Trying to trace the origins of the United States Air Force uniform is a formidable task. Not much was written, or records maintained and stored, on how the infant Air Force went about clothing itself in the late 1940s. Very little was documented between the years 1947 to late 1949. Many contemporary ideas and notions of the evolution of the Air Force uniform have been passed on from generation to generation of people through oral tradition. Many of these ideas and concepts or correct but many are wrong. This site will try to deal with what was regulation or at least passed on through official channels and some customs adopted by Air Force personnel not considered regulation.
Through the National Security Act, commonly called the Unification Act, approved by President Truman on 26 July 1947, the Air Force was officially and completely separated from the US Army and was given a coequal status to that of the Army and Navy. The founding date of the Air Force is 18 September 1947. It is looked upon as the founding date of the service because it is when the first Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington, was sworn into office by President Truman. On 26 September 1947 General Carl Spaatz became the first Chief of Staff.
At least on paper the Air Force existed as an independent entity. Realistically much had to be accomplished before independence could truly be achieved. At least in the immediate future the Air Force would be very dependent upon the Army in order to achieve its independence. It was assumed that most pilots would automatically be transferred to the newly formed service but what about ground support personnel such as cooks, doctors, mechanics, training instructors, finance personnel and alike. Would all support personnel on all air force bases be transferred to the Air Force as well? Would all personnel be required to wear the uniform of the United States Air Force?
The answer to these questions was swift. On 13 November 1947, the provision of the Joint Army and Navy Adjustment Regulation 1-1-1 established the policy and procedure for determining departmental status of all personnel after separation of the Department of the Air Force from the Department of the Army. According to this regulation the needs of the military or service took precedence over the needs of the individual. If anyone has been in the military I am sure they heard this statement. Personnel of the US Army Air Force were automatically given transfer orders to the US Air Force. If the individual did not like the transfer they could always allow their enlistment to run out and then re-enlist in the US Army. People not associated with the Army Air Force, but were needed for the smooth transition, were held by the US Air Force but under the command of the US Army.
One was assigned to the Department of the Air Force if they were part of the Army Air Force. However, other US Army personnel needed, which were not transferred as members of the Army Air Force, could be indefinitely held, used and maintained by the USAF but would remain under the jurisdiction of the Chief of Staff, US Army and the Department of the Army until the USAF and the US Army thought they were no longer needed and at which point they would be relieved of duty. In lieu of this order, US Army personnel being used for US Air Force functions continued to wear the army uniform as they continued to be under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army. This meant, at least for the time being, there would be US Army and US Air Force uniforms at all Air Force installations and offices.
Figure 1: Example of the letter received by Army and Air Force personnel
(Captain Frank M. McMullen, AAC – 31 December 1947)
informing them of their departmental status based on the
Joint Army and Navy Adjustment Regulation 1-1-1.
Regarding uniforms, the first effort, that resembled anything organized, took place at the end of the 1940s and heading into the 1950s. The first officially sanctioned group, which eventually became the US Air Force Uniform Board, convened its first meeting. Though the board tried its best, it found itself hemmed in by World War II downsizing, budgets cuts, personal agendas and the political constructs of the time period.
From its very conception and establishment in 1947, the uniform for the newly formed United States Air Force was both sensitive and political. In anticipation of a separate air service, in 1946 Brigadier General William E. Hall submitted a proposal to the Air Force Chief of Staff for a distinctive unique USAF uniform. The proposal suggested that blue shade Uxbridge 1683 replace army olive drab shade 33 and has buttons with an Air Force seal. However, there was a congressman from Kansas that believed all branches of military should wear the same type of uniform and therefore deleted funding for a separate Air Force uniform. The result of this action was that the Air Force would continue to use the US Army uniform for its first years and effectively killed the idea of Brigadier General Hall.
President Truman became personally involved in the development of the Air Force uniform. The President had a concern that moral problems in the military service were due, in part, to the perceived class lines and differences between the officer and enlisted personnel. He further felt that large differences in the uniform between officer and enlisted ranks heightened the problem. He therefore suggested that identical uniforms be adopted for both enlisted and officers with moderate amounts of change for rank and insignia. The future Air Force Uniform Board took the President’s suggestion under advisement and the plain but distinctive uniform was adopted.
There was an impasse on the color of the Air Force uniform. Blue was actually the fourth suggested color for the Air Force uniform. Some of the suggested colors included chocolate brown, gray, sapphire blue and, of course, olive drab because in post World War II America there seemed to be a large surplus of Army OD material. The first Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington did not support olive drab. When ask his opinion he stated “For God’s sake, lets not have ODs because it means ‘olive drab.’ And it means drab. That’s the thing we should stay away from.”
