Category Archives: Other Militaria

Sometimes Home-front and Sweetheart Pieces Are the Best Items Available


The USS Tacoma (C-18) taken shortly after her commissioning. The photo (an RPPC) is part of the author’s archive,

As much as I enjoy the brief naval warship histories that are available online, where they are lacking is often the area where my research needs them to be more complete, especially when there are artifacts that require deeper investigation. One of the ships that I am constantly on the watch for associated or connected artifacts was an early Twentieth Century protected cruiser. The USS Tacoma (C-18) was the fifth vessel of the six-ship Denver Class cruisers (hull numbers C-14 through C-19) that were placed into commission in a fourteen-month span between November 1903 to February of 1905. Oddly enough, the Tacoma was commissioned second (chronologically) behind USS Cleveland (C-19) which was the first to be placed into active service.

Artifacts from the USS Tacoma are very scarce. Apart from the occasional press photograph, few pieces become available on the collector market. Unlike other more famous warships of this era (such as the USS Maine), the Tacoma is a relatively unknown ship. Another contributing factor to the lack of USS Tacoma material could be its brief service life and untimely and sorrowful demise.

For many reasons, I have taken a concerted interest and have been on the hunt for just about anything that is even remotely contextual. In the last decade, I have been able to acquire memorabilia (rather than militaria artifacts directly obtained from the USS Tacoma or veterans who served aboard her) that is more along the lines of homefront or sweetheart pieces such as this ornate silver spoon.

This portrait (printed as a real photo postcard or RPPC) was taken between 1904 and 1913 and shows two sailors. Note the flat hat tally of the seated sailor which denotes the ship he is assigned to (the cruiser USS Tacoma).

In the last several months, I have been able to secure two pieces that fit into these categories. The first, a vintage real photo postcard (RPPC) portrait of two sailors in their dress blue uniforms. The apprentice seaman that is seated is wearing a flat hat complete with the tally around the hatband that denotes the name of the ship. The sailor standing next to him is also wearing his flat hat but, being the more salty and experienced sailor, he has customized his to be more relaxed in its appearance by removing the stiffener. With the top having a slouched appearance, the ship’s tally is concealed.

Dating this photo to a specific year is somewhat difficult however it is rather easy to narrow down the range of years by using the visible clues on the subjects, themselves. The USS Tacoma served for just under 20 years (commissioned on January 30, 1904 until she broke apart having run aground on Blanquilla Reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico on January 16, 1924) which is a broad range of time. Fortunately, enlisted uniforms underwent some significant regulations changes during that period of time.

Noting the standing sailor’s rank insignia (his badge which indicates his job specialty known in the Navy as a “rating”), there are a few elements surrounding the design of the badge and the location that, when compared with various changes to these specific areas, the era from which this photo originates is determined to be within the first decade of the ship’s service. This particular second class petty officer is a machinist’s mate which is part of the engine room force. Prior to the uniform regulations of 1913, ship’s crews were divided into two watch-standing sections (when one section is on duty, the other is either sleeping or performing daily shipboard tasks) that were known as “port” and “starboard” sections. The petty officers in those sections would wear their rating badge on the corresponding sleeve (left sleeve for port, right for starboard). With the regulations changes, the watch-standing correlation was abolished and all non-seaman branch ratings were moved to the left sleeve.

A deeper analysis of the sailor’s uniforms raises some questions regarding visible anomalies. The cuff piping on the MM2/c’s jumper top is clearly visible (the three stripes represent all three of the lower grades of non-rated seaman that he progressed through) and yet his collar and flap are blank similar to that of an un-dress jumper which should not have piping on the collar flap (and would have cuff-less sleeves).

1913 U.S. Navy Regulations – Dress White Jumper specifications.

Another interesting uniform configuration lies with the dress of the seated apprentice seaman’s under shirt – a blue knit sweater with a drawstring tied into a bow at the neckline. After pouring through the uniform regulations, I was unable to determine any stipulations governing such a configuration. Sailors were adept at customizing their uniforms to suit their personalities and level of personal comfort due to the more permissive standards of the era. With present-day regulations, uniformity and appearance is more controlled and restrictive and would negate such customized approaches.

