Category Archives: Military Era

Militaria Collecting Made Complicated – No Checklists


One of several checklists within the 1956 baseball card set by Topps.

Prior to delving into militaria and historical research, I collected sports cards for years. My principal interest in this arena was with baseball which is also my favorite sport to watch. Back then, my interest in the game centered on the history – the “golden era” – and the legends of the game. However, with baseball card collecting, I chose to focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

This 1957 Topps baseball card checklists shows the marks the collector made as they worked to complete the set.

With so many players in the game (not all of them represented on a card) in the early 1950s, card companies recognized that they could create more interest by letting their target audience know how many different cards were produced. This information, in the form of checklist cards, contained all the information that informed collectors what cards were produced. This information would keep collectors buying the wax packs (of course, getting the wonderfully powdered sugar covered, hard sticks of bubblegum) and trading their extras with their friends. As they filled out their sets, collectors would check their checklists.

Militaria couldn’t be a more polar opposite from sports card collecting. There are no checklists and finite production runs, no hardened rules about variations, no price guides that afford collectors with knowledge of sales trends….none of that. Militaria collecting requires the collector to acquire knowledge about the artifact – where it was used, who used it, when it was produced and available, when it was issued, how it was modified (in the field), etcetera –  before they commit significant finances to collecting.

The right-sleeve rate of the 1905-1913 coxswain (with an additional chevron, this would be a boatswain’s mate 2nd class petty officer).

Navy rate collectors can tell stories about variations and just how frustrating it can be to acquire all of the renditions of a specific rate. When considering a long-standing rate, such as a boatswain’s mate (pronounced “bosun’s mate”, BM for short) that has been in existence since the founding of the U.S. Navy, its rate badges have gone through considerable transition. One could assemble an amazing volume of examples of each badge iteration as BM (and Coxswain) insignia have been around since the 1880s.

With each change to uniform regulations (1886, 1905, 1913, 1941, 1946, and so on) rate badges were impacted. Some changes were simply moving from one sleeve to the other (1946) while still others changed the design of the crow (the design of the eagle, color of the chevrons). Additional variations stem from the uniform that the crow is applied to (khaki, blues, whites, greens, grays) as well as the material variations of the base fabric (multiple iterations of blue and white cloth) or the color of the chevrons and eagle (such as bullion).

One of countless boatswain’s mate rate badge variations, this post-WWII crow is a bullion on khaki.

If a collector focused solely on the boatswain’s mate rate spanning its entire existence, the collection could potentially be quite large and very costly to build. Unfortunately, there are no checklists to guide collectors. What can confound collectors is the discovery of a rate variant that has never been seen before by seasoned, knowledgeable experts.

This Screaming Eagles patch is one of countless variants for collectors to pursue (source: Topkick Militaria).

Similar to rate collecting, U.S. Army patches are very diverse and have experienced many iterations over the course of their employment on uniforms. Variations exist within the same era on the same patch design which give collectors reason for pause as they try to collect every option available. Since I don’t really dabble in army patches, my eyes tend to glaze over when other collectors begin to espouse the many facets of the World War II-era Screaming Eagles shoulder insignia. From the different “airborne” tabs to the design of the eagle’s eye and tongue, the 101st Airborne patch could occupy collectors for years as they seek to assemble a complete collection. Cut-edge, marrowed-edge, fully embroidered, felt, greenbacks, white backs, the possibilities are seemingly endless making the concept of having a checklist ideal.

While I can’t vouch as to the authenticity of this being the real thing, it is the design of a World War II Rangers patch (source: SA Militaria).

One aspect I’ve not mentioned and won’t really delve into is the issue of fakes. When a television show or film achieves the level of popularity that Saving Private Ryan (SPR) and Band of Brothers (BoB) have, shady characters create opportunities to separate novices from their hard-earned cash. The Ranger (SPR) and Screaming Eagles patches (BoB) are some of the most heavily-faked embroidery in the militaria market.

In all fairness to those who invest heavily into these areas (with both time and finances), the main reason I shy away from army patches (specifically Rangers and 101st) is that I have no idea how to tell a fake from the real McCoy. I suppose that the pricing of some of the more rare variants (sometimes in excess of $1,000) keep me steering well-clear of collecting army patches all together.

Militaria Issued: Giving and Receiving


Over the span of the last seven years, I’ve worked diligently in learning the ins and outs of collecting militaria and yet have only begun to scratch the surface. Delving into the details, for me, has produced an incredible wealth of knowledge surrounding many aspects of military pieces, such as when or where an item was worn or used. But that hasn’t been the most substantial reward in my passion for military collecting.

