The Militaria Collector’s Search for the White Whale
The hunt. The search. The quest for the prize. Seeking and finding the “Holy Grail.” We collectors tend to describe the pursuit of those elusive pieces that would fill a glaring void in our collection with some rather lofty terms or phrases.
We wear our collection objectives on our sleeves while pouring through every online auction listing, or burning through countless gallons of gasoline while making the rounds from one garage or yard sale to the next. Antiques store owners (whom we think are our friends) have our lists of objectives to be on the lookout for.
Militaria collectors (any collector, for that matter) thrive on the hunt and feed off the adrenaline rush that comes from achieving each victory as they locate and secure the piece that has seemingly evaded every search effort. Hearing that they’ve missed an opportunity by seconds due to some other collector beating them out only fuels their passion. Losing an auction because they tried to play conservatively with their bidding propels them through the twists, turns, hills and valleys of the emotional roller coaster.
Searching for militaria can be an exhausting endeavor. For the last two years, I’ve been searching for a piece and while I can’t say that I’ve been through these scenarios, I did manage to feel an amount of elation when I achieved success with my objective.
I’m not wanting to repeat myself (which I do quite often, considering all of my previous posts), but let me state that I do not consider myself any manner of expert on military history or militaria. I assert that I have a broad-based knowledge on a narrow scope of U.S. military history (20th century) with a primary focus on the U.S. Navy. So when I discovered an item that I had previously never knew existed, I was quite curious and subsequently needed to obtain it.
An acquaintance (who had contributed photos for my first book that I published in 2009) has a website that is the public face of his extensive and invaluable research on the USS Astoria naval warships. On this site, I noticed some new images that he had recently obtained and published showing the first commanding officer, Captain George C. Dyer, of the USS Astoria CL-90 turning over command of the ship and departing amidst his change of command ceremony.
For the ceremony, the ship’s crew is turned out in their summer white dress uniforms. All appeared to be normal until I spied the unusual uniform item – the commanding officer was wearing a garrison cover (hats in the Navy or Marine Corps are known as covers). Affectionately known as a (excuse the crass term) “piss cutter,” I knew that the garrison was available for use with the (aviator) green, khaki, (the short-lived) gray and the blue uniforms, but I had never seen a photo of this white variety. Garrison covers are not particularly stylish, but due to their lightweight and soft construction, they are considerably more comfortable than the traditional combination cover (visor caps) alternatives.
Plentiful and very readily available, the khaki versions are quite frequently listed or for sale at antiques stores and garage sales. The green, gray and blue garrisons are a little bit more rare yet turn up with some regularity. The white garrison is the great, white whale. Considering that it was not well-liked in the fleet during the war (when it was issued), it is now extremely rare for collectors seeking to possess all of the uniform options. The white garrison is truly the white whale among World War II navy uniform items.
Seeing this hat in the photos fueled my quest to obtain one for my collection. The very first one I had ever seen listed anywhere became available last week at auction. I placed my bid at the very last second and was awarded with the holy grail. Yesterday, the package arrived and was both elated and saddened as my quest was fulfilled.
No longer needing to hunt for this cover, I feel as though I have lost my way… a ship underway without steerage. What am I saying? I have plenty of collecting goals un-achieved!
Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats
My military collecting focuses almost entirely on documenting my family’s service with both a narrative and visual materials. One of the products of my research will ultimately be a hardbound, four-color book complete with original photographs of these veterans and displays of their uniforms and artifacts. You’ll have to take my word that this is a lengthy undertaking, considering that most of my subjects are long-deceased, requiring interaction with the National Archives and a lot of lag time waiting for the requested service records and materials.
As I began assembling a representative group portraying my uncle’s service in the United States Navy, I soon realized that I would have to collect several uniforms as he went from an Apprentice Seaman to a Chief Warrant Officer during his thirty years of service. For this article, I am going to cover one aspect of the assembled group : headwear.
My uncle enlisted in 1932 and remained on active duty throughout World War II. By 1941, he had advanced to first class petty officer radioman. His specialty was in intelligence and he had been with Joe Rochefort, having attended the Navy’s highly secretive and fledgling cryptologic school in the 1930s. He was meritoriously promoted to chief petty officer (CPO) for his efforts supporting the commander of Task Force 16 during the Battle of Midway. In 1944, he was promoted again to Radio Electrician, Warrant Officer (grade W-1).
Possessing that information, I knew that I had to collect some chief petty officer uniforms as well as some difficult to find warrant officer items. To complete those sets, headgear could pose a significant challenge. I first had to determine what a W-1 (the Navy discontinued this rank at the war’s end) would wear as I had personally never seen the uniform. I referred to some reference material that provided some basic information, but not the specifics regarding all of the hat components for this grade. I could select either (or both) a combination or garrison cap.
With a khaki jacket in my possession and the appropriate epaulettes (shoulder boards) that are affixed to the jacket’s shoulders, I knew that I wanted to have at the very minimum, a garrison cover. Current Chief Warrant Officers’ garrison cover devices include the naval officer’s crest on one side and the rank bar on the opposing side. The rank bar devices did not exist yet during the war (instituted in the 1950s) so I was at a loss for what they wore. I contacted some navy uniform experts who informed me that the W-1 would wear only their specialty devices (in this case, the radioman insignia). During WWII, these devices are mirrored, meaning that they both “point” forward yet look the same from either side. Current devices are not mirrored – Chief Radio Electricians wear two of the same device – one is upside down.
I located a vintage set of the devices and pinned them to the WWII-vintage Navy khaki garrison cap that I had previously obtained. The hat was now complete.
I turned my attention to the combination cover (some erroneously call the Navy caps “visor caps”) which is a hat with a visor that may be simply altered to match the uniform by replacing the cover with the appropriate color/material cover. Chiefs and officers could feasibly own a single hat frame (the sweatband/frame/visor) and simply change from white to blue or khaki (also grey or green) to align with the uniform of the day. I wanted to create a combination cap to go with this uniform as it looks classy.
I located a standard officer’s dress blue cover with the wide gold chin strap and the line officer’s crest. I already had a nice example of this cap so I decided that this would be a good base to create the warrant hat. Any alterations I made could easily be reversed to return it to its original state. I also kept the original owner’s name placard in the holder inside the hat. I found an original W-1 hat band and a 24k large hat insignia as well as the unique ½-inch gold chin strap (all vintage components). I disassembled the hat and replaced the appropriate parts with the newly acquired components.
One last cover I focused on was the CPO hat. Examining numerous period-photographs, I locked onto the hat that I wanted to acquire or assemble. Through the assistance of a friend, I was directed to an early WWII CPO combination cap with a grey cover that was well-enjoyed by a family of moths. The sterling silver hat device was outstanding as was the remainder of the hat. I purchased the hat and obtained a set of covers (blue, white and khaki) to accompany the three CPO uniforms (all chief radioman). Now I could display each chief uniform with using a single combination cover.
The remaining uniform left to tackle (for this relative, at least)? A dress blue or white jumper with neckerchief and white hat.