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.
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?
Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day, I had been inspired by my family military service research project, which had me neck-deep in the American Civil War, which caused me to drag out a few DVDs for the sheer joy of watching history portrayed on the screen. Since the Fourth of July was coming up, I wanted to be sure to view director Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, on or near the anniversary of the battle, which took place on July 1-3, 1863.
I had watched these films (including Gods and Generals and Glory) countless times in the past, but this weekend, I employed more scrutiny while looking at the uniforms and other details. Paying particular attention to the fabrics of the uniforms, I was observing the variations for the different functions (such as artillerymen, cavalrymen, and infantry) while noting how the field commanders could observe from vantage points where these regiments were positioned, making any needed adjustments to counter the opponents’ movements or alignments. For those commanders, visual observations from afar were imperative and the uniforms (and regimental colors/flags) were mandatory to facilitate good decision making.
The tactics employed for the majority of the Civil War were largely carryovers from previous conflicts and had not kept pace with the advancement of the weaponry. Armies were still arranged in battle lines facing off with the enemy at very close range (the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederacy), before the commands were given to open fire with the rifles and side arms. The projectile technology and barrel rifling present in the almost all of the infantry firearms meant that a significantly higher percentage of the bullets would strike the targets. In prior conflicts where smooth-bore muskets and round-ball projectiles were the norm, hitting the target was met with far less success.
The uniforms of the Civil War had also seen some advancement as they departed from the highly stylized affairs of the Revolution to a more functional design. In the years following the war, uniform designs saw some minor alterations through the Indian Wars and into the Spanish American War. By World War I, concealment and camouflaging the troops started to become a consideration of military leadership. Gone were the colorful fabrics, exchanged for olive drab (OD) green. By World War II, camo patterns began to emerge in combat uniforms for the army and marines, though they wouldn’t be fully available for all combat uniforms until the late 1970s.
For collectors, these pattern camouflage combat uniforms are some of the most highly sought items due to their scarcity and aesthetics. The units who wore the camo in WWII through the Viet Nam War tended to be more elite or highly specialized as their function dictated even better concealment than was afforded with the OD uniforms worn by regular troops.
Fast-forward to the present-day armed forces, where camouflage is now commonplace among all branches. The Navy, in 2007-2008, was the last to employ camo, a combination of varying shades of blue, for their utility uniforms citing the concealment benefits (of shipboard dirt and grime) the pattern affords sailors. All of the services have adopted the digital or pixellated camo that is either a direct-use or derivative of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) first employed (by the U.S.) with the Marine Corps when it debuted in 2002. Since then, collectors have been scouring the thrift and surplus shops, seeking to gather every digital camo uniform style along with like-patterned field gear and equipment.
After a very limited testing cycle and what appeared to be a rush to get their own digital camo pattern, the U.S. Army rolled out their ACU or Army Combat Uniform with troops that were deploying to Iraq in 2005. With nearly $5 billion (yes, that is a “B”) in outfitting their troops with uniforms, the army brass announced this week that they are abandoning the ACU for a different pattern citing poor concealment performance and ineffectiveness across all combat environments. With the news of the change, the army has decided upon the replacement pattern, known as MultiCam, which has already been in use exclusively in the Afghanistan theater.
For collectors of MultiCam, this could be both a boon (making the items abundantly available) and a detractor (the limited pattern was more difficult to obtain which tended to drive the prices up with the significant demand). For those who pursue ACU, it could take decades for prices to start climbing which means that stockpiling these uniforms could be a waste of time and resources. Only time will tell.
Since the Civil War, the U.S. Army uniform has one very consistent aspect that soldiers and collectors alike can hang their hat upon…change.