Being a student (not to be glib, as I am always learning) of American history has occupied my attention for decades. My wife and children could tell you stories about my side excursions to see some obscure item or location of historic note during our family vacations, in my passion to align book knowledge with the visual reality. Experiencing history helps to bring the stories to life and while facts are solidified in this process, actually seeing an item or location opens my mind to new questions with this acquired perspective. This process of learning is fun for me, but in regards to militaria, it still isn’t the pinnacle of satisfaction in collecting.

My military artifact collecting was sparked when a few boxes of Third Reich items were dropped into my lap nearly twenty years ago as my family dealt with our aging grandparents and the need to relocate them from their home of fifty years to an assisted living care facility. Having moved only once over the course of eighty-five years, my grandfather had accumulated quite a “treasure-trove” of artifacts including his older brother’s World War II trunks that were untouched from the time they arrived from Germany in 1945. I was suddenly thrust into the task of researching the pieces that my uncle had “acquired” during his participation in the elimination of the Nazi menace.

Though I didn’t get into collecting German militaria, my interest was piqued with the idea of owning pieces of history. The thought of possessing a tangible artifact that was connected to history as well as the connection to my family member’s participation in those events, was compelling and dovetailed nicely into the incessant genealogy project I was, and still am, working on.

I have dabbled in collecting in several areas in my lifetime and I have met a lot of nice and passionate people who shared similar interests as me. Those relationships always tended to be more proprietor-patron rather than collaborative and sharing. However, from the moment I started to seek answers to questions regarding personal military artifacts that I had inherited from a few relatives, I began recognizing different traits in the people who collect militaria. Aside from a passion for the objects and the rich history, these collectors were quick with thoughtful responses to my inquiries as they provided detailed descriptions and guided me to research resources in an effort to enable me to be self-reliant. Among all the quirks and odd interests, I noticed an authentic sense of community with militaria collectors.

One trait that really blindsided me as I was increasingly immersed into militaria collecting was the trusting and giving nature of these people. As I participated in the discourse and discussion surrounding these wonderful objects, I began to build relationships with other collectors. Out of the blue, one collector asked me for my address as he had “something” for me. This fellow collector observed and gleaned, from my posts on a militaria forum, what my interests were and subsequently sent me a vintage 1920s rating badge – something that one of my uncles would have worn on his navy uniform. I was humbled by the gesture and that this collector would accept no offer of payment for his trouble. This example was merely a foretaste of what I would experience on a somewhat regular basis and my collection has grown because of the kind hearts of others. The charitable nature of others is infectious which prompted me to do the same with other collectors.

This fine example of the M1 carbine shows a magazine pouch attached to the rifle’s stock.

Awhile ago, I was invited to tag along with two other guys that are as passionate about military history and collecting as me to visit a local dealer of antique books and manuscripts. This dealer, a highly regarded authority in many circles, showed several fantastic pieces from his personal collection that prompted three jaws to repeatedly drop. Toward the end of our visit, the gentleman retrieved a WWII-vintage M1 carbine rifle in immaculate condition that was a distinct departure from the paper artifacts and, knowing that we were all interested in militaria, offered it for sale with a low-ball price tag. Unfortunately for me, financial constraints precluded me from purchasing the vintage weapon. However, one of my companions did “pull the trigger” and came away with the rifle.

I recently acquired these M1 carbine pouches to give to a friend and fellow collector who recently purchased a late-WWI M1 carbine rifle. The nice, used condition will be great accompanying his rifle.

Not long after the M1 offering, I stumbled across a set of three WWII-vintage M1 carbine magazine pouches that were in good condition and were listed at a very affordable price. Thinking about my friend’s recent purchase, I snagged the pouches to give to the new carbine owner.

Over the last few years, I have gifted several pieces from my collection in the hope that it helps a fellow collector fill in the gaps or simply provides enjoyment in receiving a new piece they had not seen before or never knew existed.

Unlocking the Secrets of Your Collection: Research is the Key


The cover of the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations is very high quality in its construction.

Researching early military uniforms to ascertain a date or time period when they were issued or used can pose a challenge for collectors. Navy uniforms can be exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when it comes to dating them for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, I have stressed that education and research materials only serve to enable collectors to make sound purchasing decisions. Knowing where to turn for information can be a daunting task for someone making their initial foray into this hobby. Simply knowing what research material might exist isn’t in the mindset of those seeking details about a uniform or uniform item.

