US Marine Corps Uniform: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia Introduction
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.