Retrospective-type articles that touch upon a central topic or theme are useful for both the reader and author, especially within sites such as The Veteran’s Collection as the pulling together of related content and subject matter can shed new light and expose facts that were overlooked or previously hidden. The negative aspects of self-promotion come to light when it is very obvious that authors have run out of ideas and, rather than to have aging content remain on the front or home pages of their sites, publish fluff in order to keep up the appearance of fresh content. Another reason could be to reflect upon old content while attempting to relevantly connect it to a current event.
If readers delve into the content of this site they would discover that navy-centric militaria outnumbers the articles published within this site the the better portion of those pieces focused upon a four ships bearing the same name. Within this author’s collection are a handful of artifacts from one of the four – the second ship – to carry the name Vincennes around the globe and into war. Although my collection does encompass artifacts associated with a few other ships (those vessels aboard which members of my family served), this particular warship holds special meaning and thus is at the center of my collection focus.
Commissioned in 1937, the New Orleans Class heavy cruiser (classified as such due to her main battery consisting of eight inch guns) USS Vincennes (CA-44) plied the peacetime seas for more than four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Despite the elapsed time since she was placed into service, many of her crew at the start of World War II were plankowners (they were part of the original crew, present at the time of commissioning) though personnel turnover was occurring and a steady rate. New crew members were replacing veterans whose enlistments were ending or were rotating to different commands. Wartime manning requirements, impacted by combat operations, increased for many vessels by as much as twenty percent.
For the aging USS Arizona (BB-39), the near 2,300-man crew was proud that their ship carried the flag of Commander Battleship Division One, Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Arizona had been serving the U.S. Navy for more than 25 years having been placed into commission in 1916; though she never fired her massive 14-inch guns at an enemy target – not even during World War I. Three-and-a-half weeks after Thanksgiving Day in 1941, the losses of WWII would begin to touch American lives throughout the country.
In late March of 1945 in the small town of Le Roy located in McLean County, Illinois which lies just north of dead-center of the state (about 140 miles southeast of Chicago), the small farming town was feeling the economic effects of the war with rationing in full swing and a large percentage of the area’s young, able-bodied men serving and fighting in far-off lands. Le Roy’s lone celebrity, Broadway star Betty Jane Watson (cousin of Jean Stapleton of 1970s television’s All in the Family fame) gained attention in the previous year playing the role “Gertie” in Oklahoma! and was now working as singer, performing (singing) with with bands in Chicago. Le Roy was a fairly quiet and peaceful town as families awaited word from their sons, fathers, brothers and uncles who were serving in the European and Pacific theaters, hopeful of good news.
At the home of William Gaultney that March, things may have been quiet for the farmer-turned-road-construction worker’s family as an ominous word arrived from the War Department. From an island that until February 19, 1945 very few, if any, Americans had ever heard of, word made its way to Mr. Gaultney, via the Secretary of the Navy that his second youngest son, Private First Class David J. Gaultney was killed in combat on Iwo Jima. Nineteen year-old David was serving with “A” company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Third Marine Division) having transferred to the unit weeks before (in January) as a replacement rifleman as the unit was rearming and refitting following their heavy combat operations on Guam in late July-early August of 1944. David J. Gaultney enlisted in April of 1944 and attended recruit training in San Diego that same summer before transferring to the Sixth Replacement Draft in preparation to serve in the Pacific. David turned 19 in October as he was training to fight in the Pacific but his life would be cut short four months later. David’s father was left to grieve without his wife, Nellie who had passed away (at age 54), just 25 months earlier, afflicted by heartbreak due to the heavy toll her family had already suffered in the War.
For William Gaultney, the notification of David’s loss on Iwo Jima was nothing new and one can assume that when the telegram arrived, the hesitation to open it eleven months after his son, David left for service in the Marine Corps was near-crippling for him, considering the two previous notifications that were sent to his home by the War Department, starting with word from Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The scene portrayed on screen in the film, Saving Private Ryan as the U.S. Army car kicks up a dust cloud as it proceeds up the Ryan family farm road with Mrs. Ryan understanding what was coming; something terrible had happened to (perhaps her thoughts regarding) one of her sons. Instead, she is gripped with anguish, dropping to the porch as she reads the note handed to her by the Army officer telling her that three of her four sons had perished in combat. While the Gaultney family weren’t hit with such a magnitude as was shown in the film. However, Mrs. Gaultney suffered through two losses in less than a year with her oldest son, succumbing to his wounds (on Christmas Eve, 1941) that he sustained aboard his ship, the USS Arizona (BB-39) on December 7.