This copy is complete with all of the details including tables and pertinent data.

When I started a serious approach to research (in this case, verifying a jumper as pre-World War I), I was in the dark as to where to look so I turned to Google to begin my investigation. With the understanding that information on the web is seldom complete or authoritative, the search results seemed to be ambiguous and quite vague, so I narrowed my focus to locating people I could glean information from. As with any relationship, time is necessary to determine whether an “expert” is truly knowledgeable in their professed field of experience, so there was a risk that I might have received some inaccurate data.

Wanting to have go-to resources at my disposal, I began to gather reference material that suited my needs. My collection being predominantly focused on the service of my relatives and ancestors, I knew that I had to get the details (i.e. enlistment dates, commands assigned to, campaigns they participated in, etc.) of their individual service records. Armed with hard facts, I could then pursue the pertinent reference materials such as individual unit histories, training manuals, and uniform regulations.

The plates are spectacular! This one shows the warrant officer shoulder boards and insignia.

Some of these materials are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, such as the Navy’s Blue Jackets Manual (issued to new recruits). Others are somewhat rare, making them difficult to find or posing negative impacts onto collecting budgets. One reference book I had been seeking was the 1913 United States Navy Uniform Regulations. I couldn’t locate one through various book stores or eBay. Fortunately for me, Google Books digitized a  copy and had the majority of the book’s content available for online use. Unfortunately, the missing portions were the ones I needed for my research. I was amazed to see that I could purchase a hard copy, printed and bound complete book for less than $10.00, shipped to my door! Naturally, I pulled the trigger and less than five days later, I had the needed reference book in my hands.

This plate shows the construction of the dress whites – bleached white duck and blue flannel cuffs and collar.

What arrived was a paperback book with a high quality glued-in binding that will withstand repeated viewings or being transported to collector shows much better than an original 100-year-old hardbound book with a weakened spine.

The chief and enlisted dress blues plate shows the proper wear and insignia placement.

Acquiring the 1913 regulations may not appeal to others, but for me this was like locating a missing piece that completes a collection. I’ve confirmed a piece as authentic and I can correctly pursue the remaining outstanding parts to properly complete my uniform display!

Consistency through Change – The U.S. Army Uniform


This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day, I had been inspired by my family military service research project, which had me neck-deep in the American Civil War, which caused me to drag out a few DVDs for the sheer joy of watching history portrayed on the screen. Since the Fourth of July was coming up, I wanted to be sure to view director Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, on or near the anniversary of the battle, which took place on July 1-3, 1863.

I had watched these films (including Gods and Generals and Glory) countless times in the past, but this weekend, I employed more scrutiny while looking at the uniforms and other details. Paying particular attention to the fabrics of the uniforms, I was observing the variations for the different functions (such as artillerymen, cavalrymen, and infantry) while noting how the field commanders could observe from vantage points where these regiments were positioned, making any needed adjustments to counter the opponents’ movements or alignments. For those commanders, visual observations from afar were imperative and the uniforms (and regimental colors/flags) were mandatory to facilitate good decision making.

The tactics employed for the majority of the Civil War were largely carryovers from previous conflicts and had not kept pace with the advancement of the weaponry. Armies were still arranged in battle lines facing off with the enemy at very close range (the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederacy), before the commands were given to open fire with the rifles and side arms. The projectile technology and barrel rifling present in the almost all of the infantry firearms meant that a significantly higher percentage of the bullets would strike the targets. In prior conflicts where smooth-bore muskets and round-ball projectiles were the norm, hitting the target was met with far less success.

The uniforms of the Civil War had also seen some advancement as they departed from the highly stylized affairs of the Revolution to a more functional design. In the years following the war, uniform designs saw some minor alterations through the Indian Wars and into the Spanish American War. By World War I, concealment and camouflaging the troops started to become a consideration of military leadership. Gone were the colorful fabrics, exchanged for olive drab (OD) green. By World War II, camo patterns began to emerge in combat uniforms for the army and marines, though they wouldn’t be fully available for all combat uniforms until the late 1970s.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

For collectors, these pattern camouflage combat uniforms are some of the most highly sought items due to their scarcity and aesthetics. The units who wore the camo in WWII through the Viet Nam War tended to be more elite or highly specialized as their function dictated even better concealment than was afforded with the OD uniforms worn by regular troops.

