Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite finds during the past 30 years.
Bill Shea: I have been extremely fortunate to have uncovered many rare and exotic souvenirs over the past six decades. Hundreds of these stories will appear in my upcoming book. I’ve selected one to share with your readers. It’s called, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN…Treasure Trove of Adolf Hitler Silverware Right Out Of His Kitchen.”
Some collectors say “don’t buy the story, buy the item!” Well I, for one, have never believed in that philosophy. I guess a lot of that depends on who is telling you the story.
Well, these details are directly from the mouth and the written word of a P.F.C. (name withheld at his request) from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. These details were gathered both from a letter he wrote, and a face-to-face conversation he had with a good friend of mine in 2006.
And boy did he have a story to tell. He related that he, like most of the boys in his Queens N.Y. neighborhood, entered the service in March of 1943 when he turned 18. He first went to the armor corps at Fort Polk as part of the 8th Armor Division. He then entered training with the Army Air Corps as a pilot, but this program was cut short. He then volunteered for the paratroopers and trained at Fort Benning in Georgia.
In December 1944, he was assigned to the 101st Division in France. They were quickly whisked off to Belgium and attached to the 506th. This is where he encountered Colonel Sink who was standing on a jeep with a frozen dead German soldier at his feet. He proceeded to tell all these replacements that it was their job to hold the town of Bastogne at all costs. Shortly before Christmas, 1944 he was assigned to “C” company.
Having survived that historical event, he was then speeding through the Rhineland to Bavaria without opposition in April 1945. When they reached Berchtesgaden and the Berghof area, he said they could see this stone structure on the top of a near-by snow covered mountain. He related how one of the sergeants asked for four volunteers to go to the top and secure the building. He said “My hand shot up because by then I knew it was Hitler’s Eagles Nest.”
The elevator was not working so it was no easy task. However, what waited for them was worth the work. When they arrived, then encountered a few drunk French soldiers, but otherwise, had the place to themselves. He said, and I quote, “Once inside we began to search for valuables. Tapping on the paneled walls in the huge dining room, we found one place that had a different sound. A small strip of molding was moved to reveal a lock. Having found a ring of keys in the basement, we finally opened a wall safe containing fourteen trays of Hitler’s silverware. Since each piece had the Nazi insignia on it, this qualified our find as ‘legal war booty’.”
Having been to the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest was the name given to this location by the soldiers) on two occasions, I can picture the exact area he was talking about. I believe we might refer to it as a butler’s pantry where dishes, pots and pans would be stored. However, the good stuff would be under lock and key only to be brought out for formal occasions. I can picture these GIs remembering the movies from the 1930s with all the secret compartments, hidden rooms, and revolving walls. Pretty exciting stuff considering you have just survived months of fighting!
He went on to say, and again, I quote, “All the trays were placed on the large dining room table. The sergeant made five piles of silverware pieces until everyone agreed they were as equal as possible. Then we each chose a pile that we carried around until we were able to mail it home after officer inspection.”
Each pile contained over 100 pieces of the formal A.H. silverware. What an incredible haul. It’s even more amazing that everything made it home knowing that there were a lot of “sticky fingers” in between leaving the parcels off at the APO and it arriving home safe and sound to Queens, N.Y.
This proud member of “The Greatest Generation” held onto these trophies for 60 years until a greater calling occurred. A friend of mine from Pennsylvania had established contact with him but was never able to convince him to sell these treasures.
However, fate intervened. This hero is a religious man and the church he attended needed funding to erect a steeple and a new cross. It was at this moment that he realized he could use these souvenirs for a very good purpose. In fact, when he decided to sell these items to Mike, he initially insisted that the proceeds go directly to the pastor at the church as he did not want to handle the money. The result of all of this is that the church was able to erect the steeple and purchase a beautiful cross for the congregation.
When Mike contacted me I was speechless. All he had to tell me was the story, and the fact that along with the silverware came a photo album with many pictures of the paratrooper and his buddies. Some of these images show our hero right at the Eagle’s Nest and others show his buddies horsing around, one being dressed in an SS uniform and another wrapped in a German party banner. At this point it was all over for me because the veteran’s story combined with the pictures and, oh, by the way, over 100 pieces of some very rare and unusual items such as cigar cutters, fruit knives, grape snippers, sugar tongs, etc.
I had to have this grouping because it would be a lot of fun to handle and market. Many collections around the world today now have a piece or two of the silverware from this haul.
Group picture of massive haul of formal Adolf Hitler silverware taken from the Berghof by a 101st veteran in May of 1945.
The interview Q&A with Military Trader will continue next week.....stay tuned!!