How many of my fellow Numismatic News readers are military buffs, whether from prior service or just historically minded? I’d guess lots, based on two articles I did in 2009 and the barrage of letters and emails that followed.
The first article was about my numismatic experiences in the World War II Pacific campaign and the other was about similar happenings in Cold War Germany 1958-1959. Each brought dozens of “give me more” comments. Many military buffs in numismatics then, and perhaps even more today with Osama bin Laden’s demise.
So I decided to write about some other experiences. I served with the infantry 1944-1950, joining the Air Force Reserve just in time to be called up for Korea. I stayed with the USAF until December 1962 and then was in the USAF Reserve until 1973. I began collecting coins in 1939, so obviously most of my life experiences I saw through the prism of numismatics.
I had joined the Milwaukee Numismatic Society in 1947 and found the Milwaukee Public Library on Wisconsin Ave. had a nice assortment of coin books and, for the first time, I learned the history and splendor of the hobby/science/business.
I cut my teeth on W. Carew Hazlitt’s Coinage of the European Continent (London 1893), J.W. Scott’s 1913 Copper Coin Catalogue (New York), Wayte Raymond’s U.S. coins and token catalog (New York, 1942).
Hazlitt, who is hardly known today, preceded Friedberg, William Craig and Krause Publication’s world coin catalog series. It listed European denominations, mints and lists of rulers from the feudal period (800 A.D.) until about 1890, with deep details and illustrations. I didn’t realize it then, but my serious approach to worldwide numismatics led, eventually, to my induction in 2000 into the American Numismatic Association’s Numismatic Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
While stationed in Wiesbaden, the only “open city” in Germany which was never bombed (like Paris and Rome on the Allied side), we servicemen paid 15 cents per gallon for gasoline. Germans were then paying about $2.50 per gallon. Under World War II conditions a government could declare a city “open” (free from bombing raids) so long as certain military conditions were met. I’m pleased Wiesbaden was saved because it allowed me the opportunity to become acquainted with it.
As you might imagine, though Germany in the 1950s still had a long way to go before its economy became the dynamo that it is today, it provided collectors with many interesting opportunities.
Among the items I was able to acquire were many local paper money issues that were printed after World War I ended. The notes helped keep some semblance of commerce going after the country was defeated in 1918 and then for a time blockaded afterwards. The notes showed off local history.
In October 1962 I was sergeant major of a nuclear unit in New Mexico during President Kennedy’s Cuban missile crisis. I joined the Albuquerque Coin Club and indoctrinated some nuclear officers and men into the hobby.
A lifelong Republican, I admired Kennedy’s bluffing of Nikita Khrushchev and was set to vote for him in 1964, but an assassin precluded that.
As my Air Force Reserve service was ending, I became part of the 20-member First Numismatic Study Tour of the Soviet Union in June 1973. We visited all over Russia and Uzbekistan. I didn’t reveal to the Soviet “Inturist” (spy) people my reserve status; they never asked.
It was a great group of hobbyists: Bob Julian, Bill Spengler, Hal Blackburn, David Bloch, Elmore Scott among others. Four of our group spoke Russian and one spoke Uzbek.
In an amusing incident in Odessa, my wife and I were assigned by pure chance to the largest room in the London Hotel, so our group decided to throw a party for local Ukrainian collectors. We purchased wine, crackers, cheese and decided we needed pickles. Can you imagine how hard it is for English speakers to communicate a need for pickles to Russian storekeepers? After minutes of agonizing non-understanding, a shopper knew the word cucumber and everyone in the store cheered. My wife insisted the pickles be wrapped, the store crew obliged and then every woman shopper demanded their own purchases be wrapped. A minor victory for consumer rights and democracy in June 1973. How times have now changed.
Bob Barrett of our group knew fluent Uzbek. One evening a few of us visited a camel caravan camp near Bukhara. Seated cross-legged with the caravan drivers we heard tales of how these men regularly crossed illegally into Afghanistan for two-way smuggling. When Russians were mentioned, the Uzbeks just spit. To obtain freedom for our activities, we misled our “Inturist” watchers by sending roving parties in differing directions. We didn’t accomplish a lot, but we had fun.
In a daytime bazaar in Bukhara, we met a seller of oddments. He said that Uzbeks weren’t trusted with weapons until 1942s Battle of Stalingrad. Then they orientals were drafted as cannon fodder. This man, the sole survivor of a company, was promoted captain. Bill Spengler gave him a gift, a silver coin of Tamerlane and the man wept with joy.
Anyone wishing to comment or share memories may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail at: Russ Rulau, P.O. Box 153, Iola, WI 54945; by phone at 715-445-3581.
Hazlitt, W. Carew, Coinage of the European Continent. (London, 1893)
Krause Publications, Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Specialized Issues.
Rulau, Russell, Pacific service, NN, May 26, 2009.
Rulau, Russell, Germany service, NN, June 23, 2009.