The Mystery of Peg Leg Pete

There are many mysteries great and small from World War Two that remain unanswered to this day. This patch is one of the admittedly smaller ones that have perplexed historians and collectors for quite a few years.

This hand-painted canvas squadron patch bears the emblem of the 603rd Squadron, 398th Bomb Group of the mighty 8th Air Force that was officially approved on October 25, 1943. As was popular at the time, the 603rd choose a popular cartoon character – in this case, Disney’s Peg Leg Pete – to grace their unit patch. As a concession to his wartime duties, Peg Leg was rendered wearing appropriate flight gear and had his trademark cigar replaced with a bomb. Walt Disney actually encouraged the use of his famous cartoon characters in this manner by the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war. He even set up a special art department at his studio to fill requests for such designs by units serving both in the U.S. and overseas.

603rd Patch

Above: Walt Disney’s character Pistol Pete as interpreted by an unknown staff artist at Max Berman & Sons Costumes and Props for RKO Radio Pictures. The hand-painted canvas squadron patch measures about 5 1/4 inches in diameter. Patches such as this would have been sewn to the flight gear of members of 603rd Squadron, 398th Bomb Group during World War Two. c.1940s Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia

The mystery surrounding this patch and others like it begins with its place of manufacture – RKO Radio Pictures.  The first question that is often asked is why RKO would be producing patches with Disney characters on them. Actually, this is not that big a stretch since RKO was the original film distributor for Walt Disney so there was a history between them.

The second question that arises is exactly when and why were these patches made. There is apparently no surviving record in the RKO archives that mention the patches being made. Some people theorize that they were made as film props after the war but this seems hardly likely since there were patches for hundreds of units made by RKO many of which were extremely obscure. Also, patches for many of the now famous Tuskegee Airmen units were included by RKO in their effort and it is a sad sign of those times but one can hardly picture any studio producing a film about or featuring these all-black units in the 1940s or 50s.

603rd Patch Back

Above: The reverse side of the Peg Leg Pete patch showing the stamps of RKO Radio Picture Studios (in brown) and Max Berman & Sons (in blue) both of Hollywood California. c. 1940s Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia

It should be noted that all of these patches bear two stamps on their reverse side. One is that of RKO Radio Pictures Studio Costume and Props Department and the other is of Max Berman & Sons Costumes and Props – a costume/prop house closely associated with RKO for many years. At first, these stamps may lead one to believe that they are simply old movie props but it has been proposed that RKO produced the patches as part of their contribution to the national war effort. There is no evidence that these patches were ever distributed to the military.

Actually, the RKO stamp offers a clue to the date of manufacture. RKO Radio Pictures dropped the “Radio” part of their name in 1950 after being bought by Howard Hughes which means that these patches were all made prior to that date. So they could not have been made for film use before that date as many propose. If they were mere props one would assume that they would have been used in films but to the best of my knowledge examples of these RKO patches have never appeared on the silver screen.

It has also been proposed that these patches were intended as a wartime collectible/premiums that were to have been distributed to the public by the studio in some manner.

616th Patch

Above: Another example of the squadron patches produced by RKO/Berman. This example was for the 616th Bombardment Squadron (Medium), 477th Bombardment Group, 3rd and 1st Army Air Forces. The 616th was a training unit staffed by African American pilots and aircrew. c. 1940s Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia

Personally, I believe that these canvas patches were produced by RKO and Max Berman as part of their contribution to the war effort – probably as a premium – but for one reason or another the patches were never distributed and remained in storage for many years. Then sometime during the 1970s or 80s these old stocks were sold off and entered the resale market.  At the time many of the major studios while undergoing restructuring and reorganization sold off their vast costume and prop collections as did some of the major costume shops such as Western Costume.

 

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