Category Archives: Warships or Vessels

Spark Your Collection: Military-Themed Zippos


My memory with this Zippo hand warmer is vivid: I remember the smell of the fluid burning and how it warmed my hands on a cold winter morning.

When I was invited to write for A&E’s Collectors Quest collector’s forum as their resident militaria blogger, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. Besides possessing some basic skills with my native tongue (or at least the written word), I knew that I would have a very diverse field from which to extract topics for my columns. With nearly two years researching and writing on an aggressive deadline schedule coupled with my passion for militaria collecting, I developed a fair amount of expertise that I brought to bear when I moved on to my own blog.

From my initial post on this blog (Militaria Collecting: It Isn’t Just Fatigues and Helmets), I mentioned the diversity of the “genre” and how far reaching – extending beyond the bounds of military-specific items – the various categories would be. It is very easy to be myopic as we focus on what we enjoy, forgetting that a specific area of collecting militaria could be part of a larger field of collecting that has very little to do with the military. One of those heavily-collected areas is in the field of cigarette/cigar lighters…more specifically, Zippo lighters.

My introduction to Zippo products came when I was a pre-teen as my uncle, a World War II army combat veteran of the Pacific theater, offered to warm my hands up with a unique device…a hand warmer. Fueled by lighter fluid, the warmer took the bite out of the cold that was causing my hands to stiffen and ache. I marveled at the its soft metal-feel and the warmth it provided. I remember seeing the name emblazoned across the device’s bottom, “Zippo.” My uncle was also a pipe smoker and when he went to light up the fragrant tobacco in his pipe, I again saw the name and it stuck with me for years. My uncle told me of the reliability of the Zippo; that it could still light up in a strong wind. He mentioned that all of his buddies sought them out, often trading battlefield souvenirs for them.

This Zippo dates from the 1980s and is the more typical chrome design with USS Vincennes CG-49 engraving.

Though I do not smoke (I never have), I own a handful of the iconic, treasured pocket flame-producing implements. All of my specific pieces are lie firmly in the military category of Zippo collecting – specifically U.S. Navy (for those of you who’ve been following my posts, this would be obvious). The depth and breadth of my collection covers all of two ships, only one of which I served aboard, and numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of five pieces, all of which are in new condition (remember, I don’t smoke). I’ve even managed to acquire, though I don’t remember how, a navy-themed Zippo pocket knife.

Plainly and painfully obvious, I don’t possess much knowledge beyond being able to identify a lighter as being a Zippo versus a knock-off. Beyond that, I have to resort to my basic abilities of research to determine the sort of information collectors need: the age of the lighter, scarcity, desirability, condition, etcetera. One of the nice things about a company like Zippo is that they consider both their customers those who use the products and the collectors, producing quality products, standing behind them, and providing collectors with authoritative production data and informationdating back to their infancy in the 1930s.

Interested in collecting Zippo? Try some of these resources to spark your interest::

This flat Zippo pocket knife was left behind aboard my ship following one of the many parades of high-ranking naval officers who wanted to see what the (then) newest naval technological marvel could do.

For me, I will continue on in my collecting pursuits, leaving my lighter collection to remain as is – though I might have to locate a hand warmer to warm my hands and nostalgically reminisce about those days with my uncle, now long gone.

Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece


Remaining focused with collecting can be a challenge, especially when it comes to militaria. If you are a die-hard fan of military history, it becomes quite difficult to keep composed when unique pieces of history become available. However, when one of those unique items surface that actually does directly tie-in to one’s principal areas of collecting, it cannot be passed up.

During the first four of my ten years of naval service, I was blessed to be assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the U.S. Navy’s newest (at that time) cruiser – the first to be assigned to the Pacific Fleet – the USS Vincennes. My assignment was handed to me as I was graduating from my naval training school and, at that time, I had no idea of the history of the name of that ship. It was a name that I struggled to pronounce correctly.

This binder is labeled with the name of the owner (Chief Electrician Knaus) for the USS Vincennes. It was used during the ship’s overhaul in 1939. I still need to research Chief Knaus to see if I can locate any details of his service.

