Truth, they say. is stranger than fiction. But this tale is so bizarre, no novelist would offer it to a publisher. The players in this game are gatherers, middlemen, and collectors. There are also, of course, victims. The game is practiced widely and it is remarkably lucrative.
And what is it?
Simply stated it is the stealing and selling of World War II medals. The predators, who are the gatherers, invade the homes of winners of the Navy Cross, and less frequently, those of winners of the Medal of Honor. If only the widow is present, the attack is even easier.
The predators use a 1945 Navy Department compilation of most of the World War II winners of the Navy Cross, officer and enlisted, as their directory. There are many sources including the Naval Academy Register by which to update addresses and identify targets. They then approach the victims with such stories as “I am doing a paper about winners of the Navy Cross”; or “I am studying for my Ph.D. in military history”; or “I am a collector of military memorabilia and wonder if you have things you are willing to sell”. “In return”, says the gatherer, “I will mount your medals, rank insignia, submarine pin or wings and the like in a shadow box to show my appreciation for your assistance.”
The predator departs with his loot and quickly contacts the middleman who will pay him thousands of dollars. The gatherer then buys new medals and insignia (and they are readily avail-able), and has them neatly mounted by a frame shop in a shadow box. He returns them to the owners who are impressed with the display, and proceed to hang them on the den wall. Meanwhile, the middleman passes his purchase to auctioneers such as the Orders and Medal Society of America (OMSA) which hold periodic sales of medals and memorabilia. The legitimate collectors buy at such functions at prices marked up considerably. The heroes’ medals are gone!
I can write this story now because I was alerted to the scam by a member of OMSA a month after my visit from the gatherer. When he returned my medals in a shadow box, I expressed my appreciation, but the following day extracted the medals from the box and clearly determined that the submarine pins were not mine, nor were the new and shiny medals and ribbons.
I sought and received rapid assistance from the State’s Attor-\ney’s Office of Anne Arundel County. Together, we identified two Medal of Honor winners, seven Navy Cross winners including five submariners, and Army Generals as well, who are but a fraction of the victims, I am sure. Many of them reside in the Washington area. Their medals were scattered from Virginia to New York State to Florida.
A search warrant produced two carloads of material from the home of Stephen V. Pyne of Westminster, Maryland. He has been charged with three felonies for stealing the medals of three Anne Arundel County officers-and may well be charged by Federal authorities for his activities in other states. Several collections have been recovered. One gatherer has been stopped in bis tracks.
But there are many more gatherers at large. Heroes beware, and widows too!
Mr. Walter J. McDonald
CAPT John F. Riley, USN(Ret.)
RADM WiJliam B. Seiglaff, USN(Ret.)