Charlton Heston as CAPT Matthew Garth, U.S. Naval Aviator
Pearl Harbor to Midway Island, Spring 1942
Release Date: June 18, 1976
Director: Jack Smight
Many familiar with World War II history are familiar with the significance of Monday’s date as, on June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy in northern France as part of the “D-Day” invasion that laid the groundwork for the eventual Allied victory. Two years earlier, the Americans had been engaged in yet another decisive battle that would turn the tide of the second World War.
The Battle of Midway had commenced 80 years ago today on June 4, 1942, following intelligence gathered by the U.S. Navy that allowed it to prepare for a counterattack against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Three days of battle followed, with American forces destroying all four Japanese fleet carriers that had engaged and—in both a tactical and symbolic victory—had also been part of the six-carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.
Though the Americans also suffered the loss of a carrier, a destroyer, and approximately 150 aircraft, casualties were considerably higher on the Japanese side (including nearly double the amount of aircraft lost), marking an early turning point of the Pacific War in favor of the Allies and which historian John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
In addition to an 18-minute color documentary directed during the battle by John Ford, the Battle of Midway has been the subject of two major movies, mostly recently in 2019. A star-studded retelling of the battle and its lead-up was produced by The Mirisch Company in 1976, starring—among many others—Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. Having served in the Navy in real life during World War II, Fonda had actually partly narrated Ford’s 1942 documentary and also appeared as an unnamed admiral inspired by Nimitz in the 1965 epic In Harm’s Way.
The cast was rounded out by both established international stars from Robert Mitchum to Toshiro Mifune and relative newcomers like Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, and a non-mustached Tom Selleck. Being made just over 30 years after World War II ended meant a number of actual veterans among its cast; in addition to Fonda, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Webber had all served.
Though most of its characters are real-life figures, Midway centers around a fictionalized hero in the form of naval aviator CAPT Matthew Garth (Heston), for whom the battle presents the culmination of his increasing personal and professional troubles.
What’d He Wear?
While I haven’t yet seen the 2019 Midway, I suspect that at least one stronger point in the newer movie’s favor is a greater diversity of uniforms. The 1976 Midway is a constant parade of khaki, generally foregoing the full jacket-and-tie service uniform in favor of the simpler shirt-and-trousers working uniform. This may indeed have some basis in truth, but it made it all the more refreshing when certain characters subtly subverted the monotony, whether in the form of RADM Ray Spruance (Glenn Ford) briefly donning a khaki deck jacket during the battle or when CAPT Garth drops in on his pal CDR Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook), the latter having draped a silk dressing gown over his khaki.
The United States military had started implementing the dressed-down khaki shirt and trousers as early as the mid-1930s following a request from the U.S. Army’s Panama Canal Department, where servicemen sought a comfortable but presentable uniform while working in the oppressive heat of the Panama Canal Zone. In April 1938, the Army authorized a “Class C” working uniform of shirts and trousers made from matching 8.2 oz. cotton twill, which would be continually modified over the course of World War II by reducing the weight to 6 oz. and ultimately 5 oz. by war’s end as well as introducing the convertible shirt collar that could be worn with or without a tie.
The practice would be followed by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) and the U.S. Navy (USN), though the latter had been borrowing USMC’s khaki uniform elements for Naval Aviators since 1913. By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Navy had authorized khaki shirts and trousers as approved working uniforms aboard all ships and submarines, and this Service Khaki non-dress uniform remains in practice nearly a century later, albeit with the considerable difference of short-sleeved shirts having been authorized in the 1960s.
Stationed in the tropical Hawaiian islands, CAPT Garth exclusively wears his khaki working uniform throughout Midway, rotating through a series of nearly identical khaki cotton long-sleeved uniform shirts to match his colleagues. All of the long-sleeved shirts in Midway are styled appropriately with two chest pockets that each close with a single-button flap, though—as in real life—the shapes of these flaps vary between mitred corners (as worn by Henry Fonda as ADM Nimitz), scalloped (as worn by Robert Webber as RADM Frank Fletcher and Edward Albert as Garth’s son), and completely rectangular (as worn by CAPT Garth, CDR Rochefort, and RADM Spruance).
In warm climates, necessitating the removal of the coats of the aviation working uniforms, the insignia of rank, a metal pin-on device, shall be worn by all commissioned and warrant officers on the collar of the shirt.
— Chapter IX of the 1941 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations
Per this uniform code, Garth wears his rank insignia on both leaves of the shirt’s collar, which alternates between a straight point collar in earlier scenes and a more spread collar in later scenes. Similar to the equivalent O-6 grade of colonel in the Army and Marine Corps, the insignia for Garth’s rank of captain is a silver eagle, designed to mimic the Great Seal of the United States with a U.S. shield superimposed over its chest with an olive branch and bundle of arrows in its talons.
As a Naval Aviator, CAPT Garth has also been prescribed to wear his gold “wings” pinned just above his left breast pocket. This all-gold design for the Naval Aviation device had originated in late 1917 and has remained essentially the same since it was described in the 1922 regulations as “a gold embroidered or bronze gold-plated metal pin, winged, foul anchor surcharged with a shield ½ inch in height, 2¾ inches from tip to tip of wings; length of foul anchor 1 inch,” though the latter had been reduced to 7/8 inch by the start of World War II.
Always while at sea and sometimes while on land, Garth wears the top of his shirt’s front placket undone, showing the top of his white cotton crew-neck short-sleeved undershirt. On the occasions that Garth does wear a tie with his khaki shirt, he follows the oft-cited 1941 regulations that stipulated a simple tie which “shall be plain black, four-in-hand, made of silk, rayon, or wool,” likely favoring the latter based on its matte appearance on screen.
