After years of searching for a simple uniform accouterment, I am feeling that the possibilities of completing a uniform recreation are far less than I had hoped. When I began my project in 2009, I figured that locating a fairly standard uniform patch would be a simple venture. As I reviewed the photo, seemingly nothing on my uncle’s uniform was rare or would be difficult to source. At the end of four years, I have learned that I may have to place this project on perpetual hold. Where did I go wrong?
When I received a photo (taken in August of 1952) of my uncle receiving an Army Commendation Medal from a colonel, I knew that I wanted to assemble a uniform jacket with his full military decorations. Around the same time I got the photo, an enormous package arrived from the National Archives which contained a large stack of documents that encapsulated my uncle’s service spanning three wars and nearly 20 years.
Reviewing the service records and the photo, I decided that I wanted to put together a uniform that was representative of what my uncle wore at the conclusion of his service in the army. Considering that my uncle enlisted to serve in World War One, I figured that the greatest challenge I faced was in locating the period-correct ribbons with the appropriate devices: the correct campaign stars. I already possessed a good portion of my uncle’s metal devices (rank, corps insignia) along with several period-correct ribbons and medals which meant that it shouldn’t take long to acquire what was still needed.
In possession of the uniform jacket, I began to take stock of each item before I would begin to sew on any of the patches. From the unit insignia (the GHQ patch) to the all of the various devices, I was ready to go…or so I thought. There, glaring at me like Darren McGavin’s sultry major award, gleaming brightly in the window of the front room from A Christmas Story, I was missing the overseas stripes that would be representative a soldier who served overseas for multiple wars.
One might ask, “What is so significant about this uniform item?” The overseas service bar (or chevron for World War I service) was issued for each block of six months served by a soldier in a combat zone. In the case of my uncle’s uniform, the photo shows that he wore three chevrons and five overseas service bars. With each stripe or chevron representing six months, my uncle served in a combat theater for three chevrons and five bars, or a total four years.
Having a sense of humor is a good thing for those of you who have served (or are serving) in uniform. You understand the necessity…no…the requirement of possessing the invaluable ability to laugh at humorous situations but also actions, activities, operations or events that are FUBAR (you can look that term up if you don’t already know the definition). With regards to militaria collecting, sarcasm, eye-rolling, head-shaking and bursting forth with gut-shaking laughter helps to keep things in proper perspective, especially when one stumbles upon situations like the following.
I know that many, if not most of the people reading this have little or no background covering the history of the United States military medals and decorations. In order to provide some sort of baseline which will then help you to either laugh, roll your eyes or shake your head in disbelief with some measure of authority, I will provide brief history lesson. I won’t go into great detail with the intricacies and extremely specific minutiae so (for those you who are OMSA members) give me a little latitude as I provide a “Reader’s Digest” version.
Prior to the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent military action taken by the rebellious colonists of North America, awards and decorations were a tradition of European militaries predominantly awarded to the senior military leaders and heads of state to commemorate victorious aspects of their illustrious careers. For the first five years of the Revolution, no decoration existed for men who served in the Continental Army or Navy as, it would seem that winning independence from the tyrannical British rule would be enough (aside from being paid for service) to risk life and limb.
It wasn’t until 1780 that Congress enacted the very first decoration, the Fidelity Medal, which was awarded to three specific militiamen (John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams) who captured British intelligence officer, Major John Andre’ (who was assisting Benedict Arnold in his treasonous act). Aside from a few Congressional actions taken to award medals to General George Washington (1776), General Horatio Gates (1777) and General Henry Lee (1779), the first medal awarded to soldiers was initiated by the issuance of a field order by General Washington on August 7, 1782 establishing the Badge of Military Merit. There is some debate as to the number of recipients of the Badge of Military Merit (the predecessor of the Purple Heart medal), but there were very few soldiers to have it bestowed upon them (as few as three).
Another military decoration wouldn’t be awarded for 65 years when the Certificate of Merit (officially recognized with a medal in 1905) was enacted by Congress during the Mexican-American war, in 1847 and re-established during the Indian Wars in the second-half of the nineteenth century.
The most notable American military decoration, the Medal of Honor, was established during the Civil War with the first official presentation taking place on March 25, 1863 decorating six Union Army soldiers with the medal. From the Civil War on through World War II, the process of enacting, creating, managing and awarding military decorations was a process that required developing and maturing as awards manuals and official procedures and precedents were established. For military novices, online resources are quite plentiful and very useful for learning how to determine the identity of a specific decoration and it’s potential collector demand and subsequent value. Now that I have presented all of this information, it is my hope that you see the humor in the remainder of this article.
In 1961, the Navy Department established a medal to recognize individual, meritorious achievements that were not commensurate with the criteria of the Navy Commendation medal. In 1981, the Army (and Air Force) followed suit with their own achievement medals.
The design of the Army Achievement medal obverse is somewhat generic as it depicts the official U.S. Army seal along with the year the Continental Army was established (1775). The reverse of pendant simply states, “For Military Achievement.”
In a recent online auction listing, a seller listed a military decoration and titled it “1775 medal” and listed it as an Original Period militaria Item from the Revolutionary War (1775-83). The photo of the medal showed it as a set (ribbon device, lapel pin, miniature and full sized medals) in the current-issue plastic presentation case. One could suppose that the seller simply mis-categorized the listing and perhaps, mistyped the auction title. These sorts of mistakes are quite common occurrences. However, this story doesn’t end with a simple mistake.
Reviewing the 1775 medal auction description and price, it should become readily apparent that the seller is either out of his or her element, seeking to deceive a potential buyer or having some fun with an online auction listing. The seller states in the text, “1775 military achievement award complete set asking 200,000 worth 350.000 (sic).” Fortunately for potential buyers, the seller provided an option to buy it now for $250k, splitting the difference between the starting bid and the (stated) value.
Not one to make accusations as to the seller’s intentions, I choose to instead, laugh and enjoy the antics routinely experienced in the world of online auctions. For the record, if a collector is seeking to purchase an Army Achievement medal set, look to pay in the neighborhood of $20-40.