Do you ever watch WWII era movies? You know, the ones in which the star, members of the supporting cast or maybe both, wear the uniform of armed services? Do you notice the patches they wear on the shoulder of their uniform? The patches were only incidental to the story line of the movies, but still and all there were technical advisors in the making of a movie to make sure the soldiers weren’t wearing Marine patches and that infantrymen weren’t wearing Air Force patches. The shoulder sleeve insignia is reputed to be the soldier’s patch of pride, and each patch has a story of its own worthy of being told.
One credible account of the origins of the shoulder sleeve insignia is that: “In 1918, when American soldiers were leaving Hoboken in great numbers, as it was noted that all members of the 81st division wore a cloth patch on their left shoulder featuring a silhouette of a wild cat, much comment arose about the right of any unit to so distinguish itself above all others. The 81st left for France and upon arrival, this distinguishing insignia (unauthorized at the time) caused comment and even orders for their removal. The matter came to the attention of GHQ, which upon investigation, decided the morale and temper of this division was worthy of emulation. In a short time, each division and finally each unit in the A.E.F. was ordered to devise its own shoulder sleeve insignia. Thus was born the present system of unit identity.” The 81st Wildcat division (whose slogan states: “Wildcats Never Quit- They Win or Die!”) was initially comprised of men and boys from the states of N.C., S.C., and Tenn., and saw action at Meuse-Agronne in WWI and served with distinction in the many of the island-hopping campaigns in the western Pacific in WWII.
Most of the WWI and II patches are gone now, as are the men, boys and movie stars who wore them. I have a rather complete collection of these patches, which I started as a teen during WWII. It was inauspicious beginning with a meager collection of patches given to me by local boys who were in the service. However, it began in earnest when I discovered that they were available at the Army goods store in the neighboring town. The store was run by two kindly, older gentlemen and it reached the point at which, when they say me coming into the store with my weekly allowance in hand, one or the other of them would go about halfway back in the store and pull down the large cardboard box from the top shelf. The would leave me with the box, and I would sift through the mixed assortment of patches it contained, and agonize over the many available until I found the one or two that I wanted to buy. I would pay for them and the box would be returned to the top shelf until the next time I came. My most prized patch in the collection, however, is and always will be that of the 104th Timberwolf divison, which was given to me by my 5th grade teacher whose husband was serving in the division at the time.
Most of the WWII-era movies were in black and white so the colorful nature of the designs of the patches, though again, usually of little or no significance to the story line, was not seen or appreciated. Their colors make an imposing panorama when seen collectively as they are on the walls in my “bunker.” But now it’s pretty much finished. I have satisfied my collector urge because, for me, my collection is complete, and besides, I have little wall space left for anything other than possibly a couple more individual patches. The pleasure it gives and the purpose it serves for me now is the remembrance of, and appreciation for, what it was that the young men and boys who wore the patches fought, and too often died for.