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My Signature Soapbox: Veterans of Valor Autograph Collecting


One of my favorite Medal of Honor recipient autographs is this one from Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

For the current 2017 Major League Baseball season, twenty four players will earn $21,000,000 or more to play the game. Of those, two pitchers; David Price, Boston Red Sox and Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers will earn $30m and $33m (respectively) to collect “outs” for their teams throughout the season (and post-season).

Being the huge baseball fan that I am, I do understand that the MLB season is gruelingly long at 162 games and half of them are on the road, visiting cities stretching across the United States and into Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Life on the road is difficult and has considerable impact on family life with all the time away. While the season typically starts in late March to early April, for the players, it actually begins in February with spring training. If the team makes it to postseason play, that means they are working from mid-February to late October.

Many athletes’ families do not live in the city in which they are playing, further adding to the separation challenges. Players routinely miss out on birthdays, anniversaries and other family gatherings. For roughly eight months of the year, these athletes are subjected to air travel (some aboard chartered team jets) and the nicest hotel rooms. While on road trips, team equipment managers pack and unpack their gear, ensure that their baggage is in their hotel rooms when they arrive and picked up when they depart the various cities.

Meeting 12 of the surviving members of the Blacksheep of VMF-214 was a thrill for me. Ace, Lt. Colonel (Pappy Boyington’s wingman) was quite amusing as he and his wife “attempted” to steal my baby daughter, snickering and laughing as he wheeled her stroller away. All that I had to get signed was this book by notable author, Barrett Tillman.

During batting practice and pre-game warm-ups, fans arrive early for the chance at obtaining the autograph of their favorite players on a baseball card, ball or scorecard. Autograph hounds seek out the stars of the game to get as many items signed as possible, even hiring kids to obtain as many signatures of the game’s elite players as possible. Autographs of the stars command premium prices when sold on the market. Many of the stars understand this part of the business (yes, the game of baseball is a business) and choose only to sign at arranged events where they are paid fees, commanding thousands of dollars, further padding their multi-million dollar salaries.

By now, you are asking yourself, “what does this have to do with militaria or military collecting?” I ask that you give me a little latitude as I am getting to the heart of the subject.

As a member of the local aviation museum (which is one of the best in the nation), I occasionally attend functions that typically focus on the stars of military aviation. During these events, one or more figures make appearances where they interact with the audience, detailing or describing their escapades in aerial combat or flight operations in support of significant military historical events. The schedule typically follows the format of a presentation in the auditorium, followed by a question and answer session, then an opportunity for the “fans” to get an autograph.

Since I’ve been a member, I have had the opportunity to meet legendary veterans that were significant participants, authors of events that had considerable impact on the outcome of the war. From Marine Corps pilots of the Black Sheep squadron (VMF-214), “sled” (SR-71 Blackbird) drivers, Tuskegee Airmen, and countless Aces from WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. The roster of historical figures is nothing short of impressive. While the queue of autograph seekers isn’t small at these events, it pales in comparison to those seeking signatures of the multi-million dollar ballplayers.

Captain Donald K. Ross, Medal of Honor recipient (for his actions aboard USS Nevada on December 7, 1941) wrote this book about MoH recipients with ties to Ross’ adopted home state.

Is it fair to compare the two? I think it is when we consider the cost of service to our country, especially when one is deployed to a combat zone. The tour of duty isn’t limited to an eight-month season. The training is far more intense and exceedingly more difficult. While batting practice may have its risks (getting hit by a pitch or taking a foul off the foot or leg), ball players aren’t psychologically preparing to protect their own lives or that of their teammates.

Deployments are a far cry from the road trips of their Major League counterparts. Some are cooped up in cramped quarters aboard ship, have to sleep in fox holes, or seek shelter beneath a truck in the desert. Current soldiers, sailors and airmen can spend up to 16 months away from family with occasional access to phones or email for a momentary taste of home. During World War Two, some were in theater for years, on the front lines for months at a time with brief respites mixed in. Mail from home was only an occasional luxury, if at all.

The risks ball players face each time they step out onto the field are real – torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament ), rotator cuff tears, elbow ligament damage and in some rare cases, the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a wild pitch to the head. When compared to what our service men and women face – such as being shot; losing limbs, eyesight or hearing; and death – the multi millionaire athletes’ reality takes a significant backseat.

Another Marine Corps ace and Medal of Honor recipient, Major Joe Foss’ signature in his autobiography is a treasured addition to my collection.

Readers might suggest that my comparisons are patently unfair. My response is that the comparison is meant to provide focus on how we the collectors, place value and emphasis on athletes (and actors, musicians, etc.) over those who have sacrificed so much more. While in the area of autograph collecting, signatures from well-known veterans often command high prices on the resale market, lesser known vets or common military personalities get no attention.

Though he didn’t earn a valor medal for his service in the USMC during WWII, his personal accounts (told in both Ken Burns’ “The War” and Tom Hanks’ “The Pacific” television series) were remarkable. I was happy to receive his signed WWII memoir.

I used to obtain and collect signatures of ball players and amassed quite a collection. Unfortunately, most of the signatures were from prospects who never truly panned out, rendering the collection to more of a humble status in its value. I did manage to obtain some choice stars and hall of fame players. But to me, these pale in comparison to the other more significant inscriptions that I have obtained since I started focusing on veterans.

I doubt that most of the signatures have much in the way of monetary value to autograph collectors, but to me, they are priceless mementos of personal encounters with men who have “been there.” My collection contains autographs from 32 Medal of Honor recipients, two World War II Marine Corps Aces, several WWII, Korean and Vietnam war Navy Cross recipients, several silver star recipients, many prisoners of war and members of the famed “Easy” company (Band of Brothers) veterans and many more.

The personal sacrifices made by these men easily overshadow any significant achievement or career milestone attained by the greatest Hall of Fame baseball player…unless that player also happens to be a combat veteran (my collection contains a few of those signatures as well).

Navy Lieutenant Commander George Gay signed his autobiography in 1982. LCDR Gay was awarded his Navy Cross medal for his squadron’s torpedo dive bomber attack on the Japanese carrier, Kaga. He was the only member of his squadron to survive the attack (all were shot down, including Gay).

I didn’t intend for this posting to be a rant against ballplayers or those who enjoy collecting their autographs. My goal was purely to call attention to the value of those who willingly raise their right hand, swearing to protect this nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic and then proceed to do that very thing. Serving in the military tends to be a very thankless job and when the service member finally hangs up their uniform, there are no invites to attend any All Star weekends for autograph signing sessions.

I surrender my soapbox.

See Also:
Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors

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Forecasting Patchy Skies: Sew-on Naval Aviation Heraldry


Counterclockwise from top left: VF-51 Screaming Eagles as the unit was being deactivated; VF-41 sporting the Tomcat character (for the F-14 Tomcat aircraft); HC-11, Detachment 5′s WestPac cruise patch; HC-11 squadron patch.

Counterclockwise from top left: VF-51 Screaming Eagles as the unit was being deactivated; VF-41 sporting the Tomcat character (for the F-14 Tomcat aircraft); HC-11, Detachment 5′s WestPac cruise patch; HC-11 squadron patch.

Since I began this blog, I’ve covered various aspects of military-patch collecting. From shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) to rank and rating badges, this area of collecting has something for every level of collecting, from the beginner with a scant budget to the experienced one who collects each and every obscure variation of his or her favorites.

This authentic VMF-214 squadron patch dates from WWII and is most-likely Australian-made. This “Blacksheep” patch is affixed to the G-1 flight jacket that belonged to the Marine pilot, Fred Losch.

This authentic VMF-214 squadron patch dates from WWII and is most-likely Australian-made. This “Blacksheep” patch is affixed to the G-1 flight jacket that belonged to the Marine pilot, Fred Losch.

One of my personal favorites in collecting patches, even though the size of my collection disagrees, is naval aviation squadrons (including the U.S. Marine Corps) due to the colorful (pun intended) embellishments and symbolism representing each squadron. These patches represent a lengthy history in heraldry and the history of navy flight dating back almost to its very beginning.

The tradition and history of these patches and insignia is acknowledged by U.S. Navy leadership in the Chief of Naval Operations Instructions (OPNAVINST) 5030.4G, as it states:

“The practice fosters a sense of pride, unit cohesion and contributes to high morale, esprit de corps and professionalism within the Naval Aviation community.  It also serves as an effective means of preserving a command’s tradition, continuity of purpose and recognition, as traced through its lineage.”

As early as the 1920s, United States naval aviators have employed visual graphics and heraldry complete with symbolism and characterizations of traits, behaviors and/or projections of the personality of their individual squadron commands. Often portraying ferocity or satire, these emblems would be displayed within the confines of the squadron office or the personnel’s common areas to encourage unity within the ranks.

