Military Basics and rank and insignia chart

The current organization of the US military has been basically unchanged since the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. This law created a separate Air Force out of the Army Air Corps and changed the name of the War Department to the less-aggressive sounding Defense Department, among other things.

There are FIVE branches of the US military: Army (June 14, 1775), Navy (October 13, 1775), Marines (November 10, 1775), Coast Guard (July 17, 1790), and Air Force (September 18, 1947), in the order that they were created.

The Coast Guard is unusual in that it was, until the last few years, under the Department of the Treasury, not under the Defense Department; instead it was controlled by the Department of Transportation. It was recently transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, along with other government agencies which help protect our home territory and waters, such as the Border Patrol. The Coast Guard is, nevertheless, a military service, and in times of war the president can (and usually does) transfer all of its operation to the Navy for the duration of an actual war.

There are three kinds of categories for military personnel: there are enlisted men and women, warrant officers, and commissioned officers.

Enlisted personnel enlist, or volunteer, for the US military in peacetime. They perform the basic jobs of the military. Enlisted personnel are specialists– they are infantrymen (foot soldiers), artillerymen (shoot big guns), sailors, and so on. In peacetime they serve for an active term that varies according to the service from two to four years. As enlisted personnel move up in rank, they may become “noncommissioned officers,” (such as sergeants) where they command squads or platoons under the supervision of a commissioned officer. In the Navy noncommissioned officers are called “petty officers.”

Warrant officers are very specialized military personnel. They were originally civilians, but after World War I they were moved into the military structure. Here is a valuable link to explain the history of warrant officers.

Below are links to charts that explain military rank (called rate in the navy) and insignia:

Enlisted ranks and insignia –by the way, the letters and numbers at the extreme left of the chart indicate pay rate or grade (E for enlisted, 1, etc., for step on the pay scale). This is useful, because the NAMES of the ranks change across service lines, but the pay rates remain the same.

Warrant Officer rank and insignia

Officer rank and insignia

A good general site to explain the ranks and insignias is here.

Below are a few World War II era posters to help civilians during the war recognize and understand the uniforms they were seeing on the streets:
US ARMY WWII insignia

Here are the Navy insignia for World War II:

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Fae on April 2, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Is there anyway I can get larger pictures of the Army and Navy insignia posters you have above here. I am having a hard time trying to research and find the correct labels for the pieces in my collection. Your posters here look like they may be helpful, however, they are so small that I cannot read the words. Can I buy these posters somewhere? Or can I get larger images of these?

    thanks, Fae

  2. Posted by Phil on June 1, 2008 at 3:13 pm


    I agree that thse are awesome posters. I was just getting into collecting the real ones but may change my mind if I could find these posters. If you ever run across them, please let me know.

    I’ve also been looking at the book: Complete Guide to United States Army Medals, Badges and Insignia – World War II to Present by Frank C. Foster. Have you checked it out and, if so, is it worth the money?

    Thanks, Phil

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  4. Posted by Willie Byrom on July 5, 2008 at 12:12 am

    I’m looking for a poster showing U. S. Army enlisted ranks and grades, including Specialist rank E-4 thru E-9 during the period 1956-1959, and the Army officer rank structure during WW II, including five star rank. Please advise.


  5. “Greetings & Salutations!” I’d have to add there were many changes from 1947 to present as the warrant officer ran insignia changed twice since mthen and some branch insignia changed and newer ones were introduced. Army chevrons changed in 1948, 1958, and still changing as they convert to the new blue service uniform. U.S. Army pilot wings are changed and so are the U.S. Air Force wings too! W.A.C. ceased to be used as women were intergrated into the regular Army and wear most of the insignia worn by male soldiers. U.S. Navy rates have changed a lot as old ones were discontinued and newer ones are still being added. I have all of the uniform regulations from 1841 to present, including those considered rare and could send you a FREE CD showing great colour plates from rarer books that are publioc domain and NOT COPYRIGHTED. Respectfully yours, Sarge Booker

  6. I just need to know which insignia is the one for gunners mate 1st class on the navy poster. i am doing a tribute tattoo for my grandfather who fought in ww2 and this wa his rank

    • Posted by W. Hibbard on March 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

      Gunner’s Mate – two crossed cannons; first class petty officer – one rocker on top w/three inverted chevrons at the bottom.
      Within this framework, the eagle would be directly below the rocker w/the cannons under the eagle.

      Hope this helps.
      W. Hibbard DT3
      Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club 1966-67
      USS Coral Sea CVA43

      • Posted by W. Hibbard on March 18, 2011 at 11:05 am

        Sorry, no rocker on top, that was a chief’s insgnia. Just the eagle, crossed cannons and three inverted chevrons.

        Memory loss creeps up on us old farts!


  7. Posted by In Memory of.. on October 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm


    I am putting together a memoral box that shows my grandfather’s ribbons, and medals that he received while serving in WW2 in the Navy. I do like the chart on the navy ranks and insgina, but can not read it very well. Is there anywhere else that I might be albe to find what these patches, mean, and what the ribbons would look like. I have the info on what ribbons he received during that time. If you can help, please let me know!



  8. Posted by Ron Veelik on November 22, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    Y’a got the get-go date of the Cost Guard off by 200 years. Mate !

    try 1790 !

  9. Excellent and informative

  10. Hello,

    Can someone help me find out the meaning of a vintage shirt I was given. It is black although the tag state it is blue navy shade 3346, it has three stripes and just above the stripes it has what looks like a closed book with something through it or even a watering can ?. Have searched and can not find anything close.

    Thank you

    p.s if it helps there is a name: DUBAN RC 235, it also has a Service No. 572 59 5505

  11. Posted by Robert Mangus, CTO3 (USN-USS Enterprise), EO2 (USNR-5th NCR) on June 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I Think All You Soldiers, Shipmates, And Devildogs Are Great! Our Young Servicemembers SO Very Badly Need The Wisdom And Experience That You Gentleman Can Share. Please Keep Up All The Great Work So Our Armed And Naval History Is Passed On To Those Who Will Follow. Never Forget That We Served In The World’s Finest Armed Forces~Uuraw!

  12. Excellent blog here! Also your web site loads up very fast! What host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my website loaded up as quickly as yours lol

  13. Posted by JR on March 22, 2012 at 11:42 am

    There are 4, Coast Guard it is considered part of the Armed Forces but not part of the Military branches, meaning DoD. By stating that “The Coast Guard is, nevertheless, a military service, and in times of war the president can (and usually does) transfer all of its operation to the Navy for the duration of an actual war”, does not make it a military force but a “combat service support” to the Navy. Stating this is liek stating that Border Patrol was attached to the Army…therefore makes it a Military force?

    There are FOUR kinds of categories for military personnel: there are enlisted men and women, Non-Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers, and Commissioned Officers. As you mentioned before, they become NCO’s when they get their E-5, you call an NCO an enlisted (despite the fact that they are) some might get offended. Some do not understand that “enlisted” comes from “enlistment”, what they did at the beginning when they signed the contract…

    From my point of view if you are not a WO or an Officer then you must be an NCO (enlisted).

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