OSI at 75: The Story of the OSI Emblem

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

Organizations of the U.S. Air Force employ heraldic emblems as a means of identification and for esprit de corps.  These emblems exist to visually symbolize an organization's history, mission, or function.  This practice is prevalent in military forces around the world, and it dates to ancient times. 

The first policy for establishing emblems within the Air Force dates to World War I, three decades before the Air Force became a separate service.  On May 6, 1918, the Chief of the Air Service for the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe declared that each flying squadron should have an official insignia displayed on its aircraft. 

"The squadron will design their own insignia during the period of organizational training,” the Chief of the Air Service wrote. “The design must be submitted to the Chief of Air Service for approval. The design should be simple enough to be recognizable from a distance.” 

With the establishment of this policy, Air Force heraldry was born.

The Office of Special Investigations was originally activated on Aug. 1, 1948, as a directorate of the Air Force Inspector General’s Office. Officially, OSI was considered by the Air Force to be a ‘Named Activity’ or a ‘Non-Unit’.  As such, under the existing regulations at the time, OSI was not eligible for an emblem of its own. Despite these regulations, discussions within the organization for petitioning the Air Force to make an exception to policy began almost immediately. 

In 1954, a formal inquiry was made to the Chief of the Heraldry Section for the Air Force suggesting that OSI be allowed to develop a “distinguished emblem” of its own. At that time, the Heraldry Section fell under the administrative control of the Air Force Personnel Center. After conducting a review, the Heraldry Chief determined that each of the constituted units serving under the OSI investigative umbrella (groups, squadrons, flights, etc.) was entitled to a distinctive emblem of its own. 

For OSI itself, however, the Heraldry Chief recommended that in lieu of an official emblem, that the organization should instead use the Air Force seal. The Heraldry Chief further suggested that OSI should explain in writing exactly why the present structure of granting emblem approval for all other Air Force organizations should be modified to accommodate OSI’s special request for a single emblem.

On Jan. 23, 1955, Maj. Gen. Joseph Carroll, the Director of the Office of Special Investigations, i.e. OSI’s first commander, wrote a three-page letter to the Heraldry Section requesting that a single emblem be approved for use by OSI which would become the emblem for any temporary units that were established under the organization while OSI was in the process of building out its organizational structure. 

In his letter, Carroll specifically named the following units in his letter to whom this special emblem would first be used: the 1005th Special Investigations Group (Washington, D.C.); the 7493d Special Investigations Wing (Germany); the 6001st Special Investigations Squadron (Japan); the 5002d Special Investigations Squadron (Alaska); 6620th Special Investigations Squadron (Canada); and the 5500th Inspector General Flight (Panama Canal Zone). 

Carroll’s idea was that a single OSI emblem would be created, approved, and used for OSI’s temporary units until more permanent units could be established.  Once established, those units would then go on and submit their own requests for distinctive emblems individually.  While this action would not grant OSI permission to establish its own official emblem as an organization, Carroll argued that, at least in the short term, authorizing the use of a single emblem for all these temporary units would allow them to become immediately identifiable and it would also give them the opportunity to begin building esprit de corps until unique unit identities could later be established.  The Heraldry Section agreed with this request, emphasizing the caveat that this new emblem’s use remained temporary.

As a result of this agreement, on Aug. 19, 1955, Carroll submitted a memorandum to the Air Force Personnel Center Awards Branch requesting the approval of a proposed organizational emblem for OSI.  This request was officially approved four months on Dec. 15, 1955. As is customary with all Air Force heraldry, the basic OSI emblem design that was approved in 1955 has largely not been altered much since its inception, with only minor color changes and other small updates over the years. 

In the years that followed, the agreed upon follow-on requests for individual emblem approvals for the various units wearing the temporary OSI emblem never occurred as were constantly being inactivated with others concurrently being activated depending on worldwide mission requirements and changing organizational priorities.        

Just a little over 16 years after the OSI emblem was first temporarily approved, OSI’s organizational status changed.  On Dec. 31, 1971, OSI was constituted and activated as a separate operating agency.  This meant that OSI was no longer a directorate.  OSI was now officially a ‘Unit’ under Air Force regulations and as such was finally eligible for a permanent emblem.  Since OSI had already been using its temporary emblem for many years prior to this transition, the effort to have the emblem formally approved permanently wasn’t really considered necessary. 

