USAF Patches - Strategic Air Command, bombers, fighters, air divisions and more

Introduction to SAC Patches


     The modern military patch is a means by which members identify themselves as belonging to particular organization.  The tradition extends back to ancient times when armies adopted a coat of arms and specific  colors to identify themselves in battle.  
     The Strategic Air Command was officially organized in 1946, but it's roots go back to the 1920's when General Billy Mitchell developed the concept of strategic bombing.  At that time American bombers were under the command of the Army Air Corps and traditional army officers, who saw the airplane as nothing more than airborne artillery that could used to support ground battles.  Such tactical missions would later be assigned to fighters.  General Mitchell's strategic bombing concept advocated using large, long-range bombers to destroy factories, transportation facilities and cities and thus the ability and will of an enemy to wage war.      
     World War II saw the principal put into practice, first against Germany, and then against Japan.  During this time, the basic combat unit was the Bombardment Group, consisting of several Bombardment Squadrons.  One or more groups were assigned to a Wing that was generally a base headquarters and support organization.  Often the group and wing commanders were regular army officers with no flying experience.   

First SAC Patch, circa 1947

The 509th Composite Group
was the beginning of SAC.
It dropped the A-bombs 
on Japan

     When SAC was formed, it's basic combat unit was still the group.  During it's first year, nineteen groups were assigned to the command; only four - the 28th, 43rd, 93rd and 509th remained active.  Of the four, only the 509th was fully manned and had experience with atomic weapons.  The other fifteen groups were inactivated.  Over the next few years, SAC expanded and new groups were formed.  They were given the same numeric designation as those that had distinguished themselves in World War II, but they were new units and not a continuation of the older groups.  However, the Air Force wanted to preserve it's history, so the new group was given the honors and awards earned by it's predecessor of the same numeric designation.  
     During this time, the Air Force introduced a new organization, one that put combat commanders in charge of everything pertaining to the accomplishment of their mission.  The organization unit became the Bombardment Wing.  It contained a bomb group with two to four combat bomb squadrons.  Soon the group was phased out completely and the bomb squadrons were assigned directly to the wing.  A wing was also assigned it's own maintenance squadrons and a combat support groups that ran the base.  For more information, see Wing Organization.  .  

Unit Designations

    Under the old army organization virtually every squadron had a different numeric designation.  This caused a great deal of confusion.  Under the new wing organization, all of the aircraft maintenance squadrons carried the same number as the Wing.  For example, the 380th Bombardment Wing maintenance units were the 380th OMS, the 380th FMS, the 380th A&E and the 380th MM.  Only the combat squadrons maintained a separate numeric identity as they were often transferred from one wing to another.  Over the years, the 380th had five combat units: the 528th, 529th, 530th and 531st Bombardment Squadrons.  It's aerial refueling squadron was the 380th, but the same numeric designation was strictly a coincidence, as such squadrons almost always had a different number than that of the wing.  Support groups had different numbers.  The 380th Bomb Wing operated out of Plattsburg Air Force Base, New York, supported by the 820th Combat Support Group.  All squadrons within the group carried the same numeric designation - supply, engineering, etc.  The 820th Hospital Group provided the medical facilities.
      In 1947, SAC flew B-29s.  Compared to the B-17s and B-24s of World War II, they were big planes and their bomb wings were designated "very heavy."  Soon the enormous B-36 entered SAC's inventory and this resulted in a reclassification of both planes and bomb wings.  The B-29 wings became "medium" and the B-36 wings became "heavy."  This designation was used by the B-47 (medium) and B-52 (heavy) wings that followed. Some patches carry such designations.
       In the late 1950's, Soviet Missiles posed an ever-increasing threat to SAC's bases.  They traveled so fast that SAC had only a few minutes to detect them and launch their aircraft before being attacked.  General Power introduced a dispersal plan.  B-52 wings then contained three squadrons of fifteen planes.  They were split into mini-wings, each containing one squadron, and disbursed on three bases.  These mini-wings were called Strategic Wings.  These newly-formed units were given four digit numeric designations.  The name of the unit from which they were formed was changed from Bombardment Wing to Strategic Wing.  
     The same period saw the introduction of missiles.  The first units were squadrons and generally they were assigned to a bomb wing.  In such case, the name of the wing was changed from Bombardment Wing to Strategic Aerospace Wing.  Plattsburgh AFB was soon ringed with a dozen Atlas Missiles, manned by the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron  and the 380th Bombardment Wing became the 380th Strategic Aerospace Wing.  The Minuteman missile was deployed in such large numbers that Strategic Missile Wings were formed.   As with the bomb wings, missile squadrons had different numbers than the wing.      

Patch Evolution

The famous SAC Crest
was adopted July 4, 1961

     During the first few years of operations, the combat unit was the group and some early SAC patches carry this designation.  Generally they were the same design as that used in World
War II.  Wings were given a great deal of freedom in designing their patches.  Some were round, some were rectangular and others were an early shield design, such as that for the 5th Bomb Wing shown below.  On July 4, 1951, SAC officially adopted it's new insignia - the armored first striking through the sky at lighting speed to preserve the laurels of peace.  The standard shape for a wing insignia became the shield, representing SAC's defensive role.  The shield was also used for units higher in the echelon, the air division and the numbered air force.  Squadron patches could be any shape.  

     In the 1950's and for most of the 1960's, SAC bombers were shiny aluminum with the bottom painted white to reflect heat from a nuclear blast.  The Vietnam war brought combat and camouflage paint schemes to help protect the planes from attack.  Patches soon became subdued.  After SAC's 1991 demise, the few surviving bomb wings 
were assigned to the new Strategic Command.   Freed of past restrictions and traditions, they developed more modern designs, such as that of the 509th Bomb Wing shown below.
Wing Patches

      Below are some typical patches.  The first is for the 5th Bomb Group.  The 380th Bomb Wing was formed in 1953 and it's patch is a shield.  For the first few years, the motto scroll read, "380th Bombardment Wing (medium), but was later replaced with the wing motto "Strength and Confidence," which is shown below.  Around 1968, it began using the subdued patch.  The new 509th patch shows the stealth bomber.  The shield has been abandoned.  Compare the 509th patch below with the 509th group patch at top of this page.

5th BG - 1947 380th BW - 1959 380th BW -  1968 509th BW - 2000
    Most bombardment, aerial refueling squadrons, aircraft maintenance and missile squadrons adopted round patches, but many other shapes were also used.    
Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Patches
19th MM 28th OMS 93rd FMS 509th A&E
Patch Acquisition

     Most Airmen acquired their patches from the Base Exchange.  It usually had on hand SAC,  Wing and Combat Support Group patches.  There were far fewer airmen assigned to the Squadrons, so there was much less demand for their patches.  Often, they were not available.  Many squadrons had them made.  Custom patches were also acquired for specific missions and exercises.   
      Air Divisions were first assigned to bases that had two or more groups or wings.  Later the units were disbursed, but the air division remained.  These only had 18 people assigned to them.  There were only a very few patches made and they are very rare. 

Patch Usage
    The army and marines maintain very rigid uniform standards, probably because it's men were often in formation and needed to look "uniform."  This was not the case in SAC.  It's men were highly skilled and SAC demanded a lot from them.  Formations were rare.  To somewhat offset the many demands SAC made on it's men, it did not burden them with traditional military dress standards.  (also known as "B.S.")  Combat and flight line personal were given a great deal of freedom in the design of their uniforms, their choice of patches, and where they were positioned.
    The first consideration was availability.  Many patches were difficult to obtain.  Another was rank and the nature of the uniform.  Air force stripes consist of wings that flare upward. Those for high-ranking sergeants take up a lot of sleeve space, leaving virtually no room for a shoulder patch. When wearing fatigues, airmen usually wore their patches above one or both chest pockets.  Stripes were not usually put on flight jackets, so a patch was often put on the shoulder.
     Flight crews and missile crews usually wore their squadron patch.  Some would wear a second patch.  Sometimes it would be their wing, but more often it would be a SAC patch, as they took great pride in their outfit.  Aircraft maintenance personal usually wore one patch.  It could be that of their squadron, their wing, or the SAC patch.  They often could not get squadron patches, so they usually wore the wing patch.  Support Group personnel were supposed to wear that of the group, but it had very few personal and they often wore the SAC patch.  Some groups had squadrons that had their own patches, such as base operations, fire department,  supply and engineering. 
Typical  flight line usage of patch at Plattsburg AFB in 1963.  The author (above) was in the 380th FMS.  Squadron patches were rarely available, so most men wore the 380th Bomb Wing patch.