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The OSS Spearhead Insignia

by Les Hughes

© 1993 by author

 



 

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The Shoulder Sleeve Insigne

Although the gold-on-black spearhead design is widely known among insignia collectors as that of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), few, it seems, judging from what one reads and hears, know its history. 

In 1943, General Donovan requested that the Army approve an insigne in the spearhead design for OSS. Anticipating that approval would be granted, General Donovan proceeded to procure, according to an OSS document dated 9 July 1943, 195 cloth shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) and 200 metal collar devices in the proposed design. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff rejected Donovan’s request, the General was left holding insignia he could not use to represent OSS. Precisely what happened to General Donovan’s insignia is far from clear.

Evidence suggests that the bulk of the spearhead SSI, manufactured by the Middlesex Lace & Embroidery Company, were sent to the Philadelphia QM Depot, where they are reported to have been seen as late as the early ‘50s. Judging from the number of authentic examples in private collections today, few appear to have survived.  A reasonable explanation for the fate of the SSI is that they were destroyed when the Army purged its inventory of obsolete insignia—most of the few that survived having been pilfered by Depot personnel.  

Whatever their fate, there are two important facts regarding the spearhead SSI that collectors should know. First, few were made (195 is the figure cited in OSS documents) and very few appear to have survived. Second, as was the case with so many US-made, standard-issue SSI, they are fully-embroidered. This last fact is confirmed by numerous individuals who saw the example of the spearhead patch that was on display at the Army's Institute of Heraldry (IOH) for a number of years (the IOH's patch has since disappeared), and by a wartime color, close-up (macro) official Army photograph of the SSI that shows clearly that it is fully-embroidered (see image at right).  Although other variants of the spearhead SSI are to be found in collections, there is no compelling evidence that their manufacture was approved by OSS or that they, or any SSI in this design, were worn by OSS personnel, and wise collectors do not waste their money on them. (A second effort, also unsuccessful, was made by OSS to secure approval for a unit insigne - see OSS article titled Second Prototype Insignia.)

There is one version of the spearhead SSI that merits discussion: a version that feature s a gold spearhead and border embroidered on black twill with gauze backing that I will refer to in what follows as the EOT (embroidered-on-twill) variant. The story of the EOT spearhead SSI illustrates how difficult it can be to determine unequivocally the legitimacy of some insignia.   

The Curious Case of the Embroidered-on-Twill Spearhead SSI

In the summer of 1986, an insignia dealer from Florida began selling an embroidered-on-twill (EOT) variant of the OSS spearhead shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) at militaria shows along the East Coast. The dealer identified the source of the patches as an OSS veteran, whom I will call “M”, and to prove this, the dealer offered with the SSI copies of M’s Enlisted Record and Report of Separation, wherein it confirmed his service with the OSS's Hq. & Hq. Detachment, Washington, DC.  

The dealer also included with the SSI, at least in some instances, a notarized affidavit, signed by M, attesting to the provenance of the SSI and, effectively, to their authenticity. A copy of an affidavit dated 12 July 1986 at the Fryeburg, Maine, Gun Show reads (I have replaced M’s first name with asterisks): "I, ***** M, certify that the OSS shoulder patch attached was worn by me on special duty assignments while stationed at OSS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the period 1944-1945." This statement is typed, except for the final 4 of 1944, which is handwritten and superimposed over the original typed digit, apparently as a correction. The affidavit was photocopied with one of the patches superimposed prior to being signed and notarized. Given the fact that M’s surname is misspelled and the correction of the initial year of the period of his OSS service (about which I will have more to say), it is reasonable to conclude that the dealer created the affidavit based on his recollection of M’s statements, and asked M to sign it, which M did. (M, apparently, was present at the Fryeburg Gun Show. Although M resided in Florida, he originally was from Massachusetts and vacationed in that area, so his attending a gun show in Maine is reasonable.)  