The impasse on color was eventually broken by the second newly appointed Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General Hoyt Vandenberg. General Vandenberg was consulted and he mentioned he liked the color blue as it was pleasing to the eye. As Chief of Staff, the general’s choice carried weight and blue became the official color of the US Air Force uniform. However, the exact shade of blue was not determined.
Prior to General Vandenberg becoming Chief of Staff, seven designers supplying input to the early group discussing Air Force uniforms, suggested a medium blue shade be appropriate for the new Air Force uniform. The suggestion of Brigadier General William E. Hall and blue shade Uxbridge 1683 was reconsidered and deemed appropriate if blue was to be the chosen color. Once blue was chosen as the color through the influence of General Vandenberg, blue shade Uxbridge 1683 was the accepted frontrunner. This color was adopted and became simply known as USAF Shade 84.
By February of 1949, anticipation of the new blue uniform was running high. Samples of the new wool serge for the new garb, referred to as USAF Shade 84, were released from Air Force Headquarters to a number of locations such as Kelly Air Force Base Supply located in San Antonio, Texas. Projection dates were given for release of the new uniform along with a word of caution from Air Force Chief of Staff Vandenberg. General Vandenberg warned the officers not to “buy them until full instructions are published. Tailors throughout the nation have lots of blue material, but it isn’t shade 84.” The term “Shade 84” became a household term amongst Air Force personnel referring to their new uniforms.
Specifications for Shade 84 and the new Air Force uniform were released and found posted by March 25, 1949. In lieu of the specification posting, uniforms could be obtained through Air Force Exchange and commercial sources. However, Air Material Command cautioned that Air Force uniforms obtained through commercial means meet all requirements of specifications posted. Air Material Command continued to advised that Air Force uniforms will not be ready through base clothing sale until initial requirements for all, enlisted and officers uniforms, have been met. No officer was to make any individual requests for uniforms through the Philadelphia Quartermaster depot until Air Material Command advised that uniforms could be obtained through the clothing sales stores.
In relation to the above information, and for collecting purposes, original first design commercial uniforms could indicate dates as early as January 1949. If a commercial uniform predated January 1949 it was made before Air Force specification were released, was not considered regulation, and could have many variations when compared to regulation Air Force uniforms. Though there was to be no variation, some regulation uniforms of this time period display some variation due to a plethora of manufacturing methods both in the United States and overseas.
As early as February 1949, the new blue uniforms were in general issue and given to the Airmen at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. However, many feel this early release was to test the uniform prototype. The first pattern uniform available in large quantity was through the Philadelphia and New York Quartermaster by May. A first design date is 2 May 1949 and subsequent patterns following were based on the first pattern but with a consecutive manufacturing date. The uniforms were provided to clothing sales and for general issue to Air Force personnel.
In an article dated 9 December 1949 found in the Kelly Flying Times (official newsletter for Kelley Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas), it mentions the United States Air Force would like to have a complete set of blues in the hands of all airman by 1 September 1950. They continued to state that the US Air Force obviously did not expect each person to get along on one complete set but by their hopes were that each person would have at least on set by the time period specified. The USAF also indicated that 1 July 1952 was the cutoff date in which the Army ODs could no longer be worn.
The Ike jacket and longer length coat became the two most popular uniforms. Women, just like the men, had to go through the transition period of Army OD to the new Air Force blue. The same variations found with male uniforms were also found with female uniforms. However, once the transition to the Air Force blue was complete, the more popular uniform amongst men and women was the Ike jacket style uniform.
Figure 2: Typical first design label found on
blue service dress coats and jackets. Based on the first
pattern date of 2 May 1949 but with manufacture
designation date of 14 March 1951
When the US Air Force was established as a separate service in 1947 there were no distinctions between the Army and Air Force uniforms. In matter of fact, the Air Force would concede to the Army in all uniform related matters. This was summed up in a statement made by the Air Force: “Today they (uniforms) are the same. Army regulations govern the wearing of the uniform by Air Force personnel. These Army regulations will continue to be the authority until such time as the Air Force adopts a new uniform or modifies the present one…a transitional period will be necessary between old and the new.” However, no more than this statement was made, Air Force personnel and an official uniform group was working overtime to develop a uniform that would be both distinctive and cultivate the historical link between both services in that the Air Force grew out the Army.
