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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.

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A Thousand Words? Pictures Are Worth so Much More!


As my family members have passed over the past several years, I have managed to acquire a number of antique photo albums and collections of photos of (or by) my family members that nobody else wanted. Most of the images’ subjects were of family gatherings, portraits or nondescript events and contained a lot of unknown faces of people long since gone. As the only person in the family who “seems to be interested” in this sort of history, I have become the default recipient.

Here is a sampling of vintage photo albums I've inherited.

Here is a sampling of vintage photo albums I’ve inherited.

My Hidden Treasure
With all the activities and family functions occurring in my busy life, those albums received a rapid once-over (to see if I could discern any of the faces) and then were shelved to gather dust as they had done with their previous owners. Years later, I began to piece together a narrative of my relatives’ military service (a project you will hear about over the course of my blog posts). I have since returned to those albums only to discover a small treasure of military-related images that are serving to illustrate my narrative project. As an added bonus, they are providing me with an invaluable visual reference as I am reconstructing uniform displays to honor these veterans.

Photographs Can Unlock the Secrets
Similarly, militaria collectors strike gold when they can obtain photo of a veteran in uniform that can help to provide authentication as part of the due diligence for a specific group they are investigating prior to an acquisition. A photo showing the veteran wearing a certain Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI), ribbon configuration or even a specific uniform garment can be authenticated if there are visible traits (such as tears or repairs) within the image.

Photographs from GIs in a wartime theater of operations or in combat are fairly rare. Photography was outlawed by theater commanders (due to the obvious security risks if the film or photographs were captured) and space was at a premium as one had to pack their weapons, ammunition, rations and essential gear. So finding the room to safely carry a camera and film for months at a time was nearly impossible. Similarly, shipboard personnel were not allowed to keep cameras in their personal possessions. Knowing the determination of soldiers, airmen and sailors, rules were meant to be broken and, fortunately for collectors, personal cameras did get used and photos were made while flying under the censors’ radar.

If you have deep pockets and you don’t mind paying a premium for pickers to do the legwork, wartime photo albums can be purchased online (dealers, auction sites) for hundreds of dollars. Many times, this can be a veritable crap-shoot to actually find images that have significant military or historical value and aren’t simply photos of an unnamed soldier partying with pals in a no-name bar in an an unknown location. For militaria collectors at least, there is value in the image details.

As you obtain military-centric photos, take the time to fully examine what can be seen. Don’t get distracted by the principal subject – look for the difficult-to-see details. Purchase a loupe or magnifying glass to enable you discern the traits that can reveal valuable information about when or where the photo was snapped. What unit identifying marks can bee seen on the uniforms? Can you identify anything that would help you to determine the era of the uniforms being worn by the GIs?

My Own Success
In assembling a display for one of my relatives, I wanted to create an example of his World War I uniform because the first of his three wars was quite significant in shaping his character for his lifetime. Having already obtained his service records (which span his entire military career, concluding a few years after the Korean War), a book that was written about his WWI unit (published by a fellow unit member) and my uncle’s photo album which was filled with snapshots of his deployment to France, I figured I would be able create a decent uniform representation.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle's WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle’s WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

In the various photo album images, I could see his right sleeve rank insignia as well as the overseas stripes on his left sleeve quite clearly. I could even make out his bronze collar service devices or “collar disks” in the photos (since I had his originals, they weren’t in question), but I had no idea of what unit insignia should go on his left shoulder. Not to be denied, I took the route of investigating his unit and the organizational hierarchy, trying to pinpoint the parent unit to which the 63rd Coastal Artillery Corps was assigned. Having located all of that data, I was still unsure of the SSI for the right shoulder.

Temporarily sidetracked from the uniform project, I returned to the photo album and scanned a few of the images (at the highest possible resolution) for use in my narrative. With one of the photos, I began to pay close attention to the left shoulder as I zoomed in tightly to repair 90 years worth of damage…and there it was! At the extreme magnification, I could clearly see the 1st Army patch (with the artillery bars inside the legs of the “A”) on my uncle’s left shoulder. I had missed it during the previous dozens of times that I viewed the photo.

An overview of the uniform (and overseas cap) that I have recreated to represent my uncle’s WWI service. Note the artillery shell insignia on the right sleeve is that of a First Class Gunner.