These EOT spearhead patches with their supporting documentation created quite a stir, and there was a rush by collectors to acquire one. But it was not long before enthusiasm turned to caution as word spread that copies of M’s patches had appeared (and, indeed, there are two similar yet distinct versions of the EOT spearhead SSI). With the passage of time, and as more collectors learned of the evidence supporting the fully-embroidered version of the spearhead SSI, caution turned to skepticism, to the point where today EOT spearhead SSI elicit little interest from serious collectors. 

While the prevailing skepticism toward the EOT spearhead patches is understandable, indeed prudent, the question lingers, might the first version of the EOT patches be ones that M acquired, as he claimed, while serving with the OSS? An examination of M’s claims reveals a mixed bag: some appear to be false (some, perhaps, being misstatements of M’s claims); some appear to be true; some cannot be verified. But nothing definitively disproves his claim.

I twice spoke with M by telephone: first in the fall of 1986, when collectors were scrambling to acquire one of his patches, and again about five years later. In 1986 M said that he had been given the patches by a fellow member of the OSS, a fellow from M’s hometown with whom he shared an apartment while stationed in Washington, DC. One day, according to M, his friend, who worked in the Supply Section, gave him a quantity of the patches saying “we can’t issue these, so they won’t be missed.”  

Asked during our 1986 telephone conversation how many patches he had received from his friend, M put the number at about a dozen, of which only one, which was sewn to his VFW shirt, remained in his possession. Asked the same question five years later, M put the number received from his friend at about 50, a dozen or so of which were still in his possession. (It was clear to me during our second conversation that M did not recall having spoken with me before.) The dealer’s involvement came about, according to M, because the dealer operated a militaria shop near M’s home. One day when M was in the shop, he mentioned the spearhead patches to the dealer, who offered to use his contacts as a dealer to sell them.  

When NARA released the personnel records of the OSS, I was able to secure M’s file, and what I found was another inconsistency. M had served in the OSS, as he claimed, but only for the last two months of his military service: from 15 April to 19 June 1945. This is in striking contrast to the period of his service with the OSS stated the affidavit that accompanied his patch at the Fryeburg Gun Show, wherein his OSS service began in 1944. (M had a solid service record: 22 months as a platoon sergeant in the South Pacific with the 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division, during which time he contracted malaria, resulting in a medical profile that limited him to stateside duty. At the time of his assignment to the OSS, and at the time of his discharge, he held the rank of staff sergeant. M died in 2007. His obituary states that he had served 10 years in the Massachusetts State Legislature.)

Another of the affidavit’s claims is that M wore the patch “on special duty assignments.” This statement implies (to me, at least) that M’s wearing of the SSI was approved and that its use was associated with “special” assignments. M’s assignment with the OSS was as a chief clerk in the Personnel Procurement Branch, in which capacity he interviewed enlisted personnel returning from overseas for reassignment, within the OSS or the army, and he maintained officers’ 201 Files. What “special” assignments, I wonder, might have derived from this work? We know that the OSS failed to secure approval for use of the spearhead insignia, and that what use of the collar insignia actually occurred did so overseas. One wonders: was M’s assignment, in a headquarters environment, one where he could have worn an unauthorized SSI and not be called on it? Indeed, why would M have been motivated to wear a SSI that he had been told could not be issued? (Not to mention the fact that his OSS service spanned only two months.) A possible answer is that this claim was the creation of the dealer, as the affidavit in which the claim is made appears to have been the dealer’s concoction, and that M saw no harm in signing off on it, especially if he had acquired the patches in the manner that he claimed. 

Weighing further against M’s claims is the absence of evidence supporting the procurement of anything other than the fully-embroidered version. (Indeed, why procure additional examples of an insignia that could not be worn.) Additionally, the proportions of the fully-embroidered and the first version EOT spearhead SSI are different – those of the fully-embroidered version conforming more closely to the design specification. Would not a second procurement of the spearhead SSI (the EOT version) have been to the same design specifications as the first? (The sizes of the fully-embroidered and the first version EOT SSI are similar, the fully-embroidered being 84 x 58 mm and the EOT 83 x 55 mm, but the relative proportions of the length and width of the spearhead shaft and the spearhead itself differ.) It should also be noted that M ran an advertisement in the Newsletter of the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors (ASMIC) circa 1989 (his name appears in the ASMIC membership directory of that year) offering to trade one or more of the EOT patches, so his interest in insignia appears to have been greater than that of the typical veteran. 

