General Dwight Eisenhower writes letter on May 5, 1943, urging U.S. Army to adopt what will become known as the Ike jacket.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/10/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20255

On May 5, 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) writes to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) to urge the adoption of a new shorter, smarter-looking army service jacket. Soon dubbed the Ike jacket, the new uniform will become U.S. Army standard in November 1944. The iconic jacket, the most famous item of clothing to come out of World War II, traces its origins to the state of Washington. In 1941 Eisenhower, then a colonel serving at Fort Lewis, sought a sharp-looking alternative to the standard army service coat. He had Fort Lewis Post Exchange tailor Joseph Rome (1885-1971) alter a service coat from mid-hip length to waist length and make it form fitting, but as a colonel Eisenhower lacked the rank to make this jacket part of the official army uniform. In 1943 as a general he again has a tailor create a shorter, more attractive jacket, and now he can also advocate for it to be issued army wide. After the war the Ike jacket will also be adopted by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Post Office, and various commercial companies, and will be widely worn by both veterans and civilians.

Joseph Rome and the Original Jacket

For the most part, the World War II era was a time of plain fashions. However one garment demonstrated, style, comfort, and innovation, and won lasting fame. The Ike jacket, described as very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking, and eventually worn by millions of service members, became the most famous apparel of the war. The iconic jacket had its beginning several years earlier at Fort Lewis in Pierce County south of Tacoma. In February 1940 Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower reported to duty at Fort Lewis. He had reached his goal to lead troops after more than a decade of desk jobs. Eisenhower became a battalion commander in the army's sharpest regiment, the 15th Regiment.

A quality of Eisenhower that would serve the country well was his concern and caring for the soldiers who served under him. While the 15th Regiment was sharp, the men's appearance in the standard-issue service coats was anything but sharp. The mid-hip-length coat was more like a poorly fitting sport coat than a uniform. In 1941 Colonel Eisenhower could not do anything to correct the army uniform's shortcomings. However he could demonstrate that a sharper uniform could be made. To create a better jacket he asked the Post Exchange tailor, Joseph Rome, to cut and alter one of the olive-drab wool-serge service coats. Rome cut it from mid-hip length to waist length and made it more form fitting. Eisenhower and Rome were both pleased with the jacket design.

Joseph Rome immigrated to Tacoma from Russia in 1913 and became a tailor. He worked in tailor shops and in 1924 became the head tailor at Tacoma's Drury the Tailor. In 1940 he acquired the concession tailor shop in the Fort Lewis Post Exchange. After the war he had a shop in Tacoma, and he returned to the Fort Lewis tailor shop during the Vietnam War, operating it from 1967 to 1970. 

Eisenhower Promotes the Ike Jacket

Colonel Eisenhower left Fort Lewis in July 1941 and rapidly advanced to general. In 1942, following U.S. entry into World War II, he was given command of allied forces in Europe. There he made a substantial effort to get soldiers a better uniform. General Eisenhower asserted that the unattractive everyday uniform caused soldiers to present a sloppy appearance. Not only was the standard jacket unattractive, but it was also too restrictive in combat situations. In March 1943 Eisenhower called in his tailor, Sergeant Michael Popp (1905-1968), and asked him to alter a jacket to be more form-fitting, shorter, and attractive. Sergeant Popp, a tailor from Ohio, had joined the Army in 1942 and was assigned to Eisenhower's staff during the North African campaign.

Eisenhower told Popp that he wanted his jacket shortened and that it should be comfortable and good looking. The waist-length British Army jacket offered some hints for design. Popp took the service uniform and cut it to waist length and, instead of flaring out, made it tight-fitting around the waist. He also gave the collar a more streamlined look and altered the shoulder design. Eisenhower liked it and started wearing the new jacket. Soon his staff officers went to Sergeant Popp to get similar jackets. Eisenhower wore several versions of the jacket with different pockets and waist tabs.

General Eisenhower worked through channels to replace the standard army service jacket. On May 5, 1943, he wrote to General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, urging that the new jacket design be adopted for European Theater of Operations. In his letter, Eisenhower wrote that soldiers wearing the standard army service coat created an impression of a disorderly mob. He argued that poor discipline resulted from this poor appearance and that to realize satisfactory discipline a smarter-looking jacket was required. General Eisenhower suggested that the Army Quartermaster rush to create a better woolen uniform.

The army quartermaster did just that, developing a new service coat. The olive-drab wool-serge field jacket was accepted into service in November 1944. Its designation was the M-1944 field jacket, and it was similar to Sergeant Popp's design of early 1943. The M-1944 was a battle uniform, but soldiers saved it for regular wear. After the war many veterans wore it as a symbol of honor.

Ike Jackets Today

In 1949 the U.S. Air Force adopted a carbon copy of the Ike jacket as its standard uniform; the winter version was blue, while the lighter summer model was tan colored. The Air Force used the Ike jacket uniform until May 1964. During the Eisenhower presidency (1953-1961), the U.S. Post Office adopted the jacket for its uniform, in blue (a different shade than the Air Force). Variations of the jacket were used by a number of commercial companies. Widespread surplus sales also found civilians wearing the jackets, sometimes in ways that some service members and veterans considered to be demeaning.

The Ike jacket remained the army's standard uniform until the late 1950s, when it was replaced with a longer jacket in a green color. The original jacket that Joseph Rome designed for Eisenhower is lost to history. Surviving are many military-issued M-1944 jackets. A number of them are on exhibit in museums. An Ike jacket worn by Audie L. Murphy (1925-1971), one of America's most decorated soldiers, is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Audie Murphy became a national hero after the war. In 1945 he was on the cover of Life magazine. He wrote his autobiography, To Hell and Back, and starred in the 1955 film adaptation. The movie was shot at Fort Lewis and Yakima Firing Center.

The Kansas Museum of History in Topeka has on display an Ike jacket that Eisenhower wore, donated by his son John Eisenhower, a graduate of Tacoma's Stadium High School. A number of other museums have Ike jackets on display. Eisenhower was buried in a plain army casket, in his famed Ike jacket, on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.


Sources:

Richard Kurin, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects (New York: Penguin Press, 2013); Paul Fussell, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003); Shelby Stanton, U.S. Army Uniforms of World War II (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Press, 1991); "Fort Tailor Makes Ike's First Shorty Jacket," Tacoma News Tribune, August 26, 1956, p. 8; "Joseph Rome: Ike's Tailor," Long Beach Independent, January 12, 1971, p. 2.


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