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.
As one views any iteration of the current Marine Corps uniform, it will be observed that they are somewhat simple in their design and appointments, paying homage to their traditions and legacy. While the present-day US Marine Corps uniforms may appear to be vastly different from those worn by colonial marines, they carry a significant amount of features and the overall theme from the originals.
As war waged in Europe in the early twentieth century, the United States was virtually unprepared to take on any combat activities due to the isolationists’ vehement opposition to the seemingly continuous strife of the monarchies of the old countries. The unpreparedness of the US military became apparent as they began to train and outfit the troops. The leadership had to scramble to buy materials to produce the uniforms required to equip nearly 4 million troops.
The Army had been in a period of transition from the uniform patterns used during the Spanish American War, and evolved through a handful of designs prior to arriving at three patterns used during WWI. The Marines, having been even less prepared, had to rely on the the Army for outfitting, for a number of reasons that included unifying all of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and the need to consolidate production due to time and resource constraints.
As the AEF began landing in Europe, there was little distinction between the branches of U.S. forces, largely leaving them to all look indistinguishable from each other. The Marines, seeking to set their uniforms apart from those of the Army, began to appoint their jackets with buttons and collar discs while adding the eagle, globe and anchor devices to the overseas cap.
Late in the war, the Marines began applying shoulder sleeve insignia to the left shoulders of their jacket sleeves. With the 6th Marine Regiment being placed under the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, the design of the Marine SSI bears similarities to the 2ID patch, incorporating the Indian head symbol. The rarer USMC shoulder patch of WWI is that of the 11th Marine Regiment (part of the 5th Marine Brigade) which bears the Roman numeral “V” superimposed over a black EGA. In the years following WWI, the Marine Corps uniforms returned to their original configurations, removing the unit identifiers.
Following combat on Guadalcanal, Marines of the 1st Marine Division were en route to Australia for R&R. It was thought that the Marines would again be wearing army uniforms, like they did during the Great War. Seeking to set the Marines apart from the army troops, discussion among the division leadership began taking place about a solution.
“They sat in facing bucket seats, between the litter of packs, seabags, typewriters, briefcases — the kinds of things that staff officers would necessarily bring out of battle.
General Vandegrift (division commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift) had begun to be a little bored with the monotony of the long plane ride. “Twining (then-Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining),” he said, “what are you doing?”
“An idea I have for a shoulder patch,” said Twining. “The stars are the Southern Cross.”
Vandegrift looked at it for a moment, scribbled something on it, and handed it back to Twining, who saw the word, “Approved,” with the initials, “A.A.V.”
They had been on the ride from Guadalcanal to Brisbane. Because the first few days in Australia were hectic, Twining did nothing else about the patch until one morning he was called into Vandegrift’s office.
“Well, Twining, where’s your patch?” Vandegrift asked to the discomfort of Twining.
“I bought a box of watercolors,” Twining says in recalling the incident, “and turned in with malaria. I made six sketches, each with a different color scheme. In a couple of days I went back to the General with my finished drawings. He studied them only a minute or so and then approved the one that is now the Division patch.” *
As the war wore on, other Marine Corps units began to design and implement shoulder sleeve insignia, sourcing from many manufacturers resulting in multiple patch variations for each unit identifier. In March of 1943, Marine Corps leadership made shoulder insignia officially supported, approving them for wear on dress uniforms.
Shortly after the end of the war, the Marine Corps struggled to maintain their existence while their ranks contracted from six divisions and five air wings (and several ancillary battalions) down to three divisions and wings. The need for the shoulder insignia had passed and so they were eliminated on January 1, 1948. No SSI has been (officially) worn on a Marine Corps uniform since that time. As with Army SSI, collecting each version of each unit patch can be a fun yet painfully lengthy process. As with any aspect of collecting, the rarer the patch, the larger the dent will be in your budget.
In preparing to move into collecting USMC SSI, I recommend that you start off simple. Pursue the common patches while keeping your eyes open and setting aside funds for the rarities. It is advisable that you obtain trusted publications to learn how to distinguish between the variants and the faked patches.
- Complete Guide to United States Marine Corps Medals, badges and Insignia: World War II to Present
- Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces 1941-1945
*McMillan, George. The Old Breed : A History of the First Marine Division in World War II. Washington: Zenger Pub. Co, 1979.