General of the Air Force INSIGNIA


United States Military Rank Insignia & History

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Military rank is more than just who salutes whom. Military rank is a badge of  leadership. Responsibility for personnel, equipment, and mission grows with each increase in rank.

Do not confuse rank with pay grades, such as E-1, W-2 and O-5. Pay grades are administrative classifications used primarily to standardize compensation across the military services. The "E" in E-1 stands for "enlisted" while the "1" indicates the pay grade for that position. The other pay categories are "W" for warrant officers and "O" for commissioned officers. Some enlisted pay grades have two ranks.

The Army, for example, has the ranks of corporal and specialist at the pay grade of E-4. A corporal is expected to fill a leadership role and has a higher rank than a specialist even though both receive the same amount of pay. In the Marine Corps, master gunnery sergeants and sergeant majors are E-9s, but the sergeant major has the higher rank.


Commissioned Officers

Enlisted & Non-Commissioned Officers


Insignia: The Way You Tell Who's Who in the Military


By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service


 WASHINGTON -- One big problem throughout military history has been identifying who's in charge.  From the earliest days of warfare to the present, special rank  badges meant survival. In the heat of battle, knowing who to  listen to was as important as the fighting skills soldiers and  sailors developed. They had to know at a glance whose shouted
 orders to obey.
 In the earliest times, rank was not an issue. "Do what Grog  says" was enough so long as everyone knew Grog. As armies and  navies started growing, however, that kind of intimacy wasn't  possible. The badge of rank, therefore, became important.  Today's Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard rank  insignia are the result of thousands of years of tradition.

Through the ages, the badge of ranks have included such symbols  as feathers, sashes, stripes and showy uniforms. Even carrying  different weapons has signified rank. The badges of rank have  been worn on hats, shoulders and around the waist and chest.
 The American military adapted most of its rank insignia from the  British. Before the Revolutionary War, Americans drilled with  militia outfits based on the British tradition. Sailors followed  the example of the most successful navy of the time -- the Royal  Navy.
 So, the Continental Army had privates, sergeants, lieutenants,  captains, colonels, generals, and several now-obsolete ranks  like coronet, subaltern and ensign. One thing the Army didn't  have was enough money to buy uniforms.
 To solve this, Gen. George Washington wrote, "As the Continental  Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many  inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the  commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some  badge of distinction be immediately provided; for instance that  the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in  their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns  green."
 Even during the war, rank insignia evolved. In 1780, regulations  prescribed two stars for major generals and one star for  brigadiers worn on shoulder boards, or epaulettes.
 The use of most English ranks carried on even after the United  States won the war. The Army and Marine Corps used comparable  ranks, especially after 1840. The Navy took a different route.
 The rank structure and insignia continued to evolve. Second  lieutenants replaced the Army's coronets, ensigns and  subalterns, but they had no distinctive insignia until Congress  gave them "butterbars" in 1917. Colonels received the eagle in  1832. From 1836, majors and lieutenant colonels were denoted by  oak leave; captains by double silver bars -- "railroad tracks";
 and first lieutenants, single silver bars.
 In the Navy, captain was the highest rank until Congress created  flag officers in 1857 -- before then, designating someone an  admiral in the republic had been deemed too royal for the United  States. Until 1857, the Navy had three grades of captain roughly  equivalent to the Army's brigadier general, colonel and  lieutenant colonel. Adding to the confusion, all Navy ship  commanders are called "captain" regardless of rank.
 With the onset of the Civil War, the highest grade captains  became commodores and rear admirals and wore one-star and two- star epaulettes, respectively. The lowest became commanders with  oak leaves while captains in the middle remained equal to Army  colonels and wore eagles.
 At the same time, the Navy adopted a sleeve-stripe system that  became so complex that when David Glasgow Farragut became the  service's first full admiral in 1866, the stripes on his sleeves  extended from cuff to elbow. The smaller sleeve stripes used  today were introduced in 1869.
 Chevrons are V-shaped stripes whose use in the military go back  to at least the 12th century. It was a badge of honor and used  in heraldry. The British and French used chevrons -- from the  French word for "roof" -- to signify length of service.
 Chevrons officially denoted rank in the U.S. military for the  first time in 1817, when cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at  West Point, N.Y., wore them on their sleeves. From West Point,  chevrons spread to the Army and Marine Corps. The difference  then was chevrons were worn points down until 1902, when Army  and Marine Corps enlisted personnel switched to the present
 points up configuration.

 Navy and Coast Guard petty officers trace their insignia  heritage to the British. Petty officers were assistants to the  officers aboard ship. The title wasn't a permanent rank and the  men served at the captain's pleasure. Petty officers lost their  rank when the crew was paid off at the end of a voyage.
 In 1841, Navy petty officers received their first rank insignia  -- an eagle perched on an anchor. Ratings -- job skills -- were  incorporated into the insignia in 1866. In 1885, the Navy  designated three classes of petty officers -- first, second and  third. They added chevrons to designate the new ranks. The rank  of chief petty officer was established in 1894.
 During World War II, the Army adopted technician grades.  Technicians of a given grade earned the same pay and wore the  same insignia as equivalent noncommissioned officers except for  a small "T" centered under the chevrons. Technicians, despite  the stripes, had no command authority over troops. This evolved  into the specialist ranks, pay grades E-4 to E-7. The last
 vestige today survives plainly as "specialist," pay grade E-4.  When there were such people as specialists 7, they wore the  current eagle symbol surmounted by three curved gold bars --  often called "bird umbrellas."
 When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it kept  the Army officer insignia and names, but adopted different  enlisted ranks and insignia.
 Warrant officers went through several iterations before the  services arrived at today's configuration. The Navy had warrant  officers from the start -- they were specialists who saw to the  care and running of the ship. The Army and Marines did not have  warrants until the 20th century. Rank insignia for warrants last  changed with the addition of chief warrant officer 5. The Air  Force stopped appointing warrant officers in the 1950s and has  none on active duty today.
 Other interesting rank tidbits include:

 o Ensigns started with the Army but ended with the Navy. The  rank of Army ensign was long gone by the time the rank of Navy  ensign was established in 1862. Ensigns received gold bars in  1922, some five years after equivalent Army second lieutenants  received theirs.
 o "Lieutenant" comes from the French "lieu" meaning "place" and  "tenant" meaning "holding." Literally, lieutenants are place  holders.
 o While majors outrank lieutenants, lieutenant generals outrank  major generals. This comes from British tradition: Generals were  appointed for campaigns and often called "captain generals."  Their assistants were, naturally, "lieutenant generals." At the  same time, the chief administrative officer was the "sergeant  major general." Somewhere along the way, "sergeant" was dropped.
 o Gold is worth more than silver, but silver outranks gold. This  is because the Army decreed in 1832 that infantry colonels would  wear gold eagles on an epaulette of silver and all other  colonels would wear silver eagles on gold. When majors and  lieutenant colonels received the leaves, this tradition could  not continue. So silver leaves represented lieutenant colonels  and gold, majors. The case of lieutenants is different: First  lieutenants had been wearing silver bars for 80 years before  second lieutenants had any bars at all.

 o Colonel is pronounced "kernal" because the British adopted the  and then corrupted the pronunciation.
 o While rank insignia are important, sometimes it isn't smart to  wear them. When the rifled musket made its appearance in the  Civil War, sharpshooters looked for officers. Officers soon  learned to take off their rank insignia as they approached the  battle line.
 o The Air Force actually took a vote on their enlisted stripes.  In 1948, then-Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg  polled NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington and 55  percent of them chose the basic design still used today.

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service


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