Theater-Made Militaria: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia…are they Real?


This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

Within the realm of just about every collecting pastime exists undocumented glossaries packed with terms and phrases used to describe certain aspects of that particular genre. For those of us new to collecting, these terms can be some of the biggest obstacles to understanding the ins and outs of collecting, especially as we are trying to navigate our way to better understand specifics and details.

In some instances, terms can be rather self-explanatory (at least for people like me), but still may not make a whole lot of sense. Such is the case with “theater-made.” which seems to be bandied about rather freely.

As I launched into militaria collecting, I saw the term applied to a broad swath of army items, predominantly shoulder sleeve insignia (or patches) dating from World War I to present day. What astounded me was that these experts could spot not only that a particular piece was theater-made, but could tell you where in the world it was made. With certain pieces, a theater-made example could sell for considerably more than an American-made patch. The Australian-made 1st Marine Division patch comes to mind.

As a veteran of the U.S. Navy, theater-made items seem commonplace. During our six month-long deployments to the Western Pacific, our ships would visit ports in countries such as the Philippines and Hong Kong. During our three- and four-day stays, many of us would take what little money we saved and head out to the tailor and embroidery shops to order custom uniforms or uniform items from the local craftsmen. These special-order pieces add a unique and personal touch for uniforms worn out on liberty or to make us stand out in a positive manner during inspection. However, we never thought of these components as theater-made.

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

As some of the custom pieces are slightly more rudimentary in construction, forgers tend to leverage that to their advantage. When collectors begin to pursue what are being passed off as theater-made items, they must have some sort of education before pulling the trigger to protect themselves from being deceived.

 

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Military Veterans Aiming for Gold: Collecting Olympics Militaria


On the cusp of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, I find myself scouring the United States team roster in search of service members (current and former) who are making their way to the icy and snowy venues for this year’s competition. Undoubtedly, as the television production of the games progresses, there will be some special interest stories aired that will cover certain members of Team USA who endured and overcame challenges within their sport on their paths to making the US Olympic Team.

Veteran Rank Unit Branch Sport
Weber, Nathan SFC 10th Special Forces Group Army 4-Man Bobsled
Olsen, Justin SGT NYNG 4-Man Bobsled
Cunningham, Nick SGT 1156 ENG CO NYNG 4-Man Bobsled
Fogt, Chris CAPT Military Intelligence Army 4-Man Bobsled
Sweeney, Emily SGT Military Police ANG Luge
Mortensen, Matt SGT Army Luge

When the spotlight of NBC’s coverage shines upon the sledding events (bobsled, luge and skeleton), those feel-good stories very well could include one of more vignettes of the six team USA members who temporarily laid aside their military uniforms in exchange for the read, white and blue skin suits, helmets and spikes for the sledding competition at the Alpensia Sliding Center. Having active duty service personnel and veterans filling spots on Olympics rosters is not a new occurrence for the 2018 team. Some American Olympic competitors were merely civilian, amateur athletes heading into their competitions as was the case with the subject of one of the most compelling and difficult stories of World War II of the experiences of a Southern California track star.

In her 2010 biography, Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling work extensively details the life of United States Army Air Force captain, Louis Zamperini and the challenges he faced in the nearly unbelievable life-story. In short, the B-24 that Zamperini was a crew member of, experienced mechanical failures and crashed into the Pacific some 850 miles south of the Hawaiin Islands. Of the 11 crew members, Ernie and two others escaped and spent a harrowing 47 days adrift (one man died) before being picked up by the Japanese. Zamperini would endure two and a half years as a guest of the Emperor of Japan suffering unspeakable abuses, starvation and torture (see the 2014 adapted film, Unbroken).

What does Zamperini have to do with the Olympics? Louis “The Torrence Tornado” Zamperini was a star distance runner from the University of Southern California who placed 8th in the 5,000 meter at the Berlin games in 1936, under Hitler’s watchful eye. Because of his performance at the ’36 games, the Japanese discovered his identity and used his stardom to become the focus of their torture and hatred.

George Patton during the running event of the 1912 Modern Pentathlon (image source: Wired.com).

Patton (at right) fencing (vs Jean de Mas Latrie of France) in the modern pentathlon of the 1912 Summer Olympics (public domain image).

Zamperini’s story aside, I wondered how many U.S. Olympic athletes served in combat. One veteran comes to mind that, for me, has a direct connection to a piece of militaria in my collection. This Olympian finished 5th in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm summer games behind four Swedes who dominated the event. Second Lieutenant George S. Patton did manage to stir some controversy with the shooting event, opting to use a .38 caliber pistol rather than the more conventional .22-cal. While officially placing 20th, Patton claimed that the rounds which counted as misses had passed through his preceding target strikes. Nevertheless, his low shooting score helped to keep him out of medal contention.

One veteran who competed in two Olympics (1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo games) as a race walker, has the rare distinction of having been killed in action in the Viet Nam War. West Point graduate (class of 1962), Captain Ronald Zinn, while serving with the 173rd Airborne Division, was killed on July 7, 1965 in a firefight near Saigon. His best Olympic performance was in Tokyo where he placed 6th while competing for his native country, Brazil.

During the summer games in Rio, spectators watched in awe of Michael Phelps’ return to the pool as he racked up five more gold and another silver medal to his already-established record of 22 total. Phelps finished his career with 23 gold, three silver and two bronze medals setting him ahead of the next best (Larisa Latynina of the USSR – 18 total). The all-time greatest Winter Olympic athlete, Ole Einar Bjørndalen, a biathlete from Norway (with 13 medals) has less than half of Phelp’s total. One stat that many Americans will most certainly not know is that prior to Mark Spitz winning his 11th medal at the 1972 games, the sole medal-count (male) leader for the United States was a U.S. Navy veteran.

Naval Academy graduate (class of 1907), Carl Osburn, competed in three Olympic games (Stockholm 1912, Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924) earning five gold, four silver and two bronze medals in several rifle shooting events. One is left to wonder how many more Osburn would have earned had the 1916 Berlin games not been cancelled due to World War I. In 1936, while in transit from one duty station to another, my uncle was aboard the USS Henderson (AP-1) when Captain Carl Osburn was serving as the ship’s commanding officer which (very) loosely connects pieces of my militaria collection to this Olympic medalist.

Trying to find pieces that cross both militaria and Olympics-collecting can be quite a daunting, if not expensive pursuit for collectors. Due to the extremely small number who competed in the games, anything stemming from one of these veterans will rarely be available for purchase.

One crossover aspect (of these two collecting genres) that I appreciate…and is affordable…is the application of the five rings of the Olympic logo on military-related items. I found a handful of aviation squadron patches that either commemorated the games of a specific year or used the logo in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

These patches definitely interest me and leave me searching the web for theater-made Olympic themed patches that might surface from the returning Afghanistan veterans.

Though the games have yet to begin, the nation that is the heavy favorite to bring home the most hardware is Germany due to the IOC-ban that will exclude the 2014 victor, Russia (as a competing nation) due to their systemic cheating via doping (though a smattering of athletes will be allowed to compete if they are determined to be “clean”). The US team is predicted to finish in fourth place behind Norway and Canada, respectively. I will be watching with great hopes that our sledding teams bring home hardware but more importantly, that they honor both their Team USA and Army uniforms.

See more on U.S. troops competing in the 2018 Winter Games:

2018 Winter Olympics: USA Bobsledders, Soldiers have experience on their side

Military police Soldier leads Army’s charge onto 2018 U.S. Olympic Team

Army, we have a bobsled team!

Researching to Establish Provenance: A Cigarette Box with Historical Connections


While much of my militaria collection consists of family-connected items (such as uniforms, decorations, documents and photographs) I also have some oddities that serve to add interest and perhaps to make a display more visually aesthetic. In reviewing the (online displays of) collections from other enthusiasts, it is quite easy to see that many of them have focused their attention upon such areas as service branches, theaters of combat, veterans’ groupings, decorations and medals to list the most prevalent.

Crossover collecting can be even more rewarding due to the uniqueness that it offers the enthusiast.  For example, an individual may already be a collector of memorabilia from a commercial company such as Coca-Cola (focusing on signage, advertising, drinkware, etc.) who then discovers a militaria sub-set within that area of collecting. Other areas of militaria crossover can include Tobacciana, Zippo lighters and my personal favorite, baseball.

The piece that I am focusing this article on does fit into a crossover the tobacciana category but hardly signifies that my interests are branching into that area of collecting.  This artifact fits into another crossover facet of collecting that is more my speed: folk art or, in military terms, Trench Art.  As an amateur military historian and someone who enjoys artifacts related to the U.S. Navy, this cigarette box was something of interest to me. I also thought that the piece would look great on my dresser and serve as a storage place for personal items while fitting in alongside of my other antique boxes.

I have owned this silver cigarette box for several years but never spent any significant time researching it.

