The History of Custom Military Morale Patches

The History of Custom Military Morale Patches

Published Dec 16, 2022 by Rick Cundiff

Around here, we’re big fans of saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and saying it on a custom patch. Military morale patches are some of our favorite, not to mention best selling, patch types.

Custom morale patches have been an integral part of military life for many years. They’re used to identify members of a specific unit or squad, promote camaraderie, and as the name implies, boost morale. They often do that by expressing an opinion or making a statement that is not necessarily authorized by the higher-ups.

Military patches of this sort have a distinguished history, one going back to the earliest days of our nation. Let’s examine that history.

The “Blood Chit” – the Original Patch

A blood chit is a simple message carried by military personnel addressed to any civilians who might come across them when the military member needs assistance, such as when a pilot is shot down. The chit displays a message identifying the bearer as friendly and asking for all needed assistance. They are typically sewn inside an article of clothing such as a flight jacket.

The predecessor for modern morale patches came from our first Commander in Chief, President George Washington, and it originated to help a hot air balloonist.

In 1793, pioneering French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard conducted the first hot air balloon flight in the Americas, launching from Philadelphia. Of course, he had no way to control where the winds would take him. He also didn’t speak English. Washington gave him a letter that said all U.S. citizens were obliged to help him return safely to Philadelphia. (For the record, Blanchard landed in New Jersey.)

The blood chit became common during World War I, when they were commonly worn by British military pilots flying over India and Mesopotamia. They featured a message in four native languages. As an extra incentive, the chits promised a reward to anyone bringing a British flyer back to British lines unharmed.

American Blood Chits

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, just prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, volunteer American fighter pilots (the Flying Tigers) fought on the side of China against Japan. They carried messages such as the following, printed in Chinese:

“I am an American airman. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied military post.

You will be rewarded.”

World War II to the Present

Once the United States entered World War II, flight crews were issued chits printed in 50 different languages that promised a reward for the safe return of the wearer. They were imprinted with an American flag.

Today, the U.S. Joint Personnel Recovery Agency issues blood chits made of Tyvek. They feature an American flag, and promise, in several languages,  a reward for the safe return of anyone assisting the person wearing it.

The Unit Patch – The Modern Morale Patch

The more common style of what we know today as the morale patch evolved from World War I. As the U.S. Army was training recruits to enter the war, the 81st  Readiness Division spent much of its time training near Wildcat Creek at Camp Jackson, (now Fort Jackson) South Carolina. Several daring soldiers trapped a wildcat near the creek, and adopted it as their unit mascot.

Major General Charles J. Bailey authorized the creation of a shoulder patch bearing a wildcat logo after seeing similar patches being used in Europe. The new insignia quickly proved popular, boosting unit morale.

Bailey got into hot water for authorizing the patch without approval from higher up, and top officials ordered him to have his soldiers remove it. Bailey, however, defended his patch all the way up to General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the leader of the American Expeditionary Force.

Pershing relented, telling Bailey “all right, go ahead and wear it. And see that you live up to it.” The general later ordered that each division commander submit a sleeve insignia for his review and approval. That led to eventual approval of division patches for other divisions.

The Vietnam War Era

By the 1960s, morale patches became distinct from division patches. Circumstances of the Vietnam War led soldiers to seek a way to express their feelings about the war. That led to custom patches that made sarcastic, critical or sardonic commentary. Those patches bolstered unit camaraderie during difficult times.

Enter Velcro®

Obviously, such morale patches were not officially approved. If higher officers didn’t share the sentiments on a patch, it could potentially land the patch wearer in trouble.

The answer was the hook-and-loop fastener. Best known by the brand name Velcro, it enabled easily removable patches, and patches that could be transferred from one shirt or jacket to another quickly. With a simple pull, an offending patch could be removed and replaced with an insignia more acceptable to leadership. The original patch could be restored afterward.

Beyond the Military

Over the years, morale patches have become more popular outside the military as well. From police and firefighters to volunteer organizations, many groups use patches to promote a sense of purpose and unity. No matter if salutary or salty, the patches serve many purposes.

New Morale Patch Options

For decades, morale patches, like other patch styles, were primarily embroidered. The speed and ease of modern embroidery equipment makes them fast and easy to order, and easy to produce at a low cost. Other styles are now taking a larger share of the market.

Woven patches, because they use a thinner thread than embroidery, allow for more legible content on a smaller patch. Like their embroidered counterparts though, they do reach a limit of legibility at a certain size.

PVC patches offer much more flexibility. These soft, rubber-like patches can be printed at virtually any size. Because they don’t use thread, they can accommodate smaller lettering, and much greater detail at any size compared to their embroidered or woven counterparts. Like other patch styles, they can be sewn in place,  or attached via Velcro to allow for quick removal.

No matter which patch style you choose, it’s easy to create custom morale patches that are perfect for your needs. Contact us for more information on how we can craft first-rate custom patches for you.