Mending a Damaged Heart: Gunner McKinney’s Posthumous Purple Heart Medal
Under the cover of early morning darkness on August 7, 1942, John Harris McKinney, Jr., was at his 5-inch gun mount aboard the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) as she steamed slowly in a column formation along the northern coast of the largest southeastern-most island in the Solomons. Reports poured over the sound-powered phones in rapid succession to the bridge-talker relaying manning status of the ship’s crew at their battle stations. When the order to commence firing was given, the ship was rocked as massive fireballs grew rapidly and extended some 50-yards outward as the first shells left the barrels as the large 8-inch projectiles sped towards their targets on shore positions.
Vincennes and her sister New Orleans Class cruisers, USS Astoria and USS Quincy were joined by the heavy cruiser USS Chicago and other ships as the naval guns fired away to soften the enemy positions on Guadalcanal. The naval gunfire bombardment was in advance of sending waves of landing craft that would place the men of the First Marine Division onto the Guadalcanal beach between Koli and Lunga Points.
While the Vincennes’ main batteries sent volley after volley onto Guadalcanal targets, McKinney, was scouring the darkened skies, anticipating the arrival of enemy aircraft. John H. McKinney was a former enlisted man who was appointed to the rank of Warrant Officer (W-1) on January 6, 1941, a little more than a month prior to reporting aboard Vincennes after spending the first of his prior nine years as a fire controlman. The 5-inch mount where McKinney was assigned was one of the ship’s eight guns that were primarily used to provide anti-aircraft protection. It was not long after sunrise that the Imperial Japanese Mitsubishi G4M2a Model 24 “Betty” bombers from Rabaul appeared on the horizon after their nearly 700-mile flight and began to wreak havoc on the landings.
As the Japanese Betty bombers pressed their low altitude attack at just 25-50 above the surface of the water, some enemy planes were successful in penetrating the onslaught of fire from the ship. Dodging enormous splashes from the rounds that impacted the surface of the water ahead of the aircraft, Vincennes managed to avoid hits from the attackers’ aerial bombs as well as a torpedo. Vincennes’ gunners were accurate, downing eight enemy bombers during the two days while providing protective support of the First Marine Division’s landings.
When Vincennes was first painted by the bright searchlights from the cruisers and destroyers of Japanese Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s task force on August 9, just before 2:00 AM, main battery gun crews were immediately ordered to fire on the source. A split-second after the blinding muzzle flash from Vincennes 8-inch batteries began to dissipate and crews’ eyes started to readjust to the darkness, the ship was rocked by the sudden impact of enemy projectiles and subsequent explosions as the deadly accuracy of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s gunners took an immediate toll on the American cruiser. “The first Jap hit smashed our sky aft [rear ranged finder] to pieces,” Electrician’s Mate 3/c Milton A. Schneller of Chicago, Illinois described the attack. “Then we took a torpedo right in our guts and shuddered again” the sailor described the onslaught to an Associated Press reporter.
Almost immediately as the enemy shells began to strike the ship, a pair of torpedoes fired from the Japanese cruiser Chōkai struck Vincennes and crippled her with heavy damage and flooding amidships. Fires broke out in the ship’s hangers as the four Curtis SOC scout planes along with the aviation fuel stores giving the enemy gunners a perfectly illuminated target. “Another direct hit and all lights went out. Shells and torpedoes, meanwhile, were coming fast. Number one fire room was hit directly after (to the rear) of us,” Schneller recalled the enemy onslaught, months later.
As salvo after salvo of enemy fire pounded the American cruiser, Vincennes’ gunners did manage to score a hit on the cruiser Kinugasa damaging her rudder machinery. “We kept getting hit. Men up on the sky control (located high up on the ship’s superstructure) kept dropping. They were scattered around the decks,” Schneller described the horror in the October 12, 1942 article. “One of the officers went to take some of the men from [to] a sick bay, but there wasn’t any sic bay left. It had got a direct hit.” A third torpedo fired from the cruiser Yūbari struck Vincennes and dealt her the blow that spelled her end
In under 20 minutes, Vincennes had taken more than 100 hits and three torpedoes as the Japanese task force ceased their attack and turned northwest, back towards New Guinea having decimated the two allied naval groups protected the Guadalcanal approaches. Vincennes was dead in the water, listing and engulfed in flames. Carnage was everywhere. Recounting the attack six decades later, one surviving veteran remembered the decks being slick with blood and strewn with debris and body parts from his shipmates. The pilothouse where the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Riefkohl was positioned before the attack was obliterated by naval gunfire though he survived the destruction.
