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Airborne Radiomen


This Aviation Radioman distinguishing mark adorns the sleeve of a seaman 1/c jumper from WWII. Men and women trained to service and operate specific radio equipment for naval air forces during WWII (source: eBay image).

A simple scan of the topics of the articles that I have written over the last (nearly) six years of this site reveals that I am heavily biased towards militaria artifacts from naval service. In reviewing the books that are in my personal library, the overwhelming subjects are naval history (the runner-up topic being baseball). Within the sphere of naval militaria collecting, enlisted uniform-items dominate what I possess – rating badges, patches, hats, caps and covers and of course, the uniforms themselves.

I have a personal connection that fuels my interest in a specific area of Navy ratings – including the development of the technology that surrounds that area: radio and RADAR – and my collection is dominated by the associated job specialties. I have written about the development of radar and the radarman rating and radiomen due to the several uniforms that I have within my collection, my family history and my own interest in the application of the technology for combat advantage.

Three of my WWII chief petty officer uniform jackets are part of my predominant radioman and radarman militaria collecting focus.

Established in 1942 and enduring throughout WWII, the Aviation Radioman rating is an example of the Navys rapid technological advancement and the need to train and man the ranks accordingly.

Within the radio and RADAR arena of my collecting, I have barely touched upon these jobs as they apply to naval aviation. In terms of airborne technology, World War II saw rapid advancement in the equipment and adoption and usage to gain an edge against enemy forces. One of the ratings that played a significant role in this arena was the Aviation Radioman which was established in all grades (third, second, first class and chief petty officers) in January 1942 after recognizing the need to differentiate these radiomen from their shipboard counterparts. As with the sea-going radiomen, the field of ArMs were split between those who operated the equipment (Aviation Radiomen) and those who were skilled technicians (Aviation Radio Technician) and yet they wore the same rating insignia. In some instances, the sailors had perform in both capacities. As with the shipboard and submariners, certain aviation radiomen were aircrewmen – part of the crew that served on missions within the aircraft.

Stephen R. Walley, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class (of Albany, NY) spoke about his naval career during a May 20, 2006 interview with the New York State Military Museum. Walley’s pathway to becoming and ArM was fairly typical, stating that when he enlisted (in September, 1942) to serve, he opted to train as a Radioman in the Navy. After completing his basic training in Newport, RI, Mr. Walley was sent to four months of schooling for shipboard radio training. ”Upon completion of that course, I came out as a Radioman third petty officer.” Walley said of his early career. “At the last week of the course,” Stephen continued, “we had people come in from naval school in Memphis, Tennessee asking for volunteers to become Aviation Radiomen.” Six to eight of Walley’s graduating class from radioman school reported to Memphis for ten weeks of aviation training, learning additional skills for communication and operating aircraft radio and comms equipment. Because airborne RADAR technology was in its infancy at the time of Walley’s career, he had two additional weeks of education in operating and maintaining equipment to be prepared when the fleet aircraft would be outfitted with the highly secret gear.

Airborne radiomen required additional training in aerial gunnery school in order to be proficient in providing protection from enemy fighter aircraft. Dive (Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver) and torpedo bomber (Grumman TBF Avenger and Douglas TBD Devastator) aircraft were equipped with .30 caliber machine guns (the Avenger two gunners – the ArM would typically man the ventral-mounted .30 cal versus the dorsal .50 caliber gun) which would be the primary responsibility of these radiomen when enemy aircraft were present. Aerial gunnery school was an additional ten weeks where upon completion, these men would either choose or be selected (based upon the candidates’ height) for their aircraft assignments. The shorter men, up to 5’-9” were better suited for the cramped cockpits of the carrier-based aircraft and the taller men were assigned to train for the large, land and sea-based planes (such as the Consolidated Catalina PBY and the PB4Y-2 Privateer).

There were three crew members: (1) pilot, (2) turret gunner and (3) radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner – an aviation radioman.

With nearly 21,000 carrier-based aircraft (out of more than 56,000 naval combat aircraft), the need for ArMs was substantial. Not only was the demand for manning aircrews but also for the maintenance staff within the squadrons. In addition, aviation radiomen would fill positions in support of the airwing communications within the radio spaces of the embarked aircraft carriers. Add to this demand, manning requirements for the dozens of naval air stations and facilities in the continental United States and in the Pacific theater meant that there were countless thousands of men and women who served as aviation radiomen during the war.

In some instances, aviation radiomen served as pilots of aircraft (primarily filled by naval aviators and enlisted naval aviation pilots), such was the case for CArM Johnnie E. Mattis during the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 when he was piloting his torpedo bomber in a harrowing attack on a Japanese carrier, scoring a hit against tremendous odds. In all, more than 650 medals of valor (for the Navy, these include the Bronze and Silver Star medals, Navy and Marine Corps medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Medal of Honor) were conferred upon aviation radiomen for their service above and beyond the call of duty during WWII.

Navy Cross Recipients:

With the rapid advancement in technology in the Navy and the massive expansion of ratings leading up to and during World War II, changes were afoot for Aviation Radiomen in the years immediately following the War. The peacetime navy ranks experienced considerable contraction as more than 70% (2.3 million) of those serving at the War’s end were discharged back into civilian life. In 1945, the Aviation Radioman rating was renamed to Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate while still wearing the same mark.

This early WWII eight-button chief aviation radioman jacket has a beautiful bullion rating badge. The chief is seemingly missing a hashmark but he only served during World War II . Also featured on this jacket are the combat aircrew pin and the chief’s ruptured duck discharge patch (note that the combat aircrew wing and ribbons were added solely for the purposes of display. The sailor named in the jacket spent the duration of the war at Naval Air Station San Juan, PR).

As with the changes in Radioman rating (Electronics Technician’s Mate which was the technician side of the RM rating from 1942-1945 – was split out in 1948, creating the new ET or Electronics Technician), a new rating was established from the Aviation Radioman rating in 1948; Aviation Electronics Technician (AT).

 

DATE 8/14/45* 6/30/46 6/30/47 6/30/48 6/30/49 6/30/50
BATTLESHIPS 23 10 4 2 1 1
CARRIERS, FLEET 28 15 14 13 11 11
CARRIERS, ESCORT 71 10 8 7 7 4
CRUISERS 72 36 32 32 18 13
DESTROYERS 377 145 138 134 143 137
FRIGATES 361 35 24 12 12 10
SUBMARINES 232 85 80 74 79 72
MINE WARFARE 586 112 55 54 52 56
PATROL 1204 119 74 50 50 33
AMPHIBIOUS 2547 275 107 86 60 79
AUXILIARY 1267 406 306 273 257 218
SURFACE WARSHIPS 833 226 198 180 174 161
TOTAL ACTIVE 6768 1248 842 737 690 634

*     V-J Day (source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Year Active Naval Personnel
1940 160,997
1941 284,427
1942 640,570
1943 1,741,750
1944 2,981,365
1945 3,319,586
1946 978,203
1947 497,773
1948 417,535
1949 447,901
1950 380,739

When the Navy began to specialize the enlisted ranks in the late 1800s, special marks were incorporated to denote the skills of the enlisted sailors. This WWII aviation radioman 3/c uniform has the distinguishing mark of an aerial gunner on the right sleeve.

This aviation radioman seaman 1/c wore a Radarman distinguishing mark on the lower right sleeve of his uniform.

Collecting ArM rating badges, distinguishing marks, devices and uniforms along with other, more significant items such as named/engraved decorations (Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Heart medals) is rather rewarding, considering that the rating essentially existed for the duration of WWII. For my collection, I have acquired a selection of various rating badges and two named uniform items. While I have a sparse collection of navy decorations, both of the two uniform tops; one, a chief aviation radioman technician (CArT) and the other, a ArM3/c (with an aerial gunner distinguishing mark) were great additions even though they were stripped of decorations.

There are militaria collectors who focus on very specific artifact types such as wing devices. Still, some may hone in more tightly, choosing to keep their collecting on naval wings (of which, there are countless variations throughout the 100+ years of existence). Within my “museum,” I have a few navy wings and among them is one WWII-era combat aircrew wing device.

“The insignia featured a banner across the top on which eligible sailors could affix up to three stars signifying individual combat awards.  Aircrews engaging enemy aircraft, singly or in formation; engaging armed enemy combatant vessels with bombs, torpedoes or machine guns; and engaging in bombing or offensive operations against fortified enemy positions were qualified to wear a combat star, with unit commander approval, on their aircrew breast insignia.”

This seaman first class aviation radioman jumper shows that he was a radar technician for airborne radar equipment. This is the first example of an ArM that I have seen with the radarman distinguishing mark.

In performing the research or this article, I made several discoveries and learned how overlooked by collectors and historians alike, these men are. The distinguished actions and sacrifices made by the naval aviators (piloting the aircraft) seem to have overshadowed the duties performed by the flying radiomen of the United States Navy during the second world war.

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Militaria Collecting Made Complicated – No Checklists


One of several checklists within the 1956 baseball card set by Topps.

Prior to delving into militaria and historical research, I collected sports cards for years. My principal interest in this arena was with baseball which is also my favorite sport to watch. Back then, my interest in the game centered on the history – the “golden era” – and the legends of the game. However, with baseball card collecting, I chose to focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

This 1957 Topps baseball card checklists shows the marks the collector made as they worked to complete the set.

With so many players in the game (not all of them represented on a card) in the early 1950s, card companies recognized that they could create more interest by letting their target audience know how many different cards were produced. This information, in the form of checklist cards, contained all the information that informed collectors what cards were produced. This information would keep collectors buying the wax packs (of course, getting the wonderfully powdered sugar covered, hard sticks of bubblegum) and trading their extras with their friends. As they filled out their sets, collectors would check their checklists.

Militaria couldn’t be a more polar opposite from sports card collecting. There are no checklists and finite production runs, no hardened rules about variations, no price guides that afford collectors with knowledge of sales trends….none of that. Militaria collecting requires the collector to acquire knowledge about the artifact – where it was used, who used it, when it was produced and available, when it was issued, how it was modified (in the field), etcetera –  before they commit significant finances to collecting.

The right-sleeve rate of the 1905-1913 coxswain (with an additional chevron, this would be a boatswain’s mate 2nd class petty officer).

Navy rate collectors can tell stories about variations and just how frustrating it can be to acquire all of the renditions of a specific rate. When considering a long-standing rate, such as a boatswain’s mate (pronounced “bosun’s mate”, BM for short) that has been in existence since the founding of the U.S. Navy, its rate badges have gone through considerable transition. One could assemble an amazing volume of examples of each badge iteration as BM (and Coxswain) insignia have been around since the 1880s.

With each change to uniform regulations (1886, 1905, 1913, 1941, 1946, and so on) rate badges were impacted. Some changes were simply moving from one sleeve to the other (1946) while still others changed the design of the crow (the design of the eagle, color of the chevrons). Additional variations stem from the uniform that the crow is applied to (khaki, blues, whites, greens, grays) as well as the material variations of the base fabric (multiple iterations of blue and white cloth) or the color of the chevrons and eagle (such as bullion).

One of countless boatswain’s mate rate badge variations, this post-WWII crow is a bullion on khaki.

If a collector focused solely on the boatswain’s mate rate spanning its entire existence, the collection could potentially be quite large and very costly to build. Unfortunately, there are no checklists to guide collectors. What can confound collectors is the discovery of a rate variant that has never been seen before by seasoned, knowledgeable experts.

This Screaming Eagles patch is one of countless variants for collectors to pursue (source: Topkick Militaria).

Similar to rate collecting, U.S. Army patches are very diverse and have experienced many iterations over the course of their employment on uniforms. Variations exist within the same era on the same patch design which give collectors reason for pause as they try to collect every option available. Since I don’t really dabble in army patches, my eyes tend to glaze over when other collectors begin to espouse the many facets of the World War II-era Screaming Eagles shoulder insignia. From the different “airborne” tabs to the design of the eagle’s eye and tongue, the 101st Airborne patch could occupy collectors for years as they seek to assemble a complete collection. Cut-edge, marrowed-edge, fully embroidered, felt, greenbacks, white backs, the possibilities are seemingly endless making the concept of having a checklist ideal.

While I can’t vouch as to the authenticity of this being the real thing, it is the design of a World War II Rangers patch (source: SA Militaria).

One aspect I’ve not mentioned and won’t really delve into is the issue of fakes. When a television show or film achieves the level of popularity that Saving Private Ryan (SPR) and Band of Brothers (BoB) have, shady characters create opportunities to separate novices from their hard-earned cash. The Ranger (SPR) and Screaming Eagles patches (BoB) are some of the most heavily-faked embroidery in the militaria market.

In all fairness to those who invest heavily into these areas (with both time and finances), the main reason I shy away from army patches (specifically Rangers and 101st) is that I have no idea how to tell a fake from the real McCoy. I suppose that the pricing of some of the more rare variants (sometimes in excess of $1,000) keep me steering well-clear of collecting army patches all together.

Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations


In an article that I wrote last year, I touched on an aspect of rating badge collecting that focuses on those constructed with bullion-metallic thread. The post was primarily covering the design and aesthetic aspects rather than regulatory or uniform issue standards. However, in order for collectors to make sound purchases or additions for their collections, they need to be well informed.

This crow dates from the 1970s and is entirely embroidered. This was a short-lived experimental rating badge.

Let me be very up front by stating that I am, by no means, an expert in rating badge collecting. As I am acquiring pieces for my collection, I am researching and back-filling the details. In some cases, I have the order reversed – researching a piece after acquiring it – hoping that I didn’t make a bad purchase. While reviewing some online auction listings of rating badges (for my former rating), something that I have never seen before caught my attention and without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on the “buy it now” button. Rather than spend time ahead of purchasing the crow, I decided that the best course of action would be to research it after I had it securely in my hands. I had no idea of it’s date of manufacture, whether it was genuine, experimental/prototype or a fantasy piece.

