Category Archives: Trench Art

History Must be Preserved; Militaria, Monuments and Memorials


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can do better. We can come together.

 

 

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Bataan/Corregidor POWs – Looking Back 75 Years


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.

A copy of the transfer orders for the 5th Air Base Group, October 1941. My uncle’s father is listed here along with one other veteran who was with him throughout his entire stay as a guest of the Empire of Japan.

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.

An engraved mess kit from a Bataan veteran (photo source: Corregidor – Then and Now).

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.

A POW letter to loved ones providing basic information of internment (photo source: Corregidor – Then and Now).

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:

Provenance and Research Matters: WWII USAAF Aviator’s Cap


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.

This khaki aviator’s ball cap is an oddity with this artwork on the bill. A sewn-on rank insignia adorns the front panel (source: eBay Image).

This khaki aviator’s ball cap is an oddity with this artwork on the bill. A sewn-on rank insignia adorns the front panel (source: eBay Image).

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.

A close-up of the hand-painted bill shows the “437th” in the squadron insignia (source: eBay Image).

A close-up of the hand-painted bill shows the “437th” in the squadron insignia (source: eBay Image).

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).

I have only found one single reference to the insignia that is painted onto the ballcap's bill. It is taken from the unit's squadron patch. This patch was part of a small group that included a photo and sold at auction for nearly $720.00 in 2014. (source: eBay image).

I have only found one single reference to the insignia that is painted onto the ballcap’s bill. It is taken from the unit’s squadron patch. This patch was part of a small group that included a photo and sold at auction for nearly $720.00 in 2014. (source: eBay image).

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).

A Whale of a Tooth: 19th Century Naval Scrimshaw


Where does the time go? I know that my writing schedule has been severely impacted by home and work priorities (this column is nowhere near being a day job for me) and other facets of life routinely draw my attention away from my love of military history. However, my interest never truly wanes or strays very far from this passion and yet when I checked to see that my last posting was more than three months ago, I realized that I need to get back on the horse and get the creative juices stirred.

I can’t blame writer’s block or submit any grandiose excuses for not writing. I merely de-prioritized my militaria collecting during the 90-day time span. Though my acquisition pace has slowed during the last half-year, I only suggest that I’ve become hyper selective about what I add to the expanding pile. With the smattering of pieces coming through the door, I found myself asking the question, “what should I write about?”

Not wanting to overload the Veteran’s Collection with an overwhelming theme, I have been putting forth an effort to balance the various subjects. My best efforts aside, I find that my posts are skewed toward the Navy (where I served) with some of those topics focusing on a specific ship. Regardless, after a few moments of careful consideration, I decided that instead of talking about a new (to my collection) piece, I would spend some time with something that eluded me a few years ago (the subject just happens to be in a few of my wheelhouses). Missing out on this piece has haunted me since the online auction bidding surpassed my meager budget.

Without going into detail as to what fuels my interests (read my About page for those details), I’ll jump right into today’s topic.

I can bet that half of those who read this column (all four of you) are familiar with the widely popular PBS television production, Antiques Roadshow and have viewed episodes where 19th century maritime folk art objects have been viewed and appraised. One of the most popular types of that particular folk art is scrimshawed marine mammal bones (or teeth/tusks). Needless to say that along with popularity (and scarcity) of these pieces comes an array of reproductions and outright fakes onto the market. Applying the caution of a mariner skirting the shoal waters, one needs to be very knowledgeable before navigating into these waters.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The ship design in the center is clearly that of an 1820s United States Navy sloop of war (source: eBay image).

When this item was listed in an online auction, I was shocked that it lasted without being taken down by the host as genuine scrimshaw violates their established policies that forbid the sale of items made from protected animals. In reading the seller’s description, I noted that it was being sold as a piece that was manufactured from man-made materials rather than from a whale bone or tooth. However, in examining the photos of the piece, it was clearly NOT sourced from synthetics, though I couldn’t be certain without a hands-on inspection. Hoping to get clarification from the seller, I resorted to asking specific questions only to be rebuffed with a message that reiterated the details in the listing’s description.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The inscription reads, “United States Exploring Expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, 1838 | Antarctica | 1842. USS Vincennes” (source: eBay image).

