Steve McQueen’s Navy Uniforms in The Sand Pebbles

Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, Machinist's Mate, 1st Class, U.S. Navy, in The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class, U.S. Navy, in The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Vitals

Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, maverick U.S. Navy Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class (MM1)

Yangtze River, China, Summer 1927 through Spring 1927

Film: The Sand Pebbles
Release Date: December 20, 1966
Director: Robert Wise
Costume Design: Wingate Jones, John Napolitano, Bobbie Read, and James W. Tyson

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

The Navy League of the United States organized the first Navy Day on October 27, 1922, to commemorate the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt who—before becoming the 26th President of the United States—had long championed the U.S. Navy and had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Set four years after the establishment of Navy Day, The Sand Pebbles begins in 1926 China, “a country of factions trying to unite to become a nation… through revolution…” according to the opening text.

Three years after Richard McKenna’s best-selling debut novel The Sand Pebbles was published, Robert Wise finally received the financing to produce and direct his cinematic adaption, having used the interim to direct The Sound of Music (1965), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture in the midst of production on The Sand Pebbles. Filming began in Taiwan on November 22, 1965, with a short break for Christmas, then moved to Hong Kong four months later, where star Steve McQueen’s six weeks in the city would be the subject of an entertaining retrospective article by Stuart Heaver for Post Magazine around the 50th anniversary of production there.

The "USS San Pablo" used in the movie was actually a replica gunboat that the production spent $250,000 to construct. The seaworthy vessel was based on the USS Villalobos, a former Spanish Navy gunboat that the U.S. Navy had seized during the Spanish-American War and put into service patrolling the Yangtze River for a quarter of a century until it was decommissioned and sunk by the Navy in 1928.

The “USS San Pablo” used in the movie was actually a replica gunboat that the production spent $250,000 to construct. The seaworthy vessel was based on the USS Villalobos, a former Spanish Navy gunboat that the U.S. Navy had seized during the Spanish-American War and put into service patrolling the Yangtze River for a quarter of a century until it was decommissioned and sunk by the Navy in 1928.

Steve McQueen enjoys a cigarette while on location in Hong Kong with his then-wife, Neile Adams, circa spring 1966. McQueen is wearing the undershirt and uniform trousers of Holman's white service dress (or "undress") uniform.

Steve McQueen enjoys a cigarette while on location in Hong Kong with his then-wife, Neile Adams, circa spring 1966. McQueen is wearing the undershirt and uniform trousers of Holman’s white service dress (or “undress”) uniform.

“He was the perfect choice for Jake Holman,” Wise later said of McQueen, though Paul Newman was reportedly his first choice for the role. “I’ve never seen an actor work with mechanical things the way he does. He learned everything about operating that ship’s engine, just as Jake Holman did in the script. Jake Holman is a very strong individual who doesn’t bend under pressure, a guy desperately determined to maintain his own personal identity and pride. Very much like Steve.”

Steve McQueen received the only Academy Award nomination of his iconic career for his portrayal of the young but experienced U.S. Navy machinist Jake Holman, whose swagger transforms to cynicism following a transfer to the Yangtze River Patrol, his seventh transfer in nine years. The headstrong, hardworking, and bluntly honest Holman finds himself at odds with most of his fellow “sand pebbles” on the USS San Pablo, aside from the sensitive and sensible “Frenchy” Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), a fellow engineer.

The source of the crew’s antipathy toward Holman centers around the hardworking engineer’s reluctance to hire Chinese locals to do his work, particularly the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine that had traditionally fallen under the domain of engine room laborer Chien (Tommy Lee). After Chien dies performing maintenance work on the engine, Holman selects Po-han (Mako), with whom he eventually forges a friendship and supports in a barroom brawl against his boorish shipmate Stawski (Simon Oakland).

Just after the fight, the San Pablo crew is hurriedly called back to the ship just in time to avoid an angry local mob, which the gunboat’s captain, Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna), understands is just the beginning of the aggression they will face as they make their way through the river for one last dangerous mission to rescue the British and American missionaries—including his new girlfriend, idealistic schoolteacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen)—from China Light in Paoshan.

What’d He Wear?

Jake Holman’s rating of Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class (MM1), is lateral to the U.S. Navy enlisted rank Petty Officer, 1st Class (PO1), currently pay grade E-6 that is equivalent to a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps or a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

Rate insignia for Machinist's Mate, 1st Class. Jake Holman incorrectly wears this post-1941 version with a right-facing eagle on his uniforms.

Rate insignia for Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class. Jake Holman incorrectly wears this post-1941 version with a right-facing eagle on his uniforms.

