Category Archives: Rates and Ranks

Militaria Collecting Made Complicated – No Checklists


One of several checklists within the 1956 baseball card set by Topps.

Prior to delving into militaria and historical research, I collected sports cards for years. My principal interest in this arena was with baseball which is also my favorite sport to watch. Back then, my interest in the game centered on the history – the “golden era” – and the legends of the game. However, with baseball card collecting, I chose to focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

This 1957 Topps baseball card checklists shows the marks the collector made as they worked to complete the set.

With so many players in the game (not all of them represented on a card) in the early 1950s, card companies recognized that they could create more interest by letting their target audience know how many different cards were produced. This information, in the form of checklist cards, contained all the information that informed collectors what cards were produced. This information would keep collectors buying the wax packs (of course, getting the wonderfully powdered sugar covered, hard sticks of bubblegum) and trading their extras with their friends. As they filled out their sets, collectors would check their checklists.

Militaria couldn’t be a more polar opposite from sports card collecting. There are no checklists and finite production runs, no hardened rules about variations, no price guides that afford collectors with knowledge of sales trends….none of that. Militaria collecting requires the collector to acquire knowledge about the artifact – where it was used, who used it, when it was produced and available, when it was issued, how it was modified (in the field), etcetera –  before they commit significant finances to collecting.

The right-sleeve rate of the 1905-1913 coxswain (with an additional chevron, this would be a boatswain’s mate 2nd class petty officer).

Navy rate collectors can tell stories about variations and just how frustrating it can be to acquire all of the renditions of a specific rate. When considering a long-standing rate, such as a boatswain’s mate (pronounced “bosun’s mate”, BM for short) that has been in existence since the founding of the U.S. Navy, its rate badges have gone through considerable transition. One could assemble an amazing volume of examples of each badge iteration as BM (and Coxswain) insignia have been around since the 1880s.

With each change to uniform regulations (1886, 1905, 1913, 1941, 1946, and so on) rate badges were impacted. Some changes were simply moving from one sleeve to the other (1946) while still others changed the design of the crow (the design of the eagle, color of the chevrons). Additional variations stem from the uniform that the crow is applied to (khaki, blues, whites, greens, grays) as well as the material variations of the base fabric (multiple iterations of blue and white cloth) or the color of the chevrons and eagle (such as bullion).

One of countless boatswain’s mate rate badge variations, this post-WWII crow is a bullion on khaki.

If a collector focused solely on the boatswain’s mate rate spanning its entire existence, the collection could potentially be quite large and very costly to build. Unfortunately, there are no checklists to guide collectors. What can confound collectors is the discovery of a rate variant that has never been seen before by seasoned, knowledgeable experts.

This Screaming Eagles patch is one of countless variants for collectors to pursue (source: Topkick Militaria).

Similar to rate collecting, U.S. Army patches are very diverse and have experienced many iterations over the course of their employment on uniforms. Variations exist within the same era on the same patch design which give collectors reason for pause as they try to collect every option available. Since I don’t really dabble in army patches, my eyes tend to glaze over when other collectors begin to espouse the many facets of the World War II-era Screaming Eagles shoulder insignia. From the different “airborne” tabs to the design of the eagle’s eye and tongue, the 101st Airborne patch could occupy collectors for years as they seek to assemble a complete collection. Cut-edge, marrowed-edge, fully embroidered, felt, greenbacks, white backs, the possibilities are seemingly endless making the concept of having a checklist ideal.

While I can’t vouch as to the authenticity of this being the real thing, it is the design of a World War II Rangers patch (source: SA Militaria).

One aspect I’ve not mentioned and won’t really delve into is the issue of fakes. When a television show or film achieves the level of popularity that Saving Private Ryan (SPR) and Band of Brothers (BoB) have, shady characters create opportunities to separate novices from their hard-earned cash. The Ranger (SPR) and Screaming Eagles patches (BoB) are some of the most heavily-faked embroidery in the militaria market.

In all fairness to those who invest heavily into these areas (with both time and finances), the main reason I shy away from army patches (specifically Rangers and 101st) is that I have no idea how to tell a fake from the real McCoy. I suppose that the pricing of some of the more rare variants (sometimes in excess of $1,000) keep me steering well-clear of collecting army patches all together.

