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Military Collectibles - Shoulder Patches
( Article orginally published July 1952 )
During World War II, the collecting of military insignia, especially U. S. Army shoulder patches, was a popular hobby with many servicemen. At war's end, many such collections were brought home as souvenirs, some day to be removed from the attic and shown to Junior.
Unfortunately, it was seldom appreciated that a near-complete shoulder patch collection was an item of tremendous historical interest to collectors in the Military field.
It was not easy to assemble such a collection. The Army maintained official records of all shoulder patch insignia, in the Heraldic Section, office of the Quartermaster General, but the Army records included only those emblems which had been submitted "thru channels" to Washington, for official approval. In literally hundreds of authenticated cases, this was never done, and soldiers in the field wore emblems with the approval of their commanders-all that was needed.
During the war years, I assembled a collection of more than 1,100 shoulder patches, which included all emblems officially approved, plus the most complete collection in existence of patches actually worn by combat GI's. Seven years after the end of hostilities, this collection has become a rich storehouse of historical material, recalling the glory of the fighting men who brought victory to American arms.
It's mounted in seven thick albums, organized according to branch of service, each item neatly captioned, and in many cases, accompanied by newspaper clippings describing the battle record of the outfit, with combat photographs showing the insignia being worn in the heat of battle. Original World War I emblems are included; here too, the collection approaches completeness.
There is the multicolored embroidered patch of an outfit listed in Army records simply as "Composite Unit 5306". The patch tells the story, in the words "Merrili's Marauders"-the handy band of heroes whose hit and run tactics in the Burma jungles were unique in the American Army.
There's the simple black band of the Army's elite, bearing the words "6th Ranger Bn."-the four hundred men who smashed thru Japanese lines on Luzon in the closing days of the war to rescue Yank prisoners out of a Japanese prison camp.
Chester Burger, holding one of the seven volumes of shoulder patch collection which is the country's largest, containing more than 1,100 military unit insignia worn by the armed forces during World Wars I and II.
The 49th Anti-Aircraft Battalion wore a magnificently embroidered emblem showing a cowboy with two six shooters and a whisky jug, shooting at a passing plane.
But not all the patches were works of art. The collection includes an emblem of the 106th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion, crudely made of orange and yellow felt, which was presented to me by a soldier who wore it through seven campaigns. It shows a cactus, symbolizing service in the War with Mexico (1847), a castle, representing service in the Spanish-American War (1898), and a fleur-de-lis signifying participation in World War I.
In the military tradition, each element of the patches has some significance. The colors are chosen to represent branches of service. There are many symbols. The Army Airways Communications System showed a string of dots and dashes circling the globe-the Morse code spelling "AACS". The 15th Army Group headquarters wore a shoulder patch bearing wavy blue lines, representing the Mediterranean, against a background of Pompeiian red, chosen because advance elements of the 15th Army Group first landed near the ancient and historic city of Pompeii.
Dozens of the emblems-actually worn by servicemen-don't appear in Army official records. The 848th Signal Training Battalion, composed of men who had been "washed out" as Fying Cadets, adopted an insignia with a pair of wings being snipped by a scissors, and the words, "Thou Shalt Not Fly." The 4026th Signal Photo Battalion-among the first into defeated Japan-wore a patch bearing the Japanese ideographs translated as "Official U. S. Army photographer". A letter from an officer of the outfit, included in the collection, says, "Our Battalion has taken no steps to make the patch official; the miles of red tape would be a little too much to cope with. However, we will continue to wear it until we are told to take it off, and then, if I am any judge of Signal Corps photographers, we will still wear it."
Possibly the smallest Army outfit with its own emblem was the Armed Forces Radio detachment at Karachi, India. They numbered six men, and their commanding officer had an Indian seamstress make up ten copies of a white and black shoulder patch with the sole inscription, "VU2ZX", the call letters of the Army radio station. This is one of the unique items in the collection.
In the volume of Would War I shoulder patches is a blue quartered circle on olive drab, the insignia of the 35th Infantry Division, which fought in the Vosges and MeuseArgonne. On this particular emblem, one of the four quarters is red, representing the divisional artillery. Wearing that shoulder patch design, 35 years ago, was a young Captain of Artillery, Harry Truman. The plain cloth emblem typifies the historical interest aroused by a study of the collection.