Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, USMC Captain, WWII hero, and Mafia son
Long Island, NY, September 1945
Film: The Godfather
Release Date: March 15, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
On the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, BAMF Style is looking at one of cinema’s most notorious fictional war heroes from the Pacific Theater of World War II: Michael Corleone.
(Just so we’re clear, BAMF Style believes that the true heroes of World War II are those that did not go on to become mob bosses.)
What’d He Wear?
Michael’s USMC Uniform
Michael arrives at his sister’s wedding wearing his traditional Marine “greens”, the winter service uniform worn from September through April. Although appearing brown on screen, the uniform – now known as the Service A (or “Alpha”) – is forest green wool in a color specific to the Marine Corps, dating back to its introduction in 1912. At the time, the winter service uniform was standard in garrison and on leave and liberty. Since the iconic dress blues were temporarily ceased for most of WWII, a Marine not wearing his utility uniform would almost always be seen in his winter service greens.
As an officer, Michael would have the option to wear either the heavyweight kersey wool uniforms issued to all enlisted men, or he could purchase one in gabardine or wool serge. His uniform at Connie’s wedding appears to be the latter.
The uniform jacket is single-breasted with a close, tailored fit. It closes with three black metal buttons, each embossed with the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (EGA) logo, on the chest. Just below the three buttons is an attached belt cut from the same green cloth as the jacket with a brass buckle, which was added as an alternative to the Sam Browne belt in 1943. The cloth belt differs the coat from the enlisted coat, which was worn with a “fair leather” cordovan garrison belt. The single vent extends up to the belt in the back.
Michael’s jacket also has the four-pocket layout that has remained consistent on USMC service coats for more than 100 years. The two chest pockets are box-pleated with pointed flaps. The larger hip pockets are bellows-style patches, also with pointed flaps. Each pocket closes on a smaller black metal EGA button. His medals are worn above the left chest pocket, but we’ll get to those later.
Michael also wears two black EGA screw-back collar devices on his coat’s notch lapels. The epaulettes (or “shoulder straps”) button close to the neck with the same small black EGA buttons found on the pocket flaps. Michael wears the double silver bar insignia, indicating his Captain rank, on the epaulettes.
The sleeves of the service uniform coat are plain without buttons although each cuff features a pointed appliqué of the same fabric as the rest of the coat.
A proud Marine, Michael never removes his coat or otherwise alters his appearance during the wedding party. All that are seen of his trousers are the plain-hemmed bottoms, although it’s safe to assume that they have the same belt loops and straight side pockets that are standard on all service uniform pants.
Michael wears the standard khaki uniform shirt worn through all seasons. It has a convertible collar, front placket, and two patch pockets on the chest that close through pointed button flaps. The long sleeves have gathers at the rounded single-button cuffs. Summer shirts were 100% cotton, but khaki shirts worn with the winter service uniform were typically wool or wool blend. Michael’s khaki tie, or “field scarf” in USMC parlance, is made from the same material as his shirt. Collar pins were standard issue before WWII as “battle pins”, but these were discontinued on Valentine’s Day 1942 for the duration of the war. Thus, Michael wears no collar pin behind his tie knot.
The last time Michael wears a hat before he’s entrenched in the Mafia is when he arrives at the wedding wearing his green peaked combination cap, known to Marines as a “barracks cover”. The cap is all forest green to match the rest of the uniform, save for the black visor and black EGA device above the peak. USMC barracks covers also feature a quatrefoil – a lace cross – on the crown, a tradition from the early days of the Marine Corps when fellow officers needed additional distinction for safety from their own sharpshooters. The other approved headwear for the service uniform is the soft green “piss cutter” garrison cap.
Michael’s footwear consists of brown leather low quarter service shoes with black calf-length wool socks.
Michael wears a sterling silver ID bracelet on his right wrist and a plain, military-issued watch on his left. The watch is likely a steel Hamilton or the like with a black dial and brown strap.
Now, we’ll take a look at Michael’s hard-fought medals, indicative of his reputation as a war hero as he so humbly brags to the congressional committee in The Godfather, Part II. In fact, let’s start there. Michael tells the committee that he “was awarded the Navy Cross for action in defense of my country.” While the Navy Cross is indeed issued for extraordinary heroism to service members in both the Navy and the Marine Corps, Michael’s uniform in The Godfather only displays the Silver Star.
