Answering the Call of Remembrance Through Collecting
There is no doubt that social media and news outlets will be dotted with posts and stories marking the 76th anniversary of the Day of Infamy – the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrounding military installations on the Island of Oahu – throughout this day. Though, I wonder if our nation’s youth are on the verge of forgetting about this event as we are losing sight of other terrible events that were perpetrated upon our citizens. Fortunately, forgetting about Pearl Harbor hasn’t quite happened yet as there are still WWII veterans, specifically Pearl Harbor Survivors remaining among us.
In the United States’ past history with such events, the meanings behind rallying cries such as “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember the Maine” are nearly lost to history. While visiting San Antonio this past summer, my family toured the Alamo and revisited the story of the siege and the ensuing battle that left no survivors among those who were defending the mission and fort. Without getting to far off track, the somberness of in the feeling one receives when walking through the building and the grounds is palpable but not the same as what is experienced when standing on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial. Not too far from my home lies a monument – a memorial of sorts – from the USS Maine; the disaster that became the catalyst that propelled the United States into a war with Spain in 1898. This monument, a mere obelisk with naval gun shell mounted atop is easily overlooked by park visitors as it is situated a considerable distance from other attractions within the park. Remember the Maine?
Visiting such locations always presents opportunities for me to learn something that I didn’t know before – details that one cannot grasp with the proper context that resides within the actual location of the event that took place there. Even though I had previously visited the Alamo (when I was very young), I had no memories of it and the entire experience was new and overwhelming. In contrast, the last visit that I made to the USS Arizona Memorial was my fourth (and the first with my wife) and I was still left with a new perspective and freshness of the pain and suffering that the men endured as their ships were under attack or while they awaited rescue (some for days) within the heavily damaged or destroyed ships. Unlike the Alamo, when one steps foot on the Arizona Memorial, they are standing above more than a structure that was once a warship of the United States. Beneath the waves and inside the rusting hulk are more than 1,100 remains of the nearly 1,200 men who were lost when the ship was destroyed.
Interest in the USS Arizona (and the attack on Pearl Harbor in general) remains quite considerable for most historians. For militaria collectors, the passion to preserve the history of the ship and the men who perished or survived the ship’s destruction continues to increase. When any item (that can be directly associated with a sailor or marine who served aboard her) is listed at auction, bidding can happen at a feverish rate and the prices for even a simple uniform item can drive humble collectors (such as me) out of contention. Where the prices become near-frightening is when the items are personal decorations (specifically engraved Purple Heart Medals) from men who were killed in action aboard the ship on that fateful day. While any Pearl Harbor KIA grouping receives considerable attention from collectors, men from the Arizona are even more highly regarded. It is an odd phenomenon to observe the interest that is generated, especially when the transaction amounts are listed. While I certainly can understand the interest in possessing such an important piece of individual history, I am very uneasy when I see the monetized aspect of this part of my passion.
Not wanting to focus on the financial aspects or my personal concerns regarding medals that are awarded to the surviving families, I have seen many collectors who painstakingly and beautifully research and preserve the personal stories of each sailor who was lost and for that individual’s specific medal. A handful of these collectors display these medals and personal stories with the general public which, I suppose can be likened to a traveling memorial to the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Without seeing such displays, it is very difficult to understand the magnitude of the personal sacrifices that are made by those who serve in the armed forces.
Within my own collection are two photographs of the USS Arizona that were part of my uncle’s collection from when he served aboard three different battleships (Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California) during his navy career (from 1918-1929), all three ships that were later present when the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941. While I am certainly interested in the preservation of the history of this day, seeking Pearl Harbor or more specifically, USS Arizona pieces is not something that I am interested in with my militaria collecting. Instead, I spend time reflecting on what the service members within the ships, at the air bases and the citizens surrounding Oahu must have endured during the hours of the days, weeks, months and even years following the attacks.
Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember the Arizona!