Militaria Issued: Giving and Receiving


Over the span of the last seven years, I’ve worked diligently in learning the ins and outs of collecting militaria and yet have only begun to scratch the surface. Delving into the details, for me, has produced an incredible wealth of knowledge surrounding many aspects of military pieces, such as when or where an item was worn or used. But that hasn’t been the most substantial reward in my passion for military collecting.

Being a student (not to be glib, as I am always learning) of American history has occupied my attention for decades. My wife and children could tell you stories about my side excursions to see some obscure item or location of historic note during our family vacations, in my passion to align book knowledge with the visual reality. Experiencing history helps to bring the stories to life and while facts are solidified in this process, actually seeing an item or location opens my mind to new questions with this acquired perspective. This process of learning is fun for me, but in regards to militaria, it still isn’t the pinnacle of satisfaction in collecting.

My military artifact collecting was sparked when a few boxes of Third Reich items were dropped into my lap nearly twenty years ago as my family dealt with our aging grandparents and the need to relocate them from their home of fifty years to an assisted living care facility. Having moved only once over the course of eighty-five years, my grandfather had accumulated quite a “treasure-trove” of artifacts including his older brother’s World War II trunks that were untouched from the time they arrived from Germany in 1945. I was suddenly thrust into the task of researching the pieces that my uncle had “acquired” during his participation in the elimination of the Nazi menace.

Though I didn’t get into collecting German militaria, my interest was piqued with the idea of owning pieces of history. The thought of possessing a tangible artifact that was connected to history as well as the connection to my family member’s participation in those events, was compelling and dovetailed nicely into the incessant genealogy project I was, and still am, working on.

I have dabbled in collecting in several areas in my lifetime and I have met a lot of nice and passionate people who shared similar interests as me. Those relationships always tended to be more proprietor-patron rather than collaborative and sharing. However, from the moment I started to seek answers to questions regarding personal military artifacts that I had inherited from a few relatives, I began recognizing different traits in the people who collect militaria. Aside from a passion for the objects and the rich history, these collectors were quick with thoughtful responses to my inquiries as they provided detailed descriptions and guided me to research resources in an effort to enable me to be self-reliant. Among all the quirks and odd interests, I noticed an authentic sense of community with militaria collectors.

One trait that really blindsided me as I was increasingly immersed into militaria collecting was the trusting and giving nature of these people. As I participated in the discourse and discussion surrounding these wonderful objects, I began to build relationships with other collectors. Out of the blue, one collector asked me for my address as he had “something” for me. This fellow collector observed and gleaned, from my posts on a militaria forum, what my interests were and subsequently sent me a vintage 1920s rating badge – something that one of my uncles would have worn on his navy uniform. I was humbled by the gesture and that this collector would accept no offer of payment for his trouble. This example was merely a foretaste of what I would experience on a somewhat regular basis and my collection has grown because of the kind hearts of others. The charitable nature of others is infectious which prompted me to do the same with other collectors.

This fine example of the M1 carbine shows a magazine pouch attached to the rifle’s stock.

Awhile ago, I was invited to tag along with two other guys that are as passionate about military history and collecting as me to visit a local dealer of antique books and manuscripts. This dealer, a highly regarded authority in many circles, showed several fantastic pieces from his personal collection that prompted three jaws to repeatedly drop. Toward the end of our visit, the gentleman retrieved a WWII-vintage M1 carbine rifle in immaculate condition that was a distinct departure from the paper artifacts and, knowing that we were all interested in militaria, offered it for sale with a low-ball price tag. Unfortunately for me, financial constraints precluded me from purchasing the vintage weapon. However, one of my companions did “pull the trigger” and came away with the rifle.

I recently acquired these M1 carbine pouches to give to a friend and fellow collector who recently purchased a late-WWI M1 carbine rifle. The nice, used condition will be great accompanying his rifle.

Not long after the M1 offering, I stumbled across a set of three WWII-vintage M1 carbine magazine pouches that were in good condition and were listed at a very affordable price. Thinking about my friend’s recent purchase, I snagged the pouches to give to the new carbine owner.

Over the last few years, I have gifted several pieces from my collection in the hope that it helps a fellow collector fill in the gaps or simply provides enjoyment in receiving a new piece they had not seen before or never knew existed.

Unlocking the Secrets of Your Collection: Research is the Key


The cover of the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations is very high quality in its construction.

Researching early military uniforms to ascertain a date or time period when they were issued or used can pose a challenge for collectors. Navy uniforms can be exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when it comes to dating them for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, I have stressed that education and research materials only serve to enable collectors to make sound purchasing decisions. Knowing where to turn for information can be a daunting task for someone making their initial foray into this hobby. Simply knowing what research material might exist isn’t in the mindset of those seeking details about a uniform or uniform item.

This copy is complete with all of the details including tables and pertinent data.

When I started a serious approach to research (in this case, verifying a jumper as pre-World War I), I was in the dark as to where to look so I turned to Google to begin my investigation. With the understanding that information on the web is seldom complete or authoritative, the search results seemed to be ambiguous and quite vague, so I narrowed my focus to locating people I could glean information from. As with any relationship, time is necessary to determine whether an “expert” is truly knowledgeable in their professed field of experience, so there was a risk that I might have received some inaccurate data.

Wanting to have go-to resources at my disposal, I began to gather reference material that suited my needs. My collection being predominantly focused on the service of my relatives and ancestors, I knew that I had to get the details (i.e. enlistment dates, commands assigned to, campaigns they participated in, etc.) of their individual service records. Armed with hard facts, I could then pursue the pertinent reference materials such as individual unit histories, training manuals, and uniform regulations.

The plates are spectacular! This one shows the warrant officer shoulder boards and insignia.

Some of these materials are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, such as the Navy’s Blue Jackets Manual (issued to new recruits). Others are somewhat rare, making them difficult to find or posing negative impacts onto collecting budgets. One reference book I had been seeking was the 1913 United States Navy Uniform Regulations. I couldn’t locate one through various book stores or eBay. Fortunately for me, Google Books digitized a  copy and had the majority of the book’s content available for online use. Unfortunately, the missing portions were the ones I needed for my research. I was amazed to see that I could purchase a hard copy, printed and bound complete book for less than $10.00, shipped to my door! Naturally, I pulled the trigger and less than five days later, I had the needed reference book in my hands.

This plate shows the construction of the dress whites – bleached white duck and blue flannel cuffs and collar.

What arrived was a paperback book with a high quality glued-in binding that will withstand repeated viewings or being transported to collector shows much better than an original 100-year-old hardbound book with a weakened spine.

The chief and enlisted dress blues plate shows the proper wear and insignia placement.

Acquiring the 1913 regulations may not appeal to others, but for me this was like locating a missing piece that completes a collection. I’ve confirmed a piece as authentic and I can correctly pursue the remaining outstanding parts to properly complete my uniform display!

Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations


In an article that I wrote last year, I touched on an aspect of rating badge collecting that focuses on those constructed with bullion-metallic thread. The post was primarily covering the design and aesthetic aspects rather than regulatory or uniform issue standards. However, in order for collectors to make sound purchases or additions for their collections, they need to be well informed.

This crow dates from the 1970s and is entirely embroidered. This was a short-lived experimental rating badge.

Let me be very up front by stating that I am, by no means, an expert in rating badge collecting. As I am acquiring pieces for my collection, I am researching and back-filling the details. In some cases, I have the order reversed – researching a piece after acquiring it – hoping that I didn’t make a bad purchase. While reviewing some online auction listings of rating badges (for my former rating), something that I have never seen before caught my attention and without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on the “buy it now” button. Rather than spend time ahead of purchasing the crow, I decided that the best course of action would be to research it after I had it securely in my hands. I had no idea of it’s date of manufacture, whether it was genuine, experimental/prototype or a fantasy piece.