The photograph itself wouldn’t garner much collector attention as it is merely a portrait of two unnamed sailors. To a collector of USS Tacoma memorabilia, the RPPC is golden. Perhaps a bit more interesting for some specialized collectors are home-front or sweetheart pieces (items made or purchased as remembrances of a loved one who is away from home, serving in the armed forces). Decorative and commemorative pillow covers were commonly purchased by service members for their mothers or sweethearts with the idea that a a reminder of the veteran is close at hand (kept on their bed or adorning the couch). These pieces were manufactured by vendors and sold on or near military bases and were quite common from the 1930s through the 1950s. Though commemorative pillow covers were made in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, they weren’t as prevalent.

This pre-WWI silk pillow cover is quite unique. The flags shown within the design seem to indicate its age.

When this cover was listed, it stood out and immediately drew my attention due to the brilliant colors and design along with the flags of the world. Immediately, I recognized the depiction of the ship and was astonished by the unique size and the patriotic imagery. Dating the piece is a bit of a challenge though it can certainly be narrowed down based upon the the details with what is depicted. Due to the warranted animosity towards the antagonists of the Great War, it is highly doubtful that anyone would market something that contained the flags of these aggressors.

It could be folly to rely solely upon the flag illustrations as the credible source for dating the pillow cover. Considering that available reference resources were not as current or contained current variations to draw upon. Also, the imagery is employed as a decorative element rather than to be an authoritative source for flags of the world.

 

Independent of assessing the age of the USS Tacoma pillow cover, the piece itself is near-flawless and shows no signs of wear, age or fading. It is clear that the artifact has been stored away from ultraviolet light and protected from oxidation for nearly a century.

Though not as ornately designed as the obverse, the back panel of the USS Tacoma (C-18) pillow cover resembles the naval Union Jack with the blue field and 49 stars.

The history of the ship and the tragic story surrounding her loss is compelling reason enough to seek out such artifacts. Keeping the story of the Tacoma alive by collecting and sharing artifacts from the ship and her crew is a satisfying aspect to my collecting.

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Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Mere Symbolic Plank: A Navy Ship Plankowner’s Perception


A burst of fireworks above amidships as the radars and equipment spring to life following the Vincennes being placed into commission on July 6, 1985 (image source: US Navy).

Not too long after the ship commissioned, crew members ordered these personalized mugs with “plankowner” beneath the ship’s crest.

As a navy veteran and a part of a ship’s commissioning crew (termed “plankowner”), by tradition, I am entitled to receive a piece of the deck planking when “my” ship is put out of service and dismantled or broken up. In the days when wood-planking was installed on the external (top-side) decks, sailors were actually eligible to receive a section of the teak wood decking material from the Navy Department when the ship was scrapped. Modern warships however, are devoid of wooden deck coverings having steel or aluminum surfaces covered with non-skid material and paint. In light of this, the Navy no longer provides plankowners with the mementos from their ships.

Since the Navy no longer provides sailors with planks, they are left to settle for the symbolic certificate and various paraphernalia (ship ballcaps, Zippo lighters, shirts, coffee mugs, etc.) that is emblazoned with “Plankowner.” Most sailors are satisfied with these representative pieces as reminders of their service aboard their ships, regardless of their synthetic importance. Some sailors still seek pieces of their ship as actual, tangible reminders of the vessels they spent years of their lives serving aboard. But there are challenges to acquiring actual pieces.

One of the plankowner items – a Zippo-brand belt buckle – is engraved with the ship’s name, hull number and “Plankowner” along with the image of the ship.

Ideally, when ships are stricken from the the Naval Vessel Register, they would be transferred from inactive maintenance storage locations to a ship recycling facility (a private company that is awarded a contract) for dismantling. The persistent plankowner (or collector) would then be able to work with the management at the scrapping facility to acquire a piece. In a perfect world, this scenario works nicely. However, nothing really works perfectly.

Not all decommissioned ships head for the scrapper’s cutting torch. Some ships are leased or sold to friendly nations. Some are used as sacrificial training targets, struck by an array of missiles and naval gunfire before finding their way to the ocean floor. Others were set in place (by way of explosive charges) as artificial reefs (a practice that was terminated in 2012 due to environmental concerns) providing habitat for marine life and attractive destinations for SCUBA divers. Obtaining a piece of the ship in any of these instances is next to impossible. Collectors seeking to remove a piece of a reef ship might want to check the local laws to ensure that they won’t be facing legal issues for such an activity.