The cigarette box is engraved with “Best Wishes to the Torpedo Captain” along with a griffin and a list of naval aviators and their commands (part of Air Group 153). When I first acquired this piece, I assumed it was made from scrap metal – possibly obtained from an aircraft part – and crafted by a squadron aviation structural mechanic. As the box has since been displayed for the last few years, the surface has tarnished which leads me to suspect that the metal material is silver. The absence of any hallmarks means that the only way to determine the material composition is to perform one or more tests (hopefully) without damaging the artifact.

As with other militaria artifacts, especially named pieces, researching is part of the enjoyment (and sometimes the pain when research hits a dead-end) and though the collector that I purchased this from included some information, I pursued the information further. Examining the engraving, the names are listed out:

COMD’R.  R. A. Teel, CAG 153
L.T. CDR. W.G.  Wright, C.O. VF 153
L.T. CDR. H. M. Jensen, C.O. VBF 153
L.T. CDR. F. D. McGaffigan C.O. VB 153

Judging by the present information, one would think that the odds to identify the box’s original owner might be fairly descent, and with good reason considering that there were nine data points (ten, if one includes the griffin and the presentation statement) to base the research upon. Understanding nomenclature, rank abbreviations and the numerics of naval aviation squadrons is a good starting point. Navy rank abbreviations during WWII were a bit more complex than the simplified modern counterparts. Officer rank structure can be defined easily:

Rank WWII Abbreviation

Current Abbreviation

Ensign Ens. ENS
Lieutenant Junior Grade LT.j.g. LTJG
Lieutenant LT. LT
Lieutenant Commander L.T. CDR. LCDR
Commander COMD’R CDR
Captain CAPT. CAPT

 

For those who are new to naval aviation squadron designations and their meanings, “V” is the designation for fixed wing aircraft.  For the sake of brevity and keeping this post focused on these specific squadrons, I’ll refrain from providing definitions for all WWII naval aviation squadrons.

  • CAG – Commander, Air Group
  • VF – Fixed Wing Fighting Squadron
  • VBF – Fixed Wing Fighting/Bombing Squadron
  • VB – Fixed Wing Bombing Squadron

Commander, Air Group 153 (listed above as “CAG”) with Commander R. A. Teel, was the group commander who was responsible for the squadrons within his group (VF-153, VBF-153 and VB-153). Lieutenant Commanders W.G. Wright, H.M. Jensen and F.D. McGaffigan were commanding officers of the subordinate squadrons reporting up to Commander Teel.  Successfully researching the information (names, squadrons) will certainly help to provide great information but I have no way of determining the original owner of the box (to whom it was presented).  Being geographically located at the farthest reaches from the National Archives or the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC (while still residing within the contiguous United States) limits the scope of research. I am resigned to scouring the fractional data that is available online.

The ultimate goal of my research was to determine the identity of the original owner of the cigarette box which, when I purchased it, was thought to have been one of the aviators named in the engraving. Judging by the inscription, “Best Wishes to the Torpedo Captain,” that title, in my estimation, refers to the commanding officer of the squadron of torpedo bombers.  Being that all of the other listed squadrons were either fighter, fighter-bomber or bomber squadrons, it would seem that the Torpedo Captain would have been the skipper of the Air Group’s VT squadron, which was not engraved onto the box.

Before proceeding further, I sought to confirm that the air group’s assigned VT squadron also shared the same numbering convention.  A quick search led me to a very limited listing of Air Group One Fifty Three (ComAirGrp 153). Indeed, the composition of the group consisted of four squadrons:

  • VB-153 (composed of 15 VSB aircraft, or fixed wing scouting bombers)
  • VF-153 (composed of 36 VF aircraft, or fixed wing fighters)
  • VBF-153 (composed of 36 VF aircraft)
  • VT-153 (composed of 15 VTB aircraft, or torpedo bombers)

While this information was a solid initial step, the source lacked further confirmation regarding any of the engraved names on my box. As I write this article, I await a response from a fellow collector who has access to naval aviation records. Turning my attention to the names listed on the case, I do have a few avenues in which to proceed in order to get a clearer picture of the careers of these naval aviators. When I received the box, inside was a folded-up printout (of a WWII Memorial entry for Francis D. McGaffigan) that provided me with a head start for one of the box’s engraved names.

Captain Francis Daniel McGaffigan (source: WWII Memorial).

Lieutenant Commander F. D. McGaffigan, my research revealed, was born January 13, 1910, to Irish immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating high school, he enlisted as a Seaman Second Class and was assigned to Naval Aviation Elimination Training in Boston (shown in official records as “Squantum”) in January of 1940. According to his memorial page (submitted by a family member), the naval aviator served with a number of commands during WWII. I’ve spotlighting a few:

  • Commanding Officer, Bomber Squadron (VB) 306, flying SBD-5 Dauntless , Solomon Islands
  • Commanding Officer, Bombing Squadron 99, Saipan

McGaffigan’s career as listed by his relative is highlighted with the following post-war assignments. Subsequent research could determine what, if any, wartime service the captain might have experienced prior to the conclusion of his career.

