Blog Archives

Historic Group Spotlight: Naval Aviator who Spotted and Maintained Visual Contact of the Bismarck


Most of the militaria and artifacts that I write about are pieces that are in my collection or are historical events that have some sort of personal context or connection. There are times, however that I find myself absolutely fascinated with artifacts in others’ collections that have me absolutely captivated. The subject of my efforts in this piece has me captivated both by the items and their original owner’s participation in history.

U.S. naval aviator, Carl Rinehart in the co-pilot seat during World War II (image source: Kurt Stauffer).

Militaria collecting, for me and many other collectors, is about the history. More specifically, it is about the individual and personal connections to historical events. For collectors, seeking out and acquiring artifacts from veterans who participated in pivotal or notable events helps to breathe life into what can otherwise be, for much of the population, a mundane event from the past.

The average American fan of World War II history is familiar with events tied to the more obvious specific dates: December 7, 1941, June 6, 1944 or perhaps even, August 6, 1945. For those of you who might need some hints as your morning coffee or tea has yet to take effect: Pearl Harbor, D-Day and Hiroshima. Most people know about specific campaigns and battles such as Iwo Jima, Midway, Operation Overlord and the Battle of the Bulge.

Considering those details, how many Americans are familiar enough with history to understand that World War II was being fought in Europe for nearly two years prior to the United States Congress’ war declaration on December 8th? For that matter, war was in full swing in Asia for almost five years by December of 1941. With this in mind, how many of the American public understand that though the U.S. was abstaining from the war and clinging to the isolationist stance, U.S. servicemen were, in fact, active and serving in both the Pacific and European theaters?

Perhaps one of the most significant naval pursuits (culminating in two significant battles) during those early years of WWII surrounds the engagement between the navy of Great Britain and the German Kriegsmarine that spanned six days in May of 1941. A prevalent and familiar battle cry that still resonates from that time was the call to “Sink the Bismarck” as the British sought to both avenge the loss of the HMS Hood (at the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24, 1941) and prevent the German ship from succeeding in her mission to disrupt the transatlantic shipping lifeline from North America (Operation Rheinübung). The Royal Navy ultimately prevailed in her mission, ending the German battleship’s short-lived career with the effective employment of carrier-based aircraft to disable the ship followed by naval gunfire to send her to the bottom on May 27.

Bismarck after her breakout steams near Iceland prior to the Battle of Denmark Strait, 1941.

These naval battles between our ally and the Germans are the subject study by historians and military strategists alike and are frequently popularized with articles, books and television programs, keeping the history on the forefront of cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. But one fact that is seldom discussed is that American naval aviators played a small role in the Royal Navy’s open-ocean victory.

Bismarck fires her main battery.

In the early years of Britain’s war with Germany, the U.S. was providing assistance in their fight by sending supplies (food, fuel and military equipment) across the ocean in large convoys. Recognizing the significance of that vital lifeline, the Germans re-employed and improved upon a WWI tactic of utilizing submarines (U-boats) in “wolf-packs” to destroy, or at least, disrupt the movement of the convoys, sending thousands of tons of merchant ships to the ocean bottom. In response, the U.S. began supplying Britain with long-range patrol and bomber aircraft providing an effective counter-tactic, protecting the convoys from the subsurface threats.

Just weeks prior to the Bismarck engagements, the Royal Air Force began taking delivery of American-supplied PBY Catalina flying boats. To expedite training of the RAF flight crews on their new aircraft, the U.S. Navy also sent their own support crews and aviators. Despite the U.S. neutrality at this point in the war, some U.S. Navy aircrews would support the RAF by flying patrol missions in the PBYs.

The PBY “Catalina” made by Consolidated was one of the most unsung yet invaluable aircraft of WWII.

Days following the Denmark Strait engagement (and the loss of the battlecruiser Hood), a Consolidated-built PBY-5 Catalina departed Oban, Scotland on a patrol mission in search of the Bismarck. PBY “O” with Carl W. Rinehart in command, launched May 26 at 12:15pm on what would become a record-setting (for airborne length of time) and historic flight. Twelve hours later, Rinehart’s crew spotted the Bismarck steaming in the direction of occupied France (the ship had been spotted and position reported hours earlier by another U.S. Navy Catalina pilot, Ensign Leonard B. Smith). Dropping down for a closer look, the Catalina descended from the clouds into a firestorm of anti-aircraft gunnery from the enemy ship, and Rinehart and his co-pilot struggled to maneuver the flying boat to safety.

Remaining in the vicinity of the Bismarck, Rinehart and his crew maintained visual contact with the ship observing the ensuing aerial torpedo assault by the Swordfish aircraft from the HMS Ark Royal on the evening of the 26th. Now with her rudders jammed, Bismarck was unable to continue her course to the safety of German air cover. Over the course of the night, the Royal Navy was able to draw in the attacking surface force and bring about the end of the Kriegsmarine’s pride. Catalina “O” and her crew were present, witnessing the entire last battle of the Bismarck. Low on fuel, Rinehart turned his plane on a heading to return to base. Touching down at 13:40 on May 27, his Catalina had been airborne for more than 26 hours of continual flight.

Rinehart would continue to serve throughout WWII and through the Korean War. He retired from the navy with the rank of captain having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (not for the Bismarck patrol). Captain Rinehart passed away in 1996 at the age of 83 in Pensacola, Florida.

Years later, artifacts from his lengthy naval career surfaced at auction and one collector was fortunate to acquire several items, piecing together this well-rounded group that documents Captain Rinehart’s tenure. Among his decorations and ribbons are Rinehart’s service and campaign medals along with his DFC medal. There are also the usual rank devices and a nice set of gold naval aviator’s wings and other insignia devices all belonging to Rinehart.

This excellent collection of medals, devices and other personal pieces from Captain Rinehart’s naval service are a nice example of a WWII naval aviator’s service. As Rinehart served through the Korean War, he most certainly would have had additional medals and ribbons along with devices for his final rank. These pieces must exist in another collector’s possession (image source: Kurt Stauffer).

For me, the items that truly makes this group stand out are ephemera. This collector was able to obtain Rinehart’s spectacular photo album containing snapshots from his wartime service. While each of these images are one-of-a-kind and represent a seldom seen vantage point into the life of WWII decorated flying boat aviator, they still pale in comparison to the central, most historically significant aspect of Rinehart group, his flight log books.

Thumbing through the pages, there are significant events noted by Rinehart among his various flights and missions including, “Peace Signed Aboard BB USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay V-J Day.” Capping off the log entries is one particular flight with mention of the Bismarck search circled in red colored pencil and the take-off/landing times.

Rinehart’s PBY Crew somewhere in the South Pacific during World War II (image source: Kurt Stauffer).

While a grouping from Rinehart’s more notable colleague, Leonard Smith, might bring more attention and monetary value, this group is no less historically significant.

(All photos depicting the Carl Rinehart collection are courtesy of Kurt Stauffer unless otherwise noted)

Advertisements

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