R.H.I.P.: It’s not what it used to be

  • Published
  • By Mr. Rick Shea
  • 49th Fighter Wing historian
We all know that on Sept. 18, 1947, the National Security Act declared the Air Force a separate branch of our nation's military service. But, what may not be known is that for the enlisted corps, the rank structure and design retained that "Army look." Obviously, the "Army look" has since disappeared and we now have that distinctive Air Force style chevron. Yet, how and when did we change?

While the exact source may never be known, what is known, for better or worse, is that various chevron designs were reviewed by 150 soldiers stationed at Bolling Field in late 1947, early 1948. The eventual winner, today's chevrons, garnished a 55 percent preferred rating. Thus, on March 9, 1948, Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg accepted and approved the new design.

Whoever designed the stripes may have been trying to combine the shoulder patch worn by members of the Army Air Force 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-grey color contrasts with the blue uniform and might suggest clouds against blue sky.

At the time of inception, the enlisted rank structure contained only seven pay grades, E-1 through E-7. The E-5 through E-7 titles remains the same today as in 1947. However, by 1950, still seeking to further separate itself, the Air Force designated all enlisted ranks as Airmen. Strangely enough, the lower four enlisted pay grades retained that Army rank terminology. For E-1 through E-4, it was private, private first class, corporal and sergeant. These titles remained until April, 1952, when the term Airman was introduced into rank titles. Private became basic airman, PFC became airman third class, corporal became airman second class and sergeant were then known as airman first class.

Jumping ahead to 1958, now 11 years old, the Air Force, having experienced delineation problems in levels of responsibilities, insofar as master sergeants were concerned, welcomed the Military Pay Act of 1958. The act expanded the enlisted corps an additional two pay grades, E-8 and E-9. After determining the new rank titles and insignia should blend into the system in use with the least possible change, opinions of airman at the major command levels were again sought.

In clearly indicating ascending grade and to have the advantage of not reflecting unfavorably on those long-time master sergeants who would not be selected for the new grades, senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant, the most popular among those polled, were instituted. Having decided to build on the existing system, after several proposals, the addition of two opposite facing stripes superimposed on the master sergeant rank was adopted.

Other than a title change to the E-1 in February, 1959, renaming the basic airman to airman basic, the enlisted rank structure remained unchanged until October, 1967, when the Air Force restored NCO status to the grade E-4, the Air Force changed E-2 to E-4 grades. An E-2 was then known as airman and an E-3 was then known as an airman first class.

At the CORONA TOP meeting, a meeting of top Air Force leaders, in December, 1975, it was decided to again bring change to the Air Force enlisted rank structure. Those airmen first classes who had prepared to become NCOs had to wait another year as the Air Force announced the creation of the E-4 senior airman, along with the E-4 sergeant.

Constant until 1991, change in its rank structure once again hit the enlisted corp. Chief of Staff, Gen. Merrill McPeak, eliminated the E-4 sergeant rank, in place since October, 1967, citing an imbalance in the ratio of airman to NCOs. Not finished with his changes, General McPeak sought to bring a renewed sense of dignity and pride to the top three enlisted grades with the design of the current master sergeant, senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant chevrons.

It has often been said that there are two constants in the Air Force: continuing education and change. Through the proud 60-year history of the Air Force, the enlisted corps has endured and prospered and will continue to do so, as it anxiously awaits the next change to the enlisted rank structure.

For a unique perspective on how the enlisted insignia has changed through the years, stop by the wing history office and view the chevrons on display.