My rating badge collection consists primarily of variations of the rate that I wore when I served. Four years ago, I set out to purchase a new, unused rating badge to mount in my shadow box display. All of the examples I had in my collection were affixed to my old uniforms so they weren’t’ quite up to par with what I’d want to be shown beside my medals and decorations. I ended up with a variety we (in the fleet) referred to as a “peacoat” crow. As it turns out, the fully embroidered rating badge (with merrowed edging) was a test crow that never really caught on. While they are somewhat uncommon, they aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired among collectors.

The latest addition to my collection is a silver bird – a bullion eagle and specialty mark hovering over red, embroidered chevrons. The reason this is an odd combination is that (according to Navy Uniform Regulations) the silver/red configuration is only available for E-7 through E-9. Ratings fo E-4 through E-6 may use the silver (bullion) eagle and specialty mark in conjunction with gold chevrons (indicating 12 consecutive years of good conduct service). One could deduce that perhaps this predates the current uniform regulations, however, this would be an incorrect assumption.

A rare bird – an Operations Specialist/Radarman badge with a bullion eagle with red chevron stripes.

1913 Uniform Regulations

  1. “For petty officers holding three consecutive good-conduct badges, the chevrons for blue clothing (dress/undress blues) shall be made of gold lace instead of scarlet cloth, and the eagle and specialty mark shall be embroidered in silver.”

The reverse of the OS2 bullion rating badge showing the construction and the Gemsco label.

Why then does this E-5, Operations Specialist/Radarman 2nd class crow exist? More than likely, the manufacturer (Gemsco) made this variation either errantly or in anticipation of a uniform regulation change that ultimately never occurred. Not to be stuck with inventory, manufacturers most likely divested these crows  and shipped them to uniform shops or uniform tailors to be disseminated to sailors. Seeking to have a measure of individuality with their uniforms, sailors who might be able to “pass,” in wearing the unauthorized embroidery at a command that might not have strict adherence to regulations, would stitch on these subtle “custom” enhancements.

Now that I have this rare bird, I decided that it would display nicely and swapped it into my shadow box (supplanting the standard OS rating badge) as these bullion crows are just too beautiful to sit in a storage box.

Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?


Until last week, I have been reluctant with this blog to delve into matters that touch on politics (my first politically-focused article was published yesterday – as of writing this article). The subject of this article has me approaching the line of demarcation (between politics and collecting) and I believe that I was able to keep the content weighted heavily in facts with a slight peppering of opinion interspersed between them as I began to address my concerns regarding the highly controversial decision (that is the central theme of this post) that was announced last week. This blog has a decent following and the stats indicate that a lot of people are searching for information pertaining to Navy ratings and badges (and discovering this site) leaving me soliciting readers to be heard by commenting after you finish reading the post.

With four articles written (see list below) about United States Navy Ratings and Rating Badges, I didn’t see myself delving back into this subject quite so soon. With recently announced changes to the Navy’s enlisted rates and rating structure – a complete overhaul – I am compelled to dive into the subject from my perspectives both as a veteran sailor and a collector.

From the moment that the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Masterchief Petty officer  of the Navy (MCPON) announced that the Navy would be dissolving the 241-year-old tradition of identifying enlisted personnel by their job title (known in the Navy as “rating”), the uproar from veterans, retirees and active duty personnel was instantaneous and deafening. There is no doubt that if you were paying attention to social media on September 29, 2016 you most-likely saw someone lamenting the impending changes and their outrage directed towards the navy leadership for even considering the idea, let alone moving ahead with implementation of a plan to disestablish a tried, true and loved tradition.

Who Cares About 241 Years of Tradition?
Aside from the current leadership, most all sailors care about the preservation of vaunted and successful customs and traditions that set the Navy apart from the other branches of the armed forces. In the earliest days of the naval service, rated sailors have been called by their job titles – specifically, boatswains’ mates (pronounced, “bosun’s” mates) have been so called since 1775. It is a matter of pride to be known by the work that is performed. I remember when I advanced to Operations Specialist, Third Class (“OS3”), it was a matter of pride. No longer was I known as a Seaman and, not just a petty officer, but that I had attained the rating and rate; the culmination of performing my duties; getting qualified on every aspect of my job that was possible, studying and achieving proficiency. This mentality continues and builds as sailors advance through the pay-grades, evolving into an expert that subordinates and seniors alike learn to depend upon. Despite the job title or function, the sailors in each of these ratings own considerable pride in being referred to by their rating. To have that all stripped away and be known only as “petty officer (third, second, first) class” systematically removes sailors’ pride. If I was still serving, instead of being OS1 (Operations Specialist First Class), I would just be “Petty Officer” with an innocuous (hidden) designation; “B440.”

