Category Archives: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia and Patches

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.

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!

Forecasting Patchy Skies: Sew-on Naval Aviation Heraldry


Counterclockwise from top left: VF-51 Screaming Eagles as the unit was being deactivated; VF-41 sporting the Tomcat character (for the F-14 Tomcat aircraft); HC-11, Detachment 5′s WestPac cruise patch; HC-11 squadron patch.

Counterclockwise from top left: VF-51 Screaming Eagles as the unit was being deactivated; VF-41 sporting the Tomcat character (for the F-14 Tomcat aircraft); HC-11, Detachment 5′s WestPac cruise patch; HC-11 squadron patch.

Since I began this blog, I’ve covered various aspects of military-patch collecting. From shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) to rank and rating badges, this area of collecting has something for every level of collecting, from the beginner with a scant budget to the experienced one who collects each and every obscure variation of his or her favorites.

This authentic VMF-214 squadron patch dates from WWII and is most-likely Australian-made. This “Blacksheep” patch is affixed to the G-1 flight jacket that belonged to the Marine pilot, Fred Losch.

This authentic VMF-214 squadron patch dates from WWII and is most-likely Australian-made. This “Blacksheep” patch is affixed to the G-1 flight jacket that belonged to the Marine pilot, Fred Losch.

One of my personal favorites in collecting patches, even though the size of my collection disagrees, is naval aviation squadrons (including the U.S. Marine Corps) due to the colorful (pun intended) embellishments and symbolism representing each squadron. These patches represent a lengthy history in heraldry and the history of navy flight dating back almost to its very beginning.

The tradition and history of these patches and insignia is acknowledged by U.S. Navy leadership in the Chief of Naval Operations Instructions (OPNAVINST) 5030.4G, as it states:

“The practice fosters a sense of pride, unit cohesion and contributes to high morale, esprit de corps and professionalism within the Naval Aviation community.  It also serves as an effective means of preserving a command’s tradition, continuity of purpose and recognition, as traced through its lineage.”

As early as the 1920s, United States naval aviators have employed visual graphics and heraldry complete with symbolism and characterizations of traits, behaviors and/or projections of the personality of their individual squadron commands. Often portraying ferocity or satire, these emblems would be displayed within the confines of the squadron office or the personnel’s common areas to encourage unity within the ranks.

Aviation units are quite diverse across four distinct areas: attack, fighter, patrol and helicopter squadrons. Within these areas are a myriad of functional (active) and decommissioned squadrons with a host of designs. Depending upon the length and breadth of an individual squadron’s service, there could exist dozens of designs and subsequent patch variations. As noted noted within these documents, squadron service history and lineage is incredibly detailed and expansive (histories for fighter and helicopter squadrons are in the works):

As a result of the diversity across the lineages, patch collectors can specialize in very specific areas (such as collecting all Vietnam-era fighter squadrons) or focus on a central design aspect (i.e. any squadron that incorporates an eagle into their design). For me, I look for those squadrons that I had direct contact with during my naval deployments, which include attack, fighter and helicopter squadrons, in the 1980s.

These patches represent two squadrons – one a USMC electronic warfare squadron and the other, an anti-submarine warfare helicopter squadron. Both bear the same nickname of “Seahawks.” The bottom two patches’ design was incorporated into the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (#4) when it was based at NAS Whibey Island in Washington State. The Seahawks (squadron) adopted the imagery from the Seahawks (the local NFL team). Since relocating to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, VMAQ-4 departed from the NFL-based design,

These patches represent two squadrons – one a USMC electronic warfare squadron and the other, an anti-submarine warfare helicopter squadron. Both bear the same nickname of “Seahawks.” The bottom two patches’ design was incorporated into the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (#4) when it was based at NAS Whibey Island in Washington State. The Seahawks (squadron) adopted the imagery from the Seahawks (the local NFL team). Since relocating to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, VMAQ-4 departed from the NFL-based design,

*See related posts:

Fruitless Searching – The Quest for an Insignificant Patch


After years of searching for a simple uniform accouterment, I am feeling that the possibilities of completing a uniform recreation are far less than I had hoped. When I began my project in 2009, I figured that locating a fairly standard uniform patch would be a simple venture. As I reviewed the photo, seemingly nothing on my uncle’s uniform was rare or would be difficult to source. At the end of four years, I have learned that I may have to place this project on perpetual hold. Where did I go wrong?

