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.
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.