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Military Rank History

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When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it kept the Army officer insignia and names, but adopted different enlisted ranks and insignia.

Warrant officers went through several iterations before the services arrived at today's configuration. The Navy had warrant officers from the start -- they were specialists who saw to the care and running of the ship. The Army and Marines did not have warrants until the 20th century. Rank insignia for warrants last changed with the addition of chief warrant officer 5. The Air Force stopped appointing warrant officers in the 1950s and has none on active duty today.

Other interesting rank tidbits include:
  • Ensigns started with the Army but ended with the Navy. The rank of Army ensign was long gone by the time the rank of Navy ensign was established in 1862. Ensigns received gold bars in 1922, some five years after equivalent Army second lieutenants received theirs.

  • "Lieutenant" comes from the French "lieu" meaning "place" and "tenant" meaning "holding." Literally, lieutenants are place holders. The British originally corrupted the French pronounciation, pronouncing the word, "lieuftenant," while Americans (probably because of French settler influence) maintained the original pronounciation.

  • While majors outrank lieutenants, lieutenant generals outrank major generals. This comes from British tradition: Generals were appointed for campaigns and often called "captain generals." Their assistants were, naturally, "lieutenant generals." At the same time, the chief administrative officer was the "sergeant major general." Somewhere along the way, "sergeant" was dropped.

  • Gold is worth more than silver, but silver outranks gold. This is because the Army decreed in 1832 that infantry colonels would wear gold eagles on an epaulette of silver and all other colonels would wear silver eagles on gold. When majors and lieutenant colonels received the leaves, this tradition could not continue. So silver leaves represented lieutenant colonels and gold, majors. The case of lieutenants is different: First lieutenants had been wearing silver bars for 80 years before second lieutenants had any bars at all.

  • Colonel is pronounced "kernal" because the British adopted the French spelling "colonel" but Spanish pronuniciation "coronel" and then corrupted the pronunciation.

  • While rank insignia are important, sometimes it isn't smart to wear them. When the rifled musket made its appearance in the Civil War, sharpshooters looked for officers. Officers soon learned to take off their rank insignia as they approached the battle line.

  • The Air Force actually took a vote on their enlisted stripes. In 1948, then-Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg polled NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington and 55 percent of them chose the basic design still used today.

    (Much of the above information courtesy of the American Forces Press Service )

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