The Tactical Helmet Insignia of the 101st Airborne Division in WWII

From their first jump to the end of the war in 1945, soldiers in the United States Army 101st Airborne Division fought in some of the most well known battles of World War II (1939-1945), including D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. Their WWII journey took them through fighting in France, Belgium, Holland, and eventually Germany. Although Normandy was their first combat action as a unit, soldiers of the 101st were well equipped and well prepared. Not only did the division take many of its officers from the experienced 82nd Airborne Division,1 they developed and used a system of tactical helmet insignia to help assemble and organize the paratroopers once on the ground. This tactical insignia lasted through the end of the war and became an iconic and spirited part of a 101st paratrooper’s wardrobe.
Prior to the D-Day jump, the 101st Division created the series of tactical helmet markings for the purpose of identifying specific units. These patterns, which took the form of symbols found on playing cards along with other geometric shapes, helped in the assembly and control of those units. The club, diamond, heart, and spade signified each of the regiments attached to the 101st: the 327th GIR (Glider Infantry Regiment), 501st PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), 502nd PIR, and 506th PIR. Other tactical markings included a circle (Divisional Artillery), square (Divisional Headquarters), triangle (81st AA Battalion), and the letter “E” (Divisional Engineers). However, the tactical marking system did not end with the card and shape symbols. The 101st also integrated a system of small dashes, or “tics,” around the primary symbol that identified subordinate units.2 Using the four main airborne regiments as examples, 101st paratroopers placed the tic marks around the primary symbol according to every third hour of a clock: 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, and 12 o’clock. These marks signified the regiment’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Headquarter battalions. The tic mark system followed the same premise for smaller units, where each position represented a company.3
The application of the tactical insignia came in various forms of quality depending on the artistic abilities of the helmet’s owner. Paratroopers normally applied them in white paint toward the lower part of each side of the helmet. Not all soldiers conformed to the same specifications and there were a number of variations.4 Furthermore, the tactical markings tended to become smaller as the war progressed and some paratroopers repainted their helmets after each mission in order to keep the symbol’s luster.5
From the D-Day jump to Operation Market Garden, the Allied airborne landing in Holland in August 1944, the 101st Airborne Division continued to utilize the tactical helmet marking system. Whether the helmet displayed rank, unit emblem, camouflage, or personalized markings, many soldiers fighting in American units during World War II painted their helmets in one way or another.   However, no unit deployed a helmet markings system to the extent of the 101st Airborne Division. In fact, “the 101st was the only division in the U.S. Army to apply and adopt a comprehensive set of tactical and organizational markings for use on its helmets.”6 The reasoning for this is unknown but analysis from period examples indicate that large white symbols on the side of one’s helmet made great targets for enemy sharpshooters.   The German military also figured out early in the war that a bright image on the side of a soldier’s helmet created camouflaging problems.7
Nevertheless, the 101st Airborne soldiers must have found value in the system, as it continued through the end of the war and many soldiers tagged there helmet liners as well. Being able to recognize a fellow unit member would have provided a sense of comfort and direction among the soldiers who often found themselves deep behind enemy lines and detached from regular units. There is no doubt that the insignia created an Esprit de Corps that formed after D-Day and lasted through to victory in Europe, May 8, 1945.

Article by Jordan Winter (January 2010)