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A General’s Naval Beginnings: My Named Seaman 2/c Aviation Radioman Uniform

I often grapple with what to focus a particular article upon as I sit down to write. I like to keep fresh content on this site and part of that process is for me to attempt to strike a balance with topics that might be of interest to readers and collectors while not leaning too heavily in any direction. Regardless of how much I strive to achieve this, I invariably end writing about what I prefer to collect and what interests me the most.

With my recent post regarding the aviation radioman rating and the uniforms that I presently hold within my collection, I am finding that today’s piece is going to be seasoned with some fresh redundancy considering that the most recent uniform item acquisition that I have is one from a sailor who began his career in this rating specialty. This particular uniform was unique in that in both what it lacked and what it possessed; something that I had not seen on a Navy uniform prior to happening upon this auction listing. The two Aviation Radioman uniforms in my collection have “crows” affixed to their sleeves: one, a third class petty officer and the other a chief petty officer. The new acquisition was from a seaman first class (non-petty officer) which is easily determined by the three stripes of piping on the cuff and the distinguishing mark of the ArM on the left shoulder (positioned where the sailors’ future petty officer mark would be).

This jumper is the first Aviation Radioman/Technician uniform that I have seen that includes the Radarman distinguishing mark.

Affixed to the lower left sleeve of this uniform, the distinguishing mark denotes Harpainter’s training and qualifications with radar equipment for naval aircraft.

Aside from the rating mark on the shoulder, this uniform was adorned with an additional mark – that of a radarman distinguishing mark (DM) – located on the lower left sleeve, a few inches above the cuff. Aside from the ArM redundancy, this DM has been the subject of several previous articles on The Veteran’s Collection (see: Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations, Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rates and Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen). perhaps due to my own service as today’s iteration of the rating, Operations Specialist. When I saw the listing with these two elements, and its typical-low price, I was ready to buy it, solely on these factors. The seller also included a photo of the uniform tag and the name of the original owner along with a brief overview of the veteran’s career.

“A very nice jumper with both an aviation radioman rate on the shoulder and radar operator specialty on the cuff. Best part is that it’s named on the Naval Clothing Factory tag and I was able to pull his bio off the internet. His service began in the US Navy during WW2 training as an aircrewman. After WW2 he entered law enforcement and the US Army reserve and had a distinguished career at both. He served as an MP officer during the Korean War and retired as a Reserve Brigadier General. The jumper is in very good condition. Please email if you have any questions.”

I didn’t, for a second, consider buying the uniform based upon the seller’s story as I was ready to take it solely for the marks. Once I performed some searches on the web, Fold3 and Ancestry, seeking out the sailor’s information, I was able to confirm that this uniform did come from the reservist Brigadier General, Robert E. Harpainter.

Robert E. Harpainter, Brigadier General, USAR, retired (image source: San Jose Police Benevolent Association, Farsider).

General Harpainter was almost too young for World War II service (he was born in 1927) as he enlisted into the Navy in 1945 following his graduation from Berkeley High School. According to his 2016 obituary, he attended schools for both aviation radioman (rating) and aerial gunner training. I suspect that due to the lengthy of time required for his rating and specialty training, ArM seaman 1/c Harpainter most-likely never made it to the fleet prior to the end of the war. What makes this uniform even more special (for me, at least) is that Robert Harpainter, after graduating from his post-WWII undergraduate studies (at San Jose State University and University of California at Berkeley), he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, serving with the military police in the Korean War as a military police platoon leader,security officer and assistant camp commander, as well as with the UNC-MAC Advance Camp during the prisoner exchange. His army service included command of the 496th Military Police Battalion; chief of staff and deputy commander of the 221st Military Police Brigade.By the time Mr. Harpainter’s military service was completed, he attained the rank of Brigadier General (in the California State National Guard) completing assignments as the commanding officer of the Northern Area Command from June 1987 through 1988 and finishing as Deputy Commander – Operations, State Military Reserve.

General Harpainter is shown (far left) in this San Jose Police Benevolent Association image.

Though I have assembled a fair summary regarding General Harpainter’s career, more complete research, especially his WWII naval service, would help me to piece-together awards and decorations that he would have received at the time of his discharge.  In lieu of a Freedom of Information Act request (submitted to the National Archives), I can safely assume that he received, at the very least, the American Campaign and World War II Victory medals.

The Naval Clothing Factory tag showes that it is correct for the World War II era, has R. E. Harpainter, Seaman Second Class markings.