  • Commanding Officer, Bombing Squadron 150, USS Lake Champlain (CVS-33)
  • Commanding Officer, Bomber Squadron 153, USS Kearsarge (CV-33)
  • Air Officer, USS Essex (CV-9)
  • Commanding Officer, Naval Air Reserve Training Unit, NAS Lakehurst (NJ)

Captain McGaffigan’s awards and decorations which include:

  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Medal (3)
  • Naval Reserve Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal (with campaign star)
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory

McGaffigan’s post-naval life commenced with retirement in 1960, and he lived out his year, passing in 2001.

After searching through the careers of the naval aviators listed on the box, it is clear that the name that was absent is the one who was presented with the box from the remainder of those listed, starting with the Commander Air Group (CAG), Commander Richard A. Teel.

Richard Ashley Teel’s 1936 Naval Academy graduation portrait (source: The Lucky Bag).

Commander Richard Ashley Teel was born on Christmas Day, 1913 in Annapolis, Maryland (his father, Roland M. was a boy’s school principal and his mother, the former Susan B. Ashley, was an English immigrant homemaker), and after completing high school (at Severna Park H.S.), he entered the United States Naval Academy in June of 1932. Upon his graduation and commissioning, Teel was assigned to the battleship, USS New Mexico (BB-40). In 1938, LTJG Teel reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola for aviation training. Teel’s first assignment upon receiving his naval aviator’s wings was with the newly formed Bombing Squadron Seven (VB-7) aboard the USS Wasp (CV-7) in 1939. By 1942, VB-7 was redesignated a fighter squadron (VF-71) and was transferred to shore-based operations on Espirtu Santo following the sinking of the Wasp in September of 1942 (she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine). After VF-71 was disbanded, LT Teel was flying from the USS Independence (CVL-22). Considering that Commander Teel is not the focus of this research, I ceased pursuing his career further. I was able to find that Captain Richard Teel retired after thirty years of service on July 1, 1966, and enjoyed another 28 years, passing on August 9, 1994. Richard Ashley Teel’s final resting place (the Naval Academy Cemetery) is not far from his birth home in Annapolis.

Commander Wilson George Wright III.

Lieutenant Commander Wilson George Wright III was born in Ogden, Utah, on May 15, 1916, to Wilson G. and Lelia D. Wright. He graduated from Ogden High School, and attended Weber College for one year and then entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June of 1935, and was commissioned an ensign on June 1, 1939. Following graduation from the Naval Academy, Wilson served one year on the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) and one year on the USS Lamson (DD-367). Wright reported to NAS Pensacola for flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator on December 16, 1941. His first aviation duty was in VF-71 aboard USS Wasp (CV-7) and flew combat missions surrounding Guadalcanal in support of the First Marine Division landings during the invasion of Guadalcanal, August 7-8, 1942. LTJG Wright was aboard when the Wasp was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-19 near San Cristobal Island in the Solomon Islands.

Wright’s next assignment was as Executive Officer of VF-33 which was land-based in the Solomon Islands, flying many combat missions including fighter sweeps and bomber escort missions over Rabaul.

Following six months as a Fighter Type Instructor at the Naval Air Station Atlantic City, he was ordered to the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, Michigan, to start and commission Air Group 97, and served in that unit as the Commanding Officer of Fighter Bomber Squadron 97. He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his service in Air Group 97. Upon the decommissioning of Air Group 97, Wright’s next assignment was as the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 153, followed by a tour as the commanding officer of the Flag Administrative Unit and finally, as the staff personnel officer of Commander Fleet Air Alameda.

Following his retirement, having attained the rank of commander, Wright worked as an engineer and supervisor in the aerospace industry, spending three years with the Lockheed Missile Division on the Polaris Missile project, 17 years with Rockwell Space Division and was involved with the lunar landings and the Space Shuttle programs. He was 95 years old when he passed away on Nov. 2, 2011, and was laid to rest in home state of Utah.

Among Wright’s numerous awards and decorations were:

  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Medal (5)
  • Navy Commendation Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory

The last of the names listed turned out to not only be notable, but he earned the status of an Ace fighter pilot (meaning that he had five confirmed air-to-air enemy kills) during his service with VF-5.

