Robby Wilson’s childhood was charmed by a favorite uncle who traveled the world and brought back gifts that no mother could really appreciate.
For instance, Uncle Wimpy once bestowed upon young Robby a real samurai sword. Another time, he delivered a World War II German army helmet. The boy got an observation blister from a B-36, a practice bomb, a number of different flight helmets and other military gear through the years.
As boys will do, Robby painted stars and chevrons onto his gifts and set about playing war in the backyard with other neighborhood kids. “We all were trying to be Sgt. Rock,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot, in terms of a collection – 30 or 40 pieces. I was going to build a submarine with the observation blister. We would play with them, and Uncle Wimpy would just laugh. He wasn’t a collector. He just had this stuff.”
Uncle Wimpy was no ordinary relative. Winston Peabody Wilson was a World War II combat pilot who flew P-38s in and out of hotspots in the Pacific theater as a member of the Arkansas Air National Guard. “He would touch down, bullets whizzing, leave one of his engines running to keep the electrical power going, and he would run to the supply sergeant and say, ‘What do you guys got?’ And they would trade stuff. In the trading, he would end up with a sword or a Japanese helmet – crazy stuff like that – and he would just throw it into the airplane, take off and go back. He would take whiskey with him, whatever they needed that they couldn’t ordinarily get. So, when you see these supply rats who have things, like in ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ or whatever, and you wonder how in the world did they get that? It was pilots like my uncle.”
After World War II, Uncle Wimpy went on to overhaul and strengthen the U.S. Air National Guard, receiving his brigadier general’s star in 1954. He served as chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Air Force Division in Washington before he was appointed chief of the bureau in 1963, which gave him a second star and a title he held until his retirement in 1971. He flew from country to country throughout his career, building relationships with foreign governments, negotiating treaties to require English-speaking controllers in foreign airport towers, and gathering more stuff for Robby’s collection. A bit eccentric, a bit narcissistic, the general was, according to his nephew, “the coolest guy who ever lived. I loved my Uncle Wimpy.”
By the time Robby Wilson made it to law school, and most of the artifacts his uncle had given him had been decommissioned or tossed out after years of play, he realized that many of the items he’d had in his hands were, in fact, rare military artifacts.
As his law career took off during the 1980s, so too did his passion for such things. “I started going to mortgage banking conventions and started wandering in and out of shops,” he explains. “One thing led to another, and after several years, I had a collection of about 300 items. Then I began to make sense of it all.”
The world of military antique and memorabilia collecting, Wilson quickly learned, is nearly fathomless. There are collectors of vehicles, weapons, uniforms, documents, letters, knives, photographs, equipment and even aircraft, from every country, for every known conflict. There are collectors of certain kinds of headgear, such as SS helmets, and certain types of weapons from particular war eras. The market for such items is as global as the history of armed conflict. To keep from drowning in his own passion, Wilson knew he had to refine the mission. He chose to focus on 20th-century headgear.
As he was assembling what is now the world’s largest collection of helmets, képis, boonie hats, visor caps, pickelhauben, chapkas, berets and other variations of cover, a mathematical reality struck Wilson. “After really studying this, we realized that the century started with 54 countries and ended with 197. That doesn’t include opposition governments. Every government – even illegitimate governments – has an army, something like a navy, something like a marine corps, something like an air force. For each of those branches of service or specialties, there are a minimum of three uniforms. Some specialties had seven or eight – combat uniforms, dress uniforms, mess uniforms, and it goes on – each with hats and helmets that change on a regular basis and can change within 90 days. So, if you have all these permutations going on, we came to predict that there are at least 1 million pieces designed, funded and produced by governments. And for every core piece, there are 10 modifications. So, there are 10 million. We now have more than 12,000 pieces of headgear, the largest collection on the planet, and we’ve got millions to go.”
