10 Questions with David Schwind

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Discussing medals, writing, and legislation

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.

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This month, we had the privilege to talk with David (better known as “Dave”) Schwind. Many will recognize him from his many books related to medal collecting and / or his very active role as a moderator on the United States Militaria Forum.

Dave spent thirteen years on active duty as a U.S. Navy officer, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Commander and serving in Japan, Maryland, and Virginia. Leaving the service, he managed two utility-scale wind projects in California for six-and-a-half years. Most recently, he has returned to active duty in the Navy at his former rank and to his previous location in Virginia.

Prior to joining the Navy, Dave had a vast array of experiences: Working in Russia for the RIA News Agency and for the Moscow Department of Education, serving on a search and rescue team in Michigan, working in a chocolate factory in Texas, building wastewater treatment facilities in Delaware, and loading packages for UPS. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Regents College, SUNY, and holds master’s degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School and Naval War College.

He has been a military historical researcher and author for more than 25 years, specializing in the study of specific veterans and their role in the important military events of the First and Second World Wars. His specializations include the research of WWII Soviet veterans as well as American Army and Navy veterans of both WWI and WWII. He has assisted countless researchers and veteran’s families in finding the military and service history of former military personnel and family members. He has been honored to have presented some of his research at the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, as well as on Russian National Radio.

His goal is to honor those who have served their nations through one-of-a-kind reference works assembled according to the highest possible level of quality. This is not an easy task, but he has invested countless thousands of hours conducting research never before attempted in order to create the best possible end product, truly honoring those who have served.

We are honored to have Dave speak with us.

Military Trader: First, thanks for taking the time to share with us, Dave. Though many readers may recognize you from your books or online presence, few know about the diverse experiences in your life leading up to your focus on militaria. Tell us about some of the life influences that have developed your keen desire to preserve military history.

David Schwind: Most of the male members of my family served our country in one way or another, from commanding an Army Air Force bomb group in 1945 (my great uncle) and designing and producing munitions and aircraft during WWII (both my grandfathers) to serving in the Navy and Coast Guard during the Korean War era (my father and two uncles). My interest in the military and things related to the military was instilled at a very young age.

When I was four, my father bought two military surplus Jeeps for my older brother to restore. We found a local guy who had an incredible military vehicle collection for help with parts and advice. We used to go down there several times a week to visit. As a result, the vast majority of school “artwork” in my early elementary years consisted of drawings of tanks, Jeeps, half-tracks, and the occasional DUKW! What kid does that?! (laughter).

Later, I specialized in models of these vehicles. During my model building years, I bought a book that recommended using real uniforms as examples for painting figures, so, at the ripe age of eleven, I began buying uniforms from yard sales and thrift stores.

Model building soon went to the side and, well, here I am. I started out with Third Reich militaria (as many people do), but after some bad experiences, moved to British, then Soviet, and now US. I can say that I’ve been able to gain at least a little expertise in many different facets of militaria collecting, as I’ve gone from uniforms to flags to medals and now a little bit of everything! I’m very lucky to have an understanding wife who appreciates our hobby, that’s for sure!

Military Trader: My first exposure to your writing was your book, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II (Schiffer: 2015). This book filled a gap in the research of a very specific aspect of WWII.What led to your interest in the topic? Could you have completed this without your deep working knowledge of and prior experience in Russia?

David Schwind: One of the great aspects of collecting militaria is that people can cater their field of interest to what is meaningful to them. For one person, it might be that “stone mint” shovel cover. For someone else, it could be a combat-worn helmet. For me, the most meaningful part is the story behind each of these objects, which was why I fell in love with collecting Soviet medals. I could take a medal, obtain the research for it, and turn that into an entire story not just about the individual heroic event, but the veteran as well. In a very small way, this was my opportunity to give back to a veteran who had likely been forgotten in their own homeland.

Back in 1999, when I purchased my first Soviet medal to a US Navy Chief Petty Officer, no one had a clue as to why he would have received one. In fact, some people thought it was fake; there was no way the Soviets would “randomly” award a medal to a US Navy Chief! I wanted to figure out why it took place.

This led to writing and publishing an article in the October-November 2007 issue of the JOMSA (Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America) about Soviet awards to Americans. At that time, I thought I had dug as far as I could go. I tracked down a handful of recipients and gave a respectably thorough account of the “whys and hows” of these awards.