Aviation units are quite diverse across four distinct areas: attack, fighter, patrol and helicopter squadrons. Within these areas are a myriad of functional (active) and decommissioned squadrons with a host of designs. Depending upon the length and breadth of an individual squadron’s service, there could exist dozens of designs and subsequent patch variations. As noted noted within these documents, squadron service history and lineage is incredibly detailed and expansive (histories for fighter and helicopter squadrons are in the works):

As a result of the diversity across the lineages, patch collectors can specialize in very specific areas (such as collecting all Vietnam-era fighter squadrons) or focus on a central design aspect (i.e. any squadron that incorporates an eagle into their design). For me, I look for those squadrons that I had direct contact with during my naval deployments, which include attack, fighter and helicopter squadrons, in the 1980s.

These patches represent two squadrons – one a USMC electronic warfare squadron and the other, an anti-submarine warfare helicopter squadron. Both bear the same nickname of “Seahawks.” The bottom two patches’ design was incorporated into the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (#4) when it was based at NAS Whibey Island in Washington State. The Seahawks (squadron) adopted the imagery from the Seahawks (the local NFL team). Since relocating to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, VMAQ-4 departed from the NFL-based design,

These patches represent two squadrons – one a USMC electronic warfare squadron and the other, an anti-submarine warfare helicopter squadron. Both bear the same nickname of “Seahawks.” The bottom two patches’ design was incorporated into the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (#4) when it was based at NAS Whibey Island in Washington State. The Seahawks (squadron) adopted the imagery from the Seahawks (the local NFL team). Since relocating to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, VMAQ-4 departed from the NFL-based design,

*See related posts:

Pappy’s Mameluke


Perhaps no other (U.S.) branch of service reveres their dress sword or sabre as much as the United States Marine Corps. Likewise, no other branch has quite the history as do the Marines with regards to their beautifully appointed blade, the Mameluke.

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Dating back to the days of hand to hand combat when Marines had a prominent presence aboard U.S. Navy warships, swords and sabres were a required arsenal element issued to both officers and regular, enlisted men. In the age of sail, enemy ships would draw within gun range, firing upon each other with cannons in an effort to disable their opponents’ ability to maneuver and make way. Once the enemy was disabled, boarding of the vessel for capture was usually the goal. Victorious in the gun battle, the ship would be positioned alongside the prey and the boarding parties, already armed and assembled, would initiate hand-to-hand fighting as they poured over the gunwales to take their prize. Firing single-shot pistols and brandishing their swords and sabres, the Marines would overpower the wounded ship’s crew to capture their prize.

Today, swords are only used by officers and enlisted men in the Marine Corps for ceremonies and formal occasions. For officers’ wear, that sword is known simply as the Mameluke (pronounced: ma’am-uh-luke).  With its origins dating back to 1805 when Presley O’Bannon, a Marine veteran of the Barbary War, was presented a sword by Prince Hamet (viceroy of the Ottoman Empire) following the Battle of Derne. In 1825, 5th Marine Corps Commandant Archibald Henderson adopted a sword (that was modeled after O’Bannon’s Ottoman gift) for wear by officers. With very little design change, the Mameluke is the second longest tenured sword in the U.S. military service; the Army’s model 1840 has been in consecutive service since inception while the older Mameluke was set aside from 1859-1875.

Arguably, the Mameluke is one of the most collectible U.S. military swords due to its unique design, aesthetic qualities and very limited quantities. Even more collectible are those swords whose original owners were Marine Corps legends.

Boyington's engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar's museum (USMC photo).

Boyington’s engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar’s museum (USMC photo).

Imagine perusing a local garage sale where you happen to spot a military scabbard with a sword handle protruding. You see grasp the handle, examining the condition and notice the distinctive white, hooked handle with a cross-shaped gilded hilt. You begin to recognize that you are holding a Mameluke. Curious to see if there is any engraving present, you withdraw the blade from the scabbard. Checking the grimy, corroded surface inches below the hilt you spot, “G. Bo…” You rub the verdigris and dirt from the surface, “…y…ing…t…” Your heartbeat quickens as your mind races, as you string the letters together. You clear the last bits of the loose filth to see the remaining letters, “…o…n.” Your mind screams, “G. BOYINGTON!!!…this is Pappy Boyington’s sword!!”

Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington during World War II.

Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington during World War II.

Fortunately for historians and the Boyington family, this did happen. One of the family’s friends found and purchased Medal of Honor Recipient, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s Mameluke at a garage sale  and gave it to his son, Greg Boyington, Jr. A few years ago, Boyington Jr. donated the sword (along some of the ace’s other personal belongings) to the legendary aviator’s squadron, Yuma, Arizona-based VMA-214. The Blacksheep now have the sword safely on display along with a handful of Boyington’s personal militaria. Personally, I would have had a difficult time letting go of such an important piece of history