Distinctive Air Force insignia and uniform changes were accepted and were being used by both officer and enlisted personnel by the end of 1948. Though the uniform remained the same US Army style, some insignia and small clothing items started to change. The Air Force seal was adopted for use on the buttons of Air Force uniforms. Initially, a gold version of the button was produced for the USAF Formal Evening Dress uniform and Army OD uniform. Eventually, this button will change to silver oxide for the Air Force blue uniform.
The Air Force gold button was never mandatory on the Army service dress uniforms for officers. The regulation, for officers, on the button specifically stated that personnel “are authorized but not required to wear a new and distinctive button on the service coat in lieu of the Army buttons.” The only uniform in which the gold button was required for officers was formal evening dress. Air Force Letter 35-12 as amended dated 1 October 1948 required the Air Force gold button to be worn on the evening dress uniform. Even after the establishment of the US Air Force blue uniform, the gold US Air Force button and style of the evening dress uniform would remain the same to 1959.
The gold button was produced prior to 23 August 1948. In regard to the new gold USAF button, a duality existed between officers and enlisted personnel. Officers could change to the new button at their discretion and it was not mandatory except on formal evening dress uniforms. Enlisted personnel, according to Air Force regulation AFL 39-25 1-2 dated 23 August 1948, specifically states that enlisted personnel would have to wait for a sufficient quantity of buttons to arrive at a given installation or activity. Once a sufficient quantity of buttons was obtained, all enlisted personnel at the given installation or activity would simultaneously change to the new gold buttons on their US Army OD uniforms. The same regulation also included the other gold transitional enlisted insignia such as the “US” letters in a circle, the gold enlisted cap insignia, and the Air Force wing and propeller in a one inch circle.
The regulation of 23 August 1948 and the duality between the officer and enlisted personnel explain a situation which exists in the collecting world today. Numerous collectors have found great examples of period US Army officer OD uniforms that have the transitional gold buttons. Such examples are pictured below. However, this is not the situation in regard to enlisted personnel. It is almost impossible to find a period enlisted US Army OD service dress uniform with gold transitional buttons. Examples can be found with the other gold transitional insignia (cap badge, US, propeller and chevrons) in place but not the gold buttons.
It is my belief that a number of factors came together to inhibit the transformation for enlisted personnel in regard to the gold buttons. Enough of the other enlisted gold transitional insignia made it to installations in proper quantities for simultaneous transition. However, it was not the case with the gold button. In many cases, quantities were not achieved for transition. Other factors come into play as well. The uniform was important to the Air Force but the world political scene was changing rapidly and the uniform took a back seat to events such as the Berlin Airlift and eventually the Korean War. By the time the proper quantities of the gold buttons were achieved, transformation to the new US Air Force blue uniform had taken place. In addition, a number of installations probably made the transition to the new gold button. However, at the time, the most popular service dress coat was the Ike jacket which did not use gold buttons. Ergo, very few enlisted service dress coat uniforms with the gold transitional button. This also explains why there are so many of the gold transition buttons found new in their original packaging and never used.
Figure 3 through 5: Transitional USAAF officer OD uniform to USAF with
the gold buttons found on the tunic and the cap.
Figure 6: Lieutenant General Lauris Norstad, USAF on the front cover
of Life Magazine dated November 1, 1948. Upon close examination of the
photo ones can see his is wearing his transitional US Army officer uniform
with the new gold USAF buttons.
Prior to 1959, there are no regulations that say the buttons are to be changed to gold on the blue service dress uniform outer garment (overcoat) when used with formal evening dress. However, there are regulations which say the blue service dress cap (with silver embroidery, insignia and trim) is to be worn when the outer garments (blue service dress overcoat and raincoat) are used with formal evening dress. The colors remain blue and silver, never blue and gold. The formal evening dress uniform with gold military characteristic and buttons never had any blue service dress uniform item change its trim to gold. The only item that changed to gold was the black or blue-black dress cap specifically made to be worn with the formal evening dress uniform prior to 1959. The cap with gold trim for senior officers was to be worn only when the black or blue-black cape was worn as the outer garment. There are no regulations that allow gold buttons to be used on blue USAF service dress items. Gold on blue service dress is a myth.
Figure 7: Not a regulation US Air Force cap.
Gold on blue service dress was never authorized anytime
in the history of the US Air Force.
After close examination, one can tell this cap does not come
close to adopted USAF specifications. The company that
made this cap did not exist until 1974. Probably made
for a local or state air force military academy.
