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‘Spot’ a 20? Researching a Wartime Flannel

The 20th Regiment jersey as it was found in an antiques store (photo courtesy of Terry Aiken).

The navy blue athletic flannel lettering spelled out “20th REGT” on the chest of the gray flannel jersey, was intriguing and piqued our interest. The flannel had been shared in a social media post in a baseball memorabilia collectors’ group that was brought to our attention by a colleague prompting us to research what could be discerned from the accompanying photos. The item was quite obviously a wartime baseball flannel jersey and the person who shared photos of his find discovered the artifact in an antiques store. “I found this today in Missouri. It is an old military baseball jersey,” the accompanying text stated. “Is it worth $45?” he asked.

The lettering on the front of the jersey indicated that the player that wore it was an Army veteran and was potentially assigned to the 20th Regiment. Initial inclinations would lead nearly anyone armed with a basic understanding of Army structure to assume that this was an infantry regiment. Prudence dictates that one must not make assumptions or forgo proper due diligence in determining the identity of the unit and age of the artifact.

Men of the 20th Infantry Regiment shown at their Field Day was held on Friday, March 23, 1945 on Luzon (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

We were already familiar with the 20th Infantry Regiment due to a 2018 acquisition of a veteran’s collection of baseball photos that captured his unit playing baseball on New Guinea and Luzon during the war (see Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). Known as “Sykes Regulars,” the 20th Infantry Regiment, attached to the Sixth Infantry Division, saw some of the most intense fighting of World War II. With 219 consecutive days of combat leading up to April 15, 1945, on the Philippine Island of Luzon, the Sykes Regulars played baseball after the end of the fighting. Some members of the 20th played baseball on New Guinea as well.

Despite the obvious identity, questions remained. The jersey could have been from another branch such an artillery, armored or engineer regiment but it could also have been from a state National Guard unit.  Determining the age of the jersey would be a bit less of a challenge regardless of the absence of a useful manufacturer’s label.

Several baseball collectors responded to the question as to its value and the feedback unanimously confirmed the potential buyer’s questions. A few of the respondents added that the asking price was reasonable enough that they would buy the jersey. After commenting on the post and providing some information regarding the 20th Infantry Regiment, we reached out directly (offline) to Mr. Terry Akin, the person who made the social media post, and began corresponding to determine if there was any additional information that accompanied the jersey.

At that time, the 20th Regiment jersey, which was originally accompanied with matching trousers, was still for sale at the antiques shop as a single item. Unfortunately, another customer purchased the trousers. Our colleague was planning to return to purchase the jersey and to resell the piece. After we introduced him to Chevrons and Diamonds and our mission, research and education efforts, he wanted to acquire the jersey and, much to our surprise and gratitude, donate it to our collection, citing his own passion for the game and career in the Army as reasons to assist us.

Despite signs of heavy use, the 20th Regiment jersey is in good condition (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With the jersey in hand, we assessed its condition to determine the best route for care before adding the piece to the collection. Inspecting it for evidence of pests along with any soiling or troubled areas that would need attention was a priority. Perhaps one of the most disastrous actions would have been to introduce an infestation of pest eggs such as from silverfish, carpet beetles and moths. Their appetite for natural wool fibers can exact irreparable damage upon a historic vintage jersey in just a few days. With the inspection for pests completed, a check was performed on all the stitching in the seams, the soutache and the lettering and numbers to determine the condition of the threads. It would have been unfortunate to damage the jersey by displaying it on a mannequin torso. Visual examination of the base wool material helped to determine if cleaning was required to prevent fiber decay and erosion caused by fine particles of soil embedded in the natural fibers.

With the condition assessment completed and showing no glaring issues, documenting the jersey’s design, pattern, materials, labels, and any other identifying traits served to assist in the identification and dating of the piece. Another crucial step when introducing a newly acquired artifact is to photo document it to establish a baseline to assess decay and deterioration for intervention and subsequent corrective action.

The neckline soutache has a clean intersection with the overlapping button placket. The gray plastic cat-eye two-hole convex buttons are clearly visible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With many hours of research already completed, we are still unsure as to the identity of the unit team on which our 20th Regiment Jersey was used. However, having determined the garment’s age based upon the pattern and features of the flannel, it is our assessment that it dates from 1940 to 1942. The details of the 20th Regiment jersey are available for a closer look in our Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms.

The addition of this piece to our growing collection of military flannels serves to preserve armed forces baseball history, will be a centerpiece of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection and will serve as a visual tool to educate our virtual and in-person guests. We and our visitors are grateful to Mr. Akin for his generous donation.

Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite

US Army Baseball game in the Philippines during WWII. Inscription reads: “4/29/1945. Our game against that hot team – beat them (a double-header – 5-4 – 3-0)/ Lot of dough on that game.”

Over the past several years, I have managed to acquire several groups of photos – each of which was no doubt, removed from photo albums that had previously served as veterans’ reminders of their service during World War II. When the images arrive, my goal for them is to scan them and place them into archival storage and protect them from further deterioration as much as is possible. Once I have completed scanning the images (at the highest resolution that I am able to achieve), one of my main objectives is to work on the images to correct exposure, repair damage (rips, tears, scratches, etc.) leaving them suitable for use in future publication and print projects.

While personal cameras were fairly rare to be found aboard naval warships during WWII, many GIs in Army and Marine units managed to bring them in their gear. Obtaining film post-exposure processing and printing was even more difficult and often the service members waited until they were on R&R or even discharged to see how well their photographs turned out. Perhaps the most popular film size was 620 (which produced sizable negatives: 2-1/4 X 3-1/4″ with a Brownie Six-20 or a 6×9 cm negative with a Brownie Junior 620, two of the most common cameras in use at that time) during the War as noted by the size of the prints made from the negatives (the image is the same size as the negative) – which indicate that they were contact prints.

Scanning a contact print, even a small 2.25 x 2.25-inch, at a high resolution can yield incredible details  often revealing researchable information. My normal procedure, once I have completed my digital archiving process is to study each image and attempt to identify any information that will either support (or refute) the information provided or omitted by the seller when I acquired the photo(s).  I have been able to do this with several images that have landed into my archive.

One of the baseball photo groups that I acquired in the last few years was listed by the seller as containing 14 images supposedly shot in New Guinea and the Philippines. I didn’t hold out any hope that the seller was accurate and purchased the images solely based upon the content of the of the images. When the package arrived, I took stock of photograph and saw that several had been inscribed, most likely by the veteran. Judging by the the terrain and surrounding flora, there is no reason to doubt the inscriptions (some are noted in New Guinea and others from the Philippines).

In searching for as to which unit these ball players might be from, I researched those that served in both New Guinea and in the Philippines. The insignia for those units are (left to right): 6th, 24th, 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 38th, 41st, 43rd and 93rd Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Divisions.

I scoured each image searching for a clue – anything that wold provide insight as to the unit(s) that the men in the images were assigned to. One of the images listed three troopers with their first and last names along with their hometowns. I was able to locate two of the three men but could not find anything beyond their enlistment information. I have been researching the other names inscribed on the photos and the results have been the same. What makes the research more challenging is that several of the guys listed have very common names and originate in hometowns with others who share the same name and also served.

Sometimes what is obvious and stands out like a sore thumb is easily overlooked. As progressed with writing this article, I poured over the images one last time and…WOW!…there it was and on five separate posed photographs – a unit identification on a hand-painted sign. These men were most-likely members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division).  The sign tells of an upcoming “field day” athletic competition with the prize being seven cases of beer awarded to the victor in such events as football kicking, softball tossing, relays and three-legged races. The date of the competition was shown to be Friday, March 23rd (which was in 1945) when, when meshed with the 20th Infantry Regiment’s history, means that the unit was in the Philippines (the landed on Luzon, January 9, 1945). the 20th, known as “Sykes Regulars,” were in some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting in the Philippines, though these images wouldn’t indicate that they were in the midst of 219 days of continuous combat (which would end on August 15, 1945). According to the unit history the 20th Infantry Regiment, along with other members of the 6th Division, was the most heavily engaged unit in the United States Army during WWII.

How I missed the obvious is beyond me. There on the sign, “20th Field Day” which refers to the 20th Infantry Regiment is very discernible in this and four other photos. The Field Day was held on Friday, March 23rd and the victors were due to receive “Big Prizes” such as “7 Cases of Beer.” Imagine how enjoyable that would be just weeks after fighting across “Purple Heart Valley” on Luzon.

Baseball was truly America’s national pastime in the 1940s and the game meant so much more to the servicemen (and women) who were away from home. There were substantial efforts undertaken by the major and minor league organizations to ensure that enough equipment was available to send to the troops both overseas and stationed domestically. Millions of baseballs, gloves, bats, catcher’s sets, spikes and uniforms were purchased (or handed down from professional clubs) to equip troops for the game. While many of my other photographs depict players in baseball flannels – some even had stunning satin uniforms – these uniforms were fairly difficult to obtain. Most troops were playing ball in their fatigues or dungarees during hours of respite following movement or even engagements with the enemy.

With time, effort and access to some more precise resources (and perhaps someone who recognizes a name or a face in one of the photographs), I might achieve a breakthrough in the coming months.  For now, I truly enjoy the images just for the content.

Resources:
History of the 20th Infantry; the “Sykes Regulars”

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