A chance-in-a-million find
A tradition among American servicemen in WWII, involving swapping paper money with their signatures on it, was the source of an improbable find for an area collector of WWII memorabilia and a Sparta family.
Gary Ascher of Sparta, who is an avid collector of historical items from Sparta and Camp McCoy (now Ft. McCoy), was scanning an online auction site of WWII memorabilia when he noticed a “short snorter.”
A short snorter was the term attached to a tradition among servicemen, where they would sign dollar bills, paper script or any sort of bank notes and swap them with other servicemen. The ritual began with aviators, who swapped the notes with crew members to mark milestones such as crossing the Atlantic.
They often collected dozens of them that were taped together and kept accessible. When two servicemen met who had previously swapped short snorters and one couldn’t produce the bill with the other’s name on it, he was penalized by having to buy a round of drinks. A short snort was the slang expression for a shot of liquor.
As over 16 million servicemen mobilized for WWII, the tradition spread among all branches of the service as a way of keeping a keepsake of a buddy’s signature. Needless to say, millions of these short snorters, some reaching several yards long, were passed among millions of servicemen.
So, last September, when Ascher was searching through short snorters on the online auction site, it was improbable he would find someone he knew, much less someone from Sparta – but he did.
“I have no idea why I decided to page through the multiple pages of the short snorter,” he said. “Maybe it was fate.”
As he scanned the photos the name of Sparta native Ray Wanlass popped out.
Wanlass was the founder of Ray’s grocery store, which was located on the 100 block of West Main Street next to the Sparta Library. He opened the business in 1953. It was one of downtown Sparta’s anchor stores, which he later sold to his son Bruce.
Ascher purchased he short snorter and contacted Bruce, who still lives in Sparta. Bruce was amazed Ascher had stumbled upon it considering the millions of short snorters passed around during WWII.
He said his father, who died in 2004, served in the Army and was onboard a transport in the South Pacific in August 1945 as part of the invasion force heading for the Japanese mainland when the atomic bomb was dropped, ending the war. Bruce thought his father likely signed the short snorter while on the ship.
“What are the chances of finding that,” he said. “Sixteen million men served in the military during WWII.”
The one-yen note Ray signed was part a short snorter containing dozens of other signed bills. Ascher said one of the Wanlass family members has expressed interest in it, otherwise he plans to donate it to the Monroe County Local History Room.