While pay grades E-1 to E-3 are considered apprenticeship rates, Holman’s E-6 rate ranks him among the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or petty officers. As an E-6, Holman is the highest rank of this petty officer subdivision. The specific insignia for petty officers emerged in 1894 consisting of an eagle with its wings spread—colloquially called a “crow” for how the dark bird’s silhouette appeared against the white uniform—atop a rating mark and class chevrons. In Holman’s case, his Machinist’s Mate rate is represented by a propeller while his senior rank of petty officer first class is represented by the maximum three chevrons beneath it. (Should Holman have advanced through the chief petty officer ranks, he would have received a similar insignia that added a rounded “rocker” arched atop the chevrons with up to one or two stars added, depending on his advancement.)

On his service dress uniforms, Holman wears two service stripes on the forearm of his left sleeves, each stripe indicating four years of service. This is consistent with Holman telling Shirley that he has spent a total of nine years in the Navy; three more years and he would have earned his third service stripe. Holman’s rank insignia and 5¼”-long service stripes are always the same color; dark navy against his white uniform and red against his navy blue uniform.

Little has changed in enlisted ranks, uniforms, and insignia since the 1920s when The Sand Pebbles is set, though the rate patch worn by Steve McQueen as Jake Holman is an anachronistic version with the “crow” facing its right side, and thus “facing the enemy”, which was not put into practice until after 1941 when the United States entered World War II. In the nearly 50 years before that, the crow on a Machinist’s Mate insignia would have faced left, toward the wearer’s back.

Holman shares his enthusiasm regarding the effect that his crisp white naval uniform has on women. Note the anachronistic right-facing "crow" on his Machinist's Mate rate insignia; the eagle would not face this direction until after 1941.

Holman shares his enthusiasm regarding the effect that his crisp white naval uniform has on women. Note the anachronistic right-facing “crow” on his Machinist’s Mate rate insignia; the eagle would not face this direction until after 1941.

All of McQueen’s costumes were made for the production by venerated Hollywood wardrobe supplier Western Costume Company, following the specifications of U.S. Navy uniforms which had remained virtually unchanged by the time of the film’s production in the mid-1960s. Unlike the other branches of the U.S. military that have adopted service uniforms for both officers and enlisted members that resemble civilian business suits with lapeled jackets, collared shirts, ties, and trousers, the U.S. Navy has maintained its traditional “crackerjack” service dress sailor suits and white canvas “Dixie cup” hats for junior enlisted members, all of which emerged for practical purposes during the early 19th century.

You can read more about the naval uniforms and attire that would have been worn aboard an American gunboat patrolling 1920s China at this fan site dedicated to The Sand Pebbles. Many of these same uniforms were also worn by the U.S. Navy during World War II, as you can read in this post dedicated to that topic. The Naval History and Heritage Command site also features a comprehensive history of enlisted and officer uniforms from 1776 through the early 1980s.

Click the appropriate link below to jump ahead to read about Steve McQueen’s various USN uniforms as Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles:

  1. Service Dress White (SDW)
  2. Undress White Service Uniform
  3. Dungaree Work Uniform
  4. Non-Regulation Tropical White Short
  5. Service Dress Blue (SDB)

Service Dress White (SDW)

“Uniform gets ’em every time,” Holman comments after charming a prostitute sitting in the darkened corner of Baxter’s bar, where he checks in for a drink before his voyage where he meets the ambitious high school teacher Shirley Eckert. Like the young woman in the Shanghai bar, Shirley finds herself instantly charmed by the swaggering sailor in his white uniform. The next evening, he arrives on board his assigned vessel, the USS San Pablo, where the affable Frenchy assures Holman that he’ll be the senior rate in charge of the gunboat’s engine room.

Holman looks over his new domain, the engine room of the USS San Pablo.

Holman looks over his new domain, the engine room of the USS San Pablo.

“For us who wear the uniform, every day is Flag Day,” Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna) tells the ship’s crew on June 14. Holman’s full service dress whites make another appearance later when courting Shirley on shore by buying her a bird that she could set free.

Steve McQueen wears Jake Holman's white service dress uniform during production of The Sand Pebbles. Note that his black leather shoes are not the lace-up derbies that he would wear with his other uniforms.

Steve McQueen wears Jake Holman’s white service dress uniform during production of The Sand Pebbles. Note that his black leather shoes are not the lace-ups he would wear with his other uniforms.

Based on Collins’ implication that one of Holman’s first days aboard the USS San Pablo is Flag Day (June 14) as well as the summer suits of the civilian gents he had dined with in transit and the white uniforms of those on board the San Pablo, we can deduce that the film begins in these late spring days just before the official start of summer, an appropriate season for Holman to be dressed in his service dress whites (SDW), a warm-weather version of the classic blue “crackerjack” uniform:

  • White canvas twill “Dixie cup” cap
  • White cotton pullover V-neck jumper with navy squared “sailor collar” (with triple white-tape trim and white corner stars), slightly V-shaped chest yoke, and long sleeves with navy cuffs (with triple white-tape trim)
    • Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class rate badge (navy-embroidered crow, propeller, and three chevrons) on upper left sleeve
    • Two navy-embroidered service stripes on forearm of left sleeve
  • Black silk neckerchief
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • White cotton twill flat front trousers with front fly, two front pockets, laced back gusset, and plain-hemmed bell-bottoms
  • Black leather slip-on loafers
  • Black socks
  • White cotton boxer shorts with three-button fly

Explore current U.S. Navy regulations for the men’s enlisted service white dress uniform here.