Ralph Martin Gaultney was the second of William and Nellie Gaultney’s children to enlist to serve in the armed forces. Ralph joined the Navy on January 16, 1940, nearly two years before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Following his training, Ralph reported aboard the aging battleship on the eve of Fleet Problem XXI (the 21st in the series of large scale naval exercises conducted since 1923 and shifted to the Hawaiian waters in 1925) and would serve aboard the ship during her overhaul (in Bremerton, WA) from late 1940 to early 1941 when Admiral Isaac Kidd hoisted his flag aboard the ship (Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh assumed command of the ship in February). The last time that Gunners Mate Third Class Ralph Gaultney would put to sea with the ship was just days before the attack. Twenty one year old Gaultney would linger for two weeks his ship was destroyed, succumbing to his wounds on December 24. Though Ralph was oldest son (there were seven children; four sons and three daughters) and the first of the Gaultney boys to perish, he wasn’t the first to join the military.
Machinist’s Mate 1/c Leonard Gaultney had been serving in the Navy since he enlisted on September 1, 1938. Following his training, he reported aboard one of the Navy’s newest New Orleans Class heavy cruisers, the USS Vincennes (CA-44) while she was undergoing an overhaul at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in east San Francisco Bay. Having been in commission since February 24, 1937, most of the ship’s company that were present with Gaultney had been there for two years and were plankowners. When Vincennes left Mare Island, she made her way back to the Atlantic Fleet (via the Panama Canal) to serve in Neutrality Patrols as well as to retrieve some of France’s wealth (gold) for safe storage in the United States in anticipation of a German invasion. Leonard Gaultney’s ship paid a visit to Cape Town South Africa to receive yet another large shipment of gold (this time as a payment) from the United Kingdom as compensation for arms in support of their war against Germany and Italy (WWII). When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, (then) Machinist Mate 2/c Gualtney’s ship was escorting a British convoy to South Africa, arriving two days later. In March of 1942, Vincennes arrived in San Francisco to join Task Force 18 and would escort USS Hornet and USS Enterprise to Japan for Colonel Doolittle’s air strike on Tokyo in April of 1942. With Japan still on the offensive, Leonard Gaultney would see action in the Battle of Midway as she screened the USS Yorktown, fighting off the Japanese air attacks. By August of 1942, USS Vincennes escorted the amphibious forces carrying the First Marine Division to the Solomon Islands. On the morning of August 7, Gaultney heard the main batteries of Vincennes commencing the shore bombardment in preparation for landing the Marines on Guadalcanal’s beachhead. During the day, Vincennes’ 5-inch and 40mm guns shot down a “Betty” bomber that was part of a Japanese air strike on the American ships landing the troops.
Sunrise in the waters between the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Savo would be MM1/c Gaultney’s last along with 331 of his USS Vincennes shipmates. That evening, the group of ships protecting the northern approach to Tulagi and Savo Islands (consisted of USS Astoria CA-34, USS Quincy CA-39 and HMAS Canberra) were caught by surprise when a Japanese cruiser task force commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa came upon them in the dark of night (at 01:55 am). Highly trained and proficient in night combat, the Japanese attacked and within minutes had all four ships heavily damaged, burning and sinking after opening fire with guns and Long Lance (Type 93) torpedoes. Vincennes sustained massive hits from the Japanese cruisers setting her on fire and presenting an even easier target for the IJN torpedomen to aim for. Vincennes was struck by two Type 93 torpedoes near her main spaces and she began to take on water. Fifty-five minutes later, USS Vincennes disappeared beneath the waves (at 02:50). It is not clear whether MM 1/c Gaultney made it into the water or went down with the ship though the latter is more likely considering his work space was struck by one of the torpedoes. The resulting explosion and ensuing flooding made it nearly impossible for the men who managed the propulsion systems to survive the damage let alone escape.
Some time after receiving the official notifications from the Navy (or War) Department, Mr. and Mrs. Gaultney would have been presented with their sons’ posthumous decorations (which were, most likely Purple Heart Medals). A third medal would have been presented to Mr. Gaultney in 1945 leaving him with three engraved medals – one for each son. Hopefully, all three medals have remained within the family, handed down and preserved to ensure that the memories of each of the Gaultney boys and the immense sacrifice made by this family is never forgotten. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the family to have let go of the pain of terrible loss by divesting the reminders or simply tucking them away from sight. Under such circumstances, families have been known to give Purple Heart medals (PHM) away, sell or even discard them. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the Gaultney medals are preserved as part of a militaria collection.
Collecting artifacts such as Purple Heart medals from service members who were killed in action is not something that interests many collectors due to the sensitive nature of the pieces and the pain and suffering (for both the one who was lost and their surviving family members) that is represented with the decorations. Though I have personal awards and decorations from sailors who served aboard the Vincennes, the pieces that I have are from two men who survived and the medals are not PHMs.
Several years ago, I was able to land a small group from a sailor, Fireman Third Class Charles Henry Findlay, who served aboard the heavy cruiser Vincennes from March of 1941 and survived its sinking. The two pieces in the group include one of his decorations, the American Defense Service Medal (ADSM) and a liberty card issued to the young sailor. One aspect of this group that collectors must keep in mind is that the ADSM is not engraved or marked with the recipient’s name (they are never personalized) which makes this particular medal difficult to prove that it was specifically awarded to Findlay.
What became of Fireman Findlay after being rescued from the waters that would be dubbed, “Iron Bottom Sound?” He, along with more than 50 of his USS Vincennes shipmates, were assigned to the USS Santa Fe (CL-60), a Cleveland Class light cruiser that was commissioned in November of 1942.
Though the aged and worn Navy Good Conduct Medal (NGCM) has been long separated from its suspension, drape and brooch, this medal, awarded to Seaman First Class William John Wennberg in 1939 is a great piece for my USS Vincennes (CA-44) collection. Seaman Wenneberg enlisted into the Navy on October 8, 1935 from his hometown in Chicago, Illinois, though he shown reporting aboard the Vincennes on February 24, 1937 (which corresponds with the ship’s commissioning date making him a plankowner), sixteen months after his navy career began. No muster sheets are available for Wennberg which makes his career path difficult to track until he shows up again as he reported to Receiving Ship New York on December 13, 1941, the day after he began his second enlistment. It appears that he spent a few years out of the Navy, living in New York (according to records discovered on Ancestry) and was married. Wennberg was assigned to another cruiser, USS Columbia (CL-56), the second ship of the Cleveland Class light cruisers. William Wennberg remained a seaman (equivalent to today’s E-3) from 1937 until 1945 (except for his two year break in service) when he was serving aboard the new heavy cruiser, USS Bremerton (CA-130) when he was rated as a Ship’s Serviceman Laundry 1/c.
An interesting aside, both Findlay and Wennberg served aboard Cleveland Class light cruisers following their time aboard the Vincennes. Though the coincidence isn’t that significant, the Navy chose to return the name Vincennes to the Pacific as leaders re-named the under-construction USS Flint (CL-64) to USS Vincennes, the tenth light cruiser of the 27 Cleveland Class warships. “Vincennes” and hundreds of her survivors were surviving crew were back in the fight.
For the Gaultney family, the war was over with their notification of David’s death on Iwo Jima though the grief from their terrible loss would never cease. In December of 2018, a pair of Illinois state republicans (state Senator Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Representative Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth) sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 65 which was to name the portion of I-74 that runs through Le Roy, Illinois the Gaultney Brothers Memorial Highway. The resolution passed unanimously in both the Illinois Senate and House, as reported by the Pantograph newspaper on December 31st.
Collecting, for me, focuses upon telling the story of those who can no longer do so for themselves. Preserving and displaying along with researching and documenting artifacts from service men and women helps to preserve their memories as does renaming a stretch of well-traveled highway does.
