Category Archives: U.S. Army

Knowledge Versus Ignorance: Criticizing Displays of Historical Artifacts


I have a steadily growing respect for those who take the time to research, organize and arrange, transport and display their collections to share with an audience. Depending on the artifacts and the means of displaying, it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare for a public showing, ensuring that each piece or groupings of items are carefully organized and placed to convey the display’s central message or theme. Regardless of the measure of attention to detail one can employ in assembling a gathering of artifacts to display, mistakes can and often do get made.

Invariably, one can find historical inaccuracies with any re-telling or portrayal of an event, placement and descriptions of artifacts, despite the research and effort for meticulous representations. I have visited some of the finest museums that employ staff and volunteers with more than a hundred years of combined education and experience in researching and curating artifacts and yet they still can assemble displays with pieces that are incorrect. There have been times where I engaged with museum personnel in order to correct the issue, providing sources in an effort to back my assertions. In those instances, I have been thanked for the information and corrections were subsequently made while some times, I have been met with valid contradictory facts (though they have agreed with the information I provided) that support their reasons for decisions to keep the displays as established.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The above saying has many unfounded attributions (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) and I chose not to provide a source as doing so is folly. However, the lack of a verifiable originator is as irrelevant as the sentiment is poignant. I take this saying to heart, especially when providing any measure of correction an expert in their field or vocation. To approach a museum curator, historian, educator or serious artifact collector with contrary facts that fly in the face of their efforts requires assured knowledge, facts and a tactfully respectful approach. Before I open my mouth, I want to be certain that my suspicions and thoughts are indeed correct.

The WWI Army uniform belonged to my great uncle who served as an artilleryman in France during the war.

Helmets from three of the combatant nations in the war are (left to right): French, U.S., German. The bayonet in the foreground is a French Lebel.

For nearly the entire month of September, my collection of World War I artifacts was publicly displayed at my state’s largest fair. I chose to select every piece that is related to the Great War and organize, arrange and display them to honor the centennial of the United States’ participation (along with U.S. military artifacts, I included the Canadian Forestry Corps pieces to honor my maternal great grandfather’s WWI service). Included in my display were many artifacts that I inherited from family members who served in that war along with pieces that I collected due to my specific interest in this very troubling era of modern U.S. history. Included within the exhibit were three original WWI uniforms; one, worn by my great uncle when he served in a US Army artillery regiment and the other two were U.S. Navy enlisted jumper tops, complete with rating badges. At the conclusion of the fair, I went to breakdown the display and retrieve my collection at which time, the coordinator handed personal notes from spectators and folks with questions or are in need of assistance with their own artifacts. Among the notes were two criticisms: one that didn’t agree with the placement of the placard that described the entire collection (he thought it should have been adjacent to my uncle’s uniform) while the other person took the time to point out the inaccuracies with the rating badges on the two WWI navy uniforms.

The two WWI uniforms that raised questions from an unknown critic. This display was called out for having the incorrect rating badges on the incorrect sleeves regardless of them being original and untouched from the veterans who wore them during the Great War.

“Your rates are on the wrong arm,” the expert began his note. “Crows face forward, ” he continued, “there are right arm ‘rates’ and left arm (ratings),” the unnamed critic stated. When I first read through his note, I stopped and looked over at the display (I hadn’t’ yet removed the arrangement of uniforms on their mannequins nor the arrangement of period-correct rating badges on the bottom of the case) and stared for a moment and re-read the note again. “What is he referring to?
I thought to myself. “Does he think that I sewed these badges on rather than the sailors who originally wore the uniforms?”

I have authored several articles regarding U.S. Navy rating badges (see below) and have been collecting them since I obtained my first one through advancement during my own service in the Navy when I was promoted to petty officer third class. A few years later, I inherited my maternal grandfather’s World War II uniforms that were complete and had his Ship’s Cook first class rating badges affixed to the left sleeves. In my collection are rating badges dating to 1905, post-1913, post-1922 and on up to the 1960s. I own several hundred badges including some of the rarest ratings that existed during these eras. In my collection are several uniforms from this same era (I don’t have anything dating from pre-1900…yet) and all of it has been thoroughly researched. Though some of my collecting colleagues would infer that I possess expert knowledge in this area, there are many who have far greater knowledge and experience researching the history of enlisted marks and whose published works I often reference. I concede that there is always someone with more knowledge in any given field of research and study. For this reason, I continued to ponder the unknown sender’s critical note.