It is unfathomable to me that I stand a better chance locating this Merrill’s Marauders shoulder sleeve insignia patch than the overseas service bars/chevrons combination.

It is unfathomable to me that I stand a better chance locating this Merrill’s Marauders shoulder sleeve insignia patch than the overseas service bars/chevrons combination.

When I received a photo (taken in August of 1952) of my uncle receiving an Army Commendation Medal from a colonel, I knew that I wanted to assemble a uniform jacket with his full military decorations. Around the same time I got the photo, an enormous package arrived from the National Archives which contained a large stack of documents that encapsulated my uncle’s service spanning three wars and nearly 20 years.

Here, my uncle receives his Army Commendation Medal. Though he is shown in uniform, he is wearing no other decorations or ribbons. The quest for the overseas stripes/chevrons patch continues after 3 years.

Here, my uncle receives his Army Commendation Medal. Though he is shown in uniform, he is wearing no other decorations or ribbons. The quest for the overseas stripes/chevrons patch continues after 3 years.

Darren McGavin’s wife (in the film A Christmas Story) saw how obviously hideous this lamp was. It was equally apparent that I needed to find the proper patch configuration for my display (source: Warner Brothers).

Darren McGavin’s wife (in the film A Christmas Story) saw how obviously hideous this lamp was. It was equally apparent that I needed to find the proper patch configuration for my display (source: Warner Brothers).

Reviewing the service records and the photo, I decided that I wanted to put together a uniform that was representative of what my uncle wore at the conclusion of his service in the army. Considering that my uncle enlisted to serve in World War One, I figured that the greatest challenge I faced was in locating the period-correct ribbons with the appropriate devices: the correct campaign stars. I already possessed a good portion of my uncle’s metal devices (rank, corps insignia) along with several period-correct ribbons and medals which meant that it shouldn’t take long to acquire what was still needed.

This patch was in my uncle’s possessions but the moth-eaten condition and that it is for a khaki uniform, makes it unsuitable for my display.

This patch was in my uncle’s possessions but the moth-eaten condition and that it is for a khaki uniform, makes it unsuitable for my display.

In possession of the uniform jacket, I began to take stock of each item before I would begin to sew on any of the patches. From the unit insignia (the GHQ patch) to the all of the various devices, I was ready to go…or so I thought. There, glaring at me like Darren McGavin’s sultry major award, gleaming brightly in the window of the front room from A Christmas Story, I was missing the overseas stripes that would be representative a soldier who served overseas for multiple wars.

One might ask, “What is so significant about this uniform item?” The overseas service bar (or chevron for World War I service) was issued for each block of six months served by a soldier in a combat zone. In the case of my uncle’s uniform, the photo shows that he wore three chevrons and five overseas service bars. With each stripe or chevron representing six months, my uncle served in a combat theater for three chevrons and five bars, or a total four years.

A Thousand Words? Pictures Are Worth so Much More!


As my family members have passed over the past several years, I have managed to acquire a number of antique photo albums and collections of photos of (or by) my family members that nobody else wanted. Most of the images’ subjects were of family gatherings, portraits or nondescript events and contained a lot of unknown faces of people long since gone. As the only person in the family who “seems to be interested” in this sort of history, I have become the default recipient.

Here is a sampling of vintage photo albums I've inherited.

Here is a sampling of vintage photo albums I’ve inherited.