The ship was without power as Captain Riefkohl issued the order to abandon ship. Many men struggled to make their way to a point where they could safely leave the ship. Sailors attempted to open hatches and scuttles to allow trapped men to escape the burning and sinking ship. Some entered below decks spaces and were successful in locating wounded men bringing them to the ship’s exterior, helping them into the water.
The mighty Vincennes’ guns now silent, the veteran of the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal battles, was burning out of control and sinking and most of her crew were adrift among the floating wreckage and oil slicks.
In his log of the attack, Riefkohl subsequently wrote: “The magnificent Vincennes, which we were all so proud of, and which I had the honor to command since 23 April 1941, rolled over and then sank at about 0250, 9 August 1942, about 2½ miles east of Savo Island … Solomons Group, in some 500 fathoms of water.”
Admiral Mikawa’s attack yielded incredible results as his task force dealt the U.S. Navy their worst surface battle loss in its history. The Navy’s losses that night were substantial as the USS Quincy and USS Astoria were also sunk while the Chicago and two destroyers were heavily damaged and left out of action. The cruiser HMAS Canberra was so heavily damaged that she had to be scuttled leaving the total allied casualties that night to be nearly 1,200 men missing or killed in action and four cruisers lost.
With Vincennes resting in the depths of what would become known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” her crew were adrift and struggling to survive in the darkness. “We were in the water. There was a guy close to me,” Francis M. Williamson of Petersburg, Virginia mentioned in the aforementioned news story. “He had almost his whole body shot away. Once he said very quietly, ‘I can’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes more. I got a hundred dollars in my pocket here if it’ll do you fellows any good.’ But nobody took it,” said Williams.
Later that morning, two American destroyers began to pick up the survivors but had to temporarily break from the rescue in order to pursue a periscope sighting and to drop depth charges. Another survivor, Hager described harrowing situation as the men were huddled together in the water with some in a life raft and others in the water, hanging on to the sides. When a destroyer arrived at the scene early that morning, fear among the men ensued as Hager informed them of the enemy’s propensity of machine-gunning survivors. As the ship drew near, the sound of small arms and .50 caliber machine gun fire was heard by the men in the raft. Just before they jumped into the water to escape being shredded in they thought would be a hail of bullets, one of the survivors realized the ship was American. A crewman aboard the ship yelled that the water was churning with sharks and the gunners aboard the ship were protecting the survivors. “They said the sharks were after a wounded offices and they machine-gunned them to save him.” Hager described an earlier encounter that occurred during the darker hours of the morning. “I don’t know whether it was a shark or not,” he said, “but while I was out there in the water, I saw a white streak heading for me and I did some fast swimming to get back to the raft.” Questions remained for Hager concerning other survivors in the water near him as he concluded his encounter, “I never saw the two men who swam with me after that.”
Once the wounded and water-logged men were aboard the rescue ships and the dead floating In the waters surrounding Savo Island were accounted for, the human losses became more apparent as musters were taken to determine the numbers. With 322 of the nearly 800 officers and enlisted missing or killed in action, notifications would not reach the families for some time. Official reports of the crew status were submitted to the Navy on September 3, 1942 as the survivors were sent back to Pearl Harbor. Triaging the wounded, some of whom were severely burned, meant that some men would be spending months in hospitals on Oahu while others would be shipped back to the mainland for recuperation and further disposition. Some of the survivors took advantage of the 30-days of rest and recuperation (R&R) due them following the loss of their ship while others were more eager to return to the fight, opting for immediate new assignments.
In the following weeks, teams of military personnel were dispatched to more than homes around the country bearing news of loss. One such official visit occurred at 640 Sadler Avenue in Los Angeles at the home of John Harris McKinney, Jr. where his wife, Rubye Lee and four-year-old son, John Harris McKinney III resided. Perhaps even more heart breaking than receiving a KIA notification, Mrs. McKinney was informed that her husband was missing in action.
