Ask the Expert
The Italian American Veterans Museum is proud to post a monthly memorabilia blog written by our curator, Steve Corbo. A military historian with more than 50 years of research under his belt, he has written articles on the subject and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, including a high-resolution photo of the memorabilia if one is available.
Why does that helmet look so familiar?
After using the same helmet through three major wars and for more than 40 years, the U.S. Armed Forces made a radical switch in the early ’80s. That’s when they introduced the Personal Armor System for Ground Troops, or PASGT helmet. Molded from a more shrapnel-resistant Kevlar, as opposed to steel, the new combat headgear offered additional protection by covering the ears and more closely hugging the head. But why did it look so familiar?
That’s because its design mimics the iconic helmet used by Germany during the two world wars. One of the most popular souvenirs brought from Europe by GIs serving there during and after WW II, the “Stahlhelm” had a unique shape that instantly identified it as being issued by the German military. Millions of them were available, so obtaining one was no problem. They were small enough to easily fit into a duffle bag and be carried home, or in a box to be mailed home from APOs (Army Post Offices) throughout the European Theatre of Operations.
Although German combat helmets retained the same basic design, there seemed an endless variety, making them a collector’s delight. There were variances in color, three different patterns (M35, M40, and M42) and each branch of the military, along with paramilitary organizations that had their own distinct markings. There were also camouflage varieties and a highly sought-after helmet designed for use by airborne troops.
Adopted by the German military in 1916, the design proved so superior that the U.S. Military adopted it when they redesigned the helmet they had been using since 1941. It first saw action with U.S. forces in the invasion of Grenada in late 1983 and was widely used by U.S. forces during the Gulf War in 1990-1991.
Pictured below is German WW II M 40 helmet, identifiable by its rolled edge and stamped air vent. The German national eagle is in gold, revealing the helmet as being issued by the navy. Pictured above is the U.S.-issued PASGT helmet. This model has a camouflage cover designed for use in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. The cover can be changed to match the terrain. Due to its remarkable similarity to its German predecessor, it was nicknamed the “Fritz Helmet.”
— Steve Corbo
For a German news clip showing factory workers turning Nazi helmets into colanders after the war, click here.
Targeting an iconic sidearm
Perhaps the most recognizable and iconic pistol of all time is the Pistole Parabellum, or German P 08, commonly referred to as the Luger. Originally developed by Austrian gun designer George Luger in 1898, it was adopted by the German Military in 1908, hence the nomenclature “P” for Pistole and “08” for the year.
A true testimony to German engineering, the Luger was as well-built a weapon as was ever mass produced for military service. Immediately recognizable due to its unique toggle design, the Luger’s balance, semiautomatic functionality, eight- round magazine capacity and association with the German military proved immensely popular, and it became one of the most sought-after “war souvenirs” in two world wars.
Most, but not all, were manufactured in Germany by DWM (Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken) and Mauser. While most had a standard barrel length of 4 inches, there were also 6-inch (Naval) and 8-inch (Artillery) versions. Most were 9 MM in caliber, but others were in .30 caliber.
Having attracted worldwide attention, the Luger even attracted the interest of the U.S. military. Before settling on the Colt 1911 .45 pistol as the standard U.S. military sidearm, the U.S. Army ordered several Lugers for the purposes of testing and evaluation. Prior to WW l, there was even a model known as the “American Eagle,” designed for sale in the U.S. market.
Used extensively by the German military in WW I, it was also produced for various foreign governments. This resulted in a multitude of variations, as well as an assortment of accessories, including a detachable shoulder stock and a “snail drum magazine” which could increase round capacity from the standard 8 to 32. Production continued between the wars and commercial models were widely sold on the civilian market. The many variations made it a collector’s dream, and to this day, the Luger remains one of the most sought-after and collectible pistols.
As Germany geared up for the Second World War, the demand for sidearms skyrocketed and so did production of the Luger. Due to buyouts and name changes, after World War l, production was taken over primarily by Mauser. In an attempt to hide the actual number of weapons being produced and who was producing them, and to circumvent the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (which limited the size of the German military and military arms production), Germany used a system of letter and numeric codes rather than having the name of the manufacturer appear on the pistol. This also served as a security measure once the war started. If a shipment of newly manufactured Lugers was captured, enemy intelligence would not be able to determine when and where they had been made. Therefore, they would not be able to seek out and destroy the facility producing the pistols.
