I recently won a Vietnam era Special Forces beret from an online auction. Prior to bidding, I emailed the seller with specific questions because the auction description was vague and the accompanying image was not great. The seller never responded to my questions, but I could tell that the insignia was a desirable variation, so I took my chances and placed a bid anyway.
When I received the beret in the mail I was relieved to see that it was a beauty! This 1963 dated beret was made by the Canadian manufacturer “Fleur De Lis”. Early on, conventional Army brass prohibited berets from being worn by Special Forces. In 1962 Special Forces personnel pulled a gutsy move and wore their unauthorized berets in front of President Kennedy during a Special Warfare demonstration. After the demonstration, Kennedy remarked that he liked the look of the beret and its fate was sealed as the official headgear for Special Forces.
The government did not secure a contract to manufacture berets until around 1965. Until then, berets were purchased from Fleur De Lis. The anatomy of a Vietnam era Special Forces beret includes:
1. The beret – Official color is called “Rifle Green”. Wartime government and Canadian berets have a real leather band (not vinyl), two black enamel painted vent grommets, a leather tab sewn to the lining behind the vent grommets, and a black cotton lining with nomenclature and/or a maker mark silk screened in white ink. The print is often faded on worn berets. Many wartime berets have the lining completely removed to be lighter, cooler, and form a better drape.
2. The Flash – The shield shaped patch sewn on the beret. These patches come in different colors to denote each SF Group. The flash on this beret is yellow with a black border and is used by 1st Special Forces Group stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
3. The DI – The DI or distinctive insignia pin is affixed to the beret through the flash. Enlisted Men and Non Commissioned Officers wear the Special Forces DI (shown on this beret), baring the the motto “De Oppresso Liber” meaning “Liberate the Oppressed”. Officers pin their rank through the flash in lieu of a DI.
What makes this newly acquired beret unique is that the yellow 1st SFGA flash is theater-made, meaning it was made in theaters of operation (typically Japan, Vietnam, or Thailand). This type of insignia is highly sought after by collectors and tends to be slightly irregular in shape, color, and construction in comparison with regular mass-produced insignia.
1st Group flashes were originally solid yellow, but after Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 a black border was added to memorialized their largest support of special warfare. The black border on this theater-made flash is crude making it more appealing than ordinary examples.
The DI is a rare “skull harp” pattern where there are holes in the harp look like skulls facing each other. This insignia is early and highly sought after. The DI was also made by Meyer and bears a nice hallmark. Early DI’s are seldom found hallmarked.
The best surprise with this beret was finding a small, embroidered tag with the veteran’s name and Army Serial Number sewn inside the lining. I was able to search rosters and find that this veteran was with 1st Special Forces Group and assigned to an early TDY team stationed in Thailand in 1964. It is very likely that this beret was worn during this operation.
Having this beret attributed to a veteran makes this very special to collectors and historians. Without provenance the beret is still collectible, but it value is only determined by the sum of its parts, whereas firm provenance can double or triple the value. Not only does research add value, it preserves the history of this beret and the veteran who wore it.
Chris Hughes is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in 20th century militaria and the owner of Rally Point Militaria and Vietnam Uniform – Military Collectibles sites.