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Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > Collecting U.S. Army Uniforms from the Korea Conflict, ‘The Forgotten War’

Collecting U.S. Army Uniforms from the Korea Conflict, ‘The Forgotten War’

by Ken Hatfield (11/05/12).

This M1946 Ike Jacket was likely worn by a World War II veteran who remained in the Army after the war. These troops were among the first called up to meet the Communist threat in Korea.

They call it “the forgotten war”, but in the strictest sense, it wasn’t a war at all. More than 36,000 U.S. servicemen died in Korea, but like Vietnam, there was no formal declaration of war, so it is more accurately called a military action. But for the sake of brevity, we’re going to refer to it as the Korean War.

No matter what you call it, the Korean War isn’t on most people’s radar. If you’re aware of it at all, it’s likely because you watched the TV version of M*A*S*H, which wasn’t really about the war at all. And since it aired in the 1970s and early ’80s, it wasn’t particularly accurate when it came to uniforms of the period.

Indeed, in many ways, military collectors have largely forgotten about Korea as well. Coming so close on the heels of the feel-good victories of the Second World War, the frustrating reversals, stalemate and negotiated truce of the Korean War have made it a, let’s say, less desirable war in terms of collector value. In fact, for some, a manufacturer’s label with a post-World War II date is the veritable “Kiss of Death.”

And that is really the irony of being a Korean War uniform collector: Since the uniforms are not highly sought after, prices can be extremely reasonable. But with low collector interest comes relatively low value. So whatever you collect, you better really like it, because more likely than not, you’ll be stuck with it a long time.

But as any collector knows, value is in the eye of the beholder. Few who collect U.S. uniforms do so with an immediate return investment in mind. If you like uniforms, there’s something about them, some intrinsic value, that attracts you. And if you’re like me, you don’t turn your nose up at a nicely preserved Ike jacket just because it turns out to be 1950 dated.

The jacket features a 101st Airborne patch without the airborne arc, 1948-pattern combat personnel sergeant first class chevrons, marksman badge, Combat Infantryman Badge and four service ribbons including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Korean Service with two campaign stars.

Most of the uniforms worn in Korea were World War II surplus. When the North Koreans stormed across the 38th Parallel in the summer of 1950, the first U.S. soldiers to land on Korean soil were occupation troops in Japan under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, including the First Cavalry Division and the 24th Infantry Division. Those soldiers wore basically the same uniforms as those who served in World War II.

Since Korean summers tend to be hot and rainy, that meant the issued uniforms were HBT (herringbone twill) jacket and trousers. The main difference between the World War II and post-war models was the gas flap (an extra piece of material that buttoned across the front to give added protection in case of gas attack) was deleted and simple patch pockets replaced the larger World War II-era cargo pockets.

Ike jackets are almost always dated in the right inside pocket. This quartermaster tag is dated September 1948.

Headgear consisted of World War II surplus M1 helmets—sometimes unit marked—which always increases its value, and the HBT, or simply “fatigue” cap. The World War II-version has a short, flexible visor while subsequent models featured a longer visor. Later in the war came the distinctive “Ridgway” caps with stiffened crown and flat top. These so-called “Spring-up” caps were advocated and worn by Army Chief of Staff Mathew Ridgway, hence the name.

When not in combat, soldiers could wear OD (olive drab) field jackets, also called Ike jackets, after Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who made them famous during World War II. Although never really intended as a “field” jacket, the waist-length Ike jackets were commonly worn for garrison duty and semi-dress wear. Besides the model made during World War II, there was a 1947 model that was considered better tailored and slightly shorter, and a Model 1950, which eliminated the button cuffs and replaced the side buckles with button tabs. Ike jackets almost always have dated manufacturer labels in the right inside pocket.

The M1950 overcoat was part of the Army’s winter layering system. It came with a button-in wool liner and was made of wind and rain resistant cotton sateen.

Another way to date Korean War-era uniforms is by their rank chevrons on the sleeves. In 1948, the army began using smaller, two-inch chevrons in two different shades: blue stripes on gold background for combat personnel and gold on blue for non-combat. Those two-inch chevrons were used until 1951, when the army went back to the full-sized chevrons, this time with olive drab stripes on blue background. Both the 1948 and 1951 pattern chevrons are considered Korean War era.

The summer heat, heavy rainfall and high humidity in Korea were bad enough, but the Korean winters were something else entirely. Most of the U.S. soldiers who found themselves in Korea when the arctic winds came howling out of Siberia in late 1950 were wearing the M1943 field jacket, which was considered the finest field jacket of any nation during World War II. Made of wind-resistant, water-repellent cotton, it had a removable button-on hood and was used as part of the army’s winter layering concept.

Designed for wear under the M43 was the pile field jacket, which was made of cotton poplin and lined with artificial fur. Due to chronic field jacket shortages, soldiers sometimes wore the pile field jacket as an outer garment, which often was a problem because it was neither waterproof nor windproof.

