I am struggling against the dark and heated current that is sadly sweeping across our society and this nation. I do not want to engage in any sort of political discussion or debate with people due to the direction that having such conversations will invariably be taken. Divisiveness is a tool that is employed to cause strife and to cause implosion among a people. When did we become so angry that we have such disregard for our fellow humans? It seems that thought is no longer engaged prior to speaking or writing a response to another human being. Every word uttered or written by anyone is dissected and and examined through an opaque and colored magnifying glass that obscures all of the exquisite elements of the author. Instead of seeing a fellow human being who is in possession of equal ability, intellect and faculties, people are being dismissed for holding a thought, skin color, gender, belief, social background life-experience or any other element of diversity and promptly labeled as they are shouted down. Yes, I am truly struggling.
This is a blog about militaria collecting which is for me, a vehicle for sharing researched history for the purpose of its preservation. I prefer to learn from history rather than to ignore and dismiss it as irrelevant. I have been fascinated by historical elements and how they shaped our society. I recognize that the history of mankind is wrought with darkness and shameful incidents, horrible atrocities and events that cannot be excused nor ignored. It seems that today, our society is spending most of its effort and energy focusing on the negative history of one group of humanity while overlooking context, other facts and details that broaden the narratives that would impact (i.e. weaken) the points being put forth. At what point do we stop and see what is right within our communities? Why are we tolerating open hatred and targeting people with violence? I cannot sit idle and not address what is happening.
I am an American first and foremost. I have ancestry that is as diverse as the nation of my birth. I love my country enough to have served her in uniform as did so many of my ancestors dating back to before this country was founded. I am a descendant of people from Western and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East and the Ivory Coast of Africa. My ancestors arrived here of their own free will in search of religious freedoms as they escaped persecution in their homelands. My ancestors arrived here against their will in the chains of human bondage. Regardless of how my people arrived here, I am proud to be a product of all of these people and choose to honor all of them by being a good husband, father, son and citizen. I will show respect towards my fellow Americans – my neighbors and countrymen. In the preservation of military history, I hope to capture and share the stories of other Americans (not just my forbears) and the sacrifices they made to keep our citizens (Americans and the rest of the world) free from (real) tyranny. In order to identify and remind people what tyranny looks like, the preservation of the artifacts and relics from the nations who embraced it must take place within the confines of the public space, museums, places of learning and within our homes. My wife’s family knows the sting and pain of tyrannical (maniacal) rule all too well being of Eastern European Jewish descent with those who remained in their homeland falling victim to the atrocities of one of the most horrifying tyrants of modern history.
Watching our nation tear itself apart by drawing lines of division by levels of melanin, ancestral heritage or other absolutely uncontrollable circumstances is asinine to say the least. To suggest that any human is incapable of rising up from despair and poverty undermines every God-given talent or characteristic that are inherent within all people and is equally asinine. Blaming anyone or anything for your own choices and decisions is the same as to suggest that individual achievement was not the result of that person’s efforts or drive. True, there are few who have a seemingly easier road to their success but there are others who have inherited incredible wealth and circumstances only to end up destitute. We are products of our own decisions. While each of us has a unique set of circumstances and has faced tremendous obstacles (yes, some have had more than others), what matters most are the decisions we make and the actions that we take for ourselves.
Serving in the uniform of the United States armed forces provides service members with an equal set of rules, standards, policies and laws for which to benefit from. Opportunities are equal for each person within their occupation, rank and duty station. There are also obstacles that stand in their way (I faced several of my own throughout my career) but to suggest that one segment of the population has it better in the service than others is utterly false. I don’t dismiss the individual examples of racism, sexism or other issues that arise. These are individual examples and not the norm. Myopia drives the generalization and subsequent branding that there exists an unequal playing field within the ranks. It is simply not true and in viewing the people who fill the positions of leadership across all branches is contrary to the perverse narratives pushed forth. When I see the segregation of the armed forces that lasted through WWII and the racism that ensued in the years following desegregation, I see how far our military has come and the diverse-yet-unified force that we now have is proof. When I served decades ago, there were no lines of color any more. I am not foolish enough to believe that racism didn’t exist at that time but it certainly was not apparent.
