Insignia are symbols worn by members of the military to convey information about their positions within the organization. The term can refer to the cloth patches used to indicate a soldier’s unit membership, but more often refers to the special system of badges that indicate a person’s rank. In the U.S. Army, it is important to distinguish World War II-era rank insignia from those used today, since some of them have changed.
Determine whether the insignia features one or more “chevrons” -- shapes that look like an upside-down letter V. This marks it as the badge of an enlisted soldier. The more chevrons there are, and the more curved “rockers” beneath them, the higher the rank. During World War II, the army used 10 different enlisted rank insignia, all of them with khaki or olive chevrons over a dark blue background.
Check the insignia's shape if it does not have any chevrons. A gold bar with rounded ends is a World War II-era warrant officer insignia. A bar with brown enamel and a gold stripe along its length indicates a chief warrant officer, while a gold stripe across the width is for a warrant officer junior grade. A widthwise gold stripe with blue enamel indicates a flight officer.
Observe whether the shape is a rectangular metallic bar or bars without rounded corners. These are for the first three commissioned-officer ranks. Silver is higher than gold: A single gold bar is for a second lieutenant, while a single silver bar is a first lieutenant. Two silver bars denote a captain.
See if the insignia is a shape from nature; if so, it probably belongs to one of the next three officer ranks. A golden leaf is a major, and a silver leaf is a lieutenant colonel -- again notice that silver indicates a higher rank than gold. A silver eagle is the mark of a colonel.
Count the number of stars in the insignia. Stars are the symbols of a general, and there are five types. One star denotes a brigadier general, two stars a major general, and three stars a lieutenant general. Four stars in a row indicate a full general, and five stars arranged in a circle are reserved for a “general of the army,” the highest rank in use during World War II.
Enlisted and warrant officer rank insignia have changed since World War II, but other officers' insignia haven’t. For those high ranks, you can consult a modern illustration of rank insignia such as the one on the Institute of Heraldry's website. To identify rank and branch badges or other symbols worn in the army, compare them one-by-one to an online catalog of heraldry symbols.
- The Institute of Heraldry: History of U.S. Army Enlisted Ranks
- The Institute of Heraldry: Insignia of Grade - Warrant Officers
- The Institute of Heraldry: Officer Insignia of Rank - Origin
- The Institute of Heraldry: U.S. Army Officer Rank Insignia
- U.S. Department of Defense: Insignia: The Way You Tell Who's Who in the Military
- PNA Rota/Hulton Archive/Getty Images