Welcome to DECODED, a blog site for those interested in the period of history between the end of the Second World War and the final reunification of Berlin, Germany. This site is maintained by a Cold War history enthusiast, for other Cold War history enthusiasts and will be a source of information from both sides of the Cold War for history enthusiasts, political science fans, researchers, military history collectors and military veterans alike. Please visit the site regularly for updates. This site by no means is to represent or endorse any political agenda or ideology, information contained within is strictly used for the purpose of education and preservation of history for future generations. Thank you for visiting my blog, and welcome to the brink...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Lost Ranks: The Specialist Grades of the United States Army

The United States military came out a well organized and formidable fighting force at the end of the Second World War. It maintained one of the most well disciplined and distinguished cadre of soldiers in the world. With experiences garnered throughout the wartime period, the Army in particular had a large enlisted force of tradesmen that specialized in varying fields of service. At the time soldiers not bestowed the leadership title of non-commissioned officer could attain the ranks of Technician. This rank was formally established on 8 January 1942. The establishment of the grade of Technician gave technical specialists greater authority by ranking them as non-commissioned officers rather than differentiating them as senior enlisted personnel.The Technician grades paralleled the standing pay grade of the time with a Technician 5th Grade being equivalent to a Corporal, Technician Fourth Grade being equivalent to a Sergeant, Technician Third Grade being equivalent to a Staff Sergeant and finally a separate grade itself known as Technical Sergeant being established. Technicians were paid according to the grade scale, but was however outranked by his non-commissioned officer counterpart. A Technician was however senior to the next lowest pay grade and had no direct supervisory authority outside of their assigned specialty.

Technician grades were differentiated from existing non-commissioned officer grades by the authorization of a 'T' to be embroidered below the upper chevrons. Technicians existed in the United States Army pay scale from 8 January 1942 and were officially discontinued on 1 August 1948 in the years following the conclusion of the Second World War. With the discontinuation of the Technician grades, the United States Army began developing a new system to distinguish specialized soldiers from their non commissioned officer counterparts and this was completed on 1 July 1955, when the United States Army introduced four new grades which were designated Specialist. Specialist ranks effectively replaced the Technician grades and initially were Specialist Three which was equivalent to a Corporal, Specialist Two which was equivalent to a Sergeant, Specialist One which was equivalent to a Staff Sergeant and Master Specialist which was equivalent to a Sergeant First Class. The Specialist grades carried with them several distinctions which differentiated them from the Non-Commissioned Officer grades.

The essential Specialist rank in itself displays the eagle from the Great Seal of the United States. It depicts a bald eagle with its wings outstretched holding a bundle of 13 arrows in its left talon which represent the 13 original colonies, and an olive branch in its right talon. Together the arrows and olive branch symbolize the United States's desire to maintain peace, but it will always maintain a state of readiness in preparation for war. The olive branch depicts 13 leaves and 13 olives, again representing the 13 colonies. The eagle has its head turned towards the olive branch, which reflects its preference for peace. In its beak, the eagle clutches a scroll with the motto 'E pluribus unum' which means "Out of Many, One" in Latin. This eagle rests against a 'shield'. In the higher grades chevrons were added similar to the sergeant ranks of the non-commissioned officer corps.

Non-Commissioned Officers retained special privledges not afforded to the Specialist grades. These were not to reduce the privledges of Specialists but to augument the privledges and bolster the prestige of the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps. Non-Commissioned Officers primary duties were leading troops, a privledge not afforded to the Specialty grades, however Specialists were paid equivalent to their Non-Commissioned Officer counterparts. The Specialist grades were proficiency grades presented to soldiers who knew their military occupational specialties but did not want the responsibility of leadership.  Promotions were based on merit and the point system, so a soldier that excelled in his duties but wished to remain excelling, expanding his experience level and technical knowledge could advance the Specialty grade ladder rather than assume the command responsibilities or command authorities of a Non-Commissioned Officer. Different military occupational specialties which were the soldier's assigned jobs had varying transition periods where a soldier would transfer from a Specialist grade to a Non-Commissioned Officer or in other cases their course track and rank was determined by the 'slot' which was required to be filled in their organization.

Although senior to all enlisted grades, all Specialists regardless of their grade were outranked by all Non-Commissioned Officers from Corporal through to Sergeant Major. This and the lack of command authority are what differentiate the grades of Specialist from the Non Commissioned Officers commonly referred to as 'Hard Stripers'.

In 1958, the Department of Defense added two additional Specialist grades which were commonly referred to as 'super grades' to allow soldiers expanded opportunities to advance their careers. With these the Specialist grade went from four ranks to six and the pay grades changed to reflect the rank designation. Specialist Three became Specialist Fourth Class which was commonly referred to as SP4, Specialist Two became Specialist Fifth Class or SP5, Specialist One became Specialist Sixth Class or SP6, and Master Specialist became Specialist Seventh Class or SP7. With the addition of the two new ranks, Specialist Eighth Class or SP8 and Specialist Ninth Class or SP9 completed the Specialist grade charts.

In 1968, the United States Army established the rank of Command Sergeant Major and subsequently abolished the two 'super grades' of Specialist Eighth Class and Specialist Ninth Class without anyone having ever been promoted to these grades. Now, the pay scale was back to how it originally was prior to the 1958 changes. In 1978, the grade of Specialist Seventh Class was abolished and finally in 1985, the ranks of Specialist Sixth Class and Specialist Fifth Class were discontinued. Soldiers holding these ranks at the time of their abolition were afforded the opportunity of converting over to a corresponding Non-Commissioned Officer grade. With the dissolution of all other Specialist grades, Specialist Fourth Class simply became known as 'Specialist'  and it was henceforth changed from SP4 to SPC to reflect this new designation.

Although the designation has changed, the SPC titled is commonly still referred to as SP4 because of how similar the abbreviation of SPC is to SFC which is that reflecting the rank of Sergeant First Class. Today only the Specialist rank remains of the Specialist grades with all others having been relinquished to but footnotes in the history of an Army. Specialist is now generally the next rank on the path of career progression for enlisted soldiers in between the path of an enlisted man to that of a Non-Commissioned Officer. It is the equivalent in the civilian world of an apprentice progressing into the position of a journeyman in their respective field. With the abolishing of all other Specialist ranks their was no further method of identifying enlisted specialists from the Non-Commissioned Officers in leadership positions over them. Typically a Private First Class is promoted to the grade of Specialist after two years of satisfactory service and is typically more commonly presented over the rank of Corporal, with soldiers being promoted to Sergeant from the rank of Specialist who have passed significant leadership development courses or assigned to low level supervisory positions. 


  1. Thanks for the clarification on the specialist grades. We had Command Sergeant Majors on Johnston island. When I was writing my post and researching the details, I became hopelessly entangled in confusion.

  2. My stepfather was one of the early Specialist 4's when he was stationed at Erlangen, West Germany, 1958-59 with the 4th AD. I have his old Ike jacket and the "Spec Shield" is of a different design, with the arch being supported by two vertical lines, rather than melding directly into the downward point. He also told me that at that time, Specialists were regarded as enlisted versions of Warrant Officers.