I knew I wasn't going to buy it, but I picked it up and started examining it anyway. It's something of a routine for us watch-obsessed to feign just enough interest in order to snag a moment to hunt for a small detail in a watch that might fascinate us, but of course we don't act too interested lest the seller senses our excitement. But this seller latched on to me for another reason. He was excited that I was not only polite enough to stand out in the June heat and listen to his tales, but interested enough to genuinely appreciate them.*
And boy did he have some good ones. As a collector, I enjoyed hearing how every year he drives a real Jeep that was used in the filming of the TV show M*A*S*H, down the main street of his small town in Pennsylvania to much fanfare from the local community. He went from that to the twisted tale of Martin James Monti, a disturbingly recounting of a WWII traitor; Monti was an American airman who stole a F-5E Lightning (a reconnaissance version of the P-38) and piloted it to Milan where he handed it over to German forces and immediately surrendered, only later to become an SS propaganda specialist. Somehow after surrendering to the US after an Allied victory, he was allowed to re-enlist in the Army Air Force and later honorably discharged in 1948. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would end up spending hours listening to more stories like this, examining watches between the tales.*
Issued WWII watches for sale.
I suspect this specific environment was one of the only places he could find people who shared his passion for collecting old military things, so it's no surprise he had plenty to talk about. It was WWII Weekend in Reading, Pennsylvania. The festival is billed as the largest WWII reenactment in the country. I was there to see the variety of planes flown by the Mid-Atlanitc Air Museum, including a P-51D Mustang dubbed "KWITCHERBITCHIN,” but I ended up with a bonus lesson on the fascinating culture of WWII reenactors. One tidbit I learned from the WWII militaria dealer I was chatting with was that they did not like "private purchase" watches and instead mostly purchased only genuine A-11 and Army Ordnance Dept. watches, even though it's well known that many soldiers used their own watches during the war. It was an essential piece of gear, and to some it just didn't matter where it came from as long as they had a functioning wristwatch.*
Ironically some private purchase watches were technically superior to the general issue watches the government with which the government supplied soldiers. But part of the reenactment culture, as I learned, is making sure every little last bit of the outfit was period correct. One reenactor even went as far as to feign a transatlantic accent while speaking to me. I didn't bother telling him that most people of the time didn't actually speak like that. The watch was also an important part of the get-up, and the dealer that I had been speaking to was there to sell genuine WWII watches to reenactors as part of their kit. He had hundreds of them, categorized by what branch of service may have used them. Only the watch I had in my hand was not a military issued wristwatch. Instead it was a civilian market Hamilton, with a typical '30s roman numeral dial – perhaps that's why it hadn't been sold to any one of the thousands of reenactors present.
A reenactor wearing an issued watch.
P-51D Mustang at WWII Weekend
History isn't something we only read about in textbooks; in some cases we can touch it. We can run our hands through the sand at Omaha beach in Normandy where as many as 12,000 Allied soldiers died; at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in NYC we can feel the chill of the steel I-beams that were plucked from the rubble and put on display. There's something very powerful about the tactile ritual of feeling an object with some history behind it. Hearing or reading about *important historical events is one thing, but actually holding a piece of history in your hands is another. In this specific case, I was strapping history on my wrist. I was trying on what looked like a '30s or '40s Hamilton, and I flipped it over to take a look at the caseback. Casebacks of this era are usually devoid of any interesting details; most were totally sterile in appearance. But this watch had a beautiful personal engraving.
