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.
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 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)!
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).
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
More than three months into The War, the United States was reeling from suffering substantial and demoralizing losses at Pearl Harbor and again in the Sunda Strait (with the loss of the USS Houston CA-30). The U.S. was in dire need of stopping the bleeding and gaining a moral victory in order to build momentum for what was to become a nearly half-decade long war.
When the keel of the (then, future) USS Vincennes (CA-44) was laid, she was the pride of the small, Southwestern Indiana town of the same name. The citizens embraced her and her future crew, adopting the men who would serve aboard her as their own sons. When she was christened (launched), the daughter (Miss Harriet Virginia Kimmell) of the city’s mayor broke the ceremonial bottle of champagne on her bow, officially naming the heavy cruiser. More than two years later when the ship was commissioned and placed into service (February 24, 1937), the citizens raised funds to purchase and present a gift, a silver tea and coffee service, to the officers of the ship.
With the outbreak of war and the peacetime navy morphing to address the combat needs, USS Vincennes transferred from her home fleet duties within the Atlantic Ocean to augment the Pacific fleet following the losses suffered in the opening days and weeks of the war. As part of readying the ship for service against the Japanese, the Vincennes paid a visit to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, in San Francisco Bay for additional combat upgrades. In conjunction with the changes being made to the ship, the compliment of officers and men was being increased and with space being a premium and the probability of combat engagement with the enemy being almost certain, the silver service and other items were removed from the ship and placed into storage for the duration of the war.
Soon afterward, the Vincennes would take part in some of the most pivotal actions in an effort to stem the Japanese Eastward expansion beginning with the Doolittle Raid, (aiding in the aftermath of) the battle of Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway and the US Marines’ first offensive, Guadalcanal. On the evening of the 2nd night of the landings, the Vincennes would sustain hundreds of Japanese naval gunfire hits and being pierced by the enemy’s Long Lance torpedoes, leaving a blazing, sinking inferno.
Five decades later, the surviving veterans of the lost cruiser would be instrumental in ensuring that the name of their beloved lost ship would be carried to sea aboard a modern cruiser of the Ticonderoga class. At her commissioning in 1985, the city of Vincennes would once again gift the preserved silver service to their newest ship, the USS Vincennes (CG-49) to be used by the officers and visiting dignitaries and guests throughout her twenty-year life.
Upon her decommissioning in 2005, the silver service was returned to the city where it is now displayed and cared for. Perhaps one day, another ship will bear the name Vincennes and the set will serve the officers of a new generation of the adopted sons and daughters of the southwest Indiana city.
There are times when I find myself with so many topics to write about that my mind wanders so rampantly that I am left with seemingly nothing to cover. It is akin to my wife walking into our closet (that is filled with clothes) and finding nothing to wear.
I look back on all that I have covered during the past 15 months (including my year of writing for CollectorsQuest) in an attempt to avoid repeating myself. I check my collection for items that I haven’t covered yet (there is an abundance at the moment) while looking ahead at some event/calendar-based ideas that I am working on and I realize that I can begin to narrow the field a little. I can focus in on a subject knowing that as this article begins to develop, it may very well transform into something vastly different when I am ready to publish it.
Speaking of closets filled with nothing to wear, there among the garments that I rotate through each week are several garment bags packed full of military uniforms. While some of the uniforms were worn during my naval career and a few others belonged to my grandfather, the lion-share are truly pieces in my modest collection (dominated with U.S. Navy uniforms). Looking at the last few articles that I’ve written for this blog are Navy-focused, I am pushed toward covering one of the two non-Navy uniforms in my possession.
Why collect uniforms someone (new to militaria collecting) might ask? For me at least, the idea of possessing a tangible object that was worn by a service member (especially during a significant period of our nation’s history) provides a sensory connection (sight, scent, touch) that is unattainable with written words or images. In addition, the uniforms themselves possess some elements and characteristics that make them, on their own, aesthetically pleasing.
My uniform collection, when compared with that of other (long-term) collectors, is quite humble and ordinary when it comes to the identities of the veterans who previously owned and wore the items. This is not to suggest that anyone’s service to this country is ordinary, but in comparison to veterans whose careers shaped and impacted history (so much so that their names are legendary because of their battlefield deeds), my uniforms are quite modest.
One colleague owns (or owned) uniforms that would make almost any collector salivate at the mere thought of touching, let alone owning. Imagine having the uniform from the man who, while in command of a diminutive destroyer escort, bore down on Japanese task force that consisted of four battleships (including the Yamato), eight cruisers and several destroyers in order to protect the carriers in his own task force? That commanding officer, Robert Copeland risked himself, his ship and his crew in order to successfully protect the American carriers from certain destruction near Samar in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Copeland received the Navy Cross for his actions that day in October of 1944.
Not everyone has the finances or the perfect timing to locate items from such legendary people. Some collectors seek uniforms that serve to illustrate a story or, perhaps to demonstrate the progression of uniform changes throughout history. In either case, high-dollar uniforms from well-known figures (of American history) would serve to highlight such a story line but are not necessarily needed pieces. For those who (with limited budgets) want to pursue something from a specific (i.e. monumental) period of military history, “settling” for uniforms from the common soldier, airman, sailor or Marine.
I am particularly interested in the history surrounding the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) when discussing or researching World War II. Being a Navy veteran and the grandson of a WWII PTO Navy veteran, my collection tends to be focused in this area. I’ve taken considerable interest specifically in the southern Solomon Islands and the battles (both on land and sea) that took place in the surrounding area. When many people think of this region, immediate thoughts of Guadalcanal and the saga of the First Marine Division’s legendary fight (and “abandonment” by the U.S. Navy following substantial vessel losses on August 8-9, 1942 near Savo Island). When a WWII USMC uniform from a 1st MarDiv veteran became available (at an affordable price), I didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a purchase.
As a research project – trying to determine the service and experiences of the original owner – it possesses next-to-nothing that would afford me a path to pursue. The only identifying marks in the uniform jacket were three initials, “G. E. M.” The odds that I could pinpoint a veteran in the 1st Marine Division with those three letters makes the challenge daunting, to say the least. At this point, I haven’t had the time or desire to begin such an endeavor leaving the uniform to simply fill a space within my collection. I am happy just to own this uniform with the idea that this private first class Marine possibly served in one or more of the notable battles alongside the his brothers in The Old Breed.
Related Uniform Topics:
All images are the property of their respective owners or M. S. Hennessy unless otherwise noted. Photo source may or may not indicate the original owner / copyright holder of the image.