Category Archives: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia and Patches

Embroidered Artistry – Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI)


This WWI 81st Division shoulder sleeve insignia shows their division symbol, the Wildcat (image source: griffinmilitaria.com).

To most casual observers, army insignia patches (known as shoulder sleeve insignia or SSI) affixed to the shoulders of military uniforms, while visually interesting, are quite mysterious. Although today’s current designs are subdued (with muted black or brown stitching to be consistent with current camouflage schemes), they still employ sophisticated and intricate embroidery that formerly were lavished with brilliantly colored thread-work. Prior to the early 20th Century, other than rank insignia, army troops’ shoulders were plain.

During World War One, the 81st Division was the first to be authorized to employ a shoulder-affixed unit identification as they headed for France in 1918. The “Wildcats,” as the 81st was known, was the only U.S. Army division with permission for their personnel to wear patches on their uniforms during the war. With only a few short weeks remaining in the war, other units followed suit obtaining permission from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to begin wearing patches on October 19, 1918. Soon, there would be an abundance of varying unit insignia with multiple variations of patches for the individual units.

Many of the WWI patches were constructed in-theater and were hand-made resulting, in some cases, with various representations on the same design. As a patch collector, this is both a point of frustration and enjoyment as they could spend years tracking down every known SSI-design instance.

This unique 4th Infantry Division patch features a roundel insignia of their parent, the 3rd Army in the center of the patch.

As WWI veterans returned home, their ornately decorated uniforms drew the attention of would-be collectors and soon, the practice of stripping uniforms for their patches was born. It wasn’t uncommon for veterans to gift these patches to their children, giving birth to what would become one of the largest segments of militaria collecting, to this day.

Exercise caution (or seek advice of experienced collectors) prior to purchasing patches of this era. Considering the availability of period-correct wool flannel material, many of the World War 1 SSIs are easily reproduced and passed off to inexperienced collectors as authentic.

Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the American Expeditionary Forces 1918-1919

By the mid-1930s, collectors in upstate New York organized an exchange that would become the basis for The American Society of Military Insignia Collectors or ASMIC, one of the oldest organizations in the area of militaria collecting. With a resource such as ASMIC, collectors can draw from the knowledge of professional collectors as well as trade or purchase insignia.

In the years leading up to and during World War II, SSI were mass-produced and designs were standardized which meant that variations would be reduced. However, this did not eliminate variations altogether.

During the Viet Nam war, subdued patches were introduced for wear on combat uniforms providing additional variants of the same insignia. With the downsizing and restructuring of the Army, units have been decommissioned or combined resulting in fewer SSIs. When the U.S. Army transitioned to the Army Service Uniform (ASU), or dress blues, completely by October 1, 2015, the change all but eliminated the colorful patches as they are no longer worn on dress uniforms.

The only constant is change and uniform changes have been happening within the Army, Air Force and Navy in the past few years. Awaiting approval by

Will the Army do away with unit patches all together? Only time will tell.

 

 

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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.

 

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!

Kennedy Militaria – Where’s the Proof?


With all of the promise and expectations of the aspiring youth of America, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty fifth president of the United States, ushered in a movement of service and commitment to country that is still prevalent in our culture. In his January 1961 inauguration speech, Kennedy called Americans contribute to making the nation a better place, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

LTJG John F. Kennedy (standing, far right) and crewmen of the PT 109. Solomon Islands, 1943 (Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston).

Kennedy receives his Navy and Marine Corps Medal for risking his own life to save those of his PT-109 crew. As an aside, note that the naval officers’ dress uniform was absent sleeve patches unlike some of the enlisted uniforms (source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

His election to the White House was the culmination of the embodiment of this sentiment, having served in the U.S. Senate (1953-1960) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1947-1953) representing the state of Massachusetts. But JFK’s service had been kick started when he volunteered to serve in the United States Navy in October of 1941, through the bulk of World War II before being medically retired in March of 1945.

With an assassin’s bullet, all of that promise was stripped from the American youth replacing the excitement with a vacuum.

During the height of Kennedy’s popularity (while in office), Warner Brothers released a war-film (in June of 1963) documenting Kennedy’s service in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific when he served as a skipper of three motor torpedo (PT) boats; PT-101, PT109 and PT59. The film focused on JFK’s first command, PT-109 and the events surrounding his heroism following the boat’s sinking (after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer). The film just happened to be showing on one of the cable networks that shows classic movies and I couldn’t stop myself from being captivated by the on-screen dramatization of the President’s WWII actions.

Collectors of all walks and interests have been pursuing Kennedy memorabilia with considerable interest and fervor. The popularity of the president and the film about his service have contributed to persistent demand for anything that can be connected to him. With high demand and substantial popularity comes incredible values for these items. Where there’s money to be made, people seek opportunity to cash in with legitimate, fringe and fraudulent memorabilia.

For buyers of Kennedy memorabilia, iron-clad provenance should be required prior making a purchase. Investing in proper due diligence – researching the piece and the history – has to be a step performed before funds are exchanged. When it comes to militaria and Kennedy, buyers should be especially be wary – as in the case of a current “Kennedy” online auction listing”John F. Kennedy: His Very Own PT-109 Shoulder Patch.”

This screen-grab from the auction listing shows the unauthorized mosquito boat insignia that some sailors affixed to their dress uniforms’ left shoulders (source: Liveauctioneers.com)

The seller proceeds to describe exactly how the patch is authentic by detailing the previous owner’s relationship to the deceased president. Noting that then Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kennedy had sent his personal uniform patch to his cousin as token to cheer her up in the midst of her sorrow for being sent to boarding school. The story certainly seems plausible. Accompanying the patch (which is framed in a display) were:

  1. Various copy-images of JFK and the crew of the PT-109
  2. JFK receiving a medal (probably his Navy and Marine Corps Medal)
  3. A circa 1930 color photo of JFK and Marylou as children
  4. A patch from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy
  5. A signed notarized statement from Marylou Connelly McCarthy (JFK’s cousin and recipient of the patch), dated 1998, discussing the patch and her relationship with and feelings for JFK.
  6. A letter of provenance from the family

All of the items do seem to add up except for one small (well, not that small) inaccuracy. U.S. Navy shoulder patches (such as this unauthorized motor torpedo boat example) were worn solely by enlisted personnel (petty officer 1/c and below) on their jumper uniforms. Officers never donned shoulder patches which punches a hole in the story.

I suppose that JFK could have collected the patch from his unit and sent it as a keepsake for his cousin which would solidify those aspects of the seller’s story. Considering the minimum opening bid requirement of $17,000.00 and no takers, it appears that the provenance isn’t quite rock-solid enough for any prospective buyers.

Remember the militaria collectors’ mantra, “buy the item, not the story.”

 

Showcasing Your Militaria Investment


What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.

Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.

When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.

Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.

Take note of the mannequin’s altered ring finger on the left hand that matches Nimitz’ partial amputation from 1916 (source: Naval Academy Museum).

Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.

The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves.  My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.

Spotlight on private collector militaria displays