Dress uniforms of the United States Navy have been remained relatively consistent, holding fast to their traditional appearance since the mid-nineteenth century. From the pullover jumper with the flap and neckerchief to the beautifully embroidered eagle and specialty marks of the rate badge, the uniform seldom strays too far from its unique appearance.
There have been some departures or design variances that left traditionalists scratching their heads, wondering why the navy brass seemingly tried to make the naval uniforms take on traits from the sibling military branches.
One of the most significantly negative changes occurred during the 1970s when the jumper uniforms (both service dress versions – blues and whites) were summarily eliminated in favor of the vanilla-stylings of a simple button-down white shirt and black trousers (known as “salt and peppers”) with a combination cover. The change was short-lived as the jumpers were re-instituted in the early 1980s and have been in use since. Due to their unpopularity, these uniforms draw little or no interest from collectors.
Another, less impactful change that was applied to the navy dress uniform was far less sweeping and seemed to set apart specific naval components rather than provide unity across the naval services. During World War II, with the ranks swelling to all-time highs, obviously necessary due to the manning requirements of a nearly 6,100-ship fleet, the specialized nature of certain functions had emerged into the spotlight, drawing significant attention from the rest of the armed forces and American public. The need to set these services apart arose, somewhat organically, as units began to adopt uniform concepts from the other branches.
Shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) had been in use across the U.S. Army as a means for identifying which units soldiers belonged to, the Navy had never previously authorized similar markings for their uniforms (other than hat tallies for the blue flat or “Donald Duck” hats).
The uniform shirt bore only rate and rating as well as distinguishing marks at the onset of World War II. However, by 1943, sailors in the minesweeper community had begun affixing an embroidered red, white and blue circular-designed patch (representing a painted device seen aboard mine sweeper vessels) to their left shoulders, directly above the rate badge. The commanding officer of the minesweeper, USS Zeal (AM-131) seeking to determine if such a patch was authorized for wear, sent a letter to navy brass. The Chief of Naval Personnel responded on June 24, 1943 that the patch was not permitted for wear. Despite the rejection, sailors continued to wear the SSI.
As the war progressed, other naval components began to adopt shoulder patches and approval from the higher-ups for these patches began to trickle down.
Officially Approved U.S. Navy Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (with approval date):
- Amphibious Forces Personnel – January 1944
- Motor Torpedo Boat Personnel (PT Boat) – September 1944
- Minecraft Personnel – December 1944
- Naval Construction Battalion (Sea Bees) – October 1944
- Amphibious Forces (Gator) Patch
- Minesweeper Personnel Patch
- Harbor Defense Personnel Patch
- Mosquito Boat Patch
On January 17, 1947, the Navy once again embraced tradition and officially abolished all shoulder sleeve insignia.
Due to their considerable production, the authorized SSI patches are plentiful and readily affordable for militaria collectors. The unofficial insignia will be more challenging to locate and in some cases be considerably more expensive to acquire.
- Marks, Specialty Marks and Distinguishing Marks of the Sea Services (U.S. Militaria Forum discussion topic)
- U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982 (Stacey, John A., paperback)
- Complete Guide to United States Navy Medals, Badges and Insignia: World War II to Present (Thompson, James G., paperback)