In the sub-freezing temperatures, you find yourself watching for them. Anxiety has long-since set in and your heart-rate is rapid causing you to draw quick, short breaths from the cold oxygen flowing into your mask. You’re thinking back to the darkness of the early-morning hours, reviewing all of the landmarks as you check the heading. At 35,000 feet, your aluminum tube is barreling ahead, amidst a cloud of familiar shapes, at nearly 200 miles per hour. Your body is no longer aware of the vibrations and deafening roar of the four Wright Cyclone radial engines and their steady drone. You’ve been through this same routine (as if any of this can be considered “routine”) two dozen times before.
Suddenly, excited chatter is piped directly to your ears via the cold headset. Your fellow crew-members have sprung to life as they call them out – the dreaded camouflage-painted Focke-Wulf Fw 190 bearing the black cross of Germany. The flight of attackers begins to assail the surrounding B-17F aircraft in your group. You reach for the trusty Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun as you scan the skies for the attackers.
Gripping the handle of the gun with your fleece-lined leather gloves, you begin to train the weapon as you search for the enemy. You try to fight back the fear while looking through the Plexiglas nose, seeing another Flying Fortress rollover into its deadly dive. You don’t have time to look to see if there are any chutes, yet you are hold on to a shred of hope that those men do somehow manage to survive…
52,000 Americans perished in the air over Europe during World War II over the span of three and a half years. Contrast that to 58,000 Americans who lost their lives during the entire Vietnam War. It is difficult to imagine that bomber crews had to complete 25 bombing missions before they could be sent home. More than 750,000 bombing sorties were flown by U.S Army Air Force aircraft over Europe and just under 10,000 bombers were lost. The odds were infinitesimal that one aircraft could survive all of those missions and return home during the war. One of those B-17s that achieved that mark was the famed Memphis Belle (Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress Serial 41-24485) – the first heavy bomber to do so. The monumental feat was the subject of a William Wyler documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, released in 1944 to American audiences by Paramount Pictures.
Though I attempted to paint a picture of what it was like for these men, words could never come close to describing that experience. A single mission was harrowing for these amazing men. I often wonder which was more unnerving – the first mission or the twenty-fifth and final one. For Captain Vince Evans, sitting in the bombardier chair for those several harrowing hours on May 19, 1943 on a raid over German port-city of Kiel on the Jutland peninsula.
When an item from one the 10-member crew of the Memphis Belle, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. A few years ago, what appeared to be a cut-down, tailor-made officers jacket complete with period correct insignia and devices was listed at auction. Inside the jacket was a label with Captain Evan’s personal information, including his Army serial number (ASN). One issue some collectors raised with this listing was the seemingly incorrect ribbon bar. One important piece absent from the bar was Captain Evan’s Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) ribbon which was awarded to all ten crewmen. Vince would subsequently receive an additional DFC. The ribbon for the Air Medal is also absent devices which Evans would have had to indicate multiple awards.
Regardless of the minor shortcomings, the jacket is believed (by several collectors) to be genuine and was more than likely set aside by Evans after the war in favor of a newer uniform. The correct (or better yet, original) ribbon bar was probably removed (by Evans) for wear on the new uniform.
Following his WWII service, Evans began working with Wyler in his new profession as a writer in Hollywood with two films to his credit: Chain Lightning (starring Humphrey Bogart) and Battle Hymn (starring Rock Hudson). Evans served in the USAF Reserve until his discharge (at the rank of major) in 1953. Sadly, Major Evans would perish (along with his wife, Margery and their 21 year-old daughter, Venetia) in a small airplane when it crashed a few miles short of the Santa Ynez Valley airport in 1980. What the Luftwaffe and Nazi anti-aircraft gunnery could not do, a series of atmospheric conditions did. It was never determined who was in control of the aircraft (Evans or the flight instructor) at the time of the crash.
The Memphis “Belle lost one of her sweetest members” wrote Colonel Robert Morgan (in his book, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot), “a large piece” of her heart went down that day.
More than 40 bids from buyers eager to land a piece of history so closely-tied to the famed aircraft drove the final sale price to $1,026.97 which for many militaria collectors is a bargain considering the notoriety of the Memphis Belle and her crew.
I doubt there are many collectors who have NOT experienced the current run that I’ve been on, though I certainly feel alone in this rut.
Over the past several months, I have been seeing some amazing online auction listings of seldom-seen militaria pieces. It seems that with each week that passes, an item gets listed that falls into one of my many robot-searches, alerting me to investigate and research the piece. After the necessary due diligence, I am reeled-in and decide what I can afford and get set to place my highest bid (yes, I use a sniping program). After a few days of waiting, I receive the dreaded notice that I had been outbid milliseconds after mine was placed.
Aside from the disappointment of being outbid, the other all-too-familiar letdown that I have been experiencing is the discovery of pieces that would fit perfectly into my collection but the price never seems to align well with my budget. Illustrating this point was when a stunning World War II-vintage aviator’s ball cap, complete with hand-painted squadron artwork was listed at auction.
When I first laid eyes on the khaki ball cap, I was immediately captivated by the hand painted checkerboard pattern surrounding the squadron insignia. Though the design was monochromatic, the design appeared amazingly crisp overlaying the painted-yellow background. My interests lie predominantly with naval history so my expertise is lacking with regards to knowledge of Air Corps squadrons. The “437th inscribed within the insignia was very difficult to research with investigative results being sketchy at that time. Since then, I was able to research further that the hat could most likely have come from an airman who served with the 437th Fighter Squadron (of the 414th Fighter Group) that flew P-47 Thunderbolts in protection of B-29s in the Pacific Theater (in the 20th Air Force).
With no experience in these caps, I had no idea of the range of value for this cap. The one thing that put me off a bit was the initial bid price of $750. On one hand, it seemed to fit my perception of value, but without ironclad provenance (it had none) or any way to confirm the squadron identity, the price started to seem quite high. Too many questions coupled with the lack of sound seller-history, I couldn’t begin to ponder placing a bid even at half the asking price.
Since I first saw the cap, the seller has (unsuccessfully) listed the cap for auction a second time with a lower price. With being listed twice and not a single bid, one could infer that the cap isn’t worth the risk. But something in me keeps me guessing and wondering.
Perhaps I’ll just wait for the next amazing listing to pass on (or be passed on).