The navy ship on which I served (for the first sea tour of my career) was decommissioned in 2005 after slightly less than 20 years of service. Being present that day to see her crew physically disembark the vessel thereby effectively shutting her down, was a surreal experience for me. In those moments, I recalled two decades earlier when my shipmates and I walked from the pier, up the brow and to our stations and placing her into active service. The ship and I had come full circle. Walking her quiet and empty decks after the ceremony, I began searching for a piece that I could take with me – something significant yet small enough to conceal (sailors have a knack for the art of procurement), but there was virtually nothing to be had, save for a t-wrench for a sealed deck-drain and an monkey-fist from the flag bag in the signal bridge (both pieces found their way into my camera bag).

Fresh from the shipping box, the mast light still needed cleaning. The original wiring can be seen protruding from the electrical fitting.

In the seven years since her decommissioning, I was finally able to connect with a person with ties to the ship breaker contracted by the Navy to dispose of the ship (the ship was dismantled from 2010-2011). The person I contacted afforded me the opportunity to acquire a piece with significance – one of the ship’s mast lights. This particular light had been mounted on the ship’s foremast providing a nighttime visual navigation element for other ships’ crews to observe. Having been a lookout watch-stander early in my career, I recall looking up to see the forward light glowing overhead as we steamed through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Though my light has no physical markings indicating that it was actually taken from my ship, I do have provenance (from the person who provided me the with the light) to connect the light to the Vincennes. Cast entirely from bronze, the piece is considerably stout, weighing north of 25 pounds. I re-wired the fixture to accommodate a residential 110-volt current (including a dimmer) and hope to have it mounted to a wooden base. The finishing touch will be to affix the light base with a brass plate complete with engraved with details of the ship. In its new life, the mast light will continue to provide light and serve as a reminder of the once proud ship on which it served.

 

Discovering Rosalie: A French Model 1886 Lebel Bayonet Emerges from the Attic


The cruciform blade of the Lebel. The point on this bayonet is quite sharp and could easily penetrate the heavy wool fabrics of the era.

After a lengthy run of posts covering United States militaria, it seemed appropriate to take a side-jaunt with an attempt to shed a little light upon military artifacts from another nation’s armed forces. Considering my limited experience with foreign military in general and thus even less knowledge in their militaria, I am decidedly headed into uncharted territory with this article.

This site’s three subscribers (ok, there are considerably more, but I seldom field any questions or hear any sort of feedback from them so it can be difficult to discern the actual number) understand that my collection does have a few pieces of foreign militaria and that rather than me seeking and adding them to my archive, they were handed down to me from an uncle who liberated them as war souvenirs during his service in Word War II (he continued on active duty until 1954 having also served in the Korean War. His military career commended when he enlisted to serve during the Great War).

Stowed away inside of trunks since they were sealed in theater and shipped back to the United States following the German surrender, the artifacts hadn’t seen the light of day since May of 1945. In 1994 when the trunks were discovered and opened, I took on the task to identify and obtain valuations for what was inside, once my jaw was able to close after being awestruck by what we found. Following disposition of some of the more rare pieces, I kept what was unsold and remained in my possession. The majority of those artifacts were Third Reich military with a smattering of my uncle’s personal effects and one odd item (that is the focus of this article), a French Model 1886 Lebel Bayonet.

When French chemist Paul Vieille introduced Poudre B, the first smokeless gunpowder in 1884, he propelled (pun very much intended) small arms technology light-years ahead, helping to usher in a new era of rifle and bullet design. While Vielle’s Poudre B produced more explosive force (more than three times that of conventional black powder) at a significantly reduced rate, the Swiss Army’s Eduard Rubin was developing a new jacketed round that would prevent the bullet from melting (as it traversed the rifle barrel) at the higher velocities created by the new gunpowder. The result of these advances prompted French military leadership to fast-track a new infantry rifle that would leverage these advances. The result was the Lebel Model 1886 or Fusil Mle 1886 M93 rifle.

The Lebel bayonet’s handle is in fantastic condition having been stored away for more than 50 years. At the blade’s hilt are the letters “F” and “C” stamped into the metal.

While the Lebel rifle revolutionized infantry weapons, the accompanying bayonet was more inline with earlier , more antiquated designs. The Épée-Baïonnette Modèle 1886 bayonet employed a unique cross-shaped blade (when viewed from the point) which lacked sharpened edges, employing a lengthy point that was designed to penetrate the thick and heavy wool and leather uniforms of the day. The “Rosalie” as it was dubbed by the French, was in use from the 1880s to well into World War I. So popular was the weapon that it became the subject of adoration and lore, that French Poet Théodore Botrel‘s song, Rosalie was dedicated to the glory of “small French bayonets” and came to prominence in 1914 as World War I was ignited.

