his children or grandchildren, preserved in hopes that his experiences are not forgotten.
Bataan Prisoners of War References:
I doubt there are many collectors who have NOT experienced the current run that I’ve been on, though I certainly feel alone in this rut.
Over the past several months, I have been seeing some amazing online auction listings of seldom-seen militaria pieces. It seems that with each week that passes, an item gets listed that falls into one of my many robot-searches, alerting me to investigate and research the piece. After the necessary due diligence, I am reeled-in and decide what I can afford and get set to place my highest bid (yes, I use a sniping program). After a few days of waiting, I receive the dreaded notice that I had been outbid milliseconds after mine was placed.
Aside from the disappointment of being outbid, the other all-too-familiar letdown that I have been experiencing is the discovery of pieces that would fit perfectly into my collection but the price never seems to align well with my budget. Illustrating this point was when a stunning World War II-vintage aviator’s ball cap, complete with hand-painted squadron artwork was listed at auction.
When I first laid eyes on the khaki ball cap, I was immediately captivated by the hand painted checkerboard pattern surrounding the squadron insignia. Though the design was monochromatic, the design appeared amazingly crisp overlaying the painted-yellow background. My interests lie predominantly with naval history so my expertise is lacking with regards to knowledge of Air Corps squadrons. The “437th inscribed within the insignia was very difficult to research with investigative results being sketchy at that time. Since then, I was able to research further that the hat could most likely have come from an airman who served with the 437th Fighter Squadron (of the 414th Fighter Group) that flew P-47 Thunderbolts in protection of B-29s in the Pacific Theater (in the 20th Air Force).
With no experience in these caps, I had no idea of the range of value for this cap. The one thing that put me off a bit was the initial bid price of $750. On one hand, it seemed to fit my perception of value, but without ironclad provenance (it had none) or any way to confirm the squadron identity, the price started to seem quite high. Too many questions coupled with the lack of sound seller-history, I couldn’t begin to ponder placing a bid even at half the asking price.
Since I first saw the cap, the seller has (unsuccessfully) listed the cap for auction a second time with a lower price. With being listed twice and not a single bid, one could infer that the cap isn’t worth the risk. But something in me keeps me guessing and wondering.
Perhaps I’ll just wait for the next amazing listing to pass on (or be passed on).
Tonight, as I was finishing up some research for one of my genealogy projects, I found myself clicking through a series of online auction listings of militaria that would look absolutely fantastic hanging on the walls of my “war room.” My mind began to wander with each page view, imagining the various patriotic renderings, designed to inspire the 1940s youth to rush to their local recruiter to almost single-handedly take on the powers of the Axis nations.
Recruiting posters are some of the most collected items of militaria as their imagery conjures incredible emotional responses, such as intense national sentiment, inflamed hatred of the new-found enemy or a sense of call of duty. The colorful imagery of these posters inspires considerable interest from a wide range of collectors, in some cases driving prices well into four-digit realms.
Most Americans are familiar with the iconic imagery of Uncle Sam’s “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army” that was created and used in the poster by James Montgomery Flagg, making its first appearance in 1916, prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. While this poster is arguably the most recognizable recruiting poster, it was clearly not the first. Determining the first American use of recruiting posters, one need not look any further than the Revolutionary war with the use of broadsides, one of the most common media formats of the time.
The use of broadsides, some with a smattering of artwork, continued to be utilized well into (and beyond) the Civil War with both the Army and Navy seeking volunteers to fill their ranks. With the advancement of printing technology and the ability to incorporate full color, the artwork began to improve, adding a new twist to the posters, providing considerable visual appeal. By the turn of the twentieth century, well-known artists were commissioned to provide designs that would evoke the response to the geopolitical and military needs of the day.
Adding to the appeal for many non-militaria collectors is artist cache associated with many of the recruiting poster source illustrations. The military brought in the “big guns” of the advertising industry’s graphic design, tapping into the reservoir of well-known artists; if their names weren’t known, their stylings had permeated into pop culture by way of ephemera and other print media advertising. In addition to James Flagg, some of the most significant (i.e. most sought-after and most valuable) Navy recruiting posters were designed by notable artists such as:
Sadly, with my limited budget and my unwillingness to horse-trade any of my collection, these posters are somewhat out of my reach. It goes without saying that condition and age along with desirability have direct impact on value and selling prices. Some of the most desirable posters of World War II can sell for as much as $1,500-$2,000. For the collector with deeper pockets, Civil War broadsides can be had for $4,500-$6,000 when they become available. I have yet to locate any of the recruiting ephemera from the Revolutionary War, so I wouldn’t begin to speculate the price ranges should a piece come to market.
Discouraged as I may be in my quest to secure one of these treasured prints, I may be better off seeking quality reproductions to adorn the vertical white-space of my war room. However, a few years ago I received a reproduced war-bond drive poster – the original was created to encourage Hoosiers to buy bonds to name a new cruiser to honor the (then) recently sunk USS Vincennes.