According to a history of the uniform posted to the Navy’s official site, the first enlisted uniform was established in 1817, developed for strictly utilitarian purposes to reflect a sailor’s work, though sailors were only issued blue service dress for the first 50 years. The visor-less “Dixie cup” was originally made of sail canvas and doubled as a flotation device, the black neckerchief doubled as a rag during work or battle dressing during combat, and the bell-bottom pants were designed to be easily removed should the wearer fall overboard.

In 1886, white service dress was introduced to meet uniform demands as the Navy expanded its presence across the Pacific and into the Far East. The uniform was developed from the pre-existing “undress whites” that had existed for 20 years, lengthening the jumper sleeves and adding a yoke and navy blue trim to the collar and cuffs.

THE SAND PEBBLES

While the insignia may be anachronistic, the costume team for The Sand Pebbles correctly used this pre-1940 version of enlisted white service dress with the blue collar and cuffs. “The 1913 instructions directed that the collar and cuffs of the white dress jumper be faced with blue flannel, while the undress whites omitted the blue facing,” states Naval History and Heritage Command in its description of enlisted dress during World War I. These details were removed in October 1940 due to reported issues with the blue dye running, essentially leaving sailors with a uniform that was similar to the pre-existing “undress whites”.

75 years later, the service dress white jumpers were revised to again feature navy blue piping on the sleeve cuffs, navy blue-piped collar with stars, and a yoke, reinvigorating the dress code as a “photo negative” of the service dress blue as shared by Military Report. By October 31, 2021, the revised SDWs will be required to be worn by all sailors.


Undress White Service Uniform

Jake Holman reports for muster his first morning aboard the USS San Pablo in a simplified version of the white service uniform, colloquially known a the “undress whites”, though the more formal service white uniform was actually a derivative of this earlier uniform. Established in 1866, the “undress whites” formed the basis for the white service dress that was designed to be a summer-friendly alternative to the classic blue service dress sailor suit.

Holman joins Frenchy and his fellow ship-mates for muster aboard the USS San Pablo, though Holman is dressed in his "undress whites" with rank insignia while his fellow sailors wear simplified short-sleeved shirts and shorts.

Holman joins Frenchy and his fellow ship-mates for muster aboard the USS San Pablo, though Holman is dressed in his “undress whites” with rank insignia while his fellow sailors wear simplified short-sleeved shirts and shorts.

Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) and Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) stand attention in their "undress whites" with M1903 Springfield rifles when ashore in The Sand Pebbles.

Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) and Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) stand attention in their “undress whites” with M1903 Springfield rifles when ashore in The Sand Pebbles.

Enlisted “undress” is less ornamental than service dress, eschewing service stripes, ribbons, or any contrasting fanfare aside from the rank insignia on the wearer’s upper left sleeve.

  • White canvas twill “Dixie cup” cap
  • White cotton pullover V-neck jumper with white squared “sailor collar” and mid-chest loop, pointed-bottom patch pocket on left chest, and 3/4-length sleeves
    • Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class rate badge (navy-embroidered crow, propeller, and three chevrons) on upper left sleeve
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • White cotton twill flat front trousers with front fly, two front pockets, laced back gusset, and plain-hemmed bell-bottoms
  • Khaki canvas nine-pocket M1910 cartridge web belt
  • Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
  • Khaki canvas six-eyelet gaiters
  • Black socks
  • White cotton boxer shorts with three-button fly

Holman wears this uniform again, albeit with the addition of a cartridge belt and gaiters, when he, Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson), Frenchy, and another seaman land at the China Light mission in Paoshan to evacuate Jameson and his fellow missionaries. The uniform gets plenty dirty when Holman angrily retreats to the engine room and shovels coal into the boiler after being forced to shoot his pal Po-han to put him out of his misery, illustrating why the Navy saw a need for the development of dungarees for service members engaged in dirtier details like this.

Jake Holman and Shirley Eckert develop their acquaintanceship.

Jake Holman and Shirley Eckert develop their acquaintanceship.

Holman wears his undress whites during the final sequence when he joins Collins’ small boarding party for the nighttime rescue mission of Jameson, Shirley, and the other missionaries from China Light. It’s unfortunate for our heroes that they were clad completely in white while trying to be covert under the night sky, and the all-white working uniform no doubt made Holman and his comrades easier targets.

Per his usual journeys ashore in China, Holman supplements his undress whites with ammo belt and gaiters. While gaiters are commonly worn to protect the wearer and his clothes from the elements, they also serve a tactical purpose of restraining the flared bell bottoms of Holman’s white uniform trousers as he darts in and out of cover while dodging the Nationalist soldiers’ rifles at Paoshan.

"I was home... What happened? What the hell happened?!"

“I was home… What happened? What the hell happened?!”

Like some of McQueen’s other costume pieces from The Sand Pebbles, Jake Holman’s undress whites were recently auctioned, sold in December 2018 via icollector.com:

This is McQueen’s standard Naval sailor jumpsuit from that film. Consisting of a 2-piece white canvas US Navy sailor’s uniform with (1) long-sleeve, v-neck, pull-over top with breast pocket and back flap. With Chief Petty Officer chevron rank insignia patch on left upper sleeve. Exhibiting internal Western Costume Co. label typed, “2400-1 Steve McQueen”, with Western Costume stamp and (1) pair of matching bell-bottom pants with button front and lace back closures with Western Costume Co. label typed, “2531-1 Steve McQueen” and Western Costume stamp.

The “-1” after each four-digit label number indicates that this was the primary piece to be worn on screen before reverting to spares.


Dungaree Work Uniform

Who works for who around here?

Once out to sea, Holman dresses for duty in the engine room in his blue chambray shirt, white Dixie cup, and the classic dungarees that were the junior enlisted working uniform from 1913 through the 1990s. Unlike Holman’s other uniforms, this work uniform gives no indication of his rank or identity, perhaps indicative of his relative powerlessness in the engine room that should otherwise be his domain… though this would have also been the logical choice for Holman to wear for his hands-on engine room operations.

In his chambray work shirt and dungarees, Jake Holman looks right at home in the USS San Pablo engine room.

In his chambray work shirt and dungarees, Jake Holman looks right at home in the USS San Pablo engine room.

The Navy established this junior enlisted working uniform in 1913 out of a necessity to provide attire that sailors could wear for dirty jobs that would soil their uniforms. Due to how heavily this informal and unstructured attire contrasts with the iconic “crackerjack” and service dress uniforms, the Navy sought to keep its dungaree-dressed sailors well out of sight from the public for the dress code’s first 30 years.

Per Naval History and Heritage Command, “the complete dungaree uniform consisted of a blue denim jumper; trousers of similar material, worn with a black belt; a soft-collared blue chambray shirt, and a head cover,” and was meant to be worn primarily for work detail. The prescribed headgear was the white “Dixie cup” hat until 1995, when it was ostensibly replaced by the command ball cap, though a black watch cap was also authorized in cold weather. Black “boondockers” and jump boots were often worn with dungarees, but Holman appears to be wearing the same low black cap-toe derbies that he wears with his other uniforms.

Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, sporting a light chambray work shirt and contrasting dark dungarees.

Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, sporting a light chambray work shirt and contrasting dark dungarees.

Given the nature of their dirty work below-decks, dungarees became a particular favorite for members of a ship’s “black gang”, or the firemen and crew members that serviced the ship’s engine room, so named for the thick soot and coal dust in the air that often stained the men and their clothing. Holman uses the term twice in The Sand Pebbles, both times making his case to Lieutenant Collins that, “black gangs should stand their watches in the engine room, sir.”

  • White canvas twill “Dixie cup” cap
  • Light blue cotton chambray work shirt with point collar, front placket, two button-through chest patch pockets, and button cuffs
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • Blue denim dungarees with belt loops, two patch front pockets, two patch back pockets, and bell bottoms
  • Black web belt with brass slider buckle
  • Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
  • Black socks
  • White cotton boxer shorts with three-button fly

Despite the Navy’s initial reluctance to be publicly associated with a dress code hardly as resplendent as its famous service dress or full dress, dungarees became more popular and publicly acceptable on ships during World War II, establishing the enduring cultural association between dungarees and the Navy. Eventually, dungarees became more reflective of a sailor’s identity with last names stenciled above a pocket on the shirt and the dungarees with rate badges and chevrons also being ironed on.

Although jeans as we know them had been around since Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss patented their blue denim pants for miners in 1873, it wasn’t until returning service members—particularly Navy veterans—continued sporting their hard-wearing dungarees in civilian life that jeans evolved into the iconic casual pants that they are today. Recognizing this potential, Levi’s swiftly updated their classic jeans into a more contemporary version introduced in 1947 that removed the cinch and suspender buttons and modernized the fit. Levi’s Vintage Clothing recently reintroduced the “1947 501® Men’s Jeans”, described on the Levi’s site as “the jean of a new generation,” and iconic rebels like Marlon Brando and James Dean made jeans popular in their movies and the denim pants once relegated to strictly the dirtiest of work were now a staple of casual menswear.