Lt. G.C. Fullenkamp / Best Wishes / From Your / Fed. Mach. & Welder Co. Friends
The engraving must have taken incredible care to get right, with triangular serifs and small capitals. I was drawn in because it symbolized a time when people still made things with their hands. Casebacks today are designed and laid out on a computer, with engravings usually done by laser; when it's done by hand it's less sterile, and the way letters connect and flow is far more considered.*
But then, I got to wondering about the man behind the engraving. Had Lt. G.C. Fullenkamp been drafted? Was this a watch gifted to him from his work buddies to send him off to war? More importantly, did he ever get the chance to come back home?*
I immediately got the sense that this was not my watch. It wasn't even the seller's. I wasn't entirely sure that I should have been handling it. Even if I did decide to buy it, it would never really belong to me. It was literally etched in metal, right there on the caseback, to whom this watch belonged. Lt. G.C. Fullenkamp was the rightful owner. It was haunting to think that this watch had most likely been worn by a man who fought and perhaps, died for his country.
I ended up buying it with the intention of getting it back to where it belonged. I didn't know where to start, and I knew Lt. G.C. Fullenkamp was most likely no longer with us, but maybe he had sons or daughters, or even grandchildren who were alive.*
So I set out to find them.*
A quick Google led me to Leonard Fullenkamp, a retired soldier who had served as a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle in addition to holding command positions with the famed 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the 42nd Field Artillery Brigade, and the 25th Division. He had dedicated his life to serving our nation; I had a hunch that he would understand how important it was to get this watch back to someone who also found it meaningful.*
I was even hoping it was his father's, or even grandfather's watch; it seemed likely that it would have been the case. There aren't many Fullenkamps in the United States.*
But it wasn't. The Fullenkamps, as Mr. Fullenkamp explained, split when they came to America. There were two branches – one in Pennsylvania, and another in Ohio. Our conversation did narrow down the search area, however. And suddenly things started to add up. Fed. Mach. & Welder Co. was the abreviation for Federal Machine & Welder Company, located in Warren, Ohio. I found an article published in the Cincinnati Enquirer dated April 6th, 1937 announcing that "four New York men had acquired substantial interest in the concern." Those greedy New Yorkers. Earlier in 1920, a book titled The Iron Age Catalouge of American Exports asserted that Federal Machine & Welder Company was the largest producer of electric welders in the country. I surmise that at least a few of the employees were very thoughtful. After all, friends of Lt. Fullenkamp associated with Federal Machine & Welder Company had bought what was at the time a pretty good watch, with an engraved dedication, no less.*
Lt. Fullenkamp's name also appears in a 1935 edition of The Army and Navy Journal, but unfortunately the actual document *proved very difficult to get my hands on. Removing it from some dusty shelf in some dusty basement was harder than anticipated, so I have not yet been able to identify in what capacity Lt. Fullenkamp served.*
I called every modern Fullenkamp in the phone book, but it led to a dead end. What I did learn, however, is how something amazing happens when you pick up the phone and start dialing strangers asking for help with a strange mission that takes some time to explain. More people are willing to take time out of their day to talk to a guy who has a crazy idea about a watch than I had anticipated. One fellow even offered to visit the county records office in Ohio. **
If you happen to know any Fullenkamps that trace their roots back to Ohio, please reach out in the comments.*
When I bought the watch I asked the seller if he had any others with similar engravings. About half a year later I got an email invitation to visit the seller at his home in rural Pennsylvania to check out a few more watches. I obliged. We spent the better part of an entire day chatting, and I left with three more watches.*
The stories behind these engraved watches fascinated me, and in a strange way I felt I was doing my small part by trying to reunite these watches with the families of service members who sacrificed so much. The watch nerd in me fetishized these pieces for the stories engraved – and scratched – in the metal, but I also knew that to the families of the men whose names were on the casebacks that the significance simply transcends any watch-related interest. It was never totally a horological pursuit of mine, instead it was about leveraging my passion for wristwatches to get these pieces back where they belonged. The watch is more meaningful to the relative of a service member than it is to a collector.*
The next watch was much harder to decode. I'll skip right to it: This watch hasn't made it back to any surviving family member yet. Engraved in the caseback is the following message:*
To / Pike Beall / From / Co-Workers / Edgewood Arsenal / 1942
Civilians and soldiers worked at Edgewood Arsenal during the thick of WWII. It's uncertain what Mr. Beall's role was, however.
