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Some Uniform Guidelines to Starting a U.S. Military Uniform Collection

by Ken Hatfield (09/24/12).

On the surface, this Korean War era nurse’s uniform looks OK. But a closer look reveals that the uniform has been “enhanced” by the owner.

We recently received a large shipment of consignment items from one of our German customers. Among the items of note in the batch were several Second World War U.S. nurse’s uniforms and Women’s Army Corps (WAC) uniforms from the Korean War.

However, on closer examination, we noticed that many of the uniforms had been “enhanced” by the owner, meaning that all of the patches and medals accompanying the uniforms were not of the right era or simply could not belong where they were displayed. Some of the dress and service coats had 8th Army patches sewn to the sleeves. But instead of the “cut edge” patches made during World War II, they instead had the “merrow edge” patches that weren’t developed until the 1960s.

The uniforms had been enhanced in other ways. A suspiciously large number had similar 6- and 8-place ribbon groups that included high-prominence medals, such as the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart.

A quick check of the history books found that four nurses serving at a field hospital at the Anzio beachhead in February of 1944 were the first female recipients of the Silver Star—this country’s third-highest military decoration. Those women remained the sole recipients of the medal until Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry during an ambush of a convoy in Iraq in 2005. Obviously, the ribbon bars weren’t original to the uniforms.

The fact that many of the uniforms also had Combat Medical Badges was a give-away as well. CMBs are given only to medical personnel who accompany soldiers into combat, almost always combat medics. Since the U.S. had no female combat medics until the modern wars in the Middle East, the badges were another obvious enhancement.

Those enhanced uniforms are one of the pitfalls in what can otherwise be a highly rewarding, fun, informative and even profitable collecting niche: U.S. military uniforms. This story will attempt to give an overview of the hobby and discuss some of the ways to ensure you get what you pay for.

As we all know, collectors specialize. Since they can’t collect everything, they focus on certain areas of special interest. When it comes to U.S. military uniforms, that often means focusing on a particular war or era.

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.

This World War II-era HBT jacket has a 1960s-era merrow-edge patch sewn to the left sleeve. The correct patch for this era uniform is a “cut edge” patch with “snowing” on the back. The “merrow edge” patches that weren’t developed until the 1960s.

World War II remains the most popular—and lucrative—military collecting niche and that includes U.S. uniforms. That’s partly due to the fact that more men and women served in World War II than any other war in U.S. history; roughly 16 million, all told, in all the armed and support services. That translates to a lot of uniforms, a surprising number of which have survived, in varying condition, the intervening 70-plus years.

By comparison, only about 720,000 American men served in World War I, and since we’re nearing the centennial of that war, it’s not surprising that far fewer World War I uniforms still exist in any condition. But since I brought up the subject, what sort of World War I uniforms are available on the collector market?

First World War U.S. Uniforms

This WWI Model 1912 wool tunic comes with all period insignia including branch collar devices, overseas stripes, unit patch, honorable discharge stripe and WWI Victory medal.

Insignia on this WWI tunic includes an Air Service patch worn by Army Air Corps personnel. Below it is the WWI honorable discharge stripe.

Typically, medal ribbons, rather than the full-sized medals, are worn on military uniforms. However, this WWI Victory medal may have been worn for a parade or some other military activity.”

Probably the signature uniform item of the U.S. doughboy is the Model 1917 helmet. Based on the British Mark I design, the shallow-domed, brimmed helmet has a distinctive liner system of oilcloth and netting and features a leather chinstrap. Many of the helmets survived the war and in fact remained in usage through much of the interwar period, keeping the collector cost reasonably low. Typically, the most valuable M17 helmets have unit insignia painted to the sides, which, depending on the condition, can double or triple its value.

Other World War I headgear of note includes the wool garrison cap, slightly different than the World War II style, and always more valuable if it comes with unit or rank insignia attached; additionally, you may find a wool visor cap, which can be pricey if in good condition and a larger size.

When it comes to U.S. uniforms, two things are of utmost importance: condition and insignia. In most cases, the two must exist together to warrant high prices. So, a World War I pattern wool field shirt in good condition and even a large size, usually won’t be prohibitively expensive. But put a divisional patch on the sleeve and you’ve got a valuable collectible. Just be sure it’s an authentic World War I patch that shows the same age as the shirt. Be suspicious of patches that where sewn on by hand, as they may have been added later.

Another fairly common World War I uniform item is the M1912 wool or cotton tunic. Both have the distinctive standing collar and come with matching breeches-style trousers, lace-up for enlisted men and button-up for officers. Again, the most sought-after coats have original period insignia, including unit patches, chevrons, overseas stripes and service ribbons.

Second World War U.S. Uniforms

An example of a WWII-vintage U.S. M1917A1 helmet. It sold for $105.95 on eBay in 2011.

The lining and webbing of the WWII Vintage U.S. M1917A1 helmet.

In 1936, the M17 helmet began to be refitted. The rechristened M1917A1 helmet had a new simplified padded leather liner and web chinstrap. However, it was only used for about five years, when it was replaced by the new M1 helmet. Hence, fewer were made, making it more valuable than even some World War I examples.

Its replacement, the famous M1, comes in three basic series: Series 1—Identified by the distinctive fixed chinstrap bales and front welding seam on the helmet’s lip; Series 2—Retains the front seam, but the chinstrap bales now swivel; and Series 3—Swivel bales and rear seam. All M1s used in World War II and Korea also had web chinstraps that were sewn onto the bales.