- Paper and Postcards – Telling a More Complete Military Story
- Calculated Risks: Bidding on Online Auctions that Contain Errors
- Subtle History – Finding a Unique Naval Militaria Piece
- A Legacy: Vincennes Wardroom Silver
In a recent online auction, an amazing example of a veteran-painted pith helmet sold for less than $150. Had this helmet been a period correct M1 helmet, there is no telling how much attention it would have drawn from collectors or what incredible amount of money it would have fetched.
Hawley Products Company, one of the manufacturers of M1 helmet liners, made these fiberboard headgear “sun” helmets for use as protection from the intense sunlight and torrential downpours of the South Pacific tropical islands. Due to their lightweight design and construction, the term ‘helmet’ hardly seems applicable when compared to the beefy, bulky nature of the steel pot.
Piths were issued to all branches and were available in two colors or tones. Green was predominantly issued to naval personnel while khaki or light brown went to army and army air forces people. Marines could be seen wearing either color as they were issued whatever was available within the supply system or they adapted to the limited stores-issue and found creative ways to <em>requisition</em> (I use this term quite loosely as some Marines were rather resourceful in cutting through the red tape of the supply system) them.
As with any creative service member deployed away from loved ones and home, artistic expression tended to be revealed on available mediums. Piths, not meant for combat, were viable canvases for these artists to modify with their own personal embellishments. Wearers <em>tended</em> to be rear echelon service-members rather than front-line combatants, but some did don the helmet near the fight. Sometimes the fight came to them while they were engaged in other in-the-rear activities.
If you’re seeking to add a visually stunning helmet to your collection but can’t afford to splurge for the painted steel pot, these pith will certainly add diversity and originality to any display. With patience and diligence applied to your searching techniques or saved searches, you will find the perfect addition.
Many of the stories found within the pages of this site, while centered upon artifacts and items that once belonged to veterans – some those pieces possess researchable history that is traceable to the individual. If you’ve read any of these articles, you know that as much as is possible, I try to provide a snapshot of the military careers of the service members, inclusive of their decorations and awards they received. Acknowledging the achievements of the military member or those of the units for which they were assigned, or the campaigns these men and women participated in, while a common practice within this realm of military service, it is somewhat foreign in the civilian sector.
Medals and decorations are a common focus of militaria collectors – especially medals that are engraved (i.e. named) as valor medals typically are at the time of presentation to the service member – due to their unique and very specific historical nature. A group of medals and ribbons that were worn by a veteran provide a visual narrative – a tangible representation of the career of a service member showing, at the very least, when and perhaps where the individual served, if he or she served in combat or was decorated for service above and beyond the norms of duty. There are many areas of focus within the sphere of collecting decorations. Some may zero in on a specific era, military branch, discipline or specialty (aviators, armor, etc.) or specific medal awardees (Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross or other valor medals) or those who were killed in action (Purple Heart medals awarded to those who were killed or listed as missing in action). Though I am in possession of several decorations, I am not a collector of medals and ribbons. All that I have were either inherited (I am the steward/archivist for family history) as part of a relative’s group or were acquired as part of my restoration efforts to preserve the full story of a family member’s service.
A veteran myself, I recognize that the preservation of my own decorations is part of my responsibility to maintain the family legacy and history of service. With the exception of the decorations awarded to my father (a Vietnam combat veteran who is very much alive and well), I have been given the task of maintaining these priceless family artifacts which are inclusive of the medals and ribbons that I earned and received during my service. I couldn’t imagine seeing family history such as this falling into the hands of collectors rather than being preserved by our following generations.
It may be just my perception but it seems as though there is a steady stream of military-history books being released throughout each year with increasing frequency. With the passing of the World War II generation and their stories fading away, our nation’s interest in them, fueled by stories and films that dominated the national conscience from the mid 1990s through the middle of this decade, too has waned. The stories of the common soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have all but been forgotten. The attention in military stories has turned toward the more recent conflicts in the Middle East is more prevalent as the generation who fought and served in these conflicts is reaching (military) retirement age. However, there are still good stories from WWII that remaining to be told and a recent publication, though now a few years old, deserves my readers’ attention.