In 1951, the Army went back to the full-sized chevrons, but changed the colors to olive drab stripes on a blue background. This chevron is for a sergeant first class.

In fact, due to the extreme temperatures and mountainous geography of the country, uniform shortages and distribution problems were a hallmark of the Korean War. Even when they designed clothing specifically for Korea, the Army often wasn’t able to get those items to the troops who needed them.

The M1950 and M1951 field jackets were a case in point. The M1950, adopted by the army that fall, was an improved version of the M43. The outside looked the same, but the inside now had buttons for attaching a liner with a distinctive rough wool/pile fabric used mainly for industrial upholstery. A further improvement, the M1951 field jacket shell with liner, was adopted in August 1951. Unfortunately, neither jacket was readily available in Korea until late in the war, which is why you can still find many M50 and M51 field jackets in nearly pristine condition.

The same went for the M1951 trouser shells and liners. By the end of the war, 8th Army stocks of M51 trouser liners were only a quarter of what would be needed for the winter of 1953-54, had the war continued.

Quartermaster tags of the Korean War provided all the pertinent information, including the model/pattern date (1950), when it was manufactured (5 February 1952) and the size (regular-medium).

Parkas were the best outer garments for Korea’s frigid winters. Field parkas had been developed during World War II, but they had a closed front, pull-over design that restricted movement and was often inconvenient for the wearer. The M1948 parka shell and liner was adopted in 1949 and featured a wind- and rain-resistant cotton sateen shell with snap/zipper front closure and wool pile liner. The improved M1951 parka-shell and liner were adopted in June 1951, but neither reached the front line troops in adequate numbers.

Overcoats also were commonly worn in Korea, most of World War II vintage. The first post-World War II pattern was approved in June 1946 and, like other coats of the era, were made of wind- and water-proof cotton sateen, with a double breasted three-button front and came with a removable button-in wool liner. There also was a single-breasted, three-quarter length parka-type overcoat with a removable snap-in pile liner and hood that was often worn by engineers, artillerymen and other combat support troops.

One collecting niche of Korean War uniforms that has seen increased interest in recent years is women’s uniforms. Soon after passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948—which made women full-fledged members of the Armed Forces not limited to the nursing or support fields—consultants from the women’s fashion industry were hired to design new uniforms to meet the Army’s new criteria of presenting a more feminine look for the WAC (Women’s Army Corps).

A Korean War-era nurse’s uniform. On the surface, it looks OK. But a closer look reveals that the uniform has been “enhanced” by the owner (see below).

The 1951 pattern women’s taupe uniform, for example, had a hip-length coat with a high rounded collar, padded shoulders and a nipped-in waist. The buttons were dull antique gold. It also came in a waist-length coat, similar to the man’s Ike jacket, a hip-hugging calf-length skirt and interchangeable slacks. A service hat and full-length taupe overcoat with removable liner completed the ensemble.

The uniform was not without its critics. Many women disliked the fact that the jackets had to remain buttoned all the way to the neck and the tailored, close-fitting waist was not a good fit for thick-waisted women. The lightweight wool serge fabric, which was intended to be worn year-round, was found to be too warm for summer wear. Also, the wool fabric tended to shrink, lose its shape and wrinkled easily after several dry cleanings. The service hat had a one-sided brim that was difficult to wear correctly with the hairstyles of the day.

Later in the war, the Army adopted a taupe-shade cotton summer service dress, which featured short sleeves, rounded collars, waist belt and antique bronze buttons. It was worn with a garrison-style side cap.

Included in this impressive ribbon group is the Silver Star, Bronze Star with oakleaf, Purple Heart and Korean Service with battle star. The owner of this nurse’s uniform apparently didn’t realize that only four women had received the Silver Star prior to 2005. There’s also a WAAC Service ribbon, given to women who served with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during WWII, but no WWII Victory ribbon. In addition, the uniform has a Combat Medical Badge, which no woman received before the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Korea’s harsh winters required special attention be given to footwear. Most of the boots and overshoes designed during World War II proved to be inadequate to protect soldiers from frostbite and trenchfoot in Korea.

M1944 shoepacs, a type of leather boot with rubber soles and partial rubber uppers, were designed for cold-wet weather, but failed to stand up to Korea’s extremely cold winters. More effective was the insulated rubber combat boot, also called “Mickey Mouse boots” due to their large size and weight. The main problem with these insulated rubber boots was that they retained moisture from perspiration, which could lead to foot irritation and inflammation caused by a parasitic fungus.

A Personal Aside: I actually owned a pair of the insulated rubber combat boots while living in Anchorage, Alaska, in the mid-1960s. We called them “Korean boots” and I can tell you from personal experience, having worn them through two Alaskan winters, my feet were never cold.

The Korean War was neither as satisfying as World War II or as controversial as Vietnam, but it remains an important part of our nation’s history. To others, it may be “the forgotten war,” but for the U.S. military uniform collector, it’s an area he’d do well to remember.

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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