For more on militaria mollecting of these significant events, see:
- A British Collector of the Alamo – Foreign Collectors of American Militaria
- Remembering (and Collecting) the USS Maine!
- A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?
Finding the “Lady Lex,” One Piece at a Time
A few weeks ago, our nation honored the 75th anniversary of the sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. In the past few years, we have marked significant anniversaries of victories from WWII, the War of 1812 and this year we will begin recognizing the centennial of the U.S.entrance into the Great War. For collectors, these occasions spur us to evaluate our own collections while attempting to be discerning of sellers’ listings who are also trying to capitalize on the sudden interest.
In May of this year, 75 years will have elapsed since the first significant clash between the opposing naval forces of Japan and the United States in the Coral Sea. Leading up to this battle, the Navy had suffered losses in The Philippines, Wake Island and Guam followed by the sinking of the USS Houston (in the battle of Sunda Strait) all of which were leaving the U.S. extremely vulnerable and nearly incapable of mounting a naval offensive.
Beginning with a joint effort between the US Army Air Force and the US Navy, the fight was taken to the Japanese home front with an B-25 air strike launched from the USS Hornet. But the direction of the war was seriously in doubt and Navy brass knew that inevitably, a direct naval engagement with the Japanese fleet were very near on the horizon.
Navy code-breakers had discovered the Imperial Japanese forces intended on taking Port Moresby in New Guinea and quickly dispatched Task Forces (TF) 11 and 17 to join up with TF 44 near the Solomon Islands and proceed West toward the Coral Sea. Over the course of May 3rd through 8th, the ensuing engagements between US and IJN forces resulted in substantial losses for both sides, including a carrier from each navy.
For the U.S. Navy, that carrier was the USS Lexington, CV-2. Though not the first purpose-built aircraft carrier (that distinction goes to the USS Ranger CV-4), Lexington was the first to be originally commissioned as a flat top. The Langley (CV-1) had a previous life as a collier, the USS Jupiter, for seven years from 1913 to 1920. The “Lady Lex”, as she would come to be known, laid down as a battle cruiser but was reconfigured during construction and was commissioned in 1927 as the US Navy’s second carrier, CV-2.
The result of the Coral Sea Battle was that the Navy was left with just two operational carrier: Hornet and Enterprise, as the Yorktown also suffered substantial damage in the battle requiring repairs. Less than a month later, the tables would be turned on Japan with the major American victory at Midway.
The loss was not only felt by her crew and navy strategists, but also by communities, such as Tacoma, Washington. For 31 days during winter drought conditions, the Lexington was sent to aid the city’s citizens by generating power ’round the clock, helping to keep their homes lit and warm. Many of those beneficiaries of the electrical power assistance were devastated by the news of her loss.
Today, few artifacts remain from the Lady Lex. Militaria collectors would be hard-pressed to obtain anything specific to the ship, instead having to settle for obtaining USS Lexington veterans’ personal effects or uniform items, surviving ephemera, philatelics, or vintage photographs. For many naval collectors, the hunt for anything from this historic ship can very rewarding. Some artifacts can be found by happenstance as was the case with this Curtiss SB2C Hell Diver, recently pulled from the Lower Otay Reservoir near San Diego, discovered by a fisherman who observed the plane’s outline on his fish-finder.
Armed with patience and time, collectors could assemble a nice group of artifacts to pay proper respect to the Lady Lex and the men who served aboard this historic ship.
UPDATE March 5, 2018: Paul Allen’s Undersea Exploration team that has been searching and discovering the wrecks of the Pacific War, finding such infamous sunken vessels as the USS Indianapolis and the lost ships from the Battle of Savo Island (USS Vincennes, Astoria and HMAS Canberra), announced today that they have located and filmed the wreck of the USS Lexington (CV-2) at the bottom of the Coral Sea in nearly two-miles of depth.
A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?
For most Americans, this time of year spurs thoughts of lighted trees, large and rotund red-suited elves, massive crowds at local shops and mega malls, anxiety, and ever-increasing credit card debt in the rush to obtain the perfect gift for loved ones and friends. All of this translates into the hopes that the recipients of said gifts illuminate with unbridled joy and gratitude. Meanwhile, a continuously diminishing segment of the population, in addition to the aforementioned seasonal activities and concerns, recall a monumentally tragic and infuriating event, now 75 years hence.
At that time (three quarters of a century ago), Americans, like today, were in the throes of an economic depression while war and conflict littered regions around the globe. Many Americans had been without work for months, while others had been unemployed for years. The holiday season was in full swing but on an infinitely smaller scale. All of this about to change, catapulting the nation into chaos and doubt while transforming the nation’s doubt into a singular mindset, while rising from the literal ashes and wreckage to defeat fascism.
The World War II generation is departing our society at an increasingly accelerated pace. The men and women who banded together on the war front and home front still recall the Day of Infamy, remembering those who fell prey to unpreparedness and bumbling governmental bureaucracy and a dastardly attack. When the final tally was counted in the weeks and months following December 7, 1941, more than 2,400 Americans were dead at the hands of the Empire of Japan. Three battleships of the U.S. Navy were complete losses. One of those ships, the USS Arizona (BB-39), was obliterated by an aerial bomb that penetrated into the forward magazines (for the 14” guns), igniting a cataclysmic explosion, killing 1,117 sailors, accounting for more than half of the Pearl Harbor attack death toll.
In the 75 years since that fateful day, much has transpired to cause the slow evaporation of Pearl Harbor memories of from the American conscience. The current younger generation experienced their own day of infamy 11 years ago with the 9/11 attacks, fueling the 12/7/41 forgetfulness with redirected angst.
Conversely for militaria collectors, the events of Pearl Harbor are held close to the vest and worn on their sleeves. The pursuit to hold a piece connected to that tragic day isn’t taken lightly. More often than not, collectors pay an extremely high premium for the honor of preserving and displaying items that tell the individual stories of the struggle to survive and the will to fight the attackers. Collectors treasure anything directly related to a veteran, aircraft or ship that participated in warding off the Japanese onslaught.
For me, the realization of the Pearl Harbor collector mindset truly occurred for me awhile ago when I spotted an auction listing for a flat hat from a navy veteran that served aboard the most notable ship casualty of the attack, the Arizona. I scanned through the associated photographs, noting the condition while attempting to approximate the age of the item.
By 1941, operation security had been steadily increasing due to the waging war, both in Europe and the Western Pacific. The Navy, seeking to reduce the visible indications of ship movements, stipulated in uniform regulations that all ship identifiers, such as ship-name tallies on enlisted blue flat hats, be omitted from uniforms. Generic “U.S. Navy” lettered tallies replaced the those bearing the names of ships which meant that the one in the auction listing predated WWII by at least a year. However, this particular cap is a pre-1933 design that has had the stiffener removed leaving a more “slouched” appearance that became standard with the 1940s caps.
The condition of the hat left lots to be desired. From dozens of small holes scattered across all of the woolen surfaces, it was readily apparent that moths had a field day as they enjoyed their “hat salad.” The only components on this cap untouched by the Lepidoptera larvae were the tally and the liner.
What would be a significant value-increasing factor is if the hat bore the name of its owner. I was unable to discern from the provided photos any hint of a stenciled or inscribed name. If I had been able to see the original owner’s name, I might have been able to locate related details concerning his naval service, and quite possibly, the dates he served aboard the Arizona. It might be safe to assume that the value of the hat increases if the veteran did survive the ship’s sinking. However, based upon the features of the hat (the overall design, the liner and the tally), I would surmise that the hat is closer to the World War I-era.
Regardless of when the hat was used or if it belonged to a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, the auction’s final, closing bid of $848.00 was astonishing. Without a doubt, the winning bidder took a chance on acquiring an extremely rare piece with direct ties to a historic ship. In doing so, this collector now possesses a tangible connection to that fateful day.