My rating badge collection consists primarily of variations of the rate that I wore when I served. Four years ago, I set out to purchase a new, unused rating badge to mount in my shadow box display. All of the examples I had in my collection were affixed to my old uniforms so they weren’t’ quite up to par with what I’d want to be shown beside my medals and decorations. I ended up with a variety we (in the fleet) referred to as a “peacoat” crow. As it turns out, the fully embroidered rating badge (with merrowed edging) was a test crow that never really caught on. While they are somewhat uncommon, they aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired among collectors.

The latest addition to my collection is a silver bird – a bullion eagle and specialty mark hovering over red, embroidered chevrons. The reason this is an odd combination is that (according to Navy Uniform Regulations) the silver/red configuration is only available for E-7 through E-9. Ratings fo E-4 through E-6 may use the silver (bullion) eagle and specialty mark in conjunction with gold chevrons (indicating 12 consecutive years of good conduct service). One could deduce that perhaps this predates the current uniform regulations, however, this would be an incorrect assumption.

A rare bird – an Operations Specialist/Radarman badge with a bullion eagle with red chevron stripes.

1913 Uniform Regulations

  1. “For petty officers holding three consecutive good-conduct badges, the chevrons for blue clothing (dress/undress blues) shall be made of gold lace instead of scarlet cloth, and the eagle and specialty mark shall be embroidered in silver.”

The reverse of the OS2 bullion rating badge showing the construction and the Gemsco label.

Why then does this E-5, Operations Specialist/Radarman 2nd class crow exist? More than likely, the manufacturer (Gemsco) made this variation either errantly or in anticipation of a uniform regulation change that ultimately never occurred. Not to be stuck with inventory, manufacturers most likely divested these crows  and shipped them to uniform shops or uniform tailors to be disseminated to sailors. Seeking to have a measure of individuality with their uniforms, sailors who might be able to “pass,” in wearing the unauthorized embroidery at a command that might not have strict adherence to regulations, would stitch on these subtle “custom” enhancements.

Now that I have this rare bird, I decided that it would display nicely and swapped it into my shadow box (supplanting the standard OS rating badge) as these bullion crows are just too beautiful to sit in a storage box.

Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rates


This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

Beautifully stitched with metallic thread or wound-metal elements overlaid onto crows, bullion navy rates have been in existence for more than a century. By 1913, the U.S. Navy’s uniform regulations established that rate badges with gold stripes (for dress blues) be accompanied with the eagle and specialty mark to be made of silver bullion. Uniform regulations regarding bullion were further expanded providing that all dress blue chief petty officer rates (regardless of the chevron color) would be constructed with silver bullion. These regulations, in my opinion, facilitated the establishment of one of the best aspects of enlisted uniform adornments.

These fantastically embellished crows historically incorporate multiple shades or tones of silver, and at times, gold bullion threads in their designs making for highly detailed and textured rate badges. Along with aesthetics, the bullion crow designs take on a three-dimensional feel and are really quite stunning.

Crow designs are substantially varied in their appearance based upon the time period in which they were made and the manufacturers’ interpretation of the design specification. One can examine two bullion rates from the same period and note that they will have different embroidery patterns. Thread direction will differ as well as the pattern used for the specific elements.

Because they were traditionally hand-embroidered, two crows from the same supplier can differ. You might see various embellishments to the bird’s feathers or the beak. Some will have different colored bullion that can really make the bird stand out from the rest of the rate badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

Other embellishments may include custom applications to the specialty mark. Variations to these embellishments pose challenges to collectors. Considering the Pharmacist’s Mate chevron (as seen at the top of this article), for example, one pattern could simply surround the red Geneva Cross with a single outline of thread while another could apply a crisscrossing pattern in addition to the outline. One example of a unique enhancement that I have seen was to a Machinist’s Mate crow that had a precious stone sewn to the center of the propeller insignia. The aquamarine tone of the stone really stood out against the silvery-blue bullion.

This early Machinist's Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

This early Machinist’s Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

With the modern standardization of uniforms and insignia, the highly detailed and character-filled bullion crows are relegated to history (and to collectors). The current designs are sanitized, sterile and merely one-dimensional caricatures of the old patterns causing many navy rate collectors to shy away from them.

Selected References:

Where to Look – Seeking Militaria in all the Right Places


Metal Insignia

Looking for a metal insignia device to fill a missing gap in your shadow box or a hole in your collection? This table had a decent array of insignia to choose from.

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