Lieutenant Commander Hayden Martin Jensen was born on January 30, 1911, in St. Paul, Minnesota where he attended high school and college. Jensen was commissioned an ensign on August 19, 1939. Having completed flight training, Ensign Jensen was assigned to Bombing Squadron Five (VB-5, part of the Yorktown Air Group), flying the Northrop BT-1 aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-5). By 1941, the young ensign had transferred to VF-5 (the “Stafighters”) as his role changed from a bombing to a fighter pilot, flying the F4F-3 Wildcat. Still assigned to VF-5 when it was transferred to the USS Saratoga (CV-3) in June of 1942, Jensen would meet the enemy in the South Pacific – in the Guadalcanal Campaign – in two separate engagements in August of 1942, twice earning the Navy’s second highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, scoring two enemy kills on August 7, 1942, and three more on August 24. For these engagements, LT Jensen was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. LCDR Jensen assumed command of VBF-153 on March 26, 1945.

LT Hayden Jensen poses with the men of VF-5 aboard the USS Saratoga, July 15. 1942. In a little more than two weeks, Jensen will have his first two of five enemy air kills.

Jensen married the former Henrietta Mathilda Schirmer (also of St. Paul) on December 27, 1938. Still serving on active duty, 38 year-old LCDR Jensen passed away on June 6, 1949, at Naval Hospital Newport, Rhode Island, with his wife, Henrietta by his side. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Among Jensen’s numerous awards and decorations were:

  • Navy Cross Medal (2): see citations
  • Distinguished Flying Cross Medal
  • Air Medal (3)
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal

After reviewing the incredible service details for these four naval aviators, I was convinced that the box never belonged to any of the men listed on the box. Based upon their careers, none could be considered as “The Torpedo Captain” leaving me to pursue the next logical step. As with each naval air group, I confirmed that Air Group One Fifty Three did, in fact, have a torpedo squadron (VT). Cursory internet searches were dead-ends as far as attempting to discover possibilities of assigned commanding officers. Fortunately, I am a member of an amazing group of fellow collectors on the U.S. Militaria Forum where there are folks who possess years of experience and knowledge and have access to records and sources. I posted some requests for assistance and like clockwork, two members answered me and began to fill in the blanks. Instantly, I had the names of two naval aviators who commanded VT-153: LCDR H.C. Madden and his successor, LCDR F.G. Lewis.

The officers and men of Torpedo Squadron 153 (courtesy of Jack Cook).

LTJG Harlan C. McFadden Jr.

LCDR Harlan Curtis McFadden Jr. was born June 29, 1918. After completing high school in Clayton, New Mexico, McFadden pursued his degree in English Literature at the University of New Mexico before enlisting as a naval aviation cadet on July 9, 1941. He began six weeks of elimination flight training at Naval Air Station Long Beach, California and, upon completion, McFadden commenced flight training at NAS Corpus Christi for 44 more weeks. Harlan finished his final 12 weeks of operational flight at NAS Ft. Lauderdale.

LT McFadden was assigned to Torpedo Squadron Three Hundred Five (the “Red Asses”) from 1943-44. On August 1, 1944, when VT-305 was ordered decommissioned, McFadden was transferred to VT-99 along with five fellow flyers and additional enlisted support personnel. Much of his early months of service during the war were spent flying missions over various Japanese strongholds in the Solomon Islands, such as Bougainville and Rabaul. On March 26, 1945, LCDR McFadden assumed command of VT-153 at Naval Auxiliary Air Facility (NAAF) Lewiston in Maine.  One of McFadden’s assigned aviators was LT George H. W. Bush who served with the squadron from March through September of 1945. Ten days after the squadron was activated, Mcfadden was relieved of command by LCDR Lewis. From April 6 through his discharge on September 5, 1945, I have been unsuccessful in locating McFadden’s naval service or why he was relieved of command. In his four years of service as a naval aviator, McFadden saw a total of 14 (four months in the North Atlantic and 10 in the South Pacific). On his separation documents, McFadden stated that he was pursuing a career in commercial aviation.

LCDR Frederick Gary Lewis was born on March 13, 1916, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Though I have had some success in researching Lewis, I have not been as successful in discovering as much detail regarding his life and the breadth of his time as a naval aviator. He was commissioned an ensign on November 14, 1940, and was assigned to the fleet aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) as the Communications Officer. Ensign Lewis was present aboard the ship during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, witnessing the carnage and utter destruction on the ships and facilities surrounding the Pennsylvania, including the tremendous damage inflicted upon the destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375) which were sharing the same drydock as the battleship. As the battleship was floated and directed to San Francisco for repairs, LTJG Lewis reported for flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Once Lewis received his wings of gold, he was assigned as a flight instructor at NAS Ft. Lauderdale where he served for the next twelve months. In December 1943, LT Lewis took command of Composite Squadron Seventy-Eight (VC-78) aboard the USS Saginaw Bay (CVE-82). His only combat action that he experienced was in support of the liberation of the Philippines in October of 1944. Receiving a temporary promotion (to LCDR) prior to relieving LCDR McFadden on April 6, 1945, serving as VT-153’s commanding officer until June 1946.

