Category Archives: USMC

Jungle Art: Painted WWII Pith Helmets


A close-up of th 6th Marine Division insignia painted onto a USMC veteran’s helmet. This veteran served in one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, Okinawa (source: eBay image).

In a recent online auction, an amazing example of a veteran-painted pith helmet sold for less than $150. Had this helmet been a period correct M1 helmet, there is no telling how much attention it would have drawn from collectors or what incredible amount of money it would have fetched.

Hawley Products Company, one of the manufacturers of M1 helmet liners, made these fiberboard headgear “sun” helmets for use as protection from the intense sunlight and torrential downpours of the South Pacific tropical islands. Due to their lightweight design and construction, the term ‘helmet’ hardly seems applicable when compared to the beefy, bulky nature of the steel pot.

Here is a very nice example of a painted pith helmet with the Marine’s name stenciled across the bill (source: eBay image).

Piths were issued to all branches and were available in two colors or tones. Green was predominantly issued to naval personnel while khaki or light brown went to army and army air forces people. Marines could be seen wearing either color as they were issued whatever was available within the supply system or they adapted to the limited stores-issue and found creative ways to <em>requisition</em> (I use this term quite loosely as some Marines were rather resourceful in cutting through the red tape of the supply system) them.

A close-up of the Guadalcanal Pith and the EGA (source: eBay image).

As with any creative service member deployed away from loved ones and home, artistic expression tended to be revealed on available mediums. Piths, not meant for combat, were viable canvases for these artists to modify with their own personal embellishments. Wearers <em>tended</em> to be rear echelon service-members rather than front-line combatants, but some did don the helmet near the fight. Sometimes the fight came to them while they were engaged in other in-the-rear activities.

Though not as nicely embellished as the Okinawa pith, this Guadalcanal helmet would be a great addition to any collection (source: eBay image).

If you’re seeking to add a visually stunning helmet to your collection but can’t afford to splurge for the painted steel pot, these pith will certainly add diversity and originality to any display. With patience and diligence applied to your searching techniques or saved searches, you will find the perfect addition.

Showing the top of the Guadalcanal pith helmet (source: eBay image).

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Learning to Listen to that Quiet Voice of Reason: A Medal That Wasn’t Quite Right


You see the militaria item and at first glance, it looks great. Your heart starts racing as you begin to realize that you’re finally getting your hands one a highly sought-after piece of history. Understanding the story behind the piece, the sweat begins to bead on your forehead. “Could this be one of those?” you question yourself. The convincing thoughts race through your mind as you begin to dig through your wallet for the credit card thinking,“I am sure of it!”

Fighting back any thoughts of doubt, you hurriedly pay for the treasure. Once in your hands, you begin to begin to examine the details. The doubts come rushing back along with the possibility that regret will soon follow. This scenario is bound to happen, even to the most seasoned experts. Eventually, every collector will experience the letdown upon the discovery that they rushed into a purchase ignoring all the education and experience that would have protected them from buying a fake.

My experience came last year when I spotted a much coveted Navy Expeditionary Medal with the rare Wake Island clasp affixed to the ribbon. The medal (with the clasp) was awarded only to those sailors and marines who served in defense of Wake Island in December, 1941 from the 7th to the 22nd.

More than 450 Marines and nearly 70 naval personnel bravely repelled multiple Japanese aerial and naval bombardments and landing assaults as the Japanese attempted to wrest the island away from the U.S. forces. Severely outnumbered more than five  to one, the Americans finally surrendered Wake to the enemy. Suffering 120 killed in action and 50 wounded, the Americans inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese forces sinking two destroyers and two patrol boats as well as heavily damaging a light cruiser. Japanese landing forces suffered 820 killed and more than 330 wounded in action.

My 1950s HLP-made Navy Expeditionary Medal with the fake Wake Island clasp.

My “fake” medal consists of a late 1950s authentic Navy Expeditionary medal with HLP (for the maker, His Lordship Products, Inc.) stamped into the rim of the planchet. The details of the strike are quite fine and even the most subtle areas of the design are quite crisp. The planchet is significantly thicker than a modern strike and is devoid of the modern synthetic antiquing. The brooch indicates that it is from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s.