Five years later, I was cleaning out my garage and ran across my box of research for the article. With everything available on the Internet these days, I was curious if I could find out more, specifically about the Navy veterans. One thing led to another, and the book was born. Writing it was probably one of the biggest adventures of my life, taking me to forty states and twice to Russia, conducting 121 in-person interviews with veterans and their families. At times, I had to pinch myself. The opportunity to open boxes of medals and militaria, stashed away in basements, attics, and sheds, that hadn’t seen the light of day since the end of WWII is a dream for collectors and historians — and I had the privilege of doing just that over a hundred times. It was an amazing experience!”

Military Trader: It is interesting that your impetus for Blue Seas, Red Starswas an eBay purchase. Obviously, eBay has redefined the way you and many of us collect. But we are going through a long growth with the online auction house. In your experience as a medal collector, describe how that has changed for you over the last 15 years.

David Schwind: Wow. eBay has truly revolutionized the way we collect. I first started buying on eBay in December 1995. There were twelve pages in the entire militaria section at the time, and you could search through them all in an hour! This was a boon for me, because militaria shows were few and far between and local collectors were practically non-existent. As a collector, this was a remarkable opportunity to have a 24x7 militaria show!

As I’ve gained more experienced over the years, I’ve been able to take advantage of many items that are legitimately “out of the woodwork” on eBay. For example, the majority of my WW1 US Army uniform collection was purchased on eBay from the direct descendants of the veterans. I was able to build a sizable collection in a year’s time; it would have taken me decades to have done the same thing pre-Internet!

With eBay becoming a cultural norm over the last twenty years, more and more people have listed things on there in lieu of donating them or selling them at a yard sale (and more importantly, instead of throwing them out!) This has brought out an amazing amount of never-before-seen militaria from people’s attics, closets, and basements and has given everyone the chance to build a respectable collection from the comfort of their home, office, or on-the-go with their mobile phone.

Military Trader: And, of course, we face even new limitations to our collecting. Though many may already be familiar, can you describe the current (2017) legislation regarding Purple Hearts?

David Schwind: In a nutshell, the legislation makes it illegal for collectors to buy or sell Purple Hearts. New, old, named, unnamed — it doesn’t matter. The intent is to keep them out of the hands of collectors. The result will be to push the sale of Purple Hearts overseas, as foreign collectors will bethe only ones legally able to collect our nation’s symbol of sacrifice.

Military Trader: As with most legislation, the intent was probably good.Tell us what led up to this legislation being composed and considered in both houses. 

David Schwind: Put yourself in the shoes of a family who lost a loved one in combat. Chances are, your most cherished possession is that Purple Heart they earned, as it represents their total sacrifice for our nation. Then, go to a flea market where Purple Hearts are getting sold next to old baseball gloves, beef jerky, and Beanie Babies. In all likelihood, you’re going to be upset — and justifiably so! It seems only reasonable to have a law on the books that prevents the irreverent sale of the medals that have such a deep meaning families who have experienced loss.

What the supporters of the law don’t take into account are the collectors and historians who end up purchasing these medals, researching them, and using them to create a memorial to someone long forgotten by their own family. By taking away our right to own and honor these medals and forcing them overseas or into the trash, ironically, it ends up dishonoring the very sacrifice the supporters of the bill claim to want to “protect”.

Military Trader: In your opinion, what, if anything, can readers of Military Trader do to influence this legislation?

David Schwind: First of all, invest some time honoring the men and women who earned these medals by treating the medals with respect. They aren’t baseball cards or old flatware. They are the last material reminder of someone’s life. Take the time and learn about who these men and women were so they and their sacrifice are not forgotten.

Second, write your congressman and encourage your friends and family to do so as well. As the legislation moves through Congress, keep in contact with your congressman and let them know about the unintended consequences of this law; not just the facts that the medals will still end up for sale overseas, and that many will simply end up in the landfill, but also that the law violates statements from the Supreme Court’s United States v. Alvarez ruling and the 4th Amendment.

Military Trader: Your current project is Purple Heart-specific. Tell us about it.

David Schwind: Following the publication of Blue Seas, Red StarsI was talking to several collectors at the OVMS Show of Shows about Purple Hearts and how there are many urban legends and gaps in knowledge in collector’s circles about the medal. I thought it would be interesting for someone to write a book about the Purple Heart, not just about the numismatic aspects to do away with the urban legends, but to (most importantly) bring to light and remember the people who sacrificed everything to earn the medal. Having gained tremendous experience writing Blue Seas, Red Stars, I figured I’d give a book about Purple Hearts a try. Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous awards of the Purple Heart in the Second World War is available from Schiffer Publishing.