While it is not known which five-inch mount Gunner John H. McKinney, Jr. was assigned to, all eight of the anti-aircraft guns were highly vulnerable to enemy fire due to them being fully exposed. Unlike the main batteries which were armor-protected and the gun crews were beneath the armor-plated decks, McKinney and his crew were exposed to the elements with a nominal bulwark scatter shield that was meant to provide a barrier to reduce exposure to splintering decks and structure. The location of the five-inch mounts placed them at amidships in the shadows of the two stacks or in other words, at the enemy aiming point. It is highly-likely that McKinney was killed at the outset of the Japanese attack as many of the early shots were landed in this area.
On October 13, 1942, Gunner McKinney, formerly listed as missing in action, his name was published in the Los Angeles Times among those who were killed in action. Mrs. John H. McKinney would be presented with a Purple Heart Medal bearing an engraving on the reverse of the pendant. At the end of the war, McKinney’s widow would have also received any decorations that he was due which would have included the World War II Victory Medal.
In the fall of 2020, The Veteran’s Collection was contacted by a man regarding a medal that he had in his possession. The man, having exhausted his efforts to reunite the medal with the recipient’s family, desired to place it care of a person or organization where it would be preserved in an honoring manner. Due to the significant number of our published articles focused upon artifacts related the three Navy cruisers named Vincennes, the man who contacted us believed that the medal that he held would find a place of honor among our USS Vincennes collection.
Following a handful of email and phone conversations with the man we understand that the medal cane to be in his possession from his former business partner but the details of how the partner obtained it were not known.
Viewing the photos of the medal that were sent to us combined with sound measure of caution, we began to explore every possible avenue of research to ensure that the medal was not reported stolen or missing. Researching the veteran was also necessary to ascertain the nature of his service and to ensure that the veteran was indeed aboard the ship and awarded the medal.
With due diligence performed over the course of several weeks researching genealogy and family history, notices or discussions of theft and consulting a Purple Heart Medal expert, we reached an agreement with the contact for modest compensation. Within a few days the purple heart medal was shipped.
Once we received and opened the carefully packaged decoration, a sense of pain and loss filled the surrounding air. There was a sense of the unfathomable moment when McKinney’s widow beheld the medal for the first time, knowing that her husband and the father of her young son would never come home. The finality that came with this medal that is awarded in recognition of veteran’s combat wound or loss punctuated the moment when Mrs. McKinney was first notified that her husband was missing. Having this in our collection added a somber dimension which is a principle reason that we have never previously pursued posthumous decorations.
John Harris McKinney, Jr. was born on April 10, 1912 in Dalhart, Texas to John and Audie Bell. McKinney graduated from Mercedes High School in 1930 and enrolled into an Reserve Officer Training Corps program in San Antonio. John enlisted into the U.S. Navy late in 1932 and completed recruit training and Naval Training Station San Diego, California. Apprentice Seaman McKinney was assigned to the Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on May 21, 1933. On January 26, 1936, McKinney was detached from the Augusta and reported aboard the repair ship, USS Vestal (AR-4) on March 12, 1937. The gap between ship assignments may have been spent on a shore command and during this time, he married the former Rubye Lee Hedrick in San Pedro, California on July 8, 1936. After completing his first term, McKinney, now rated as a fire controlman third class, reenlisted on June 20, 1936. McKinney’s career path and advancement was accelerated despite the peacetime Navy’s limited manning. John and Rubye welcomed their son, John Harris McKinney, III on December 5, 1937. Detached from Vestal on November 14, 1939, Fire Controlman first class McKinney was sent to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C., Long Island City and at Schenectady, New York. Following his completion of schools, McKinney was commissioned as a warrant officer (W-1), Gunner. With ten years of service, Gunner McKinney was halfway to retirement and a pension.
On February 12, 1941, Gunner McKinney reported aboard CA-44, USS Vincennes, and was assigned to one of the ship’s eight 5-inch gun mounts.