There are a few pockets of Bealls in the northeast corner of Maryland, but none of them that I had contacted had any relatives named Pike. Given the nature of what went on at Edgewood Arsenal, I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Beall had gone dark after putting in his time working there. He may have had zero involvement in the dirty work, but given the date stamped in the caseback it puts Mr. Beall squarely in the middle of some dark times at the Arsenal. The New Yorker ran a round-up in 2012 on the shadowy operations that were carried out at Edgewood. The facility was mostly known for human experiments with chemical warfare agents, and the manufacturing of chemical weapons.*
It's not easy reckoning with the ugly side of war efforts carried out on the homefront. What happened at Edgewood Arsenal wasn't pretty, and I suspect the larger public doesn't even know the half of it. We tend to glorify the heroic actions of soldiers on the battlefield that earned an Allied victory during WWII, and to an extent, the actions it takes to maintain the position as a global hegemon in the modern world, but looking into the history of this specific watch served as a reminder of the high price once paid right here at home.*
I didn’t get much further with the second watch of the bunch, either. The caseback engraving was simple:*
W.H. Croner, Lt. / U.S.N. / 309657
The service number provides a clue to the chronology of the watch. At the outbreak of WWII the service number cap of 125,000 was just being reached. By the end it was extended to *350,000. In 1945 it was extended even further to 600,000. That puts Lt. Croner right in the range of WWII. The watch is an Elgin Army Ordnance watch, an incredibly popular timepiece during that era. Soldiers were even trained to fix this very watch in the field as outlined in TM 9-1575 Ordnance Maintenance: Wrist Watches, Pocket Watches, Stop Watches, and Clocks 1945-04-06.
Without being the next of kin to Lt. Croner or a current service member, using the supplied service number proved difficult. There's a long process one must go through to look up enlistment records from WWII. Army service numbers are easy, *but the Navy proved more difficult. I'm still working on this one.*
I was zero for three at this point, and the fourth watch wasn't looking much better. It was significantly smaller than the rest, but an engraver made full use of all the real estate on the caseback:*
To / Lieut. A. C. Jones / RCNR / From / Royal Sovereign / Sea Cadet Corps / Sault Ste Marie / -1941-
Canadian! It was difficult enough to track down folks in America, let alone across an international border. I started with an online archive search and came up with a direct match almost instantly. The British kept excellent records. The beauty of bureaucracy rarely ever reveals itself, but in this instance I couldn't be more thankful for the sticklers who recorded every detail. Lieutenant A.C. Jones' name appeared on a manifest with "In Command" in parenthesis. A small museum in Oakville, Ontario held the records. The story was about to get interesting.*
I got in touch with the museum and ended up getting much more than I bargained for. It turns out the Lt. Alex C. Jones was the commander of the HMCS Oakville, a corvette class warship that saw plenty of action during WWII; it was an escort heavily involved in The Battle of the Atlantic. A historian local to the Toronto area, Sean E. Livingston, himself a Naval reservist officer, had penned an entire book on the HMCS Oakville in 2014 and for the book performed thorough research on Lt. Jones. I felt like I had struck gold.*
The ship was named after the town of Oakville, and it was commissioned *on November 18, 1941. The town of Oakville hosted an enormous celebration to commemorate and honor the warship and its crew. Of course Lt. Alex C. Jones was in attendance as the ship's first commanding officer. He delivered a powerful speech to the crowd. Livingston outlines the scene in his book:
Back on land, Jones and his entourage received a chorus of cheers from the assembled crowd. Members of the Oakville Corvette Committee then escorted the CO to the podium, where Nelles, Macdonald, Deans, and various other officials waited. Along the way, Jones smiled and waved to the masses, undoubtedly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers in attendance.