In my collecting, I strive to tell the entire story (for example, Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece and Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). My love of military (and baseball) history is the culmination of the good that is present within both of these areas of historical focus. Each was once wrongfully segregated and are now shining examples of unified groups of people from diverse backgrounds that have come together for a common and united goal. I take the good with the bad in order to provide balance (good and evil both exist). Telling the full story is why I have chosen to maintain in my collection the Nazi artifacts that were captured by my uncle during his service as an Army Intelligence officer during WWII. It is also why I believe that collectors should still be able to buy and sell these artifacts, despite how offensive the sight of such imagery might be to some people.
This country is a nation of laws that are derived under the guise of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the same). No where within these founding documents is the idea that being offended is illegal. In fact, the First Amendment guarantees the right of freedom of speech which is quite often employed for the purpose of offending certain groups of people. One form of protected speech is the freedom of self-expression that includes art. Many artists enjoy this protection and use it as a means to take shots at groups of people with which they have disdain for (politicians, for example). Being offended is highly subjective and very personal. One person may find a painting of a sunrise to be offensive (this is a real-world example that I have witnessed) while the next person would see the sheer beauty in the artist’s presentation, ability and the visual meaning seen in such a display. How would we craft legislation to protect the one individual from being offended by the painting?
In the United States, no laws exist that ban the symbology of those regimes that our military vanquished. Unlike many nations in the European Union, the image of the swastika has not been outlawed despite the fact that beneath that banner, countless millions of people were systematically and brutally murdered (including members of my wife’s family). Similarly, the rising sun of the Empire of Japan also has not been banned (nor has it been eradicated from Japan like the Swastika was from Germany) despite that nation’s mass killings of three to ten million Asian civilians (in China, Korea and the Philippines). In the post-World War II months, service members returned home from the European and Pacific theaters with souvenirs from our fallen enemies, stuffed into their duffel and sea bags. Many of these pieces were emblazoned with the symbols of the tyrannical, murderous regimes. The Japanese Maritime and Ground Defense Forces still fly the flag of the rising sun. Japan flies their symbol throughout the world at their embassies and even during the Olympic games and yet not one protest or cry of racism is offered within our shores. One of my relatives suffered through years of torture within prison camps in the Philippines, languished in a Hell Ship and then spent the remainder of WWII in two different torture camps in Japan after surviving the defense of Corregidor and the Bataan “Death March.” Thousands of allied troops perished from torture, brutal beatings, executions and suffered having their bodies cannibalized before they perished from the excruciating pain. Despite these war crimes, the Rising Sun of Japan is still proudly flying (yes, I do realize that it is the national symbol and was established in the late 19th century) and as far as I know, there are no bans on the sale of Japanese WWII militaria in EU or the U.S.
A recent Dublin Times news article was published regarding an auction listing of Third Reich militaria in Dublin, Ireland that included imagery of the despised WWII German symbol. A local resident saw the auction and was considerably upset to see the items let alone have the knowledge that they were listed to be sold. While it is understandable that the person who was voicing his objection to the display and sale as the man’s mother was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of six, she was placed on a train to Treblinka, but escaped. His great-grandparents and great-uncle all died in Auschwitz. This man, born and raised after his mother’s flight to safety and freedom had never seen the historical items in the same context that his family had. The wounds are deep and it is understandable. My wife and I had concerns of a similar reaction when I inherited my uncle’s war souvenirs. Upon their arrival in our home, my wife grew concerned about her grandmother’s feelings regarding the pieces knowing that she still remembered her family that was murdered in Europe. However, when she arrived at our home and my wife spoke about the objects, her first response was, “I’d like to see it all.” After sharing the uniforms, flags, hats, documents, etc. with her, she sensibly commented, “these items didn’t kill my family. People did,” she spoke frankly. “This is just history,” she remarked, swiftly dismissing our concerns. We are all different and react and respond differently to situations and my wife’s grandmother’s response isn’t the measuring-stick for what should and should not be traded or displayed in terms of militaria and history. In that vein, the opinion of the gentleman in Ireland should not dictate the rights of others.
Watching the events unfolding surrounding the statues of Confederate legends has left me scratching my head as to all the new-found offense. I know that racism is (sadly) alive and seemingly doing better than before (my wife and I have both experienced it throughout our lives) and yet I still cannot fathom how statues factor so centrally in the push against it.