The Silver Star is awarded for “gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States”, and the ribbon consists of an Old Glory red center stripe with white, ultramarine blue, and white stripes extending outward on each side. It was first awarded in 1932 and is available to any uniformed servicemember, including a Marine like Michael.
Next on the row is the Navy and Marine Corps Medal ribbon, consisting of equal stripes in navy blue, old gold, and apple red. The medal was established in August 1942 for “distinguishing oneself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy of the United States” and is offered to both USN and USMC servicemembers that risked their lives to save others. JFK had famously received the medal for his duties as the doomed PT-109’s commanding officer.
Filling out the top row of Michael’s awards is the Purple Heart, famous from countless war films as a decoration for “being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces”. Needless to say, Michael’s Purple Heart is from a wound; had he been killed, The Godfather would have been a much more boring film. The Purple Heart is the oldest military award still given to U.S. military members, originally designated as the Badge of Military Merit by George Washington in 1782, and first awarded in February 1932. Interestingly, the first Purple Heart recipient was Douglas MacArthur, whom had reopened work on commissioning the design the previous year in his role as U.S. Army Chief of Staff. The ribbon is purple with a thin white stripe on each end.
The first service ribbon on the bottom row is the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, awarded to all U.S. military servicemembers who served between December 7, 1941 and March 2, 1946 in the Asiatic-Pacific theater area. The ribbon is gold with a white-red-white triple stripe pattern on each side and a thinner blue-white-red triple stripe in the center. Michael’s particular ribbon has two campaign stars, indicating his performance in two of the 48 recognized Naval and Marine campaigns in the Asiatic-Pacific theater during World War II.
Michael’s next ribbon is the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (EAME), showing that not only did he see Pacific action, he was also well active in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Other than the geographic component, the medal’s parameters include the same dates for all U.S. servicemembers as the Asiatic-Pacific medal. Michael also has two campaign stars on his ribbon, which includes brown (African sands), green/white/scarlet red (Italy), green (European fields), and the same triparted blue, white, and red central ribbon from the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (which had been originally used on the American Defense Service Medal). On the other side is the same green and brown but with a white/black/white tristripe to represent Germany.
The third ribbon on the bottom row is the World War II Victory Medal, established by Congress on July 6, 1945 and awarded to all active service members who served in the U.S. military between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946 as Truman didn’t officially declare an end to hostilities until this date. The ribbon has an Old Glory red ground with double rainbows of blue, green, yellow, red, yellow, green, and blue on each side, representing the pattern used in the World War I Victory Medal.
To the best of my knowledge, Michael’s awards and service ribbons are consistent for a Marine officer who joined and fought in several World War II campaigns. Although Marines did primarily fight in the Pacific theater during the war, there were a few thousand that served in European campaigns, although it is perhaps a stretch that Michael would have two campaign stars for his efforts there. However, Mario Puzo’s book does state that Michael had his photo printed in Life magazine, so he must have been an exemplary officer. The first chapter states:
But when World War II broke out, Michael Corleone volunteered for the Marine Corps. He defied his father’s express command when he did so.
Don Corleone had no desire, no intention, of letting his youngest son be killed in the service of a power foreign to himself. Doctors had been bribed, secret arrangements had been made. A great deal of money had been spent to take the proper precautions. But Michael was twenty-one years of age and nothing could be done against his own willfulness. He enlisted and fought over the Pacific Ocean. He became a Captain and won medals. In 1944 his picture was printed in Life magazine with a photo layout of his deeds. A friend had shown Don Corleone the magazine (his family did not dare), and the Don had grunted disdainfully and said, “He performs those miracles for strangers.”
When Michael Corleone was discharged early in 1945 to recover from a disabling wound, he had no idea that his father had arranged his release. He stayed home for a few weeks, then, without consulting anyone, entered Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and so he left his father’s house.
This isn’t exactly consistent with the film, where Michael’s arrival at Connie’s wedding is evidently the first time that anyone has seen him since he left college in December 1941 to head off to the war.
(All military uniform posts are written strictly for educational purposes. The accomplishments of military Veterans should be respected and not copied.)
Go Big or Go Home
Michael, you never told me you knew Johnny Fontane!
Michael’s bright-eyed girlfriend Kay Adams is thrilled to see the romantic crooner, played by Al Martino, show up at Connie’s wedding to sing “I Have But One Heart” as a personal favor to the Don. Michael hints at the history between the two men with the vague line, “My father helped him with his career.”
