US Uniforms of the Korean War
Given the recent increase in seeing "US Korean War" uniforms and groupings for sale, I wanted to write an article to try and help people with the clarification process. Unlike most militaria in WW2, not everything during the 1950-1954 period is Korean War related.
During that time, heightened tensions in Europe with the possible land war involving Soviet Russia were viewed as much more important. The US also had large amounts of troops stationed at home and other places abroad, many in Japan for example. Because of this, it's not as simple as seeing something and knowing it’s Korean War related simply because it’s from the 1950s.
There are several ways this misidentification happens. In this article I will be referring primarily to dress uniforms with shoulder sleeve insignia on them, as opposed to generic field gear and uniform pieces of the appropriate pattern, although much of this could be applied to field jackets as well.
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia
The most common things I see are "Korean War Grouping" or "Korean War Uniform" for sale. Most of the time, these consist of several uniforms and accompanying items all from the 1950s. However, more often than not, they have nothing to do with Korea.
The US didn’t send all its forces to Korea, therefore only a small amount of the 1950s uniforms have anything to do with the conflict. For example, see the insignia list pictured below. If the unit insignia isn’t on this list, it isn’t Korean War related.
The soldier who wore the uniform could still have served in Korea during the war, the jacket itself may even have the correct medal ribbons for Korea. However, if the left sleeve patch isn't found on the list below, then the uniform is no longer a "Korean War Uniform" in many respects. It's also possible the patches could have been replaced, so it's entirely likely that the jacket did at one time have the appropriate patch, but it has since been changed to fit the soldier's current unit. To help determine this, check the sleeve from the inside to see if original stitching lines remain.
I also see some confusion around the difference in patches from left to right shoulder. It's really quite simple, the left shoulder patch is the soldier's current unit they are serving in, while the right shoulder patch (often referred to as a combat patch) is worn to denote previous service in a combat unit. Often, if the person served previously in Korea but is now serving in a different unit, his right shoulder will have his Korea unit patch. Soldier's who served in several different combat units are allowed to choose which right shoulder patch to wear, so if he also served in WW2, this can be a long list!
Another note in regards to shoulder sleeve insignia is the huge variation of manufacture. With the exception of merrowed edge patterns, which we cover later on in the article, these are all appropriate to the period. The most famous and sought after are the gold bullion and quilted patterns, often made by locals in Japan by hand. The variations are endless and anything outside the standard issue type patch should be looked at on a case by case basis. I have included a variety of them here.
The insignia list below is a great starting point for determining if a uniform is authentically Korean War related. Scroll down to find more information about identifying and authenticating each insignia.
(Note: If you have any uniforms that have mounted insignia for the ones below which are unmounted or missing I would very much love to get photos for this article)
Specialist patches are commonly found on ike jackets and even I have been caught with one before I learned.
These patches came out in 1955-1956. The early ones were blue and the 1956 version were green. Neither are Korean War related.
They often appear below the standard SSI patch on both sleeves. The part that can make it difficult to authenticate is, the jacket may be 100% correct for Korea, left sleeve Korean War unit SSI, correct ribbons and awards, and even perhaps Regimental DUIs. However, as soon as you see those SPC patches, you know that it was worn post 1955, which means it ceases to be a Korean War uniform.
(Note: the patch pictured is a custom buillion example that follows the same pattern as the standard issue ones)
Gold on Green Chevrons
These insignia were developed alongside the SPC chevrons and came out in 1956, designed for the new 1957 Class A green jackets we all recognize from Vietnam. They seem to be much less commonly found on ike jackets, and I would speculate it's because they were more of a cosmetic thing, as opposed to a new rank system like the SPC patches.
Due to supply and manufacturing, there is a crossover period where these can be found on ike jackets used in the Korean War. Unfortunately, as soon as you see this, it puts the jacket in the post 1956 time frame and it ceases to be Korean War related.
Merrowed Edge Patches
One of the more hard to notice things that can appear on ike jackets and especially field uniforms is the merrowed edge patch.