When the Continental Navy began in 1775, there were officers and men and two designated ratings of enlisted men. Once the hostilities ended, Congress agreed that there was no longer a need for a navy, voting to disband it in 1785.

  • Armorer – In use in 1775; established 1797;
  • Boatswain’s Mate – In use in 1775; established 1797

The new nation experienced renewed aggression from England and tensions grew between the United States and France compelling the government to take action, passing the Naval Act of 1794 to build six warships (known as the original “Six Frigates“). By 1797, the Navy began to establish an enlisted rating structure, solidifying the tradition and practice that was in place until last week. In addition to the boatswains mate and armorer, the newly established rates at that time were:

  • Boy
  • Carpenter’s Mate
  • Cockswain (sic)
  • Cook
  • Cooper
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Master-at-Arms
  • Master’s Mate
  • Midshipman
  • Ordinary Seaman
  • Quarter Gunner
  • Sailmaker’s Mate
  • Seaman
  • Steward
  • Yeoman of the Gunroom

As the Navy changed operational procedures and modernized throughout its existence, so did the enlisted rating structure. It wasn’t until 1841 when the Navy established insignia for rated sailors. The design called for an eagle facing left (from the wearer’s perspective) with wings pointed down, while perched on a fouled anchor. It was to be worn half way between the elbow and shoulder on the front of the sleeve. Rated Petty officers in the following wore the badges on their right sleeve:

  • Boatswain’s Mates
  • Gunner’s Mates
  • Carpenter’s Mates
  • Masters at Arms
  • Ship’s Stewards
  • Ship’s Cooks

…while the following petty officers wore the badge on their left uniform sleeve:

  • Quarter Masters
  • Quarter Gunners
  • Captains of the Forecastle
  • Captains of Tops
  • Captains of the Afterguard
  • Armorers, Coopers
  • Ship’s Corporals
  • Captains of the Hold

In the following years (through the Civil War and beyond), the Navy continued to mature the rating badges by adding specialty marks (symbols that represented the sailor’s job). By the mid 1880s, the manufacture of petty officer marks were contracted to private companies, alleviating the need for the petty officers to hand-embroider them. The transition from sail to steam created the need to create new ratings to meet the rapidly changing technological advances. Navigation, communication and gunnery improved and sailors specialize creating new specialties. The Navy adapted and so did the sailors as they took pride in their jobs and uniforms.

For another century and a half, sailors have not only identified themselves by the mark on their sleeve during their careers, their passion and loyalty towards their rating continues throughout their lives. Though veterans of other branches might hold their specialty in high regard long after their service, it doesn’t compare to that of the Navy veteran. One glance at any veteran-memorabilia catalog reveals what sailors demand – t-shirts, polo shirts, ball caps, vehicle decals and challenge coins emblazoned with rating insignia.

his rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a "B440." The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

This rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a “B440.” The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

When the CNO and MCPON unceremoniously pulled the plug on the enlisted classification system, there were in excess of 90 active ratings in use. Since the ratings were officially established in 1797, more than 700 have been used.  As a collector, I wonder what changes are forthcoming that will have impacts on the items that I am interested. As Mark D. Faram and Sam Fellman of the Navy Times noted, “the moves leaves the enlisted force’s foremost symbols as the petty officer crow and the chief petty officer anchors.” The writers continue, “It remains unclear what will happen to the ratings badges that feature iconic rating insignia that officials are considering changing. An engineman’s gear. An information systems technician’s sparks. These images were beloved by many and inspired countless tattoos.” Apparently, we have to wait and see what will become of our unique (to our branch of the armed forces) sleeve insignia. Will the Navy remove the distinguishing/specialty marks that currently reside between the eagle and chevrons? Since the goal is to make the enlisted structure more in line with the Army, Air Force and Marines (see: Hello, Seaman: Navy Ditches Ratings After Review – Military Times, 9/29/2016), would they simply reduce our insignia to just chevrons, also eliminating the eagle?