Figure 8: The gold USAF button authorized for
use on the transitional period Army OD uniform and the Air Force
Evening Dress uniform. Never authorized on
USAF blue uniforms and phased out in 1959 on Evening Dress
The evening dress uniform is the familiar civilian full dress with tailed coat, white vest and rank and military character on the lower part of the sleeves. However, not all officers were required to own an evening dress uniform. The only officers required to have such a uniform would be those attending state or diplomatic functions where full dressed was prescribed. Contrary to some belief, the gold button was never authorized for use on the Air Force Blue uniform. The gold button was only authorized for use on Army OD and Air Force evening dress uniforms.
Figure 9: Example of the Formal Evening Dress Uniform.
In 1959 the gold changed to silver.
Figure 10: Evening Dress Uniform rank and military
character found on the lower sleeve. As long as the gold Air Force button
was used on the sleeve the character was gold in color.
In 1959 the color of the character changed to silver.
Illustration from AFM 35-10.
The “crusher” style cap was authorized for Air Force personnel related to flying status. The regulation stated that “the front spring stiffening and the grommet may be removed from the service cap.” The regulation specifically covered Air Force personnel only as Army officers were not authorized to do so for their uniforms. The practice of removing these items from one’s cap was popular for pilots during World War II so as to place their headphones over their caps. Because of this custom and through a lot of use, the “crusher” style cap was born and became a symbol of the US Army Air Force pilot. The custom, at least at present, was now officially condoned by the Air Force. In time, with the development of helmets with integrated earphones and other sources of electronic equipment, this regulation will be officially reversed and discouraged.
On 9 March 1948 there was a meeting in the Pentagon. The chairman of the meeting was Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The meeting was crucial in that it established the enlisted ranks or chevrons of the Air Force. The minutes to the meeting revealed that the type and style of insignia was introduced and sampled by 150 airmen at Bolling Air Force Base. Of the 150 airmen, fifty-five percent liked the design. General Vandenberg approved the choice of the enlisted majority.
No one knows anything about the designer of the enlisted Air Force chevron or what rationale was used. The design was one of several designs that were presented and sampled by the airmen at Bolling Air Force Base. The design that was accepted is the one still in use to this very day. However, it has been suggested by Raymond Oliver, Curator for McClellan Aviation Museum, in his work Why is the Colonel Called “Kernal”? that “Whoever designed the stripes might have been trying to combine the shoulder patch worn by members of the Army Air Forces during World War II and the insignia used on aircraft. The patch featured wings with a pierced star in the center while the aircraft insignia was a star with two bars. The stripes might be the bars from the aircraft insignia slanted gracefully upward to suggest wings. The silver gray color contrasts with the blue uniform and might suggest clouds against blue sky.”
Figure 11: The design and style chevron accepted by
General Vandenberg and the only style covered by
A number of months later, Air Force chevrons started to appear across the service. Air Force blue uniforms were still in development and being examined. Until the adoption of the new Air Force blue, the chevrons were worn on the Army style uniforms. Creating a contrast in color, the Air Force chevrons on the Army uniform became one of the largest symbols of the transition period of the Air Force uniform. There is a slight footnote to the topic of chevrons. No other design or style was ever covered or authorized by Air Force regulations. There are many vintage style chevrons floating around that are not the same as was adopted. These various styles are all prototypes but were never authorized for use on any Air Force uniform.
The Air Force adopted new collar brass for its enlisted personnel. For the duration of time that Army uniforms were to be utilized, enlisted personnel were to wear the new gold color “U.S.” within the circle and the gold color Army Air Corps prop and wing design within a circle. Enlisted personnel were to wear the “U.S.” insignia on the right and the Air Force insignia on the left on the service dress uniform coat and jacket. When the shirt is worn as the outer garment the “U.S.” insignia is on the right and the Air Force insignia on the left, each centered one inch from the tab.
Figure 12: Enlisted transitional collar brass.
Initially, there was some confusion in wearing the enlisted brass. The Air Force regulations were clear as to their design and how they were to be used; however, The Airman’s Handbook published by the Military Service Publishing Company had the information for wearing the insignia incorrect. The handbook mentions that the “U.S.” insignia should be worn on either side of the service dress uniform coat and jacket and the same for the shirt as outer garment. There is no mention of the Air Force insignia yet the illustrations have both insignia and their proper wear correct. I guess it all depended whether you read the book or just used the illustrations. In addition, once the blue colored Air Force uniform was adopted, the gold colored “U.S.” insignia was to be replaced with silver oxide and worn on both sides of the collar. The Air Force insignia was no longer to be worn. It was felt that once the blue uniform was issued an insignia to let one know you were in the Air Force was no longer necessary.
Figure 13: Proper wearing of enlisted collar brass
Insignia. From The Airman’s Handbook by the Military
Service Publishing Company.