Other than Lewis’s permanent promotion to LCDR in 1950, I was unable to find anything further regarding his naval career. Frederick Lewis passed away on April 7, 1978 at the age of 62 in San Leandro, California.

SB2C of VT-153 courtesy of Jack Cook.

After diving deep into each of the men, I had one remaining piece of information left to work through – the insignia of the griffin that was engraved on the top of the cigarette box. I started to seek insignia for all of the listed squadrons. I was able to locate just two insignia and squadron nicknames: VBF-153 was listed as the “Copperheads” though the corresponding insignia that I found didn’t seem to fit the name (more research to follow); VB-153 was known as the “Flying Cannons” and its insignia seemed to fit perfectly.

My contact at the U.S. Militaria Forum provided me with the insignia for VT-153 which added confusion; the “Gremlins” as they were known, did little to support my thought that the griffin on the box bore some significance, however, that isn’t where my trail ended. Following the lineage of each squadron, I found that VA-153 (“A” for attack squadron, the current designation for a carrier-based fixed wing bombing aircraft), which was disestablished in 1977, employed a very similar-looking griffin in their logo. The two griffin appearances is more than likely coincidental but it certainly leaves me with the idea that there is some connection.

Attack Squadron 153’s insignia – a griffin – (as seen on their unit patch) has to be more than mere coincidence considering the similar image on the cigarette box

Ultimately, my research did not provide me with any sort of definitive evidence that I could use to pinpoint the original owner of my silver cigarette box. I am deducing that it was most likely given to LCDR Frederick G. Lewis from his air group colleagues near or after the end of World War II.

Read more about collecting unusual militaria:

Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option


I’ve said it so many times in the past: it is paramount to making wise purchases that collectors research an item prior to handing over hard-earned finances to make a purchase. However, there are occasions within militaria collecting where the collector is stumped by what he or she might be looking at, yet still feel compelled to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire it.

Recently, a very dear friend and fellow collector presented me one of his most recent acquisitions and wanted to get my input as to the markings and what they might indicate. He was stumped by some of the heraldry and details but there were other engraved elements that showed the piece to be from World War I.

The dates of 1914, 15, 16 and 17 automatically rule out this matchbox as being a U.S. trench art piece.

I spent several minutes examining what appeared to be a trench art matchbox. Clearly, the item shown is constructed from brass and was handmade. The brass plates were rolled out and soldered together to form an oblong can-shape with another piece cut and soldered into place at the top. A piece of wood was shaped and fastened to comprise the case’s bottom, and adhered with some sort of clear glue or shellac. Judging from the length of the box, the brass was an unrolled and flattened small arms casings, a very common resource used in trench art making.

What does the crescent and “winged Z” indicate? The hand-tooling is quite ornate and aesthetically pleasing. I’d say that this was a solid score for my friend.

On one side, the maker tooled a pattern and left a smooth shield motif with what appears to be a monogram of the initials, “MB.” At the surrounding corners of the shield are “1914”,” 15”, “16” and “17” which clearly indicates the first few years of World War I.

Etched into the opposing side of the matchbox is what appears to be a crescent or “C” with the opening pointed upward. Inside the crescent are two wings – one, at the bottom, pointing to the left with the top one pointing to the right. Connecting the two wing tips is a heavy line running diagonally, right to left from the top to the bottom. All three pieces appear to form the letter “Z.” Superimposed over the diagonal line is a small numeral two. Over the top of this “winged Z” is appears the year, “1917.” To the top right is a star with radiant beams extending outward to all directions providing a backdrop design. The top panel is etched simply etched with “Champagne”, surrounded by tooled pattern.

The matchbox top has “Champagne” engraved. To me, this clearly indicates that the owner spent a good portion of WWI serving in these battles.

 

I knew that the piece was from WWI and was potentially French or British in origin (it could even be German) due to the dates of the piece, as the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917. Could the crescent indicate Arabic or Islamic participation? Could it be connected to the French Foreign Legion? Does “Champagne” refer to the battles that were fought in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917?