Upon reporting in to the command located in San Diego, where the ship was to be homeported upon completion, I was quickly immersed into the history of the ship’s name and bowled over by the sheer excitement and passion for the legacy of the citizens of the Indiana city from where the ship drew her name. I was also immediately connected to a 500-member-strong group of World War II veterans (who had served aboard either of the two WWI cruisers that also bore the name), all of which had incredible pride for this ship. These men and their wives had played a significant role in convincing the navy leadership to name the third ship of the Ticonderoga class cruisers to honor three previous front-line navy warships that had also carried the name Vincennes.

Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been immensely interested in anything pertaining to the three previous USS Vincennes warships. I’ve collected press photos, news articles, first day postal covers and other ephemera that are somehow connected to the ships. Seldom have I seen items with more direct significance than something that actually came from the ships as preserving the history during their service was neither a thought, or in the case of the CA-44 – which was sunk by the Japanese at Savo Island on August 9, 1942— possible. A few months ago, an interesting piece surfaced that had historical significance and direct ties to the CA-44. More than likely, it was aboard the ship as part of a daily routine. While it isn’t anything that is correlated to a battle or naval engagement, the importance of this piece did provide some ancillary historical details regarding the configuration changes made to the weapons and other shipboard systems.

Listed on an online auction site was, at least for me, was the holy grail. It is a binder containing work orders for electrical jobs during an overhaul period in 1939. Contained within are forms and handwritten work orders specifying upgrades and configuration changes made to the ships electrical systems. Some work orders detail modernization of weapons systems that would meet the changes to the geopolitical landscape and the escalation of war in Europe and Asia.

I was fortunate that my bid was high enough to beat out others but was still in line with my budgetary limitations.

The binder provides me with a fantastic vantage point as I continue to document the history of these great warships and is a great addition to my tiny Vincennes collection.

Finding the “Lady Lex,” One Piece at a Time


A few weeks ago, our nation honored the 75th anniversary of the sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. In the past few years, we have marked significant anniversaries of victories from WWII, the War of 1812 and this year we will begin recognizing the centennial of the U.S.entrance into the Great War. For collectors, these occasions spur us to evaluate our own collections while attempting to be discerning of sellers’ listings who are also trying to capitalize on the sudden interest.

In May of this year, 75 years will have elapsed since the first significant clash between the opposing naval forces of Japan and the United States in the Coral Sea. Leading up to this battle, the Navy had suffered losses in The Philippines, Wake Island and Guam followed by the sinking of the USS Houston (in the battle of Sunda Strait) all of which were leaving the U.S. extremely vulnerable and nearly incapable of mounting a naval offensive.

The Lady Lex is rocked by an enormous explosion during the Coral Sea battle, May 8, 1942 (Photo: Naval Historical Center).

The Lady Lex is rocked by an enormous explosion during the Coral Sea battle, May 8, 1942 (Photo: Naval Historical Center).

USS Lexington (CV-2) provides electrical power to the City of Tacoma (WA) during a severe drought and subsequent electricity shortage - December 1929 - January 1930 (Photo: Tacoma Public Library).

USS Lexington (CV-2) provides electrical power to the City of Tacoma (WA) during a severe drought and subsequent electricity shortage – December 1929 – January 1930 (Photo: Tacoma Public Library).

Beginning with a joint effort between the US Army Air Force and the US Navy, the fight was taken to the Japanese home front with an B-25 air strike launched from the USS Hornet. But the direction of the war was seriously in doubt and Navy brass knew that inevitably, a direct naval engagement with the Japanese fleet were very near on the horizon.

Navy code-breakers had discovered the Imperial Japanese forces intended on taking Port Moresby in New Guinea and quickly dispatched Task Forces (TF) 11 and 17 to join up with TF 44 near the Solomon Islands and proceed West toward the Coral Sea. Over the course of May 3rd through 8th, the ensuing engagements between US and IJN forces resulted in substantial losses for both sides, including a carrier from each navy.

This 1934 postal cover commemorates the Lexington's East Coast cruise of 1934 (photo: eBay).

This 1934 postal cover commemorates the Lexington’s East Coast cruise of 1934 (photo: eBay).

For the U.S. Navy, that carrier was the USS Lexington, CV-2. Though not the first purpose-built aircraft carrier (that distinction goes to the USS Ranger CV-4), Lexington was the first to be originally commissioned as a flat top. The Langley (CV-1) had a previous life as a collier, the USS Jupiter, for seven years from 1913 to 1920. The “Lady Lex”, as she would come to be known, laid down as a battle cruiser but was reconfigured during construction and was commissioned in 1927 as the US Navy’s second carrier, CV-2.

The result of the Coral Sea Battle was that the Navy was left with just two operational carrier: Hornet and Enterprise, as the Yorktown also suffered substantial damage in the battle requiring repairs. Less than a month later, the tables would be turned on Japan with the major American victory at Midway.

The loss was not only felt by her crew and navy strategists, but also by communities, such as Tacoma, Washington. For 31 days during winter drought conditions, the Lexington was sent to aid the city’s citizens by generating power ’round the clock, helping to keep their homes lit and warm. Many of those beneficiaries of the electrical power assistance were devastated by the news of her loss.

Today, few artifacts remain from the Lady Lex. Militaria collectors would be hard-pressed to obtain anything specific to the ship, instead having to settle for obtaining USS Lexington veterans’ personal effects or uniform items, surviving ephemera, philatelics, or vintage photographs. For many naval collectors, the hunt for anything from this historic ship can very rewarding. Some artifacts can be found by happenstance as was the case with this Curtiss SB2C Hell Diver, recently pulled from the Lower Otay Reservoir near San Diego, discovered by a fisherman who observed the plane’s outline on his fish-finder.

Armed with patience and time, collectors could assemble a nice group of artifacts to pay proper respect to the Lady Lex and the men who served aboard this historic ship.

 

A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?


For most Americans, this time of year spurs thoughts of lighted trees, large and rotund red-suited elves, massive crowds at local shops and mega malls, anxiety, and ever-increasing credit card debt in the rush to obtain the perfect gift for loved ones and friends. All of this translates into the hopes that the recipients of said gifts illuminate with unbridled joy and gratitude. Meanwhile, a continuously diminishing segment of the population, in addition to the aforementioned seasonal activities and concerns, recall a monumentally tragic and infuriating event, now 75 years hence.

The USS Arizona’s bow pitches upward on the high seas sometime in the late 1930s (source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

The USS Arizona’s bow pitches upward on the high seas sometime in the late 1930s (source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

At that time (three quarters of a century ago), Americans, like today, were in the throes of an economic depression while war and conflict littered regions around the globe. Many Americans had been without work for months, while others had been unemployed for years. The holiday season was in full swing but on an infinitely smaller scale. All of this about to change, catapulting the nation into chaos and doubt while transforming the nation’s doubt into a singular mindset, while rising from the literal ashes and wreckage to defeat fascism.

A rare color image showing the USS Arizona’s forward magazine detonating after it was struck by a high altitude aerial bomb (Source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

A rare color image showing the USS Arizona’s forward magazine detonating after it was struck by a high altitude aerial bomb (Source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

The World War II generation is departing our society at an increasingly accelerated pace. The men and women who banded together on the war front and home front still recall the Day of Infamy, remembering those who fell prey to unpreparedness and bumbling governmental bureaucracy and a dastardly attack. When the final tally was counted in the weeks and months following December 7, 1941, more than 2,400 Americans were dead at the hands of the Empire of Japan. Three battleships of the U.S. Navy were complete losses. One of those ships, the USS Arizona (BB-39), was obliterated by an aerial bomb that penetrated into the forward magazines (for the 14” guns), igniting a cataclysmic explosion, killing 1,117 sailors, accounting for more than half of the Pearl Harbor attack death toll.

The memorial structure straddles the stricken ship’s hull as she rests in the mud and silt of Pearl Harbor.

The memorial structure straddles the stricken ship’s hull as she rests in the mud and silt of Pearl Harbor.

In the 75 years since that fateful day, much has transpired to cause the slow evaporation of Pearl Harbor memories of from the American conscience. The current younger generation experienced their own day of infamy 11 years ago with the 9/11 attacks, fueling the 12/7/41 forgetfulness with redirected angst.

Conversely for militaria collectors, the events of Pearl Harbor are held close to the vest and worn on their sleeves. The pursuit to hold a piece connected to that tragic day isn’t taken lightly. More often than not, collectors pay an extremely high premium for the honor of preserving and displaying items that tell the individual stories of the struggle to survive and the will to fight the attackers. Collectors treasure anything directly related to a veteran, aircraft or ship that participated in warding off the Japanese onslaught.

Inside the Arizona Memorial, this wall bears the names of the 1,177 victims who were killed on that tragic day.

Inside the Arizona Memorial, this wall bears the names of the 1,177 victims who were killed on that tragic day.

For me, the realization of the Pearl Harbor collector mindset truly occurred for me awhile ago when I spotted an auction listing for a flat hat from a navy veteran that served aboard the most notable ship casualty of the attack, the Arizona. I scanned through the associated photographs, noting the condition while attempting to approximate the age of the item.

Worth its weight in gold, this flat hat recently sold for nearly $900 at auction (source: eBay image).

Worth its weight in gold, this flat hat recently sold for nearly $900 at auction (source: eBay image).

By 1941, operation security had been steadily increasing due to the waging war, both in Europe and the Western Pacific. The Navy, seeking to reduce the visible indications of ship movements, stipulated in uniform regulations that all ship identifiers, such as ship-name tallies on enlisted blue flat hats, be omitted from uniforms. Generic “U.S. Navy” lettered tallies replaced the those bearing the names of ships which meant that the one in the auction listing predated WWII by at least a year.

The condition of the hat left lots to be desired. From dozens of small holes scattered across all of the woolen surfaces, it was readily apparent that moths had a field day as they enjoyed their “hat salad.” The only components on this cap untouched by the Lepidoptera larvae were the tally and the liner.

What would be a significant value-increasing factor is if the hat bore the name of its owner. I was unable to discern from the provided photos any hint of a stenciled or inscribed name. If I had been able to see the original owner’s name, I might have been able to locate related details concerning his naval service, and quite possibly, the dates he served aboard the Arizona. It might be safe to assume that the value of the hat increases if the veteran did survive the ship’s sinking. However, based upon the features of the hat (the overall design, the liner and the tally), I would surmise that the hat is closer to the World War I-era.

Regardless of when the hat was used or if it belonged to a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, the auction’s final, closing bid of $848.00 was astonishing. Without a doubt, the winning bidder took a chance on acquiring an extremely rare piece with direct ties to a historic ship. In doing so, this collector now possesses a tangible connection to that fateful day.

See also:

Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors


Regardless of how much knowledge you may possess, making good decisions about purchasing something that is “collectible” can be a risky venture ending in disappointment and being taken by, at worst, con-artists or at best, a seller who is wholly ignorant of the item they are selling. Research and gut-instinct should always guide your purchases for militaria. Being armed with the concept that when something is too-good-to-be-true, it is best to avoid it. I recently fell victim to my own foolishness when I saw an online auction listing for an item that was entirely in keeping with what I collect.

I am very interested in some specific areas of American naval history and one of my collecting focus centers around a select-few ships and almost anything (or anyone) who might have been associated with them.  One of those ships (really, four: all named to honor the Revolutionary War battle where American George Rogers Clark was victorious in Vincennes, IN), the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) is one in particular that I am constantly on the lookout for.

In early September (2016), a listing for an item that surfaced in one of my saved searches results, caught my attention on eBay. The auction description made mention of a book, Savo: The incredible Naval Debacle Off Guadalcanal, that happens to be one of the principle, reliable sources for countless subsequent publications discussing the August 8-9, 1942 battle in the waters surrounding Savo Island. Though I read this book (it was in our ship’s library) years ago, it is a book that I wanted to add to my collection but until this point, never found a copy that I wanted to purchase. What made this auction more enticing was that this book featured a notable autograph on the inside cover. In viewing the seller’s photos, I noted that the dust jacket was in rough shape but the book appeared to be in good condition (though the cover and binding were not displayed). There were no bids and the starting price was less than $9.00.

Riefkohl was awarded the Navy Cross medal for actions performed aboard the USS Philadelphia against German submarines during WWI convoy escort operations.

Riefkohl was awarded the Navy Cross medal for actions performed aboard the USS Philadelphia against German submarines during WWI convoy escort operations (see the test of the accompanying citation below).

I have been a collector of autographs and have obtained several directly from cultural icons (sports stars, actors, musicians) but my favorites are of notable military figures (recipients of the Medal of Honor [MOH] and other servicemen and women) who distinguished themselves in service to our country. The signature in this book featured a retired naval officer who was the recipient of the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross (surpassed only by the MOH) and who played a significant role in the Battle of Savo Island as he was the commanding officer of the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) and the senior officer present afloat (SOPA) for the allied group of ships charged with defending the northern approaches (to Savo and Tulagi islands). Frederick Lois Riefkohl (then a captain) commanded the northern group which consisted of four heavy cruisers; (including Vincennes) USS Quincy (CA-39), Astoria (CA-34) and HMAS Canberra (D33).

By all accounts, the Battle of Savo Island (as the engagement is known as) is thought to be one of the worst losses in U.S. naval history (perhaps second only to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor) as within minutes of the opening salvos by the Japanese naval force, all four allied ships were left completely disabled and sinking (all would succumb to the damage and slip beneath the waves in the following hours). Though the loss was substantial, the Japanese turned away from their intended targets (the allied amphibious transport ships that were landing marines and supplies on Guadalcanal and Tulagi) missing a massive opportunity to stop the beginnings of the allied island-hopping campaign. The First Marine division was permanently entrenched on these islands, and would drive the Japanese from the Solomons in the coming months.

Captain Frederick Lois Riefkohl (shown here as a rear admiral).

Captain Frederick Lois Riefkohl (shown here as a rear admiral).

Captain Riefkohl was promoted to Rear Admiral and retired from the Navy in 1947 having served for more than 36 years. He commanded both the USS Corry (DD-334) and the Vincennes and having served his country with distinction, the Savo Island loss somewhat marred his highly successful career.

As I inspected the book, there were a few aspects that gave me reason for pause. First, the seller described the book as “SAVO by Newcomb 1957 edition” which left me puzzled.  Secondly, the Admiral included a date (“May 1957”) with his signature. Recalling that Newcomb’s book was published in 1961 ( See: Newcomb, Richard Fairchild. 1961. Savo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.), I was a bit dismayed by the four-year discrepancy between the date of the autograph and (what the seller determined to be the) first edition published date. I wondered, “how did he determine this date and where did he find this information?” I noted that there was no photograph of the book’s title page accompanying the auction.

I decided to take a gamble that at worst, would result in me spending a small sum of money for an autograph that I wanted for my collection and at best was merely a fouled up listing by an uninformed seller. I pulled the trigger and my winning bid of $8.99 had the book en route (with free shipping, to boot)!

The dust jacket is in very rough shape with tears, creases, cracks, shelf wear and dog-ears. The cover art is fairly intense in conveying what took place in the battle.

The dust jacket is in very rough shape with tears, creases, cracks, shelf wear and dog-ears. The cover art is fairly intense in conveying what took place in the battle.

The confirmation that I didn't want; this book turned out to be"Death of a Navy" which isn't worth investing time to read as it is known to be a rather erroneous work.

The confirmation that I didn’t want; this book turned out to be”Death of a Navy” which isn’t worth investing time to read as it is known to be a rather erroneous work.

Nearly two weeks later, the package arrived. I reservedly opened the packaging and freed the book from the layers of plastic and bubble wrap. I inspected the ragged dust jacket and removed it to see the very clean cover which didn’t seem to match. I opened the book and viewed Riefkohl’s autograph which appeared to match the examples that I have seen previously. I turned to the title page and confirmed my suspicions. Death of a Navy by an obscure French author, Andrieu D’Albas (Captain, French Navy Reserve). “Death” is not worthy enough to be considered a footnote in the retelling of the Pacific Theater war as D’ Albas’ work is filled with errors. By 1957 (when this book was published), most of what was to be discovered (following the 1945 surrender) from the Japanese naval perspective was well publicized before the start of the Korean War. It is no wonder why Andrieu D’Albas published only one book.

My worst-case scenario realized, I now (merely) have the autograph of a notable U.S. naval hero in my collection. While I could have gone with my gut feelings about the auction listing, having this autograph does offset my feelings of being misled (regardless of the seller’s intentions).

Admiral Riefkohl's signature appears to be authentic leaving me semi satisfied in that I obtained a great autograph for my collection.

Admiral Riefkohl’s signature appears to be authentic leaving me semi satisfied in that I obtained a great autograph for my collection.

 

Riefkohl’s Navy Cross Citation:
The Navy Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Frederick L. Riefkohl, U.S. Navy, for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commander of the Armed Guard of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and in an engagement with an enemy submarine. On August 2, 1917, a periscope was sighted, and then a torpedo passed under the stern of the ship. A shot was fired, which struck close to the submarine, which then disappeared