AUBURN – Exactly 71 years and one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, weathered U.S. Army-issued wool top coats, Eisenhower-style jackets, soldiers’ tool kits and leather bomber crew britches went on the auction block Saturday in Auburn.
And, as the National Military History Museum liquidated part of its inventory to pay off debt, memorabilia hounds had a field day.
Some plunked down a few bucks for a pair of British water bottles or a set of Navy dress blues, while others forked over well into five figures for many of the 70 military vehicles and artillery on offer.
Organizers said the auction had attracted interest from around the world – with prospective bidders from as far away as Australia bidding via telephone and online. Journalists from the New York Times and Russian TV were among those covering the event.
Many items recalling Americans’ service in World War II brought a pretty penny from the 400 in attendance. Those bomber pants? They went for $90, while a complete infantryman’s kit fetched $225.
A 1941 Indian 841 Army motorcycle, with a single star on its gas tank and leather saddlebags, went for $35,500.
But what really set off bidding was anything relating to Nazi Germany.
While a collection of five assorted American garrison caps sold for $45, four similar German caps went for $700.
Three German gun holsters sold for $225; two scraps of cloth bearing the insignia of the German Air Force’s eagle clutching a swastika in its talons brought $350.
A pair of German collar insignia sold for $800, and two lots of parts for a demilitarized German MG42 quickly shot up to $1,600 and $1,500. A German flak gun, a Rheinmetall/Borsig, took in $21,000.
It’s German. In the U.S. it’s more rare, said World War II collector Karl Smith, 65, of Salt Lake City, explaining the prices.
Just look at the History Channel – look at all the programs about the Nazis, he continued. We in the U.S. have a fascination for the Nazi era.
Smith said some of those bidding on German items might be from Europe and added that the vast majority of U.S. collectors aren’t Nazi sympathizers but simply want to preserve items from all sides of the war.
Plus, he said, A lot of the (German) items were very well engineered and well built, and they’re (still) in good condition.
Smith, who called himself a major collector and is connected to a museum in Utah, won an auction for a 1938 German-made Opel Blitz cargo truck – with a smashed windshield. At $5,000, he considered it a bit of a bargain.
I’m looking for the rare – the French, the Italian. We keep forgetting about them. They fought too, he said.
While waiting to bid, many people enjoyed chatting with others who shared their wartime fascination.
Generally you don’t have this many military things in one spot, said Frank Paulus of Las Vegas, who called himself a collector/dealer interested in motorcycles.
He had joined two friends from his growing-up days in Michigan, Richard Chekerylla, 68, and Wayne Krug, 65.
Krug said he toured the museum as well as the auction items, and enjoyed seeing things related to the U.S. Army Air Corps.
His father, Norman Krug, who lives with him and will turn 96 on Thursday, was a top turret gunner on a B-17 in the Pacific theater.
A lot of the stuff, the flight gear, the leather helmet and the goggles – that was all stuff he used, he said.
Ian Webb, marketing manager at Auctions America RM, which ran the event, said bidders often buy items as a tribute to fathers and grandfathers who served in the war. Others are dedicated re-enactors who reuse gear to teach about history, he said.
So many of our fathers and grandfathers were in the war and came back with stories. But you can’t touch those things, Webb said.
The auction was to raise money to satisfy a $2.9 million judgment against the Dean V. Kruse Foundation, which operates the military history museum.
Tammy Hantz, museum operations manager, said proceeds will go toward paying off mortgage debt, allowing the museum to continue.
Reducing the World War II collection will also allow the museum to diversify its displays, she said.
Plans are to include items from other wars, from the American Revolution through the Korean and Vietnam wars and the more recent conflicts in the Persian Gulf, she said. At present, Hantz said, the museum does not have room to show off important items it has acquired.
A dollar total would not be known until this week, Hantz said.