Prior to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ participation in WWII was in support of our European allies – predominantly Great Britain – by way of supplying materials to sustain their fight against the wave of the Third Reich that was washing over Western Europe. When Americans think about the Battle of the Atlantic, it isn’t uncommon for visions of the Allied convoys and the German U-boats operating in “wolfpacks” hunting the defenseless merchant ships come to mind. However, the overall campaign in the Atlantic Ocean was far more involved and following the United States’ declaration of war on the Axis powers, was truly a multinational alliance effort that led to the defeat of Germany. Many Americans participated in the harrowing and dangerous duties in the Atlantic in striving to support the fight in Europe. Convoy after convoy of materials, food and troops departed ports in the United States heading to destinations in Europe (England, Ireland, Russia) and in the Mediterranean faced the threat of being torpedoed by German U-boats who waited for the vulnerable ships to pass by. Shore-based anti-submarine patrols flew supporting missions from each side of the Atlantic providing air cover as far out to see as could be reached but there were still gaps of open seas that were ideal hunting grounds for the wolfpacks.
Convoys consisted of merchant ships, crewed by a mixture of merchant seaman, active-duty naval personnel and the US Navy Armed Guard (serving primarily as gunners, signal men and radio operators), destroyer-escorts, destroyers and, by 1943, small aircraft carriers that possessed the armament and tactics necessary to conduct anti-submarine offensive measures along with their role in providing protection for the convoys.
While there are many publications, documentaries and books that are fantastic in providing great coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic, not much exists regarding the men who served. Historian and fellow militaria collector, David Schwind spent years researching and traveling the United States in order to capture and retell the stories of American sailors who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. The one aspect of his effort that is unique (and was a complete surprise to me) is that each man that he spotlights was recognized by the Soviet Union with some of that nation’s highest honors and decorations. In fact, nearly 220 men who served in these convoys (as part of the United States sea services: Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) were awarded Soviet decorations of varying degrees, such as:
- Order of the Patriotic War
- First Class
- Second Class
- Order of Kutuzov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
- Order of Suvorov
- First Class
- Second Class
- Third Class
With the rise of Communism in conjunction with the West’s fight to stem the expansion of the Iron Curtain following WWII, many of these veterans tucked the medals away, opting not to wear them on their uniforms. In his December 2015 work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, Schwind provides individual narratives of each recipient, inclusive of their military careers and post-service lives. Along with the detailed information, he includes extensive photographs of each recipient’s Soviet medals, their presentation boxes, documentation, vintage photographs and images of the medals themselves. David Schwind’s photographic efforts in capturing the details of these incredible medals is nothing short of fantastic and perfectly compliments his extensive research. This book is not merely a compilation of veterans and their medals but rather a very personal presentation of vignettes, photographs and an extensive amount of supporting references.
The book production (by Schiffer Publishing) is first-rate with pages that are substantial and glossy, and printed in full color. The binding is stable and sturdy. Even the endpapers and are impressive with photographs of the veterans’ award cards. After nearly two years of use, my copy of Blue Seas, Red Stars looks like new though I have been through it, cover to cover multiple times and it shows none of the typical signs of use in many books of this size. Speaking of size, Blue Seas’ dimensions are consistent with those of many coffee-table books (9″ x 12″ x 1″) but is far from just a collection of nice pictures. The men who received these Soviet awards were truly heroes and they were so recognized by our WWII ally for their deeds and service above and beyond the call of duty. Many of the heroes in this book will be recognizable to many contemporary navy veterans and history buffs as their names have been affixed to transoms of a few notable combatant naval vessels.
Perhaps the most noteworthy fact of Schwind’s brilliant production is that the of the 217 Soviet medals that were awarded to American sea-service personnel, a significant number of these decorations remain with the veterans’ families and are treasured for their future generations and that more than 100 of the families participated in this project, partnering with the author and granting him access to handle and photo-document these treasures for his book.
It is my hope (especially within the capacity of my responsibility) that other families make the decision to preserve and maintain their family’s legacy and keep these precious awards to be handed down throughout their generations. However, if these pieces are divested, I hope that collectors will make every effort to assume the mantle of historian and continue the legacy where the family left off.
Blue Seas, Red Stars is a great addition to anyone’s library, whether they are a military or naval historian, militaria collector or simply interested in in the little-known relationship between WWII veterans and the Soviet Union’s gratitude bestowed upon them for their service during the war.