The Air Force mistakenly figured that the since the emblem had been in use for so long already, that it must have been previously approved somewhere along the line.  All the districts, groups, squadrons, etc. that were under the OSI umbrella kept using the temporary OSI emblem without pause until largely during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when many of these units began requesting and receiving approval for their own emblems.

In 1983, the Air Force Personnel Center received multiple requests from OSI for updated flag drawings. The Air Force Personnel Center assumed that the separate operating agency making the request was the same organization as the directorate which had requested the temporary emblem in 1955.  As such, the Air Force Personnel Center obtained the updated flag drawings and on Oct. 14, 1983, returned them to OSI, providing implied approval for the temporary emblem to continue to be used as the official OSI emblem.

During 1984 and 1985, the management of Air Force heraldry was formally transferred from the Air Force Personnel Center to the Air Force Historical Research Agency.  This move occurred as a method to standardize the heraldry process across the Air Force, but also to provide a central repository for the history and heritage of Air Force emblems and emblem processing.  Despite this change in administration, it remained undiscovered that the temporary emblem that OSI had been using since 1955, was never formally approved as OSI’s official emblem. 

On Feb. 5, 1991, OSI’s organizational status again changed as it was redesignated from being a separate operating agency to a field operating agency.  Under its new status, OSI remained a ‘Unit’, and as such still eligible for an official emblem.  Once again, the process for formally requesting an official emblem remained lost in the bureaucracy and recognition of OSIs continued use of a temporary emblem remained unchanged.  This practice continued into the new century. 

It was not until 2007, more than 52 years since the temporary emblem first appeared, that the issue was finally resolved.  At that time, the OSI command historian discovered the oversight and reached out to the Air Force Historical Research Agency to ask for clarification.  The question asked was simple: “What authority gives OSI the right to bear the emblem?”

The reply was just as simple: “There is no authority that authorized OSI to use the emblem.”  The Air Force Historical Research Agency went on to reiterate that despite being given temporary approval to use the emblem in 1955, this action was technically unauthorized since OSI was at the time a ‘Non-Unit’ and as such not eligible for an emblem.  They further explained that despite the facts being “perfectly clear” that OSI was not eligible for an official emblem in 1955, there had never been an attempt by the Air Force Historical Research Agency to take away OSI’s use of the emblem.  They owed this to the Oct. 14, 1983, updated flag drawings that were provided to OSI by the Air Force Personnel Center “giving tacit approval” for OSI to continue to use the emblem indefinitely.

The Air Force Historical Research Agency took this approval further on Nov. 5, 2007, when it updated OSI’s Lineage and Honors Statement to read: “Emblem originally approved for the Office of Special Investigations Directorate (not a constituted organization) a non-unit under the Air Force Inspector General on Dec. 15, 1955, and adopted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (a separate operating agency) on activation on Dec. 31, 1971.  Granted permission to continue use on Oct. 14, 1983.”

Today, while formal authorization technically still eludes the OSI emblem, formal approval from the Air Force Historical Research Agency is firmly in place.  Despite this fact, the story of the emblem does not end in 2007. 

Air Force instructions state that official designations should be displayed in the scroll that is beneath the shield of an emblem.  Since 1971, the official designation of OSI has been the “Air Force Office of Special Investigations”.  This means the lower scroll of the OSI emblem should include the words “Air Force” or appropriate abbreviation in their place.  Since 1955, despite the multiple organizational changes, the scroll of the OSI emblem has always read “Office of Special Investigations.” 

In 2019, when the Air Force Historical Research Agency provided OSI with an updated emblem drawing.  To fall in line with Air Force instructions, the redesigned scroll read: “AF Office of Special Investigations”.  For the first time in 63 years, the OSI emblem’s scroll was different.

With six decades of history and heritage in play, this change did not seem even remotely subtle to those within command leadership.  Upon receiving the updated emblem drawing, an appeal was made to the Air Force Historical Research Agency to request a waiver to revert to the original designation in the scroll.  This request was done almost immediately, in accordance with policy provided by Air Force instructions.

On Sept. 9, 2019, OSI was granted an official waiver from the Director of the Air Force History and Museums Program.  The waiver read: “Approve the request to retain the original scroll designation. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations has been using an emblem depicting ‘Office of Special Investigations’ in the scroll since 1955.  During this period, the emblem has been an enduring and visible part of their tradition, legacy, heraldry, and command esprit-de-corps.”

Editor’s Note: OSI at 75 is an installment of OSI’s year-long commemoration of its 75th Anniversary Year based on the theme: “Inspired By Our Past – OSI’s Future Starts Today.”