In recognition of POW/MIA Day, observed on the third Friday of September, let’s delve into one of the first major movies to shine a light on the POW experience.
William Holden as J.J. Sefton, USAAF Staff Sergeant and prisoner of war
“Somewhere on the Danube”, December 1944
Film: Stalag 17
Release Date: May 29, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Wardrobe Credit: J. Allen Slone
I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures… all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerrillas in the Philippines. What gets me is there never was a movie about POWs… about prisoners of war.
… and so Clarence Harvey Cook (Gil Stratton) begins his narration, setting the scene for the week leading up to Christmas 1944 when he and his fellow downed colleagues discovered a potential informant—er, a “dirty stinkin’ stoolie”—in their barracks.
After two airmen are shot trying to escape, suspicion eventually falls on J.J. Sefton, the cigarette-dealing but cigar-chomping staff sergeant whose cynicism has already rendered him unpopular with most of the Americans aside from Cookie, who serves as Sefton’s unofficial batman and describes him as “one of the most unforgettable ch-characters you’ve ever met.”
“He was a big-time operator… always hustling, always scrounging,” Cookie describes the enterprising Sefton, whose ventures range from rat races to distilling potato schnapps sold for two cigarettes a shot.
William Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Sefton, though Holden himself felt the award was mere compensation as the Academy had failed to recognize his performance in Sunset Blvd. three years earlier, commenting that the 1953 Oscar should have instead gone to either Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift from the year’s other major World War II drama, From Here to Eternity.
A decade before the experience was most outrageously lampooned weekly on Hogan’s Heroes, Billy Wilder brought his signature balance of dark comedy, high-stakes drama, and increasingly gripping tension to Stalag 17. Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted their screenplay from a stage play by Edmund Trzcinski, who had indeed been a WWII POW and cameos on screen as a cuckolded prisoner.
“Now you put 630 sergeants together… oh, mother, you’ve got yourself a situation,” Cookie narrates, explaining the dynamic at the eponymous Stalag 17D, a prison camp for enlisted Allied airmen—and, in the case of the Soviets, airwomen—ruled by the pompous commandant Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), who has implanted a spy among the men of barrack #4. Due to his independent nature and gift for wheeling-and-dealing, Sefton becomes forced to defend himself as the accusations pile up like the cartons of cigarettes under his bed:
There are two guys in this barracks that know I didn’t do it: me and the guy that did do it.
What’d He Wear?
Particularly insulating during the winter chill overtaking the stalag, Sgt. Sefton often wears sheepskin B-3 flight jacket, as do some of his fellow prisoners such as “head of security” Frank Price (Peter Graves), doomed escapee Manfredi (Michael Moore), and the late-arriving Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor), who wears it over his matching sheepskin zip-sided breeches.
Inspired by the Irvin flying jacket authorized by the British Royal Air Force, the heavy Type B-3 was standardized by the U.S. Army Air Corps in the early 1930s for high-altitude fliers requiring extra warmth in poorly insulated bomber aircraft, thus it arguably became the first American flight jacket one could call the “bomber jacket”.
Over its decade of production until it was discontinued in 1943, the B-3 varied slightly based on the contractor, but all followed a generally consistent design of a waist-length coat made of sheepskin shearling, the supple leather on the outside (occasionally reinforced with horsehide) with the piled fleece providing the warm lining throughout, extending beyond the edges of the sleeves and waist hem. These full-fitting coats were meant to be worn over layers of warm uniform gear, thus they lacked the trimmer fit and knitted cuffs and hem of lighter-wearing flight jackets like the A-2; instead a horsehide leather belted buckle-tab over a short vent on each side of the waist can be used to adjust the fit, as needed.
Though the colors of their vegetable-tanned shells varied by manufacturer and era, the general trend among B-3 jackets evolved from russet in the early years to a darker seal brown by its wartime production. The jacket’s large collar presents the natural fleece pile, with two belted straps extending from the right side to latch the collar up around the throat if necessary; alternately, a set of snaps on the body of the coat can also secure the collar to the chest when worn open.
