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Collecting U.S. Naval Uniforms from the Second World War

by Ken Hatfield (02/28/13).

This Second World War U.S. Navy white enlisted men’s uniform and hat. It has a Seabee patch on the left sleeve and a Gunners Mate 1st Class insignia on the right sleeve. This lot, which includes the pants and hat, sold for $128 in 2007.

When I was younger, we used to have this debate: If you were in combat in the Second World War, which branch of service would you want to be in. With me, it always came down to survival, so I usually ended up choosing the U.S. Navy.

My reasoning went something like this: You definitely didn’t want to be in the front line Army. Arguably, they had it the worst. Out in the elements for weeks at a time, cold, wet, no hot food, cannon fodder for the generals safely behind the lines.

The Marines weren’t much better off. Due to the island-hopping campaign, their consecutive days in the field tended to be shorter, but their privations were just as bad as the Army, and on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they went through some of the most horrific fighting of the war.

Then there was the Army Air Force. On the surface, serving in the USAAF sounded pretty good. Stationed in relative safety in England or the Pacific, Air Force personnel slept in beds, had daily hot meals and their missions usually only lasted hours instead of days. On the other hand, more than 88,000 airmen died during World War II. Only Army ground forces had more battle deaths. The early strategic bombing campaign in Europe was a particularly bad time, with many missions reporting aircraft losses of more than 50 percent.

So that left the Navy. While I didn’t like the idea of drowning and had a particular aversion to being eaten by sharks, sailors did have a rack to sleep in every night, hot food every day, lots of protective metal around you in case of attack. True, more than 62,000 Navy personnel died during the war, but that was only 1.5 percent of the 4.1 million men who served in the Navy. Compare that to the 3.6 percent of Marines killed in the war and the 2.8 percent of Army and 2.5 percent AAF personnel killed, and the Navy was the safest combat branch of service to be in during World War II.

Plus, it had very distinctive uniforms. From the undress white cotton jumper with front-flap bell bottom trousers and white cap, to the full dress officer frock coat with visor cap and dress sword, Navy personnel were among the sharpest dressed service men (and women) of any branch. And today those uniforms range from the rare and highly collectible to the common and not very collectible at all.

Examples of World War II U.S. Navy rate patches for a Torpedoman’s Mate, third, second and first class, with a left-facing eagle. The red felt chevrons are sewn on. The three sold in a lot for $10.

World War II naval uniforms, particularly those worn by enlisted sailors, are rarely dated, so it’s important to know how to date them. While some of the uniforms closely resemble the First World War models, there are some easy ways to tell them apart.

For instance, World War I-era enlisted jumpers have longer back flaps than the World War II patterns. They also have neckerchief keepers—a loop of material in the upper front of the jumper—to keep the neckerchief in place. Those keepers were eliminated in the 1930s on all uniforms except the undress white jumper.

World War I flat caps—those distinctive dark blue wool caps with flat, floppy tops—have larger crowns than the World War II models. They also had the name of the ship woven on the cap’s ribbon, also called a “tally.” During World War II, the U.S. discontinued putting the names of individual ships on caps (the Navy didn’t want to give the enemy any information) and simply went with “US Navy” on the tallies.

Officer uniforms are sometimes easier to date because many have tailor tags with the name of the officer and the date of purchase. Officer uniforms are typically more collectible, due to the higher quality of materials and rarity compared to enlisted uniforms. Usually, the higher the rank, the more desirable the uniform.

Due to their obvious combat affiliation, uniforms belonging to naval aviators are prized by World War II collectors. Although Navy flyers could wear any standard Navy uniform, only aviators were allowed to wear the aviation-green elastique wool uniforms associated with combat airmen. Often, the coats have tailor labels in the inside pocket with the owner’s name and purchase date and can include either a bullion or sterling silver naval aviator wing.

Enlisted Men’s Uniforms

You can often find a large collection of uniform items at estates. These lot, from the personal belongings of a World War II U.S. Navy aviation radioman (first class), a wool navy blue uniform, a hand-tailored gabardine navy blue uniform, and a white linen uniform, as well as a white linen hat, two belts, as well as duffle bags and other souvenirs from the war. I was won on eBay for $202.50 in 2009

World War II Navy enlisted jumpers, including the dress and undress white and blue models, tend to be very common and require insignia and other additions to increase their collectible value. Sleeve-mounted rating badges—the Navy’s equivalent of Army chevrons—are welcome additions if they adhere to the World War II era standards. In particular, the stripes usually must be sewn-on felt rather than the later embroidered style.

Another way to date rating badges is by which way the embroidered eagle is facing. Although eagles facing both ways are considered World War II era, the left-facing eagle is most desirable because they were only made early in the war.

A Personal Note: Some collectors refer to the left- and right-facing eagles as they appear in photographs. In other words, if an eagle is facing right in the photo, it’s a right-facing eagle. That’s the opposite way I look at it. I think of the eagle as it is positioned on the uniform. If the eagle is facing the wearer’s left shoulder, it is a left-facing eagle. Actually, that’s why they changed the eagle from facing left to facing right. When the rating badge is on the right shoulder, the eagle is facing the wearer, as it should. But when it’s on the left shoulder, the eagle is facing away from the wearer, which some sailors considered bad luck. Now, all rating badges are worn on the left sleeve with the eagle facing the wearer, to the right.

Rating badges also include a specialty mark, which denotes what the enlisted man does. Combat-related specialties, such as gunner’s mate, torpedoman’s mate, pharmacist’s mate (worn by Marine medics) and aviation pilot increase the uniform’s collector value. The aviation pilot rating is especially sought after because very few enlisted men qualified as combat pilots.

The other primary way to date an enlisted jumper is by the type of manufacturing label it has. Naval Clothing Factory labels started the war fully embroidered, switched to printed labels in 1943, added “100 percent wool exclusive of ornamentation” in 1944 and changed to “Naval Clothing Depot” in 1945.

Other features of World War II enlisted jumpers are branch marks—a white or blue stripe on upper right sleeve for seaman-rated and a red stripe on upper left sleeve for fireman-rated and combat-related distinguishing marks such as gun pointer, air gunner or amphibious forces.

This World War II U.S. Navy blue felt enlisted man’s hat with “U.S. Navy” stitched on the black silk tally. It was had on eBay in 2006 for $14.05

Enlisted jumpers come in four different styles: undress white (a cotton work jumper with undecorated collar back flap made for summer and tropical wear), dress white (cotton summer jumper with a blue collar flap with stripes and two embroidered stars), undress blue (blue wool jumper with a plain collar flap and cuffs) and dress blue (wool jumper with a collar flap decorated with stars and stripes).

Unlike other branches of service, sailors could often get away with wearing custom-made, non-regulation uniforms. Since many Navy-issued dress blue jumpers were ill-fitting and made of cheap, unlined wool flannel, sailors found tailors to make them individually fitted with added features, such as side zippers, hidden pockets and silk lining, all of which add to their collector value.

One popular practice among sailors was to have “liberty embroidery” added to their uniforms. Usually, this refers to Oriental-style embroidered designs added to the inside of the jumper’s cuffs, which could be unbuttoned and turned out to reveal the embroidery when off ship on liberty. Some sailors went farther and had dragons and other designs added to the lining of their custom-made jumpers and trousers, which would not be visible unless the uniform was inside out.

Accompanying the jumpers were the Navy’s distinctive 13-button-flap bell bottom trousers. Like the jumpers, they came in white cotton and blue wool, and custom-made examples can be found with silk lining, extra-large bell-bottom cuffs and beautifully detailed liberty embroidery.

The enlisted overcoat, popularly known as the “pea coat,” is a heavy wool double-breasted coat with notched collar and two rows of five large buttons with anchor design. It is fully lined, has two interior pockets. World War II-era pea coats have corduroy-lined slash outer pockets.

Officers’ Uniforms

Navy officers’ full dress uniforms with swords were not required during World War II and because so are very rare. Most dress uniforms consisted of a double breasted blue wool coat, often tailor-made, with matching trousers and visor cap. Rank was denoted by the bullion tape stripes on the sleeve cuffs, ranging from one stripe (ensign) to four stripes (captain). Those with the rank of Admirals and above had distinctive, extra-wide stripes. Officers also had a white cotton dress uniform with standing collar, single-breasted front and rank shoulder boards. It was worn with white gloves, white patent leather service shoes and visor cap.

During cold weather, officers wore a three-quarter length double-breasted overcoat with rank shoulder boards and removable button-in liner. They also could wear a “boat cloak,” a heavy navy blue wool three-quarter length cape.

These two World War II-era U.S. Navy officer’s tunics sold in a lot with four other garments for less than $60 in 2011. (Photo: Cowan’s Auctions)

WWII Navy officer visor caps tend to be high quality with bullion tape chinstraps and leather sweatbands. Size tags are sometimes found underneath the sweatbands (large sizes are always more desirable) and the wicker frame is a distinctive feature of the WWII caps.

Officer working uniforms consisted of khaki single-breasted coats with bullion rank shoulder boards, gilt buttons and matching trousers. Made for summer/tropical wear, they were usually made of cotton, but custom-made examples can be found in lightweight wool. Those uniforms could be dressed down to simply a khaki shirt and trousers, with either a visor cap or garrison side cap with rank insignia.