In consulting our copy of David A. Schwind’s outstanding authoritative work, Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous Awards of the Purple Heart Medal in the Second World War to analyze the specifics of the Gunner McKinney medal, we noted the style of the engraving and the design of the planchette. Through our research we noted that McKinney’s posthumous decoration is a Navy Type-1 Purple Heart Medal. The hand engraving includes the veteran’s rank, full name and service branch along with artistic flourishes is an example of early wartime style, characterized by Scwhind as Type-1c.
The medal itself is in good overall condition showing signs of wear on the raised edges and surfaces of the George Washington bust and some along the edges. On the planchette obverse, the plastic surround shows slight contraction from the edges and nominal surface scratches. The enamel in the laurels and the coat of arms located at the top of the planchette (beneath the suspension) is intact. The reverse of the planchette shows a fair amount of gold erosion surrounding the engraving as well as on the raised edges of the lettering, shield and laurels. The ribbon drape is heavily soiled and worn and unfortunately, the gilt sterling silver brooch was missing.
Another of the more important aspects missing from McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal is the small purple Navy type-1 presentation box. Judging by the condition of what arrived, it would be a safe assessment to suggest that the original presentation box deteriorated or was discarded decades ago. Regardless of the condition and the missing elements, the medal, according to Mr. Schwind, is a bit of a scarcity and highly desired among collectors due to it being an early Navy medal and an early engraving awarded to a warrant officer.
Seeking further consultation led to a colleague offering us the correct, type-1 brooch, ribbon and suspension ring to effectively restore McKinney’s medal. The replacement brooch, ribbon and suspension ring were had been removed from another type-1 Navy Purple Heart Medal and were in fantastic condition. By simply removing the existing suspension ring and replacing it with the new piece, the Gunner McKinney medal was made whole.
After the war, Gunner McKinney’s widow, Rubye Lee (Hedrick) McKinney married another Navy man, Harry E. Wageman on November 7, 1946. At some point thereafter, the former WWII Sea Bee veteran adopted John and Rubye’s son, John H. McKinney, Jr., changing his name to John McKinney Wageman. Seven days after his 43rd birthday, John McKinney Wageman, a geophysicist working in the petroleum exploration industry in Houston Texas, succumbed to metastatic brain cancer, exacerbated by bilateral pneumonia. Gunner McKinney’s son outlived him by thirteen years and left behind a widow, Molly R. (Matlock) Wageman and the couple apparently had no children.
It is astonishing that families let go of the reminders of their military heritage and history. Unfortunately, it is quite common to see military uniforms, certificates, records and even decorations and medals discarded in the trash, donated or sold, once the veteran has passed away. It is unknown what path Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal was set upon leaving us to assume that upon John McKinney Wagemen’s passing in 1980 or that of his mother in January 2000, the medal could have gone in any number of directions. Regardless, the Purple Heart Medal did not proper care or storage judging by the condition when we received it.
A few weeks ago, the Ohio Valley Military Society held its annual Show of Shows in Louisville, Kentucky. Unable to attend the show, we reached out to a few of our colleagues in the area who were attending to see if they could be on the lookout for the proper presentation box among the hundreds of tables of militaria. Within a few hours of making our request, a suitable box was found and shipped a few days later. With the medal placed in the box (along with the original ribbon and suspension), McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal has been returned to the state it was in nearly 80 years ago.
Gunner John Harris McKinney has been at rest with his shipmates at what today is known as Iron Bottom Sound nearly 3,500-feet beneath the surface. In January 2015, the Paul Allen-fund Research Vessel Petrel located and photographed the wreck of USS Vincennes (CA-44) and documented how she came to rest on the sea floor. One of the most poignant images captured by the Petrel crew showed one of Vincennes’ 5-inch guns still trained as if her crew were ready to send another round toward the enemy.
With his final resting site known and his Gunner McKinney’s Purple Heart Medal restored, the Veteran’s Collection will be determining the final disposition of the decoration to ensure that it will be honored, properly cared for and viewable in perpetuity.
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?