There are many folks who enjoy collecting uniform groups of general officers (and admirals) and I can certainly understand how they can be drawn to the uniforms (they are rather ornate and their awards and decorations are unique) and the appeal of being in possession of something tangible and representative of a veteran’s lengthy career having attained a rank towards or at the top of all ranks. This particular uniform is clearly not ornate in the upper echelon of any rank structure but it does help to tell the beginning of the story of such a veteran in that he was compelled to answer his nation’s call as a young high school graduate and never ceased. As a civilian (and active reservist), Mr. Harpainter served as a law enforcement officer for 15 years as he pursued his undergraduate and juris doctor degrees. The remainder of his professional career, General Harpainter served as a senior deputy district attorney with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for 22 years. As I reviewed the general’s memorial and online tributes, a comment made by Harpainter’s partner (from his time as a police officer), Bob Moir (retired lieutenant, SJPD 1954-1985) wrote, “Always in the Veterans Day parade in Nov (sic) each year with is military uniform and shinning star.”

What’s next for me with this uniform? I enjoy seeing a uniform displayed properly (which for me means that I like to possess the proper decorations) so I will be requesting information pertaining to this veteran’s naval service. I am fairly certain that there will be, at the very least, two ribbons (the American Campaign and World War II Victory) however, there could be other elements (such as a combat air crew wing device) as indicated by details within Harpainter’s obituary and publicly-available biographical information.

It is rewarding to find (what appears to be) an insignificant uniform that was completely overlooked by other collectors and to be able to preserve part of the history of notable veteran.


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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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.

Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen

Many people collect U.S.Navy rating badges and many other folks collect ephemera. Still other collectors pursue metal insignia and uniform devices. But the question I have is, how many of them combine all three “genres” of militaria collecting into one, singular focus?

As a ten-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and an amateur military historian, I’ve researched a vast number of subjects ranging from basic minutia to emotionally gut-wrenching and personally significant stories with historical context that I find utterly fascinating. During my naval career, I performed my job without so much as a fleeting thought regarding the historical aspects of my chosen specialty. Navy enlisted men and women receive schooling and training to perform specific job functions to meet the needs of each unit or command. These ratings (similar to the Army’s Military Occupational Specialty or MOS) are denoted on each sailor’s sleeve insignia with a unique emblem symbolizing certain characteristics of that specialty.

My own rating, Operations Specialist, seemed to be (to me) quite ordinary and less historic as compared to traditional ratings such as boatswain’s mates, gunners mates and machinist mates. I was none too interested in discovering any of the historical aspects or the development of my rating beyond what was presented in my training manuals. Other than the basic historical narratives (also presented in the training manual) regarding the history of naval radar, I didn’t give it much thought. Despite this lack, I did manage to excel at my job and advance in a timely manner.

The foremast of the USS Washington (BB-56) showing the SG radar antennae on the foreward face of the tower. As documented in Muscant's book, the placement of this unit was cause for a significant sector blindspot, leaving the ship vulnerable during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November of 1942 (U.S. Navy image).

The foremast of the USS Washington (BB-56) showing the SG radar antennae on the foreward face of the tower. As documented in Muscant’s book, the placement of this unit was cause for a significant sector blindspot, leaving the ship vulnerable during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November of 1942 (U.S. Navy image).

What turned me onto the historical backstory of my rating was an insignificant story that I read about the installation of radar onto the USS Washington (BB-56) as told in the pages of Ivan Musicant’s 1986 book, Battleship at War: The Epic Story of the USS Washington. What was revealing to me was how radar was installed onto the ship and essentially turned over to untrained operators and technicians. In his book, Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine, Medal of Honor recipient Admiral Richard O’Kane made considerable mention of the submarine’s unreliable radar and the continuous need for the boat’s radiomen (the technicians and operators) to service the wonder-device. Both of these books planted a seed that my navy job had an important history that was berthed during World War II and developed into a key job function in today’s radar-reliant naval service.

Radarmen can trace their beginnings to the Electrician's Mate (EM) rating. This World War I era EM first class bears the distinguishing mark indicating that the sailor was a radio operator and technician. Shipboard radio technology was in its infancy at this time and in the ensuing decades, a specific rating would be created.

Radarmen can trace their beginnings to the Electrician’s Mate (EM) rating. This World War I era EM first class bears the distinguishing mark indicating that the sailor was a radio operator and technician. Shipboard radio technology was in its infancy at this time and in the ensuing decades, a specific rating would be created.

When I added the activity of collecting to my interests, I cultivated a new desire that prompted me into new research directions. One could say that when I was bitten by the rating badge-collecting bug, my interest was tempered by context. I focused on ratings that had connection to me such as my grand-uncle (post-WWI musician), grandfather (ship’s cook), brother-in-law (machinist’s mate), two uncles (radioman) and my own. Along with those rating badge pursuits, I picked up some of the more highly sought-after rates whose ranks were filled by more than their share of heroic blue jackets, such as hospitalmen, aviation radiomen. However, I found myself drawn to the historical aspects of my own rating, originally known as ‘Radarman’.

