In one of the cases focusing on veterans at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum is a German pistol, specifically a P1908 Luger. It is clearly marked 1918, which was the year it was manufactured. It was definitely made during World War I but this type of handgun was also issued during World War II.
I enjoy military history. After I retired from the State Historical Society of Iowa in 2015, I became a volunteer at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in addition to serving on the IJHS board. At the Iowa Gold Star Museum, I work in the archives organizing and cataloging letters, diaries, scrapbooks and artifacts. Several years ago I transcribed my wife’s grandfather’s World War I diary. Grandpa Joe was always making a deal. While he was part of the occupation forces in Germany following the armistice, he somehow acquired two Lugers but traded or sold them to other soldiers in his unit. None came home.
I wanted to find out more about this Luger; accession number 2005.060.01. According to collections records, the pistol was donated by Arnold Caplan in 2005 or possibly before, but little else. The number is the year it was recorded.
So, who was Arnold Caplan?
A search through the Des Moines Register and Tribune archives located his obituary from 2009. Arnold was born in 1928 in Des Moines and after graduation from East High School in 1946 he joined the Navy. He served in the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Springfield. After his service he went to the University of Iowa and played football. He also taught in the Des Moines public schools for 35 years. Service in the Pacific after World War II is not a likely place to come home with a German Luger. Is it possible his father was a World War I veteran?
Arnold’s obituary did not mention his parents’ names, so I checked the 1940 census and found Arnold living with his family at 610 Lyon Street in Des Moines. Arnold’s father’s name was Charles. A check of World War I Draft records showed that Charles registered for the draft as required. The draft record show his birthplace was Russia (the census indicates Lithuania) in 1888. But draft registrations don’t guarantee service. Both of my grandfathers registered for the World War I draft, but they were not called up. One was a farmer and the other a rancher. In today’s terms they were essential workers and were part of the wartime supply chain.
Charles requested an exemption because he had to support his wife and a child. A check of service records at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum yielded a Caplan, but not Charles. So he was not inducted into the service during World War I. So, how did Arnold obtain this German pistol? I guess we won’t know for sure. If his children read this perhaps they can contact the IJHS with what they know. It remains an interesting artifact.
There are often mysteries in museum collections. This is why it is so important to get as much documentation from donors at the time a gift is made and to record it. In that way museums can provide more robust stories through their exhibits.