Garth’s flat front trousers appear to be made from the same khaki cotton twill as his shirt, which balances being more proneness to wrinkling with also being cooler-wearing than heavier wool trousers. Styled with straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms, these relatively comfortable trousers transcended their wartime usage when they were popularized among civilians as relatively comfortable alternatives. Decades later, the enduring popularity of khakis provides a testament to their staying power.
Garth holds up his khaki trousers with the standard-issue 1¼”-wide khaki cotton web belt that closes through a plain gold-anodized brass slider buckle.
Garth typically presents a slightly more formal variation of his khaki working uniform while on land, not only wearing his tie but also the more decorative peaked “combination cap” with a khaki cotton cover to match the rest of his uniform. The hat has a gold lace ½”-wide “chinstrap” over the black mohair-braided cap band. As authorized for ranks of commander and captain, Garth chooses to adorn his black leather visor with the gold embroidered “scrambled eggs” decoration of oak leaves and acorns.
The officer’s device on the front of the cap is a silver eagle with its wings spread, perched on a shield and turned to the right in alignment with the sword arm, superimposed over two crossed gold anchors. (More information about U.S. Navy headgear from WWII can be found here.)
While at sea aboard USS Yorktown, CAPT Garth follows the Navy’s direction that “in lieu of officers’ and chief petty officers’ regulation caps, a garrison cap may be worn with winter and summer working uniforms.” Also known as a side cap, field service cap, and flight cap, this soft headgear had been originally authorized strictly for naval aviation officers until permission was expanded eight months after Midway to be an acceptable alternative to any Navy personnel who wore peaked combination covers.
Garrison caps were to made from the same cloth and color of the wearer’s uniform, so Garth appropriately wears a khaki cotton cap, made from the Navy dimensions of “a top curving from front to rear (3 inches high in front, 4¾ inches high in center, and 4 inches high in rear), without points at either end, fitted with a sweatband, and having aprons turned up on both sides and with the left side overlapping the right side.” This slanted “apron” tapered from a 3¼” height in the front down to just 2½” in the back, creating a graceful wave-like effect that contributed to the Navy garrison cap’s distinction from its Army and Marine cousins.
As an aviation officer, Garth affixes his cap with a miniature winged badge, scaled to half the size of the standard insignia, pinned two inches from the front on the left side, with his silver rank insignia pinned to the right.
You can read more about these caps here, which also explains their tactical advantage as “the small, foldable, easily cared for cap was a significant convenience to thousands of Navy personnel shipped overseas to busy combat zones during the war; and especially so when compared to the care requirements of the much more fragile peaked cap.”
Apropos their nomenclature, aviator-style sunglasses had been originally developed for pilots when the U.S. Army Air Corps contracted American Optical (AO Eyewear) to craft their D-1 flying goggles in 1935. As the government prepared for war, the Army and Navy collaborated on standardizing the “AN6531” lenses that would be used on millions of sunglasses issued to members of both branches, with the green-tinted Type 1 ultimately superseded by the “rose smoke”-tinted Type 2. A plethora of manufacturers including American Optical and Bausch & Lomb were contracted to meet the demand for these military “flying sun glasses (comfort cable)” with their nickel-plated copper alloy frames, teardrop-shaped lenses, and prominent brow bar.
Garth’s aviator sunglasses generally reflect the military-authorized AN6531 shape and pattern, but their gold-finished frames and lack of a frontal brow bar suggests that Heston likely wore a pair of post-war shades intended for the civilian market.
In addition to their gold winged badge, Naval Aviators have long been sartorially differentiated by the authorization for brown service shoes to wear with their khaki uniforms. The only stipulations in the 1941 regulations were that they be “shall be made of plain brown leather and shall be of plain design,” though the comparatively more tasteful and traditional dressers of the era would have interpreted this to mean low lace-up oxfords or derbies with either plain or cap-toes.
The high-flying CAPT Garth follows the Navy’s direction, wearing russet-brown leather plain-toe derby shoes with plain black cotton lisle socks.
Given the status of his rank and its yellow gold case, CAPT Garth’s watch is likely his personal timepiece rather than one of the more utilitarian models produced by companies like Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham for American service members to wear during World War II.
Fans of World War II-era USN khaki at sea would also see plenty in Mister Roberts, also starring Henry Fonda—albeit two decades younger—as the eponymous executive officer of a cargo ship in the Pacific.
CAPT Garth’s Uniform
While you’d never want to steal valor by appropriating military uniforms or insignia, there’s plenty to be learned by studying the philosophy of military apparel. After all, there must be a reason that the U.S. Navy’s “non-dress” service khaki uniform has remained virtually unchanged for over 80 years with its matching cotton shirt and trousers, with the more tonally appropriate brown lace-ups for fliers like CAPT Garth, who earns the right to wear aviator sunglasses by virtue of his occupation. Dressing the same would look too much like attempting a uniform, but surplus Navy gear—sans insignia, of course—can be comfortable supplements to warm-weather wardrobes.
- Khaki cotton long-sleeve shirt with “convertible” point collar, front placket, two rectangular-flapped patch pockets on chest, and single-button cuffs
- Silver eagle collar devices (denoting O-6 rank of Captain)
- Khaki cotton flat front trousers with belt loops, straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Khaki cotton web belt with gold-anodized brass slider buckle
- Russet-brown leather plain-toe derby service shoes
- Black cotton lisle socks
- Khaki cotton “combination cover” officer’s cap with gold-embroidered “scrambled eggs” across black leather visor
- Gold-framed AN6531 aviator-style sunglasses
- Gold wristwatch
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You know, you’re being paid to fly fighter planes, not sit down in your cabin and cry over your girl’s picture!