Today we will be speaking with Tom Prall in our series of collector interviews. I have known Tom for quite some time, having first met over the subject of Japanese good luck flags and senninbari/stitch belts, what else! Tom’s Japanese World War Two collecting interests take into account a number of popular categories as well as some lesser covered subjects. In my experience, he is always helpful in responding to serious inquiries and questions. Tom may be contacted at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org Please join me as we get to know another fascinating personality within our hobby.
FOWM: Hello Tom! Thank you for agreeing to sit with me for this interview.
TP: No problem, Mike; very happy to be a part of your interview series.
FOWM: I was trying to recall exactly where and when we met. How do you remember when that first occurred?
TP: That is a good question. I went through some of my old forum correspondence and found that I reached out to you about senninbari belts in May of 2008. I was living in Japan at the time and was a couple of years into collecting Japanese militaria then. I was just beginning to get a feel for the few forums and sales websites that were available online then. Several great collecting conversations and a couple of show visits later, and here we are!
FOWM: I think that is right Tom; we first touched base around the time that my book on Japanese good luck flags and one-thousand stitch belts was either out or about to be released. Fortunately, as you mentioned, we have been able to interface personally at a few shows throughout the years and we stay in good contact these days via the internet.
FOWM: How and when did you first become interested in collecting Japanese military items from World War Two? Did your collection begin with Japanese militaria or were there other things first?
TP: I started to seriously collect Japanese militaria when I moved to Japan in 2005. Being able to attend shrine flea markets, antique stores and recycle shops while living there allowed me to explore a new world of collecting. While I grew up listening to my grandfathers’ stories of their time in the Pacific and seeing the souvenirs that were brought back, I never really felt an attraction to collect Japanese militaria before moving to Japan. I suppose it was also my previous passion for collecting American Civil War items that prioritized my time as well. I think the combination of my grandfathers’ stories/souvenirs and being in a place where those souvenirs came from created a “perfect storm” so to speak in igniting my passion for collecting Japanese militaria.
FOWM: Your answer to that question seems to be similar to that of other people. The collecting of artifacts makes the study of history so much more interesting to people like us. Plenty of people never seem to connect to history because for them, it is simply memorizing people, places and dates. I know that for me, the attachment of the military material culture to the events, especially those specific encounters that were shared with me by family and friends throughout the years, created a strong emotional connection. In that regard, history is vibrant and alive and not dead.
FOWM: If you purchased any of those first items, do you remember how much it(they) cost to add them to your collection?
TP: I think by and large, being able to collect Japanese militaria while in Japan was somewhat of a gift, in that I was picking up general items for cheap prices. I remember finding a Japanese WWI victory medal at a recycle shop for the equivalent of 3 USD, and a gorgeous set of 3 lacquered sake cups with IJN planes for approx. 40 USD at an antique mall a couple of town’s over from where I lived. What was interesting about the sake cup purchase was it was actually a mistake in pricing and should have been sold for much more. I only found out about the mistake when I returned again to look for more deals at that mall and the booth vendor was there. He definitely let me know about it and that such a mistake would not happen again! During my last year in Japan, I received help from an antique dealer in finding items through estate auctions that he attended throughout the region. I was able to pick up a couple of nice items for cheap, including a guntai techou (IJA service booklet) that belonged to a member of a spigot mortar unit, based in Manchuria; one of the first booklets I added to my collection and still one of my favorites.
FOWM: I recall that your grandfather fought in the Pacific during the War. Do you remember hearing any specific stories from or about his service during that period? Did you have other relatives that served overseas as well?
TP: Yes, both of my grandfathers were in the Pacific during the war, and both were in the USAAF. My grandpa Ivan was with a photo. unit within the VII Fighter Command on Iwo Jima, and my grandpa Howard was with the 40th Bomb Group, first in the CBI, and finally on Tinian, working on B-29’s. I was blessed to have been able to spend a lot of time with both of them while growing up, and of course, badger them relentlessly to tell and retell their war stories. Grandpa Ivan in particular really liked to talk about his war experiences, and often shared some of his stories by way of school and community lectures. One story he often told was the time he was exploring one of the many caves on Iwo Jima with a Marine friend of his. As they headed deeper into the cave, they heard excited Japanese voices ahead and shots were fired in their direction. One round went through the Marine’s leg and ended up in the knee of my grandfather. Grandpa had to help the Marine out of the cave, both hobbling out as the Japanese started to throw grenades. Grandpa told of his narrow escape and the cave entrance was demolished soon after. Grandpa still had that bullet in his knee over 70 years later! My one other relative who was in the war, a great uncle, fought in Europe with Patton’s 3rd Army. He did not speak much about his experiences. An interesting side note: He brought back a German sniper rifle that he personally “liberated”. Alas, it was sold years ago.