For those who collect rating badges and insignia, the discontinued use of them on enlisted uniforms could spark a sudden boost in interest spurring on an increase in demand while driving up prices. At present, collectors have predominately focused their interest in rating badges that predate the current eagle design (often disparagingly referred to as a “sick parrot”) – prior to the design change in the late 1980s. The earlier “crow” designs incorporate an more aggressive and menacing perched eagle and finer details in the embroidery (see: Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII). Another factor that garners collectors’ interest is that many of the distinguishing/specialty marks have been long since disestablished or superseded.  Collectors will be watching for any indication of changes (increased interest, more online auction bidders, etc.) in the market. It may be premature to say that the market appears to not be impacted by last week’s announcement. If the rating badges are altogether eliminated, I suspect that there will be a spate of new collectors influencing prices but it will eventually settle down shortly after. Time will tell.

What is Wrong With The New System?
Many people are wondering why are sailors so adamantly opposed to the new system that is being implemented. Why is there such a visceral and negative response to the impending changes? What began in January, 2016 as a directive by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Maybus to evaluate all of the ratings in order to “ensure they were representative of all sailors and did not discriminate based on gender,” evolved in the elimination of every rating. Rather than to work within the ratings, addressing the directive and fighting to uphold tradition, the MCPON took the easy way out, flippantly recommending (to the SecNav) that simply demolishing the ratings all together “could be be done tomorrow.”

“Make no mistake about it,” MCPON Stevens recalled telling (SecNav) Mabus, “this course of action will be the most labor-intensive, probably the most expensive, certainly the most controversial as well as difficult to accept socially throughout the Navy.”

Stevens had previously presented four scenarios to Maybus that were workable solutions to the directive (removing “man” from 21 specific ratings) before proposing the one that would strike the biggest blow to enlisted morale and to the American taxpayers. Maybus would have the final decision and, according to Stevens, Mabus “sat there a little bit, pondered it, asked a few questions and then decided, in the best interest of the Navy’s future, this was the path he wanted to take.” With that, Navy leadership unceremoniously rendered sailors to be nothing more than generic enlisted people that will no longer be as specialized as they are today.

Rather than focus on the most pressing needs of the navy (preparedness and readiness), the navy instead has shifted gears to be more focused on social issues. This shift in focus has already begun to produce negative results on mission-readiness:

  • Fourth breakdown in US Navy littoral combat ship – “…the Coronado’s incident (suffering an ‘engineering casualty’) means four of the six littoral combat ships in service have suffered mechanical failures in the past nine months.
  • The New $3B USS Zumwalt Is a Stealthy Oddity That May Already Be a Relic – “On the DDG-1000 [Zumwalt-class], with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over…”
  • Why More (Navy) Commanding Officers are Getting Fired (due to misconduct) – “…the presence of the opposite sex has led to an exploding rate of fraternization, at every level. Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken — they stick.”

There are countless instances of sailors dealing with the effects of extended deployments (due to the reduction of the number of combat-ready vessels and aircraft yet an increased demand), reduced morale, radical changes to command structure, and de-funding of maintenance budgets for active ships – all of this is contributing to a naval force that is wholly unprepared to meet any emergent needs that should arise.  Further diminishing morale by removing the enlisted rating system will only serve to continue the downward spiral that could take decades to end.

Contradiction and Irony
The eight-month long effort (January through September) to address Secretary Maybus’ directive to be sensitive to the ever-increasing list of federally recognized genders by removing “man” from rating titles is, at the outset, a failure. Though the leadership did succeed in eradicating the negative connotation from 21 ratings, they doubled-down on “man” for all sailors in pay-grades E-1 to E-3, referring to them all as “seaman,” leaving bluejackets to wonder what was Maybus’ underlying motivation.

 

Previous Articles about Collecting Navy Ratings and Badges:

References: