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Kennedy Militaria – Where’s the Proof?

With all of the promise and expectations of the aspiring youth of America, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty fifth president of the United States, ushered in a movement of service and commitment to country that is still prevalent in our culture. In his January 1961 inauguration speech, Kennedy called Americans contribute to making the nation a better place, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

LTJG John F. Kennedy (standing, far right) and crewmen of the PT 109. Solomon Islands, 1943 (Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston).

Kennedy receives his Navy and Marine Corps Medal for risking his own life to save those of his PT-109 crew. As an aside, note that the naval officers’ dress uniform was absent sleeve patches unlike some of the enlisted uniforms (source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

His election to the White House was the culmination of the embodiment of this sentiment, having served in the U.S. Senate (1953-1960) and the U.S. House of Representatives (1947-1953) representing the state of Massachusetts. But JFK’s service had been kick started when he volunteered to serve in the United States Navy in October of 1941, through the bulk of World War II before being medically retired in March of 1945.

With an assassin’s bullet, all of that promise was stripped from the American youth replacing the excitement with a vacuum.

During the height of Kennedy’s popularity (while in office), Warner Brothers released a war-film (in June of 1963) documenting Kennedy’s service in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific when he served as a skipper of three motor torpedo (PT) boats; PT-101, PT109 and PT59. The film focused on JFK’s first command, PT-109 and the events surrounding his heroism following the boat’s sinking (after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer). The film just happened to be showing on one of the cable networks that shows classic movies and I couldn’t stop myself from being captivated by the on-screen dramatization of the President’s WWII actions.

Collectors of all walks and interests have been pursuing Kennedy memorabilia with considerable interest and fervor. The popularity of the president and the film about his service have contributed to persistent demand for anything that can be connected to him. With high demand and substantial popularity comes incredible values for these items. Where there’s money to be made, people seek opportunity to cash in with legitimate, fringe and fraudulent memorabilia.

For buyers of Kennedy memorabilia, iron-clad provenance should be required prior making a purchase. Investing in proper due diligence – researching the piece and the history – has to be a step performed before funds are exchanged. When it comes to militaria and Kennedy, buyers should be especially be wary – as in the case of a current “Kennedy” online auction listing”John F. Kennedy: His Very Own PT-109 Shoulder Patch.”

This screen-grab from the auction listing shows the unauthorized mosquito boat insignia that some sailors affixed to their dress uniforms’ left shoulders (source:

The seller proceeds to describe exactly how the patch is authentic by detailing the previous owner’s relationship to the deceased president. Noting that then Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kennedy had sent his personal uniform patch to his cousin as token to cheer her up in the midst of her sorrow for being sent to boarding school. The story certainly seems plausible. Accompanying the patch (which is framed in a display) were:

  1. Various copy-images of JFK and the crew of the PT-109
  2. JFK receiving a medal (probably his Navy and Marine Corps Medal)
  3. A circa 1930 color photo of JFK and Marylou as children
  4. A patch from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy
  5. A signed notarized statement from Marylou Connelly McCarthy (JFK’s cousin and recipient of the patch), dated 1998, discussing the patch and her relationship with and feelings for JFK.
  6. A letter of provenance from the family

All of the items do seem to add up except for one small (well, not that small) inaccuracy. U.S. Navy shoulder patches (such as this unauthorized motor torpedo boat example) were worn solely by enlisted personnel (petty officer 1/c and below) on their jumper uniforms. Officers never donned shoulder patches which punches a hole in the story.

I suppose that JFK could have collected the patch from his unit and sent it as a keepsake for his cousin which would solidify those aspects of the seller’s story. Considering the minimum opening bid requirement of $17,000.00 and no takers, it appears that the provenance isn’t quite rock-solid enough for any prospective buyers.

Remember the militaria collectors’ mantra, “buy the item, not the story.”


A Temporary Break From Tradition: Navy Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

Two examples of the correct placement of the Navy SSI, worn during WWII. Shown on these uniforms is the Amphibious Forces Personnel patch.

Two examples of the correct placement of the Navy SSI, worn during WWII. Shown on these uniforms is the Amphibious Forces Personnel patch.

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

Unauthorized SSI:

  • 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.

Research Resources: