The Mekong Delta stretches into South Vietnam like branches on a sprawling tree. Each major branch leads to dozens of canals and tributaries, which lead to hundreds of smaller canals. The delta region is so penetrated by waterways, that water transportation provides the main source of movement for both goods and people.
During the Vietnam War, thousands of junks and sampans paddled and motored their way up and down these rivers every day to work, shop and socialize. The boats were seen in all shapes and sizes, from small, one-man skiffs to ocean-going transports. In the middle of all this water traffic were the sailors of United States Task Force 116 (TF-116). Caught in the middle, TF-116 served as goodwill ambassador to the Vietnamese civilians and as an unyielding force against the Vietcong.
Saigon and other urban areas developed many local industries to service the French in the 1950s, and the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. One of these industries was the production of shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) for military personnel. A soldier could sketch a design on paper, drop it off at one of these companies, and come back in a few days to pick up the finished patches.
These shops made insignia per order for a single soldier, or in the case of large units (e.g., divisions) they would produce large stocks of insignia to be readily available. In researching a book project on this subject it was discovered that insignia usage by TF-116 units of the “Brown Water Navy” was quite different than those used by the U.S. Army.
TIME OF PRODUCTION
One of the confusing issues for the beginning Vietnam patch collector is that some patches made in Vietnam during the Vietnam War were never worn by the units of the River Patrol Forces. Collectors often refer to Vietnam-made insignia as “Cheap Charlie” patches. Cheap Charlie’s shop was one of the many large shops in Saigon that produced thousands of patches during the 1960s and early 1970s.
For simplicity, a “Cheap Charlie” patch as discussed in this article could have been from any of those larger urban shops. They typically exhibit the same materials and construction as each other.
It seems that many of these shops started to scale up production of patches to be sold as souvenirs around the time the River Patrol Forces were leaving Vietnam in 1970. This is where so much confusion arises. For example, if a patch for River Division 515 was produced in 1973 in Vietnam, it is not a River Division 515 patch because River Division 515 ceased to exist in 1970. Virtually all River Divisions ceased to exist at the end of 1970, with a few exceptions that extended into 1971.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Although prized by collectors, it is a misconception that the sailors of U.S. Navy units stationed in Vietnam liked the hand-made Vietnamese patches. Quite the opposite was true. What most people don’t know is that when the Navy was in Vietnam, most of the units preferred Japanese made patches over the Vietnamese counterparts.
Navy commanders and seaman had been ordering patches from Japan and the Philippines since the 1950s and enjoyed these high quality, machine-woven patches. Vietnamese-made patches were worn when units had nothing else to wear, were in a great hurry to have something produced or were located in an area of Vietnam not conducive to conducting business with the outside world.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. Some TF-116 units did have the “Cheap Charlie” variety of patch and never had the Japanese versions. These exceptions are unusual, however, and much unlike U.S. Army units that saw wide-spread usage of this style of insignia.
WHEN IT COMES TO AUTHENTICITY: SIZE MATTERS
Reproductions and post-war patches made after 1970 tend to share traits that can provide some assistance to the beginner. First, they tend to be smaller than authentic patches. The Japanese patch makers were familiar with making the large Navy squadron and cruise patches, not smaller shoulder insignia. Therefore, Japanese-made TF-116 shoulder patches are big.
Most fakers just copy designs, and the patch they reproduce may only be 60-80% of actual size. Reproduction artists typically scan insignia from photos or illustrations resulting in the shapes and design details that are not quite right when compared to originals. These flaws can be used to weed out reproductions. The late war, “Cheap Charlie” patches are frequently smaller than originals as well, show less detail and are almost identical in construction to each other.
BE A SMART COLLECTOR
With all of this said, the natural response is: “This sounds complicated, how can I tell the difference between authentic patches and fakes?” For starters, learn what the reproductions and post 1970 patches look like. This may seem a little backwards, but it actually makes good sense.
Online auctions will usually have 30-50 fake patches listed per day. That works out to about 1,500 patches per year! A survey over the last 8 years of online auctions for TF-116 shoulder sleeve insignia, revealed that there were—on average—only 6-10 original insignia per year!
The author wishes to invite readers to take a look at a book that he and Steve Kirby have assembled on the patches of the Brown Water Navy. River Patrol Insignia of the U.S. Navy (Vietnam) 1966-1970 is unusual in that 99% of what is illustrated was collected directly from veterans. It is available through Amazon
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