16 February 2011

The Quest for the Crests, Part 1

Sometimes, the pursuit of military history seems to be equal parts genealogy, sports statistics, and medieval heraldry. Through my current writing and reading, for example, I've found myself delving into the experiences of 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers past and present, getting lost in various measurements of team success ("Most days in combat!" "First to land in Europe"!), and researching the meanings of latin mottoes, heraldic symbols, and other esoterica.

I've long meant to present here an exploration of unit crests--the official "distinctive unit insignia" that help tell the history of a unit through pictures. Think of it as a knightly "coat of arms" for a particular unit, with each dragon, rainbow, and lightning bolt symbolizing great deeds, events, and capabilities.

This symbolism is more detailed and specific than that of the unit patch. The "Red Bull" shoulder-patch represents the 34th Infantry Division. All soldiers assigned to the division's headquarters, as well as the division's first and second brigade combat teams (B.C.T.), wear that patch.

A unit crest, however, represents a smaller element within the division--usually a battalion- (approximately 500 troops) or company-sized (approximately 100 troops) unit.

Unit crests are worn by enlisted soldiers as metallic pins placed into the blue "flash" of the U.S. Army beret, and by both enlisted and officers placed on the shoulder epaulets of the green "Class A" uniform, which is in process of being phased out in favor or the blue "Army Service Uniform" by October 2015.

So, if you pay close attention (and if they're wearing the right uniform and/or headgear), you can identify a Red Bull soldier first by the patch on his or her left shoulder, then further identify his or her unit of assignment based the crest they wear.

See? Easy as baseball!

The U.S. Army organization officially responsible for design of unit crests is the United States Army Institute of Heraldry, Fort Belvoir, Va. In fact, the institute provides all U.S. governmental agencies (to include the other service branches) with research, development, and standardization of symbols, badges, flags, and other decorative items. The organization also works to ensure that no two Army units have the same motto.

Heraldic language gets a little flowery and high-falutin'. Take, for example, how the institute website describes the 34th Infantry Division insignia:
A gold color metal and enamel device 1 3/16 inches (3.02 cm) in height consisting of two gold fasces crossed diagonally and superimposed by a black olla bearing a gold fleur-de-lis debruised by a red bovine skull. Attached at top a blue scroll inscribed “ATTACK ATTACK” and attached at bottom a blue scroll inscribed “ATTACK” all in gold letters.
The shape and color of each element in the crest symbolizes an aspect of the unit's history:
Blue reflects the Infantry. The black olla (a Mexican water flask), suggestive of training in New Mexico during World War I, is adapted from the original 34th Infantry Division, shoulder sleeve insignia and conveys the unit’s heritage. The stylized red bovine skull is also taken from that insignia and is symbolic of vitality, courage and strength. The two fasces imply authority and commemorate the unit’s campaign service in Italy during World War II. The gold fleur-de-lis alludes to excellence and the Division’s French Croix de Guerre for service in World War II. The motto, “Attack, Attack, Attack”, was adopted by the Division in 1943 and characterized the nature of the Division’s combat operations for the remainder of World War II.
While soldiers assigned to the headquarters and headquarters company of the currently deployed 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division (2-34th BCT) wear the division crest, soldiers of other 2-34th BCT units would wear the insignia of their respective units. Future Red Bull Rising posts will present each of these in detail.

"Attack! Attack! Attack!"


  1. The Unit Crest are kind of cool. In Berlin we used to trade them with the Brits, and German solderis when we went down to the west to train. In the 70's, the enlisted wore the unit crest on the front of our hats.

  2. I hadn't thought of trading them, although I've traded patches with allies before. I'm sure the latter practice is easier, now that the patches aren't sewn-on.

    I miss those old garrison caps! Never thought I'd see a less-functional piece of headgear than those old green envelopes, but then the beret came along ...

  3. "ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK" has got to be one of the, if not THE, coolest mottos out there. wonder how an NG unit got it instead of an AD division....


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