What factors weigh in favor of M’s claims? First, M provided me with the name of the friend in OSS who supplied his patches, and I obtained his friend’s OSS personnel record, from which I was able to confirm that his friend was in fact from the same town as M and was indeed assigned to the OSS’s Supply Section in Washington, DC. (Based on information provided by M, I was able to locate his friend’s sister, from whom I learned that her brother had never married, had died in 1974, and that none of his military-related effects survived.) Also weighing in M’s favor is that two collectors whose expertise I respect who examined both examples of the EOT spearhead SSI saw nothing in the construction and quality of the first version that was inconsistent with that of a SSI of the WWII period; that was not the case with the second version. And one must ask why, if M and the dealer were behind the creation of all of EOT spearhead SSI, did they not procure all from the same source? It seems more reasonable that M, as he later claimed, provided the first version to the dealer, who then procured copies, than it does that M and the dealer created the EOT SSI and procured two batches from different sources. (An insignia dealer told me that he had seen the dealer in question with a significant quantity of the EOT patches at a gun show where both he and the dealer had tables.) Unfortunately, the dealer selling M’s patches died within a year of his involvement in selling them, so we will never know his version of events.

Today, EOT spearhead SSI elicit little interest from serious collectors. While the prevailing skepticism toward the EOT spearhead patches is understandable, indeed prudent, the question lingers, even after a careful examination of the evidence, might the first version of the EOT patches be ones that M acquired, as he claimed, while serving with the OSS? The case for M’s EOT spearhead SSI is a curious one, and probably destined to remain so.

The Collar Insigne

As for the metal collar insignia—intended as a branch-of-service insigne and not as a distinctive insigne (DI)—OSS documents provide slightly more insight into their fate, slightly being the operative word. Two types of collar insignia were proposed: a version (illustrated above) for officers featuring a gold spearhead on a black enameled oval, and a version for enlisted personnel featuring a spearhead on a brass disk.  There is no evidence that the EM version was produced.  (Recently, what was purported to be an example of the EM version turned up in the UK and was offered at auction - see image.  Given the energy devoted these days to faking all sorts of insignia - no small portion of it being expended in Europe - and knowing the history of the OSS insignia, I chose not to avail myself of the opportunity to acquire this piece.)  

An OSS memorandum dated 12 April 1944 states:

“The insignia in question were received by General Donovan. In all 442 were received in a single package weighing 12 pounds. The die and forcer was not received. In a telephone call with Mr. Long of the Heraldrie Section of the OQMG... Mr. Long said the die and forcer were undoubtedly held at the Philadelphia depot or at the factory. He said we might add a footnote indicating we have not in fact received them into our possession. Recently General Donovan had the insignia forwarded to London for use by PWB there.”

What was PWB? While there existed a Psychological Warfare Branch, which was referred to as PWB, it conducted psychological warfare in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations for AFHQ and was not an OSS organization. The reference to ‘PWB’ in London probably referred to OSS's psychological warfare personnel based in England who were attached to SHAEF.  Support of this view is lent by The War Diary of OSS’s London Office of the Research & Analysis Branch, which refers to "PWB/SHAEF" and "PWD/FUSAG". 

The question of who would have the overall responsibility for conducting psychological warfare had led to in-fighting among the various organizations vying for the honor. In the ETO the record is clear: responsibility for the conduct of psychological warfare in northern Europe was given to SHAEF’s Psychological Warfare Division (PWD/SHAEF). As a result, it appears that PWD/SHAEF inherited both OSS’s psychological warfare personnel—who were attached to its various organizations—and the spearhead collar insignia. Indeed, there is clear evidence that the spearhead insigne enjoyed some degree of formal recognition by PWD/SHAEF: the design appears on the cover of PWD/SHAEF’s own history [2]. 

