Reproductions & Fakes



U.S. Airborne & Elite Unit Insignia

by Les Hughes














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Reproductions & Fakes

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As a class, the patches of airborne and elite units command significant prices and, as a result, they are heavily reproduced.  Illustrated here are a number of reproductions of patches of airborne and elite units that have popped up at shows in the past decade. Note that these fake cloth insignia are all handmade versions of the units' patches. In the case of the 509 and 551, this makes sense, as US-made versions of the patches were not worn by the units. But handmade versions of the insignia of other units are unusual, and in some case ludicrous. I have seen, for example, handmade versions of the patches of the 541st and 542nd PIBs. The 542nd never left the States, and the 541st left the States in July 1945 only to be disbanded almost immediately upon its arrival in the Philippines and its personnel used as replacements for the 11th Airborne Division. 

My advice is to avoid handmade versions of airborne jacket patches unless you possess genuine expertise or have access to someone who does.

One other bit of general advice: know the value of what you are considering buying. I never ceased to be amazed that many collectors do not find it suspicious when they are offered a rare patch for a sum that, although significant, is far below the patch's value. 

The jacket patch of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion illustrated here is an excellent reproduction, especially if one does not have an original with which to compare it. (The green surrounding the patch is a cloth on which they were placed when photographed.  The white rectangles on the back of the patch are stickers that bore the identification of the patch and its price: $400.)  The example of this that I was asked to examine had been aged artificially, both the bullion and the threads on the back having a deceptive appearance of age. When I examined the bullion under a stereo-microscope, I found that the ‘tarnish’ could be chipped away, revealing bright metal beneath. Clearly, the bullion had been coated with a substance to make it appear tarnished to the naked eye. Note the profusion of threads visible on the back (especially behind the shield and the scroll/motto). This is characteristic of many of the reproductions of theater-made patches that have turned up in the past few years (see the section on the AAF squadron patches). While $400 is a significant sum, it is but a fraction of what one would pay for an authentic 551 patch; another indicator that something is amiss here.

This bullion 509 PIB jacket patch will be easily identified as a reproduction by anyone who has seen examples of the originals (see Articles section). Unfortunately, many collectors have not, and these things continue to find buyers. The asking price for this piece was over $700.

The 509 beret patch is better done but no less a reproduction than the jacket patch. The best way to assess  this, or any patch, is to have seen an original. If these photographs fail to provide a means of identifying a copy, they will at least alert you to the fact these copies are out there.

This handmade example of the jacket patch of the 506 PIR was photographed at a militaria show by a collector who carries camera to shows for the purpose of recording the repros du jour. Again, note the characteristic profusion of threads on the back of the patch. The same is true of the patches of the 503rd and 504th. (Genuine 504th jacket patches are extremely rare and will sell for several thousand dollars.)

Insignia of the First Special Service Force (FSSF) are much sought after and command high prices, and as a result they  have attracted the attention of the repro wizards. Ever since an example of a handmade FSSF patch with matching scroll bearing the designation "2 REG – BLACK DEVILS – FSSF" appeared in a publication a number of years ago, copies have popped up with fair regularity. This is an example of one. Documented and clearly authentic, this patch/scroll combination would command an impressive price. Examples offered for a few hundred dollars are jokes – and the joke is on the buyer. (On occasion, the patch/scroll combinations are accompanied by other FSSF items. For example, in one instance (in addition to the one described below), an example of the FSSF jump wing oval accompanied the patch and scroll. It was not, however, the oval known to have been issued to FSSF personnel; rather it was an unusual handmade example. The fact that everything in the grouping was unusual should have given the prospective buyer pause.)