The jacket zips up the front with a round pull-tab, the fleece extending a few inches out from the right side of the zipper to ensure that the torso would be fully insulated should the wearer zip his coat up fully.
In lieu of traditional shoulder straps (epaulettes), a small square tab of napped horsehide is sewn over each shoulder, ostensibly for officers to pin their rank insignia. Pockets were another point of variation among B-3 jackets, and Sefton’s coat has a slanted-entry tool pocket above the right hip.
Unlike some of his barrack-mates, who wear little more than their undershirts or long johns under tattered field jackets—looking at you, Duke (Neville Brand), Harry (Harvey Lembeck), and Animal (Robert Strauss)—Sefton keeps his day-to-day appearance relatively neat in his wool shirt and trousers, perhaps a carryover from his one-time ambition to be a commissioned officer.
Winter uniforms issued to NCOs during World War II included brown woolen flannel shirts in olive drab no. 32 (OD-32) or olive drab no. 33 (OD-33), designated “Shirt, Flannel, O.D. Coat Style.” Sefton’s flannel shirting shows increasing pilling throughout, particularly after he’s beaten by his bunkmates. As he recuperates the next morning on Christmas Eve, we get a glimpse of a white tag reading “SERV…” affixed to the inside of the neckband.
With a structured fit echoing traditional work shirts, these evolved from the cosmetically similar M37 shirts but, beginning in 1941, boasted a convertible point collar that could be flattened when worn open-neck, sans necktie. These shirts have seven tonally coordinated plastic buttons up the front placket, barrel cuffs, and two chest pockets that each close with a single-button, mitred-corner flap, though Sefton frequently has one or both of these flaps unbuttoned and tucked into the pockets themselves. (In what I believe to be a series of subtle continuity errors, Sefton’s shirts alternate between the M37 and the convertible-collar evolution as well as between having single- and double-button cuffs.)
Sefton wears the standard flat front trousers that comprised the USAAF’s winter uniform, made of OD-33 wool serge. These button-fly trousers have jetted back pockets, on-seam side pockets, and a set-in coin pocket accessed by a slit straight under the belt line between the first two belt loops on the right side. The trousers are held up by a military-style khaki webbed cotton belt with a gold-finished box-framed buckle and matching metal tip.
Sefton tucks his trousers’ plain-hemmed bottoms bottoms into his hefty Type A-6 winter flying boots. Like his coat, the boots are constructed from supple shearling leather uppers veg-dyed to a dark seal-brown with the piled wool fleece lining the insides, originally intended to insulate the wearer’s feet at high bomber altitudes, though they were also likely appreciated for winter nights in a drafty POW barracks along the Danube… as were the olive worsted wool crew socks he is seen wearing under them.
The lowers are a weather-resistant black or brown rubber, extending over the toes. A brass zipper extends from the center of each shaft down the top of each boot to the top of the rubber toes. (A later improved version, the Type A-6A, were reinforced with two buckled straps over the instep and around the shaft, though Sefton’s earlier Type A-6 boots clearly lack these straps.)
Sefton frequently pulls on his dark seal-brown leather three-point gloves, which appear to be the wool-lined A-10 flying gloves that were standardized by the U.S. military in July 1938.
Sefton’s cap reinforces the USAAF’s faith in sheepskin as he wears the Type B-2 flying hat, made from a seal-brown sheepskin shearling that echoes his coat and boots. This style had been introduced for American air crews in 1939, two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II.
With its long and stiff leather peak, folding ear flaps, and piled fur lining, the flying hat resembles some civilian hunting caps. The four-piece crown consists of two wide strips of sheepskin, supported by an additional strip around each side that are sewn together in the back.