To compare, this Wake Island clasp for the Navy Expeditionary Medal appears to be authentic. Note the crisp lettering and sharpness to the detail of the rope-border (source: eBay image).

Where the trouble with this medal starts to surface is with close examination of the Wake Island clasp. Ignoring the Rube Goldberg hack-job on the reverse (which can be overlooked…I have seen other claps butchered, although not quite as bad as this), the face is where I should have focused my initial attention.

Upon a close examination of the field (of the clasp), I noticed the bumpy surface between the lettering and the edge where it should have been smooth. I also noticed that the lettering and the rope-design that surrounded the face all looked blurry or soft (as opposed to being crisp and sharp). All of these issues should have set off alarm bells in my head. All of these discernible issues indicate that the clasp was a forgery  – a product of sand mold-casting, which is a cheap reproduction method that is routinely employed in these forgeries.

I will chalk this episode up as a lesson learned. I am keeping this medal in my collection as both a reminder and a nice “filler” as I will probably never be able to afford an authentic example. Everything else about the medal, suspension and clasp is makes this an otherwise very nice example of an early Navy Expeditionary Medal.

Consistency through Change – The U.S. Army Uniform


This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day, I had been inspired by my family military service research project, which had me neck-deep in the American Civil War, which caused me to drag out a few DVDs for the sheer joy of watching history portrayed on the screen. Since the Fourth of July was coming up, I wanted to be sure to view director Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, on or near the anniversary of the battle, which took place on July 1-3, 1863.

I had watched these films (including Gods and Generals and Glory) countless times in the past, but this weekend, I employed more scrutiny while looking at the uniforms and other details. Paying particular attention to the fabrics of the uniforms, I was observing the variations for the different functions (such as artillerymen, cavalrymen, and infantry) while noting how the field commanders could observe from vantage points where these regiments were positioned, making any needed adjustments to counter the opponents’ movements or alignments. For those commanders, visual observations from afar were imperative and the uniforms (and regimental colors/flags) were mandatory to facilitate good decision making.

The tactics employed for the majority of the Civil War were largely carryovers from previous conflicts and had not kept pace with the advancement of the weaponry. Armies were still arranged in battle lines facing off with the enemy at very close range (the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederacy), before the commands were given to open fire with the rifles and side arms. The projectile technology and barrel rifling present in the almost all of the infantry firearms meant that a significantly higher percentage of the bullets would strike the targets. In prior conflicts where smooth-bore muskets and round-ball projectiles were the norm, hitting the target was met with far less success.

The uniforms of the Civil War had also seen some advancement as they departed from the highly stylized affairs of the Revolution to a more functional design. In the years following the war, uniform designs saw some minor alterations through the Indian Wars and into the Spanish American War. By World War I, concealment and camouflaging the troops started to become a consideration of military leadership. Gone were the colorful fabrics, exchanged for olive drab (OD) green. By World War II, camo patterns began to emerge in combat uniforms for the army and marines, though they wouldn’t be fully available for all combat uniforms until the late 1970s.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

For collectors, these pattern camouflage combat uniforms are some of the most highly sought items due to their scarcity and aesthetics. The units who wore the camo in WWII through the Viet Nam War tended to be more elite or highly specialized as their function dictated even better concealment than was afforded with the OD uniforms worn by regular troops.

Fast-forward to the present-day armed forces, where camouflage is now commonplace among all branches. The Navy, in 2007-2008, was the last to employ camo, a combination of varying shades of blue, for their utility uniforms citing the concealment benefits (of shipboard dirt and grime) the pattern affords sailors. All of the services have adopted the digital or pixellated camo that is either a direct-use or derivative of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) first employed (by the U.S.) with the Marine Corps when it debuted in 2002. Since then, collectors have been scouring the thrift and surplus shops, seeking to gather every digital camo uniform style along with like-patterned field gear and equipment.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

change-5After a very limited testing cycle and what appeared to be a rush to get their own digital camo pattern, the U.S. Army rolled out their ACU or Army Combat Uniform with troops that were deploying to Iraq in 2005. With nearly $5 billion (yes, that is a “B”) in outfitting their troops with uniforms, the army brass announced this week that they are abandoning the ACU for a different pattern citing poor concealment performance and ineffectiveness across all combat environments. With the news of the change, the army has decided upon the replacement pattern, known as MultiCam, which has already been in use exclusively in the Afghanistan theater.

