We’ve all heard the famous stories of soldiers who ran through Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at the close of World War Two, taking home his silverware, or Nazi banners, or even his personal photo albums. Yet, this pilfering was not unique to that one battalion, as there’s evidence of American soldiers across all ranks taking home their own personal keepsakes from the war. Most of the time these were standard battlefield ephemera – guns, badges, helmets, etc. but in Japan this desire to bring something back home actually led to the creation of a specific garment, the souvenir jacket, which soldiers would purchase from little stalls before making their way back to America.
They were cut from silk or satin, with bold colors and contrasting sleeves, and were often reversible. The most notable characteristic though was their motifs – dragons, birds, even maps of the campaign, the jackets were always stitched with something that was recognizably “Eastern.” They became ingrained in the epilogue of war as troops during the Korean, Vietnam, and other wars continued to have them made on their way back home. The Vietnam War era jackets are particularly noteworthy as they epitomize the misery of that effort, with their somber slogans like, “When I die I’m going to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell.”
These jackets, like many things associated with war, remain quite controversial, and we wouldn’t really recommend wearing one as a civilian today. Nonetheless, there’s something about the bright colors and artful emblems which speaks to the optimism that these soldiers must have felt knowing that they’d soon be back on American soil, away from the countries listed on the back of their souvenir jackets.