My brothers and I grew up with “Dad’s knife.” To collectors, the knife is nothing too special — just an early 1940s Cattaraugus 225Q in a leather scabbard. For many years, Dad’s knife hung over the workbench. To my brothers, it was the knife they took when they went camping or hunting. To me, it was the big-bladed knife I wore when I played army. It split firewood, cut branches, and probably hacked the skin off a few squirrels. When one of his sons was done using it, the knife went back to its spot, hanging above our workbench. I never really gave that knife much thought … that is until one day back in 2003, when Dad and I were talking about his service.
When I was in graduate school, one of my classes in local history taught me the skills necessary to conduct “oral history interviews.” These one-on-one talks are a way to hear and record a person’s view of historical events or times. I will reveal just how old I am when I say, “I learned the skills to conduct interviews with veterans of the First World War.” Oral history gathering was very popular in the early 1980s and then waned until around the turn of the 21st Century when we neared the 60th anniversary of the US entry into WWII.
That’s about the time when I was collecting WWII US Mountain Division material. You see, Dad served as a military policeman at Camp Hale, Colorado, the home of the 10th Mountain Division. As the First Sergeant in the detached MP Company, he told me how their role was to keep the Mountain Division boys out of the local jail! By the end of 1943, the MP Company’s role had shifted slightly when Camp Hale also became a holding pen for German POWs—mostly from the North African theater of operation.
But back to Dad’s knife: At one point as Dad considered a question I posed regarding “what he carried on an MP patrol,” he said, “Run down to the workbench and get my old knife. Scampering down to our workroom, there it was, hanging off a peg above the workbench. I grabbed it and bounded back upstairs. I didn’t want to give Dad a chance to turn on the television and lose his train of historical thought.
When I handed it to him, he unsnapped the leather strap around the grip and pulled the knife from the scabbard. He explained, “You know, this isn’t an Army knife.” I was confused, as that is how all of my brothers and myself referred to it: “Dad’s Army knife.” Remembering my oral history training, I asked a question that would require Dad to reveal more. “What is it, then, if it isn’t an Army issued knife?”
“We bought these knives at the hardware store in Leadville [the nearest town to Camp Hale]. They had been rejected by the army and were being sold as seconds,” Dad said.
“Why were they rejected,” I asked.
“Oh they were just not up to Army snuff, I suppose.” He continued, “They weren’t even finished. We had to sand the grips down ourselves. I paid twenty-five cents for my knife.”
I prodded for more information, “Who bought the knives besides you?”
“Oh, me and the boys [referring to the MPs who went on the ‘beat’ in Leadville]. And the ski soldiers, too. The steel was good, so we figured it was a bargain!” Dad boasted. “But, we soon discovered why they were rejected.”
I was intrigued and attempted to coax more detail from him, “Why was that?”
Dad set down the knife and picked up the scabbard. “See this?” he said, pointing to a folded brass “guard” on the rear of the scabbard throat. “It only took a day or two to discover that the sheath [scabbard] either tore or got cut when you pulled out the knife. I used a hacksaw to cut the base off a .50-caliber casing and then split it. I hammered it flat and folded it to make this throat protector. Lots of the guys did this to keep their sheaths from splitting.”
Excited by the idea that Dad, other men from the Detached MP Company, and members of the 10th Mountain owned these knives, I overstepped my training and assigned a “collector term” to the object discussed. “How did you carry your fighting knife,” I asked.
“This was no damn ‘fighting knife’!” he retorted. We used to split wood or cut ropes. Nobody did any fighting!”
Dropping that line of questioning, I regrouped. “When did you carry your knife?” I asked.
“When we went out on patrol.” He added, “When we went in a Jeep, it was just me and one other.” If we were on a field exercise, a patrol consisted of 12 boys.”
With Dad’s ire a bit lower, I returned to my earlier question, breaking a cardinal oral history technique, asking a “yes/no” question hoping for a bit more, “Did you carry the knife on your pistol belt [knowing that is what he called his M1936 web belt]?”
“It [the scabbard] was too tight to go on the pistol belt, so I just wore it on my trouser belt,” he shared before ending our discussion, “Now go put it back over the workbench.”
The Value is in the Story
Dad’s talk with me about his knife was nearly 20 years ago. I can’t ask any more questions, though. He passed away three years ago. But, because I asked and recorded what I did, a knife that would rate about $60 to most collectors now has a special value associated with it — the story of the soldier who carried it — my dad.
Preserve the Memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
Want to learn more about the techniques of conducting an effective oral history interview? Visit the Oral History Association’s website at www.oralhistory.org