Patches of Honor

Not long ago, I was looking at the World War II uniforms that belonged to my uncle and father when I noticed the still brightly colored unit patches on the shoulders. The U.S. Army Air Force patches of that era in particular are among my favorite military graphics.

(from left) Patch designs for the 20th Army Air Force, Strategic Air Command and 8th Air Force.

5th Air Force patch (left), which inspired a Ralph Lauren imitation.

Growing up an Air Force kid—my father was a bombardier in the 20th AF and sometimes I wear a cap with his original patch—I still find the wings and numbers of these patches mesmerizing. The powerful fist, lightning bolts and clouds of the Strategic Air Command fascinate me, too. Even the one used by the 8th Air Force recalls those classic chrome V8 engine logos.

I'm not the only one to see the beauty in these embroidered designs: my local Bloomingdale's offers up Ralph Lauren khaki shirts with patches inspired by that of the World War II 5th Air Force. The use of patches is only the latest variation on fashion's adoption and adaptation of elements of military uniforms.

Groom Lake patch.

Today, easy digital design and manufacture of patches has blurred the line between what's official and unofficial, authorized and parody. A Polo shirt is clearly inauthentic, but then shops in Nevada sell a convincing mock patch for personnel working at the secret military unit Groom Lake (also known as Area 51).

My fascination with those threaded insignias led me to Trevor Paglen's wonderful little book on the patches of secret units, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me.

Paglen's book offers patches allegedly from real units, with the “five plus one” star motif linked to Area 51 and the diamond associated with stealth radar-testing units.

Area 51 “five plus one” patch.

Paglen has managed to obtain patches from units operating in the world of black programs, such as secret units devoted to spy satellites. Those operations have their own sources of imagery. For instance, the KH-11 spy satellite came to be called “keyhole,” which is signified in its patch. Other units involved in spy satellites use wizards, crystals and other mystic imagery. A number of these patches are from programs run by the National Reconnaissance Office, famous for huge cost overruns on spy satellite programs. (Paglen also takes photographs of these satellites with telescopes; an exhibition of the results is on view at the Art Museum at Berkeley through September.)

Part of the graphic appeal of patches is that their references can range from high to low, heraldic to comic; they bear classic Latin mottos as well as imitations, such as Illegitimati non carborundum, or “don't let the bastards wear you down.”

Patches tie worlds together: Eddie Rickenbacker's “hat in the ring” squadron insignia prefigured the New York Yankees' team logo. During World War II, Warner Brothers and Disney created hundreds of military patch designs. My father's bombing group—distinguishable from a whole-numbered Air Force or a wing—sported insignia showing Bugs Bunny dropping bombs.

(from left) Rickenbacker's “hat in the ring” design; New York Yankees' logo; a World War II Bugs Bunny patch; Navy Seabee patch.

The Navy Seabee—from “C.B.” or “construction battalion”—is perhaps the best-known cartoon character to emerge from this school of patch design.

Panel from a Popeye strip.

Cartoon figures lighten the seriousness of military life in just the way military humor does—sardonically and often sophomorically. They are the graphic equivalent of the many useful slang phrases and acronyms derived from military life (e.g., SNAFU, FUBAR). They remind us that before it was the name of a vehicle, the Jeep was a character in the Popeye comic strip.

Beyond unit badges are the less formal kind, such as unofficial weekend or “Friday” patches, with such recent legends as “We Kill Bad People and Break Their Shit” (the aims of war neatly defined) and “Semper Gumby,” which uses the Plasticine character to emphasize the need for Marine flexibility.

Edwards Air Force insignia.

I enjoy the test pilots' patch from Edwards Air Force, which bears the slogan Ad inexplorata—translating to “Into the Unknown”—and comes in all sorts of versions to fit pressure suits, jackets and survival gear. There are all-brown versions for khaki suits and all-sage-green versions for flight overalls. The patch shows the familiar silhouette of the desert, depicted by two Joshua trees, along with a line, torturously twisted like the juncture of puzzle pieces, dividing earth and sky.

A number of joke patches are associated with the B-2 stealth bomber, the billion-dollar-a-copy radar evading flying wing. One patch showed nothing but clouds, recalling the opening sequence of The Simpsons. It turns on the idea of the B-2 as an “invisible” airplane, even though the term implies a resistance to radar, not vision.

A mock patch for the 509th.

Another famous patch is based on the link between the 509th—the group that flies the B-2 and is now based in Missouri—with the Roswell flying saucer legend. The 509th Bomb Squadron, the group of which the Enola Gay was a part, dropped the first atomic bomb and was later based at Roswell Air Force Base, New Mexico, in 1947, the year of the famous flying saucer episode there.

As Paglen's book explains, the patch shows an alien head eating a B-2, with the legend Gustatus similis pullus (“tastes like chicken” in mock Latin). The joke is that the higher-ups forbade the original phrase on the patch and so it was replaced with “To Serve Man,” assumed to be a play on a famous Twilight Zone episode in which aliens come to earth to eat humans and even have a cookbook for preparing them.

A Soviet military patch.

Patches, like uniform style, reflect national differences and traditions. The Soviets, no surprise, were big on unit patches. Russian military patches seem formal and ornamented, with gold accents echoing a long imperial army tradition. Chinese army patches show the Great Wall. From those worn by Belgium's 20 military frogmen to Kuwaiti fighter pilots, patches take on many odd characteristics.

For every space flight NASA has designed patches bearing the names of the crew, many of which have been carried into space, becoming souvenirs. NASA patches are often seen on the jackets of space buffs; apparently, they are designed primarily for collectors, just as the Post Office makes commemorative postage stamps for philately fanatics.

Police and other law enforcement agencies are also big on patches. No matter the source, patches, like all insignia, are signs of membership, whether actual or simply desired, earned or only advertised. In this they resemble the family coats of arms, of heraldic shields and bars and symbols. Only anyone can get their hands on them.