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Organization and Markings of United States Armored Units, 1918-1941

Organization and Markings of United States Armored Units, 1918-1941 Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review April 2006 Title Organization and Markings of United States Armored Units, 1918-1941
Author Charles Lemons Publisher Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Published 2006 ISBN 0-7643-2098-X
Format 231 pages, Hardbound MSRP (USD) $59.95

Books on aircraft markings are very popular, and quite prolific; after all, aircraft seem to have been among the most colorful of all of the military machinery during the 20th Century. Some books also cover ships, but few books have seriously paid attention to armored vehicles, and fewer still to American armor.

The reasons are relatively simple to understand. Most US Army vehicles were simply painted olive drab – either gloss, semi-gloss, or flat – up until 1975, when the MERDC four-color camouflage schemes were introduced to the tactical Army. As such, they were generally considered "dull" and thus ignored. Up until recently, even most model kits of American armored vehicles only had partial decal sheets as nobody had done much research into how, or why, they had specific markings applied.

Part of the reason for that is that the Army was thought to usually just provided casual guidelines on what markings were to go on the vehicle, where they went, and what data was essential. When I was a tactical platoon sergeant at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1975, we had to provide each vehicle with a serial number, white stars, major unit markings ("bumper codes"), specific unit markings, specific vehicle numbers, and safe stenciling (e.g. "Do not fill at more than 28 gal per minute" over the gas cap and "MAX 50 PSI" on the wheel wells over the tires). We had some regs that provided overall schemes – for example, TB 43-0209 dated October 1976, which covers the MERDC schemes and where the patterns are supposed to go on specific items of equipment as well as placement of codes. But like many units, we deviated from the "norms" and followed local patterns.

These did not spring up from whole cloth in 1976, for in actuality the Army had been using specific instructions and codes since it began forming armored units in 1918. This excellent new work, which has only received minor notice in the modeling community, answers many of the pre-WWII questions about how the codes and markings developed prior to 1941. The author, Charles Lemons, is well qualified to cite these instructions and codes: he is the curator of the famous Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the current home of United States Army Armor.

This book covers the first 23 years of armored vehicle use in American service. But in the very beginning, since both of the major US allies in WWII, England and France, had been using tanks since 1916, they had their own conventions and thus the Americans used their respective schemes on their respective tanks. British tanks used the British pattern of markings and colors – khaki with white/red/white stripes, and French tanks used their camouflage with their system of identification – colored playing card symbols.

Over the years, systems became standardized, such as light tank companies, National Guard tank companies, in the US from 1921 to 1935. As things began to evolved, tank battalions came back into being in 1932 as well as regiments. But due to a disconnect in thinking, the US Army had two kinds of tank units: "Infantry" – tanks to support infantry, similar to the Soviet concept of "escort tanks", and "Cavalry" – tanks used to carry out tank warfare, similar in concept to the Soviet "fast tanks."

As the US Army finally began creating its own unique tanks in 1936, the organization evolved still further, and while still designated as "infantry" or "cavalry" regiments, the units began to evolve. Finally, in 1940 the US Army created a true armor branch, and the first two armored divisions, the 1st and 2nd, were created. Their regiments were finally designated as "armored regiments" and no longer infantry. Two more divisions, the 3rd and 4th, were added in 1941. Each one had two full-strength armored regiments and one armored infantry regiment; the concept of a third armor regiment (based on the old "square" division concept of four regiments in two brigades forming an infantry division) was abandoned at that time.

Also covered is the evolution of United States Marine Corps armor, but it would take WWII and the campaigns in the Pacific before the full concept of Marine tank battalions would emerge. Still, Charles covers their nascent beginnings with Marmon-Herrington light tanks and US Army "hand-me-downs."

The book includes a listing of all of the changes and documents covering the organization and issue of armored vehicles, the lineage and history of the first armored units, and as a boon to modelers, the colors used and their closest modern FS595a equivalent numbers.

The book has over 200 good, clear photos of US Army tanks and armored vehicles, plus such oddities as the tank transporters used in the 1920s and 1930s, and shows how the markings were used and applied. There are also a tremendous number of color plates and charts showing how the colors were used for markings by unit and date. Unfortunately, some were done using a second-rate graphics program and what is termed "pixelization" is an annoyance, but that appears to be a lick at the publisher and not the author. The colors are clear, however, and since most people who read books like this know what a "star in the circle" looks like it should not be a major distraction.

Overall this book is an essential shelf reference for any American armor fan, and most modelers should have a copy as well. Up until now the best overall book on WWII US Army markings has been one printed in French over 20 years ago in Luxembourg. Having seen this great effort, I hope that Charles has a "Volume 2" on WWII US armor planned!