During some scenes, particularly Holman’s conflict with the captain regarding the cleanliness of the engines and his initial training of Chian’s replacement Po-han, Holman wears a much lighter pair of dungarees, almost the same shade of blue as his shirt.

Despite his mastery of the engine room, Holman finds himself in yet another confrontation with Lieutenant Collins. Note the lighter wash of his dungarees which have little contrast with the color of his shirt in this sequence.

Despite his mastery of the engine room, Holman finds himself in yet another confrontation with Lieutenant Collins. Note the lighter wash of his dungarees which have little contrast with the color of his shirt in this sequence.

In cooler climates, the dungaree work uniform was often work with a matching blue denim work coat, though this does not appear to be worn by any of the USS San Pablo crewmen as the weather gets chillier. Instead, Holman and his shipmates merely layer their usual chambray shirts over dark navy mock-neck long-sleeve T-shirts. In addition to this long-sleeved undershirt, Holman also appears on deck wearing a dark navy watch cap and the khaki gun belt that Bordelles had issued him for his own safety.

THE SAND PEBBLES

During the climactic sea battle with the Chinese junks that leads to Holman breaking the boom, the engineer is again dressed in his chambray shirt and dungarees, though it’s implied that we’re now in early spring and most of Holman’s shipmates are sporting white service dress. Holman wearing his dungarees serves the dual purpose of being the standard garment that a member of the black gang would be wearing for daily life on a gunboat as well as to help differentiate the star McQueen from the rest of the cast, many of whom are seen getting bloodied in battle.

Once Holman sets up his BAR position, he prepares for combat by donning an M1917 steel helmet as well as his gun belt and gaiters.

Armed with his BAR, Holman leads his shipmates as the engage the local militia in fierce combat to break through the boom.

Armed with his BAR, Holman leads his shipmates as the engage the local militia in fierce combat to break through the boom.

This wide helmet dates back to the early months of World War I, when trench warfare and dangerous falling shrapnel illustrated the immediate need for militaries to outfit their combatants with better head protection, specifically steel helmets. The French Army led the way with the introduction of the unique-looking Adrian helmet in 1915, though the more utilitarian “Brodie helmet” developed by the British shortly after proved to be more influential. Designed by John Leopold Brodie in 1915, the helmet was swiftly adopted by Britain’s allies around the world including the United States, who initially purchased 400,000 Mark I helmets from the British for the American Expeditionary Forces. By the end of the war, the U.S. had produced millions of their own version of the helmets, now designated the M1917 and manufactured to provide even stronger ballistic protection. The United States issued the M1917 “Kelly” helmet across its branches until 1942, when it was replaced by the iconic “steel pot” M1 helmet.


Non-Regulation Tropical White Short

When Lieutenant Collins calls Holman up to account for Chien’s death, Holman cleans up and presents himself in a white short-sleeved shirt not unlike those sported by the commissioned officers, albeit without shoulder boards. For comfort int he warm climate, he wears these with white shorts that—unlike his service dress pants—have belt loops where Holman wears a white belt with a gold-toned single-prong buckle. Similar to the dunagaree work fatigues, this approach to dressing does not recognize Holman’s rank in any manner. He wears the same attire when entering a bar on shore to report on his meeting with Collins and make the acquaintance of Maily (Marayat Andriane) while the other sailors dance party to the tune of roaring ’20s standards like “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goodbye!)” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”.

Clad in his non-regulation white shirt and shorts, Jake Holman roots for his pal Po-han during a barroom brawl.

Clad in his non-regulation white shirt and shorts, Jake Holman roots for his pal Po-han during a barroom brawl.

THE SAND PEBBLES

This manner of dress seems to pre-date the Navy’s official Tropical White Uniform (or Tropical White Short) that emerged later in the 20th century for comfortable but presentable attire in warm climates. The version of these non-regulation tropical whites seen in The Sand Pebbles with short-sleeved shirt and knee-length shorts was indeed popular among the Asiatic fleet during the 1920s, often privately ordered for officers and seaman from Chinese tailors, as seen in this illustration.

  • White canvas twill “Dixie cup” cap
  • Cream cotton twill short-sleeved shirt with non-notched camp collar, four-button plain front, and mitred breast pocket
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • White flat front shorts with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, and jetted back-right pocket
  • White cloth belt with rounded gold-toned single-prong buckle
  • Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
  • White crew socks
  • White cotton boxer shorts with three-button fly

The outfit becomes Holman’s default daily attire for warm days aboard the San Pablo, matching the similar shirts and shorts worn by his shipmates, always with the white Dixie cup though a white pith helmet was also frequently worn with this dress during the era.

