U.S. Military Beret History

A United States Army soldier wearing a black beret [US Army RELEASED]. Public Domain

Military forces have worn distinctive uniform items for centuries to create a psychological advantage and boost their esprit de corps, but the military use of berets is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Blue Bonnet became a de facto symbol of Scottish Jacobite forces.  The French Chasseurs alpins, created in the early 1880s, are recognized as the the first regular unit to wear military beret as their standard headgear.

One of the reasons that the beret is attractive to the military as a uniform item is that they are cheap, easy to make in large numbers and can be manufactured in a wide range of colors.  From the soldier's view, the beret can be rolled up and stuffed into a pocket (or beneath a shirt epaulette) without damage, and it can be worn while wearing headphones.

Military berets are usually pushed to the right to free the shoulder that bears the rifle on most soldiers (though some country's armies - mostly Europe, South America and Iran have influenced the push to the left.

The widespread use of the beret among Western armies didn’t begin until the 20th century, when French tank crews in World War I wore both the small Basque version and a larger, floppier variety.

 

Beret history

 

In the 1920s, British tank crews had an issue with their stiff khaki service-dress cap.  The cap had to be worn backwards in order to use the gunner’s sights, with the chin strap down to keep it on the tanker's head.

  And because it was a light wool serge fabric, it soon became a magnet for grease stains as it was clutched and adjusted by soiled fingers.  And so, they started looking for an alternative.

It was in 1924 when the tankers came up with the black wool beret, of a size falling between two French versions.

  The beret was bound with black leather featuring an adjustable ribbon that ran around to tie in the back.  And any grease stains became invisible on the black wool.

When the British tankers added their traditional “Fear Naught” emblem positioned above the left eye, they had a snappy piece of headgear that quickly became famous for its distinctiveness and later grew to be the symbol of armored formations around the world.

The military popularity of berets soared during the World War II era when various British units donned the headgear in several colors - including a khaki brown variety adopted by Special Air Services troops and a maroon variety worn by Britain’s first airborne force, the Parachute Regiment, that became affectionately known as the “cherry berry.”

Legend has it that the color was picked by novelist Daphne du Maurier, wife of Maj. Gen. Frederick Browning, one of Britain’s highly decorated World War II heroes.

Berets Debut in U.S. Military

The first use of the modern beret in the U.S.

military was in 1943, when an Army battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry was given maroon berets by their British counterparts for their service in the war.

In 1951, the Marine Corps experimented with green and blue berets, but dismissed them because they looked too “foreign” and “feminine.”

The first widespread use of the headgear by U.S. forces came shortly after, when a new Army organization that was specially trained for insurgency and counterguerrilla warfare began (unofficially) wearing a green variety in 1953. It took another eight years for the Army’s Special Forces — the “Green Berets” — to win presidential approval from John F. Kennedy to make their headgear official, and in 1961 the green beret of the US Army Special Forces was formally adopted.

In the 1970s, Army policy allowed local commanders to encourage morale-enhancing uniform distinctions, and the use of berets boomed. Armor personnel at Fort Knox, Ky., wore the traditional British black beret, while U.S. armored cavalry regiments in Germany wore the black beret with a red and white oval. 

Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., started wearing the maroon beret in 1973, while at Fort Campbell, KY, the trend exploded - with post personnel wearing red, military police donning light green, and the 101st Airborne Division taking light blue as their color.  At  Ft. Richardson, AK, the 172nd Infantry Brigade began using an olive green beret.

In 1975, the Airborne Rangers got approval from the Army Chief of Staff to use the black beret as their official headgear.

Over the next few years, the whole thing got out of hand, so in 1979 senior Army officials "put on the brakes". Army leadership allowed the Rangers to keep their black berets.  In 1980, airborne troops were allowed to continue wearing the maroon version. But all other beret varieties were declared off-limits.

Some of the Above Information Courtesy of the Pacific Stars & Stripes. Special thanks to MSgt Charlie Heidal of www.romad.com and Lt Col Christopher Campbell for information about the Air Force Black Beret.

Air Force Berets

 

Wear of berets in the Air Force began in the 1970s. In 1979, enlisted personnel in the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) AFSC (job) were authorized to wear the black beret. In 1984, two airman from Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina submitted a design for the flash and crest design, which was approved for all TACP airman in 1985. Air Liaison Officers (ALOs) were also authorized to wear the black beret after they graduated from the Joint Firepower Control Course, conducted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Instead of the crest, they wear their rank insignia on the beret.  Air Mobility Liaison Officers (AMLOs) were authorized to wear the black beret in the Air Force, as well.

 

Present-Day Beret

 

These days, the United States is on the low end of the spectrum among NATO allies in terms of the variety of berets worn by their military forces.

While most country's military have four or five colors authorized for various segments, Turkey, Greece and Luxembourg have authorized only three colors for various segments of their forces. Belgium has seven and the United Kingdom has the most variation with nine.

On Oct. 17 2001, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced that the black beret would become standard Army headgear in the following year. The rationale was to use the sense of pride that the beret had long represented to the Rangers to foster an attitude of excellence among the entire Army as it moved forward with its sweeping transformation effort to a lighter, more deployable, more agile force.

  This decision, however, set off a firestorm in both the active-duty and veteran Ranger community as well as in the Army’s other two special operations camps, the Special Forces and the airborne.

In 2002, the Army made the tan-color beret the official beret of the U.S. Army Rangers, and all Army soldiers began wearing the black beret.

In June 2011, Army Secretary John McHugh announced that the traditional patrol cap was to be worn with the utility uniform. However, the black beret may be authorized with utility uniforms at commander's discretion for special ceremonies, and the beret remains part of the Army's dress uniform for all units.

Current Army Berets

  • Black - Worn by all other Army troops with Class A uniform and Army Service Uniform as standard headgear.
  • Maroon - Airborne-designated units (the maroon beret is an organizational item, so it is worn by all assigned soldiers - airborne-qualified or not)
  • Tan "Buckskin" - 75th Ranger Regiment, Ranger Training Brigade (Light infantry)
  • Green - Special Forces Groups, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (Commando, officer)

Current Air Force Berets

  • Black - Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), Air Liaison Officers (ALO), and Air Mobility Liaison Officers (AMLO)
  • Maroon - Combat Rescue Officers and Pararescuemen (PJs)
  • Red (scarlet) - Combat Controllers & Special Tactics Officers

Some of the Above Information Courtesy of the Pacific Stars & Stripes. Special thanks to MSgt Charlie Heidal of www.romad.com and Lt Col Christopher Campbell for information about the Air Force Black Beret.

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