I am currently working on a second volume, covering posthumous Purple Heart awards from the Korean War to the present, and hope to have that available around 2020. Having had the opportunity to handle and photograph more than 1,400 Purple Hearts and thousands of associated documents has been an incredible learning experience, and I sincerely hope I can convey much of what I have learned to my readers.

Military Trader: When you begin to research a new medal, what are some of the first steps you take? What are your go-to references?

David Schwind: Google. It’s fast, it’s free, and in many cases, you can get the information you need within a search or two.

After Google, I hit the paid genealogical subscription sites. My first stop is typically on Ancestry.com and the results can range from a couple of small hints all the way to stories and photos of the veteran on someone’s family tree. I also routinely use fold3.com (particularly their WW2 War Diaries) and genealogybank.com as my follow-up sources.

Within arm’s reach at my desk, I keep copies of several wartime Navy officer registers, both the Naval Academy and West Point’s Registers of Graduates, Brandon Wiegand’s All Hands index, Strandberg and Bender’s Call of Duty, and Stanton’s World War II and Vietnam Orders of Battle.

Step two, whenever it’s financially viable, is to send the information I’ve found to Geoff Gentilini of Golden Arrow Research (www.goldenarrowresearch.com). He pulls the veteran’s records for me at the National Personnel Records Center. It’s that service record information that really creates the story of who the person was and where they were from.

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

David Schwind: I like medals that have honest wear as I feel it adds to their story. However, I have been known to gently clean medals, particularly if they are damaged or soiled from improper storage.

Personally, I use a drop of dish soap and a cotton swab to do the work, and then rinse gently under tap water, doing everything possible to keep the ribbon from getting wet. Drying with a soft towel rounds out the cleaning. Some people think they should polish medals. Please, please, never do that!

As far as re-ribboning, I’m not a fan of replacing ribbons. However, if the ribbon is missing entirely, I’ll take the time to find an unattributed medal of the same type and style and use that ribbon and brooch to replace the missing one. I will note the replacement for the benefit of future collectors, just so the history stays with the medal.

I could write an entire article just on proper archival storage. Part of “proper” storage would be to either not display the medals at all or keep them in an extremely controlled environment.

I’ll admit it, I don’t go to those lengths with my own collection as I like to be able to routinely look at what I have. For me, this means having the medals in an enclosed and secured display, but prominently featured in my house.

I look at the medals, particularly the Purple Hearts, probably twenty times a day. At least weekly, I read through the short biographies I’ve written about each of the men and women and remember their sacrifice for our country. For me, that’s far better for them than sitting in a dark box in an attic or basement!

Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite finds.

David Schwind: I have been really blessed over the last thirty-plus years by being able to own some absolutely remarkable and historical pieces of military memorabilia. I’ve passed many along to other collectors (you can’t keep it all!), but one I’ve kept for many years is an eBay purchase from the early 2000s.

One day, a group of uniforms to Rear Admiral Robert Copeland, a Navy Cross recipient and personal hero of mine, came up on eBay. I ended up with them.

Copeland’s story is absolutely incredible: during the Battle off Samar, as the commanding officer of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, he led his ship on what he considered to be a suicide mission against a far superior Japanese force. Though the ship was sunk and he was wounded, the bravery of the small force of destroyers and destroyer escorts saved the day.

Now here’s the interesting part: I had posted photos of the uniforms with his biography on my website. About a year later, I received an e-mail with the subject line “Nice Threads” from his grandson.

My instant feeling was one of dread: of course, the family was going to ask for these to be returned. Much to my surprise, he told me about how he inherited these and was loading them in his car to take them to the local theater group so they could turn them into costumes. His next door neighbor saw him and offered to list the uniforms on eBay, and that’s how I found them.

We’ve kept up frequent correspondence since then and his family has given me more of the admiral’s belongings, knowing they are being properly cared for by someone who truly appreciates the sacrifice he made for our country.

David A. Schwind’s book, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II (ISBN13:9780764348297, 336 pages, 629 color and black and white images) is available from Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 4880 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, Pennsylvania 19310; 610-593-1777; www.schifferbooks.com as well as www.amazon.com