Hero in War, Pawn of Chance..by Henry Sakaida
A winning hand!There is nothing worse than attending a collector show with near empty pockets. We’ve all experienced that feeling. All too frequently, you see something you want but can’t afford. Sometimes you wish you had never laid eyes on it. And sometimes, under a seemingly hopeless situation, things do work out well at the end.
On 24 February 2006 I attended the annual and very popular Show of Shows event in Louisville, Kentucky. This is strictly military and unlike gun shows, you won’t see dealers hawking beef jerky, Beanie Babies, sunglasses, and kitchen gadgets.
I was very surprised to see several well known dealers of Soviet orders and medals. While casually browsing down the aisles, I came across a Hero of the Soviet Union
Type 1 Gold Star Medal with Paul McDaniel’s certificate of authenticity. I had given up collecting such medals because of the sad stories associated with them; I had returned two of them to the next-of-kin years earlier. My new
Gold Star Medal for Hero of the Soviet Union
Type 1, Early Suspension, Gold Star Medal for Hero of the Soviet Union #282 awarded to Stepan Nikolenko for his participation in the Winter War against the Finns.
Closeup of reverse of HSU medal #282
Reverse of #282
hobby was collecting Japanese Samurai swords.
“This Hero Medal belonged to a Soviet tank driver named
Stepan Nikolenko who won it in the Winter War against the Finns” said the dealer. Always int erested in the journey of such medals, I inquired as to how he had acquired it. His memory was somewhat hazy and his explanation a little confusing.
“I actually acquired it from a man in Pennsylvania named George X who collected German stuff. I traded him a mint Czech Brno Vz24 rifle,” explained Harry. “I didn’t know anything about Soviet medals back in the early 80s. It was very heavy and I knew it was real gold. I actually bought it for the high gold content with the thought of reselling it. I took it to a few small shows, but no one showed any interest until I came here.
”“George told me that he won it in a card game on a $35 bet from a guy named John X,” continued Harry. “He was at John’s house and John was a heavy drinker and during the
game, he had run out of cash, so he retrieved this medal and tossed it onto the table. John said that he got the medal from a guy whom he knew as ‘Stanley the Ukrainian.’ I don’t know the circumstances of how he got the medal from Stanley.
"George told me that Stanley got it in the war with the Finns,” continued Harry. “During WWII, Stanley was attached to Polish units that were defeated by the Germans. Stanley survived and headed back to get reassigned. The closer he got to HQ, the more he was convinced that he was going to be killed by the KGB or some other organization. So he bypassed HQ and went to get his wife to escape to the West, but she refused. Eventually Stanley made his way to the American side and worked with them. By doing this, he was able to get to America. He ended up being a concrete finisher in Morgantown, West Virginia. Both George and Stanley are dead now.
"It all sounds pretty wild to me!” I said to Harry. However, Harry assured me that he had no reason to make up the story. “Stanley was a defector, so I heard. Perhaps he was a big talker as well and got the medal through some other means. I had no reason to believe other than the story that George had related to me.
”If Harry’s explanation had been clear with a lot of details, I would have been suspicious. Many pieces of militaria at the show were rife with “stories” attached to justify their outrageous prices. Harry was a part time dealer who did not specialize in Soviet medals. His Type 1
was the only Soviet item on his table amongst old hunting rifles and supplies.
I thanked Harry for showing me the medal and walked away. A few minutes later, I received a cell phone call from my buddy in California. “How’s the hunting?” Dave asked. I told him that I had just come across a Type 1 HSU medal. “How much?” he asked. “When I quoted the price, his response was, “Damn! That’s half of what the dealers are asking!” Then a long pause which alarmed me. He’d been searching for the ultra rare Type 1 since he got into the hobby a few years ago.
“How much money do you have?” asked Dave. I knew what was coming. “I brought a few hundred bucks to last me three days, I’m down a hundred since arriving yesterday, and I’ve only been here for 20 minutes!” I whimpered. “I didn’t’ come here to buy anything; I came down here to see
some friends and hang out with them.
"Buy it for me!” came the excited plea. “I don’t have the bucks!” I protested. My friend was
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