“Rosalie is elegant
Her sheath-dress tight-fitting,
Pour a drink!
Adorns her up to the neck
Let us drink then”

The Lebel bayonets were made with 20 ½ inch (52.7 cm) long blades, however they can be found in various lengths due to being re-pointed after tip-breakage during battlefield use. During the mid-1930s, many Lebel bayonets were modernized, reducing the length to be more comparable to newer designs and to reduce weight.

In their original design, the handle of the Lebel bayonets were constructed with a nickel-silver handle and a hooked quillion. However, mid-way through WWI (in 1916), conservation of precious metals for other war-uses led these parts being manufactured from brass. The hooked quillion was subsequently eliminated (during wartime production) as a result of battlefield feedback concerning it being cumbersome and easily ensnared on uniforms and accouterments when used on the enemy.

The length of the blade was well-suited for use at the end of a rifle, but as ready fighting knife in the trenches of WWI, it was awkwardly lengthy prompting many soldiers to cut down the blade length to a more stiletto-type thrusting knife.

As far as the collectibility of this bayonet is concerned, there are several schools of thought ranging from those who avoid the item due to its seemingly abundance and lower values to collectors who see it as a fine representation of weapons-history, worthy of display. A quick glance at online auction listings, prices (at this article’s publishing date), the prices range from $50-300 (with no bids on any of the 20+ items that are available). Obviously, condition, construction and completeness of the bayonet (inclusive of the scabbard and frog) will affect the value.

Collectors could expend a fair amount of their finances seeking out each of the known examples of the Épée-Baïonnette, however I will stand firm with retaining the sole example of Rosalie in my collection. For me, it has more meaning as it was something that my uncle brought back from his service overseas, though I have no insight into whether he acquired it during WWI or WWII.

General Collectors – Senior Military Officers Acting as Relic Hunters


In researching some of my ancestors’ service in the Union Army, my great, great, great grandfather in particular, I discovered an unrelated story about three artifacts that were “purchased” from their owner having considerable significance in American history.

As the Civil War was in its final hours, General Lee sent his aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall to secure an appropriate location in which to formalize the surrender and capitulation of the Confederate Army and to bring about the end of more than four years of horrific civil war. The site that was selected was the farmhouse which belonged to Wilmer McLean who had relocated to Appomattox Court House, Virginia to get away from the war that had begun, quite literally in his backyard at Bull Run four years prior.

General Robert E. Lee, left, surrendering his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, in the McLean House parlor at Appomattox Court House, in this 1867 painting by Richmond artist Louis Guillaume Photo: AP Photo/courtesy of Appomattox Courthouse National Park

As General Lee and his aide, Marshall waited in the parlor of the McLean house, the victorious yet humble, General Ulysses Grant arrived with his entourage of subordinates which included Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan and his aide, Captain Michael Sheridan. After the exchange of honors and pleasantries, the formalities commenced over the course of three and a half hours, culminating in the exchange of written agreements to the terms of surrender. As the two commanding generals left the house and were departing upon their mounts, the collector activities commenced back inside the parlor.

The two commanders sat across from each other; Lee in a tall caned armchair and Grant in a swivel chair with a padded leather back next to a small oval side table. They made some small talk before Lee asked on what terms Grant would “receive the surrender of my army.” (National Museum of American History)

Understanding the significance of the monumentally historical moment that had just taken place, the burgeoning militaria collectors such as General Edward Ord, the Sheridan brothers (the general and captain), (brevet) Brigadier General Henry Capehart and others began removing the tables and the implements set upon them (candlesticks, ink wells, etc.) unceremoniously providing reimbursements to Wilmer McLean (who had no desire to sell off his furnishings). The cane-bottom chairs were broken apart into bits and pieces with the end results being divvied up among the crowds of relic hunters, leaving McLean’s parlor an empty space.

Collecting war prizes from the vanquished is a long-standing practice that continues to this day and perhaps without the efforts of these eager “collectors,” the artifacts could have been lost to time. Instead, after changing hands numerous times, the table and chair used by General Grant and the chair used by General Lee made their way to the Smithsonian where collectors, historians and history buffs alike can share in what many refer to as the rebirth of the United States of America.

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