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NEWS | Oct. 19, 2021

Historic documents help reveal back story of 29th ID patch, creator

By Mike Vrabel | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office

Thanks to recently uncovered documents in the Virginia National Guard’s historical collection, more is being learned about the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division’s iconic blue and gray unit patch, as well as about the Soldier who designed it. 

Maj. Gen. James Ulio enlisted in the Army as a private in 1900 before earning a commission a few years later. By the start of World War I he was assigned to the 29th Division, which at the time was comprised of Soldiers from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Washington D.C., and New Jersey. According to retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Al Barnes, the Virginia National Guard command historian, Ulio recognized that having units from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line made the 29th different from other Army divisions. 

“Recognizing the unique composition of the 29th, bringing together units from North and South, Ulio designed a patch which would highlight the reconciliation and reunification of the country,” said Barnes. “He used the Korean “symbol of life” with colors of blue and gray to symbolize the 29th.” 

Initially, the symbol was used to mark the division’s property, including trucks, ambulances and other vehicles. Barnes said Ulio, then a major, sent his unit logo to the Adjutant General of the Army for formal approval. It became the Army’s very first registered divisional patch in 1917. However, it wasn’t until closer to the end of World War I that Soldiers began to wear it on their sleeves. 

“By October 1917, the 29th Division and more than a million of their fellow Doughboys were fighting in the Meuse-Argonne campaign,” said Barnes. “One of the divisions fighting in the Argonne was the 81st Division, which had taken the ‘Wildcat’ as their symbol. The commander of the 81st authorized his soldiers to wear a wildcat patch on their left sleeve in order to boost morale as well as a means of identifying his Soldiers. By the signing of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 2918, all units in the American Army were authorized shoulder patches and the Soldiers of the 29th immediately began to wear them.”

The insignia’s designer Ulio’s story doesn’t end there. He stayed in the Army and continued to rise up the ranks, and by the early days of World War II, Ulio had risen to the rank of major general, and was assigned as the Adjutant General of the Army. 

“As Adjutant General, he had overall responsibility for the classification and assignment of soldiers in an Army that would grow to 8.2 million by March 1945,” said Barnes. “Through his efforts, the Army increased from in size 200,000 to 8 million soldiers, a forty-fold increase in troop strength in less than five years. He led training efforts that quickly and efficiently prepared soldiers.”

At same time, Brig. Gen. Gardner Waller, namesake of the VNG’s Waller Depot in Richmond, Virginia, was serving as the Adjutant General of Virginia. In that role, many prospective officers sought his recommendation in order to hopefully gain a commission. Some of the documents pertaining to those recommendations were found in the VNG archive recently, eventually leading Barnes to Ulio’s story. 

“Recently, while cataloging the boxes of paper document files from the VANG in 1942, we came across a large folder full of such requests for recommendations, copies of the recommendations, and in some cases, the response back from the War Department,” explained Barnes. “Among the files was a request from a former Virginia Guardsman requesting a recommendation from Waller to the Adjutant General of the Army.

“Waller obliged and even added a personal note reminding Maj. Gen. Ulio of their service together in WWI and congratulating him on being selected the Adjutant General of the Army. Ulio replied quickly and explained the process for commissioning men as well as assuring Waller that he remembered him. Ulio also took the time to write a note at the bottom of the letter inviting Waller to come visit him during his next trip to Washington D.C.”

Ulio proved to not only be a successful Adjutant General during World War II, but also led the way for racial integration in the Army. 

“He worked to integrate African American soldiers into the mainstream of Army life by challenging racial segregation and commonly held beliefs on race,” said Barnes. “In 1944 he spurred on the integration process by ordering the end of racial segregation on military transportation and in recreational facilities on all Army posts.”

Ulio’s responsibilities as Adjutant General were wide and varied, making him a key figure in the war fighting efforts. 

“In many ways, he became the face of the Army with his responsibilities for the Public Relations Bureau. Through speeches over radio, newspaper interviews, and public appearances he served as troop morale booster, advocate, and cheerleader for the war effort.”

Morale was especially important to Ulio, who is quoted as saying, “I will tell you what morale is. It is when a Trooper thinks his Regiment is the best in the world, his Troop is the best in the Regiment, his Squad is the best in the Troop, and that he himself is the best Trooper in the outfit."

Finally, Ulio led demobilization planning to bring home millions of soldiers after the war, and marked an end to an exemplary career that spanned more than 40 years and two World Wars, leaving a mark on the Army as a whole, but especially on the storied 29th Division, whose sleeves bear Ulio’s iconic design to this day. 

“Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division can take great pride that their “Blue and Gray” patch, originating in WWI and worn proudly by 29ers on Omaha Beach, in the hedgerows of Normandy, and the battle spaces of Southwest Asia, was designed by a dedicated soldier who not only rose from the rank of private to major general, he worked for integration of the U.S. military four years before the President made it law,” said Barnes. 

Ulio was born in Washington State, the son of an Irish immigrant who preceded his son in Army service. Remarkably, Barnes said the between the father and son, an Ulio was in service in the Army for 90 consecutive years, from 1856 to 1946, a period encompassing 20 United States presidents, from Franklin Pierce to Harry Truman. 

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