FOWM: Would you mind sharing with us whether any of your items were “bring backs” from relatives who served during the War? And Could you explain to us what significance those items have for you today and for your family’s perspective on the history that he(they) helped to make?
TP: My grandpa Ivan was a souvenir hunter extraordinaire on Iwo Jima, sending back several items, many of which he gave to me. Some of them have stories attached: The battle damaged IJA helmet that was picked up near a cave entrance (and comes with its own harrowing story); the hinomaru yosegaki that was found folded up and partially buried in the sand; the broken sake cup that was taken from an area that also had a broken phonograph with several shattered records strewn about on the ground. As a whole, this collection gives me very fond memories of my time with my grandfather. It is also a tangible reminder of our family’s small part in a global conflict. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it brings the conflict of WWII “home” to me, in a way that other conflicts do not. The items and their stories connect me to a moment in time that allows me to bring into slightly sharper focus part of our nation’s history because of my family’s direct contribution to that history.
FOWM: Thank you for allowing me to share your images of some of your grandfather’s Pacific Theater “bring backs”. I cannot agree with you more: these souvenirs of the War are real-life reminders that the stories that we discover in history books involved actual events made primarily by ordinary people. Not all of the narratives nor all of the history-makers were of mythological, MacArthur-esque proportions. Most were average citizens, like your grandfathers, who answered the call to duty, when their country needed them and who often did extraordinary things. You were most fortunate to be able to hear about some of those amazing experiences, first-hand. We are even luckier that you have those souvenirs and are able to share them with us. I will let you narrate these pieces that you have kindly shared here and simply thank you again.
TP: The first photo is a small grouping of two hand drawn postcards, a small doll and a broken sake cup. The postcards were by two middle school children to their teacher who ended up defending Iwo Jima. It might not be too clear, but the soldier on the postcard is walking on the American flag. As to the sake cup, my grandfather picked this up from a bombed out structure on Iwo that looked to have been a bar/social area for the troops. He mentioned that there were smashed music records all over the area where the cup was found. The cup itself was broken in half and my grandfather glued it back together. As you can tell by the image on the cup, it is a simple commemorative cup with a Chinese city gate. Looks like the former owner served in China before most likely being called up again to join the 109th Division. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the doll.
FOWM: Those are terrific little souvenirs, the kind that many guys probably saw as they were covering ground across the various battlefields; easy to put in your pocket or stuff into a pack. I would say that the little doll looks like what is sometimes called a “Protector Doll” or “Kamikaze Doll”, depending upon who carried it. These were sometimes given to the soldiers, sailors or airmen as small tokens or gifts, reminders that they were being thought of by the folks back home. Pilots, for instance, would often tie these to their outer gear (vests or parachute harnesses) and carry them on their missions for good luck or for company. The U.S.S. Missouri Museum at Pearl Harbor, HI has an interesting display of these that may be seen at its kamikaze exhibit.
TP: This last picture is of a battle damaged Japanese helmet with camouflaged netting over the top. According to my grandpa, he was walking toward the front with a few other soldiers when he heard a shot ring out. He saw a Marine atop a nearby bluff who said that a Japanese soldier near a cave entrance was training his rifle on the walking group. The Marine shot at the soldier who fled back into the cave. When grandpa investigated later, he found the helmet with a bullet hole through the front and out the top. Upon inspection of the interior of the helmet, one can see the bullet has grazed one of the leather pads, and the force of the impact popped one of the exterior pins holding the liner in place. Interesting to note, the netting looks to be taken from one of the body nets that the IJA used. I believe this was tucked into the inside of the helmet at the time of capture and was not being used.
FOWM: Switching gears now for a moment, what would you say are your favorite areas of interest in Japanese World War Two militaria collecting today? And What specifically caused you to become interested in those areas?
