War is hell (but business is good)

Tucked in the back of a Naples antique mall you'll find Homer Helter, military collector first-class

To find Homer Helter's store you have to know where you are going.

It's concealed in a barely marked building set back from a North Naples side street.

It's buried in the back of the Shirley Street Antique Mall, behind thousands of square feet of kitsch and camp that people call collectibles, behind Batman cookie jars, behind woodcarvings of Santa, behind moth-eaten football pennants.

It's a hidden treasure for collectors of military memorabilia. Or maybe just those with a History Channel obsession.

Half-emporium and half-Smithsonian, Homer Helter's Military Relics Store is a maze of authentic items from America's greatest conflicts — the Civil War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf invasions and the mother of all wars, World War II.

Eight years ago it was a 6-foot by-12-foot booth at a local antiques mall. It has grown into an almost warehouse-size operation that does thousands of dollars of business weekly.

It's an appropriate place for a man who started out sweeping floors at a local discount store, and went on to retire 28 years later at 45, as one of the top executives for a retail conglomerate. After he retired to Naples, he tried fishing and golf neither of which suited his tastes.

Homer Helter stands between glass cases filled with original Nazi apparel and paraphernalia, which make up the bulk of his military relics business. Items range from $30 pins worn by German enlisted men to a full SS general's uniform valued at close to $50,000.

Photo by Anthony Souffle, Daily News

Homer Helter stands between glass cases filled with original Nazi apparel and paraphernalia, which make up the bulk of his military relics business. Items range from $30 pins worn by German enlisted men to a full SS general's uniform valued at close to $50,000.

Helter needed to do something. A friend suggested a military antiques store to showcase his collection.

Helter's wife of 43 years, Diana, says the store was an outlet for an energetic man too young to be retired. "He was thinking about going back into retail," she says. "I said, 'Be your own boss, do what you want to do.'"

Nearly 20 years after he retired, Helter is a success again. But the story of this store goes back much farther.

"In 1964, if you were a member of the National Rifle Association, you could buy an M-1 carbine for $20," Helter says. "So I scraped together the $20 and bought one."

In 1968, he sold one of his guns to another collector for a tidy profit, though nothing like it would have been worth if he'd kept it until now. "At the time, I thought I was Warren Buffett," he says of the financial icon. "I thought 'this Nazi (deleted) can't get any higher.'"

It's been downhill from there. Twenty-dollar rifles gave way to $1,000 hats, that in turn became thousands more in war memorabilia. Now included among Helter's personal collection: a hat worn by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the boat commander pin of John F. Kennedy, and a commendation given to John Emmons, a member of the 27th Maine company, at the end of service in the American Civil War — worth $50,000 or more.

Not that he's looking to sell it.

A Nazi medal sits on display at Homer Helter's Military Relics Store. Several of the glass cases in Helter's store are connected to members of the Third Reich.

Photo by Anthony Souffle, Daily News

A Nazi medal sits on display at Homer Helter's Military Relics Store. Several of the glass cases in Helter's store are connected to members of the Third Reich.

• • •

For Helter, now 61, the memorabilia is only as valuable as the stories that go with it.

Perhaps that's why he surrounds himself with war veterans, who have experienced something Helter has not: combat.

"You see that guy," he says, pointing out Robert Blatton (alias Ratz). Blatton was shot five times during a gun fight at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. "He's a hero. A genuine hero," Helter says.

Each of Helter's personal pieces comes with a story, the person it originally belonged to and sometimes how he acquired it.

Outside of estate sales and other collectors trading him one piece for another, Helter relies on a series of "pickers" — agents who scour flea markets, yard sales and auctions looking for relics to sell to him. Most he's never met in person, but he trusts them to find the best pieces both for his store and his personal collection.

"There are people who I've only spoken to on the phone that I'll send thousands of dollars to for something they say they have," his says.

Usually his trust pays off. Recently a picker sent him a mint condition Iron Cross commendation in its original red leather case, signed by Hitler himself. It's worth upwards of $10,000, he says.

His collection also includes some of the more macabre bits of history.

A velvet-lined, glass topped box contains the carved kneecaps taken from a Japanese solider by a Filipino resistance fighter during the Pacific portion of the World War II.

Military patches for sale line one of the display walls at Homer Helter's Military Relics Store. Though Helter specializes in World War II items, he also stocks modern-day patches and uniforms, as well as knives and T-shirts. When he first opened about 10 years ago, people told Helter it wouldn't work. 'They said, 'It'll never work in Naples,'' he remembers. In September, Helter plans to expand again, adding an entire wing of military surplus items.

Photo by Anthony Souffle, Daily News

Military patches for sale line one of the display walls at Homer Helter's Military Relics Store. Though Helter specializes in World War II items, he also stocks modern-day patches and uniforms, as well as knives and T-shirts. When he first opened about 10 years ago, people told Helter it wouldn't work. "They said, 'It'll never work in Naples,'" he remembers. In September, Helter plans to expand again, adding an entire wing of military surplus items.

