Museum curator David Hilpp

Museum curator David Hilpp is holding a photo and Purple Heart award document for Melvin Shimer, who was killed Dec. 7, 1941, on the battleship USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He is showing some of the items in the massive collection of wartime memorabilia housed at the bottom level of Crescent Jewelers in Lansing, Illinois.

Bill Crescent expertly eyed each German war relic before him – belt buckle, dagger, medals and armbands stamped with the Nazi swastika and SS sig runes.

“This is real, this is not,” Crescent told the man who brought in the items to sell. “Lot of it is reproductions.”

Years of experience meant Crescent can ascertain the items’ value in a matter of minutes.

“Once you’ve made a bad mistake buying something once, you don’t do it again,” he said.

That said, he offered the Gold Canyon resident $300 for the box of war mementos, which was readily accepted.

“It’s been sitting around and I have no kids to give it to,” Robert Redman, 56, said. “It was just collecting dust. It was just time.”

Redman said he began collecting World War II items because of his family history. 

“My uncle was a POW,” Redman explained. “He was one of six Americans at Dachau at the end of the war.”

Dachau, located outside Munich, Germany, was the first Nazi concentration camp.

The biggest find that Saturday at the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Gilbert was a 200-year-old samurai sword sold by a woman whose father brought it back from the war, Crescent said. He paid $400 for it, which he said was not in good condition considering the blade was rusted.

The day before, he purchased three samurai swords from a collector in Glendale for $3,000, Crescent said.

For six days, Crescent traveled to 10 Valley communities buying military war relics with an emphasis on Civil War, World 1 and World II items – daggers, samurai swords, bayonets, helmets, flags, medals, firearms and other memorabilia.

Crescent, a jeweler by trade, developed a passion for collecting wartime memorabilia at 12. 

Today at 57, he amassed such a sizable personal collection dating from the American Revolution to the Gulf War, prompting him to established a military museum in the lower level of his jewelry store in Lansing, Illinois. He has a second store in Frankfort, Illinois.

Crescent’s recent haul from Arizona also included a couple of German daggers from Mesa and a tail section of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 – a German World War II fighter aircraft and the one item he lacked among his war collection, which numbers into the thousands.

According to Crescent, he spent about $18,000 to buy over 100 items.

This is the second year Crescent has been to Arizona, offering to buy military items.

Last year’s purchases in the state included a medal, Chinese leather patches and personal effects of a pilot with the 14th Air Force, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, which fought the Japanese in China during World War II.

He also bought two samurai swords, including one roughly 300 years old, according to David Hilpp, curator for the military museum and himself a collector since age 7.

Hilpp said the museum doesn’t glorify war and is more than just a collection of military artifacts purchased from veterans or their families. When they buy the items, they want to know the owner’s story.

“We want to know who they were, get pictures of them when they were kids or older men or during the war,” Hilpp said. “We always want the back story, the love letters, discharge papers. People can connect better to a display if they can see who actually owned them.”

Crescent and Hilpp began buying military relics around the mid-90s starting off in the Chicago area and soon traveling to states east of the Mississippi such as New York, Kentucky, Atlanta and Georgia.

“We do this five to seven times a year, it’s a lot of work and effort,” Hilpp said.

And, the trips are a sort of a gamble, Crescent added, noting lot of money is spent on traveling and advertising the events. But Crescent said he enjoyed the hunt for treasures to add to the museum and meeting people.

In Arizona, Crescent met 50 Chicago transplants and a man who taught his wife when she was in the 8th grade in Highland, Indiana.

The duo’s effort to date yield gems once belonging to German dictator Adolf Hitler, Japan’s Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein.

“We have autographs and personal items from notorious people of World War II and the finest Civil War presentation swords from both the North and the South,” Hilpp said. 

And the collection of samurai swords was over 700, give or take 20, Crescent said.

“Every sword is different, it’s not like they were mass-produced,” he explained. “They are all handmade.”

The museum also houses parts of Hitler’s personal silverware set, a serving tray, fruit bowl and gravy boat.

“I have his letterhead and an extremely rare order that was autographed by him,” Hilpp said.

He said Hitler’s personal items came from relatives of U.S. Army lawyers who participated in the Nuremberg trials, which tried Nazis for their war crimes.

“Looked like these lawyers were given Nazi silverware as a gift and they brought it home,” Hilpp said.

The museum also has items signed by Tojo, a veteran brought back to the United States from his duty as a prison guard of war criminals in Japan.

“He traded signatures for cigarettes,” Hilpp said.

Modern-day items include silverware belonging to Hussein and cigars belonging to his equally notorious oldest son, Uday Hussein.

“I have some of Saddam Hussein’s personal flatware service that was brought back from a veteran who stuck it in a boombox radio,” Hilpp said. “He took out the guts and put in the cigars and silverware into the boombox and shipped it home to his family. He never came home. He was killed and the souvenirs we have were snuck out by him. It’s a heartbreaker.”

He said the family sold the items because it was too hard for them to keep them.

The museum’s massive collection sits in three attached rooms in the jewelry store’s basement.  

“We bought the building next door and broke through the wall to expand what is on display,” Hilpp said. 

The museum offers visits by appointment and tours for the public three to five times a week since 2012 and has had people from all over the world come view the collection.

“The tours are free,” Hilpp said. “We don’t want donations; we prefer to buy things from people.”  

Hilpp declined to disclose the collection’s value but noted veterans who have seen the collection are overcome by emotion.

“We’ve had offers to have our museum go to Beijing, China and Hong Kong for a temporary exhibit,” Hilpp said. “We loan groups of things to local junior high and high schools on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day so kids have a sense of history. (And) experts from around the world have looked at our items and photographed them. We don’t have tanks and airplanes but we get the small things.”

Hilpp said they’ve been approached to a reality show much like “Pawn Stars,” which they’ve flat-out rejected twice.

“We do this for a noble reason,” he said. “This is to honor veterans and to honor the people who never came back.”

To visit Crescent’s war museum

Location: 18049 Torrence Ave., Lansing Illinois.

For information or to book a visit, call 877-494-9342.