One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.
Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.
When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.
Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.
Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.
The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.
A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves. My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.
Spotlight on private collector militaria displays
Approaching June 4, many Americans will be reminded of a pivotal event that took place on this very day during World War II, when a massive armada of ships carrying troops that were preparing for an invasion (that would commence on the morning of June 6th, 1944). The plan was to establish a foothold in enemy-held territory, extending their reach with a new base of operations. Thinking of this date in particular, Americans will conjure thoughts of paratroopers flying over a stretch of water as they begin to traverse flak bursts en route to their targets.
For the past several years, veterans and their families have made their way to the hallowed ground on the beaches and drop zones in and around Normandy, France, seeking to re-trace their steps on the ground where the D-Day Invasion commenced. Though few of those brave men remain this eve of the 72nd anniversary, the children of those veterans will be joined by grateful citizens as they remember the sacrifices made by so many men on that day in 1944. With so much attention given to Normandy (especially by Hollywood in recent years with Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers series), typically overlooked (when thinking about this date) is a battle that arguably had the same or even greater impact on the War’s outcome.
The Battle of Midway took place at a time when the U.S. was still ramping up to fight, having been caught unprepared for war. American Army ground troops wouldn’t be committed for a full-scale assault until November of 1942 with Operation Torch in North Africa. The Marines wouldn’t begin any offensive campaigns until landing craft bow ramps were dropped onto the shores of Guadalcanal. This meant that the majority of the fighting that was taking place since December 7, 1941 was being carried out by U.S. naval forces.
In commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle, regrettably little ceremonial attention will be paid to the few surviving veterans who are, at the very least, in their late 80s. Yet, we need to remind ourselves of the significance of this battle and remember those who risked it all and sent the Japanese forces into a three-year retreat.
Being a collector (primarily interested in Navy militaria), it takes a fair amount of legwork and an awful lot of providence to acquire authentic pieces that may have been used during this battle. We have to ask ourselves, “what would be the most target-rich focus area that we can pursue for treasure?” Clearly, the answer to that question would be veterans’ uniforms. Considering that there were two task forces containing 28 vessels (and 260 aircraft), there would be literally thousands of veterans each with multiple uniforms to choose from–if you can determine that they actually participated, attached to one of these units.
Those interested in obtaining pieces of ships or aircraft will have an infinitesimal chance to locate authentic items for their collection… but that means there is still a chance. Below is a list of every U.S. Navy ship that participated in the battle (I’ll leave it up to you to research the participating aviation squadrons from the carriers and Midway Island):
USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, USS Yorktown
USS Astoria, USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, USS Northampton, USS Pensacola, USS Portland, USS Vincennes, USS Atlanta
USS Aylwin, USS Anderson, USS Balch, USS Benham, USS Blue, USS Clark, USS Conyngham, USS Dewey, USS Ellet, USS Gwin| Hammann, USS Hughes, USS Maury, USS Monaghan, USS Monssen, USS Morris, USS Phelps, USS Russell, USS Ralph Talbot, USS Worden
USS Cachalot, USS Cuttlefish, USS Dolphin, USS Finback, USS Flying Fish, USS Gato, USS Grayling, USS Grenadier, USS Grouper, USS Growler, USS Gudgeon, USS Narwhal, USS Nautilus, USS Pike, USS Plunger, USS Tambor, USS Tarpon, USS Trigger, USS Trout
USS Cimarron, USS Guadalupe, USS Platte
Remember, you can also seek commemorative items, vintage newspapers or original photographs, or named (engraved) medal groups from veterans who fought in the battle – creativity and a lot of research will help you reap great reward!
After spending more than two decades working in some capacity in a career field in the Internet industry, I have gained a considerable amount of understanding of user behaviors and tendencies. One of the most challenging user behaviors (for online content providers) to overcome is how to motivate them to actually read written content.
Countless usability studies conducted over the last decade (see UXMyths.com’s article: Myth #1: People read on the web) reveal that internet users seldom read text on the computer, tablet or smart phone screen. News media and some shady business tend to rely on this fact spending more effort on hooking audiences with headlines or product names (and photos) with the idea that the facts and details will be left unread.
Another facet of audiences not reading text is the unintended consequences. I bet this has happened to most, if not all of my readers. You search Google for an item that you want or need and hundreds of results are displayed. You see scroll through the countless listings, skimming through each blurb (abbreviated description) until you find the one that interests you the most. In a matter of seconds, confirming that the item meets your approval, credit card in hand, you quickly walk through the buying process and click the “purchase” button. After several days of tracking the shipment, it finally arrives. Excited, you tear into the box, rifle through the packaging to get hold of your eagerly anticipated item. Within a few milliseconds you discover that a mistake has been made and frustration begins to build. After a 20-minute search through your 85 gigabytes of emails, you find the order confirmation and you are ready to contact the company to confront them on their mistake. Then you realize that you are the one who didn’t read the entire product description. Sound familiar?