Beginning in the 1930s, Mauser began using code “S/42” and later switched to “BYF,” although the Mauser “banner” still appeared on commercial pieces and pieces destined for use by Germany’s police agencies.
As the Second World War dragged on, the Luger fell victim to its own lofty production standards. The Luger was made from top quality materials, comprised of individually machined parts, serial numbered and matching to each individual piece. In short, production was expensive, extremely labor intensive and far too time consuming.
After 1942, production at the Mauser and other arms factories switched over to the Walther designed P 38. A semiautomatic pistol in 9MM, it had fewer moving parts and was easier, cheaper and less time consuming to manufacture. It soon replaced the Luger as Germany’s standard 9MM sidearm.
The Luger pictured here was brought back from WWII, as a souvenir, by U.S. Army T/5 John Maoloni, who served with a recon unit in Africa and Europe. We are honored to have this highly desirable pistol donated to our museum and on permanent display.
This is a typical Mauser military-issue piece as indicated by the letter code “BYF.” It was manufactured in 1942, near the end of the WWII production run. It is 100 percent matching numbered and carries Waffenamt military acceptance proof marks. It retains its dark lustrous bluing, beautifully checkered wood grips and high-quality finish. This is a firearm work of art that has stood the test of time.
— Steve Corbo
For more about John’s military services, click here.
Long forgotten souvenirs of war
Military service seems to create a penchant for collecting wartime souvenirs. When conventional armies fought each other, there was an ample supply of enemy equipment and memorabilia to bring back from the battlefront. But the Vietnam War played out differently. The United States didn’t face a highly standardized and universally equipped enemy. The availability of “war trophies,” or “battlefield pickups,” just wasn’t there.
To meet the demand, an entire cottage industry developed around making souvenirs for the GIs. Among the most popular were “Tour Jackets.” They were cheap and easy for the locals to make and they could be personalized to one’s unit, location, and dates of service. They were immensely popular to mail home or bring back as gifts.
However, as the war dragged on and became less and less popular, so did Vietnamese Tour Jackets. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they became especially unpopular back in the United States, where wearing them often attracted unwanted attention. They faded from consciousness, often winding up in the backs of closets or simply thrown out. Included are examples from my personal collection that transport us back to a different place and time.
The jacket in the upper left belonged to a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who served in-country from 1966 to 1967. The inscription, “When I die I’ll go to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell,” says it all. The jacket in the upper left was created for a soldier who served during the same timeframe at the U.S. air base and military installation at Bien Hoa.
By the time the inset jacket was created, during a 1969-1970 tour of duty, support for the war was eroding in America, hence the inscription, “The willing fighting the unjust for the ungrateful.” The jacket is made from a U.S. government-issue poncho liner no doubt pilfered for the purposes. This jacket is unique for the First Cav and First Aviation Brigade patches hand-sewn by a Vietnamese seamstress, who also made due note of An Khe and Pleiku, two major U.S. bases where each unit was based.
Badges of skill and courage
My Uncle Carl Maffia was born on New Year’s Eve 1926 in Chicago. A graduate of Crane Tech High School, he entered the Army in March 1945. As an 18-year-old draftee, he was destined for the infantry, to be used in the final drive to defeat Germany and Japan. Before heading overseas, Maffia joined the ranks of a small group of elite Soldiers qualified to receive the newly created Expert Infantryman Badge.
The badge was created in 1943 to recognize those who mastered the skills of infantry warfare. It also served as special recognition of the hardships and high casualty rate endured by the infantry. In 1944, the first class of 100 Noncommissioned Officers underwent intensive testing, facing physical and mental challenges, to determine who would receive the Army’s first Expert Infantryman Badges. Of those 100, only 10 completed the course!
With a washout rate of 90 percent, it was one of the toughest courses in the Army. As the war continued, the Expert Infantryman Badge was overshadowed by the Combat Infantryman Badge. Also created in 1943, it was awarded only to infantrymen engaged in combat against an armed enemy. Often it was awarded en masse to entire units regardless of one’s individual skill level. For those entitled to both badges, the Combat Infantryman Badge takes precedence because it is for combat action as opposed to training excellence. The two are never worn together. Both badges are so coveted, they are worn above all other decorations, medals and badges on the Army uniform.