THE SAND PEBBLES

The shirt has been auctioned at least twice, first by Nate D. Sanders in June 2014 when it was incongruously matched with a pair of white pants from Holman’s SDW or “undress white” uniforms, then later in November 2014 by Bonham’s where it sold for $3,125 as part of the “TCM Presents… There’s No Place Like Hollywood” auction.

Though two different auctions over the span of less than six months, it appears to be the same shirt as both listings identify it as being numbered “2400-2” in a tag attached to the cuff. There’s some discrepancy between the two listings, with Nate D. Sanders describing the shirt as linen while Bonham’s seems to more accurately describe the cloth as cotton, though both seem to be the same off-white shirt made by Western Costume Co. specifically for Steve McQueen to wear in The Sand Pebbles. (I will add that the photography of the Bonham’s listing makes the shirt look like a richer cream color, per the description. Anomaly, or different shirt?)


Service Dress Blue (SDB)

After being absent for the first 2/3 of the movie, the classic U.S. Navy enlisted service dress blues—colloquially known as the “crackerjack” uniform after the sailor-suited character on Cracker Jack packages—makes its first appearance during Holman’s courtship of Shirley on shore. As the ensuing scenes are set through the winter and into early 1927 as the San Pablo must remain moored on the Xiang River at Changsha, Holman and his shipmates exclusively wear the blue winter uniform when seen in service dress until the gunboat leaves the hostile environment of Changsha.

THE SAND PEBBLES

Steve McQueen in the Navy's centuries-old enlisted service dress blue during production of The Sand Pebbles.

Steve McQueen in the Navy’s centuries-old enlisted service dress blue during production of The Sand Pebbles.

The enlisted service dress blues is one of the oldest U.S. military uniforms in existence as, with only slight changes, it can trace its origins beyond the days of Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” and even before the Civil War when the Union Navy successfully blockaded the Confederate states all the while capturing or sinking enemy vessels. The U.S. Navy first regulated uniforms for enlisted men in 1841, more than 20 years after bell bottoms had already been in practice.

The uniform evolved over the decades with shifting headgear, trouser buttons removed and re-added, and different stripes, stars, and rate badges authorized until more or less evolving into the “crackerjack” jumper with white-taped collar and cuffs, 13-button “broadfall” trousers, black neckerchief, and round, visor-less white canvas cap by the end of the 19th century.

  • White canvas twill “Dixie cup” cap
  • Navy wool serge pullover jumper with triple white-taped V-neck “sailor collar” (with squared back flap detailed with two white stars) and 2-button cuffs (trimmed with triple white tape
    • Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class rate badge (white crow, white propeller, three red chevrons) on upper left sleeve
    • Two red service stripes on forearm of left sleeve
  • Black silk neckerchief
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • Dark navy Melton wool double-breasted pea coat with convertible collar, 10-button front, and slanted hand warmer pockets
  • Navy wool serge flat front trousers with 13-button “broadfall” front flap, welted front pockets, jetted back right pocket, laced back gusset, and flared plain-hemmed “bell bottoms”
  • Khaki cotton canvas 2¼”-wide gun belt with three rows of grommets and brass clip-buckle
  • Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
  • Black socks
  • White cotton boxer shorts with three-button fly

Explore current U.S. Navy regulations for the men’s enlisted Service Dress Blue uniform here and read more about the history and symbolism about “The Crackerjack” here.

The unique broadfall trousers remain an enduring element of the Navy’s enlisted uniforms, though it wasn’t until 2012 that a hidden zippered fly was added, sewing the flap into place and reducing the iconic 13 anchor-motif buttons to merely non-functional decorations, responding to rumors that had been floating around the functional modernization of this uniform element for at least two decades.

“Undress Blue”

As the weather gets even colder, Holman and his fellow USS San Pablo sailors don heavy pea coats and swap out their undershirts for heavy dark navy long-sleeve T-shirts with higher mock necks. He wears the “undress blue” simplified version of the uniform, a pared-down version of the SDB uniform similar to the “undress white” as it lacks the collar detail and has 3/4-length sleeves sans piped cuffs. McQueen’s screen-worn undress blue jumper was included in a June 2018 auction, though icollector reports that the item was not sold.

Holman stuffs his savings into his broadfell trousers.

Holman stuffs his savings into his broadfell trousers.

Holman wears his undress blue jumper and long-sleeved undershirt during cold weather, so his preferred outerwear with this uniform is a classic heavy pea coat.

The Pea Coat

The pea coat has been associated with sailors for nearly as long as the U.S. Navy has been in service, though it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the branch officially adopted the trusted outerwear that had been keeping British sailors warm for half a century. Since the 1720s, this short, double-breasted coat made from heavy navy-colored cloth has been referred to as a “pea jacket” or—somewhat later—“pea coat”, reportedly an abbreviation of the coarse “pilot cloth” used in the construction of early USN pea coats, though there are multiple theories about the origins of the name. Traditionally, the Navy constructed its pea coats from a heavy (30-32 oz.) woolen Melton cloth.