For collectors of MultiCam, this could be both a boon (making the items abundantly available) and a detractor (the limited pattern was more difficult to obtain which tended to drive the prices up with the significant demand). For those who pursue ACU, it could take decades for prices to start climbing which means that stockpiling these uniforms could be a waste of time and resources. Only time will tell.

Since the Civil War, the U.S. Army uniform has one very consistent aspect that soldiers and collectors alike can hang their hat upon…change.

Introductory Flight – Collecting Aviator Wings


From the top: Command Pilot, Senior Pilot and Pilot of the US Army Air Force. The naval aviator “wings of gold” are really set apart from its USAAF counterparts.

From the top: Command Pilot, Senior Pilot and Pilot of the US Army Air Force. The naval aviator “wings of gold” are really set apart from its USAAF counterparts.

Since the early twentieth century, all of the branches armed forces of the United States have been bolstered by service men and women who are highly skilled, reaching the pinnacle of their specialized area of expertise. From aviators, to paratroopers, to submarine crew members and combat infantrymen, all are easily recognizable by the devices and pins affixed to their uniforms.

Since the advent of military flight and the employment of aviators in war-fighting aircraft, leadership within the ranks realized that there was a need to provide a uniform accouterments to set these special and unique servicemen apart from the rest of those in uniform.

During World War I, the Air Service (U.S. Army) began issuing qualified pilots a winged pin device to attach to the left breast of their uniform blouse. The device was constructed in silver-colored metal (mostly silver or sterling silver or embroidered in silver bullion thread) with two ornately feathered bird wings attached to either side of a shield, which had 13 stars in a field over 13 stripes. Superimposed over the shield were the letters, “U.S.” This wing design would remain in use throughout the Great War.

A nice example of a World War i balloon pilot’s single wing of the Army Air Service.

A nice example of a World War i balloon pilot’s single wing of the Army Air Service.

During the interwar period (1919-1941), the U.S. Army Air Corps wings were more standardized, dropping the U.S. lettering and simplifying the design. The shape of the shield became more standardized though it would vary depending upon the manufacturer. The Air Corps also began introducing varying degrees of the pins that signified the experience of the aviator. In addition to the existing pilot badge, the senior pilot (which added a five-point star above the shield) and command pilot (with a five-point star inside a wreath) badges were issued.

This stunning 8th Air Force 2nd Lieutenant’s uniform has a beautiful example of a silver bullion wing. In fact, all of the (typically metal) devices are made from silver bullion thread.

This stunning 8th Air Force 2nd Lieutenant’s uniform has a beautiful example of a silver bullion wing. In fact, all of the (typically metal) devices are made from silver bullion thread.

This display features WWII USMC ace, Major Bruce Porter’s decoration and medals with his naval aviator “wings of gold.”

This display features WWII USMC ace, Major Bruce Porter’s decoration and medals with his naval aviator “wings of gold.”

The new naval aviation service also adopted a wing device for their aviators that incorporated a similar design (bird wings attached to a shield with stars and stripes) but with an anchor, arranged vertically, extending from behind the shield with the ring and stock above and the crown and flukes below. Most of these early wings were constructed in a gold metal (sometimes actual gold) or embroidered using gold bullion thread. The navy wings of gold remain virtually unchanged to present day, with variations occurring between various manufacturers.

With a little effort, new collectors can quickly educate themselves as to the nuances of the (World War II to present) coveted, yet relatively affordable, wings. Many of the naval (which include USMC flyers) and air corps/forces wings from WWII can be had for prices ranging from $50-$100 depending on the scarcity or abundance of the variant.

During World War II, women pilots were needed to ferry aircraft from the manufacturers to the troops, saving the experienced aviators for front-line combat. This beautiful WASP uniform features pilot wings.

During World War II, women pilots were needed to ferry aircraft from the manufacturers to the troops, saving the experienced aviators for front-line combat. This beautiful WASP uniform features pilot wings.

Due to the incredible desirability and rarity of wings (i.e. extremely high dollar values) from the first World War, these pieces are some of the most copied and faked militaria items. Some of the examples are so well-made (in some cases, by skilled jewelers) that expert collectors have difficulty discerning them from the genuine artifacts. The best advice before acquiring a WWI piece is to consult an expert. Also, be sure that the seller is reputable and will offer a full refund if the item is determined to be a fake.

Pappy’s Mameluke


Perhaps no other (U.S.) branch of service reveres their dress sword or sabre as much as the United States Marine Corps. Likewise, no other branch has quite the history as do the Marines with regards to their beautifully appointed blade, the Mameluke.

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Note the unique handle and hilt of the Mameluke. This example is a World War I-era sword (eBay photo).

Dating back to the days of hand to hand combat when Marines had a prominent presence aboard U.S. Navy warships, swords and sabres were a required arsenal element issued to both officers and regular, enlisted men. In the age of sail, enemy ships would draw within gun range, firing upon each other with cannons in an effort to disable their opponents’ ability to maneuver and make way. Once the enemy was disabled, boarding of the vessel for capture was usually the goal. Victorious in the gun battle, the ship would be positioned alongside the prey and the boarding parties, already armed and assembled, would initiate hand-to-hand fighting as they poured over the gunwales to take their prize. Firing single-shot pistols and brandishing their swords and sabres, the Marines would overpower the wounded ship’s crew to capture their prize.

Today, swords are only used by officers and enlisted men in the Marine Corps for ceremonies and formal occasions. For officers’ wear, that sword is known simply as the Mameluke (pronounced: ma’am-uh-luke).  With its origins dating back to 1805 when Presley O’Bannon, a Marine veteran of the Barbary War, was presented a sword by Prince Hamet (viceroy of the Ottoman Empire) following the Battle of Derne. In 1825, 5th Marine Corps Commandant Archibald Henderson adopted a sword (that was modeled after O’Bannon’s Ottoman gift) for wear by officers. With very little design change, the Mameluke is the second longest tenured sword in the U.S. military service; the Army’s model 1840 has been in consecutive service since inception while the older Mameluke was set aside from 1859-1875.

Arguably, the Mameluke is one of the most collectible U.S. military swords due to its unique design, aesthetic qualities and very limited quantities. Even more collectible are those swords whose original owners were Marine Corps legends.

Boyington's engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar's museum (USMC photo).

Boyington’s engraved Mameluke sword on display at VMF-214 squadron hangar’s museum (USMC photo).

Imagine perusing a local garage sale where you happen to spot a military scabbard with a sword handle protruding. You see grasp the handle, examining the condition and notice the distinctive white, hooked handle with a cross-shaped gilded hilt. You begin to recognize that you are holding a Mameluke. Curious to see if there is any engraving present, you withdraw the blade from the scabbard. Checking the grimy, corroded surface inches below the hilt you spot, “G. Bo…” You rub the verdigris and dirt from the surface, “…y…ing…t…” Your heartbeat quickens as your mind races, as you string the letters together. You clear the last bits of the loose filth to see the remaining letters, “…o…n.” Your mind screams, “G. BOYINGTON!!!…this is Pappy Boyington’s sword!!”

Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington during World War II.

Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington during World War II.

Fortunately for historians and the Boyington family, this did happen. One of the family’s friends found and purchased Medal of Honor Recipient, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s Mameluke at a garage sale  and gave it to his son, Greg Boyington, Jr. A few years ago, Boyington Jr. donated the sword (along some of the ace’s other personal belongings) to the legendary aviator’s squadron, Yuma, Arizona-based VMA-214. The Blacksheep now have the sword safely on display along with a handful of Boyington’s personal militaria. Personally, I would have had a difficult time letting go of such an important piece of history