In 1943, the Navy approved a new slate gray uniform to replace the khaki working uniform for all ranks. The new uniform, nicknamed “Ernie King gray” for Fleet Admiral Ernest King, who popularized it, was usually made of cotton and had black embroidered shoulder boards and black plastic buttons. The uniform, not widely available to Navy personnel overseas during the war, was more commonly worn stateside and was phased out in the late 1940s when the khaki uniform was brought back.

WAVES and Nurse Uniforms

World War II navy women’s uniforms remain a popular sub-category for collectors. The Navy had two separate branches: the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and the Navy Nurse Corps. Although the two services shared some uniform elements, they are different enough to discuss them separately.

The uniforms worn by the WAVES fell into three basic categories: blue, white and working uniforms. The blue and white uniforms for officers and enlisted personnel were very similar and differed only with the type of buttons and the insignia.

A World War II Women’s Naval Reserve (WAVE) uniform, it realized $395 on eBay in 2008.

This is a World War II U.S. Navy nurse’s uniform. It sold on eBay for $406.01 in 2009.

The Service Dress Blue A uniform consisted of a blue wool service coat, blue wool knee-length skirt and garrison cap. It came with a white blouse, black tie, beige hose, black shoes and a regulation black purse with a long strap that had to worn across the body from the right shoulder. Officers wore their rank as stripes on their sleeve cuffs while enlisted women wore rating badges on their sleeves. Substituting a white service hat made it a Service Dress Blue B uniform.

The Service Dress White uniform, made for summer or tropical wear, was essentially the same as the blue uniform except the coat, skirt, shoes and purse were now white and the ensemble was worn with the white service hat. Officers wore the standard Navy officer’s badge on the service hat while enlisted women wore the same US Navy tally as the enlisted men wore on their flat caps.

At the beginning of the war, working uniforms usually consisted of the service dress blue shirt and skirt worn without the coat. However, with the introduction of the new slate gray uniforms for the men in 1943, a gray pinstriped seersucker skirt, short-sleeve blouse and jacket were approved for the women. The officer and enlisted uniforms differed only in the insignia worn on the service hat and the jackets. Seersucker garrison caps also could be worn with the uniforms and the enlisted rating badges were made of matching seersucker material.

Prior to 1944, the Navy Nurse Corps had its own rank structure and wore metal insignia with the letters “NNC.” In 1944, Navy nurses were recognized as commissioned officers of the Navy and began wearing standard Navy insignia.

Except for the insignia, the NNC uniforms basically stayed the same. The newly designated Service Dress A and B uniforms for nurses were almost identical to the WAVES uniforms except the Service Dress Blue coat was double breasted. The nurses also had a distinctive visor-less cap, which came in both white and blue.

For cold weather, both nurses and WAVES officers could wear the double-breasted, knee-length wool officer overcoat. Nurses had a wool cape, similar to the male officer’s boat cloak, which was worn over the standard white nurses’ uniform.

These five different World War II U.S. Navy WAVES hats sold for $61 in 2007.

The official W.A.V.E.S labels in two for the hats.

In addition to the white nurses’ dress, they also had a slate gray working uniform in cotton or rayon that consisted of a knee-length pleated skirt and long-sleeve waist jacket. It could be worn with either the visor-less hat with gray cover or a matching gray garrison cap. It came with gray gloves and a strapless black handbag.

Some of the most collectible female uniforms are those that belonged to Navy flight nurses. Made of aviation green wool, the working uniform consisted of a waist-length coat—often with named tailor label—skirt and garrison cap, sometimes with a highly collectible and valuable flight nurse wing. The coat could be worn over a khaki service shirt with necktie or dressed down with an optional green wool shirt with a hidden diagonal zipper across the front.

After the war, Navy uniforms changed significantly. The enlisted dress blue uniform changed to a waist-length “Ike-style” jacket with garrison cap and the undress white jumper and bell bottom front flap trousers were replaced with a conventional white cotton shirt and button-fly trousers. Rating badges switched from sewn-on to embroidered and many of the wartime specialty marks were renamed or dropped altogether.

For that and other reasons, U.S. Navy World War II uniforms continue to be a popular niche for collectors. For those just starting a collection, there’s lots of stuff out there, so be choosy. Look for uniforms with insignia, names and dates. Buy the highest quality you can afford. One nicely preserved aviator green elastique wool coat with a name, purchase date and sterling aviator wing will always be worth more than a dozen enlisted jumpers, even laden with insignia. Learn how to date non-dated uniforms and only buy from people you trust.

And when they invent that long-awaited time machine and send you back to 1941, be sure to join the U.S. Navy.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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