Holman takes no chances for his trip ashore, dressing to protect himself against the weather and hostile locals, respectively, in his warm pea jacket and gun belt.

Holman takes no chances for his trip ashore, dressing to protect himself against the weather and hostile locals, respectively, in his warm pea jacket and gun belt.

Though it had been commonly associated with naval outerwear for more than a century, the pea coat wasn’t officially authorized by the U.S. Navy until 1866, and it remained “the only prescribed outer clothing for enlisted personnel in cold weather” for the next 20 years, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

Jake Holman’s pea coat is traditionally styled with ten buttons, including two buttons at the neck to close the coat over the throat for warmth. Further down, there are two parallel columns of four buttons each and a straight, flapped pocket on each hip. These lower pockets indicate that Holman appears to be correctly wearing a pre-1941 pea jacket, as these pockets were omitted under 1941 regulations in lieu of only the hand warmer pockets along the side seams.

His holstered 1911 tucked into his pea coat, Holman checks in on Frenchy and Maily's apartment. The visit would prove to be disastrous.

His holstered 1911 tucked into his pea coat, Holman checks in on Frenchy and Maily’s apartment. The visit would prove to be disastrous.

Venerable American brand Schott was among the manufacturers who constructed pea jackets for American service members during the early 20th century which adds a particularly strong pedigree to the Schott 740 in their current lineup, a traditionally designed and constructed ten-button pea coat made from heavy 32 oz. Melton wool. The pea coat that I wear on winter’s coldest days is a vintage Schott that my grandfather picked up while serving in the Pacific theater during the later days of World War II.

The Guns

Once Lieutenant Collins fears a potential mid-winter mutiny while moored outside Changsha, he orders all of his top men to “start wearing sidearms”, including Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson) and Chief Petty Officer Franks (Barney Phillips). The timing coincides with Holman strapping on a gun belt as part of his being assigned the rotating duty of transporting mail to the U.S. consul in Changsha.

While the standard U.S. military sidearm in 1926 would have been the esteemed M1911 pistol or the recently improved M1911A1, The Sand Pebbles followed the example of many other films of the era by using a cosmetically similar Star Model B, a Spanish-made semi-automatic pistol chambered in 9×19 mm Parabellum that, save for its brass external extractor and lack of a grip safety, resembles John Browning’s 1911 design.

Holman straps on a sidearm for his journey ashore.

Holman straps on a sidearm for his journey ashore.

Due to the difficulty of getting an actual 1911 to cycle .45-caliber blanks during this era, many Hollywood productions turned to the Star Model B and its somewhat more reliable 9mm blank ammunition, notably The Wild Bunch (1969) and Dillinger (1973), though this was still evidently in practice as late as The Untouchables (1987), about a decade after Hollywood had finally mastered bona fide .45-caliber 1911s firing on screen.

For more routine duties, Jake Holman would typically arm himself with the M1903 Springfield Mk. 1 bolt-action rifle, whether it’s joining Frenchy for a landing at Paoshan or taking up arms to defend the USS San Pablo from riotous crowds on shore.

Holman adjusts the rear sight of his commandeered M1903 Springfield rifle to ensure that he has an accurate shot to put Po-han out of his misery.

Holman adjusts the rear sight of his commandeered M1903 Springfield rifle to ensure that he has an accurate shot to put Po-han out of his misery.

One particular example of the latter was after Holman and Frenchy returned to the gunboat only to realize that the locals have taken hold of Holman’s engine room protégé Po-han and began torturing him in sight of the crew. Though Lieutenant Collins orders his men to hold their fire in the hopes of avoiding an international incident, Holman can’t bear the sight of watching his loyal friend and colleague being lynched and grabs another Springfield from a fellow sailor to obey Po-han’s dying wish for someone from the ship to put him out of his misery.

Disgusted with what he felt forced to do, Holman then discards the rifle by tossing it overboard.

Holman aims at his tortured friend.

Holman aims at his tortured friend.

Officially designated the “United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903,” the M1903 Springfield was officially adopted into U.S. military service on June 19, 1903, replacing each branch’s then-service rifle. Development of the M1903 Springfield had been three decades in the making, following quality issues with the existing rifles and inspiration from Mauser rifles wielded by America’s international allies and foes. The bolt-action rifle fed from a five-round stripper clip of powerful rifle ammunition, upgraded in 1906 to the now-standard .30-06 Springfield round that stayed in U.S. military service for more than a half-century and remains a popular civilian cartridge for sportsmen and hunters to this day.

Although the M1903 Springfield was supplanted by the semi-automatic M1 Garand as the infantry service rifle by World War II, the slightly modified M1903A3 Springfield remained in service alongside the Garand through the duration of the war while the M1903A4 Springfield was often pressed into service by snipers. Springfield Armory finally ceased production of the M1903 pattern in 1949, though they still found limited use by ground forces and snipers serving in Korea and Vietnam, and the Navy carried stocks to be used as anti-mine rifles.