Sefton makes his introduction clad in a crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt, likely made in a light drab-hued cotton. Outside his undershirt—and even occasionally outside his flannel button-up shirt—Sefton wears what Cookie refers to as “our dog tags and our pans”, a ball-chain necklace from which each man wears both his round Army-issued identification disc as well as a rectangular zinc plate provided by the Germans that includes the camp name and prisoner number; Lt. Dunbar is asked to recall his when the SS arrives to collect him from Barrack #4.
Sefton’s foot locker “department store” is seen to contain dozens of wristwatches of all varieties, but the sergeant’s day-to-day watch appears to be a steel field watch he had likely been issued by USAAF. He straps the tan leather bracelet to wear the watch on the inside of his wrist, a military-informed practice that many state prevents an enemy from catching the glare of a metal watch case.
When we do catch sight of the watch itself, the round dial appears to be light-colored, ruling out the classic mil-spec A-11 field watch though it may still be one of the pre-1942 pieces that had a white dial. (You can read more about the A-11 in Oren Hartov’s 2018 article for Worn & Wound.)
In a flashback to the summer of 1943, when Sefton is selling schnapps and the Animal is crying about Betty Grable’s recent marriage to Harry James, we briefly see Sefton wearing a jacket inspired by the A-2, a less-insulated leather flight jacket that would be arguably better suited for the summer than his sheepskin B-3.
Both Sefton and Sgt. Bagradian (Jay Lawrence) wear these jackets, styled with the A-2’s usual snap-down collar, shoulder straps (epaulettes), knit cuffs, and knit hems, though the handwarmer pockets of their jackets diverge from the flapped lower pockets more commonly found on officially issued A-2 jackets.
For William Holden’s brief cameo in the World War II-themed adventure comedy Escape to Athena (1979), the actor’s cigar and presence in German custody suggested that he was once again slipping into Sgt. Sefton’s woolen shirt, this time presented in full color that still can’t match the vibrancy of Elliott Gould’s mustard sweater.
How to Get the Look
With fall around the corner and winter just behind it, a sheepskin coat like J.J. Sefton’s B-3 flight jacket could be your salvation in cooler weather, particularly when paired with warm layers like a woolen utility shirt, fleece-lined boots, and a leather cap with fleece-lined flaps.
- Seal-brown sheepskin shearling B-3 flight jacket with fleece lining, wide collar with two belted throat latch straps and chest snaps, right-side tool pocket, and belted buckle-tab waist adjusters
- Olive-brown (OD-32) wool flannel service shirt with convertible point collar, two chest pockets (with mitred-corner single-button flaps), front placket, and 1-button cuffs
- Olive-brown (OD-33) wool serge flat front service trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted right-side coin pocket, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Seal-brown sheepskin shearling Type A-6 winter flying boots with fleece lining, zip-front fastening, and rubber outsoles/toes
- Olive worsted wool socks
- Light olive drab cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Dog tags
- Steel military-style field watch with round white dial on tan leather strap
- Seal-brown leather three-point A-10 flying gloves with ribbed-knit wrists and wool lining
- Seal-brown sheepskin B-2 flying cap with fleece-lined ear flaps
You obviously know how to Google sheepskin flight jackets or B-3 replicas, but I thought it would be helpful to provide a brief guide of currently available B-3 jackets that best reflect the spirit and style of the one William Holden wore in Stalag 17, which means: buckle-tab side adjusters, tool pocket, and—if possible—the rank-ready shoulder squares:
- Aero Leathers USAAF Type B-3 Contract No. 42-22899-P ($£800.00, Aero Leathers)
- Aviation Leathercraft USAAF B3 Flying Jacket (£695.00, Aviation Leathercraft)
- Cockpit USA 1941 Pearl Harbor B-3 Bomber Jacket Z213374 ($1,430.00, Cockpit USA)
- Eastman .50 CAL B-3 (£1,299.99, Eastman Leather Clothing)
All prices and availability as of September 2021.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before.