"They were worn as necklaces," he says, showing them to a few people gathered around a table in the front room of his store.

There's the stag-handled knife used by another Filipino fighter to kill Japanese militarymen, complete with a scabbard made of human flesh.

"Boy, don't you throw up on me," he says to me as he opens its display box.

Then he goes toward another glass case. He moves a few helmets and pulls out a brown cardboard box. Inside is the most chilling piece of his collection — a skull found in a Nazi-run concentration camp.

It's something he hoped to donate to the Naples Holocaust Museum, which relies on Helter's generosity for a good portion of its collection.

One of those items is a medical kit, used by one of the most sadistic men in Nazi Germany — Dr. Carl Clauberg, a doctor at Auschwitz who conducted grotesque medical experiments on his captives, and killed even more just for pleasure.

But the board of directors for the museum (Helter's one of its directors) decided the skull was a little too graphic to display. "I'm just holding it here until they change their minds," he says.

Helter's been involved with the Holocaust Museum from the beginning, when a middle-school class project about the atrocities grew from the confines of a school room, staffed with volunteers, to its own 4,000-square-feet facility on U.S. 41 with paid staffers.

The relationship started when the Golden Gate Middle School students approached Helter about using some of his collection in their final presentation. Helter says he was skeptical at first, but after seeing the work and amount of creativity the children had put into it, he agreed.

A year into the museum's existence, Helter brought in curators from other local museums to critique their work. "They said we'd never last," he says. "Well, that just made me want it even more. Don't tell me I can't do something."

Now Helter has another project to keep him busy: Sending care packages to American troops in Iraq. Along with employees and others in the community, Helter has collected and shipped 8,000 pounds of food, phone cards, wet naps, batteries and just about anything else you can think of to the soldiers.

The subject of the war usually prompts an interesting discussion around Helter's store. While the general consensus is "bomb-the-hell-out-of-them" (check out the faux rope collection box labeled "For Guantanamo Prisoners"), it can also be more measured. As in: While war might be a necessary evil, it is just that. Evil.

"How can we claim to live in a civilized society when we still have war?" employee Cody Anderson asks. "If I kill someone, it's murder. How much different is this?"

There's a nod of acknowledgment as folks in the store watch Fox News on the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.

• • •

Then there's the ghastly nature of many of his relics. Helter points out a rare Nazi military hat.

"See the piping?" he asks as he points to the goldish thread that adorns the hat. He then reaches into his encyclopedic memory of Nazi relics for the explanation. "That means the person worked in a concentration camp, but he was an enlisted man not an officer."

The ghoulishness of the Nazi artifacts isn't what attracts Helter, and he says it's not why other collectors frequent his store to find rare SS uniforms and Luftwaffe memorabilia.

"A lot of people think collectors of Nazi stuff must be skinheads or fascists," he says. "But it's just history. These people are just like any other collectors."

On Friday, Ed Kazak sat at the table in Helter's store admiring two of his latest purchases, along with a group of veterans ranging from WWII to Vietnam. The first was a double-decal Luftwaffe helmet, in such great shape that the original ink stamp from 1935 was completely readable. At $900, both Kazak and Helter agree it was a steal. It could easily go for $2,000.

The men took turns trying the helmet on. A few did their best Sergeant Shultz impressions: "I hear nothing. I see nothing. I know nothing!"

Kazak's second purchase was a uniform jacket worn by a Luftwaffe general, which is still draped around a mannequin above the entryway of the store. Kazak is still getting together money to finish the deal.

Both Kazak and Helter agree the $12,500 jacket is a one-of-a-kind item. The jacket, with white lapels, wasn't the normal uniform for the Luftwaffe. "But Hitler told the generals it was OK to wear for special occasions," Kazak explains. "It's very rare. Until Homer got this one, I'd never seen one. I'll probably never see another."

"The belt alone is probably worth $2,000," Helter chimes in.

Kazak says his interest in the Luftwaffe comes from a interest in airplanes and the German military. It's an interest passed down from his father.

He admits his collection might be a bit disturbing to some people. He falls back on the "it's history" line when asked about the unsavory affiliations his memorabilia holds. "Whether it's something good or bad, it happened," he says.

The bulk of Helter's business comes from people who share his fascination with the "Big One" and have money to burn. His collectibles aren't cheap. But he sells a lot of them.

Helter credits a good chunk of his success to a resurrected interest in the World War II generation. Countless books, television specials and movies have come out over the past decade extolling its virtues and heroism.

"Never underestimate the power of the History Channel," he says. "That's a big reason for a lot of my business."

Glass cases are filled with mint condition helmets and hats, daggers and swords, uniforms and medals — worn by officers and enlisted me on all sides of the war.

The Nazis are the main focus of attention here, something Helter sees as a reaction to the fear they once invoked.

"They knew how to intimidate," he says of the Nazi regime. "And it went all the way to the way they were dressed."

•••

Homer Helter's Military Relics is located at 5510 Shirley St. You can contact Helter at 592-9882.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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