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BEVIS HILLIER

War Fair : Once a Month, Collectors Gather in Bellflower to Buy and Sell Military Memorabilia, From World War I German Uniforms to Vietnam War Patches

May 04, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. If you happen to go to the Eagles' Aerie in Bellflower on the last Sunday of any month, you might imagine that you have found the Valhalla in which all old soldiers end up. Here, a major general of the (British) Royal Flying Corps, World War I, is chatting with a German hussar wearing a pale-blue uniform and the intimidating spiked helmet known as a Pickelhaube. Nearby you might find a man wearing Nazi SS insignia, a World War II Welsh Guards officer with a silver leek on the front of his peaked cap, and a soldier in Vietnam camouflage with a "Jungle Service" patch on his arm.

These men are all Americans. They come to the Eagles' Aerie (9816 Cedar St., Bellflower) for a "militaria" fair--to sell and buy old uniforms, patches, medals and other service rel ics. Some of the dealers who trade in Vietnam memorabilia (including veterans of that war) disapprove of the men who sell Nazi armbands and other insignia; but at 7:20 a.m., when the dealers are admitted to the big hall after having waited in line, they spread out their wares side-by-side on trestle tables, and a grudging tolerance prevails--a commercial armistice. American eagles, swastikas and patches hand-embroidered for GIs by Vietnamese all find their price. The public is admitted at 8 a.m., and the bartering is usually finished by 1 p.m.

The Royal Flying Corps general is being impersonated by Daniel Soltero, 35. His uniform is of khaki with red lapel tabs; in those days, the British air force did not wear blue. Next month, Soltero will be dressed as Capt. Duncan Grenell-Milne, a World War I hero of the RFC. "It is a winter ritual of mine to read Grenell-Milne's memoirs, 'Wind in the Wires,' " Soltero says. And the month after, Soltero may be in the uniform of another corps, another war. But this particular Sunday he is Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Trenchard (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard).

Soltero feels a special, almost predestined affinity with the Royal Flying Corps. He explains: "Maj. Lanoe Hawker of the RFC was shot down by Manfred von Richthofen--the 'Red Baron'--on Nov. 23, 1916. Now, on Nov. 23, 1950, I was born. I have looked at a picture of Maj. Lanoe Hawker, and he bears a striking resemblance to my great-grandfather."

As he is telling me this, Soltero is interrupted by a dealer wearing fatigues: "I say, old chap, pip-pip, cheerio!" The dealer is genially mocking the plummy British accent, plausibly close to the real thing, that Soltero has mastered by watching television series such as "Upstairs, Downstairs." It was another television series, a 26-part CBS program called "World War I," produced by Morton Gould, that first hooked Soltero on militaria when he was 14. About that time, he bought a World War II British army officer's tunic for $5, the start of his large collection of uniforms. The "Trenchard" uniform he has built up, piece by piece. He bought the tunic, a brigadier general's of World War II, from Keith Grenhow of Britannia Designs in San Juan Capistrano and had it cut and converted to his specifications to replicate Trenchard's tunic. All the other accouterments, including a leather Sam Browne belt, Soltero bought separately over the next six months. He is not alone in his enthusiasm; he is chairman of the Los Angeles-based World War I Historical Society, whose members collect and display World War I militaria.

On weekdays, after the captains and the kings depart, Daniel Soltero is a communications-systems technician for a telephone company.

The German hussar in the Pickelhaube , who has the almost stagily appropriate name of Otto Baron, works as a cashier-receptionist in a doctor's office in East Los Angeles. He is a collector of World War I German uniforms. His outfit, he explains, is a bit of a hybrid. It is basically that of a Saxon hussar who has joined the infantry. The frogged blue jacket with silver buttons "is of a type used as early as 1890. However, they continued to use it as a dress uniform into the early years of World War I. This is an officer's jacket; but the 1916 Pickelhaube I'm wearing is not an officer's model. It was made for an enlisted man, because it has fittings of white metal, not silver."

Dick Barber, who is wearing a SWAT-team uniform, served with the U.S. Marines in Korea and has retired from "working for the government." He collects uniforms from all countries but does not wear the better examples to the Bellflower fair. "Many of them are too valuable. It's kind of silly to wear $1,000 or $1,500 on your back. You wouldn't take a Ming vase and put flowers in it."

Paul Polanski, a retired machinist from San Diego, is wearing his Polish father's World War II insignia. "He was in the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy; that's the one that took Monte Cassino, the monastery. I preserved his insignia but had to find another jacket. I didn't care about the insignia for a long time, but then I got interested in militaria."

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