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Vietnam Vet Speaks About Military Symbolism

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Growing up in the Mahoning Valley in the mid-twentieth century, current Newton Falls resident George Buckner wasn’t like other kids. So it’s fitting that his participation in the Sutliff Museum’s Fall Lecture Series isn’t like other presentations.

Housed on the second floor of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library’s main location, the museum’s staff prides themselves on organizing events that help educate attendees on the Victorian Era, and topics such as “Desk Sets and Paperweights,” discussed in September, and the upcoming “Christmas During War Time: the 1914 Christmas Truce” event planned for November reflect that intention. However, sandwiched between these two lectures, Mr. Buckner’s October offering invited audience members to step back into a different time period, yet one in which war still very much raged on.

A 1960 graduate of Austintown Fitch High School, Mr. Buckner joined the U.S. Army soon thereafter and was deployed overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. But uniforms and all their significant bits and baubles were nothing new to Mr. Buckner who had been introduced at an early age to the world of military medals, pins, badges and other important ephemera by his grandfather who had several pieces of his own from WWI, and then his father who showed the young George his own collection including Nazi money from WWII Germany and France. “Most kids collected baseball cards,” he said with a chuckle. “I collected these.”

Displaying his personal patches as well as those he has accumulated over decades from “picking” at yard sales and researching online, Mr. Buckner spoke about the intricate differences that can be found between patches that upon first glance look exactly the same. Though seemingly inconsequential to a layperson, these variations are significant as each piece of insignia tells a story, relaying information such as which branch of the military, which war, which regiment and even possibly in which battle the person served. Infantry versus cavalry versus artillery would have distinguished markings, as would rank, achievements or training. A slight change in background color, size of patch, or number of decorations in a given spot on that patch can mean one year in time versus another and can make all the difference in telling which chapter of our nation’s story that man or woman who wore it helped write.

An especially interesting part of the presentation was the history of how military patches came into use in the first place. Mr. Buckner relayed that upon seeing European troops with such accessories, the commander of the U.S.’s 81st Infantry division known as the “Wildcats” or “Black Cats” decided to adopt the idea which not only helped identify members of each group but also fostered a feeling of camaraderie similar to that of teammates who play under the same jersey. Legend has it, they chose the black cat because it is considered unlucky and they wanted to be “unlucky to their enemies.” Later on, this show of solidarity would be especially popular with airplane pilots whose aircraft would be proudly painted and the crew members would wear patches on their jackets reflecting the nose art. These patches tended to be removable (another clue) as the ground crew might sadly wind up with a different assignment if the plane never returned home.

Another intriguing element is that standards for displaying insignia changed depending on location. In many cases the process for creating the patches was not regulated, needing approval only from the commanding officer of a group to put the proposal into action. Also, it appears you could get away with a lot in the field by way of choosing parts of your uniform, but once you returned to home base you had to make sure everything was back to the way it was supposed to be. (Mr. Buckner had chrome buttons while deployed in Asia, for instance, which had to be changed in anticipation of his arrival back to the States.)

Wrapping up his remarks, Mr. Buckner examined a few pieces brought in by audience members and gave a brief on-the-spot background of where and when he believed the items would have been used. His expertise on the subject was evident, especially as he encountered a contribution that included a handwritten label stating it was from WWI but he immediately corrected that notion, politely stating it was, in fact, a hat adornment from WWII, due to the way it would have been placed on the cap. Mr. Buckner continued on to explain simple but important dressing differences in WWI versus WWII, namely the hat design and that a WWI uniform had a high, stiff wool collar while in WWII the collars were flat, which makes the time periods instantly recognizable.

A member of the VFW Post 3332 in Newton Falls as well the American Society of Insignia Collectors, Mr. Buckner definitely has a bounty of knowledge to share and an exponentially expanding collection that has grown with him over the years. Admitting it’s quite the journey down the rabbit hole, with some items having upwards of thirty different variations, he said at some point “I just had to stop.”

The concluding talk for the Tenth Annual Lecture Series (“Christmas Truce”) will be Saturday, November 14th at 9:30am with coffee and pastries served at 9am. Reservations are strongly requested and can be made by calling (330) 395-6575 or by visiting www.sutliffmuseum.org for more information.