The subject of the scrimshaw artwork is what drew me to the piece from the beginning. The illustrations on either side of the “whale tooth” were made to commemorate the United States very first foray into global exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition was led by the US Navy’s polarizing figure (of that era), LT Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842 and consisted of men from several biological and geological scientific disciplines along with illustrators, geographical surveyors and naval officers and men aboard six US Navy vessels – the flagship being the sloop of war, USS Vincennes.

On one side of the tooth is a rather elaborate design of the three-masted sloop (a port-side view) that is centered among an array of flags with an eagle perched above an American-themed shield holding arrows and an olive branch which is very reminiscent of 19th century designs. On the reverse is an unrolled scroll that appears to be a banner with the US Ex. Ex, Wilkes’ name, the dates and “Antarctica” emblazoned across. Immediately beneath the scroll is the name of the expedition’s flagship, “USS Vincennes.”

I grappled with deciding to bid on the object. There was no definitive manner in which to determine the authenticity or if it was, in fact, a mocked up piece of plastic. I was left to weigh all of the evidence and draw conclusions (aside from the fact that the seller stated that it wasn’t the real thing which could easily be that person’s subverting of the online auction site’s rules).

USS Brooklyn Scrimshaw

An example of an 19th Century whale’s tooth scrimshaw depicting the USS Brooklyn (source: dukeriley.info)

Scrimshawed Whale's tooth.

Showing a vintage whale’s tooth scrimshaw mounted to a cork base. Note the similar themes (to the USS Vincennes tooth) and the odd number of stripes on the shield (source: Wikimedia).

The cons

  • The tooth is very bright for an early 19th century piece. Most scrimshawed items tend to yellow with time. After 170 years, the bone/tooth material should be much darker.
  • Taking a look at the artwork design, what gave me reason to pause is that the artist departed from the widely used American themes within his design. The eagle’s shield is lacking the correct number of stars and stripes (shown are three and 11, respectively).
  • The wooden base (which appears to be of dark walnut) that the tooth is mounted to seems to be fairly modern; almost new, conditionally.
Early 19th century flag

This early 19th century flag depicts the three-starred shield and 9 stripes yet the eagle faces his right shoulder (source: NAVA).

The pros

  • As someone who, for the last two decades, has been searching for anything pertaining to any of the US Navy warships that bore the same name, this is the only scrimshaw that I have encountered that had any reference to the ship or the expedition. Uniqueness is definitely a plus in that if someone was going to bother manufacturing fakes of this nature, there would, most-likely be multiple examples appearing on the market.
  • The cons that I listed above can be explained. The artist may not be as detail-oriented when it comes to the thirteen stars and stripes. However, the direction that the eagle’s head faces is accurate for the time (facing its left shoulder). The illustration of the ship is very accurate to that of the 1820s U.S. sloop of war (designed by Samuel Humphreys) which leads me to believe that the artwork is correct to the period.
  • The base could have been merely a replacement or an addition by a subsequent owner.
  • The piece may have been stored in a cool, dark location for most of its existence, which could possibly account for the lack of typical aging effects.
USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The walnut base appears to be a fairly recent addition as it shows no signs of aging (source: eBay image).

After several days of careful consideration, I decided that it was worth a nominal investment risk and configured my bid snipe program accordingly. Within a few hours of the auction close, the bidding (from multiple parties) surpassed my maximum and I watched this beautiful piece of scrimshaw slip into someone else’s hands for several hundred dollars above my limit. It seems that other collectors had arrived at the same conclusion that I had and the benefit of owning such a nice piece far exceeded the risk that it might not be authentic.

For me, this whale tooth was not to be.