BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — Steve Melnikoff wore the patch during the D-Day invasion of Europe 78 years ago as he crouched in a transport ship off Omaha Beach, German mortar shells screaming over his head.
He wore it the next day, too, as his unit in the 29th Infantry Division secured a position behind enemy lines under heavy fire, and for another 11 months amid some of the bloodiest fighting in history.
Melnikoff, 102, still sports the blue and gray, yin-yang style patch that the 29th made famous, when the occasion arises. And it’s on generous display in his home in Cockeysville. But he knows it could soon end up on history’s proverbial ash heap, and he likes the idea about as much as he did the German soldiers he fought in World War II.
A congressional Naming Commission, an eight-member panel created last year, is scrutinizing the names of hundreds of U.S. military bases, “symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” to identify and retire any that “commemorate” the Confederate States of America and its causes. Melnikoff and others learned last winter that the 29th Division logo is under consideration.
The military brass created the 29th Division 52 years after the Civil War by combining units from states with legacies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, including Maryland and Virginia. Its first administrative officer, James Ulio, designed its insignia around the yin-yang symbol, a figure that in Asian traditions signifies a balanced embrace of opposing forces. He made the left half blue to evoke Union uniforms and the right side gray — the color the Confederates wore.
Historians say U.S. military leaders hoped the formation of the 29th would help to reconcile a still-divided nation, and the unit went on to make history in World War I and World War II. An estimated 15,000 to 16,000 troops wear its patch today, including soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t know how they can even think about getting rid of the patch,” says Melnikoff, one of the small handful of veterans still alive who took part in the Normandy invasion. “Thousands of men died wearing it. They’re buried in cemeteries all over Europe. We never thought it represented the Confederacy. I’ll never take it off, and I don’t think most people wearing it today will, either.”
The commission isn’t commenting on its deliberations before it announces its decisions, spokesman Stephen Baker said. He told the Maryland National Guard in January that: “No decisions have been made regarding recommendations for the 29th Infantry Division patch.”
Officials with the 29th Infantry Division Association, an advocacy group based in Baltimore, say they have met with the commission to let it know they oppose changing the symbol. Members are using the group’s website to raise funds for further lobbying efforts against any switch and to sponsor a petition (it has more than 900 signatures to date), and the group produced a slick five-minute video it’s preparing to send to relevant members of Congress.
“Nobody I talk to, whether they’re veterans or not, who hears the whole story, understands why this change should want to occur,” says Frank Armiger of Towson, the association’s national executive director. “We’re trying to show that there’s a lot of opposition to this.”
Others see the matter differently.
Dartmouth College history professor Matthew Delmont has been studying military symbols and their effects on Black Americans for years. He is the author of a forthcoming book, “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.”
On learning of the patch controversy, Delmont said he believes American culture has progressed to a stage where it can look objectively at Confederate imagery, consider what it stands for, and make decisions accordingly.
The logo was born and gained fame during an era when Black Americans were systematically discriminated against in the military, Delmont says, which he believes undercuts the argument that it reflects national unity.
He also wonders why the U.S. government would keep a symbol that evokes a military that fought in support of views that didn’t represent all Americans.
“It’s not as clear-cut an issue as the Confederate flag. But if we take the time to discuss and think about what the gray in it signifies, we should ask ourselves why a division that is meant to represent the country should honor a force that took up arms against it,” he says.
Richard Brookshire, co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, a group that aims to address systemic racial inequities across the military, is more blunt.
“Any attempt to retain symbols of the Confederacy, whether blatant or implied, is an insult to the service of Black Americans,” he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
“The history of the 29th Infantry insignia is well documented,” he wrote. “Any attempt to shade its history in order to forgo [the] responsibility to root out the vestiges of racist emblems and memorials is a failure on the part of the commission and of military leadership.”
As recently as five years ago, it would almost certainly have been harder to find prominent critics of the 29th insignia. It has represented American fighting prowess for 105 years.
In World War I, “29ers” from two historic units, Maryland’s 115th Infantry Regiment and Virginia’s 116th, led a crucial assault on enemy strongholds during the successful Meuse-Argonne offensive.
A quarter-century later, on June 6, 1944, it was members of the 116th who helped lead the first wave onto Omaha Beach. Melnikoff’s Maryland-based 175th Infantry Regiment came ashore the next day, marched on to take the village of Isigny, seized Hill 108 near St. Lo and helped drive the pivotal siege of Brest, France. More than 20,000 division members either lost their lives or were wounded during the war; thousands were awarded medals.
For these and other achievements, “the Blue and Gray” logo is immortalized on monuments and headstones across France, along highways on both sides of the Atlantic, on plaques in veterans’ halls, and in countless books and movies about World War II, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 “Saving Private Ryan.”
Since then, however, the tenor of discussion around symbols of the Confederacy has changed markedly. In 2015, for instance, after a self-described white supremacist known to have kept a Confederate flag in his home killed nine African American worshippers in a South Carolina church, that state removed a Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds. Other tragedies helped spark a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice that, among other things, led to the removal of countless Confederate monuments from public spaces.
For the commission, some of its tasks are clear-cut. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2021, which created the panel, required members to recommend new names for nine Army posts named for Confederate officers, including forts Lee and A.P. Hill in Virginia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Fort Hood in Texas. The commission rolled out proposed names for each on Tuesday.
Some calls, like the 29th’s logo, will be trickier. The fight to preserve it remains intense.
Retired Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh is the former adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard — the first African American and the first woman to head the guard — which includes 29th Infantry Division units. She says the 29th patch doesn’t belong in the same category as the Confederate flag or monuments. That’s because, she says, it includes the color gray not for its own sake, but in symbolic juxtaposition with the blue.
“I definitely understand the angst in and around the meaning of different logos, patches, and names,” says Singh. “But the 29th logo is different; it has always been about the power of bringing together the North and the South. It’s a symbol of unity, one of the highest American values. To me, it’s exactly the kind of insignia we should be lifting up right now.”
Joseph Balkoski, the author of several books on D-Day and the former command historian of the Maryland National Guard, has written to the commission and spoken with its staff to make his case for keeping the 29th logo.
“The reaction against all this so far has been stunningly powerful, and it has come from inside and outside the division and from across the political spectrum,” Balkoski says.
In Virginia, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s former vice presidential running mate, and former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam have made statements in support of the patch. Democratic state Sen. Marcus Simon sponsored a resolution celebrating the logo that the Virginia General Assembly passed with bipartisan support.
Charles Norman Shay shares their view. A combat medic with the 1st Infantry Division, he tended wounded soldiers on D-Day, including more 29ers than he could count. Shay, 97, a Penobscot Indian, lives in northern France and visits the site often. He says his friends there are astonished the U.S. government is reviewing the logo.
“Such things would never happen in France, as French people have a lot of respect for us and consider the beaches, and all unit symbols, as sacred grounds and sacred images,” he wrote in an email to The Sun. “To change the logo would show a lack of respect for all the men who died for their unit and the American flag.”
The commission and its staff, meanwhile, continue their work. That includes visiting sites, such as Normandy, where names and symbols are under discussion; soliciting public feedback, and assessing the potential costs of changes.
Made up of four retired military figures and four civilians — half chosen by Congress, half by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — the panel will make recommendations by Oct. 1 to the House and Senate armed services committees on a list of items that is still growing, as members of the public continue to submit their ideas. Austin is to review the recommendations and implement changes by 2024.
Observers on both sides of the debate over the 29th Division insignia say they hope the group gives careful consideration to its recommendations for a symbol that inspires many even as it offends others in an America struggling to determine the meaning of its history.
Whatever they decide, Singh says, it’s a meaningful discussion to have.
“What I would hope is that this conversation is encouraging research and knowledge,” she says. “Let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction. Let’s make sure it’s an informed decision — the right decision.”
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