After some prodding by Kay, Michael tells the story:
Michael: When Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to a personal services contract with this big bandleader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. But the band leader wouldn’t let him. Now, Johnny is my father’s godson. So my father went to see this bandleader and offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went back, only this time with Luca Brasi. Within an hour, he had a signed release for a certified check of $1,000.
Kay: How did he do that?
Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Kay: What was that?
Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.
Michael: That’s a true story.
Although the names have been changed to protect the guilty, Michael is correct; the story is indeed, true. (Or at least believed to be.)
Mario Puzo famously borrowed from American criminal history when writing The Godfather, and it’s well-known that Johnny Fontane is the story’s de facto Frank Sinatra. Like Sinatra, Fontane is an Italian-American vocalist who attained heartthrob status in the ’40s with mobs of girls screaming everywhere he goes. Also like Sinatra, Fontane was a notorious womanizer whose career was revived after he landed a film role that brought him back into the spotlight for the rest of his life.
The “brains or signature” story is also a part of Sinatra lore, just swap out the names Johnny Fontane, Luca Brasi, and “this big bandleader” for Frank Sinatra, Willie Moretti, and Tommy Dorsey, respectively. Sinatra had spent the better part of 1939 rising from a Hoboken hotshot to a popular singer with Harry James’ orchestra. James was an affable trumpeter who was more than happy to allow the talented Sinatra’s star to rise. When the far more prestigious Tommy Dorsey came calling for Sinatra in November, James graciously let Sinatra out of his one-year contract to join Dorsey and continue his rise to stardom.
Unfortunately for the swaggering young Sinatra, Dorsey had a well-earned reputation as a strict and mercurial bandleader. Under the terms of the Dorsey-penned contract, a third of all of Sinatra’s lifetime earnings would go straight to Dorsey with an additional 20% divided among Dorsey’s manager and Sinatra’s agent, leaving 47% of his earnings – before taxes and union fees, of course – to Sinatra. Frank continued to grow more and more popular, spending thousands of what little he made trying to legally break his contract. As Sinatra wasn’t Sinatra yet, unions and industry insiders tended to side with the more powerful Dorsey rather than the green Sinatra.
In desperation, Sinatra went to Jules Stein, the founder of MCA and a personal friend of both Al Capone and Bette Davis. It was the former connection that proved most useful to Sinatra as Stein called in the colorful Jersey mobster Willie Moretti, who went to Dorsey with an offer of $60,000 cash. The proud Dorsey turned him down, despite later saying he recognized the smart deal due to the fickle nature of popular music.
Dorsey may have had a reputation for being volatile, but he had nothing on Willie Moretti. One night after a show in the summer of 1942, Moretti stormed into Dorsey’s dressing room and shoved a pistol into Dorsey’s mouth, demanding that he sell Sinatra’s contract to him with the words “Sign it or else!” One dollar later – $59,999 shy of Moretti’s original offer – Sinatra was free of his obligations to Dorsey and formally left the band on September 3, 1942, replaced by Dick Haymes. Officially, MCA did pay $60,000 to Dorsey for the release of Sinatra’s contract. After Dorsey paid the taxes on the sixty grand, it went straight from his bank account to Moretti.
While parts of the story have been questioned, there’s no doubting that it jives with the personalities of each man involved. But as Michael sums up:
That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.
Everyone is pleased to see Michael as he enters the wedding wearing the sharp service uniform of a U.S. Marine.
- Forest green wool serge U.S. Marine Corps service uniform:
- Single-breasted belted jacket with notch lapels, three EGA black metal button front, two button-flapped box-pleated chest pockets, two button-flapped bellows-style patch hip pockets, button-down epaulettes/shoulder straps, and single rear vent
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, straight side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Khaki wool long-sleeve shirt with convertible collar, front placket, two button-flapped patch chest pockets, and rounded single-button cuffs
- Khaki wool necktie
- Brown leather low-quarter service shoes
- Black wool calf socks
- Forest green peaked combination cap (“barracks cover”) with black EGA device
- Sterling silver ID bracelet
- Steel military-issue wristwatch with black dial and brown strap
Michael proudly wears a captain’s insignia with two rows of awards and service ribbons – as well as black EGA collar devices – on his uniform coat. U.S. Marine Corps uniforms are traditionally simple without the divisions and additional patches that are found on the uniforms of other military branches.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series, but be forewarned that only the first two films are masterpieces while the third… is not.
Plenty of information about WWII-era USMC uniforms came from WW2 Gyrene.