Note: All images not sourced are provided courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
While there are certainly traditional military items that folks collect such as uniform items and weapons, some people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of militaria collecting. It takes a person with a bit of a twisted perspective to seek out the strange or odd items or to possess the ability to see the contextual vantage point of the militaria collector.
Suppose that there are collectors who focus on field surgeon equipment from the Civil War era. A collection might include medicines and physician’s guides, but it could also include surgical implements. Aside from the traditional scalpel set, expect to see an array of macabre bone saws and tourniquets.
Another example of what some folks might deem as odd militaria could be a collection of named (meaning, engraved with the veteran’s name) Purple Heart medals awarded to service members who were killed in action (KIA). While this may also seem dark, most collectors of Purple Hearts (at least that I’ve encountered) see this as a way to preserve history and share the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Whenever I glimpse one of these medals, I am overwhelmed when I consider the price that was paid by an American.
One of the most bizarre items of militaria that I have personally seen was at the Indiana Military Museum located in Vincennes, Indiana. Among the wonderful displays is a group of items that belonged to soldier who served during the 1898 war with Spain.
It seems that he suffered a debilitating head wound when some stored ammunition exploded, emitting a destructive array of metal and wood debris. The result of the wounds sustained by Sergeant Gustave Baither was the traumatic loss of one of his eyes.
In my own collection, I have preserved an item that to the untrained eye would be indistinguishable as something pertaining to military use. However, this piece is a part of naval and seafarer tradition spanning centuries of sea-going service. Hand-made from a section of 1-1/2-inch fire hose, a piece of a broom handle, electrical heat-shrink tape and wrapped with braided shotline (used during Underway Replenishment), the shillelagh is a centerpiece of the equator crossing initiation ceremony known as Wog Day.
My shillelagh, made during my last sea deployment in 1989, was used to provide much-needed correction to the pollywogs (those who hadn’t crossed the equator) by applying gentle (ok… maybe not-so-gentle) swats to their posterior region as they crawl across the ship’s decks. Upon completion of that cruise, my shillelagh was tossed into my closet where it has remained, almost forgotten… that is until my kids wanted to learn about Navy traditions.
What unusual items are in your collections?
Within the realm of just about every collecting pastime exists undocumented glossaries packed with terms and phrases used to describe certain aspects of that particular genre. For those of us new to collecting, these terms can be some of the biggest obstacles to understanding the ins and outs of collecting, especially as we are trying to navigate our way to better understand specifics and details.
In some instances, terms can be rather self-explanatory (at least for people like me), but still may not make a whole lot of sense. Such is the case with “theater-made”, which seems to be bandied about rather freely.
As I launched into militaria collecting, I saw the term applied to a broad swath of army items, predominantly shoulder sleeve insignia (or patches) dating from World War I to present day. What astounded me was that these experts could spot not only that a particular piece was theater-made, but could tell you where in the world it was made. With certain pieces, a theater-made example could sell for considerably more than an American-made patch. The Australian-made 1st Marine Division patch comes to mind.
To a veteran of the U.S. Navy, theater-made items seem commonplace. During our six month-long deployments to the Western Pacific, our ships would visit ports in countries such as the Philippines and Hong Kong. During our three- and four-day stays, many of us would take what little money we saved and head out to the tailor and embroidery shops to order custom uniforms or uniform items from the local craftsmen. These special-order pieces add a unique and personal touch for uniforms worn out on liberty or to make us stand out in a positive manner during inspection. However, we never thought of these components as theater-made.
Aside from having items made for uniform-wear, armed forces personnel find unique methods for commemorating events, deployments and other aspects of their service. Having patches custom-made to wear on a utility or flight jacket (to document a deployment) was a common occurrence in the years that I served.
As some of the custom pieces are slightly more rudimentary in construction, forgers tend to leverage that to their advantage. When collectors begin to pursue what are being passed off as theater-made items, they must have some sort of education before pulling the trigger to protect themselves from being deceived. Learning how to discern the difference takes time in comparing known, genuine items against pieces that have far too many variances can be a lengthy educational process. One of the stumbling blocks that many inexperienced collectors do is to subordinate their judgement to that of experienced collectors, relegating their decision making to another person without allowing for knowledge transfer – not asking the questions in order to learn for themselves.
I am still learning how to tell the difference with patches from earlier eras (WWI, WWII and Vietnam) and seeing that there are a lot of very well-executed fakes (sometimes branded as “reproductions”) that fall onto the market with little or no description and a fair amount of deceptive language leaving the potential buyer to make a judgement call. With some patches trading hands for prices for several hundred dollars, con-artists are quick to take cues from the collectors and attempt to replicate (with faux aging) vintage items to sell to unsuspecting collectors.
Selected Research Resources: