Most of the militaria and artifacts that I write about are pieces that are in my collection or are historical events that have some sort of personal context or connection. There are times, however that I find myself absolutely fascinated with artifacts in others’ collections that have me absolutely captivated. The subject of my efforts in this piece has me captivated both by the items and their original owner’s participation in history.
Militaria collecting, for me and many other collectors, is about the history. More specifically, it is about the individual and personal connections to historical events. For collectors, seeking out and acquiring artifacts from veterans who participated in pivotal or notable events helps to breathe life into what can otherwise be, for much of the population, a mundane event from the past.
The average American fan of World War II history is familiar with events tied to the more obvious specific dates: December 7, 1941, June 6, 1944 or perhaps even, August 6, 1945. For those of you who might need some hints as your morning coffee or tea has yet to take effect: Pearl Harbor, D-Day and Hiroshima. Most people know about specific campaigns and battles such as Iwo Jima, Midway, Operation Overlord and the Battle of the Bulge.
Considering those details, how many Americans are familiar enough with history to understand that World War II was being fought in Europe for nearly two years prior to the United States Congress’ war declaration on December 8th? For that matter, war was in full swing in Asia for almost five years by December of 1941. With this in mind, how many of the American public understand that though the U.S. was abstaining from the war and clinging to the isolationist stance, U.S. servicemen were, in fact, active and serving in both the Pacific and European theaters?
Perhaps one of the most significant naval pursuits (culminating in two significant battles) during those early years of WWII surrounds the engagement between the navy of Great Britain and the German Kriegsmarine that spanned six days in May of 1941. A prevalent and familiar battle cry that still resonates from that time was the call to “Sink the Bismarck” as the British sought to both avenge the loss of the HMS Hood (at the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24, 1941) and prevent the German ship from succeeding in her mission to disrupt the transatlantic shipping lifeline from North America (Operation Rheinübung). The Royal Navy ultimately prevailed in her mission, ending the German battleship’s short-lived career with the effective employment of carrier-based aircraft to disable the ship followed by naval gunfire to send her to the bottom on May 27.
These naval battles between our ally and the Germans are the subject study by historians and military strategists alike and are frequently popularized with articles, books and television programs, keeping the history on the forefront of cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. But one fact that is seldom discussed is that American naval aviators played a small role in the Royal Navy’s open-ocean victory.
In the early years of Britain’s war with Germany, the U.S. was providing assistance in their fight by sending supplies (food, fuel and military equipment) across the ocean in large convoys. Recognizing the significance of that vital lifeline, the Germans re-employed and improved upon a WWI tactic of utilizing submarines (U-boats) in “wolf-packs” to destroy, or at least, disrupt the movement of the convoys, sending thousands of tons of merchant ships to the ocean bottom. In response, the U.S. began supplying Britain with long-range patrol and bomber aircraft providing an effective counter-tactic, protecting the convoys from the subsurface threats.
Just weeks prior to the Bismarck engagements, the Royal Air Force began taking delivery of American-supplied PBY Catalina flying boats. To expedite training of the RAF flight crews on their new aircraft, the U.S. Navy also sent their own support crews and aviators. Despite the U.S. neutrality at this point in the war, some U.S. Navy aircrews would support the RAF by flying patrol missions in the PBYs.
Days following the Denmark Strait engagement (and the loss of the battlecruiser Hood), a Consolidated-built PBY-5 Catalina departed Oban, Scotland on a patrol mission in search of the Bismarck. PBY “O” with Carl W. Rinehart in command, launched May 26 at 12:15pm on what would become a record-setting (for airborne length of time) and historic flight. Twelve hours later, Rinehart’s crew spotted the Bismarck steaming in the direction of occupied France (the ship had been spotted and position reported hours earlier by another U.S. Navy Catalina pilot, Ensign Leonard B. Smith). Dropping down for a closer look, the Catalina descended from the clouds into a firestorm of anti-aircraft gunnery from the enemy ship, and Rinehart and his co-pilot struggled to maneuver the flying boat to safety.
Remaining in the vicinity of the Bismarck, Rinehart and his crew maintained visual contact with the ship observing the ensuing aerial torpedo assault by the Swordfish aircraft from the HMS Ark Royal on the evening of the 26th. Now with her rudders jammed, Bismarck was unable to continue her course to the safety of German air cover. Over the course of the night, the Royal Navy was able to draw in the attacking surface force and bring about the end of the Kriegsmarine’s pride. Catalina “O” and her crew were present, witnessing the entire last battle of the Bismarck. Low on fuel, Rinehart turned his plane on a heading to return to base. Touching down at 13:40 on May 27, his Catalina had been airborne for more than 26 hours of continual flight.
Rinehart would continue to serve throughout WWII and through the Korean War. He retired from the navy with the rank of captain having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (not for the Bismarck patrol). Captain Rinehart passed away in 1996 at the age of 83 in Pensacola, Florida.
Years later, artifacts from his lengthy naval career surfaced at auction and one collector was fortunate to acquire several items, piecing together this well-rounded group that documents Captain Rinehart’s tenure. Among his decorations and ribbons are Rinehart’s service and campaign medals along with his DFC medal. There are also the usual rank devices and a nice set of gold naval aviator’s wings and other insignia devices all belonging to Rinehart.
For me, the items that truly makes this group stand out are ephemera. This collector was able to obtain Rinehart’s spectacular photo album containing snapshots from his wartime service. While each of these images are one-of-a-kind and represent a seldom seen vantage point into the life of WWII decorated flying boat aviator, they still pale in comparison to the central, most historically significant aspect of Rinehart group, his flight log books.
Thumbing through the pages, there are significant events noted by Rinehart among his various flights and missions including, “Peace Signed Aboard BB USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay V-J Day.” Capping off the log entries is one particular flight with mention of the Bismarck search circled in red colored pencil and the take-off/landing times.
While a grouping from Rinehart’s more notable colleague, Leonard Smith, might bring more attention and monetary value, this group is no less historically significant.
(All photos depicting the Carl Rinehart collection are courtesy of Kurt Stauffer unless otherwise noted)
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.
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.
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.
I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.
Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire to women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.
U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design (theme) has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality, gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.
In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of with individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style.
Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for
I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms however, through osmosis and reviewing the various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance. If you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting, I can provide some basic details on what to look for (I have included a few images from previous articles covering navy enlisted uniforms):
- Tags or labels
Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
- Rate insignia
John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges, and Marks, 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and Rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia. Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
- Distinguishing Marks
Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etc.). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, duck, canvas, etc.). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
- Embroidery and stitching
Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.
Research – a wise investment
Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip-side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby providing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.
In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.
Middy Rating Badges
In addition to the mis-identification of middy costumes and clothing as Navy uniforms, the rating badges that are stitched to the sleeves of these garments can also be improperly listed for sale online. To the unsuspecting or untrained eye, a middy badge could be seen as authentic. Middy rating insignia are often proportionally distorted from their authentic counterparts. In addition to the size variances (middies were made for children and women so their badges had to be smaller to be aesthetically appealing on smaller sleeves), the distinguishing marks are always sized disproportionately to the eagle and the chevrons. Also, pay attention to the way that the embroidery work was done. Most chevrons were sewn-on pieces of wool flannel (rather than directly embroidered to the base material).
Giving sellers the benefit of doubt, they may not be intentionally deceptive with their listings. I suspect that when they come across these badges, they truly believe that they are authentic and are merely adding them to their manifold-listings of online sales, not considering for a moment that the pieces are merely costume elements.
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.
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.