A close up of the SSI of the 1st Army (with the red and white bars of the artillery), my uncle's collar disks, the honorable discharge chevron and his actual ribbons.

A close up of the SSI of the 1st Army (with the red and white bars of the artillery), my uncle’s collar disks, the honorable discharge chevron and his actual ribbons.

My research now complete, I obtained the correct vintage patches and affixed them to an un-named vintage WWI uniform jacket along with my uncle’s original ribbons and collar devices (disks) to complete this project. Now I have a fantastic and correct example of my uncle’s WWI uniform to display.

 

USMC Patch Rarities and Scarcities – What to Look For


Admittedly, patch collecting has only been a dabbling affair for me. While I find this focus area quite intriguing and considerably broad, I still only give it contextual attention. What I mean by that is that I tend to acquire patches that are related or connected to something else I am already collecting. However, there are some exceptions that have lead me to dive a little deeper, assembling a little bit more of a complete collection of certain patches and shoulder sleeve insignia.

Being a veteran of the U.S. Navy, I find that I am more inclined toward navy and Marine Corps patches. Considering that Navy shoulder patches, predominantly seen during WWII, are limited to a handful of varieties, I have been slowly working to expand my collection with at least one example of each. Serious patch collectors know that each of these Navy patch types may have several variations in their design, embroidery, thread colors and backing materials, just to name a few. Rather than commit a lot of time and finances in the pursuit, I chose to simply fill the hole in the collection with one of the variations. My collecting of Marine Corps patches has followed the same path, but with the wider spectrum of patches, but building a complete group will require more time.

Time is something I have plenty of. World War II Marine Corps SSI run the gamut of availability and scarcity and unfortunately, more disposable cash is going to be required for me to fill the gaps in my collection as some USMC patches are downright scarce and highly sought-after. A few months ago, I introduced you to the basics of Devil Dog patches, providing you with a brief history and insight into the more common pieces. However, I didn’t begin to scratch the surface regarding those items that draw the attention of hardcore collectors and fakers alike.

One could essentially group Marine Corps patches into a few levels of availability or scarcity. I am hesitant to apply the term “rare” as sometimes it erroneously conveys to novice collectors a sense of exorbitant monetary value on an item. What this means is that while something might be hard to find, it doesn’t mean that there are lots of collectors are competing for the same item. However, in some instances with the hard-to-find USMC patches, rare and scarce can be interchangeable and the values can be cost-prohibitive for the majority of collectors. In my experience, I’ve categorized USMC patches by their use (i.e. unit type).

Divisions
These patches cover the WWII USMC divisions ranging from the First (1st) through the Sixth (6th) Marine Divisions (MarDiv). Besides the common patches, there are some hard-to-find examples, especially those created during the very early months of the war. The 1st MarDiv patches that were made in Australia (when the division was relieved and sent to Melbourne for R&R following the Guadalcanal operation of 1942-43). These patches are quite distinct featuring a unique backing material and unique embroidery. Of course there are a vast number of variations for each of the subsequent divisions to be on the lookout for.

Marine Air Wing (MAW)
For the purposes of organizing my collection, I have also grouped in the Marine Aircraft Fuselage patches as the units are connected. The MAW units are organized from the 1st through 4th and also include a headquarters group. Each unit has an associated patch design. The same structure applies to the Fuselage units and their patches (1st-4th and HQ). There are several variants of each patch design which can make a novice get cross-eyed wading through each one.

Marine Air Wing Patch variants. One of these is a felt patch.

This assortment of patches includes examples of all four Marine Fuselage units along with the HQ patch (shown with the crown). The bottom SSI is from the 1st Marine Air Wing.

 

Raider Battalions

Perhaps the most widely sought patches originate from the elite Marine Raiders. These legendary units were the original Marine Special Forces units and employed highly skilled grunts who routinely operated behind enemy lines. The unit patch design is simplistic but conveys an ominous symbol superimposed onto a field of blue with five white stars. There are several variations of this patch with correlating price ranges – the upper end of which can break almost any collector’s bank.

Amphibious Corps
These patches employ a similar design to the Marine Raiders patch, borrowing the shape, color, five-star arrangement and the central white-bordered, red diamond field.

