Category Archives: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia and Patches
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.
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.
*See related posts:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To suggest that veterans and sailors of the U.S. Navy have an affinity for their ships would be a gross understatement. It would be difficult to stroll through any public area without seeing a former navy man sporting a ball cap with a USS ___ (fill in the blank). I have seen men well into their late 80s proudly carrying the name of the ship they served aboard, emblazoned across their foreheads, and as I write this, I am proudly wearing one of my own ship’s ball caps.
Navy ship ball caps are quite commonplace. Many of them have icons or symbols between the name and the hull number designator that make them unique to each specific ship. Some of the symbology might have nothing to do with the ship, instead being representative of the commanding officer or the crew. As far as I’ve determined, ships’ crews have been wearing the named caps aboard ship with utility (dungarees) since the 1960s.
When sailors are required to be in their dress uniforms, identifying them with their associated commands is a requirement… especially when sailors behave like, well… sailors in foreign ports. Present-day enlisted dress uniforms must be adorned with a unit identification mark (UIM) patch on the top of the shoulder of the right sleeve. This regulation has been in place since the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Prior to World War II, the navy employed a much more stylish format of placing the command names on their enlisted sailors. From the 1830s to 1960, sailors wore with their dress blue uniforms a flat hat, affectionately known as the “Donald Duck” hat. Though it wasn’t authorized, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, sailors began to adorn their flat hats with a ribbon (known as a tally) that displayed the name of the ship and was worn only when on liberty (“shore leave” to you landlubbers). Eventually, the tallies were acknowledged within the naval uniform regulations, standardizing their appearance and wear.
By 1941 and the outbreak of World War II, secrecy of ship movement drove the Navy to replace the embroidered ship name with simple, “U.S. Navy” text.
Ship-named tallies are highly sought after by collectors, pushing prices on some of the more famous (or infamous) vessels well into the ranges of multiple-hundreds of dollars, regardless of condition. Due to the delicate nature of the tallies’ materials and the exposure to the harsh marine environment, the gold threads of the lettering tend to darken and tarnish. The ribbon construction was typically made with silk, so they don’t stand up well to the ravages of several decades of time and storage.
In the last few years, a tally showed up in an online auction for the first time in more than a decade of staking out anything related to USS Vincennes. Until then, I had my doubts as to whether the Navy had allowed the pre-war crew to have the tallies for their ship, even though it was in service since February of 1937, four years before they were abolished. Sadly, the selling price surpassed my maximum bid by nearly triple the amount.
Hopefully, I don’t have to wait as long until I see another USS Vincennes tally!