Due to the sheer beauty of this piece, it has proven to be a very wise investment my friend made (at least in my opinion) regardless of his lack of certainty about it. This matchbox will be a fun and interesting research project. Perhaps one of you recognizes the emblems or has any ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Airborne Radiomen


This Aviation Radioman distinguishing mark adorns the sleeve of a seaman 1/c jumper from WWII. Men and women trained to service and operate specific radio equipment for naval air forces during WWII (source: eBay image).

A simple scan of the topics of the articles that I have written over the last (nearly) six years of this site reveals that I am heavily biased towards militaria artifacts from naval service. In reviewing the books that are in my personal library, the overwhelming subjects are naval history (the runner-up topic being baseball). Within the sphere of naval militaria collecting, enlisted uniform-items dominate what I possess – rating badges, patches, hats, caps and covers and of course, the uniforms themselves.

I have a personal connection that fuels my interest in a specific area of Navy ratings – including the development of the technology that surrounds that area: radio and RADAR – and my collection is dominated by the associated job specialties. I have written about the development of radar and the radarman rating and radiomen due to the several uniforms that I have within my collection, my family history and my own interest in the application of the technology for combat advantage.

Three of my WWII chief petty officer uniform jackets are part of my predominant radioman and radarman militaria collecting focus.

Established in 1942 and enduring throughout WWII, the Aviation Radioman rating is an example of the Navys rapid technological advancement and the need to train and man the ranks accordingly.

Within the radio and RADAR arena of my collecting, I have barely touched upon these jobs as they apply to naval aviation. In terms of airborne technology, World War II saw rapid advancement in the equipment and adoption and usage to gain an edge against enemy forces. One of the ratings that played a significant role in this arena was the Aviation Radioman which was established in all grades (third, second, first class and chief petty officers) in January 1942 after recognizing the need to differentiate these radiomen from their shipboard counterparts. As with the sea-going radiomen, the field of ArMs were split between those who operated the equipment (Aviation Radiomen) and those who were skilled technicians (Aviation Radio Technician) and yet they wore the same rating insignia. In some instances, the sailors had perform in both capacities. As with the shipboard and submariners, certain aviation radiomen were aircrewmen – part of the crew that served on missions within the aircraft.

Stephen R. Walley, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class (of Albany, NY) spoke about his naval career during a May 20, 2006 interview with the New York State Military Museum. Walley’s pathway to becoming and ArM was fairly typical, stating that when he enlisted (in September, 1942) to serve, he opted to train as a Radioman in the Navy. After completing his basic training in Newport, RI, Mr. Walley was sent to four months of schooling for shipboard radio training. ”Upon completion of that course, I came out as a Radioman third petty officer.” Walley said of his early career. “At the last week of the course,” Stephen continued, “we had people come in from naval school in Memphis, Tennessee asking for volunteers to become Aviation Radiomen.” Six to eight of Walley’s graduating class from radioman school reported to Memphis for ten weeks of aviation training, learning additional skills for communication and operating aircraft radio and comms equipment. Because airborne RADAR technology was in its infancy at the time of Walley’s career, he had two additional weeks of education in operating and maintaining equipment to be prepared when the fleet aircraft would be outfitted with the highly secret gear.

Airborne radiomen required additional training in aerial gunnery school in order to be proficient in providing protection from enemy fighter aircraft. Dive (Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver) and torpedo bomber (Grumman TBF Avenger and Douglas TBD Devastator) aircraft were equipped with .30 caliber machine guns (the Avenger two gunners – the ArM would typically man the ventral-mounted .30 cal versus the dorsal .50 caliber gun) which would be the primary responsibility of these radiomen when enemy aircraft were present. Aerial gunnery school was an additional ten weeks where upon completion, these men would either choose or be selected (based upon the candidates’ height) for their aircraft assignments. The shorter men, up to 5’-9” were better suited for the cramped cockpits of the carrier-based aircraft and the taller men were assigned to train for the large, land and sea-based planes (such as the Consolidated Catalina PBY and the PB4Y-2 Privateer).

There were three crew members: (1) pilot, (2) turret gunner and (3) radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner – an aviation radioman.

With nearly 21,000 carrier-based aircraft (out of more than 56,000 naval combat aircraft), the need for ArMs was substantial. Not only was the demand for manning aircrews but also for the maintenance staff within the squadrons. In addition, aviation radiomen would fill positions in support of the airwing communications within the radio spaces of the embarked aircraft carriers. Add to this demand, manning requirements for the dozens of naval air stations and facilities in the continental United States and in the Pacific theater meant that there were countless thousands of men and women who served as aviation radiomen during the war.