I was lucky enough to connect with Mr. Livingston and show him the watch. He had formulated a theory on its origin story.*
The Sea Cadet Corps played a much larger role in WWII than they do in naval warfare today. From the engraving, we can conclude that the watch was a gift to Lt. Jones from the Royal Sovereign Sea Cadet Corps, and the date would suggest that it was most likely presented to him when the HMCS Oakville was passing through Sault Ste. Marie. It was customary for Sea Cadets Corps units to present gifts to reviewing officers after completing a parade inspection. It's likely that Lt. Jones served as a reviewing officer when the HMCS Oakville stopped at Sault Ste. Marie. The gifts had to be useful, as they were the last thing officers received before heading to war.*
The Canadian Navy had a lot of corvettes of this class during WWII – the Flower class, of which Oakville was one, were based on a Boston whaler design, and that made them quick and nimble, but the downside was that the ship's size and design meant, often, a wet and rocky ride for the crew. This was especially true in the open Atlantic; they had originally been intended only for coastal service but they were frequently employed as transatlantic convoy escorts as well. Unfortunately, Jones suffered from chronic seasickness. He would have had the watch with him in his quarters as he was likely presented the watch on the ship's journey from Port Arthur eastward to take part in the Battle of the Atlantic. The HMCS Oakville would act as protection to a supply convoys *back and forth across the Atlantic to England.*
After Jones transferred command of the ship and took a post on land, the Oakville played a pivotal role in an encounter with the Nazis in the Caribbean. During a convoy from Trinidad to Key West, *Oakville encountered a German U-boat. An American PBY plane initiated contact, and a skirmish at sea quickly erupted. From an American Naval Intelligence report:
The PBY plane dropped four 650-pound depth charges from 50 feet, then dropped a flare. U-94 was somewhere between 30 and 60 feet below the surface, according to prisoners' estimates, when the plane's depth charges exploded.
The U-boat nosed upward and surfaced. The crew made vain efforts to submerge.
Meanwhile, H.M.C.S. Oakville closed. According to her report on the action, she had seen the airplane flashing "S's" by signal lamp as well as the flare. She proceeded full speed ahead toward the flare, at which spot five depth charges set at 100 feet were dropped. Shortly afterwards Oakville obtained ... Asdic [an early form of sonar] contact. Less than one-half minute afterwards, a lookout sighted the bow of a submarine on the bearing indicated, about 100 yards distant, and slowly opening. Course was altered to ram. The U-boat passed under Oakville's bow, but bumped against the corvette's port side when the hitter turned hard to port. Oakville opened fire and altered course to ram again. She scored a hit on the conning tower and a 4-inch shell carried away the U-boat's deck gun. U-94 appeared to be taking avoiding action by increasing her speed. Oakville rammed the starboard side of the U-boat, then dropped depth charges, one of which appeared to explode directly under the U-boat which rapidly decreased speed. Oakville then opened range and rammed a third time, this time squarely abaft conning tower.
A boarding party from Oakville accepted the surrender of U-94, whose crew scuttled her.
Back to the watch. Finally I found the link I was looking for, and ironically it ended up leading me to our brothers in arms to the North. I now knew the history of the watch, but didn't quite know what to do with it.*
The town of Oakville, Ontario has a small museum with frequent exhibitions about Oakville and the events that took place when the warship pulled into town in 1941 on its way out to war. Instead of tracking down the Jones lineage, it made sense for all the residents of Oakville to be able to enjoy the watch and hopefully add a little color to the narratives of a heroic generation that's quickly disappearing. The watch was shipped from HODINKEE HQ last month as a donation to the museum. It will be on display in an upcoming exhibit.*
It was originally a gift from the Royal Sovereign Sea Cadet Corps to Lt. A.C. Jones, given as a piece of equipment to aid in the larger battle that would determine the fate of the world. Nothing is known of the watch's journey since it was gifted to Jones, but now, 78 years later, it's in a different kind of service, as a reminder of the grim and desperate business that was the Battle Of The Atlantic.*


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