Black Sheep Heraldry

Upon arriving at the world famous Black Sheep squadron I noticed there seemed to be some inconsistencies in the unit insignia. Though known as the Black Sheep, there were black rams heads with massive horns adorning various plaques throughout the building as well as numerous variations on the unit patch. There are even ram heads painted on some of the aircraft. You can see one at the front gate as you enter MCAS Yuma.

My understanding of the squadron’s history is originally, VMF 214 was known as the Swashbucklers. They were disbanded after the Solomon Islands campaign. Later a new squadron was formed and given the designation VMF 214. This was to become the legendary Black Sheep squadron commanded by Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

Cobbled together from a mix of experienced pilots and brand new officers flying aircraft held together with duct tape and bubble gum, the squadron felt like the red headed step children of Marine aviation. They began to call themselves Boyington’s Bastards. The public affairs officer at the time suggested they call themselves the Black Sheep as it technically meant the same thing and no American newspaper at the time would print the exploits of an outfit calling itself bastards.

The symbol of bastardry was added to the unit insignia in the form of the black bar running diagonally across its face. In the old days, a “bar sinister” across one’s heraldry meant you were an illegitimate son of that house. A black sheep was also added to what I am told is the only unit insignia in the Marine Corps not to have any verbiage on it.

Over time it would appear some Marines felt the black sheep on the patch wasn’t rugged enough and decided to add a more robust black ram.

Here’s the problem, according to Naval Aviation Historical Branch, the original WWII patch is the only authorized unit insignia for VMA-214. I know because I checked with Beth Crumley, who is a historian with the United States Marine Corps History Division.

Some time ago, when changes were made to the insignia instruction, 214 was grandfathered to keep its original historic insignia.  Any new change must be in compliance with the current requirements of OPNAVINST 5030.4F. This means members of the squadron cannot simply create new unit insignia on a whim.

The original description of the insignia does say “ram” but it is referring to the ram on the image above. So the swaybacked sheep/ram was the only one ever officially approved.  Fortunately,  many insignia files were microfilmed a number of years ago documenting this.  Paper copies of which were since destroyed at the Washington National Record Center.

It would also appear that a number of assumptions made about the unit insignia are also incorrect. I recently read a paper written by Major Jack Elliott (ret). He is a three war veteran (Philippines, Korea and Vietnam) who currently serves as a docent at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Now in his 90s, I am told he’s sharp as a K-Bar and continues to write and do research. The word on the street is Jack’s a walking encyclopedia of USMC aviation history.

In his paper, Famous Squadron Insignia Conceived In Error, he points out the insignia was not drawn up until the squadron was reformed at MCAS Santa Barbara after their combat tour. It was approved in June of 1944. He further points out everything we assume about heraldry concerning the Black Sheep insignia is completely erroneous: “Rules of heraldry require that the insignia face the observers left and towards the enemy. In this insignia which has only one object with a right or left, the Black Sheep, we find it faces to the observers right and away from the enemy. And then there is the ‘well known heraldic fact’ concerning the Bar Sinister denoting illegitimacy. Wrong again! There is no such thing in heraldry.”

Technically, the bar is a horizontal stripe while a bend is a diagonal one. The Black Sheep insignia is sporting a bend sinister vice a bar, though the bend sinister has been used to denote illegitimacy on certain heraldic devices.

Armed with this information, the current commanding officer and I have ensured that the original Black Sheep insignia is the only one the squadron will use. This has already caused some consternation to former members of the squadron who served under the big horned ram insignia. My Family Readiness Officer was already chewed out on Facebook by an old timer complaining about “going back” to the old patch. To this I can only say, get over it. If you feel your manhood is cheapened wearing the original, historical, Pappy Boyington approved patch, which helped save the world from Axis powers in the Pacific campaign, you’ve got bigger issues. The only insignia ever approved is the one from World War II.

I can report that true to the Black Sheep name, VMA-214’s insignia technically remains in violation of OPNAVINST 5030.4F in that it remains a shield vice a circle and sports an obsolete aircraft, the Corsair. To my knowledge, the Black Sheep insignia is the only one in the Marine Corps without any verbiage on it either.

Take that OPNAVINST 5030.4F!

This message was brought to you by America’s SgtMaj and the United States Marine Corps History Division.

Semper Fidelis!

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    1. If the enemy feels slighted by being presented with a ram’s butt rather than its horns, they should complain to 214’s Sergeant Major.

    2. I agree those that want to complain about going back to the original patch/insignia of the the world famous Black Sheep should suck it up. After reading this and having served with the Black Sheep I never really knew the full history of the patch until now. I did know that the patch above was the original and we went back to it before I had departed in 2006. Semper Fi

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