Maffia was sent to Germany rather than the Pacific. By the time he arrived, the war in Europe was over. He became part of the Army of Occupation until his discharge in November 1946. To this day, professional soldiers in the United States Army Infantry strive to earn the Expert Infantryman Badge. It confirms commitment to their craft, mastering the unique challenges faced by the infantry and is often essential for promotion to a higher rank and position of responsibility.
Venditti earned rare honor decades after D-Day
Louis Venditti’s combat exploits began on June 6, 1944, when he parachuted into France with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day. By war’s end, he had a chest full of medals, including four Battle Stars for his participation in four major European campaigns, and two Invasion Arrowheads on his European Theatre of Operations ribbon. He also had two stars on his paratrooper wings for combat jumps on D-Day and in Operation Market Garden.
In addition, he received the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart for wounds received in combat on October 06, 1944, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantryman Badge and Pathfinder Badge. He was also entitled to wear the Order of the Orange Lanyard from the Netherlands for the liberation of Holland, and the Belgian Fourragere for the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
But his most unique and rare decoration was presented 65 years later at a special ceremony in Paris, France. Venditti was one of 38 American World War II Veterans awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor by the French Government for participation in the D-Day Invasion to free France from Nazi occupation. Considered the highest honor in France, the medal was presented on June 05, 2009. Among the dignitaries in attendance were French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama. We are honored to have Louis Venditti’s French Legion of Honor in our collection, with plans to place it on display in 2021.
For a full accounting of Louis’ military exploits, click here.
A tale of bravery, told through memorabilia
Louis Venditti served with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the legendary 101st Airborne Division. He was one of the “Band of Brothers” made famous by the Stephen Ambrose book and the HBO miniseries. When he returned home from WW ll, he did so in an Army uniform with a unique set of patches and badges not commonly seen.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, Venditti parachuted into Normandy, France, as part of the first wave of allied troops in the massive D-Day Invasion. A recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds received in action, he participated in some of the fiercest combat faced by U.S. troops in Europe. In addition to D-Day, he participated In Operation Market Garden for the liberation of the Netherlands and the Battle of the Bulge.
At the Battle of the Bulge, in the town of Bastogne, Belgium, the 101st was surrounded by overwhelming German forces. The Germans sent the paratroopers an ultimatum: Surrender or face certain death. The 101st Commander, Brigadier General Tony McAuliffe, replied with one of the best one-word answers in the annals of military history. McAuliffe simply replied “Nuts.” The 101st never did surrender and fought their way into Germany, ending the war at Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s home.
The items pictured above are actually from Venditti’s uniform. Heading clockwise from the upper left, first and foremost is the “Screaming Eagle” patch of the 101st Airborne Division, worn on Venditti’s left sleeve. Originally established in 1918 as the 101st Division, the “Airborne” tab was picked up when they were designated as one of the two original U.S. Airborne divisions, formed by the U.S. Army in August 1942.
Taking aim at a pivotal pistol
A captured enemy pistol was one of the most popular souvenirs brought back by GIs serving overseas during WW ll. They were readily available, of no practical use to the U.S. government and easy to carry. The U.S. military permitted GIs to bring back these coveted war trophies by the thousands. The pistol pictured above was brought home by World War II veteran Louis Venditti.
Louis was a member of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. They were the “Band of Brothers” made famous by the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book and the 2001 HBO miniseries. We’ll share more of Louis’ wartime memorabilia and history in future postings. For now, let’s focus on the pistol, which has a unique role in the annals of modern warfare.
Sorting out Silver and Bronze Stars
Question: What’s the difference between a Silver Star and a Bronze Star?
Answer: Our museum celebrates several Silver and Bronze Star recipients, including Army Sgt. James Orlando “Lon” Fornelli during World War II (right) and Army Pfc. John Puccini during the Korean War (left). Both medals are awarded for actions in connection with combat, but it’s a matter of proximity and degree.
Army ribbons spotlight military service at a glance
Question: My father was in the Army during World War II and had these on his uniform. What do they mean?
Answer: Those are “ribbon bars” and they serve as a colorful shorthand resume of the wearer’s military career. The ribbons pictured were custom-made in the post-WW II era and sewn on your father’s uniform, unlike the standard “pin back” version issued by the military. Each of the bars is divided into three sections, and each section represents a medal earned during your father’s time in the service.