In the last few days as I was looking through my eBay searches, I noticed a listing for a U.S. Special Services WWII-era baseball. The listing seemed to be fairly straight forward and the $22.00 opening bid amount was consistent with what these balls routinely sell for ($20-$40), dependent upon whether they are Army, Navy or USMC variations. When I clicked on the link to view the entire auction, I noticed that the seller had included some contextual images of the ball along with other items that were not part of the auction.
The description, in part reads:
This auction is for one (1) baseball, the gloves are shown for reference only. These balls where found in an old canvas US Army bucket that was 1944 dated along with the gloves shown. One glove is dated 1945 and stamped US Army, and the other glove is stamped special services US Army. The special services where greatly different in WW2 than they are today, back then they where in charge of recreation, and other “special items” for the troops. You will receive the ball pictured alone in the pics.
I clicked through the series of photos that showed the canvas bucket filled with baseballs and three WWII-era baseball gloves. Then, I looked at the current bid amount and my jaw hit the floor. With four days left for the auction, the current bid (of five bids from four bidders) was $275.00! How could the bids be so exorbitant; so high for a single, common WWII baseball? I re-read the description and paid close attention to the images of the ball. There was absolutely nothing that out of the ordinary about this ball. Then, it occurred to me that the bidders failed to read the full text of the auction or the auction title. When the auction closes and the highest bidder pays for the auction, he will eagerly anticipate the arrival of the ball, the canvas bucket, three vintage gloves and several other baseballs. When the diminutive package arrives, the reality will set in along with a massive pile of anger and frustration. The auction winner will either blast the seller for deception or feel like a complete idiot for not reading the auction description.
With two days left (at the time of writing this article), there are five bidders that have placed 10 bids. The current highest bid is $535.00 for an ordinary (lone) WWII baseball that is now, $490.00 overvalued.
A costly lesson is about to be learned.
Why Collect Militaria?
I try to resist talking to people outside my sphere of militaria collecting acquaintances and friends for the simple reason that I choose to avoid the typical unrehearsed (body language) responses when they learn this particular interest of mine. You might have experienced it – the glazed, vacant stare – uninterested people seem to look way past you as you cautiously respond to someone seeking to learn something about you.
The perception is that militaria collectors are interested in a bunch of junk that can be found for pennies-on-the-dollar at a mildew-laden military surplus store. They assume that we are gobsmacked by olive-drab army fatigues, rusty canteens and other military cast-off items. You should see the eyes roll when I attempt to describe what truly inspires my collecting.
Militaria collecting represents an extensive and broad range of categories. For certain, there are elements such as uniforms, edged weapons, head-wear and medals/decorations at the hobby’s core. But there is incredible variety in this “genre.” Though my own collection pays homage to my veteran ancestors and relatives, I have dabbled in a few of these non-standard areas in militaria collecting. One in particular is the product of combining two passions sports (specifically baseball) and military history. I wouldn’t consider myself a hard core collector in this area, but I have been fortunate enough to land some great pieces that align these two interests. Other than my other focus area (naval history) which I have covered extensively, military sports, namely baseball, has been the subject of many postings in the past several years in writing about this passion:
- Stars, Stripes and Diamonds: Photographs of America’s Pastime in Uniform
- The Corps on the Diamond: US Marines Baseball Uniforms
Collecting militaria can pose some financial challenges when faced with stiff competition for rare or exceptional items. This is something I routinely face as with my special interest in items pertaining to a specific U.S. Navy warship (actually four of them) that was named for a city in Indiana. When items associated with this ship turn up in online auction listings, the competition can get rather fierce, pushing the bidding price out of my range of affordability. There are times when one of the pieces does manage to slip past my competitors allowing my maximum bid to be sufficient in securing the prize. These are rare occurrences that when they do happen, I am elated to the point of becoming borderline-addicted to collecting.
The point of militaria collecting is that it provides for a hands-on connection with history that transcends what is talked or written about in print. It provides those who are interested with a method to comprehend historic events or people while transforming what is read in books or portrayed on screen into (nearly) living history.
In future posts you will, no doubt, observe trends that belie my interests and what I tend to focus my collecting on. However, I will also attempt to provide you with informative posts in order to share the knowledge I’ve gained from a vast network of collectors, historians, museum curators and several other knowledgeable people in order to assist you in making wise decisions with your acquisitions.