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Navy Cracker Jacks: No Toy Surprise


Today marks the 241st anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy. What better way to celebrate and honor the best branch of the U.S. armed forces than to discuss this service’s enlisted uniforms?

In writing this blog, I am (happily and willingly) forced to expand my knowledge in a great many areas of military history that I otherwise would have overlooked. As I embark on a new article, I am presented with the opportunity to delve into learning about uniform details and nuances that I’d previously had little or no exposure to. One aspect of this post has finds me diving into uncharted territory (for me).

The uniforms of the United States Navy, particularly the enlisted version, has maintained relative consistency in its design for more than 160 years. From the bell-bottom trousers and the collar flap to the various trim and appointments, today’s modern design has remained consistent with the original, functional aspects of those early uniforms.

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

Today’s jumper blouse design was incorporated with the collar flap which was used as a protective cover to protect it from the grease or powder normally worn by seamen to hold hair in place during the twenty years prior to the start of the Civil War.

Piping and stars were added to the flap while the flat hat (affectionately referred to in the 20th century as the “Donald Duck hat”) became a standard uniform item during this period. In the late 1880s, the white hat (or “dixie cup”) was introduced, essentially solidifying the current configuration we see today. Prior to World War II, the blue cuffs were dropped from the white uniform and the flap was switched to all white with blue stars. By 1962, the flat hat was gone.

A collector colleague steered me to an online auction listing for an absolutely stunning Civil War-era white (with blue trim) U.S. Navy cracker jack uniform. Constructed from linen, these white uniforms were hard pressed to survive the rigors of shipboard use, let alone 1.5 centuries. Examples such as these are extremely rare and carry considerable price tags.

Since I’ve been collecting, I have seen a handful of late nineteenth century Navy uniforms listed at auction. While most of them are blue wool, I have seen a smattering of dress whites.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the Navy expanded its fleet and global reach requiring increase of manning. That expansion means that collectors today have greater opportunity (and to pay lower prices) to locate period examples. These later uniforms were constructed using better materials in order to perform better in the harsh, mechanized and considerably dirty shipboard climate. Blue uniforms were constructed from heavy wool while linen was dropped in favor of cotton-based canvas material for the whites.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

Today’s enlisted dress uniforms while representative of the pre-Civil War origins, they are quite sanitary and less desirable for collectors. Gone is the heavy wool for the dress blues. The dress whites are polyester, also called “certified navy twill” or CNT. One saving grace is that the white Dixie cup hats are virtually unchanged since their introduction, making them nearly non-distinguishable from early examples.

Happy birthday to all of those who served before me and since my time in uniform. Happy birthday to my shipmates and happy birthday to the United States Navy!

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A Uniform for an Ordinary Joe


There are times when I find myself with so many topics to write about that my mind wanders so rampantly that I am left with seemingly nothing to cover. It is akin to my wife walking into our closet (that is filled with clothes) and finding nothing to wear.

I look back on all that I have covered during the past 15 months (including my year of writing for CollectorsQuest) in an attempt to avoid repeating myself. I check my collection for items that I haven’t covered yet (there is an abundance at the moment) while looking ahead at some event/calendar-based ideas that I am working on and I realize that I can begin to narrow the field a little. I can focus in on a subject knowing that as this article begins to develop, it may very well transform into something vastly different when I am ready to publish it.

Speaking of closets filled with nothing to wear, there among the garments that I rotate through each week are several garment bags packed full of military uniforms. While some of the uniforms were worn during my naval career and a few others belonged to my grandfather, the lion-share are truly pieces in my modest collection (dominated with U.S. Navy uniforms). Looking at the last few articles that I’ve written for this blog are Navy-focused, I am pushed toward covering one of the two non-Navy uniforms in my possession.

Why collect uniforms someone (new to militaria collecting) might ask? For me at least, the idea of possessing a tangible object that was worn by a service member (especially during a significant period of our nation’s history) provides a sensory connection (sight, scent, touch) that is unattainable with written words or images. In addition, the uniforms themselves possess some elements and characteristics that make them, on their own, aesthetically pleasing.

