A moment in Air Force history: unit emblems

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office

***image1***The new Air Force uniform will be worn without unit emblems but they will continue to play a role in unit morale. Unit emblems are literally the fabric that holds unit history together. Their significance is often not apparent, but these miniature works of art truly symbolize a unit’s identity to its members and to the outside world.
Many don’t look much past the unit designation in the scroll, but it is the symbols within the emblem that hold the deeper meaning.

Like a piece of abstract art, they have to be interpreted within the context of when and where they were designed. Realistic representations, rather than heraldic symbols, might make emblems more understandable, but would also require their continual redesign. A realistic representation of a 286 computer or an F-4 Phantom wouldn’t be very significant to anyone’s mission today.

The 86th Airlift Wing emblem is a good example of the value of using heraldic symbols. Its emblem is a yellow wedge driven by an unspecified force. Since the force is not specified, the emblem was easily adapted through the wing’s transition from fighters to airlift. The 1942 version of this emblem, however, had to be modified in 1952 because the force was depicted as a bomb in the center of the wedge. While applicable to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Group, it was not particularly applicable to the 86th Fighter Wing and would have been even less applicable today to the 86th AW. Now that this story is known, few who read this will be able to look at the 86th AW’s emblem without remembering its bomber history.

Even a brand new emblem like the 435th Air Base Wing’s has an interesting history behind it. When the 435th Troop Carrier Wing designed their first emblem in 1952, it was flying transport training and airlift missions to South America out of Florida. The Martlets flying non-stop roundtrips over water clearly depicted in its emblem what the wing was doing in 1952.

The origin of the checkered sides is uncertain, but conceivably could have been a reference to the 435th TCG’s unofficial checkered World War II emblem. At any rate, this Martlet emblem and its Citus et Cirtus (Swift and Sure) motto served the 435th through the 1950s, 1960s and into the mid-1970s.

It wasn’t until the 435th Tactical Airlift Wing became the host wing at Rhein-Main Air Base, that leadership requested a new emblem to better represent all the new missions. While heraldic rules would not support such grounds today, they did back then. So in 1976, the 435th TAW designed a new multi-mission emblem though keeping its Citus et Certus motto. The new emblem served the 435th through its 1995 inactivation.

With the 2004 activation of the 435th ABW, the wing was asked to rework the emblem to meet current standards. The results were the streamlined version we have today with the flights and globe of the 1976 emblem and the funnel shape and motto of the 1952 emblem – essentially patching the wing’s history back together.

It might be hard to believe now, but in later years these emblems will play prominent roles in Airmen’s memories of where they’ve been, what they’ve done, who they were and perhaps even who they’ve become – Swift and Sure, our Courage Endured.