Marine Defense Battalions
These battalions were responsible for providing protection of bases throughout the Pacific Theater and consisted of more specialized units including coastal gun and anti-aircraft batteries, a detection battery (searchlights and radar) and machine gun units. These patches would be characterized more as scarce rather than rare. Authentic examples are available but are nowhere near as common as the division patches. Expect to pay a bit of a premium for these patches.

Fleet Marine Forces Pacific (FMFPAC)
Nine patch designs align with the eight units (anti-aircraft artillery, artillery battalions, bomb disposal companies, dog platoons, DUKW companies, engineer battalions, supply and tractor battalions) along with a headquarters unit, and pose an interesting challenge for collectors. Along with the embroidery and backing variations, there are some color alternatives (white emblems instead of gold) which pose some challenges for collectors locating them all.

Showing the patch fronts of four of the Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific; V Amphibious Corps (with the alligator); also displayed is the “Londonderry” patch of the ” Irish Marines’ of the 1st Provisional Marine Battalion.

Showing the patch fronts of four of the Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific; V Amphibious Corps (with the alligator); also displayed is the “Londonderry” patch of the ” Irish Marines’ of the 1st Provisional Marine Battalion.

Among these patches are four examples of the FMF PAC units. The example in the bottom row (with the star) is a more rare white-thread example of the FMF PAC Supply unit. The two patches flanking the FMF PAC Supply SSI are the 5th Amphibious Corps (at left) and Marine Detachment Londonderry patch.

Marine Detachment
These detachment patches are some of the most desirable USMC patches, the Londonderry and Ship’s Detachment patches being a bit more affordable than the more rare (and unique) Iceland patch.

Aviation Squadrons
Perhaps the most widely sought after and diverse patches stem from USMC aviation squadrons. These patch designs could include variations that range from Disney crafted in painted-leather to embroidered fabric. Each squadron could have many renditions dependent upon how long the squadron was active and based upon where they were located. Squadrons could have their patches made in theater by resident artisans (including squadron personnel) or by domestic manufacturers. Specific designs could vary based upon available materials or leadership changes. As the WWII veterans’ personal artifact groups continue to arrive on the market, collectors still discover new variations of squadron insignia that were previously unknown, making authentication a challenge even for the most experienced patch enthusiast.

Education about these patches is key. I cannot emphasize enough that research prior to making any purchases of rare patches is highly recommended. One of the best resources is the U.S. Militaria Forum; specifically, What are the Rarest WWII USMC Patches for detailed insight as shared by the most experienced collectors and militaria historians.

Theater-Made Militaria


This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

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.

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

To 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.

This China Burma India (CBI) patch is one of my theater made SSIs.

This China Burma India (CBI) patch is one of my theater made SSIs.

Aside from having items made for uniform-wear, armed forces personnel find unique methods for commemorating events, deployments and other aspects of their service. Having patches custom-made to wear on a utility or flight jacket (to document a deployment) was a common occurrence in the years that I served.

Patched naval aviator jackets were quite popular in the 1960s and again in the '80s. Many aviation squadron detachments had patches custom-made to denote their deployment and the ship they were attached to.

Patched naval aviator jackets were quite popular in the 1960s and again in the ’80s. Many aviation squadron detachments had patches custom-made to denote their deployment and the ship they were attached to.

 

The patch on the right is the helicopter squadron's official insignia while the patch on the left was custom-made in the Philippines for the specific deployment (in 1989) and detachment (Det. 5) from the unit.

The patch on the right is the helicopter squadron’s official insignia while the patch on the left was custom-made in the Philippines for the specific deployment (in 1989) and detachment (Det. 5) from the unit.

During one of my deployments, I had this patch made in the Philippines to commemorate our tour to the Persian Gulf. The embroidery was done with a machine that was free-hand (rather than computer-controlled) leaving a more rudimentary interpretation of my design.

During one of my deployments, I had this patch made in the Philippines to commemorate our tour to the Persian Gulf. The embroidery was done with a machine that was free-hand (rather than computer-controlled) leaving a more rudimentary interpretation of my design.

