The events and battles of World War II played out on every continent of the planet. Tens of millions lost their lives between 1939 and 1945, and countless millions more were left to pick up the pieces. One of the many challenges for those who survived was to figure out how to retain a connection to that epic struggle in a way that honored the memories of those who fought so bravely under such dire conditions and on so many fronts.

For U.S. collectors of World War II objects, there are at least two directions to pursue. The first is to focus on the militaria, which includes captured Japanese swords and German helmets, field gear such as canteens and mess kits, and tools such as shovels and mattocks. There are also ammo belts, military wristwatches, and medals and badges of all sorts. The other tack is to explore the wide range of advertising materials, pieces of sweetheart jewelry, and movie posters that were produced to keep the public’s enthusiasm and support for the war as pitched as possible.

Medals are one of the most appealing areas for collectors of vintage World War II militaria. Medals are small so they are easy to store, their designs are often quite handsome, and in some cases the original recipient’s name can be tracked down, which brings the history that preceded the medal to life. One of the biggest problems for medal collectors, though, are the large number of reproductions on the market, especially when it comes to medals bearing symbols of Germany’s Third Reich.

For U.S. medals, the highest awards that can be collected are the numerous Distinguished Service medals, some bearing crosses or stars, some numbered. Only the Medal of Honor is higher, but it is illegal in the U.S. to buy or sell one—only 433 were awarded during World War II compared to more than 1,500 during the Civil War. Both the Army and Navy awarded Silver and Bronze Stars, Flying Crosses, and Purple Hearts, while all branches handed out Good Conduct medals.

For similar reasons, vintage World War II badges are fairly popular. The U.S. military awarded badges to its soldiers and officers when they had achieved certain skills, from medical ability to marksmanship. Wings awarded by the Army and Air Force are perhaps the best known World War II badges, with special badges for Gunners, Bombardiers, Navigators, and, of course, Pilots.

Uniforms that have seen action and still have their sewed-on chevrons and other insignia are also of interest. While coats and jackets are probably the most sought-after items, one type of jacket in particular commands the most attention. That would be the leather A-2 flight jacket, especially one that has been hand painted or retains its original embroidered patches. Fleece-lined jackets, as well as those with fur collars, are also very desirable.

Headgear ranges from wool visor caps to leather flight helmets to white Navy sailor’s hats. Flak helmets, usually colored olive drab, had protective coverings for the ears, while combat helmets with fixed bails for the chinstraps can be found with painted insignia on them—if the helmet has a nice, crisp decal on it, or if the paint looks too good to be true, then you are probably looking at a fake...

The other broad areas of vintage World War II collecting covers the so-called ‘homefront collectibles’. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941, people snatched up everything from salt-and-pepper shakers to buttons to glassware bearing the words “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Sweetheart jewelry, including compacts, was worn by women whose loved ones were fighting overseas. Many of these pins and brooches were shaped like the letter “V” for “Victory.”

Advertisers of the period found that the best way to sell soda pop or beer was to encourage the purchase of War Bonds on their products’ labels. Similarly, magazines ran cover stories about war heroes, from grunts in the trenches to generals. Hollywood did its part by producing patriotic films such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Movie posters and lobby cards for such films are staples for collectors, as are comics in which superheroes such as Superman made short work of Axis bad guys. And then there were the ceramic ashtrays, which encouraged smokers to put out their cigarette butts in the open mouths of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

This resource for historic arms and armour collectors provides exhaustive information on modern reproductions (cust… [read review or visit site]

The Civil War

The Civil War

Paul McWhorter’s amazing reference site tells the story of the Civil War through high resolution scans of Harpers… [read review or visit site]

Mikes Tanks

Mikes Tanks

Mike Seeber’s extensive collection of over 500 diecast tanks and military vehicles, dating back to WWII. Browse b… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

German Wwi M-16 Helmet 100% Untouched Original Complete Liner Chin Strap Bf 64 Wwii German M42 Helmet (late War) In Wood CrateE-5 Japanese Wwll Army Officer's Old Family Sword In Mountings "shigetaka", NthkMinty Ww2 Rare Od Bordered 82nd Airborne Division Ssi With Black BackWwii U.s. Army M-1 Helmet Complete Front Seam Fixed Bale Officer Invasion MarkedItalian Wwii Regio Esercito Combat Uniform Jacket Italy Royal Army Infantry Ww2Pattern 3 British Wilkinson Fairbairn Sykes Commando Dagger Knife Ww2 Wwii German Firemans Dagger-dress Bayonet Maker Marked Complete-frog & Tassel Ww2 Wwii German Army Heer Named Officer Dagger Orig.Wwii M1 Helmet Fixed Bale Front Seam Rayon Webbing Inland Liner Dusty & Dirty Ww2 German Camo Helmet Japanese Wwll Army Officer's Sword In Mountings, Gendaito, "kanetoki" TasselWw2 German Rad Officer's Dagger, AlcosoOriginal Ww2 Type 14 Nambu Japanese Shoulder Holster & Strap Wwii Rare LeatherWw2 Bancroft Flighter Hat Us Visor Wwi Army Air Corps Officer Named Crusher CapOriginal Ww2 Raf Glider Pilot Battledress Flying Wings, Formation Badges & MedalWwii Japanese Samurai Sword/shin Gunto/katana/gendaitoJapan Wwii Large Ship Mounted Binoculars/telescope, Japanese NavyOriginal German Ww2 Flyers Watch "chronograph" Tutima Fly Back All Functions OkOriginal Wwii Us M6 Leather Scabbard By "barwood," Dated 1943, For M3 KnifeGerman Wwii Navy Radio Operator Gas Mask And Canister Matching Name And Unit Ww22720: Waltham Us Navy Bu Aero Military Wwii Clock W/date Sets And Runs 8-dayUs Ww2 Firestone Helmet Liner With Chin Strap Complete Ww2 Original No ReserveWw2 German M35 Army Helmet With Split Bands And Suspension System 1939 Et64 100% Original Wwii German M40 Helmet Manufacturer Se Size 68 No ReserveUs Wwii M3 Trench Knife & M8 Scabbard Great Blade Imperial Usa Ww2 Bayonet German Wwii Fireman Dress Dagger Knife W/s Puma Rare No ReserveWwii Army Air Corps Jacket Crusher Cap And Tie Grandfather's UniformItalian Wwii Regio Esercito Combat Uniform Pants Italy Royal Army Infantry Ww2Ww2 Raaf Officer Medal & Badge Group Royal Australian Air ForceA+ Wwii Us M4 Bayonet M1 Carbine Imperial W/m8 Scb Fighting Knife Usa Usmc M1 Garand Lockbar Rear Sight Usgi Lock BarEarly Top Shelf M1 Helmet W/ Guadalcanal Provenance Named To Vet W/ Splotch CamoUsmc Wwii Large Heavy Ring Usa Ww2 United States Marine Corps OriginalWwii Us Army M3 Pal Blade Co Trench Fighting Knife BayonetOld Original Wwii Era Japanese Naval Officer Sword Kyu-gunto Arsenal StampsMens Ww2 German Military 1941 - 1945 Buren - A.lunser, Berlin Vintage Watch WwiiUs Wwii Milwaukee Saddle Co M6 Leather Sheath For The M3 Trench Knife BayonetOriginal German Luger Holster - Crown Over 2 - World War I GermanyVintage 1942 Us Army Signal Corp Stromberg Carlson Radio Receiver Bc-348-p NrWwii U.s.helmet M-1 Fixed Bale Capac Liner Original Old Japanese Sword Blade Signed Full HamonWwii Us Fighting Knife Collins #18 Bowie Survival Usmc Usa Green Horn Ww2 German Camo Helmet Ww2 British Army Commando Dagger Fighting Knife England 42 Broad Arrow Arsenal Rare! German Ww2 Ss Officer's Leica Drp Camera E.l.wetzlar 35mm Stamped Sipo !!U.s. Ww2 Pal Marked M4 Bayonet & M8 Scabbard. Nice Original Vet Estate ItemM1d Garand Sniper M84 Telescope Near Mint -100% OriginalWw2 German Mp40 Barrel Early Style Winchester Garand M1 Stock Set Cartouche Short ChannelJapanese Wwll Army Pilot, Tank Crew's Sword Wakizashi "sadahiro" Original Old Japanese Sword Blade Full HamonOriginal German Ww2 Un-issued 44 Fnj K98 Bayonet Matching #s Choice Condition Estate Fresh Muromachi Period Japanese Katan Samurai Sword Approx 28 Inch100% Original German Ww2 Sd Luftwaffe M40 Helmet / StahlhelmGerman Submarine War Medal Ww Ii Kriegsmarine Marker Marks In Old Case OriginalOriginal Ww2 Matched Set Usmc Collar Brass Marked K C Luke Melbourne Authentic Rare Wwii Era German Uniform Youth Maiden Bdm JugendWwii Aaf Type A-11 Leather Flight Helmet, Size "large," From Us 14th Aaf PilotOriginal German Wwii 1939 E. Pack & Son K98 Bayonet Matching #s W/leather Frog