As senior petty officer remaining for Collins’ boarding party during the final rescue mission, Holman again carries an M1903 Springfield rifle, but the bolt action and limited capacity would hardly give him enough firepower when defending himself as he draws fire from the Nationalist soldiers.

Holman wisely swaps out his Springfield for the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) that Lieutenant Collins had previously taken from Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Bronson (Joe Turkel), giving himself ample firepower during his memorable “last stand” at the China Light mission.

The fully automatic BAR with its twenty-round magazine gives Holman a much stronger degree of personal protection against enemy forces than his five-shot bolt-action rifle would have.

The fully automatic BAR with its twenty-round magazine gives Holman a much stronger degree of personal protection against enemy forces than his five-shot bolt-action rifle would have.

The China Light last stand isn’t the first time Holman is armed with a BAR in The Sand Pebbles. In preparation for the Yangtze River battle that would claim the lives of many of the USS San Pablo crew, Lieutenant Collins orders Holman to “set up a BAR position forward!” and the engineer ably defends himself and his boat from the attacking Chinese militia.

Note the anachronistic flash hider, a feature of the M1918A2 BAR that wasn't authorized until 1938, more than a decade after The Sand Pebbles is set.

Note the anachronistic flash hider, a feature of the M1918A2 BAR that wasn’t authorized until 1938, more than a decade after The Sand Pebbles is set.

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, it carried only limited stocks of the machine guns that were deemed essential for trench warfare. Troops were forced to do battle with automatic weapons lent from British or French allies, chambered for ammunition incompatible with American-supplied armaments. Esteemed weapons designer John Browning tasked himself with solving this problem, having previously presented the U.S. government with two designs for automatic weapons. One of these, a water-cooled machine gun, would eventually be adopted as the M1917 Browning; the other, a shoulder-fired automatic rifle, so impressed the crowd who observed his demonstration that it was immediately adopted as the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle.

The selective-fire, air-cooled Browning Automatic Rifle fires from an open bolt, fed by a 20-round box magazine of .30-06 Springfield ammunition that weighs nearly a pound and a half when full, contributing to the titanic mass of this 16-pound weapon. The M1918 BAR was late to arrive at the front, first arriving in France in July 1918, four months before the Armistice, but it became a popular weapon that continually evolved over the interwar years, serving most prominently during World War II and the Korean War before it was phased out among “second line” troops in the early years of the Vietnam War.

The BAR may have found its greatest infamy as the preferred weapon of Depression-era bank robber Clyde Barrow who, despite his diminutive size, fielded the BAR with great effect during numerous gunfights with local police over his two-year crime spree with Bonnie Parker, often liberating BARs from military armories and modifying them for deadlier effectiveness. Police being frequently outgunned by outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde led to police departments and federal agencies supplementing their aging stocks of six-shooters and shotguns with selective-fire weapons like the BAR or Thompson submachine gun, and at least one member of Frank Hamer‘s posse that took down Bonnie and Clyde on May 23, 1934, was armed with a Colt Monitor R80, Colt’s own “machine rifle” inspired by the BAR.

What to Imbibe

Jake Holman and his fellow sailors are often seen drinking beer from dark brown bottles with a “U.B.” yellow-and-blue label, consistent with Holman’s request for “a U.B. and whiskey” when visiting Baxter’s bar.

Holman enjoys a U.B. with Frenchy.

Holman enjoys a U.B. with Frenchy.

U.B. almost certainly refers to a product of the United Breweries Group, an Indian-based conglomerate founded by Thomas Leishman in 1915 when he merged five regional breweries to manufacture beer primarily for the British military serving in the region until after Indian independence in 1947, the same year that 22-year-old Vittal Mallya was elected the company’s first Indian director. Mallya’s steady acquisitions eventually included food, agricultural, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical companies.

More than 100 years after the company was founded, the UB Group maintains its market leadership with its flagship product—Kingfisher—sold in more than 50 countries around the world.

Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, Machinist's Mate, 1st Class, U.S. Navy, in The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, Machinist’s Mate, 1st Class, U.S. Navy, in The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie. Fans should check out this great fan site dedicated to all things The Sand Pebbles.

The Quote

I didn’t come all the way from the fleet to have it good. I’m an engineer.

Footnote

While The Sand Pebbles reunited The Great Escape (1963) co-stars Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, McQueen and Simon Oakland would appear together again in Bullitt (1968) two years later.

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One comment

  1. george

    Wow, yet another great post ! As a former Marine I probably shouldn’t admit this but I always liked the Navy’s uniforms. Used to love peacoats – the go to winter coat in my high school in the late 60s early 70s.

    Like

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