This EM/1c rating badge dating from the WWI timeframe shows the four electrical sparks of the radio operator/technician distinguishing mark affixed directly below the bottom chevron.

This EM/1c rating badge dating from the WWI time-frame shows the four electrical sparks of the radio operator/technician distinguishing mark affixed directly below the bottom chevron.

The Radarman rating (abbreviated as RdM) was officially established in 1943 after radar became more widely adopted aboard ships and submarines, and was at that time finding its way onto naval aircraft. The demand for highly skilled and trained operators and technicians prompted the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel to create a program to send qualified personnel to the fleet to better utilize the secret weapon. The rating badge that was subsequently created employed a borrowed feature from the radioman rating as it referenced the close connections to the communications technology. Also, many of the early Radarmen had previously served as Radiomen. The badge symbol used the electrical spark bolts (three rather than the four seen on the Radioman’s insignia) with an overlaid arrow indicating the directional detection aspects of the job, indicating the rating’s origins and the technology from radio.

This Radarman first class rating badge is date-marked with "1944" embroidered on the reverse of the first chevron.

This Radarman first class rating badge is date-marked with “1944” embroidered on the reverse of the first chevron.

In 1946, the Navy updated the insignia, incorporating the oscillator symbol while carrying over the arrow insignia. In 1973, change impacted this rate once again as BUPERS split the rate, removing the technicians (rolling them into the electronics technician rate) and those who were skilled as Electronic Warfare (ESM, ECM and ECCM) specialists as EWs. Those who remained were re-designated as Operations Specialists (OS) yet the rating badge remained and continues at present.

A selection of my Radarman rating badges. All are from during and immediately following the end of WWII.

A selection of my Radarman rating badges. All are from during and immediately following the end of WWII.

My collection of OS militaria began with what remained from my time in the service: insignia that was never applied to my uniforms. I began to pursue badges from WWII and worked my way forward to the 1960s and 70s as I picked up some special bullion versions. I searched for insignia from the rating’s roots and then onto ephemera, such as rate training manuals from several eras. I have managed to save some of the tools of the trade in the area of navigation, such as compass and dividers, parallel rulers, and nautical charts. I am still seeking an OJ-194 NTDS (Naval Tactical Data System) console for my office (OK, perhaps this would be overkill).

After WWII, the radarman With manufacture dates ranging from the 1940s, this selection of Radarman/Operation Specialist badges includes current-issue SSI.

Following the war, the Navy broke away from the lightning bolts of the radioman rating and embraced the oscilloscope and maintained the arrow of the original badge, By the early 1970s, the rating was split out – segmenting the technicians into their own rating (Electronic Technicians or “ET”) and the electronic warfare operators (EW) into their own. Radarman was disbanded in favor of Operations Specialist.

I always keep my eyes open for anything that might augment this collection without breaking my budget or fill the floorspace in my home. At some point, I would like to assemble this collection in order to create a well-rounded display that is representative of this rating.


Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII

Patch collecting is one of the most affordable aspects of militaria collecting and can be a highly rewarding venture to delve into the history and variations that are available. I am, by no means a serious collector of patches opting instead to be selective about the embroidered and colorful pieces of uniform history.

While the overwhelming majority of militaria collectors who have interests in patch collecting are primarily focused on United States Army unit and rank insignia, a smaller portion of us enjoy the eclectic realm of U.S. Navy enlisted rank insignia and the very colorful and meaningful progression of their designs through the ages. That historical progression along with all of its nuances is enough to fill a book (see U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982
, by John A. Stacey) so with today’s article, I am instead zeroing in on a specific design from a seemingly specific era.

In the modern US Navy, rating badges are consistent in appearance and wear. From the design elements (eagle, specialty mark and chevrons) to the materials they are constructed from, they are all consistent. While this concept places emphasis on the uniformity of appearance and the unit-mindset (that all crew members work together as a single entity), it does restrict the ability for sailors to express and exhibit a measure of individuality and personal pride in their uniform appearance. The current rating insignia (in my opinion) have a rather sterile and sanitized appearance as they are all manufactured by a single source using one design pattern for each and every piece that is made. However, in previous years, sailors had much more freedom to instill their own spices into their uniforms.

