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Trench Art for a Sweetheart

US Army Air Forces Sweetheart Trench Art - New Guinea 1944

Seventy-five years ago in 1944, someone in the Army Air Forces stationed in New Guinea made this souvenir to send home to a loved one, maybe their sweetheart, mother, or sister. The nameless artist used the materials at hand - an AAF collar insignia and clear Lucite, probably from the canopy of a wrecked plane - to fashion a remembrance of their wartime experience to send back home.

I think it is human nature to want souvenirs of our experiences; perhaps we think they will be necessary to jog our memories years in the future or give us physical proof of where we have been or what we have accomplished. Even during war, soldiers have collected items or made souvenirs known as "trench art." During World War II those wartime souvenirs were sometimes grim or macabre, but at other times were made with love or even as occupational therapy for wounded soldiers.

Sweetheart jewelry and souvenirs were popular gifts to send back to loved ones on the home front. I've seen many examples of bracelets, rings, and pendants made from local coins, so exotic to the folks back in the USA; or aluminum bracelets made from the skin of a crashed plane, maybe even an enemy Zero; or brooches and pendants made from the clear plastic of an aircraft canopy, known as Lucite, Perspex, or Plexiglas. Often these items came from a place that became a rear area where men would have time to think about such things. For instance, there are many examples of items from Sicily in 1944, but you never see something dated 1943, when the battle raged there.

Back in the mid-1980s, I discovered this heart-shaped charm engraved "New Guinea 1944" in a box of junk at the Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market in Lambertville, New Jersey. The instant I saw it, I knew it would be coming home with me, no matter what the price. As luck would have it, it was only 50 cents! I've pondered who made that charm, who they were sending it to, and how it wound up discarded in that box of junk countless times in the thirty plus years since. In fact, answering those questions became the basis for my novel, Flying Time.

I doubt I'll ever know who made this charm. There are no distinguishing marks. I will probably never know if the artist made it personally for a loved one or if it was a souvenir purchased to send home. Was it a "mass produced" souvenir like the grass skirts that Bloody Mary and Luther Billis made in "South Pacific" or something more personal? So many of the trench art items I've seen from New Guinea appear to have the same artist. In fact, the Australian War Memorial blog confirms there were small "factories" in New Guinea producing Perspex souvenirs. This one is done in a somewhat different style and was clearly made by or commissioned by someone in the Army Air Forces. It's the collar insignia of an enlisted man or noncommissioned officer, not an officer (those have no round disk, just a propeller and wings), so perhaps it's likely to have been made or bought by a member of a ground crew or bomber crew.

I suspect the origin of this charm will stay a mystery, but imagining the story behind it might be better than knowing the truth. In the years since discovering it, I've carried this charm with me on countless adventures, big and small; from my very first airplane ride in an Airbus A320 to much more exhilarating flights in an SBD Dauntless dive bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter. And all the way back to New Guinea where it came from seventy-five years ago.

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