History behind Air Force guidon

  • Published
  • By Gerald White
  • 99th Air Base Wing Historian
This time of year, hardly a day goes by when there isn't a ceremony somewhere in the world with four people in front of a formation.

The guidon bearer, usually the senior enlisted member or first sergeant, stands behind three officers and at the appointed time, hands the flag or guidon to the outgoing commander who presents it to the presiding officer after the words, "Sir/Ma'am, I relinquish command."

After a quick change of positions, the presiding officer passes it to the incoming commander, who hands it back to the guidon bearer, followed by, "Sir/Ma'am, I accept command." As every narrator tells us, this ceremony goes back hundreds of years; for much of that time, this might be the only time many troops would actually see their commander.

Flags and guidons with unit colors also go back hundreds of years. While regiments and larger units had flags, representing both the unit and its commander, smaller subunits often did not.

Today's guidon traces its heritage back to smaller flags used by cavalry units in Europe during the late 1700s and early 1800s; these were used by squadrons within a larger regimental formation both on the battle field and in camps.

The guidon came to the U.S. Army in 1834 with the first cavalry units originally called dragoons. The top half was red and the bottom half white with the letters U.S. in white on the red and the company letter in red on the white.

This design remained essentially unchanged until 1862, which was early in the Civil War. The shape didn't change but the cavalry guidon colors were changed to a stars and stripes pattern.

They would stay that way until 1885, when it was changed back to the red over white design, later immortalized in numerous western movies.

One year later, artillery companies were authorized guidons and engineer units in 1904, when the U.S. Army also standardized the design and use of colors and branch insignia such as yellow crossed cannons on scarlet for artillery, crossed semaphore flags on orange for the Signal Corps, etc.

The first aviation guidon authorized was for the 1st Aero Squadron in 1916 while in service on the Mexican border.

As aviation was originally part of the Signal Corps, this first guidon was orange with the Signal Corps crossed flags above an outstretched eagle. These two elements were used for an early military aviator badge, the type seen on most photos of General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold.

With rapid expansion of aviation in World War I, the Air Service was created in June 1918 as a temporary separate wartime branch with colors of green piped in black and a winged propeller as the branch insignia.

The insignia was designed by a three-person committee in the Department of Military Aeronautics, including the deputy director, then Col. H. H. Arnold.

Several sketches were sent to a Philadelphia jeweler who finalized the design and sent back a sample for War Department approval. They then cut steel dies and produced collar and shirt insignia for Air Service officers. 

This design was officially announced in a special regulations change to the wartime uniform on July 17, 1918, although Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton March had alerted Gen. John J. Pershing of the impending changes in June.

With size and speed of the U.S. Army growth in World War I as well as shortages of cloth and shipping, it isn't clear how many flying units had official guidons or if any units had unofficial guidons made with the Air Service insignia and colors while overseas. 

The next published official change to guidons was on July 3, 1919, when the Air Service guidon was announced as green piped in black with a winged propeller and letters and numbers in white.

Green was not a desired color and soon there was internal Air Service correspondence with all kinds of ideas and suggestions. On May 24, 1921, the Chief of Air Service forwarded to the Adjutant General's office a recommendation that the colors for the Air Service be changed to "black piped with golden yellow."

This recommendation was returned on June 21, 1921, disapproved, on the grounds that "a black flag in literature and common opinion is a piratical flag, so its adoption by any branch or the U.S. Army is considered undesirable."

This was followed up with a proposal for midnight blue, which was also rejected. In the end, on Aug. 1, 1922, the Air Service colors were changed to ultramarine blue with golden orange for the insignia and letters and numbers. This design remained in use for 40 years with only minor changes.

Insignia and lettering for Aviation Depot units changed to white in 1931 and by 1945, the color for insignia and letters and numbers on squadron guidons was changed to Air Force yellow.

This design remained in use by the U.S. Air Force even after they became a separate service. It wasn't until Dec. 21, 1962, that the yellow eagle we see today was adopted for use on the guidon in place of the winged propeller. 

The winged propeller insignia and guidon in ultramarine blue and golden orange reappeared in the U.S. Army with activation of the aviation branch on April 12, 1983.