The basic parachutist badge worn in the Army today originated in 1941, when America’s soldiers first began qualifying as “airborne” troopers. Since that time, four new badges, commonly known as “jump wings,” have been created for Army parachutists, as well as a special “combat star” to indicate that the recipient participated in an airborne drop as part of combat operations.
Although the famous World War I airman, Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, proposed parachuting behind enemy lines during World War I, the war was over in Europe before an airdrop could be tried.
In the 1920s, the Army experimented with airborne operations – in a demonstration, it dropped a machine gun and its crew by parachute – but it was not until 1940 that a parachute test platoon was organized at Fort Benning, Ga.
According to William K. Emerson, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and expert on badges and insignia, the idea for the parachutist badge came from then-Capt. William P. Yarborough. He “sketched a design that was formally approved by the War Department on March 10, 1941,” Emerson said. Yarborough “then went to Bailey, Banks, and Biddle, the Philadelphia jeweler, which made the first 350 parachutist badges.” The badges were then produced in record time: the commander of the 501st Parachute Battalion had them in hand less than a week later. To prevent unauthorized copying of the badge, Yarborough also obtained a patent for the design of the badge, number 134,963, on Feb. 2, 1943. In later years, Yarborough (1912-2005) reached three-star rank and was a key figure in the Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets.
The parachutist badge first appears in Army regulations as authorized for wear in November 1941.
During World War II, airborne-qualified officers received $100 per month and enlisted paratroopers $50 in incentive pay. This was a significant amount of money, since a private (E-1) made $21 a month in 1942. Even in 1943, when pay went up to $50 a month for a private, receiving an extra $50 jump pay meant double pay.
In 1946, the Army began asking for volunteers for airborne units. As the Army was still racially segregated, white soldiers went to jump school at Fort Benning, while African-American soldiers went to the 555th Airborne Infantry Battalion, the “triple nickel” unit, at Fort Bragg, N.C.
When not enough soldiers volunteered for airborne training, the Army forcibly assigned men to airborne units and made these units operate their own airborne schools. In the late 1940s, for example, the 11th Airborne Division, then in occupied Japan, conducted its own parachute and glider training.
In 1949, the Army created two new badges in response to the increase in airborne operations. The Senior Parachutist Badge, first announced in regulations in January 1950, is identical to the basic badge except for a five-pointed star atop the parachute canopy. This badge requires 30 jumps, 15 of which must be with combat equipment. At the same time, the Army created the Master Parachutist Badge, which was identical to the Basic and Senior badges except that a wreath surrounds the five-pointed star atop the canopy. A soldier who wanted this skill badge needed 65 jumps, including four night jumps and 25 descents with combat equipment.
Starting in 1950, the Army announced additional requirements for the Senior and Master badges, including satisfactory completion of the jumpmaster course and a specified number of months on jump status (24 months for senior and 36 months for master status.)
As for combat jumps, soldiers began wearing bronze stars on their “wings” in World War II to reflect that they had descended by parachute during combat. The Army, however, did not officially authorize the placing of these stars on the badge until December 1983 when, in the aftermath of the airborne assault on Grenada, the Army announced that a 3/16th inch bronze “combat assault star” was authorized for wear for each combat jump. Today, stars for combat jumps are authorized for World War II operations in North Africa (1942), Sicily (1943), Italy (1944), France (1944), Holland (1944), Germany (1945) and the Philippines (1945). Combat assault stars also are authorized for Korea (1950 and 1951), Vietnam (1967), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Iraq (2003).
In the 1990s, the Army authorized two more badges for paratroopers: the basic “Military Free Fall Parachutist Badge” and the “Military Free Fall Parachutist Badge, Jumpmaster.” These badges initially were announced by a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) directive on Oct. 1, 1994, and were authorized for wear only while assigned to a SOCOM unit. In July 1997, however, the Army announced that the two badges were authorized for permanent wear.
The requirements for the basic badge are to have completed a military free fall combat jump or have completed the military free fall course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C. The badge was retroactively awarded (to Oct. 1994) to soldiers who satisfied the training or combat jump requirement.
As for the jumpmaster free fall badge, this badge is distinguished from the basic badge in only in that it has a five-pointed star with wreath surrounding it at the top of the parachute canopy. It is awarded to soldiers who qualify to control free fall soldier jumps.