Collecting Purple Hearts: 10 Questions with Robert Wilson

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“We must always remember what a Purple Heart represents: An American service member had been injured or worse, killed in action.” — Robert Wilson

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Robert Wilson, who many may recognize by his online moniker, “Tarbridge,” has been a lifelong collector of many different things, but one item, the Purple Heart, touches him on an emotional level. The stories about the original recipients are what motivates him to study and collect the medals.

We are all in this together. In an effort to report on the state of different facets of the military collectibles market, Military Trader strives to discover and share the opinions of the hobby’s leading dealers and collectors. This month, we had the privilege to talk with Robert Wilson. Many will recognize him by his online moniker, “Tarbridge.”
Through the years of handling thousands of medals, and in particular, U.S. Purple Hearts, Robert has developed  a very good sense of the ups and downs of this aspect of the hobby. We are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions about collecting Purple Hearts

Military Trader: Though you are well known for handling a wide spectrum of U.S. military medals, you are noted as a specialist of Purple Hearts. What has drawn you to this facet of collecting?

Robert Wilson: I have always been a collector, even as a youngster. I collected anything. Army, guns, knives, marbles, and baseball cards were some of the different treasures I accumulated.

In our backyard, we had a shed converted from a chicken incubator house that we called the “Biddie” house. It was full of the typical household and yard excess materials and tools, but one corner had a pile that included helmets, mess tins, and canteens.  I’m sure these things belonged to my father and some of his brothers. All six served in WWII.

Born and raised in Fayetteville, NC, Ft. Bragg provided all of the neighborhood kids with real Army equipment for any war we could conceive. It was hard to find anyone who did not have a military connection. We would gear up for the local BB gunfight with the real stuff.

Back then, my family owned a mobile home park. Most of the residents were military, I spent many hours soaking up all the stories the residents told. Mr. Pleau was a WWI veteran who used to keep me enthralled for hours regaling me with his stories.

Tarbridge Guns began in 1978, and a storefront was established in February 1981. I had been doing the show circuit since 1978 and was a patch collector among other things. I began buying war memorabilia for shop decoration. I soon covered the walls and filled up the cases—wanting to keep it all.

I did a Connecticut show and a man by the name of Tony Fidd had a Purple Heart medal display. I was fascinated. Just reading the efforts and sacrifices these souls made for our Country changed my collecting intentions that very day. That was in September 1981.

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When collecting medals, you have to overlook condition. I just received this battered planchet that is missing the brooch and ribbon. If I had passed on this medal, I would have missed out telling the history and story of RM1C Roberts, who’s journey began 7 December 1941 aboard the USS Arizona.

Military Trader:  As more people began to collect Purple Hearts, the hobby quickly identified different styles and timeframes of different medals. Can you share a brief breakdown of the major categories of Purple Hearts?

RW: Originally they were offered in the 1932 time frame for non-posthumous injury and meritorious service.  An entitled recipient had to write and request the medals. At that time, the Purple Heart was not available as a Killed in Action award.

Most WWI Purple Heart numbers fall in the 1 to 5 digit range and are rarely traceable by the number. Official records, on occasion, will include the medal number.
WWI recipient medals can be seen on later issue style medals as they were still requested long after the war.

Standard WWI medals had the “split” or “bent slot” brooch.
Pearl Harbor changed the awarding of the Purple Heart. It now includes Killed in Action members of the Armed Services. WWII Purple Hearts display a “slot” brooch used through the Vietnam era.

The 1960s saw the use of a “crimp” brooch which is still being utilized. WWII style Purple Hearts were still being issued out through Vietnam
. The USN/USMC had a “split” and a “full wrap” brooch. By the end of WWII, the Navy had to supplement their inventory with Army-style medals as Navy supplies had run low. The early, “Navy Type I” engraving is considered the most appealing, even though there were many different types of engraving used during WWII.

The Purple Heart has kept its distinctive look since its inception, but has undergone some changes: Metals, paint, plastic, and brooches, to name a few. I have barely touched the surface so here are a couple of books every collector should have:
The Purple Heart by Frederic L Borch III and F. C. Brown and The Call of Duty, Expanded Edition by John E Strandberg and Roger Bender

Military Trader: While awards for Valor have always been recognized by collectors, it seems U.S. Purple Hearts have gained a lot of popularity during the past 20 years. Why is that?

RW:
It used to be a long, time-consuming road to research US medals. You corresponded by mail, made phone calls (land line), networked with other collectors, physically drove to any National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities to do the research. It could take years finding the information to tell the stories represented by a single name engraved on the back of a Purple Heart.

Today, you can almost type in a name on Google and find the answer to questions that used to take months—if you were lucky. This makes collecting Purple Hearts more desirable than having to fight the obstacles confronted in the pre-internet era.

Price. The US Purple Heart medal is under-valued on the collector’s market. I cannot think of any comparable medals worldwide with the same significance that would command such a moderate value. We must always remember what a Purple Heart represents: An American service member had been injured or worse, killed in action.

Military Trader:  What options do collectors of US medals have for researching the original recipients?  When you are researching a medal, what do you consider your “go-to” sources ?

RW: There are many opportunities today to research Purple Hearts and US medals. Many sites are on the Internet. I will list a few: 
Google,
American Battle Monuments Commission,
National WWII Memorial Registry,
Find-a-Grave,
Ancestry.com,
Korean War Project,
and the Vietnam War Memorial. The
United States Militaria Forum (USMF) has a complete section dedicated to Individual and Unit research.

Military Trader: What was the result of the Stolen Valor Act, and what do you find is the non-collecting public’s perception of collecting Purple Hearts?

RW: The Stolen Valor Act has been covered many times in many articles as well as on the Internet. I will stay away from all the “legalese” and give the simplest response I can: The Stolen Valor Act has been revised several times. You can buy, sell and trade all US medals with the exception of the Medal of Honor.

I have set up many displays over the years showcasing Purple Hearts. My intention was to tell the story these brave souls could not tell by getting all these Purple Hearts out of cedar chests, attics, and shoeboxes to remind us all of the sacrifices made by our heroes.

Most responses are very positive. The most often asked questions are: “Why would the family give or sell their family heritage?” and “Where do you find all of these Purple Hearts?” I will explain my observations based on these two questions.

With the passage of time, many of the medals relegated to storage are from recipients no longer known to many family members. The families die off, and there is no one to care for them any longer. They are sold off at flea markets, estate sales, shows, on the Internet, or they are given or thrown away. I have purchased many Purple Hearts that have been tossed in the trash.

In some cases, people just have no interest in the medals. After explaining that Purple Hearts have no guaranteed caretaker and it’s up to us to save these medals from obscurity and the trash, most people are positive about seeing my collection.

On rare occasions, I will meet a few people who disagree with the collecting of medals. Even after explaining the worst case scenario that could happen to the medals and the history they represent, they believe personal collecting should not happen. I have always felt, regardless of anything else,t we have a duty to keep these memories alive. The American service members represented by the names engraved on the reverse of the medals have paid a price—we should never allow it to be forgotten.

Military Trader: Whereas a person can go on eBay and find British campaign and valor awards, the same is not always true about U.S. medals. Why are Purple Hearts not permitted on eBay? What options do serious buyers and sellers have regarding Purple Hearts?

RW: Ebay made a conscious effort to exclude US valor medals from their auctions. I believe this was done by the hierarchical decision-makers at Ebay. This is much the same as they did with the exclusion of the swastika. In reality, Ebay cost themselves. There are many other options:

Websites: Purple Hearts can be found on the many Military-related websites.
Auctions: Every week, local and nationwide auctions are happening with Internet access for bidders. Web auction companies like Auction Zip, provide literally hundreds of auctions weekly to help locate auctions containing medals.

Shows:  My favorite. Shows provide the chance to deal one on one.
Antique shops, malls and flea markets: You can be successful at these venues but it takes a lot of time and effort.

Orders and Medals Society of America: This organization has been around for years. It is totally dedicated to collecting medals. If you are going to collect medals, this is the group to join.

Military collectibles shops: Nothing better than going to a place that carries what you seek!

United States Militaria Forum:  Members regularly list Purple Hearts for sale. Membership allows you to buy or sell with no fees.

Ebay: Even restricted, folks regularly list Purple Hearts which snapped up in buy it now auctions.

So in reality,…who needs Ebay?

Military Trader: What advice would you give medal collectors about: a) Cleaning; b) re-ribboning; and c) display / storage?

RW: I have always been a member of the school of minimal cleaning If something is on the medal or ribbon/drape that could cause damage or lead to more damage, you should take the necessary steps to prevent further problems. “Gently” is the key for handling these situations.

Soapy water with very little pressure will remove verdigris or staining on ribbons.
I have heard many different people offer advice on the concoction they use, with most of that found to be a basic inventory of household cleaning solutions. My advice is to go slow and gentle. That is the key. If you attempt to clean any part, pick a small area to test before any large commitment. Remember, if the finish is worn off the Purple Heart planchet, it’s gone.

