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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Selected Research Resources:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.