May 24, 2020

Souvenir hunting in a new light

At the end of a recent news story about U.S. troops and journalists being investigated for trying to take contraband from Iraq was this interesting historic footnote.

Whether it’s called souvenir hunting or looting, reported USA Today, bringing back items from a war is a time-honored practice.

As most veterans of World War II can tell you, and a search on the Internet will instantly confirm, GIs did indeed come home from Europe and the Pacific with all kinds of war-related items that now sit on mantels or lie in closets across the country. But unlike the Americans who recently pilfered gold-plated weapons and several kitschy paintings from Saddam Hussein’s palaces, the World War II vets are quick to point out that they didn’t loot the Louvre or plunder the palace at Versailles to get their spoils of war. They just kind of found the stuff or traded for it as they moved from one battle site to another. And while the mementos may have acquired a certain monetary value to collectors of military memorabilia over the decades, they certainly weren’t worth much more than a carton of cigarettes during the war.

Galen Cole has gathered enough of mementos from veterans around the country, in fact, to make them the centerpiece of his World War II museum in Bangor. Most of the battlefield items are Nazi-related, and include such things as helmets, knives, guns, uniforms, flags with swastikas on them and even a brown shirt worn by a Hitler Youth.

“Back then, no one ever questioned us about having certain items because none of them had any significant value, except as souvenirs,” said Cole, who fought in Germany. “The difference with the Iraq situation is that the items they took could have value, which would make it stealing. No one I knew in the war ever went into government buildings and such to steal paintings. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen at the upper echelons, but I wasn’t aware of it.”

Col. Bill Deering, who served in the Pacific during World War II, said he heard reports of high-ranking officers shipping home artwork, although that kind of outright looting was not common among the servicemen he associated with.

“The GIs, for the most part, took bayonets from German rifles and Japanese swords,” he said, “but it was well understood that troops were not supposed to ever disturb anything of a domestic nature or the local institutions in cities and towns.”

David Smith, a retired University of Maine history professor who has edited several books of World War II letters from servicemen and women, said souvenir collecting was a popular and largely harmless pastime among American GIs back then.

“Lots of people took things of relatively small value from those who had been defeated,” he said. “In their letters, people told of picking up German badges, bayonets, rifles, virtually anything. Japanese swords were desirable, too, especially those used to commit hari-kari. And over the years there have been efforts to get some swords back to their original Japanese owners.”

Smith said that while pocketing a Nazi pistol to show your grandkids one day could hardly be regarded as looting, a cache of gold-plated guns, ornamental daggers and several oil paintings are spoils to which no victor is entitled.

“I can see why the people of Iraq would want that stuff back,” he said.

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