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. Learning how to discern the difference takes time in comparing known, genuine items against pieces that have far too many variances can be a lengthy educational process. One of the stumbling blocks that many inexperienced collectors do is to subordinate their judgement to that of experienced collectors, relegating their decision making to another person without allowing for knowledge transfer – not asking the questions in order to learn for themselves.

I am still learning how to tell the difference with patches from earlier eras (WWI, WWII and Vietnam) and seeing that there are a lot of very well-executed fakes (sometimes branded as “reproductions”) that fall onto the market with little or no description and a fair amount of deceptive language leaving the potential buyer to make a judgement call. With some patches trading hands for prices for several hundred dollars, con-artists are quick to take cues from the collectors and attempt to replicate (with faux aging) vintage items to sell to unsuspecting collectors.

My father, a Viet Nam combat veteran, wore a patch like this on his OD fatigues in country. I have my doubts as to the authenticity of it as a vintage patch, instead it could be one of the thousands currently reproduced in Viet Nam to capitalize on the growing collector market.

My father, a Viet Nam combat veteran, wore a patch like this on his OD fatigues in country. I have my doubts as to the authenticity of it as a vintage patch, instead it could be one of the thousands currently reproduced in Vietnam to capitalize on the growing collector market.

Selected Research Resources:

Recreation or Reorder: Are These Patches Reproductions?


Collecting patches is a significant and one of the oldest segments of the militaria hobby. So much so that they established an organization (in the late 1930s), the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors (ASMIC), to better facilitate the exchange of the patches and metal insignia from American military uniforms.

Prior to World War I, U.S. armed forces were only adorned with rank insignia (chevron patches on sleeves for enlisted, collar devices and epaulettes for officers). During the Great War, units began affixing cloth insignia to their shoulders to provide visual indication of the unit to which they were assigned. This practice quickly spread as the war began winding down late in 1918 and became widely adopted, not only in the U.S. Army, but also the Marine Corps and some Naval personnel.

See:

In World War II, the expansion of incorporating insignia to identify aircraft squadrons and other smaller units (versus Army regiments or divisions). These “logos” were caricatures that embodied general traits of the unit, their mission or even their founding leadership. Aircraft squadron insignia from WWII, naval squadrons in particular, are some of the rarest and most sought-after patches by collectors.

VF-111 Sundowners

This flannel VF-111 Sundowners patch resembles that of an original WWII version (of VF-11), though it seems to be a modern representation.

See:

By the 1980s, unit insignia had become quite commonplace across all units within the US armed forces branches. In the Navy, as each new ship was placed into service, accompanying them was an officially designed and approved unit crest that bore visual representations of the ship’s name. Subsequently, the ships’ stores (where the crew members buy personal supplies, snacks and ship-branded merchandise) would offer, for sale, fully-embroidered patches of the crest.

When a ship is decommissioned (put out of service), the logos and subsequent merchandise cease to be available (other than in secondary markets). Nostalgic veterans and collectors not wanting to wait for one or two of the ship’s patches to become available in online auctions are left with scant few options. This was a situation that I recently had the joy of resolving for my former shipmates who were more than two decades removed from serving aboard our ship, the cruiser USS Vincennes.

Asian-made Vincennes Crest Patch

This terrible patch lacks the detail of the crest. Everything is wrong with this example from the coloring to the design elements and lettering. It is just awful.

In the past few years, an Asian-made (poor) representation of the patch was being sold infrequently in online auctions. This patch a terrible facsimile of the original as it lacked all the detail of the ship’s crest. The seller had that audacity to charge more than $10 (plus shipping) for this poor quality example. A few of my shipmates, desperate to fill a void in their ship memorabilia collection, ponied up the funds and buying the pathetic patches.

Recognizing an opportunity to remedy this issue, I went through a lengthy process of locating the original manufacturer and soliciting bids based upon the original patch design. Today, I was happy to report to my shipmates that the patches would be in their hands within a few days. The shipment of authentic ship crest insignia had arrived.

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USS Vincennes Patch

The new patch seems to be at least the same as the original, if not an improvement.

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Some of you might be asking, “Is this really militaria if you’re just having it made?” I can attest that though these are newly manufactured, the patches are no different from those made (by the same manufacturer, by the way) two and a half decades ago.