California Congressman Demonizes Collectors with Introduction of a Bill
When citizens perceive what they think to be a travesty or tragedy, they scream to their lawmaking-representatives to create laws in order to make changes that will help them to feel good that they did something positive. It is a common action among Americans to want to bring about changes, to right wrongs and to make society more safe. We feel better about ourselves when we stood up and participated in the process. Sadly, the only thing positive with many of these actions are that those scant few people can feel good while the rest of society has to deal with the negative ramifications and unintended consequences brought about by these actions.
This week new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8) to address what he and a select few Americans feel is a troubling trend – the sale of Purple Heart Medals (PHM) among collectors. HR 6234 (known as the “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act”) if passed would “prevent merchants from profiteering from the sale of military-issued Purple Hearts, eliminating the market and making it easier to return them to their rightful owners.” Taken at face-value, this seems to be a very noble goal. Who wouldn’t want Purple Heart Medals returned to their rightful owners?
“These military collectors cheapen the Purple Heart by buying and selling this symbol of sacrifice like a pack of baseball cards,” said Cook, who served 26 years in the Marine Corps before joining Congress, rising to the rank of colonel and receiving two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. – See: Selling Purple Hearts would be illegal if this bill becomes law
One of the underlying beliefs of the bill’s sponsor and his supporters is that militaria collectors are profit-seeking undesirables who buy and sell these vaunted medals, capitalizing on the specific aspects surrounding the awardees’ circumstances (for which the medal was given) such as:
- If the veteran was killed in action (KIA)
- If the battle in which the veteran was wounded (mortally or otherwise) was notable or pivotal
- If the veteran was note-worthy:
- a famous or semi-famous service member
- a member of a notable military unit or vessel
In viewing advertisements of PHMs for sale, these facts are often presented in the medals’ descriptions not too dissimilar to features of a used automobile, rendering them seemingly insensitive and cold. I admit that even I am put-off when I see how they are exhibited as available for purchase.
Regardless of the manner in which the medals are listed, most of the collectors that I have encountered are not only sensitive regarding the nature of these medals and the reason that they exist and are awarded, they go to great lengths to gather the facts surrounding the medals in order to emphasize the veterans’ service and the gravity of the price that is repeatedly paid by them for our nation. The steps that are taken by these collectors in order to preserve the history is extremely honoring and very sensitive towards the veteran and the surviving family members (in the case of KIAs-awarded medals).
There are many militaria collectors who also wore the uniform of this country. Many of them, like me, take pride in our service and that of others and we strive to preserve the history that is being discarded by families of veterans (and even the veterans themselves). One of my colleagues, a fellow Navy veteran, is pursuing his next book project (his most recent work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, is a similar, monumental undertaking that recognizes those American servicemen who were decorated by the Soviet Union for heroic acts in convoy and anti-submarine duty in the North Atlantic during WWII) that focuses entirely on the Purple Heart Medals that have been awarded to service men and women who were killed in combat. Many of the hundreds of medals that he has personally photographed for this book are in the hands of collectors who want to see the stories of the awardee preserved and shared in perpetuity.
Bear in mind that I make that statement as both a collector and as someone who is very sensitive about the issue of PHMs being bought and sold (due to the somber nature of why these medals are awarded, owning a medal that is connected to such significant personal loss is too painful for me to see past). Aside from the “For Sale” listings where the current owner painstakingly describes as much detail surrounding the veterans’ service and how they fell in combat, I also have difficulty when I read about an excited collector’s “find.” There is a fair amount of gray area between celebration of landing a medal that helps the collector tell a particular story (in their collection’s area of interest) and one that a collector picked for a very insignificant amount but will garner significant profit when it sells. I know that I am not the only collector who struggles when we see this on display. I also don’t mean to disparage any fellow collector for what brings them excitement and joy with their collection.
One person in particular who is celebrating the introduction of this bill and is hopeful to see it passed is Zachariah Fike (Captain, Vermont National Guard) who is the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization whose mission is to return Purple Heart Medals to the awardees or their families. “We are absolutely humbled to see Private Corrado Piccoli being honored through this bill by Congressman Cook,” reads a Facebook post (dated October 3, 2016) by Fike’s organization. Fike has historically been in opposition of collectors, stated to NBC News in 2012, “’It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”’ In my near-decade of collecting, I have learned that Fike’s assessment (of medal collectors) is the rare exception rather than the norm.
There is little doubt that Congressman Cook is responding in lockstep with Fikes (who has been vocal in his frustration with collectors’ who did not surrender their medal collection to him) and believe that in banning the sale of these medals will compel collectors to hand them over to organizations and people who are bent on returning them to families. What these well-intentioned people have overlooked is that so many families are the ones who have divested the heirlooms to begin with. For many reasons such as:
- No connection to the distant, deceased relative
- The family suffered a falling out with the veteran (broken marriage, the veteran abandoned his family, etc.) and the medal is a painful reminder
- The survivors are opposed to war, the military and anything that is connected to or associated with it
- Would rather see the medal and history preserved by a collector who has demonstrated this capability
There are many stories of medals being discovered in the most deplorable situations; some of the worst being discovered in dumpsters and curbside garbage cans. As the only one who had an interest in the military history of my family, I was bequeathed militaria from my relatives that included Purple Heart Medals (one of my uncles was wounded in action during both WWI and II). No one else cared. Now I am responsible to ensure that these items are cared for at the end of my life. If this bill passes and no one wants to inherit these items (and with the glut of nearly two million medals being in the same situation as mine), where will they end up?
What happens when Fike comes calling on the family having “recovered” a PHM from a collector only to find that doing so, causes grief with the people who wanted to rid themselves of the item(s) to begin with. What becomes of the medals then? How does this proposed law deal with the collections of PHMs when the collectors pass away and have no future collectors to transfer the medals to? According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the current estimation is that there have been more than 1,800,000 Purple Heart Medals awarded since 1932. Of those, how many thousands reside within individual militaria collections and what is to become of them? What percentage of those are unwanted by the families?
One of the unintended consequences of the previously established laws (banning the sale of the Congressional Medal of Honor [CMOH]), countless American artifacts have left our shores and landed in the hands of foreign collectors undoubtedly to ever return to our shores. The law that prevents the sale (similar to the one proposed by Congressman Cook will force collectors (who are seeking to recoup all or part of their investment) to locate buyers outside of the United States. Worse yet, some domestic CMOH collectors who have been in the possession of their medals predating the law (that prohibits the sale) have since been discovered by the federal authorities; their medals confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the FBI.
Banning the sale does very little in reaching the stated goal – to facilitate the return of the Purple Heart Medals to veterans and families. It also creates a problem for law enforcement. With 1.8 million medals in existence, how do they discover transactions, track ownership of medals and what becomes of those recovered who have no surviving family with which to receive said “missing” medal?
Despite what Captain Fike stated about collectors, his actions contradict him in regards to how he truly considers militaria and medal collectors. His push to locate a legislator to take such short-sighted and drastic steps to ban the sale of these artifacts are a direct assault of collectors that will have long-term negative impact on his non-profit organization’s noble efforts. The bill will also include penalties for veterans and families who attempt to sell these medals; there are no exclusionary provisions nor exceptions. Congressman Cook and Captain Fike appear to be targeting (whom they deem to be) the victims in the Purple Heart trade along with the collectors.
My voice hardly matters and no one would bother to take note of what I have to say in regards to this issue. Nevertheless, I believe that this good-intentioned law is ill conceived and will ultimately make it more difficult to restore the medals to the families and veterans who want to see them returned.
Collecting Militaria: Historical Preservation or War Glorification?
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”*
I started this blog as a continuation of a similar effort that I undertook (as a paid gig) for a large cable television network. I spent some time contemplating a suitable name for this undertaking, settling on The Veteran’s Collection for a number or reasons. The simplest of those reasons was to express my interest in militaria and how my status as a veteran guide both my interests and desire to preserve history.
Often, I equate my collecting of military items in the vein of being a curator of military history and the role that the military has played in the securing and preserving of basic freedom for our nation (and for the people of other nations who have been trying to survive under repressive regimes). In gathering and collecting these items, it may appear to some that I am glorifying war. Having in my possession weapons (firearms, edged weapons, munitions, etc.) might signify glorification to the untrained eye however these items are part of the overall story being conveyed by collection.
I am a fairly soft-spoken person when I am out in public (though people who truly know me would have a difficult time believing this). When political conversations emerge near me (when waiting in line or casually walking past strangers in public settings) I have heard, on many occasions, discussions focus on perceptions of men and women who serve ( low-key or have served) in the armed forces. Often times, gross mis-characterizations regarding people in uniform begin to emerge as the dialog devolves into denigration of active duty and veterans as being war-hungry criminals, bent on killing innocents (women and children). I can’t count how many times I have stood in line, listening to people in front of me expressing how frustrated they are when they see a soldier in uniform ahead of them receiving a discount for a food item or service equating their time in service as legalized murder.
I served ten years on active duty and had two deployments into a combat theater, one of which I and my comrades were engaged by the enemy. In all of those ten years, I cannot recall a single person whom I served with who desired or wished to see combat. We prepared and trained for it hoping to never see it. I don’t think that I have ever met a combat veteran who wanted to talk openly about their time under fire. To have the uneducated civilian boil down our willingness to don the uniform, train for years while understanding fully that at some point during our service, we could see the horrors of combat as being blood-thirsty war-mongers only serves to show the extent of their ignorance.
I recently read two articles today concerning veterans of World War II who have (or had) committed their remaining years educating people about the horrors of war that each of them faced.
The first article was about one man, an IJN fighter ace Kaname Harada, who took every moment that he had left in order to do what the Japanese government is failing to do; educating younger generations to warn them about being drawn into future wars. “Nothing is as terrifying as war,” he would state to an audience as he spoke about his air battles from Pearl Harbor to Midway and Guadalcanal. As I read the article, I zeroed in on a chilling quote by one of Harada’s pupils, Takashi Katsuyama, “I am 54, and I have never heard what happened in the war.” He cited not being taught about WWII in school, continuing, “Japan needs to hear these real-life experiences now more than ever.” I am baffled that a man who is a few years older than me was not taught about The War in school.
In the second article, Army Air force fighter pilot, Captain Jerry Yellin, who like Harada, is educating young people about what he sees as futility of war. He is concerned that young Americans do not have an understanding of the realities of war nor what it is like to fight. “We’re an angry nation,” said Yellin. “We’re a divided nation: Culturally, monetarily, racially and religious-wise we’re divided.” What the veteran of 19 P-51 missions over Japan said (in another article) regarding war is often lost on those who are pacifists (at any and all costs) and lack understanding, “War is an atrocity. Evil has to be wiped out.” He continued, “There was a purity of purpose, which was to eliminate evil. We did that. All of us. So, the highlight of my life was serving my country, in time of war.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Both of these men clearly understand the cost of war and the hell that they faced when they took up arms and yet neither of them could be characterized with the ridiculous “war mongers” moniker often applied to warriors.
The reasons that people collect militaria are as diverse as each of the hobbyists’ backgrounds. The community of collectors can be completely aligned and in lock-step with each other on some militaria discussion topics and in near animus opposition on others. I tend to stay away from collecting medals and decorations; specifically, anything awarded to a veteran (or, posthumously to his family) due to how a great number of collectors commoditize certain medals (Purple Heart Medals, specifically). I withhold judgment as I abstain from even discussing the medals in question. For the laymen, a Purple Heart is awarded to service members wounded or killed in action. Collectors attach increased value for medals awarded (engraved with the recipient’s name) for posthumous medals; if the person is notable or was killed in a famous or infamous engagement, the value compounds (there are several other contributing factors that influence perceived monetary value).
Purple Heart Medals are a very sensitive area of military collecting and nearly every medal was awarded to combat veterans – soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who were serving in a war or wartime capacity. There are several collectors who use their Purple Heart collections to demonstrate the realities of the personal cost of war. These caretakers of individual history, such as this collector, painstakingly preserve as much of the information surrounding the WIA and KIA veterans, often maintaining award certificates and even the Western Union telegrams that were presented to the recipients’ parents or widows. Seeing a group with the documentation together is heart-wrenching.