In some instances, aviation radiomen served as pilots of aircraft (primarily filled by naval aviators and enlisted naval aviation pilots), such was the case for CArM Johnnie E. Mattis during the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 when he was piloting his torpedo bomber in a harrowing attack on a Japanese carrier, scoring a hit against tremendous odds. In all, more than 650 medals of valor (for the Navy, these include the Bronze and Silver Star medals, Navy and Marine Corps medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Medal of Honor) were conferred upon aviation radiomen for their service above and beyond the call of duty during WWII.

Navy Cross Recipients:

With the rapid advancement in technology in the Navy and the massive expansion of ratings leading up to and during World War II, changes were afoot for Aviation Radiomen in the years immediately following the War. The peacetime navy ranks experienced considerable contraction as more than 70% (2.3 million) of those serving at the War’s end were discharged back into civilian life. In 1945, the Aviation Radioman rating was renamed to Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate while still wearing the same mark.

This early WWII eight-button chief aviation radioman jacket has a beautiful bullion rating badge. The chief is seemingly missing a hashmark but he only served during World War II . Also featured on this jacket are the combat aircrew pin and the chief’s ruptured duck discharge patch (note that the combat aircrew wing and ribbons were added solely for the purposes of display. The sailor named in the jacket spent the duration of the war at Naval Air Station San Juan, PR).

As with the changes in Radioman rating (Electronics Technician’s Mate which was the technician side of the RM rating from 1942-1945 – was split out in 1948, creating the new ET or Electronics Technician), a new rating was established from the Aviation Radioman rating in 1948; Aviation Electronics Technician (AT).

 

DATE 8/14/45* 6/30/46 6/30/47 6/30/48 6/30/49 6/30/50
BATTLESHIPS 23 10 4 2 1 1
CARRIERS, FLEET 28 15 14 13 11 11
CARRIERS, ESCORT 71 10 8 7 7 4
CRUISERS 72 36 32 32 18 13
DESTROYERS 377 145 138 134 143 137
FRIGATES 361 35 24 12 12 10
SUBMARINES 232 85 80 74 79 72
MINE WARFARE 586 112 55 54 52 56
PATROL 1204 119 74 50 50 33
AMPHIBIOUS 2547 275 107 86 60 79
AUXILIARY 1267 406 306 273 257 218
SURFACE WARSHIPS 833 226 198 180 174 161
TOTAL ACTIVE 6768 1248 842 737 690 634

*     V-J Day (source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Year Active Naval Personnel
1940 160,997
1941 284,427
1942 640,570
1943 1,741,750
1944 2,981,365
1945 3,319,586
1946 978,203
1947 497,773
1948 417,535
1949 447,901
1950 380,739

When the Navy began to specialize the enlisted ranks in the late 1800s, special marks were incorporated to denote the skills of the enlisted sailors. This WWII aviation radioman 3/c uniform has the distinguishing mark of an aerial gunner on the right sleeve.

This aviation radioman seaman 1/c wore a Radarman distinguishing mark on the lower right sleeve of his uniform.

Collecting ArM rating badges, distinguishing marks, devices and uniforms along with other, more significant items such as named/engraved decorations (Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Heart medals) is rather rewarding, considering that the rating essentially existed for the duration of WWII. For my collection, I have acquired a selection of various rating badges and two named uniform items. While I have a sparse collection of navy decorations, both of the two uniform tops; one, a chief aviation radioman technician (CArT) and the other, a ArM3/c (with an aerial gunner distinguishing mark) were great additions even though they were stripped of decorations.

There are militaria collectors who focus on very specific artifact types such as wing devices. Still, some may hone in more tightly, choosing to keep their collecting on naval wings (of which, there are countless variations throughout the 100+ years of existence). Within my “museum,” I have a few navy wings and among them is one WWII-era combat aircrew wing device.

“The insignia featured a banner across the top on which eligible sailors could affix up to three stars signifying individual combat awards.  Aircrews engaging enemy aircraft, singly or in formation; engaging armed enemy combatant vessels with bombs, torpedoes or machine guns; and engaging in bombing or offensive operations against fortified enemy positions were qualified to wear a combat star, with unit commander approval, on their aircrew breast insignia.”

This seaman first class aviation radioman jumper shows that he was a radar technician for airborne radar equipment. This is the first example of an ArM that I have seen with the radarman distinguishing mark.

In performing the research or this article, I made several discoveries and learned how overlooked by collectors and historians alike, these men are. The distinguished actions and sacrifices made by the naval aviators (piloting the aircraft) seem to have overshadowed the duties performed by the flying radiomen of the United States Navy during the second world war.

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