Fast-forward to the present-day armed forces, where camouflage is now commonplace among all branches. The Navy, in 2007-2008, was the last to employ camo, a combination of varying shades of blue, for their utility uniforms citing the concealment benefits (of shipboard dirt and grime) the pattern affords sailors. All of the services have adopted the digital or pixellated camo that is either a direct-use or derivative of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) first employed (by the U.S.) with the Marine Corps when it debuted in 2002. Since then, collectors have been scouring the thrift and surplus shops, seeking to gather every digital camo uniform style along with like-patterned field gear and equipment.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

change-5After a very limited testing cycle and what appeared to be a rush to get their own digital camo pattern, the U.S. Army rolled out their ACU or Army Combat Uniform with troops that were deploying to Iraq in 2005. With nearly $5 billion (yes, that is a “B”) in outfitting their troops with uniforms, the army brass announced this week that they are abandoning the ACU for a different pattern citing poor concealment performance and ineffectiveness across all combat environments. With the news of the change, the army has decided upon the replacement pattern, known as MultiCam, which has already been in use exclusively in the Afghanistan theater.

For collectors of MultiCam, this could be both a boon (making the items abundantly available) and a detractor (the limited pattern was more difficult to obtain which tended to drive the prices up with the significant demand). For those who pursue ACU, it could take decades for prices to start climbing which means that stockpiling these uniforms could be a waste of time and resources. Only time will tell.

Since the Civil War, the U.S. Army uniform has one very consistent aspect that soldiers and collectors alike can hang their hat upon…change.

Curtain of Concrete: The Berlin Wall


By May of 1945, most of Europe was in shambles, utterly destroyed by nearly 6 years of war waged in countries such as Czechoslovakia, France, England, Italy, The Soviet Union, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Poland and Germany. Considering the unyielding daylight bombing by Allied aircraft over German targets and the “Nerobefehl” or Nero Decree (scorched earth) policies of the retreating Wehrmacht, it is amazing that the survivors even had homes to return to after the cessation of hostilities.

General Alfred Jodl signs the instrument of surrender.

When the weapons and machines of the war fell silent, some 40-million* non-combatant people (civilians) had been obliterated – wiped from existence. In the Allied European nations, estimates of the civilian dead are upwards of 25 million. For the European Axis nations, nearly 8,000,000 civilians were gone.

Utter devastation was present seemingly in every location. Those who survived the conflict were left facing uncertainty and immense challenges to reconstruct and rebuild their cities and towns from the mountains of rubble and bomb-craters. The effort would require a coalition of nations to coordinate the monumental effort while overseeing the dismantling of the German war machine.

This map shows the post-war occupation zones agreed upon during the Potsdam Conference. Each Allied nation would be responsible for the management of their zone in order to restore peace and facilitate the destruction of the Nazi war machine.

In the waning weeks of conflict in Europe, the Allied nations had established and agreed upon boundaries that would limit the extent each nation’s push as German resistance ebbed. By the first week of May, 1945, it was all over. Hitler, fully aware of the fate that awaited him should he be captured by Soviets who were closing in on his bunker, chose to take his own life on April 30. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz now in charge (Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was removed from this position due to his attempt to take power prior to Hitler’s death), agreed to surrender unconditionally to the Allies. The instrument of surrender was signed on May 7, to take effect the next day, by Germany’s representative, General Alfred Jodl, who would be hanged in 1946 having been found guilty of war crimes.

These printed paper signs (I have two) date from the final days of WWII or immediately after the German surrender. My uncle, who was with U.S. Army intel during the war, sent these home (in May 1945) along with a few trunks of material. They remained sealed in the trunk until 1994 when I found them in the attic. The German text translates to, “Prohibited access-command of the U.S. Army Central Command.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, Germany had initiated two world wars, and initiating and inflicting considerable devastation upon other nations. Rather than leave this repeat aggressor to its own devices and risk a third global war, the Allies decided to be proactive in overseeing not only the German reconstruction effort but to instill a system (under the Potsdam Agreement) of governance for control and management. Not only did the Allies agree to create zones of occupation but they had to work to establish and define national borders due to Germany’s continuous disputes and territorial claims spanning the previous decades resulting in the redrawing of much of the Western European map.

This map shows the boundaries of the four zones of Berlin – what later became the two cities of West and East Berlin.

