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.
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.
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.
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.
Dress uniforms of the United States Navy have been remained relatively consistent, holding fast to their traditional appearance since the mid-nineteenth century. From the pullover jumper with the flap and neckerchief to the beautifully embroidered eagle and specialty marks of the rate badge, the uniform seldom strays too far from its unique appearance.
There have been some departures or design variances that left traditionalists scratching their heads, wondering why the navy brass seemingly tried to make the naval uniforms take on traits from the sibling military branches.
One of the most significantly negative changes occurred during the 1970s when the jumper uniforms (both service dress versions – blues and whites) were summarily eliminated in favor of the vanilla-stylings of a simple button-down white shirt and black trousers (known as “salt and peppers”) with a combination cover. The change was short-lived as the jumpers were re-instituted in the early 1980s and have been in use since. Due to their unpopularity, these uniforms draw little or no interest from collectors.
Another, less impactful change that was applied to the navy dress uniform was far less sweeping and seemed to set apart specific naval components rather than provide unity across the naval services. During World War II, with the ranks swelling to all-time highs, obviously necessary due to the manning requirements of a nearly 6,100-ship fleet, the specialized nature of certain functions had emerged into the spotlight, drawing significant attention from the rest of the armed forces and American public. The need to set these services apart arose, somewhat organically, as units began to adopt uniform concepts from the other branches.
Shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) had been in use across the U.S. Army as a means for identifying which units soldiers belonged to, the Navy had never previously authorized similar markings for their uniforms (other than hat tallies for the blue flat or “Donald Duck” hats).
The uniform shirt bore only rate and rating as well as distinguishing marks at the onset of World War II. However, by 1943, sailors in the minesweeper community had begun affixing an embroidered red, white and blue circular-designed patch (representing a painted device seen aboard mine sweeper vessels) to their left shoulders, directly above the rate badge. The commanding officer of the minesweeper, USS Zeal (AM-131) seeking to determine if such a patch was authorized for wear, sent a letter to navy brass. The Chief of Naval Personnel responded on June 24, 1943 that the patch was not permitted for wear. Despite the rejection, sailors continued to wear the SSI.
As the war progressed, other naval components began to adopt shoulder patches and approval from the higher-ups for these patches began to trickle down.
Officially Approved U.S. Navy Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (with approval date):
- Amphibious Forces Personnel – January 1944
- Motor Torpedo Boat Personnel (PT Boat) – September 1944
- Minecraft Personnel – December 1944
- Naval Construction Battalion (Sea Bees) – October 1944
- Amphibious Forces (Gator) Patch
- Minesweeper Personnel Patch
- Harbor Defense Personnel Patch
- Mosquito Boat Patch
On January 17, 1947, the Navy once again embraced tradition and officially abolished all shoulder sleeve insignia.
Due to their considerable production, the authorized SSI patches are plentiful and readily affordable for militaria collectors. The unofficial insignia will be more challenging to locate and in some cases be considerably more expensive to acquire.
- Marks, Specialty Marks and Distinguishing Marks of the Sea Services (U.S. Militaria Forum discussion topic)
- U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982 (Stacey, John A., paperback)
- Complete Guide to United States Navy Medals, Badges and Insignia: World War II to Present (Thompson, James G., paperback)
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: