The 1st Special Service Force Parachute Badge Oval (Background Trimming) 1942-43

by Ken Joyce

© 2005 by author



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It was the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia, that first utilized a background trimming for the US Amy Parachute Badge. During the consultation process involved in securing approval of the design of the US Army Parachute Badge at the War Department, the US Army Air Corps requested that the Office of the Quartermaster General make the badge distinctly smaller in size than their pilot and aircrew badges. While the Air Corps realized that training as a paratrooper was hazardous work, it nevertheless desired that there be a distinct difference between its qualification badges and that of a parachutist. The OQMG agreed, and the first badges, manufactured in March 1941 by Bailey Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, measured 13/16 x 1.5 inches (height x width). 

Upon receiving the badge, the officers of the 501st immediately commented on its small size. And its oxidized colour together with its small size made the badge almost invisible on the dark brown colour of the uniforms of both officers and EM. Though there was little possibility of anything being done about the size of the badge, the officers of the 501st could, and did, solve the problem of its visibility by placing a coloured cloth background trimming behind the badge to enhance its size and its presence on their uniforms. The colourations would also be utilized to denote a specific airborne unit or branch of service.

These early background trimmings were made of oval-shaped pieces of wool or twill bordered by a machine-sewn edge or border. This framed the parachute badge when pinned through the background trimming. But despite the extensive use of these background trimmings during 1941 and 1942, they were not officially sanctioned items of insignia. All background trimmings (ovals) were purchased at the unit’s or individual’s expense and worn under the authority of the individual unit’s Commanding Officer.

 It was the US Airborne Command personnel who had been requisitioned to parachute train the personnel of the 1stSSF at Helena, Montana, who introduced Lt. Col. Frederick to the parachute badge background trimming. After the initial Force S-3 (Operations and Training Officer) was deemed unsuitable, Lt. Col. John Baird Shinberger was assigned to the Force from Airborne Command, where he had been tasked with developing the first US Parachute Artillery unit. Lt. Col. Shinberger reported to  Lt. Col. Frederick at his HQ in Washington wearing a background trimming behind his US Army Parachute Badge in the traditional red colour of the US Artillery. It was Shinberger and others sent to the Force from Airborne Command who would initiate the idea of adopting a special 1stSSF US Army Parachute Badge background trimming.

Col. Frederick began devising the insignia to be worn by the 1stSSF in July and August of 1942. As was often the case in forming subversive organizations in both the US and Britain during WW2, the highly dangerous nature of their missions and the limited time available for training required that concessions be made. One such concession was that the men of the Force would make only two parachute jumps to familiarize themselves with parachuting. This meant that they would not be considered parachute qualified by Airborne Command standards, and no member of the Force would receive a jump certificate from Airborne Command. Despite this, Col. Frederick secured permission to present the men of his unit with the US Army Parachute Badge. In addition to the parachute badge, Col. Frederick requested that a background trimming be manufactured.

The chance discovery of a large supply of the red, white, and blue Civilian Military Training Corps cap cord in QMC stores would serve to choose the unit colours of the 1stSSF. Thus it was these colours that were specified in devising and procuring, at the unit’s expense, the 1stSSF background trimmings. Col. Frederick ordered the red, white, and blue background trimmings from A .H . Dondero Inc., of Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC.

As was the case of the ovals adopted by the parachute units of Airborne Command, the 1stSSF oval would not be an officially sanctioned item of insignia. US Army Regulations stated that in order for a unit to wear this insignia, regulations must authorize its wear and examples had to be provided to all in the unit. During occasions where these insignia were to be worn, all must wear them. The Force background trimmings were manufactured in September and “issued” in mid-October to all members who undertook parachute training. Wearing of the oval was permitted during the period between October and December of 1942. There was very little regarding dress regulations posted in 1942. Dress regulations were to be drafted and published in January 1943, but no example has ever been located. 

By the beginning of 1943, the oval had disappeared from the uniform of the 1stSSF. In January of 1943, US Army Regulations regarding the manufacture and wearing of unit trimmings, such as the unit Distinctive Insignia and parachute badge backing, stated that such items of dress no longer would be approved or manufactured. Now that Col. Frederick could no longer supply new members of the Force with the oval, it had been decided, per regulations, to remove it from all uniforms.  Hundreds of photographs of both US and Canadian Force officers and EM on duty or on leave at the beginning of 1943 confirm this: None is wearing the oval. Neither is any member of the Force wearing the oval in the widely publicised and  highly photographed Force parade of April 1943 in Helena, Montana. The author has a collection of memorabilia from a Canadian veteran of the Force, Sgt. C. Vietenhiemer, who sent home his oval and other items of clothing and insignia that no longer were permitted to be worn. He did this before shipping out to Virginia for amphibious training.

