United States Army Air Forces dress uniform, c. 1943


Freedom's On Me, an exhibition of Poto Leifi's poignant, stylized portraits of fallen soldiers, opens today. This free exhibit will be open daily, 10 am-5 pm, through June 1, including Memorial Day. In honor of this commemorative exhibit and Memorial Day, today's blog post features a World War II military uniform.

If you can read their meaning, insignia worn on military uniforms offer a tremendous amount of information about the wearer. Each pin or badge signifies something specific, including rank, accomplishments, special skills, length of service, location of service, and honors. To those outside the military, the variety and meaning of these insignia can be bewildering. To those in the know, insignia offer a way to quickly establish who's in charge, and help situate members of the military in relation to each other.

United States Army Air Forces dress uniform
c. 1943
Gift of Fullerton Museum Collection


We're still researching this dress uniform, but what we've learned so far is fascinating. It's missing a belt, so we know the uniform is incomplete. Inverted black and white Vs at each shoulder indicate that the wearer was a sergeant, while four yellow stripes at the proper left
cuff reveal that he served four six-month tours of duty outside the
contiguous United States. A circular blue/gold/white insignia on the proper left shoulder indicates that the wearer belonged to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF or AAF), the predecessor to today's United States Air Force. The USAAF existed from 1941/42 until 1947, so we know the uniform dates from the 1940s.

A red and yellow patch on the uniform's proper right shoulder reveals even more specific information and is linked to the yellow bars seen on the cuff. Featuring a stylized lighthouse probably based on Morro Castle in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the patch signifies the Antilles Department. Based at Borinquen Field in Puerto Rico from 1942/43 until 1946, the Antilles Department defended the Caribbean, with an emphasis on anti-submarine operations. The active dates of this department help us narrow down the date of the uniform even further.

The most fascinating insignia is the small yellow emblem above the proper right breast pocket. Featuring an eagle in a roundel, it was awarded to military personnel honorably discharged at the end of World War II. Sometimes called the "ruptured duck," it allowed veterans to wear their uniform without fear of being considered AWOL, an important privilege in a time of civilian cloth and clothing shortages. It also gave veterans access to free and subsidized transportation.

Clearly, there's more to learn about this uniform and its various insignia. Did we miss something? Feel free to drop us a line, or send us an email with your insight, information, or comment. We'd love to hear from you!


15 responses to “United States Army Air Forces dress uniform, c. 1943

  1. KM says:

    It’s hard to tell without zoom but it looks like your ribbons are :WWII Victory, American Campaign,Good Conduct. The top ribbon I’m not sure of.
    I don’t see any wings, so he wasn’t a pilot or the wings are missing.
    I think the USAAF patch of that design is also called the Arnold emblem.

  2. Rachel says:

    Yes, I think you’re right about most of the patches. I’m also wondering about the wings…are they missing from the uniform, or did he serve in another capacity??

  3. KM says:

    Well plenty of guys served that were not pilots so the lack of wings is reasonable. Any idea of who it originally was issued to? Service records are fairly easy to come by. There only so many guys in Antilles who would match up with these dates , rank and number of years of service.
    What are the color bars in the top ribbon? The other 3 are pretty common but the color bars I think I see don’t make any sense on that top one.

  4. Rachel says:

    Unfortunately, the uniform was donated without any info on who might have worn it. We probably could track down the wearer via military service records…another research project to put on the list!

  5. towndiane@gmail.com says:

    I have a uniform like this but not as decorated. Inside the pants it says E.R Brooks B-5401. I tried to find information on this soldier but could not. I also was wondering what the strips stood for. Three on each upper arm shaped like an upside down v and one half slash on wrist area on left sleeve. I know it is AAF by the patch on left sleeve. Any ideas on finding this soldier?

  6. Rachel says:

    You might start with the National Archives, which has an amazing amount of information available online: http://www.archives.gov/.

    If you can’t find what you’re looking for online, you might find some additional leads on their site. Good luck!

  7. Jack says:

    The top ribbon to me looks like an Army JROTC drill team ribbon, if you google that you’ll see what I’m talking about. No clue what business it has on this uniform but that’s what it looks like to me

  8. Rachel says:

    Interesting! Thanks for the info…we’ll look into the possibility that it’s a drill team ribbon.

  9. Mark Conrad says:

    The top ribbon is the ribbon for the membership badge of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. There should be another Distinctive Unit Insignia (DUI)on the right lapel. The lack of wings isn’t anything out of the ordinary; he could have served in any number of non-flying specialties – he could have been a typist for anyone knows. if you look inside the pockets, there should be a black and white Quartermaster’s tag – if it hasn’t been washed excessively, that will give you the contract date of the uniform. Also, leather belts were worn with pre-war uniforms. By 1942, they had been dropped, so this uniform is 100% correct without a belt. Also, inside the lining (normally near the neck) there might be a laundry mark consisting of the first letter of the soldier’s late name, and the last 4 digits of his Army Service Number (ASN, commonly called a serial umber) i.e. C5957. You can use that to locate him at the NARA ADA database.

  10. Mark Conrad says:

    That should have said “last name”. If you need help looking up his name, send me an email.

  11. Rod Melendez says:

    The bottom ribbon bar us upside down, the Good Conduct should be on the left as it is senior to the American theater Campaign ribbon and WWII Victory ribbon. When veterans organization ribbons are worn, they are usually last in line. I think the four horizontal stripes on the left sleeve are overseas service ribbons (6 mo each), the angled stripe below these is a longevity stripe usually for a 3 or 4 year period depending on service.

  12. Paul M. Wilson says:

    The uniform is not an Army Air Force uniform as the article claims. I know, I wore a uniform just like the one in the photo in the United States Army Air Corps. The Army Air Corps existed from 1917 to 1947. I Was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served until 1947 when the Air Force was created as a separate branch of the services. I also wore an Eisenhower jacket at the time and I liked it better than the full uniform coat. I have searched for years to find a full uniform my size, size 42, but was unable to find one until recently. I finally found a uniform in excellent condition at an antique shop, but even at size 42, it is a bit small so I’m having it altered. Question: were soldiers at the time of WW II smaller in size? Every uniform of dozens I found online was less than size 40. By the way, in case you doubt that I was in WW II, I am now in my 94th year.

    1. FIDM Museum says:

      Thanks for your insights, and thank you for your service. How wonderful that you found a full uniform! The question of size in antique clothing comes up regularly–it’s not that people were necessarily smaller in the past. It’s what survives that makes many think everyone was smaller than people today, but people have always come in a wide range of sizes and body types. Thanks again for your comment.

  13. John Thielmann says:

    The top ribbon is for the World War II Victory Medal. Of the four ribbons on display, the Good Conduct Medal (red with white stripes) should be alone, on top. Below, L-R should be the American Campaign (blue with white/black/red stripes on the ends + red/white/blue in the middle), the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign (yellow with red/white stripes on the ends, and red/white/blue in the middle), and the World War II Victory Medal (red center with rainbow ends).

    BtW- The name “Army Air Corps” was changed in 1941 to “Army Air Forces.” It remained so until 1947, when the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of service. You have the correct name for the uniform. In common parlance, many of the men still called it Army Air Corps, but the paperwork (and i am looking at some from that era) said “Forces.”

  14. Neill mackay says:

    Hi I am new to this but thought the dress uniform belt was discontinued in 1941 so was only worn if privately purchased am I correct in my thinking
    Regards neill mackay

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