By 2008, Wilson & Associates, PLLC, had grown into one of the most prominent real-estate law firms in the South, with 34 attorneys, more than 300 employees, and campuses in Arkansas and Tennessee. At that point, Wilson, the managing attorney for the firm, decided to reduce his personal caseload and devote more attention to the headgear collection and, honestly, finding a purpose for it.
He launched the Wilson History & Research Center as a nonprofit foundation in 2008. He hired a team of researchers, curators, photographers and website developers to begin following a list of four objectives, which are embroidered onto the sleeves of their company polo shirts:
“It’s a research facility,” says Jim Muir, a former trader of military memorabilia and now an associate at the center. “It’s obviously the passion of one individual who has amalgamated this group of folks who all share the same focus. The center lends pieces out to museums, research and educational institutions throughout the world (because) no matter how much you are interested in history, how much you read or watch movies, to have something like this in your hands and feel its texture is a much bigger thing.”
Since it opened with approximately 1,000 pieces that Wilson had collected over the years, the center has been on a continuous quest for more. Because it is a nonprofit foundation, the center can offer tax deductions for those who donate helmets or other headgear. Staff members at the center also prowl the Web for pieces to buy, even hitting rummage sales from time to time, especially if they think they can find a piece that will help complete a particular set. “It’s kind of like being a paleontologist, where you put together the pieces of a skeleton and find the missing links,” Wilson says. “That’s essentially what this is.”
Packages arrive daily, and staff researchers record the items by categories such as war era, nation of origin, type of headgear and other criteria, all of which can be browsed and cross-referenced online. Detailed images of the items are presented on the center’s website – www.militaryheadgear.com – a virtual museum that attracts about 1,000 visitors a day and so far features only about one-third of the 12,000 pieces from the collection. The site also publishes articles, videos and photos about military memorabilia, war history and, when pertinent, the stories of those who once wore specific pieces of the collection. The center has, for instance, a fore-and-aft hat worn by Adm. John McCain, grandfather of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. It has a full uniform of Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, commander of the Allied forces during World War I, along with the képi he is believed to have worn after 1918. The collection has a leather-and-fur “bunny cap” worn by German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who surrendered at Stalingrad against Adolf Hitler’s wishes and was taken captive by the Red Army in the winter of 1943. If you’re looking for the helmet Maj. Richard “Dick” Winters wore during the Korean War, following his World War II tour that was famously portrayed in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” it’s at the center. Also in the collection is a visor cap worn by Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, and a specially designed gas mask intended to prevent National Guard troops from inhaling marijuana smoke while controlling crowds during the Vietnam War protest movement.
Every item is housed in its own clear plastic container and meticulously stacked, floor to ceiling, in climate-controlled rooms adjacent to the center, now located in an office park on the western outskirts of Little Rock. “People don’t realize that Little Rock, Ark., definitively houses the world’s largest collection of military headgear,” Muir says. “This is it.”
While the collection does have other items, including some full uniforms, flags, fine-scale models, musical instruments and weapons, the center’s historical narrative is written in headgear, primarily that of the 20th century and not restricted to any one nation. The website houses images of items from governments spanning from Albania to Zimbabwe, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Paulista rebellion in Brazil to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Wilson believes the collection has a meaning greater than the sum of its parts, and that war leaders throughout human history have long understood and exploited the psychological power of a well-designed headpiece.
“What I have begun to realize is that from the beginning of time, helmets have caused bonding so strong that people were willing to die over a headpiece,” Wilson explains. “Go back to the cave men. You’ve got cave men who wore wolfskins on their heads and, theoretically, didn’t speak any languages. The only way to tell the good guy from the bad guy is if they were wearing a bearskin or a wolfskin. These are not just helmets or headpieces. They represent power. They represent sex. They represent wealth. Dominance. But who is it for? It’s for the older members of the tribe to impose their philosophies on younger members of the tribe.
“Go back to the 300 (of Sparta). There were maybe 1,000 helmets ever made, but they were passed down ... When somebody died on the battlefield, one of the most important things to get was the helmet. You absorbed the soul of that guy in you. The 300 had that red comb above the helmet, and if you had the red comb, you would die for somebody you never met. Instantly, you would give up your life. Who came up with the theories for that? The kings.”