Germany was divided, in accordance to Allied agreements, into five zones: British, French, Polish, American and Soviet, providing for monitoring and governing by military leaders from the respective nations. The capital city of Berlin was similarly divided between France, Britain and the U.S. controlling one half of the city and the Soviet Union taking over the other). With re-construction well underway and the war criminal trials concluded in 1946,

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” – Sir Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946:

With increased tensions between the former allies over which nation would be the sole supplier of West Berlin (the USSR sought control of West Berlin by making the city solely dependent upon Russian provisions) , the Soviets began an 11-month long blockade (June 1948 – May 1949) in an effort to choke off the supply routes (roads, rails and waterways) between West Germany and West Berlin prompting the United States and Britain to commence a massive-scale relief effort, flying all supplies into the isolated city.

 

The original intent of the allied agreements was to eventually merge the zones back into a single German nation. Between 1947 and 1949, the three western zones (American, British and French) merged to form the West German Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Due to continued breakdowns in negotiations with the Soviets, the Eastern zones would remain in Soviet control and a subsequent establishment of communist East Germany – also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Within two years of the creation of the German Soviet-state (the GDR), fear began to run rampant among the East German citizens who were witnessing the increased control being foisted upon them by the Stalin regime. In West Germany, reconstruction was in full swing and her citizens were beginning to taste the freedom and prosperity of a democratic society. Seeking to escape the death-grip of communism, East Germans began to flee the GDR for the FRG (West Berlin, specifically) beginning in 1950. By 1953, upwards of 1 million East Germans had escaped in nearly four years’ time – over a quarter million in the first few months of ‘53 alone.

East German troops stand guard at the Brandenburg Gate, 1961 prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Seeking to stem the outflow of their citizens, East German officials began restricting travel to western areas, following the direction of other Eastern Bloc nations. This control would be tightened over the next several years. Losing more than 3.5 million to successful escapes to the West, the first elements of the infamous wall would begin to be set in place in August of 1961 by order of GDR government officials. It is unknown, however if the decision was directed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Iron curtain was solidifying, being set in concrete.

This image shows the hasty construction of the Berlin Wall that was well underway in November of 1961.

For decades, the wall would be in place, surrounding the city. Unlike the ancient times when cities were walled to protect those within from invaders, this wall was constructed to keep its citizens from escaping to freedom. The Wall stood as both a symbolic and literal representation of communism. For those behind it, getting beyond the Wall meant having a chance at a better life and that getting there alive would be a monumental challenge. Countless few did make it across while Some 136 people would die in direct connection to the Berlin Wall. 98% of those deaths were the result of attempted escapes – 97 of them were shot dead by GDR border guards.

Note the large space, known as the “Death Strip” between the two walls. Certain death awaited those who attempted escape. This photo was taken at the wall along the Luisenstadt Canal (it had been filled-in during the 1930s).

By the mid-1980s and the height of President Ronald Reagan’s time in office, Soviet control over Europe was beginning to wane. Fed up with the boot of communism, the citizens of the Eastern Bloc nations began to revolt as they pursued democratic freedom. Seizing upon the momentum of the spreading freedom and liberty, President Reagan visited the Wall and gave the famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, calling for the removal of the wall.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987:

The Wall had effectively closed off the historic Brandenburg Gate. The sign in the foreground provided its readers with a stern warning that they were now leaving West Berlin.

The grip of communist control continued to disintegrate. In 1989, beginning with Poland, the revolution was in full swing as one by one, Eastern-bloc nations emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. On November 4th, more than 500,000 East Germans gathered at the Alexanderplatz in protest, the culmination of the Peaceful Revolution that had started previously in September. By the 9th of November, the Wall began to fall – the actual demolition taking the better part of the following year.

German reunification was now free to commence.

Since WWII, the U.S. military has maintained presence in Germany in an evolving capacity beginning with dismantling of the Nazi war machine to providing security and stability in holding the spread of Soviet communism in check. Today, U.S. Army and Air Force bases are maintained in Germany, strategically located, providing vital services and resources for forward deployed forces.

Collecting items directly related or connected to the allied occupation and the Berlin Wall, to me is an interesting proposition. For militaria collectors, locating a grouping from veteran who served in the Berlin Airlift (something of a rarity) or of guard at Checkpoint Charlie would make for a uniquely historic display.

Along with the occupation medal that was awarded to my uncle for his post-VE Day service in Germany, I have some signage with stern messaging in both German and English.

For $30, you could acquire a piece of the Berlin Wall like this one (source: eBay image).

If collectors simply wanted a piece of the Berlin Wall, there are plenty of online sources selling pieces of varying sizes, though it would be a dubious pursuit as an investment as there were nearly 70 miles of the double-wall.

More about the Berlin Wall:


*This number includes the victims of the Holocaust.