A transitional period enlisted cap insignia was adopted. Gold in color, it measured 1 11/16 inches in diameter and displayed the U.S. Coat of Arms, convex pierced within a beveled ring. However, when the blue uniform was adopted, the cap insignia would remain the same but change to silver oxide.
Figure 14: Transition enlisted service dress cap insignia
with screw post and stabilizer spike.
There is a small item that needs to be mentioned. During this time period the Army changed the color of the tie worn with the uniform. The Air Force decided to stay with the old color and not change. The Air Force continued to wear cotton, mohair, khaki, Army Shade Number 5 with service dress uniforms.
Shoes were not spared from the transition period of the US Air Force. Many Airmen had shoes issued to them through the Army. The Army shoes were brown in color. The color needed for Air Force was black. It became a common practice for the Airmen to dye their Army brown shoes to black. Airmen that dyed their shoes were fondly called “brown shoes.” To the new recruits, the term signified that the person’s career spanned from the Army olive to the Air Force blue.
By the end of 1950, blue was the color of the United States Air Force uniforms and a sea of blue was noticed across the country. Though blue was starting to be commonly found, the transitional period continued. The USAF now entered a period I refer to as the twilight transition period. Though the blue uniform was here to stay, various insignia used on uniforms and the regulations governing such insignia and use were predominantly US Army. In addition, there continued to be a number of companies providing a multitude of designs and styles in regard to cap insignia, badges and wings.
Initially, within the twilight transitional period, service cap visor embroidery was only authorized for the field grade rank of colonel and general flag rank officers. Eventually, this regulation will change to cover the field grade rank of lieutenant colonel. The wings found on uniforms, whether bullion embroidered or badge type insignia, continued to be the style worn by the US Army Air Force during World War II. As the twilight transitional period continues, the USAF will eventually phase out some of the styles of wings used during World War II and replace them with their own unique design. By the end of the twilight transitional period, all wing designs will be changed accept for the rating of pilot and crewmember. These to ratings will survive transition and continue to be used today.
Also during this twilight period, shoulder sleeve insignia would continue to be used, distinctive insignia on the uniform epaulette continued to be authorized for use along with overseas chevrons and bars and service stripes. Wearing of the “wreath inside of a square patch” Meritorious Unit Emblem continued, however, the color changed from Army OD and gold to shade 84 blue and silver. Other Distinguished Unit and Presidential Unit ribbons were to be worn above the right uniform pocket opposite the ribbon rack on the left as the US Army. Eventually, this custom changed. The Unit citations and awards were incorporated into the ribbon rack on the left for USAF uniforms.
In the early post Korean War period the transitional period will come to a close and the USAF uniform will become a unique symbol of pride and history to all USAF personnel. Uniform and cap badges will become standardized and designs and styles closely governed by USAF regulations. Gone are the days of the multitude of companies, styles and designs of wings, badges and insignia that existed during World War II and Korean War. In early 1956, regulations governing US Air Force uniforms and insignia were spelled out and codified in the first released edition of Air Force Manual 35-10. The number 35-10 became synonymous with the wear and care and all aspects of the US Air Force uniform. It became the depository of all codified future changes and regulations in regard to uniform use.
Below are pictured some of the early styles and designs of obsolete USAF officer cap insignia prior to being closely regulated by AFM 35-10 following the Korean War. Prior to AFM 35-10, officer cap insignia varied so much in size and design that some early cap makers produced a cap for an officer with two cap insignia placement holes. One placement hole was for the large cap insignia and one for the smaller cap insignia so as to accommodate all the sizes of cap insignia and their proper placement. A good indicator for a first design officer cap is that it has two placement holes for the cap insignia.
Figure 15: Obsolete Officer Cap Eagles
Top – Produced by GEMSCO
Lower Right – Unknown maker
Figure 16: Major General Author Thomas First Design Shade 84
uniform with large size cap eagle & WWII Twelfth Air Force
patch on the left shoulder. The general retired 28 February 1953
before the first published edition of AFM 35-10 in 1956
which regulated such items.
Though highly sought after, many an old first design USAF Shade 84 or Uxbridge 1683 service dress coat and Ike jackets can be found today with the beautiful embroidered insignia of the US Army Air Corps wings, WWII period patches and embroidered ribbons and service stripes. These transitional pieces usually demand a high price as they are becoming, if not already, quit rare and valuable pieces of US Air Force Aviation History.
1 September 2006
Compiled and written by
Bro. John Schlund, SM
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Updated 17 May 2008
Updated 22 January 2010