History of Military Patches and Insignia


Badges, insignia and military patches have been in existence for centuries in one form or another.  And not always for the military.

Roman Legions used a Standard to identify their unit and as a form of communication on the battlefield.
This was a pennant or flag attached to a tall pole and topped with an animal or bird.  The most popular was the eagle but wild boar, minotaurs and horses were also used.

In Europe in the 15th century, badges were often given out by Royalty to mark significant events.  And by the early 17th century, European armies issued metal cap badges to identify units and rank.

American history books tell us that in the summer of 1862 as thousands of troops were gathering for battle, General Philip Kearny – Commander of the Potomac’s Third Army Corps – ordered his men to place a piece of red cloth on the front of their caps to help him find them.

This piece of cloth became known as the “Kearny Patch.”  And although he didn’t know it at the time, he created what would go on to become a universally used identifier of military units.

During WW2, artists at Walt Disney Studios drew over 1,200 insignia for the US Military.  The most requested figure was Donald Duck but almost every Disney character was used in the insignias.

With the exception of Bambi.

To some it seemed wrong painting cartoon characters on war machines or wearing the images on jackets.  But for the troops, these familiar little characters gave them a sense of nostalgia and reminded them of everything they loved about home.

NASA started using patches in the 1960s to identify each space mission.  Their design team works with the crew members of every mission to create a unique patch that symbolizes that particular crew and their mission objective.

This unique patch is then proudly worn on the astronauts space suits and displayed on their equipment.  The patch is also worn by all other personnel working on the crew’s mission.

NASA’s 2017 International Space Station patch has a ‘Star Wars’ theme and you can learn more about its design in this video clip.



Where the badge is worn on the uniform has important significance too. Combat veterans often wear shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) to recognize their wartime service with a unit or in a specific area of conflict.

Today units regularly create their own unique and unofficial military patches, nicknamed “morale or Friday patches.”  These are often for one-off special operations they’ve taken part in or as a quirky patch with their nickname or motto.

It’s a way of building “esprit de corps” within the unit and there’s usually a touch of black humor attached to the patch.

And Finally

Pentagon PSYOPS and NRO patches get the award for creating the most sinister and creepy patches.  Many of the designs use creatures from mythology and the phrases are almost always in Hebrew, Greek or Latin.

And this one created for a “black” project carried out by the Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four is so secret, it doesn’t have symbols in the center – just an empty black hole – with the phrase, “Si Ego Certiorem Faciam…Mihi Tu Delendus Eris”

“I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Enough said.


Image credits: NASA/Lucasfilm,  Trevor Paglen Pinterest.com

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