By Andrew L. Turner
“I cannot remember a time when I was not collecting something,” said militaria collector and reference book author Jonathan Gawne. “Comic books, coins, toy soldiers… the list is endless.” He believes he first began seriously collecting militaria in college when he first started going to shows.
“From my earliest years I was always interested in the military and history,” said Gawne. “I think a lot of that came from my father being an infantry officer in WWII, and my grandfather a bugler in the First World War; however, long before I really understood what that even meant, there were lots of GI Joes and plastic soldiers under the Christmas tree.” As he began to grow older, he tried to understand what his dad had been through as, like many Vets, he didn’t like to talk about the war.
“I went through modeling, wargaming, reenacting — pretty much every military hobby there was,” he said. “I was also blessed with parents that loved to travel so I spent a lot of time overseas.” Normandy in 1969, and Stalingrad in 1982 stand out in his memory. “Reenacting played a major role, not because I necessarily learn from it, but because I made a lot of valuable contacts,” he said.
The focus of his collecting has always been the US Army—specifically, what is found in an average leg infantry company. “But I also acquired material to do a generic soldier from most other major nations,” he said. “Initially I went just from 1910 to 1945, but recently I have expanded from 1910 to 2010, and have parted with some of my foreign material to pay for, and make room for, the newer items. I am fascinated by the changes and development of uniforms and equipment over time. I use it a lot in my writing, so my collection is put together like a museum study collection.”
He also has an interest in found relics from known locations. “Sadly, most people who sell relics claim anything from Western Europe is from Normandy, and anything from Eastern Europe is from Stalingrad,” said Gawne. “It’s such a pity the true history is lost just to try and make a few extra bucks.”
Over the years, Gawne has written a number of books, and many, many more articles. They include: Spearheading D-day, The Americas in Brittany, Finding Your Father’s War and Ghosts of the ETO. “A lot of what I have done is for H+C Publications in France, they pretty much have set the standard that all collector-based military publishing needs to meet,” he said. “The funny thing is, I am much better known in Europe than the USA. It’s interesting that Europeans are very willing to search out information from other countries, but Americans aren’t. What is frustrating is that I see people in the States ‘discover’ something I wrote about years before in Militaria Magazine and claim it as some major new find of theirs.”
Gawne considers himself as a researcher rather than a writer. “Writing is darn hard work,” he said. “For me, research is the fun part. Of course, you do not really know a subject until you’ve written about it. It forces you to re-think everything you know and make sure it all fits. Too often you find there is a piece missing somewhere and have to go fill in the information gaps.”
As many authors of militaria-related material have stated, they have made no “real” money in their endeavor. “The time and expense it takes generally comes to more than you make back,” he explained. “I think just about how every vacation I have ever had in the last 20 years has been in some way connected with my writing: either visiting veterans or spending 12 hour days in an archive digging through endless and dusty – and mostly boring – files.”
Gawne bases his work on four major sources: official records, veteran’s testimonies, photographs (still and motion picture) and tangible artifacts. “Sometimes one source totally contradicts what the others say. Unfortunately, with memory being as flexible as it is, you can only take a person’s memories as a jumping off point to look for supporting information,” he said.
He feels talking to veterans is essential, but the conversations are validated with the addition of a recording. “It’s possible to go back and have documented proof of what was said,” Gawne stated. “One of the reasons many historians look down upon collectors is that too many of us do not do things like this, and thus render all the information stored in our heads as hearsay.”
Homework is essential for a collector. “I think collectors need to read more; not just collector books, but general history books dealing with their subject,” said Gawne. “I am often amazed at how collectors buy into stories they would know to be false if they only had a good background in that area of history. I’m even more dumbfounded by people who use Hollywood movies as a reference source.” He said he worked on several military films and knows accuracy can go out the window at the whim of the producer or director.
If a collector is interested in writing, Gawne encourages them to write about something new. “There is no reason for another paratrooper book unless you actually have a decent amount of new material to bring to light,” he said. “I blame the publishers most of all: I’ve seen some really good, unique book projects passed on because publishers think they can make more money off another 506th book. I’d rather see one good book on, say the army postal system in WWII, than a dozen of the same old ‘elite forces’ books. You may think I am guilty of this with Spearheading D-Day, but I challenge you to find most of the information in there in any book that was out at the time. Even today there is stuff in there that no one else covers.”
Gawne encourages older collectors to start tagging notable items in their archive. “You may think you’ll remember that you picked up that holster directly from a 27th Division veteran, but if something happens to you that history goes out the window,” he lamented. “Having things labeled also makes it a lot easier for your family to properly dispose of your collection if need be.”
He also mourns the fact many are getting into the hobby merely from shopping on eBay. “They move to buying from dealers through the mail, and finally end up going to shows, but it used to be you got to know the look and feel and smell of things from shows,” he said. “Now we have new collectors who don’t have that background, so many get taken advantage of—especially by people that weave amazing and incredible stories about an item’s history.” He said extraordinary tales demand extraordinary evidence.
“My advice to new collectors is go to military shows and look around, talk to people and make contacts, visit other collectors and see what they have — and most of all READ,” Gawne said. “It’s nuts that someone will spend $1,000 on a helmet, but refuses to spend $30 on a book that might help determine its authenticity.”
Rather than impulsively buying from eBay, Gawne advises observation of what goes on there. “If you watch eBay auctions, you’ll see a reproduction painted helmet sell, then the very same helmet will re-appear a few weeks later as having been found in a French barn— for massive sums of money,” he said. “Things do still turn up over there, but they are as rare as finding them here in a yard sale. Some folks seem to have this idea that the farms of Europe are littered with all kinds of rare military items that the locals have no idea is valuable . . . trust me, they know.”
Gawne is in search of 8th Infantry Division items, mainly photographs and documents for his Division Internet archives.
“I’m also trying to figure out the best way to publish a fairly large book on WWI material.” He’s considering an online only edition for this as well, as not to be constrained by page count, but doubts the technology or market is ready for such an endeavor. With the WWI centennial right around the corner, the bottlenecks of traditional or digital publishing methods may comply – for the sake of collectors today and into the future.
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