As I started to dissect the message in an effort to lend a measure of credence or perhaps to give him some benefit of doubt, I analyzed his usage of terminology along with his stated “facts” as I attempted to understand his perspective. One term that he repeatedly misused was “rates.” Though the critic understood certain facts surrounding rating badges, he didn’t understand that there is a distinct difference between two very important terms: rate and rating (see: U.S. Navy Officer Ranks and Enlisted Rates – navy.mil). Sailors (and U.S. Navy collectors) don’t refer to the insignia worn on uniforms as “rates” but rather, rating badge.

The unknown critic pointed out that on my two WWI navy uniform tops, the rating badges were affixed to the left sleeve and that the eagle (universally referred to as a crow) was facing the the rear, vice forward as is seen on present-day uniforms. The inference being made is that the eagles on both badges, each affixed to their respective uniform’s left sleeves, are facing to the rear (the beak of the eagle is pointing towards”his” left wing).

In concert with the eagle’s directional facing, the critic suggested that there are rating badges (“rates”) for either the left or right arms. In the uniform regulations of 1886, specifications were made that established the eagle left-facing with its wings pointed horizontally to the sides. Also, the regulations specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves while the left sleeve was to be used for those assigned to the port watch. This arrangement of the rating badges remained in place until the publication of the U.S. Navy uniform regulations of January 25, 1913 called for a change in the location of rating badges so that the were no longer worn on the sleeves corresponding to assigned watches. Right arm badges were to signify men of the Seamen Branch; left arm rating badges were to be used by personnel of the Artificer Branch, Engine Room Force, and all other petty officers. The eagle continued to face left on all rating badges.

The last statement on the critic’s note, “1941 is when it all changed” is only partially correct as it disregards both the 1886 and 1913 regulations and focuses on the changes made just prior to World War II. Within the May 13, 1941 regulations it was specified that the eagle was to face to the left in the rates comprising the Seaman Branch: Boatswain Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunner’s Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman and Torpedoman’s Mate. All other rating badges (worn on the left sleeve) were to have an eagle facing to the right – or towards the front of the uniform. With the release of the navy uniform regulations of April 2,1949, the right arm rates were disestablished, moving all enlisted ratings to the left sleeve and the eagle’s beak pointed to the right wing.

Neither of the two WWI navy uniforms within my Great War display had rating badges from the Seaman Branch – one, an Electrician’s Mate 2/c (with a radio technician distinguishing mark) from the Artificer Branch and the other a Ship’s Cook 2/c was part of the Special Branch.

If the critic had left his contact information, I might have considered a gentle discussion to provide a better understanding of enlisted Navy rate and rating badge history along with authoritative references. Rather than to take offense at the man’s note, I can surmise that he cares about accuracy in displayed naval artifacts enough to correct me. However, his omission of his name, email or phone number might be more indicative of the equivalent of a blind grenade-toss at something he has great disdain for. Unfortunately, I will never know.

I feel compelled to offer my gratitude to this unknown person for giving me a reason to pause for a self-assessment as I strive for accuracy with my collecting, research, writing and displaying these treasure. His note also serves as a reminder for me to maintain humility when I observe historical inaccuracies and to always measure myself before opening my mouth or firing off an ill-informed message.

Related Veteran’s Collection Articles:

Reference:

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Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

Reaching the Pinnacle of Militaria Collecting


This uniform group belonged to Rear Admiral Robert Copeland who received the Navy Cross for his heroic attack (while in command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts and the destroyers of “Taffy 3″) against a Japanese battleship force in the Battle off Samar (source: D. Schwind).

I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.

Flight suit belonging to Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Colonel Francis Gabby Gabreski.

I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?

In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.

This jacket belonged to Major General George S. Patton Jr.

In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.

Extreme Collections

For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.