My Hidden Treasure
With all the activities and family functions occurring in my busy life, those albums received a rapid once-over (to see if I could discern any of the faces) and then were shelved to gather dust as they had done with their previous owners. Years later, I began to piece together a narrative of my relatives’ military service (a project you will hear about over the course of my blog posts). I have since returned to those albums only to discover a small treasure of military-related images that are serving to illustrate my narrative project. As an added bonus, they are providing me with an invaluable visual reference as I am reconstructing uniform displays to honor these veterans.

Photographs Can Unlock the Secrets
Similarly, militaria collectors strike gold when they can obtain photo of a veteran in uniform that can help to provide authentication as part of the due diligence for a specific group they are investigating prior to an acquisition. A photo showing the veteran wearing a certain Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI), ribbon configuration or even a specific uniform garment can be authenticated if there are visible traits (such as tears or repairs) within the image.

Photographs from GIs in a wartime theater of operations or in combat are fairly rare. Photography was outlawed by theater commanders (due to the obvious security risks if the film or photographs were captured) and space was at a premium as one had to pack their weapons, ammunition, rations and essential gear. So finding the room to safely carry a camera and film for months at a time was nearly impossible. Similarly, shipboard personnel were not allowed to keep cameras in their personal possessions. Knowing the determination of soldiers, airmen and sailors, rules were meant to be broken and, fortunately for collectors, personal cameras did get used and photos were made while flying under the censors’ radar.

If you have deep pockets and you don’t mind paying a premium for pickers to do the legwork, wartime photo albums can be purchased online (dealers, auction sites) for hundreds of dollars. Many times, this can be a veritable crap-shoot to actually find images that have significant military or historical value and aren’t simply photos of an unnamed soldier partying with pals in a no-name bar in an an unknown location. For militaria collectors at least, there is value in the image details.

As you obtain military-centric photos, take the time to fully examine what can be seen. Don’t get distracted by the principal subject – look for the difficult-to-see details. Purchase a loupe or magnifying glass to enable you discern the traits that can reveal valuable information about when or where the photo was snapped. What unit identifying marks can bee seen on the uniforms? Can you identify anything that would help you to determine the era of the uniforms being worn by the GIs?

My Own Success
In assembling a display for one of my relatives, I wanted to create an example of his World War I uniform because the first of his three wars was quite significant in shaping his character for his lifetime. Having already obtained his service records (which span his entire military career, concluding a few years after the Korean War), a book that was written about his WWI unit (published by a fellow unit member) and my uncle’s photo album which was filled with snapshots of his deployment to France, I figured I would be able create a decent uniform representation.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle's WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle’s WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

In the various photo album images, I could see his right sleeve rank insignia as well as the overseas stripes on his left sleeve quite clearly. I could even make out his bronze collar service devices or “collar disks” in the photos (since I had his originals, they weren’t in question), but I had no idea of what unit insignia should go on his left shoulder. Not to be denied, I took the route of investigating his unit and the organizational hierarchy, trying to pinpoint the parent unit to which the 63rd Coastal Artillery Corps was assigned. Having located all of that data, I was still unsure of the SSI for the right shoulder.

Temporarily sidetracked from the uniform project, I returned to the photo album and scanned a few of the images (at the highest possible resolution) for use in my narrative. With one of the photos, I began to pay close attention to the left shoulder as I zoomed in tightly to repair 90 years worth of damage…and there it was! At the extreme magnification, I could clearly see the 1st Army patch (with the artillery bars inside the legs of the “A”) on my uncle’s left shoulder. I had missed it during the previous dozens of times that I viewed the photo.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle’s WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

A close up of the SSI of the 1st Army (with the red and white bars of the artillery), my uncle's collar disks, the honorable discharge chevron and his actual ribbons.

A close up of the SSI of the 1st Army (with the red and white bars of the artillery), my uncle’s collar disks, the honorable discharge chevron and his actual ribbons.

My research now complete, I obtained the correct vintage patches and affixed them to an un-named vintage WWI uniform jacket along with my uncle’s original ribbons and collar devices (disks) to complete this project. Now I have a fantastic and correct example of my uncle’s WWI uniform to display.