The M1s came with their own removable liner, which had a built in web suspension. The first pattern liner was made of a composite fiber material and was produced by Hawley Products Co. A first series M1 with a Hawley liner is one of the most sought-after helmets on the collector market. Expect to spend your children’s inheritance for a nice one.

A M1943 cotton sateen field jacket, in size 36R. Marred by just a couple field repairs, two broken buttons and partially detached label, it sold for $36 at Manion’s International Auction House in 2011.

The label inside the M1943 field jacket explaining about how it is windproof and how it is made to fit over the regular uniform jacket.

World War II garrison caps, also called overseas caps, are often very affordable. The most sought-after are large sizes—7¼ and bigger—with either officer or unit piping, which is a type of braid, sewn on the edges. The color determines what branch the soldier belonged to—blue and orange for the Army Air Force, yellow for Cavalry, orange and white for the Signal Corps, orange and black for the Tank Destroyers. Black and gold piping signified an officer.

It was during World War II that the government began using quartermaster labels on a regular basis in U.S. uniforms. Not only did the labels identify the uniform item, it also usually noted when it was made. Hence, a legible and dated QM label in a uniform will often increase its value.

The Ike-style field jackets—the waist-length wool jacket made famous by Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower—were popular all through World War II and remain fairly common and affordable today. The QM labels are almost always in the inside pocket.

An Ike-style field jacket, dated April 1945 with Army Ground Forces patch and T-4 chevrons.

This jacket sold for $36 at Manion’s International Auction House in 2011

Less common (hence more valuable) are the M1941 and M1943 field jackets. The earlier M41 came in two patterns, the first with a button front with two flapped and button pockets, and the second with open “slash” pockets and a button front flap that concealed a full-length zipper. The M43 was considered the finest combat coat of any country in World War II and featured wind-proof cotton sateen material, four large pockets, hidden buttons and a removable button-on hood. Both are extremely rare to find in large sizes with legible QM labels.

The Korean Conflict
Wars always trigger uniform improvements and the Korean War was no different. U.S. troops arriving in Korea in the summer and fall of 1950 wore the same World War II surplus uniforms as their older brothers did in Europe and the Pacific only five years before. That was fine until the onset of the Korean winter, when they quickly found out the World War II-era uniforms were inadequate to protect them from the harsh arctic-like winds and elements roaring out of Siberia to the north. That first winter, 1950-51, was particularly bad, with frostbite causing almost as many casualties as actual combat.

An M1951 field jacket.

An M1951 field trousers.

One of the new innovations was the M1951 field uniform, which included an improved field jacket and trouser shell. Like the M43 field jacket, the M51 was made of water-repellent and wind-resistant cotton sateen and had a removable button-on hood. However, it was made to fit looser, so that clothing could more easily be layered underneath. Also, unlike the M43, it had a removable button-in liner, one side of which was rough mohair wool that provided much needed warmth and protection. Unfortunately, the new liners did not become widely available until the spring of 1953, only a few months before the end of the war.

The M1951 field trouser shells were another welcome improvement of the war. Made of the same wind- and water-resistant cotton as the field jacket, they included extra-large cargo pockets and were made large to layer over the olive drab wool field trousers. The M51 trouser shells also came with a button-in liner, but they too were in short supply throughout the conflict.

Korean War military collectors make up a comparatively small group compared to other U.S. wars. The war was never popular—to some extent even less so than Vietnam—so uniforms from the era tend to be very reasonably priced, including large sizes in pristine condition. For those interested in starting a uniform collection, the Korean War might be a good place to start.

Vietnam War
Vietnam was basically a jungle war, so most of the uniform innovations involved hot weather clothing. The tropical combat uniform, or jungle fatigues, was the primary field uniform worn after 1963.

The loose-fitting, bush-style cotton combat coat had two slanted chest pockets and two lower cargo pockets for carrying extra ammo and gear. It came in three patterns: 1) Wind-resistant olive green poplin with exposed buttons and shoulder straps; 2) Identical to first pattern but with buttons concealed beneath flaps to prevent snagging; and 3) Identical to second pattern but in a “rip-stop” cotton fabric with no shoulder straps.

A U.S. ERDL pattern camouflage jacket, circa 1969, which sold for $31.

A “tiger stripe” camouflage flight suit from the Vietnam War ear, sold for $676.

For collectors, the earlier patterns are more sought after, especially if they include theater-made insignia. Combat coats are often well-marked with size and date QM labels, which improves their value. Repeated washings can leave the labels faded and illegible, but I’m always suspicious if the label has been removed. Although we still had troops in Vietnam until 1975, our combat presence was basically over by 1972, so the value of uniforms dated after that drops sharply.

Combat coats also came in a camouflage pattern called ERDL for Experimental Research Development Laboratories. While there were other camouflage patterns worn in Vietnam, it’s an area new collectors need to approach with caution. The most highly prized uniforms are the early “duck hunter” and “tiger stripe” camo uniforms worn by U.S. military advisors, Special Forces troops and South Vietnamese rangers. Most of the real ones were made in Vietnam by the Vietnamese, but due to their desirability, have been reproduced for many years. Collectors should look for iron-clad provenance before shelling out big money for camo uniforms.

The good thing about starting a U.S. military uniform collection in this down economy is that there are still reasonably priced items in nearly every era. For all but the high-end items, it remains a buyer’s market. Most of the time, supply outstrips demand, keeping prices for low and mid-range items at near rock bottom.

And as for the high-end items that never seem to lose their value or go down in price? Well, there’s always your children’s inheritance.

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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