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.