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!