Collecting just for the sheer joy of owning a piece of military history is definitely an enlightening aspect of militaria. To possess an object that was used in armed conflict or carried into battle can send a chill down the owner’s spine. These are merely elements of the somber joy that many militaria aficionados experience.
There are many places to obtain a new militaria piece or grouping, but it is rare for a collector strike historic gold at an antiques shop or online auction. Most of these sources will typically list a piece or a few items that belonged to a veteran. These items will lack any of the history and provenance as they were parted out for their individual value on the collector market. If you want a better chance at scoring a grouping with iron-clad history, you will have to set your alarm clock for o-dark-thirty and apply feet to pavement, for only the early-arrivers to garage, yard and estate sales (prime targets for militaria collectors) get the gold.
Now that you have scored your first significant veteran grouping and you have cataloged each item that was purchased, I recommend spending time researching the veteran. The seller of the group may have been a relative with some knowledge of the veteran, but you can almost be assured that they knew very little about the history they just parted with. You may have spent time with the seller to glean any vet’s details that were not apparent
I’ve posted a few articles on researching the veteran (in order to confirm the group you just purchased belonged to who the seller says it did) and to assemble a historical narrative (see: Militaria Rewards – Research the Veteran and A Thousand Words? Pictures Are Worth so Much More!). Without the documentation, a uniform is simply a piece of vintage clothing.
Aside from the resources I listed in that earlier post, obituaries and cemeteries can provide collectors with a wealth of data about a veteran. If you purchased a group from a recently deceased veteran and are seeking confirmation or more details about his or her service, start checking the online archives of the local newspaper. Chances are that there will be a death notice within the last 12-24 months.
Information that is displayed on a headstone, especially one that was provided by the Veterans Administration, can provide a small, yet significant detail that can catapult your research efforts. If the veteran was buried in a VA administered cemetery, they will more than likely be listed in the searchable online database.
Another excellent online resource for searching graves is Findagrave.com, which also includes photographs of the deceased’s headstone. Here, you can search as broad or as narrow as needed. The catch with Findagrave.com is that a person will have had to already enter the veteran’s grave into their database in order for you to find it. If you locate the veteran’s record but it is lacking a photo of the grave marker, you can submit a request to have a local volunteer snap a photo and upload it to the veteran’s database record. Oh yeah, there is an app for that.
One of the coolest tools that is set to debut this fall is an app that will coincide with your phone’s GPS to guide the user to the exact grave. This app is being piloted for Arlington National Cemetery and could be rolled out for all of the National Cemeteries in the future (try it out for Android here).
For me, the research is only serving to reclaim history that was lost to time and providing collectors with the ability to tell the untold stories, allowing the veterans to speak long after they’re gone.