The short period of time the ovals were issued and worn is reflected in their scarcity today. While this does not mean that the odd man in the Force did not wear an oval unofficially while on leave, the evidence is clear that the oval was no longer a part of the official dress of the 1stSSF. Therefore it is likely that only a single order for the ovals was ever tendered by Col. Frederick to A .H . Dondero. However, in examining examples of ovals acquired directly from vets, a minor difference in stitching was noted on the reverse of some ovals. This is found where the white wool centre, which is covered by a white cotton, gauze-like backing material, joins the red and blue embroidered sections. On most ovals, there is distinct cross-stitching running the length of the centre-most edge of the blue and red embroidered sections. On others, these stitches are parallel (see image). There also appears to be a difference at the border of these ovals. 

Since there is no record of more than one procurement of the ovals, and since these two 'types' are identical in all other respects, one explanation for the two variations is that both ovals were made by the same manufacturer but on different machines or at different times. The other possibility is that Dondero, which subcontracted its embroidery work, split the order between two manufacturers.  Col. Frederick  himself states that they ordered just enough to outfit one oval per man for a combat echelon of roughly 1300 men.  Although this seems like a small number, the fast pace of training and their impending operation meant there was little time to wait for the contract to be filled. Therefore it is possible two companies were subcontracted by Dondero so that supply could be delivered in the shortest possible time frame.*  

The 1stSSF oval features, from top to bottom, an embroidered horizontal blue stripe, a woolen  horizontal white stripe, and a horizontal embroidered red stripe. The edge of the oval is stitched with a gold/yellow thread that forms a thin outer border. There are two eyelets in the central white stripe that are edged with the same gold/yellow thread of the oval’s border. The eyelets provided holes for pinning the US Army Parachute Badge through the oval and into the uniform. While some simply pinned the oval to their uniforms using their parachute badges, others machine sewed the oval to their uniforms. Although the holes were provided for the pinning of the parachute badge to the uniform, it is interesting to note that the clasp mechanisms of many of the privately purchase US Parachute Badges did not fit these holes. As a result, many personnel simply poked the pin of the badge through the white wool material. The oval was intended to be worn with the blue stripe at the top and red at the bottom, but some period photographs show it worn inverted.

During the short time the backing oval was worn by the Force, from 1942 to January 1943, it was not worn only over the left breast pocket of the US uniform. Canadian officers wore them on their Service Dress Uniforms, and both officers and OR’s (and a couple of Americans who bartered for the blouse in the cold climate) are known to have worn the Canadian battledress blouse with the oval and US parachute badge attached. This was done early in the Force's history when the odd Canadian battledress was worn at Fort William Henry Harrison.

Today there are a number of reproductions of the Force oval. The majority of these ovals should be of little concern to collectors if they have access to a genuine example for comparison. Other reproductions, made specifically to deceive, pose more of a problem.

As for so-called theatre-made 1stSSF ovals, the author cannot see any reason for their having been made, except for the collecting market. If the oval was no longer a part of the 1stSSF uniform, why would examples have been procured privately overseas? And had they been procured overseas, why are there no photographs of officers or EM (Other Ranks) wearing such a thing either on duty or on leave in the US, Italy, or Southern France. The Force, with the exception of a few high rankers and men of the Base Echelon (who did not take part in parachute training) situated in Naples or Nice, did not wear Class “A” uniforms in Italy or in Southern France. All photographs show men wearing shirts, combat jackets, or parkas. On the shirts are pinned their US Army Parachute Badge without ovals - US or locally made. While anything is possible, it is highly unlikely that any oval was made for a member of the Force in-theatre. When confronted with such an article of regalia, check the provenance – most likely there will be none. It is the author’s opinion that the only solid provenance in this case would be a photograph of a man wearing it. The rarity of the US-manufactured ovals and the market for them have sparked the interest of a few unscrupulous people wishing to cash in, and some of them have opted to take the easier route of creating “theatre-made” varieties.  

*Editors note. Two possible candidates for the manufacture of the Force oval may be found in the following evidence: A collector found several sample books while visiting the Joel & Aronoff Embroidery company in 1990. (Joel & Aronoff closed about seven years later.) It was the opinion of the company that these contained examples of patches that they had manufactured during  WW2.  Included in the sample books were examples of two Force ovals of different size: one the size of the standard Force oval and one that is smaller - closer in size to the typical oval backing of US airborne forces of WWII. This collector had since parted with the ovals, but he put the Editor in touch with the ovals' current owner, who provided the images at the left. At about the same time (in 2005), an email inquiry to Dondero asking whether it had subcontracted its orders for cloth insignia during WWII and, if it had, whether the services of Joel & Aronoff might have been used, elicited a response from a representative of Dondero confirming that the company did not do its own embroidery work, and he offered the opinion that the company Dondero "probably" would have used was Moritz Embroidery. Unfortunately, Moritz, like Dondero, maintains no records from WWII.

  Ken Joyce is the author of Snow Plough and the Jupiter Deception (Vanwell Publishing, 2006), the true story of the 1st Special service Force and the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion.