Shoulder Patches in World War II
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History Division
Quantico, Virginia

Shoulder Patches In WWII


The Marine Corps, and the military in general, has a long history of using symbols, emblems, medals and other paraphernalia to adorn uniforms. The symbol most commonly associated with the Marine Corps is the eagle, globe and anchor, which evolved over a period of almost 100 years. Some Marine symbols, however, such as the World War II shoulder patches, are not as well known.

During World War II many Marines served in units that played major roles in the Allies’ victory, but received little or no recognition. Marine Detachments Afloat or ship detachments were assigned to aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers. Their missions included providing units for amphibious landings, manning the ship’s guns and ensuring internal security aboard the vessels. These Marines were required to learn the “Blue Jacket’s Manual” (Blue Jacket is a nickname for sailors), identify friendly and enemy aircraft and ships, and navigate using a compass and relative bearings. Their shoulder patches consisted of a scarlet diamond with gold seahorse and a blue Navy anchor.

Another unusual Marine unit and patch was the 1st Marine Brigade Provisional. This unit was activated 16 June 1941 in Charleston, South Carolina, under the command of Brigadier General John Marston. Consisting of the 6th Marine Regiment, 2d Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment and 5th Defense Battalion, the unit’s mission was simple: “In cooperation with the British garrison, defend Iceland against hostile attack.”

The British troops immediately welcomed the Marines by loaning them vehicles, rations and even moving into tents so the Marines could take over some of the camps. This spirit of cooperation probably inspired the British commander, General H.O. Curtis, to award the Polar Bear insignia of the British 49th West Riding Division to the Marines.

On 10 September 1941, BGen Marston received approval from the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, for the Marines to wear the patches on both shoulders of their uniform. However, the order also stated that once the Marines left Iceland, the shoulder patches had to be removed. Although limited, this was the first approved shoulder patch for wear by Marines in World War II.

The general use of shoulder patches by Marine units began 15 March 1943, with Letter of Instruction No. 372, which authorized unit patches for the 1st, 2d, and 3d divisions; aircraft wings; and other specialized units.

On 8 July 1944, the Bureau of Naval Personnel authorized sailors serving with Marine units to wear shoulder patches. Most of the patches were gold and scarlet, the Marine Corps’ official colors since 18 April 1925. The first shoulder patches were used by Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPac), which was activated 17 September 1944, under the command of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith in Oahu, Hawaii. LtGen Smith was primarily responsible for directing the assaults on Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Okinawa. More than 208,000 FMFPac personnel were assigned to Hawaii and 19 other islands throughout the Pacific. FMFPac units included anti-aircraft, amphibian tractor, engineer and artillery battalions, and supply service and bomb disposal units. The shoulder patch worn by FMFPac personnel was a shield with an eagle whose wings formed the top of the shield. The patch’s three stars indicated that the force was commanded by a lieutenant general.

A unique unit was the dog platoons of FMFPac. Dog platoon personnel wore the basic FMFPac patch with a centered dog’s head in the design. This unit was activated 26 November 1942 and trained at Fort Washington, Maryland; Fort Robinson, Nebraska; and the Marine Barracks at New River, North Carolina, which later became Camp Lejeune. (See also War Dogs in WWII)

Because of the remote locations to which Marines were assigned, numerous manufacturers, and miscommunications, some shoulder patches were designed incorrectly or were never officially approved. Others, such as the patch for the 2d Marine Division, had multiple variations.

The official design for the 2d Marine Division patch depicts a white hand holding aloft a lighted torch on a spearhead-shaped red background. A scarlet number “2” is superimposed on the torch, and the torch and hand are encircled by the white stars of the Southern Cross, the most prominent constellation in the Southern Hemisphere. The second variation occurred after the manufacturer received an erroneous description of the patch. The patch was described as “heart-shaped” and since the first patches made came from Australia, no samples were available for comparison at headquarters.

The third version was unofficially worn in September 1943 in San Diego, California. A photo of the patch was sent to the division commander, Major General Julian C. Smith, who said he had never seen the “coral snake patch” and that a design had already been adopted. It is believed that 2d Marine Division veterans returning from Guadalcanal were responsible for having the third variation manufactured.

Dozens of other shoulder patches were worn by Marine units during World War II, but the practice of wearing them ended soon after the war. On 24 September 1947, the Marine Corps abolished the wearing of unit patches on the basis that the Marine Corps is “a unified body organized to fight as a whole, and individual shoulder patches representing one type of service did not reflect the spirit of the Corps.”

Edited from an earlier fact sheet prepared by the Marine Corps' World War II Commemorative Committee

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