Thousands of soldiers with the 29th Infantry Division were among the first wave of troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy in the U.S.-led invasion of France in 1944.
When the doors to the landing craft opened, entire units were killed almost instantly by dug-in German forces. Scores of the division's troops were among the 3,000 killed in the opening hours of the assault on Fortress Europe in one of the most gruesome and heroic battles in U.S. military lore and immortalized in the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan."
Now, in light of a reckoning over Confederate monuments for their racist history, the storied 29th Infantry Division patch – a yin-yang pattern with blue and grey -- is being reviewed for potential retirement by the Naming Commission, a panel stood up by Congress last year to review rebel references across the military.
The panel is mostly focused on renaming 10 Army bases currently honoring Confederate leaders who waged war against the U.S., but other names and insignia are being reconsidered as well.
"Heraldry is indeed part of the Naming Commission's review, which includes patches such as the 29th Infantry Division patch. This is part of the commission's duty," Stephen Baker, a spokesperson for the commission, told Military.com in a statement.
The 29th Infantry, a National Guard division created during the World War I era, makes up the lion's share of the Virginia Guard. Units that would eventually make up the division were key players in colonial-era wars, from states scattered across the East Coast. Because of that, almost a century before those units' legendary battle in France, elements of what would become the 29th Infantry fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Even today, the division's 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is known as the "Stonewall Brigade" after being led by rebel Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
During World War I, troops in the newly formed division fell under the blue and grey insignia, which represented both the union and rebels now serving together after their families killed one another in some of the Civil War's largest battles.
Yet the division's history is complicated, with a legacy in most major American conflicts, as its infantry based out of Maryland was one of the first Army units ever stood up. The so-called Stonewall Brigade also recently saw one of the Army's first Black female infantry commanders. Today, the 29th Infantry has one of the most recognizable insignias in the National Guard and fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Early next year, the division plans to set its largest deployment since World War II to Africa, where U.S. operations against terrorist groups have largely reorientated.
It is unclear whether any other patches are under review. But the decision on whether to retire the 29th Infantry patch is more complicated than what some see as more clear-cut examples of scrubbing the Confederacy, an enemy force whose rebellion caused the most carnage out of any U.S. war, from honorary references such as monuments that were mostly erected during the Civil Rights era of the mid-20th century.
Military.com spoke with several Virginia National Guard troops who argued the patch now is more synonymous with the division's D-Day heroics. Senior Virginia Guard leadership are also waging a campaign to preserve the patch.
"We are currently preparing historical documentation and letters of support to educate the Commission about the importance of 29th ID patch," Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the adjutant general of the Virginia Guard, said in a statement Wednesday. "We want them to understand what it means to the thousands of veterans who have worn the patch in service to our country, as well as how it serves as a symbol of liberation to our Allies in France."
The Naming Commission hasn't made any final decisions. It was tasked with sending its recommendations on the patch, installation names and the fate of other Confederate references in the force to Congress by October 2022. The secretary of defense then will have until 2024 to review and implement changes.
Baker, who told Military.com he's planning a trip to Europe soon, said he's going to visit Normandy, where so many of 29th Infantry troops were killed – some with units that had previously fought to preserve slavery but then fought for freedom in Europe.
"I want to go there and see where that patch was," he said.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.