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Stitching Together a Second World War Military Patch Collection

by Ken Hatfield (08/06/12).

Arguably the rarest patch of all from the Second World War is the 6860th HQ Detachment, or T-Force. Composed of only 160 men, it was responsible for gathering intelligence in preparation for the invasion of Southern France and was disbanded shortly after the invasion

When I went to work for the auction house almost 10 years ago, I already had an extensive comic book collection and wasn’t looking for something new to bring home. But you know how that goes. We get to see all kinds of interesting stuff consigned to our auction and, eventually, some of it peaks our interest.

That’s how it was with me and U.S. military patches. I guess at first what attracted me were the designs of patches themselves: A panther chomping down on a tank; a flaming sword on a black field surmounted by a rainbow; a cowboy firing his six-guns at an airplane.

Despite my longtime interest in military history, I hadn’t paid much attention to the patches soldiers, marines and sailors wore on their sleeves. Obviously, it was a source of pride to many of them. As part of my job, I learned to recognize the various armies, corps, divisions and commands. I also noticed how the patches were made, which helps determine the era from which they originate. I learned which patches were rarer by how often they were consigned to us and the high prices the rarest patches brought.

So why did patches from the Second World War interest me? Well, as a kid I grew up watching movies like “The Longest Day,” “Von Ryan’s Express,” “The Great Escape” and the “Dirty Dozen.” Also, my dad was a Marine corporal during World War Two, which got me interested in the War in the Pacific. By adulthood, I’d read enough books to become something of a student of WWII.

But what interested me most was what the patches represented. For instance, the First Infantry Division—the Big Red One—took part in the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, and assaulted Omaha Beach on D-Day. The Third Army was commanded by Gen. George S. Patton, whose fleet of tanks and tank destroyers surged across France and were the first units to relieve the beleaguered U.S. forces holding the key crossroads at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. I could imagine those patches being worn into combat on the sleeves of soldiers’ field jackets and on their Ike jackets while on liberty in London or recently liberated Paris.

The only problem is there are literally hundreds of WWII patches. There are more than 100 infantry divisions alone. If you displayed them all in 12-inch by 16-inch riker mounts—heavy cardboard and glass display cases—you’re talking a significant space investment.

I couldn’t collect them all, even if I had the money, so I did what all collectors do: I specialized. I decided I would only collect patches I knew were made during WWII. It didn’t matter if the patch represented a WWII unit. It had to be made during that period.

I also decided to concentrate on collecting patches with colored backs, which among patch collectors is a very specific field. More on that later.

As a rookie patch collector, my first challenge was to determine which patches were made during Second World War. I say World War two, but I actually mean WWII through the Korean War. Many of the insignia worn in Korea were WWII surplus and the patches made in the U.S. in the late ’40s and early ’50s are virtually identical to those made during WWII.

There are three primary ways to determine whether a patch is WWII era: bobbin “snow” on the back; the black light test; and basic construction.

Three examples of bobbin “snow” on the backs of WWII era patches. They include (from left): SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces), 27th Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division

“Snow” refers to the usually white (but sometimes colored) backs. Heavy white snow to the back of a patch is usually an indication that it is of WWII era. Modern patches have little or no snow on the backs. My attitude is the more snow the better. If there’s no snow, it isn’t WWII.

The black light refers to an ultraviolet lamp, which I call the Military Authenticator’s Friend. Nowadays, almost all cloth is made with synthetic materials, which react like neon under a UV light. They didn’t use synthetic materials during WWII, so if your patch glows under a black light, it isn’t WWII era.

The third way to tell if a patch is from WWII is by how it’s made. Most WWII patches were embroidered on a base fabric and the excess was then trimmed, giving it what is known as a “cut edge.” During the 1960s, patch manufacturers came up with a process by which the edge was stitched to prevent fraying. Those so-called “merrow edge” patches usually have a “tail” of thread attached to the edge, which is often held down by a tiny piece of tape or some other adhesive. So, if the patch has a stitched merrow edge with a tail, it isn’t from WWII.

As I said earlier, I decided to concentrate on collecting patches with colored snow backs. Not only are they rarer than the white snow, they also come with an iron clad guarantee: They only made colored-back patches during WWII. So, if the patch has a colored back, it is without a doubt from WWII. During my almost 10 years in the auction business, I’ve seen snow in only three colors: green, black and blue. Greenbacks are by far the most common.

Patches worn by the 49th Antiaircraft Artillery Brigade (left) and the Manhattan Project. Due to its top secret nature, the Manhattan Project patch was not authorized to be worn until after the Japanese surrender.

When it came to actually starting my collection, I began looking for patches with heavy snow. Some, like the Army Air Force patches, are very common and easy to find. I also took into account whether the unit served in combat, so while I collected the First, Second, Third and Fourth Air Force patches, they were all stateside training and defense units, so I didn’t put as high of a value on them.

Some patches are rarer and can go for ridiculous prices. For example, the 5307th Composite Unit, if the patch is real, will often create a bidding “feeding frenzy” on the auction. Better known as Merrill’s Marauders or the Mars Task Force, the men of the 5307th served in long-range combat patrols in Northern Burma and assisted in clearing Japanese troops from the path planned for the Ledo Road, which helped supply Chinese troops fighting the Japanese. Few members of the unit survived, so real patches can command stratospheric prices. For that reason, it’s also one of the more commonly reproduced patches.

Arguably the rarest patch of all from the Second World War is the 6860th HQ Detachment, or T-Force. Composed of only 160 men, it was responsible for gathering intelligence in preparation for the invasion of Southern France and was disbanded shortly after the invasion. In nine years I’ve only seen one example of the patch and it went for more than a thousand dollars on the auction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, patch prices can be influenced by popular movies and books. After the film “Saving Private Ryan” came out 15 years ago, the price of the 29th Infantry Division patch suddenly went up, despite the fact that it is a fairly common patch. Today, the price is back to more reasonable levels.

Two variations of the Tank Destroyer patch. The patch on the left is the more valuable because it features the original 8-wheel design.

Like most collecting, part of the fun is finding deals. One patch I wanted from the beginning was the Manhattan Project, which was worn by military personnel assigned to building the atomic bomb. Due to the project’s top-secret nature, the patch was not actually authorized to be worn until after the war was over. Occasionally, the patch would show up on the auction for $20 or more, which was more than I was willing to spend for a single patch. Eventually, however, I found one in a large group of WWII patches that were selling for the same price. With some nice snow on the back, it remains one of my favorite patches.

Another of my favorites is the Tank Destroyer patch, which features a black panther crushing a tank in its mouth. I actually have two: the original version, with an eight-wheel tank in its teeth, and the later version with a four-wheel version. Although the WWII patch is not super valuable, a pre-WWII design with Camp Hood embroidered on it—that’s where the tank destroyer units trained before going into combat—recently sold on the auction for more than $100.

WWII patches don’t show up on the auction as often as they used to, which means their value is going up. Last year I sold a large portion of my collection and was able to make back several times what I originally spent.

But I still have all my favorite patches. And I’m still looking for that great deal on a T-Force patch.

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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