“The French adopted Medusa on their helmets,” Muir explains. “That is supposed to turn your enemy to stone as you charge at them. There’s symbolism in everything these guys wore. Look at the pre-unification German city-states – Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon. Each one of those has a heritage, a pride. You have the Prussian helmets with the Prussian lying eagle on it. You have the Saxon helmets with the rearing Saxon lion on it. These were not for protection. They were for parade.”
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, designed helmets to resemble the menacing headgear of Darth Vader from the “Star Wars” movies (the center has two), which is often connected to the shape of German combat helmets of World War II.
“Our collection does not glorify war,” says Wilson, who served six years in the Arkansas Air National Guard. “We honor warriors, on both sides. History is filled with accounts of soldiers, no matter the political issue, remaining in combat because they didn’t want to let their buddies down. It all goes back to what they had on their heads.”
The Wilson History & Research Center is now three years into a five-year plan that aims to position the facility as the foremost global authority on 20th-century military headgear, a resource for historians and collectors alike. Already, the center lends pieces to museums and institutions with specific interests. “If you want to do an exhibit on leadership and you want to bring up Dick Winters, you can’t just go out and buy his helmet,” Wilson says. “But you can borrow it from us.”
Authentication is one of the center’s highest priorities. Staff researchers use X-ray fluorescence technology to analyze polymers in steel helmets in order to accurately determine their age. “I would say we have had about 150 fakes come in over the years,” says Dan Roberts, history director at the center. Whenever the center encounters a fake, the piece is sandblasted, painted with chrome and, says Roberts, “kept off the militaria market.”
“We have an impeccable reputation to uphold,” Wilson adds. “We do not want to hear about someone saving $6,000 to pay for a helmet that is not what a dealer claims it is. I have a big laugh all the time about Napoleon’s hat. Napoleon had maybe three hats. I know of at least 60 that are for sale.”
More than 50 years have passed since Uncle Wimpy started bringing Robby Wilson helmets and other military gear, but his enthusiasm for the collection is as strong now as when he was a boy.
“There is no child on Christmas who gets more excited than Robby Wilson when he gets another helmet in the mail,” says his ex-wife, Jennifer Wilson-Harvey, who remains a close friend and chief operating officer at the law firm.
“Yeah, my favorite helmet is always the one I just got today,” Wilson says. “It’s an illness.”
Illness is another subject Wilson understands.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and given six weeks to live. “My doctor told me to return home to Little Rock, wrap up my affairs and spend the short amount of time I had left with my family,” Wilson explains in a 2011 “Faces of Cancer” video posted on YouTube by the American Cancer Society of Arkansas. “I decided I was not going to give up. I was going to fight this.”
Medical care at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in Little Rock defied the original prognosis, and by the end of 2010 the cancer in his original treatment area was gone. A few months later, it returned and was surgically removed in May 2011. He continues to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatment to fight the disease.
“I learned that a positive attitude can bring success to anything,” he says in the video. “I believe optimism is a critical component of a person’s cancer journey.”
The same would have to be true for the 60-year-old collector who understands the mathematical improbability of finding some 9.9 million more military headpieces to complete the collection before time runs out.
“This is my passion,” Wilson says with a smile, roaming the rows of stacked plastic containers, 100 pounds lighter than he was two years ago, his hair having grown back straight where before it was curly, delighted to explain the finer points of pickelhauben and slouch hats, or how the designs of Turkish guard helmets had something to do with Steven Spielberg’s grandfather. “I’m the healthiest dead man you’ve ever seen,” he tells a group touring the center.
The key to his defiance of the odds may just be that Robby Wilson never outgrew the thrill of getting something new from Uncle Wimpy or an unexpected package in the mail, which just might contain a new piece to ponder and try to fit somewhere into the enormous puzzle of it all.
Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.