As far as the re-ribboning of a Purple Heart, in most scenarios, leave it alone. If the ribbon is missing, I think it is fine to replace it. Just remember to disclose any actions you did to the medal when or if you offer it for sale. The tattered ribbon and distressed looking Purple Heart is just showing the path and journey it has been on.

Storage: Stay away from those foam or petroleum based backgrounds the case sellers have at the shows and through the Internet. Those products will bleed into and damage the ribbons as well as eat into the finish, causing it to mottle and pit. The cotton or natural based backgrounds are best suited for storage.

Most of my medals are stored in Riker mounts or freely displayed in show cases.
Sunlight is your enemy as it will fade out ribbons and medal documents.

As other areas have been plagued by fakes and recreations, Purple Hearts are not immune. What are some of the signs that a Purple Heart is not legitimate? What “checklist in your brain” do you review when examining a “named” medal?

Purple Heart engraving is distinctive engraving and the style differs according to the time period of issuance. They follow a certain criteria as to format and font. You will expect to see certain combinations that tell you that it makes sense. Depending on your field of expertise, the more you handle and examine an item, the more comfortable you become determining the good from the bad.

Once more, studying the style, types and engraving fonts and formats will help understanding the differences. Take the opportunity to look at all the Purple Hearts available, You will start noticing the varying fonts and formats.

Have Purple Hearts from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan entered into the collector stream yet? How are they received in regard to pricing and desirability? Do you believe this will significantly change with the more time that passes since the end of those wars?

The Iraq and Afghanistan Purple Hearts are slowly entering the collectors market. As it is a current conflict, it can be a galvanizing subject. I have talked with fellow collectors and many do not want to enter this field. The complications that arise from collecting items named to an individual contemporary to current events keeps many at bay. But the Iraq and Afghanistan Purple Hearts are starting to have more interest and I do know several collectors specifically pursuing them.
 
Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite finds.

RW: This is the toughest of the Ten Questions to answer! They are all favorite finds. If money did not stand in my way, I would keep all these medals to our Citizen-Soldiers who gave so much to our society.

Placing my efforts into Purple Heart collecting, I realized that I would not own them all, so as a native of North Carolina, my collecting habits have normally been with my home state. Here are a couple of favorite finds out of the many I’ve been fortunate to include in my collection:

The top tier of my collection consists of Purple Hearts awarded to North Carolina Servicemen. Any medals to North Carolina natives are special. There is not any type of rating system. The infantry soldier killed on a frozen European battlefield rates, to me, as high as a 509th Paratrooper or an Arizona sailor killed 7 December 1941. I do not mean to insinuate that they have the same monetary value, but they have the same intrinsic value.

My favorite find? Maybe 15 years ago, an old friend called and said, “Send me $200. I have something for you.” I sent him a check for an unknown item already heading my way.

The box arrived and I dived in to find my first hometown Purple Heart group. A local Fayetteville, NC, P-40 fighter pilot. The group has everything from his elementary school primer, photo album, Air Medal, Purple Heart,  high school class ring to his pilot’s license. Robert G. “Jonesy” Jones had two confirmed FW190 kills when he was shot down in August 1944 in France. He was identified by his 1938 Fayetteville High School class ring. It has always been one of the groups with which I felt a strong connection.

One other favorite “lucky” find happened when I bought a 5th Ranger Purple Heart. There is a kind gentleman in France who has great Ranger information. I contacted him about a photograph (which he supplied) for my Ranger.

After talking to a friend who asked if the gentleman could accommodate him with a photo for his Ranger group, I gave him the contact information, and the next morning the French gentleman sent me an email congratulation on “purchasing my friend’s Ranger group.” Come to find out, he had the Purple Heart certificate, WIA Purple Heart, and handwritten note to my Ranger KIA medal. He kindly offered and sold me his group to reunite with mine.

I collect Purple Hearts that are not related to North Carolina natives, also. Being in this military collectible business has allowed me to touch history every day. My vocation and hobby blend together. I am a lucky guy.

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Robert opened a military collectibles shop in 1981. His store, Tarbridge Military Collectibles, is located at 960 Country Club Dr. in Fayetteville, N.C.

Robert operates the Tarbridge Military Collectibles 960 Country Club Dr., Fayetteville,N.C. 28301and always welcomes visits. He is always interested in buying medals. Please call or email with any you locate. If you have any questions about medals or military items you own, contact him anytime for help. Phone:  910-977-7207; email: tarbridge@earthlink.net website: www.purpleheartsnorthcarolina.com.

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