Category Archives: Military Era
In the sub-freezing temperatures, you find yourself watching for them. Anxiety has long-since set in and your heart-rate is rapid causing you to draw quick, short breaths from the cold oxygen flowing into your mask. You’re thinking back to the darkness of the early-morning hours, reviewing all of the landmarks as you check the heading. At 35,000 feet, your aluminum tube is barreling ahead, amidst a cloud of familiar shapes, at nearly 200 miles per hour. Your body is no longer aware of the vibrations and deafening roar of the four Wright Cyclone radial engines and their steady drone. You’ve been through this same routine (as if any of this can be considered “routine”) two dozen times before.
Suddenly, excited chatter is piped directly to your ears via the cold headset. Your fellow crew-members have sprung to life as they call them out – the dreaded camouflage-painted Focke-Wulf Fw 190 bearing the black cross of Germany. The flight of attackers begins to assail the surrounding B-17F aircraft in your group. You reach for the trusty Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun as you scan the skies for the attackers.
Gripping the handle of the gun with your fleece-lined leather gloves, you begin to train the weapon as you search for the enemy. You try to fight back the fear while looking through the Plexiglas nose, seeing another Flying Fortress rollover into its deadly dive. You don’t have time to look to see if there are any chutes, yet you are hold on to a shred of hope that those men do somehow manage to survive…
52,000 Americans perished in the air over Europe during World War II over the span of three and a half years. Contrast that to 58,000 Americans who lost their lives during the entire Vietnam War. It is difficult to imagine that bomber crews had to complete 25 bombing missions before they could be sent home. More than 750,000 bombing sorties were flown by U.S Army Air Force aircraft over Europe and just under 10,000 bombers were lost. The odds were infinitesimal that one aircraft could survive all of those missions and return home during the war. One of those B-17s that achieved that mark was the famed Memphis Belle (Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress Serial 41-24485) – the first heavy bomber to do so. The monumental feat was the subject of a William Wyler documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, released in 1944 to American audiences by Paramount Pictures.
Though I attempted to paint a picture of what it was like for these men, words could never come close to describing that experience. A single mission was harrowing for these amazing men. I often wonder which was more unnerving – the first mission or the twenty-fifth and final one. For Captain Vince Evans, sitting in the bombardier chair for those several harrowing hours on May 19, 1943 on a raid over German port-city of Kiel on the Jutland peninsula.
When an item from one the 10-member crew of the Memphis Belle, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. A few years ago, what appeared to be a cut-down, tailor-made officers jacket complete with period correct insignia and devices was listed at auction. Inside the jacket was a label with Captain Evan’s personal information, including his Army serial number (ASN). One issue some collectors raised with this listing was the seemingly incorrect ribbon bar. One important piece absent from the bar was Captain Evan’s Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) ribbon which was awarded to all ten crewmen. Vince would subsequently receive an additional DFC. The ribbon for the Air Medal is also absent devices which Evans would have had to indicate multiple awards.
Regardless of the minor shortcomings, the jacket is believed (by several collectors) to be genuine and was more than likely set aside by Evans after the war in favor of a newer uniform. The correct (or better yet, original) ribbon bar was probably removed (by Evans) for wear on the new uniform.
Following his WWII service, Evans began working with Wyler in his new profession as a writer in Hollywood with two films to his credit: Chain Lightning (starring Humphrey Bogart) and Battle Hymn (starring Rock Hudson). Evans served in the USAF Reserve until his discharge (at the rank of major) in 1953. Sadly, Major Evans would perish (along with his wife, Margery and their 21 year-old daughter, Venetia) in a small airplane when it crashed a few miles short of the Santa Ynez Valley airport in 1980. What the Luftwaffe and Nazi anti-aircraft gunnery could not do, a series of atmospheric conditions did. It was never determined who was in control of the aircraft (Evans or the flight instructor) at the time of the crash.
The Memphis “Belle lost one of her sweetest members” wrote Colonel Robert Morgan (in his book, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot), “a large piece” of her heart went down that day.
More than 40 bids from buyers eager to land a piece of history so closely-tied to the famed aircraft drove the final sale price to $1,026.97 which for many militaria collectors is a bargain considering the notoriety of the Memphis Belle and her crew.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.