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Answering the Call of Remembrance Through Collecting

The line to get inside the Alamo is typically long but it does move quite fast. It is odd to see the city tower above the 18th Century structure.

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.

USS Maine ACR-1 – Havana Harbor, 1898

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?

The USS Arizona Memorial is situated on piers astride of the wreckage of the ship. The barbette of turret #3 is visible.

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.

Emerging from the waves are a pair of bollards from the starboard side of the forecastle of the wreckage of the USS Arizona, visible from the memorial.

This piece of the USS Arizona is on display at the Indiana Military Museum.

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.

This group from a USS Arizona survivor contains the sailor’s photo album and distinguishing marks from his uniform (image source: US Militaria Forum).

This RPPC of the USS Arizona is one of two photographs from my uncle’s navy album from the 1920s.

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.

One of two photos from my uncle’s navy photo album shows the USS Arizona transiting the Panama Canal.

Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember the Arizona!

For more on militaria mollecting of these significant events, see:


Showing Off Your Collection is Not Without Risk

For the most part, militaria collectors enjoy anonymity and prefer to keep their collections private, sharing them with a scant few trustworthy people. Those whose collections include ultra-rare pieces tend to avoid the public exposure for good reason.

As someone with a passion for history, specifically United States military history, I enjoy viewing the work of other collectors and soak up the details of each piece they are willing to share with me. It brings me absolute joy to hold an item that is tied to a notable person or a monumental event as I try to picture the setting from where the piece was used. I often wonder how many times the piece has changed hands over the course of its existence. Not wanting to pry or press the collectors, I seldom inquire as to how they came to own the piece.

Some of you may wonder why a collector might choose to keep his work out of the public eye.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this area of collecting is the very personal nature of a vast number of pieces – meaning that items such as medals or decorations might be engraved or inscribed with a veteran’s name. While this personalization benefits the collector in that they have a means to research the item when tracing its “lineage” back to the original owner, it can also be a detriment.

I have witnessed situations where a collector posted a named piece on the web only to be contacted by a person claiming to be the next of kin of the original owner, while telling a sad (and sometimes convincing) story of how the items were sold or taken without their knowledge. Or worse yet, the original owner, perhaps suffering from age-related mental issues, let the items go during a lapse in judgement, depriving the child the ability to preserve the items. Demands, sometimes accompanied by threats of legal action, are subsequently directed toward the collector in an effort to acquire the pieces. There is no rock-solid way for the collector to validate the claims.

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

In some instances, I have seen collectors happily repatriating militaria objects back to family members once the ownership claims have been substantiated. A few of those collectors, having made significant investments into acquiring the pieces, went as far as to gift the items to the family without seeking any sort of compensation.

As I turned on my computer today to check the news and catch up on emails, I noticed a developing story surrounding a prominent militaria collector whose collection I touched on a few weeks ago. It seems that a San Antonio man has filed a lawsuit against musician Phil Collins, seeking financial damages due to an alleged theft of Alamo relics from the trunk of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The suit names Collins as one of four defendants, who ultimately acquired the pieces from a San Antonio militaria dealer (also named as a defendant).

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I won’t delve into the nature or details of the suit, but there is some history of the collector making accusations toward the dealer in the past, and this could be perceived as a personal conflict between the plaintiff and the dealer, but without having much knowledge of the case, I will not speculate as to who did what to whom as that is a matter for the courts to decide. What I do find fascinating is that the plaintiff is not seeking the return of his alleged “stolen” relics.

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

Though this cap plate is fairly common, the collector (who provided the comparison) shows a photo of his stolen plate as compared to one in Collins’ book, “The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey” (Photo by Juanito M. Garza, Courtesy Photo, Don Jank / San Antonio Express-News).

The Collins case underscores yet another pitfall of making one’s collection available for public review. Aside from opening the door for questions as to the authenticity of some of his pieces, this collector has exposed himself to challenges from anyone who might choose to make an ownership claim against him.

A British Collector of the Alamo – Foreign Collectors of American Militaria

A question was recently posed by militaria collector from the UK asking how Americans feel “about important artifacts which are part of US cultural history being in the private collection of a British musician.” The question was in direct response to a March 2012 publication of a 416 page volume, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, that details musician Phil Collins’ extensive collection of historic artifacts directly related to the 1836 battle at the Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio, Texas, simply known as the Alamo.

Published in March of 2012, Phil Collins’ book documents his extensive collection of militaria related to the 1836 battle at the Alamo.

Published in March of 2012, Phil Collins’ book documents his extensive collection of militaria related to the 1836 battle at the Alamo.

Like many American kids of the post-World War II generation, I’ve always related the Alamo to Hollywood-produced entertainment such as Disney’s Davy Crockett (1954-55) and The Alamo(1960), glamorizing the historical characters such as David “Davy” Crockett (played by Fess Parker or John Wayne) and James “Jim” Bowie (Kenneth Tobey or Richard Widmark) and their legendary fight with Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. Glorified in these portrayals are the manner in which each of the two main characters fought and ultimately died alongside their comrades. American youth would be inspired to don faux coonskin caps and buckskin outfits as they act out the scenes.

Singer, songwriter and drummer Phil Collins (of rock band Genesis) was one of those kids growing up watching the onscreen portrayals of Davy Crockett. Fascinated by the Alamo and the siege and battle that took place there in February and March of 1836, Collins was drawn to collecting militaria when he discovered a Crockett autograph for sale while on tour with Genesis, “I didn’t know this stuff was out there, that you could own it,” he noted. Phil had been bitten by the militaria collecting bug and the resulting, spectacular Alamo-specific collection that he spent decades assembling is unequaled.

In March of 2012, Collins diverted from his musical creativity and ventured into writing about his militaria passion. He published his first book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey which is packed with hundreds of pages of beautiful photography and illustrations documenting the depth and breadth of his collection. Though his book is listed for $120, it can be found for less than $40.

Regarding the question that was posed at the beginning of this post, my response is that there exist monuments, buildings, graves and other large, tangible items and places to view and visit that are related to this historic, tragic event in our history. The individual artifacts such as in the collection of Mr. Collins have been in private collections and out of view of the general public all along. There are probably thousands of individual pieces remaining in private collections that are or can be connected to this event and are still unviewable by the general public.

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

From Collins’ collection, this 1830 over and under flintlock pistol was excavated by at the Alamo site by a construction worker (source: Phil Collins collection).

I see what Phil Collins has done in publishing his book as an act of sharing treasures that have never previously been made available to the public. While the book has (for me, at least) a considerable price tag, I still see this work as a gift to fans of history. Through his efforts, we get to have something tangible that provides us with a look at a slew of items that probably wouldn’t have been assembled together without Phil’s decades of effort.

I applaud his interest in American history, militaria collecting, the Alamo collection and his work on this book.