In spite of the appearance of the spearhead insigne on the cover of PWD/SHAEF’s own history, the status of the insigne within that organization is ill-defined. Not only is there no mention of the insigne in the text of the history, the majority of PWD veterans queried by the author report never having seen the spearhead insigne, and several offered assurances that no such insigne existed within PWD [1]. This leads one to conclude that the distribution of these insignia was restricted within PWD. The PWD/SHAEF veterans to whom the insignia were issued recall being told to be circumspect in wearing them—that they should be worn only in the course of discharging their PWD duties and not in casual situations. It is worth noting that all of the documented instances of the insignia being worn involve civilian members of OSS serving in uniform, with officer rank, with Twelfth Army Group’s Publicity and Psychological Warfare Detachment, which was part of PWD/SHAEF (this includes the three men whose photographs are included here). 

Examples of the spearhead insigne, with screw and post fastener, bearing the name of the Robbins Company of Attleboro, MA, have been circulating among collectors for decades, and there is evidence this version of the insigne was worn: the collector who acquired the collar insigne of Saul Padover  reports that it was Robbins-made. Indeed, for decades the widespread, but erroneous, belief among collectors seems to have been that the spearhead collar insignia were made for OSS only by the Robbins Company.  The author was able to unambiguously document three sets of the spearhead collar insignia to veterans of PWD/SHAEF/OSS other than Padover. These spearhead collar insignia are constructed identically, and they are characterized by clutch fasteners and an absence of manufacturer’s marks [1]. Neither of two veterans interviewed could recall exactly where or when he had acquired the insignia, but each stated that the insignia had been issued, i.e., neither had procured the insignia privately.

Some readers will have noted that the original number of collar insignia was placed at 200, while the number shipped to London was 442. Thus one may reasonably wonder whether there were two procurements; one from the Robbins Company and one from a different manufacturer. A side-by-side comparison of the version with clutch fasteners and the Robbins version reveals that, with the exception of the different fasteners and the Robbins name, they appear essentially identical: size; thickness; quality of enamel work; finish of the metal backs. That is, from the front they are nearly indistinguishable, even on close examination. While the statement of the OSS document quoted earlier: “…the die and forcer were undoubtedly held at the Philadelphia depot or at the factory,” would seem to imply that all 442 came from the same manufacturer, is it possible that they simply struck from the same die?  That is, did OSS pass the die along to another manufacturer and request a second batch after receipt of those of Robbins? Or perhaps vice versa: the Robbins version was the second? One can only speculate. (Circa 2010, the author visited the archives of the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot but was unable to find anything in its files pertinent to OSS insignia.)

Of the 30 to 40 veterans of PWD/SHAEF interviewed in one study, only about one in ten was familiar with the spearhead collar insigne, which leads one to conclude that the insignia were not widely distributed. That being the case, it seems reasonable that the 442 insignia that General Donovan ordered sent to London would have been a supply sufficient to preclude subsequent procurements. But the fact is that there are more than two variants of this insignia in circulation.  (This does not take into consideration examples of the collar insignia that were woven.  Close examination of the photograph of Brewster Morgan leads one to conclude that he is wearing woven versions of the collar insignia.  Also illustrated here is a version in bullion that was among the military artifacts in the estate of a veteran of OSS/PWD.)

