Relics document war in this century

April 20, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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One man's junk is John D. Compton's treasure.

Compton, an auctioneer who lives west of Hagerstown, has built an enormous collection of 20th-century war relics over the last 17 years. With rare exceptions, the items have cost him little or nothing.

Compton said he picked up many of the uniforms from widows who no longer wanted their husband's war clothing.

"Most of the uniforms were going to be thrown out. But they're valuable to me because they're our history," he said.


Compton's Rockdale Road home is littered with uniforms, documents and newspaper clippings documenting the great conflicts that have shaped the nation and the century.

The items hang from walls, lay in boxes and rest on shelves. He said he has moved much of his collection to the garage for lack of space.

ComptonOne of the most recent additions to the collection is typical, Compton said. It is a framed edition of The Morning Herald from Nov. 12, 1918, the day after World War I ended.

"HUNS QUIT!" screams the banner headline, telling readers the "War to End All Wars" has ended.

The newspaper is extremely rare and it is in pristine condition. But Compton said he picked it up at an antique shop in Charles Town, W.Va., for just $15.

"It was well worth it," he said.

As was his most prized possession - a Distinguished Service Cross that was awarded to a doctor from Hagerstown during World War I.

Compton bought the prestigious medal - the second-highest honor in the U.S. military - about three months ago, along with several papers documenting the soldier's heroics from an antique dealer.

James M. McKibbin, who lived at 837 Virginia Ave., was a member of the 306 Machine Gun Division. He died on Oct. 14, 1918, in Chevieves, France.

"A little less than a month before the war ended. Isn't that sad?" Compton mused.

Compton also has a framed certificate signed by the president of France commending McKibbin for his fight for liberty.

The document conferring the medal on McKibbin was signed by Dwight Davis, who was secretary of war at the time. Davis was also quite a tennis player - the Davis Cup is named for him.

As an auctioneer, Compton is familiar with the intrinsic value of things. But he said there is no way to tell how much money they are worth.

"There's no price guide on this stuff," he said.

UniformsA hobby, a passion

Compton said he has always devoured history and took many history courses in school.

His interest in collecting began in 1981, when he was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. He said he was attracted by the beauty of the military patches that were sold at the base commissary.

Compton said he bought his patch for 24 cents. Hundreds of patches later, he said he veered off into other war memorabilia.

"That's how I got hooked," he said. "I've been accumulating this stuff ever since."

Although his collection is large and diverse, Compton said he has limited it to the 20th century. He has focused on areas of particular interest, like women's war memorabilia and items relating to the military police.

Most of the time, Compton's collection remains at his home. But sometimes, he gets a chance to show it off.

Last July 4, for instance, he said he set up a "mini museum" in the back of Shenandoah Bible Baptist Church in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Some of the other items in Compton's collection include:

A uniform worn by a soldier in World War II. Compton said this is special to him because it has a patch worn by men in the 3rd Infantry Division, including Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in that war.

A binder of newspaper clippings chronicling dead and missing Tri-State area soldiers during World War II. He said he retrieved it from the trash after a woman who bought a trunk tossed the binder that was inside.

A 1942 copy of "The Lucky Bag," the Naval Academy's yearbook.

An "Ike jacket" from 1943. The uniform came with the soldier's military orders, Compton said.

A sergeant's patch from the Army Air Corps. Many don't realize it, Compton said, but enlisted men flew combat missions before the Air Force was created.

A Morning Herald article proclaiming the end of World War II: "PEACE! It's Over - Japs Quit."

A letter from the Petroleum Administration for War informing a man that war rations on oil had to remain in place until Japan surrendered.

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