TP: For the past several years now I have really enjoyed collecting Japanese ID documents, both IJA techou (軍隊手帳) and IJN sailor service records (履歴表), and to a lesser extent, IJA dog tags. I love the history that can be found within the paperwork in particular. No two documents (or tags for that matter) will ever be identical, each with its own unique story. The paperwork can be quite fascinating, depending on the content written within the document. One of my sailor documents records the sailor being a part of the invasion of Guam from Saipan, and ending up at Roi-Namur where the document was captured. A techou in my collection follows the soldier from fighting the Soviets at Nomonhan to garrisoning the Aleutian island of Attu. These are mini diaries in a way, recording the major points of the soldier’s life within his unit. These go perfectly with my interest in Japanese order of battle research, as well as studying the Japanese language. I can track a unit’s history, where they fought, moved to, etc., and continually learn new Japanese kanji that I come across as well.
FOWM: What do you find is the most fun aspect of collecting Japanese militaria?
TP: Two things interest me about collecting Japanese militaria: The “thrill of the hunt” and community. To be able to find that rare variation to add to your collection after years of searching is a satisfying feeling. I am of the opinion that there will be a few things that I want for my collection that are just not out there, no matter how hard I look. Once in a while though, about every other blue moon or so, something does pop up that makes the hunt worthwhile. To be able to interact and share with our collecting community is something else I really enjoy. To be able to converse with fellow enthusiasts such as yourself makes it a truly enjoyable hobby that I hope continues well into the future.
FOWM: How often do you encounter reproductions in your area of interest? And Are they difficult to identify?
TP: Luckily, I haven’t found much in the way of paper reproductions at this time, although I imagine as interest grows that may very well change. What I have seen is mis-identification of items and/or omissions in information. I have seen several examples online of people saying a book is a “field manual captured on Iwo” when in reality it is an elementary school textbook that was probably taken as a souvenir during the Occupation era. IJA dog tags have unfortunately been copied for a while and I fear the reproductions are getting better. There are still definitely “one lookers” that come up for sale which is great, but one has to employ several “sniff tests” to vet examples anymore. I suppose it is similar to pretty much every other aspect of collecting these days: There are tricks to know in order to avoid the junk out there.
FOWM: What advice would you offer to a new collector today? And Why?
TP: Two pieces of advice I would give to new collectors today would be to: 1) Study to death what you are interested in collecting, and 2) If possible, find a mentor in the collecting community. There are lots of specialists out there who have devoted decades of their lives to the hobby and have probably forgotten more than most people will ever know about their area of interest. Search out those people who share your collecting passions, and see if they would be willing to help you along on your collecting journey. Oh, last thing: I would highly encourage that all collectors of Japanese militaria learn some basic written Japanese, the numbers at the very least. It might save you some money if you can read that the commemorative year on that “WW2 era” sake cup is 1972 instead of 1942.
FOWM: Some areas in militaria collecting may be quite expensive today, for example: samurai swords. Can a new collector afford to pick up items within your area of interest?
TP: Fortunately, documents and tags are still pretty cheap when compared to other areas like helmets and swords. At this time, IJA techou out of Japan are quite reasonable. One can get an example with decent Manchuria theater battle participation entries for well under 100 USD. If one is looking for captured paperwork in the US, prices can be higher. There is just not that much out there, and prices can reflect that (plus you have me as competition!). Tags have fallen in price over the past couple of years. They usually go for around 60 – 80 USD on average with periodic spikes north of 100.
FOWM: What do you see as challenges today in collecting Japanese World War Two militaria?
TP: Purely from my own point of view, I think the biggest challenges in collecting Japanese militaria today can be distilled down to two things: scarcity and greed. One breeds the other. I feel that we are well into the era of potentially buying from the proceeding generations of family that have inherited items from their fathers and grandfathers. In my mind, a goodly amount of those items have entered “heirloom status” and will be kept by the family, not to come onto the market for a long time, if ever. I can totally empathize with this, for I am one of them! That being said, it limits what is available on the market currently, and what is available is either less or increasingly fake. Now enter the unsavory characters on auction sites, etc. that are willing to fill that need with all sorts of junk. Overall, it makes collecting more challenging, and frankly, frustrating at times. A couple of ways to combat both of the above is to continually educate yourself on the hobby and find creative ways to add to your collection. I have, “WANTED” threads on several sites and follow up with fellow collectors if, for example, they mention that an old collection is being liquidated. Inquiries have sometimes turned up nice items to add to my collection, but you have to continuously search in the meantime.
FOWM: Thank you again Tom for sharing with us your perspective on the hobby and your special areas of interest. Thank you too for sharing those very special items from your collection as well.
TP: Thank you, Mike, it has been my pleasure!