Pre-1913 Navy Rating Badges

This selection of pre-1913 dress white Navy rating badges demonstrate the scarlet chevron (eliminated in 1913) and the left-leaning eagle (discontinued in 1941). Photo source: US Militaria Forum

Rating badge collectors might focus their approach from casting a wide net (collecting everything that comes their way) to obtaining every single variety of a specific rating over the course of its existence. I find my collecting efforts to be even more specific as I seek only a handful of specialties (Radarman, Radioman, Ship’s Cook and Pharmacist’s Mate along with a few others)  from varied eras (WWI-WWII) on select uniform choices (such as dress blues, whites or khakis). Though my choice of eras might seem rather specific, a closer look at the uniform regulations and the changes imposed during that time-frame reveals that the design of the ratings experienced several iterations.

“All petty officers shall wear on the outer garment a rating-badge, consisting of a spread eagle placed above a class chevron. In the interior angle of the chevron, under the eagle, the specialty mark of the wearer shall be placed. The badge shall be worn on the outer side of the right or left sleeve, half way between the shoulder and elbow. Petty officers of the starboard watch will wear the badge on the right arm; those of the port watch on the left arm.”  – Regulations Governing the Uniform of Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers,  and Enlisted Men of the United States 1886

Dating back to 1886, the design (as cited in the uniform regulations) of the eagle called for its wings to be spread. The eagle’s head also now faced toward its left shoulder (having previously faced to the right) and would do so until 1941 when regulations then called for the head to point to the wearer’s front (regardless of the sleeve it was to be worn…more on that later).


WWI-era Coxswain rating badge that has been cut to form a shield shape. Photo source: US Militaria Forum

Prior to 1913, ships’ crews were divided into two watchstanding sections and were designated with terms that corresponded with the left (port) and right (starboard) sides of the ship which dictated which sleeve the sections’ petty officers would wear their rating badges. From 1913 onward, all petty officers whose specialties were in the Seaman Branch (such as Boatswain’s Mate, Coxswain, Gunner’s Mate, Turret Captain and Quartermaster) were right-arm ratings while all others in the Artificer Branch and Engine Room Force wore theirs on the left sleeve. What can make this confusing for new collectors is finding a rating badge (such as an electrician’s mate) with the eagle pointing toward the left shoulder. Finding this rating badge affixed to a dress blue jumper with it worn on the left sleeve would narrow the time-period down (given the embroidered pattern of the eagle had the eagle sitting completely vertical on the perch) to the inter-war era.

Though the practice started years before, during World War I, rating badges were customized by petty officers by trimming them from the traditional 5-sided shape (rectangle with the bottom corners cut away to form a point) to a contoured pattern. Fancy hand-stitching was then applied to follow the new shape (many times in the shape of a shield) providing a highly stylized appearance on the jumper shirt. As with many fads, this adornment fell out of practice as the Navy specified the pentagon shape and dimensions in a specific change (dated 16 February 1933) to the Navy Uniform Regulations.

In 1941, the Navy changed the eagle to point to the wearer’s front specifying that all non-Seaman Branch petty officers’ ratings have the eagle look to its right shoulder (rather than to the left). The Seaman Branch (which had grown to include Fire Controlman, Mineman, Signalman, Torpedoman’s Mate). In addition to the eagle’s direction, the eagle no longer included the slouched (or leaning) posture that had existed for decades.Though there is no provenance to support this, the idea for these changes was to have the eagle positioned for fighting (facing the enemy and standing tall).

WWI-era Ship's Cook second class

Note the left-leaning eagle on this WWI-era Ship’s Cook second class rating badge.

Pharmacist's Mate 2/c

This dress white Pharmacist’s Mate 2/c rating badge is pre-1941 as noted by the left-facing eagle and its slight right-lean on the perch.


During WWII, a handful of manufacturers provided dates embroidered directly onto the back of rating badges which nullifies the need for researching.

Pharmacist's Mate 1/c - WWII-era.

Following the release of the 1941 uniform regulations, the non-seaman branch ratings’ eagles were switched to face forward as the badge (as worn on the left sleeve).

Radarman 1/c

This Radarman 1/c was made in 1944 as noted by the embroidered date on the reverse.

I have merely scratched the surface with these details. There are pages-worth of content that I could provide that provides additional points and factors to pay attention to in order to discern the date of manufacture (and use) of the rating badge, such as:

  • Cloth material (enlisted dress blue material changed between WWI and WWII, additional materials were introduced for WWII, etc.)

  • Rating Specialties (ratings were added/retired throughout this period)

In 1947, the most significant change that indicated a desire for uniform appearance across enlisted ranks was moving all ratings to the left arm with the eagle facing forward.  The distinction between the Seaman Branch and all other petty officers was removed.

In the months to come, I will be providing additional articles in order to provide you with more insight into collecting rating badges and how to discern them without having to rely on others.

All images are the property of  their respective owners or M. S. Hennessy unless otherwise noted. Photo source may or may not indicate the original owner / copyright holder of the image.