The following story provides an idea of how pervasive these fakes can be. A gentleman contacted me after reading an article I had written in which I expressed skepticism regarding the FSSF patch/scroll combinations similar to the one illustrated here that were surfacing. This gentleman had acquired an example of the patch and scroll at a flea market as part of a group of FSSF items. Given the circumstances, he hoped the patch and scroll might be genuine. He sent me photos of what he had acquired and asked my opinion. According to this gentleman, whom I have no reason to doubt, he had found, in the possession of a flea market vendor whom he knew to occasionally find and sell military items, a black trunk (not a military footlocker) on the top of which was painted the FSSF patch and scroll in question. Below the patch and scroll on the trunk's lid was painted "Sgt. Blow, Joe, 1st Special Service Force, Company B, Fort W. H. Harrison, Montana." (I have used Joe Blow in lieu of the name that was on the trunk's lid.) This gentleman paid $5 for the trunk. Afterwards, he returned to the seller, asked if anything had accompanied the trunk, and was shown a uniform jacket on which was the FSSF patch and scroll, and FSSF lanyard and para wing backing (oval). The collar insignia, the seller said, had already been sold. The seller was asking $75 for uniform jacket and remaining insignia. The gentleman who contacted me negotiated a lower price for just the insignia and lanyard and took them, and the trunk, home. I am not an expert on the FSSF or its insignia, but there were some general things I could check. First was the personnel roster in Robert Burhan's history of the FSSF. No Joe Blow, or anyone with his last name, was listed. Burhan's notation led to an interesting discovery. The FSSF comprised three regiments of six companies each. Thus the designation "Company B" on the trunk was ambiguous: there would have been three companies with that designation. But there was a bigger problem: all of the material I found indicated that the companies of the FSSF bore numerical, not letter, designations. Clearly, the trunk represented the work of someone with only a superficial knowledge of the FSSF. What bearing does this have on the uniform and the items on it? Obviously, it elevates one's skepticism. As does the fact hat the jump wing oval, according to this gentleman, did not possess the embroidered eyelets characteristic of those awarded to Force personnel, and the fact that copies of FSSF lanyards exist, as do bogus FSSF patch/scroll combinations. The moral of all this is that one runs the risk of encountering questionable items in any venue, even off-the-beaten-path flea markets.

Here I depart from presenting a known reproduction to alerting collectors to items that are merely questionable.  Recently there appeared in England, and now making their way here, Gaunt-made U.S. parachute qualification wings and glider pilot's wings, offered on their original issue cards.  J. R. Gaunt & Sons was an insignia  manufacturing firm of long-standing in the UK that was purchased by Firmin & Co. several years ago.  A company registered as J. R. Gaunt London Ltd. was formed to restrike Gaunt's line of British badges, but not those Gaunt made for American forces during WWII and the occupation period.  The badges under discussion here are another example of an unusual item suddenly appearing in surprising quantity.  How to explain this?  Well, in the two cases I have seen these offered, by different sellers, the explanations were essentially the same: the badges had been found in a tailor's or outfitter's shop in England.  The odd thing here is that although each seller offered badges on original issue cards, the conditions of the cards were strikingly different, as you can see in the image here (color differences are probably due to the scanners used).  One card is in quite good condition, but the other appears to have been water-damaged.  (I have seen four badges on 'water-damaged' cards.)  This suggests the badges were discovered in two different tailor's or outfitter's shops, and at about the same time, judging from the appearance of these badges in the market place.  Several years ago, around 1998, unusual Gaunt-made OSS collar insignia appeared in England, offered for sale by a dealer who claimed he had found them in an outfitter's shop that was going out of business (identical OSS collar insignia subsequently appeared bearing the Firmin name).  Tailor's and outfitter's shops in the UK, it would seem, continue to be a source of exotic WWII-era insignia 55+ years after the end of the war. The quality of the para and glider badges appears to be decent when viewed from the front, but the backs exhibit signs of the badges' having been made by centrifugal casting.  A dealer in British badges with whom I spoke was unaware of Gaunt having made cast badges.  I have received reports from a few collectors of para wings who have been able to hold and examine these badges, and they were not tempted to add them to their collections. The fact that these badges have been sold indicates that other collectors disagree.  But that hardly validates their being genuine: people continue to manufacture copies because there is always someone willing to buy.  My advice to to approach these with caution.