An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Heraldry: The Embodiment of Organizational Legacy

  • Published
  • By Kris Matthew, 375th Air Mobility Wing Historian

Nothing is more visible about a military unit than its symbol. Imagine the 101st Airborne Division and what will probably come to mind immediately is the famous “Screaming Eagle” patch on the shoulder of its soldiers; the 1st Infantry Division’s emblem is so distinctive and well-known the unit itself is known as “The Big Red One.” The Air Force has a heraldry program to create and maintain visible, enduring symbols, officially called emblems, to promote esprit de corps, morale, and a sense of heritage that links members of the unit from the past, present, and future.

Although armies throughout history have used symbols to help identify friend and foe on the battlefield, heraldry can be traced to a specific date now. On June 10, 1128, the King of England, Henry I, knighted Geoffrey Plantagenet in Rouen, a city in northwestern France that would later reach notoriety as the location of Joan of Arc’s imprisonment and execution for heresy a century later. In 2013, the International Association of Amateur Heralds began to observe June 10 as International Heraldry day to celebrate the science, art and tradition of heraldry.  

Plantagenet, 15-years-old and preparing to marry the King’s daughter, was presented a shield of blue decorated with six golden lions. This emblem would be used by his descendants including Richard the Lionheart, and is recognized as the first formal coat of arms and an influence on the current Royal Arms of England as the House of Plantagenet became a royal dynasty. The Plantagenets were at the root of centuries’ worth of the most well-known events in European history, including the Magna Carta, the Hundred Years’ War, and the War of the Roses before they lost power to the Tudors in 1463.

During this time period, the position of herald emerged, responsible for representing the king or queen, pronouncing his edicts, sharing messages between opposing armies, and announcing tournaments along with the rules that governed them. One of the rules concerned the symbols that the competing knights wore and which rulers they represented. Heralds would eventually compile Rolls of Arms that catalogued the various symbols displayed on shields, armor, and flags to prevent unauthorized use; this system would come to be known as heraldry.

Of course, heraldry has evolved in both form and function since the time of The Crusades. The herald eventually withdrew from their roles as public servants and became more focused on maintaining the Roll of Arms as a sort of genealogist. As the art and science of heraldry became more detailed, a unique vocabulary developed: the figures that formed a coat of arms became charges, while the surface they were placed upon became known as the field, and so on. 

By the time man had figured out how to take flight and the military applications of this new airpower, World War I had broken out. A year after America’s entry on May 6, 1918, the Chief of the Air Service for the American Expeditionary Force, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Foulois, established the first heraldry policy for American air forces. Each squadron would have its own official insignia, designed during their pre-deployment training, and that emblem would be painted on each side of the airplane’s fuselage. To make it more functional in aerial combat, it was directed that the emblems be simple in appearance and large enough to be recognizable from a distance.

The most famous of these World War I-era squadron emblems is still in use today. The 94th Aero Squadron was the first American air unit to arrive on the Western Front, manned by pilots who had already been flying in combat as American volunteers for the French Lafayette Escadrille. Their emblem was a red, white, and blue top hat going through a red oval; this was to symbolize that Uncle Sam had finally “thrown his hat in the ring” of the war effort. With such distinctive members as Medal of Honor recipient and World War I’s “Ace of Aces” Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, today this emblem is still in service with the 94th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

World War II’s massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Forces brought hundreds more units into service, each with its own emblem.  Many of these are still in use today, although in a modified form.  For example, Scott AFB’s 126th Air Refueling Wing got its start in World War II as the 344th Bombardment Group; the 126th kept almost all of the 344th’s emblem.  Some bear no resemblance to their original unit emblems, such as the 375th Air Mobility Wing’s predecessor the 375th Troop Carrier Wing (Medium).  The 375 TCW (M) assumed the lineage, honors, and heraldry of its own predecessor, the 375th Troop Carrier Group (Medium), which saw extensive combat in the Pacific Theater during the war. 

The original 375th emblem depicted a Pegasus as a symbol of courage and winged parachute representing the troop carrier mission of the time which focused on moving supplies and paratroopers; the banner along the bottom declared the wing’s motto of Nolle Secundis, or “Second to None.” After its inactivation in 1957, the 375th TCW (M) was reactivated as the 375th Aeromedical Airlift Wing in 1965 and completely abandoned its old emblem. Instead, it adopted the emblem of the 1405th Aeromedical Transport Wing, which had taken over responsibility from Scott in the late 1950s when the base shifted from a training mission to a mobility one. This emblem is still in use today. This back-and-forth is indicative of the relatively loose standards the Air Force applied to heraldry from its inception up until the early 1990s.

In 1991, Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill A. McPeak, began a three-year review of Air Force heraldry after noting that the program had veered off-course over the decades. Focusing on simplification, standardization, and stability, he sought to establish dignified and lasting heraldry that would respect the unit’s past while presenting a favorable image of the service. After reviewing over 1,000 emblems and directing countless changes, McPeak delegated the heraldry program to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, where it remains today. In May 2023, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., issued a memorandum confirming McPeak’s actions and intent remained valid, solidifying McPeak’s vision of Air Force heraldry as the standard for the foreseeable future.

Heraldry is one of, if not the most, enduring aspects of military history. While the original purpose is no longer the primary use, the solidifying effect of a unit’s emblem as a visual representation of its heritage cannot be understated. Across decades and centuries, conflicts and missions, the unique ability of an emblem to galvanize many individuals of different generations, cultures, and backgrounds behind a common purpose helps ensure that organization’s legacy never falls.