When it comes to the use of symbols, poets have nothing on military service members. Perhaps the most creative and well-known uses of military symbolism can be found on unit patches and insignia. Here are eight military unit insignia and their meanings.
The famed “AA” patch of the 82nd Airborne stands for “All-Americans.” This isn’t because of the lack of Chinese nationals in the ranks, but because when the 82nd Infantry Division was formed, its members came from all 48 states. (This was 1917, pre-Alaska and Hawaii.) After World War I, the unit was deactivated. Twenty years later, it was resurrected, this time with the idea of pushing its soldiers out of airplanes. The 82nd Airborne was born.
U.S. Naval Construction Forces
It would be hard to find a more unique insignia in the military than that of the Navy Seabees. The “fighting bee”—designed in 1942 by Frank J. Iafrate, was meant to represent the then-new Naval Construction Battalions. He was asked to come up with a “Disney-type” of symbol, and after considering the beaver, chose instead the bee. (Why? Beavers run away when threatened.) He gave the bee a sailor’s hat and a set of tools, and also a machine gun, to represent the work and fighting capabilities of the unit. The whole thing is surrounded by a hawser, which is a thick nautical rope.
The “puking chicken” of the 101st is, of course, a screaming eagle whose lineage goes back to 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. During the Civil War, that unit carried an eagle into combat. But what does Wisconsin have to do with the 101st Airborne? The 101st Division (its original designation) was formed in 1918 to fight in World War I. They never saw combat, as the war ended nine days later. Its headquarters was thus reorganized under the reserve forces, and relocated to the Dairy State. With the onset of World War II, the unit moved out of Wisconsin and took the eagle with them. Although the tab above the screaming eagle patch says “Airborne,” the unit hasn’t really been airborne for quite some time. In 1968, the unit was re-designated “Air Mobile,” which doesn’t have quite the ring as “airborne,” but in 1974 it became “Air Assault,” which does. In 2014, the last airborne units of the 101st Airborne were taken off of jump status, making it the world’s premier ground-based airborne unit.
U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division
Fort Riley’s 1st Infantry Division is called “the big red one,” and I don’t want to spoil the surprise but it’s because the unit’s patch has a big red one on it. The lineage of the patch traces back to World War I—a too-often-forgotten war that put an indelible mark the American army and its heraldry—when to distinguish 1st Division’s trucks from the rest of the Allied forces, a big “1” was painted on their sides. Soldiers later took to sewing a “1” on their uniforms. It was all made official in 1927.
The SF insignia consists of three lightning bolts and a fighting knife against the backdrop of a blue arrowhead. No single element of the patch is by accident. The arrowhead is an acknowledgement of the great skills of the American Indian, which Special Forces soldiers train to learn. The lightning bolts represent land, sea, and air—the three ways in which SF infiltrates an area. The knife traces its lineage to the unit knife of the First Special Service Force of World War II, a forerunner of Special Forces. It represents unconventional warfare, the SF specialty. The airborne tab atop the patch represents that basic qualification of a Special Forces soldier.
1st Marine Division
The battle blaze of 1st Marine Division, the oldest active division of the Marine Corps, is a blue diamond with five white stars, over which is a red “1” with the vertically-written word “Guadalcanal.” The stars are the Southern Cross constellation, which is visible from Victoria, Australia, where the unit was stationed following its heroic engagement during the Battle of Guadalcanal. That’s also, by the way, what the “1” represents—the unit’s first engagement there.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command
Like the SF patch, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command patch acknowledges the First Special Service Force, and adopts that unit’s red spearhead as its own. Inlaid on the red “tip of the spear” is a black dagger, unsheathed and ready. Like the USASOC it represents, it is prepared for its mission.
Air Force Security Forces
Security Forces, the airbase ground defense and military police component of the U.S. Air Force, is represented by a falcon descending onto three little lines (which vaguely suggest a lightning bolt), with the words “defensor fortis” on a banner below. The falcon represents protection by, and aggressiveness of, Security Forces. The lines represent an airfield. Defensor Fortis is a great Star-Wars-like term that means “defenders of the force.”