A number of these insignia can be found in collections attributed neither to OSS/PWD nor to just OSS, but rather to  the Information Control Division. What is this all about? There was an Information Control Division, but it was not part of OSS or of PWD/SHAEF. Quoting from the history of PWD/SHAEF [2]: “SHAEF was dissolved officially as of 2400 hours 13 July 1945. With the dissolution of SHAEF, the Anglo-American aspect of PWD’s operation disappeared On the British side an organization known as the Information Services Control Branch, Control Commission for Germany, came into being. On the American side, the successor to PWD was designated the Information Control Division, Hqs. U.S. Forces European Theater, and the Information Control Service, U.S. Group Control Council. ...The reader should recognize that despite these changes in designation, and despite the separation as between Britain and America, the activities of the successors to PWD continued separately in much the same paths on July 14 as they had been traversing before midnight on July 13.”

In the introduction to his history of psychological warfare operations against Germany, published in 1949, Daniel Lerner speaks of the Information Control Division in the present tense, implying that the organization was still in existence, in some form, at the time he wrote his book (after the OSS was disbanded in September 1945) [3]. If that inference is correct, it is not unreasonable to imagine the use of the spearhead collar insigne extending well into the occupation period, a situation that would explain the existence of some of the unusual versions of the collar insigne that reside in some collections. 

Unusual versions of the spearhead insigne continue to surface. In the 1990s the author encountered versions that in one instance bore the name plaque of Gaunt and in another that of Firmin. The Firmin-made insigne in question was offered for sale on eBay, where it was advertised as having been worn by “OSS’s paratroopers.” Upon being told that the insigne was not worn by “OSS’s paratroopers,” the seller responded that he was simply citing what he had been told by two “experienced” dealers of militaria.  Such is the level of ignorance regarding this insigne, even among those regarded as experienced. 

One version of the Gaunt-made collar insignia, which is of jeweler quality and on the rear is stamped “sterling silver 77”, a star following the “77”, certainly looked nice, but in reality it was virtually impossible to ascertain the circumstances or the period of its manufacture, and many suspected it had been re-struck from original dies. In November 1998, in an effort to secure information regarding Gaunt-made badges in general and OSS collar insignia in particular being restruck, I wrote to John Gaylor, the author of Military Badge Collecting, and I included an image of the Gaunt-made spearhead collar insignia illustrated here stamped 77 on the back. Mr. Gaylor, as it turned out, numbered among his friends a former director of J. R. Gaunt, whom he contacted. Mr. Gaylor wrote: “A company registered as ‘JR Gaunt London Ltd’ was formed to restrike older material but no US insignia was restruck. A good deal of US material was, of course, made by Gaunt during WWII and immediately afterwards, especially for units in Germany.” Mr. Gaylor went on to state, “during the wars and until about 1950, few British badges bore the names of the maker…” That statement raises the question, which I failed to follow up on, was that also true of US badges made by British firms? Mr. Gaylor closed his letter by saying that his friend felt certain that the Gaunt-made spearhead collar insignia in the image I’d sent was genuine. That should have been reassuring, but I wonder how familiar a director would have been with the details of the badges his firm produced, and how clearly he could recall them 50+ years later. Still, there are Gaunt-made and Firmin-made spearhead collar insignia that have the look of vintage pieces, as I believe the images here demonstrate.

Indeed, sixty years after their procurement by OSS, the history of the spearhead collar and sleeve insignia—their manufacture, use, and fate—is a puzzle from which many pieces are missing. And with each passing year, as time thins the ranks of those who wore these insignia and who have first-hand knowledge of them, the probability diminishes that we will find the missing pieces of the puzzle. In the absence of first-hand information, stories and speculation have arisen that, with time, have been embraced by many as the truth. The author hopes that the information presented here will provide collectors with the ability to discern fact from myth where these insignia are concerned. 

References

1. Hughes, Les, "Insignia of the OSS," The Trading Post, Spring 1993.
2. The Psychological Warfare Division Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force: An Account Of Its Operations in the Western European Campaign, 1944-1945, published in Bad Homberg, Germany, October 1945. (Although the spearhead insigne appears on the cover, I found no reference to it in the text.)
3. Lerner, Daniel, Sykewar, New York: George W. Stewart, Inc., 1949.

4.  Brunner, John W., OSS Weapons, Phillips Publications, 1994.