Rather than contextualize the reasons the statues were erected and what took place in the months and years following the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in terms of reconciliation and reconstruction, our current culture disregards history altogether and raises these inanimate objects as the reasons that racism is still being perpetuated. What people fail to understand is that once we start this pattern of destroying everything that is offensive, there is no stopping. I am left wondering, “who decides what is offensive?” If someone has an opposing perspective or viewpoint, do we remove their rights as citizens and send them to be re-educated? I personally know a few people who were “guests” of the communist Vietnam reeducation camps and have heard about what takes place. Some of my friends who support the removal of statues have also been very outspoken about the Constitution being outdated and no longer valid (due to the author, James Madison, having been a slave owner) leaving me aghast. What will their beliefs be when a person comes to power who they do not agree with after the eradication of our founding document?
As I watch Hurricane Irma bear down on Florida and find myself worrying and praying for my brothers (military comrades), family and friends who are directly in her path, I await to see how our dividing nation comes together (as they did last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey) to help one another. We are stronger than those who seek to divide us. We are a singular, unified nation.
My apologies to my long-time readers who wasted those last three minutes reading through this post. While some my think that I crossed into the political sphere in this space, I actually strove to avoid politics entirely in order to draw attention to our need to pause for a moment, take a breath and spend time in reflection and educating ourselves about history; all of it. We live in a time where information and knowledge is at our fingertips and so few people bother to delve into more than just a misleading headline, social media post or meme. Please challenge what you hear, see and read. Be the voice of reason in your sphere of influence rather than the one with the jerrycan of petrol in search of a fire.
We can do better. We can come together.
Countless millions of Americans have worn the uniform of our armed services dating back to the War for Independence and forward to the current conflict in Afghanistan. It is difficult to determine how many people have worn the uniform in that span of time. However, focusing solely on the times of war when the ranks swelled to build effective fighting forces, we can approximate that nearly 36.3 million men and women (and children) served.
These figures are approximations (gleaned from several sources):
- Revolutionary War: 95,000 (Continental, militia and naval service combined)
- War of 1812: 500,000
- Mexican War: 100,000
- Civil War: 2.3 million (combined U.S. and Confederate)
- Spanish American War: 300,000
- World War I: 4 million
- World War II: 16 million
- Korean War: 1.8 million
- Viet Nam: 8 million (over 2.8 million served in-country or offshore)
- Desert Storm: 800,000
- Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom: 2.4 million
Considering these numbers, one could easily see that the potential exists for a considerable pool of garments to draw from in order to accommodate museums, collectors and companies like Bands for Arms. Analyzing these figures, we can deduce that WWII uniforms are plentiful and hardly something that could be considered rare. From WWII forward with 29 million in uniform (not counting the all-volunteer forces between the conflicts) there should be an enormous stockpile…but is this truly the case?
I doubt that anyone has conducted any studies as to how many veterans stowed their uniforms away upon completion of their service versus how many tossed them into the trash. Over the years, I have polled (unscientifically, mind you) veterans and determined that the numbers are relatively small, perhaps one in ten who preserved their uniforms. We can’t just take that 10% figure and deduce that 1.6 million WWII uniforms exist today, especially when nearly seven decades have elapsed.
In the militaria collector community, we are regularly hearing stories of World War II uniforms making their way into trash cans and dumpsters as these veterans pass and their families have no connection or understanding of their family members’ service. Some of the vintage uniforms are so far deteriorated (moth-eaten, water-damaged, etc.) that folks simply discard them, failing to preserve any of the patches buttons, decorations or other historic features that may be salvageable. In the post WWII-era, children loved to “play army” and would dress up in dad’s uniform or don some of the surviving field gear, not considering the historical significance or need for preservation. No one truly considered any archival aspects of these items as they were through with war when they returned and sought to get on with their lives.
In the time-frame prior to World War II, uniform availability is almost non-existent. Trying to locate an authentic Civil War uniform from the Union Army, while not impossible, is a considerable challenge. To locate a Confederate piece is even more challenging. I know of a collector who knew of a fellow collector that was in possession of a Civil War-era Navy uniform from an enlisted sailor. The uniform was what is considered a “liberty” uniform – one that is worn ashore as it isn’t issue or authorized for use aboard ship. The piece is genuine and named to sailor and it is very rare which made for a rather steep purchase price when its owner decided to sell.
With each passing year, more uniform items are forever lost. Collectors come and go as do museums and with them also go these precious artifacts. Nothing lasts forever.
Collectors and museum curators realize that the pool of WWII artifacts is drying up and as a result, work diligently to preserve what they can. One can imagine the cringing that occurred when the collectors learned of the destruction of the vintage uniforms by Bands for Arms. Similarly, it is difficult to observe the destruction of modern-day uniforms for the same purpose, especially considering that roughly 10% are kept, regardless of the time-frame.
I will maintain my own uniforms along with those of my family members (in my possession) for as long as I care about such things. But, who is to say that my children will continue my efforts or simply donate or dispose of them when I am gone?
Is preserving militaria worth the effort or are these items merely pieces of textiles and materials? This is a quandary militaria collectors face.
I am kicking off a three-part series this week to focus on a hot-button militaria collector topic : re-purposing militaria artifacts for monetary gain. While the discussion can be category agnostic (meaning that it can be applied to virtually all areas of collecting rather than just militaria), I am focusing on this from the area of military memorabilia.
Wrist bands. They are typically made from a rubbery, silicone-like substance and come in a range of colors from bright and flashy to muted and subdued with some even in camouflage patterns. They have messages embossed (actually molded into the material) that are intended to call attention to various causes and are used to market a company’s brand.
A trendy fashion statement made popular by Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong charity, you have seen these wrist bands worn by everyone from celebrities, to colleagues, neighbors and even family members over the past half decade. You have probably worn or are wearing one at this very moment. I am sure that there are collectors who focus their attention on them.
In the true spirit of capitalism (which I enthusiastically subscribe to), a Navy veteran found a niche market and created a business called Bands for Arms (B4A) that manufactured and sold their own version – an evolutionary step, if you will – of the message-laden wrist band. Their company website described their products as a way to honor veterans and to help families (and supporters of the U.S. military) feel connected to service members and veterans.
Bands for Arms’ operating model was essentially taking donated U.S. military uniforms (mostly from veterans or their families), dismantling them and constructing wrist bands from the materials that in some way represent the intended message or sentiments of the wearer. I am not disparaging this company or the products they sell as I do find the bands rather intriguing – some are very tastefully designed. And who could find fault with their support (50% of all proceeds) of organizations such as USO Japan, Project Lifting Spirits and the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation?
So what does this have to do with militaria collecting you ask?
Recently, a thread on a popular militaria discussion board alerted collectors to an activity where historic uniforms, worn by veterans who served this nation for the cause of freedom, were donated to B4A as part of a special project, resulting is a special product line. Detailed on the B4A site was how the uniforms had been donated to them by the National WWII Museum (in New Orleans, LA) to create the new line of bracelets known as The Historic Bracelet Collection and 50% of the sales proceeds from this product line would subsequently be donated back to the museum. While the finished product is very well-made, the end result is that the historic uniforms are gone, along with the connection to history associated with the veteran who wore it.
For the non-collector, this action may not be an issue. However, it is gut-wrenching for militaria collectors and historians, and has caused them to question the ethical practices of the museum and how they manage their artifacts. The unrest centers around the idea of a museum having donated uniforms for this purpose : intentionally destroying historic artifacts that had been entrusted to them with the promise that they would be preserved and displayed in that museum.
The militaria collectors I’ve associated with take the trust between donors and museums very seriously. If prospective donors no longer have the expectation of proper handling and care of their artifacts, why would they entrust them to any museum? Considering this trust, militaria collectors reacted to the idea that an entity as highly regarded as the National World War II Museum would remove these uniforms from their collection and send them out to be dismembered (and I use this term to emphasize the emotion surrounding this concept) to generate revenue in support of operational cost.
The militaria discussion board posts raised questions surrounding the proper handling of donated artifacts and the apparent disregard for the widely accepted, industry standard, museum deaccessioning processes. What opened the floodgates of animosity toward both entities were statements posted on the B4A sites (which includes their Facebook page) acknowledging the museum for the donated uniforms, which was the catalyst to the creation of the History Collection.
Frustrated collectors began posting their sentiments directly on the Facebook pages of both the National WWII museum and Bands for Arms, challenging the practice of dismantling historic artifacts (specifically, the WWII uniforms). B4A personnel responded by deleting any posts that called the B4A and National WWII Museum partnership into question.
Bands for Arms personnel added comments to their Facebook page that appeared to mock the collectors with statements such as:
Over the span of a few days, B4A purged all evidence that referenced the uniform donation from the museum. The messaging on the (now defunct) B4A Historic Collection page had been carefully re-worded to describe the transaction more vaguely, between the ambiguously identified source of the uniform donations.
In stark contrast, the folks managing the Museum’s Facebook page began to directly address the collectors’ challenges openly while also requesting offline dialogue in order to fully explain the details of the transaction. A few of the responses demonstrate their positive actions:
- “We have been working to make sure all parties have the correct information and we are always available to respond to questions or concerns about the Museum.”
- “I would be happy to put you in touch with our registrar who can answer any questions you may have and share the details of our collections policy.”
Several collectors (at least one of which is a museum curator himself) did contact the museum directly and I know that a few had phone conversations with the staffer at the museum who was at the center of the transaction with Bands for Arms. The museum staffer also provided an e-mail response to inquiries regarding the issue:
“Thank you for your recent online inquiry regarding how the Museum cares for artifacts. I’d like to address your concern about a small number of items given to the Bands for Arms organization, but first want to explain our collections process. As you will see, we take very seriously our responsibility for handling artifacts in a professional and proper way.
Items donated to the Museum are considered for two major collections. The first is our Permanent Collection, which contains items that are rare and have a strong historical connection. The Museum always tries to link a military service member’s personal war experience to items donated by the individual or by family members.
The second major collection of the Museum is our Education Collection, which is used by several departments at the Museum for teaching activities. These activities include Living History Corps presentations, where presenters wear genuine World War II uniforms and gear for Museum visitors and students. Other selected items travel off-site under staff supervision for use with students and other interested groups. Educational uses do not preserve the life of the item long-term, but are instrumental in teaching World War II history.
Items that are dropped off at the Museum that do not meet the criteria for either the Permanent or Education Collection are typically returned to the donor. However, some donors do not wish to have items returned to them and the Museum makes these items available to other museums that may be able to use them. These items typically do not relate to the WWII period and have not been accepted into the Museum’s Permanent or Education collection.
When it has not been possible to return items to their original owner and no other institution is found to care for the items, we have utilized various methods to find another place for these pieces, including donation to local charities or other organizations. In 2010, after we were unable to return them to their owner and could not find another museum home for them, five uniform pieces—none from the WWII era—were given to Bands for Arms. These items did not qualify for inclusion in our collection. They are also the only items the Museum has provided to this organization. My personal connection is that I assist Bands for Arms in determining historical dates of uniforms they receive, a role that we play with many inquiring parties.
We currently house more than 140,000 items in our collection. While many items in the collection — including but not limited to Allied and Axis uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, medals, diaries, letters, artwork, photographs and other mementos — are on exhibit, the majority are kept safely in the Museum’s professional storage vault to be used for research and future exhibitions, or are being restored to their original condition.
The artifacts, documents, and personal accounts in the Museum’s Permanent and Education Collections are extremely important to the Museum’s mission of interpreting the American experience in WWII for current and future generations. In addition to carefully preserving these items, the Museum is embarking on a project to provide greater public access by improving our cataloguing and broadening our digitization of these items.”
Clearly, the museum is being responsive and professionally addressing the concerns head on, and I applaud them for these actions. As a novice historian, I still struggle with the destruction of the artifact, but I do understand the position the museum was in with regards to unwanted (at least by other museums or the donors) uniforms.
I know that the community of collectors are also satisfied with the museum’s responsiveness and willingness to be open about how they manage their collection. We are all hopeful that in the future, they will seek other avenues of artifact deaccession, avoiding destruction or disposal in order to continue to preserve our nation’s military history.
What was difficult about the event was that Bands for Arms began a denial and suppression campaign when confronted by collectors who took issue with the uniform destruction. Instead of taking an above-board position by addressing the collectors’ concerns head on, they demonstrated a lack of maturity (and do not perceive this as an attack on B4A as I am not saying they behaved like children) that comes from having seasoned professionals managing external communications and messaging. I am betting that the leadership at B4A will use this event as a learning opportunity and will take note of the mistakes and missteps striving to not repeat them.
I’d also like to note that collectors do not take issue with B4A’s business model as they agree that veterans and family members may certainly do whatever they desire with their personal property. The folks at Bands for Arms do manufacture tasteful products and paying tribute to veterans while funding noteworthy veteran charities is quite admirable.
With the dust settling and the discussion posts winding down, is this the end of the debate? Do bracelets made from veterans’ uniforms truly honor them? As a collector, I have my own thoughts on this topic which will be the subject of the following segments in this series of posts.