These were introduced in 1968, over 10 years after the adoption of the Class A green uniforms.
The major difference between these and the older patches is the raised border around the edge of the patch, which takes on a thick, almost tubular shape. This is a fairly good indication that the jacket has been put together by someone after the fact. There are some rare German made examples from the end of WW2 that have merrowed edges, but these are few and far between and can often be distinguished by their construction.
Double Collar Discs
A good indicator of Korean War era uniforms is double collar disc insignia, the wearing of double collar discs on ike jackets. The insignia consists of two US and two branch of service discs. The wearing of double collar discs was adopted in 1948, and started fading out towards the end of 1951. This gives you a really narrow window and easily puts them right in the heart of the Korean war.
Collar discs come in a wide variety of shapes, finishes, and sizes. They can be found as the standard WW2 flat disc, more popular domed disc, and even chrome or nickle plated with brass fixtures. They are all essentially appropriate for the period and chosen by the soldier, which adds to the variety found. You will often find uniforms with regimental DUI pins on the lower part of the collar. The only later ones to watch out for are the discs that have a blue colored backing, for infantry units. These were approved in 1953 so they are often very late war or “coming home” uniforms, so they require a closer inspection to verify their time frame.
The presence of the small 2" gold chevrons, also known as the Goldenlite system, are a great indicator that this uniform is most likely from the Korean War. These were introduced alongside the double collar discs in 1948, and fell out of favor around the same time in 1951/52.
These chevrons came in two varieties, dark blue stripes on a gold background for combat units, and bright gold stripes on a dark blue background for support units. They were widely disliked by the troops for two opposite reasons. On one hand, they were difficult to see clearly from a distance, making it hard to identify ranks. On the other hand, they were very bright and shone in the sunlight, which was well seen from a distance. This shiny visibility was something that front line NCOs were not too keen about, and when the US entered Korea many troops removed these as they went to the front lines, as a result.
Soldiers wearing ike jackets of course didn't have this problem, however, as the insignia fell out of favor on the front line, the same followed with the ikes.
Blue on Gold for Combat Units
Gold on Blue for Non Combat Units
US Korean War Ribbons
There are three main awards directly linked to the Korean War, in relation to US uniforms, with several different setups due to service time and other factors. I will only be showing the medals that are linked directly to service in the Korean War and issued by the US Government, as well as one from South Korea.
United Nations Service Medal
The United Nations Service Medal (Korea) was awarded to any military service member, of an Armed Force allied with South Korea, who participated in the defense of South Korea from North Korea between the dates of June 27, 1950 and July 27, 1954.
Any US military member awarded the Korean Service Medal is automatically granted the United Nations Service Medal.
The Korean Service Medal
The Korean Service Medal (KSM) was awarded for service in the United States Armed Forces and was created in November 1950 by executive order of President Harry Truman. The Medal was awarded to any U.S. service member, who performed duty in the Republic of Korea, between June 27, 1950 and July 27, 1954.
This is also the ribbon on which battle stars were placed for any of the 13 campaigns during the war.
Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
The Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation was a South Korean award that was given to all US Military departments in recognition of their outstanding service in defence of the republic of Korea during the war.
The US Army wears the award on the right side of the uniform, whereas the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force wears it with their other service ribbons on the left side. This however isn't a hard a fast rule and the army uniforms seem to have them all over the place.
One final issue I've encountered while collecting these uniforms is that
the Korean War has a somewhat ambiguous ending. It wasn't a clear finish, like in WW2. The 8th Army is actually still there today, so there can be some issues determining time frame with any units who remained after the 1953 ceasefire was signed. This point in time becomes a different conflict, and one that we are still facing today.
If all else fails, your best bet is to research the name or number in the jacket. Aside from that, if it checks all the boxes then it's probably authentic. I'm always happy to help with identification, so if you have further questions please contact me!
Huge thanks to Kevin R. Ingraham, Robert Mackowiak and Dennis Kim for your contributions of photos and information.