My uniform collection, when compared with that of other (long-term) collectors, is quite humble and ordinary when it comes to the identities of the veterans who previously owned and wore the items. This is not to suggest that anyone’s service to this country is ordinary, but in comparison to veterans whose careers shaped and impacted history (so much so that their names are legendary because of their battlefield deeds), my uniforms are quite modest.

One colleague owns (or owned) uniforms that would make almost any collector salivate at the mere thought of touching, let alone owning. Imagine having the uniform from the man who, while in command of a diminutive destroyer escort, bore down on Japanese task force that consisted of four battleships (including the Yamato), eight cruisers and several destroyers in order to protect the carriers in his own task force? That commanding officer, Robert Copeland risked himself, his ship and his crew in order to successfully protect the American carriers from certain destruction near Samar in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Copeland received the Navy Cross for his actions that day in October of 1944.

Post-World War II Khaki uniform jacketm dress blues and combination cover, worn by Navy Cross recipient, Admiral Robert Copeland (image source: ForValor.com/Dave Schwind)

Post-World War II Khaki uniform jacketm dress blues and combination cover, worn by Navy Cross recipient, Admiral Robert Copeland (image source: ForValor.com/Dave Schwind)

Frank Schofield

This World War I – era U.S. Navy frock coat belonged to (then) Captain Frank Schoflield. Note the ornate bullion collar devices and the pre-WWI sewn-on ribbons (image source: USMilitariaForum.com/Dave Schwind).

1st MarDiv SSI

The shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) for the 1st Marine Division. This patch is affixed to the left shoulder of a 1943-dated USMC uniform jacket.

Not everyone has the finances or the perfect timing to locate items from such legendary people. Some collectors seek uniforms that serve to illustrate a story or, perhaps to demonstrate the progression of uniform changes throughout history. In either case, high-dollar uniforms from well-known figures (of American history) would serve to highlight such a story line but are not necessarily needed pieces. For those who (with limited budgets) want to pursue something from a specific (i.e. monumental) period of military history, “settling” for uniforms from the common soldier, airman, sailor or Marine.

I am particularly interested in the history surrounding the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) when discussing or researching World War II. Being a Navy veteran and the grandson of a WWII PTO Navy veteran, my collection tends to be focused in this area. I’ve taken considerable interest specifically in the southern Solomon Islands and the battles (both on land and sea) that took place in the surrounding area. When many people think of this region, immediate thoughts of Guadalcanal and the saga of the First Marine Division’s legendary fight (and “abandonment” by the U.S. Navy following substantial vessel losses on August 8-9, 1942 near Savo Island).  When a WWII USMC uniform from a 1st MarDiv veteran became available (at an affordable price), I didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a purchase.

1st MarDiv Jacket

In stark contrast to the two Navy legends’ uniforms above, this nameless jacket was from a humble PFC of the 1st MarDiv.

USMC Buttons

Everything about this jacket is superb. Not a single moth hole and all of the buttons are present.

As a research project – trying to determine the service and experiences of the original owner – it possesses next-to-nothing that would afford me a path to pursue. The only identifying marks in the uniform jacket were three initials, “G. E. M.” The odds that I could pinpoint a veteran in the 1st Marine Division with those three letters makes the challenge daunting, to say the least. At this point, I haven’t had the time or desire to begin such an endeavor leaving the uniform to simply fill a space within my collection. I am happy just to own this uniform with the idea that this private first class Marine possibly served in one or more of the notable battles alongside the his brothers in The Old Breed.

Left Sleeve Label - WWII USMC Uniform Jacket

To locate the uniform label (which contains the contract and date data) as well as identification marks left by the original wearer, check the inside of the left sleeve.

USMC jacket label - WWII

Immediately beneath the uniform label, the initials “G. E. M.” could correspond with the original owner’s name. Locating this marine would be next to impossible.

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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.