Militaria collecting can be very personal as many of the items, like medals (such as the Purple Heart) actually belonged to a person who served. In my collection, I have uniforms from men who served from as far back as the early 1900s up to and including the Vietnam War (not including my own as seen in this previous post) with the majority centered on World War II. Nothing could be more personal than the uniform worn by the veteran. Having personal items, in my opinion, enhances the collecting experience because of the desire to research what that service member did when they served. Uncovering a person’s story is to understand the sacrifice and cost of leaving family behind to serve rather than glorifying war itself.
Also in my collection are artifacts that were brought back by the veterans from the theater in which they served. While to some people, viewing these items may conjure negative and visceral responses, they still serve to tell a story that shouldn’t be forgotten. One of my relatives returned from German having recovered a great many pieces from the Third Reich machine after it was defeated by May of 1945. Still, this is not celebrating war nor the defeat of a (now former) foe.
There are other facets of my collection that are touch on the functions of engagement and combat; specifically armament and weapons. I have a few pieces that I inherited that, at some point, I will be delving deeper (on this blog) as they do fascinate me. I need to spend some time expanding my knowledge a bit more in order to present these pieces with a modicum of understanding (alright, I’ll admit that I don’t’ want to sound uneducated on my blog). Frankly, weapons are not my forte’ but what I own (a small gathering of edged weapons and ordinance), I have spent some time learning about them.
Preserving history is paramount to helping following generations to both understand the cost of war and that, while doing what is necessary to avoid future wars, serves to illustrate that nations not only should but must take a stand against tyranny and evil.
* Military Memoirs of a Confederate, 1907, Edward Porter Alexander
The Merits of Heart Collecting
One of the most sacred military medals created for service personnel of the United States military is one that can only be “earned” by receiving a wound inflicted by an enemy in combat. Since February 22, 1932 (the 200th anniversary of General George Washington’s birth), the Purple Heart Medal (PHM) has been awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who sustained combat-related wounds (or were killed in action) on the field of battle, from World War I (retroactively by the veteran’s request) through the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beautifully sculpted in a gold tear-drop shape with Washington’s bust profile superimposed in a heart-shaped field of purple, the Purple Heart is a highly sought after item for militaria collectors. The medal was a revival of a design of an award that was presented by General Washington in 1782 that was presented to three soldiers during the Revolutionary War as a Badge of Military Merit.
Collecting the medal can be offensive to laymen who can be repulsed by the idea of a collector who treasures something that is specific to the suffering or death of a service member. For me, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the concept.
Prior to departing for my first combat deployment, my father, a Viet Nam veteran, advised me to avoid seeking a Purple Heart as if he was directing one of his young charges back in 1969. Of course, I survived my deployment physically unscathed returning home without the bust of George on my chest.
When I encounter veterans who have been awarded the medal, I have a great deal of respect for them. Not because they were wounded, but that they offered themselves up voluntarily, knowing what the personal cost could be. For those who survive their wounds, the road to recovery can last months, years or a lifetime. World War II war correspondent Keith Wheeler described in horrific detail what that road looks like in his 1945 book, We Are The Wounded, telling of his own experience after being wounded (shot) on Iwo Jima. As a civilian, Wheeler was ineligible to receive the award, but he certainly earned it as what he endured paralleled that of the combat veterans who were medically treated alongside him.
For collectors, at least the ones I know, the medal is sacred. To them, the medal is a representation of the sacrifice made by the recipient denoting significance in personal military history. Over the years as family members and descendants (of those veterans) who have lost personal connection to that history, allow the military items to be sold. Many collectors have revealed that they’ve saved items from garbage cans and dumpsters as they were callously discarded.
Most Purple Heart medals issued through the Viet Nam War are engraved with the recipient’s name affording collectors with the ability to research them and reconstruct the personal history. Several collectors create veteran dossiers for each of the PHMs in their collection displaying them alongside their collection at public Memorial and Veterans Day events, describing the price that was paid by each individual.
I have two PHMs in my collection. One of them is part of the medals that were awarded to my uncle who was wounded in World War I and again in World War II. He also served in the Korean War finishing his service in 1954. The other example is one that I acquired that is an un-engraved (and numbered on the edge) WWII-issue, complete set (including the ribbon and lapel devices) in the presentation cases.
Purple Heart Collections