By Scott E. Neal
When I first realized what I was looking at on that dealer table at the OVMS show several years ago, it struck me that I must have this item. There, in front of me, was an item that filled a hole in the understanding of my grandfather’s journey through war—like some sort of missing puzzle piece. That was the day I went from being someone interested in military history to a collector.
The item I had found was not particularly unique or valuable in the grand scheme of WWII artifacts, but, at that moment, I had never seen such a thing. I was transfixed. How I found myself at the show in the first place is just a random combination of curiosity and an interest in WWII.
My grandfather, my hero, was born an Indiana farm boy and became a veteran of this great campaign. He was a giant of a man, who could fix anything, and who had skin tanned and tough as leather.
When my brothers and cousins and I played “war” at my grandparent’s home, we always fought over the accoutrements that could be found in the spare room closet in a trunk on the top shelf. Inside, there were all the things a boy could want to dress up as a soldier. Green web belts with canteens were snapped up as were mess kits and helmets, one of which was always chosen last. The black, swastika emblazoned German helmet went to the slowest kid. After all, we always wanted to be one of the “good guys.”
Before my grandfather died, we were able to talk briefly—very briefly—about his war experience. I reminded him of my days playing with the relics he had and how those days inspired my interest in the War, particularly his campaign path through North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany.
I asked if the trunk still sat in the closet after all these years. “That old stuff is almost all gone. I never knew you were interested in it.” Over time, he had given away most of what I have since learned to be an impressive collection of German artifacts.
Now, to that point in my life, I had only seen this man cry once, and that was at the funeral of his beloved wife. But a few seconds after I asked how the war really was, his voice was cracking and his eyes shone from the tears welling up. He could barely complete a sentence about it.
Mind you, this was nearly 60 years after the events. That day, I moved our conversation quickly over to thoughts on the weather or sports in an effort to help put restlessly back to bed some memories that would, for him, apparently never fall asleep. But before I left, he said that he would look for some items from the war that he wanted me to have some day.
Later, during another visit to his house, my grandfather scurried inside from his usual seat on the porch swing and emerged with a paperback history of the 191st Tank Battalion that he signed and gave to me. He also told me of a dagger and where a few other pieces were located in the house. He said that if I was so interested in the war, I should have them when he is gone.
After his death, I received these items, each of which I hold very dear. In a green metal medical supply box, the type you would find in a US Jeep or tank or half track of the era, he had kept these things of war. Among the items was a bracelet of alternating rectangular brass pieces connected by a metal loop at each corner. The pieces of each section of the bracelet had alternating German eagles and swastikas, it had a wonderful patina and just had that “cool” factor that an enemy relic conveys. I assumed he had liberated the item from a German that he encountered and that it was simple jewelry, more or less.
A while later, my Aunt provided me with several photos that my grandfather had taken during the war and had sent home to my grandmother. One of these was a photograph of my grandfather on a troop ship returning home at the war’s end. He looked fantastic.
He was a vision of youth and strength, smiling and as handsome a devil as I could have ever imagined him being. I studied that picture a lot as it hung in my office for many years after I discovered it. Another reason I loved the picture is that it showed him wearing the same bracelet I now had. I now felt even more connection with the item, and him. This wasn’t someone else’s bracelet, this was as a relic that my grandfather actually wore as he fought. Maybe, to him it was the “good luck” charm that saw him home safely. I imagined him taking the bracelet from a frightened or dead enemy soldier and sliding it on his wrist. He would grin with the satisfaction of the victor who now has the teeth of the crocodile on a necklace, or the skin of the bear as a rug. It may be that this bracelet from somewhere in Germany is the only one like it in the world, I thought.
Now, the source of that bracelet lay on a table in Wilmigton, Ohio, directly in front of me. “What is that?” I posed this question to the dealer. “A Political Leader Gorget,” was the reply. There, attached to this thing I had never heard of, was a chain that matched identically the bracelet. Suddenly, pieces of history became connected.
Things I never could have asked about were being made clear by the evidence in front of me. Now it was clear how wrong I was. This was not jewelry, it was made from a beautiful piece of German militaria and only worn as a bracelet. My grandfather had come upon a Political Leader, or at least his gorget, and probably in conjunction with his closest pals in the unit, had broken the chain off and fashioned a bracelet for each of them. Now I had the bracelet, the photograph and a gorget exactly like the one he had found all those years ago. The feeling of a “find” like this is physical, psychological and emotional. I suspect that most collectors feel the same way.
The puzzle is not yet complete for me, and the passion to try and fill the remaining holes is why I now call myself a collector. Each of the purchases I have made since then has related to honoring the path my grandfather took, but the gorget will stand as my favorite. It connected me to a community of collectors, a hobby, my grandfather and to an era in history that we are duty bound to honor and remember.