The information on this page applies to U.S. vehicles -- the military of other nations have their own methods. The U.S. Army has the most elaborate scheme since they have by far the most vehicles.
Stencils for blue drab hood numbers are applied to Dodge trucks at the Detroit factory during World War II.
Today in WW II: 26 Nov 1942 Battle of Brisbane: American and Australian soldiers fight in Brisbane, Australia with multiple fatalities [26-27 Nov].
Lettering & Markings on U.S. Army Tactical Vehicles
The Army marking system for tactical vehicles has evolved over the years and has never been completely standardized. That is, no matter what the system at any given time there are large variations permitted (or tolerated) across the global operations of the Army with its hundreds of thousands of vehicles. So anything you read here or elsewhere has to be considered in the light of many variations or exceptions.
Standard WW II jeep and GPA amphibious jeep belonging to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 1943-1944.
During World War II and until the adoption of universal camouflage patterns in the mid-1970s, U.S. Army vehicles had a base coat of lusterless olive drab paint, the olive drab military vehicle paint that had its own variations and evolution. Markings were in a contrasting, lighter color. During World War II, the marking practices were governed by Army Regulation AR 850-5 covering all types of Army equipment and gear, not just vehicles. The reg came out 25 September 1936 and was frequently revised thereafter. Army registration numbers (on the hood for jeeps and trucks) were factory painted with white or a color called blue drab, chosen because it could not be photographed from a distance (top photo). Bumper markings were applied in the field, along with stars and other tactical marks, usually using flat white paint. The hood numbers were often field repainted in white as well. In the photo above this paragraph, both blue drab and white markings are evident.
With the adoption of camouflage painting, the use of hood registration numbers was dropped and only unit markings on the bumpers remained. The registration number was moved inside where it was stamped on the data plate and/or stenciled on the dash.
What do the Army bumper markings mean?
So called "bumper markings" appear on the front and rear of Army vehicles, on the bumper if the vehicle has one or at other convenient places if not. These markings are often cryptic as they contain a lot of information in a few symbols. The details of the system are described in AR 850-5 along with many examples from the WW II and post-war period. Here are a few from the 1942 edition:
10th vehicle, 1st Rcn Tr, 1st Inf Div.
10th vehicle, Co A, 81st Rcn Bn, 1st Armd Div.
10th vehicle, Hq Tr, let Cav Brig, 1st Cav Div.
10th vehicle, 1st QM Co, Serv Gp, (Avn) AAF.
10th vehicle, 16th Vet Evac Hosp, Third Army.
10th vehicle, Co A, 26th Sig Bn, III Army Corps.
With the advent of camouflage painting of vehicles in 1976, the system had a big change. A breakdown of the Army bumper marking system for camouflaged vehicles comes from Dept. of the Army Technical Bulletin TB 43-0209 dated October 1976. The information in that publication has gone through changes in the decades since, but still correctly represents the system in most respects.
Bumper of a fuel truck at Ft. Hood, TX. 27th Main Support Battalion
Major Command, Organization, or Activity
Intermediate Organization, or Activity
Unit or Activity
Vehicle or Equipment Number
Army: number followed by A
Corps: Roman numeral only
Command: abbreviation eg AADC
Corps: Roman numeral only
Division: number followed by Branch of Service abbreviation
Brigade: number followed by BDE
Group: number followed by GP
Command: abbreviation eg TAC
Army Post, Camp or Station
Army Depots and Arsenals
Reception or Training Centers
Bn/larger unit: number/number followed by abbreviation
Company, battery or other small unit
Examples include AW (Automatic Weapons), EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), R (Reconnaissance), TMP (Transportation Motor Pool), S&S (Supply & Service) and many more.
Vehicle number in the unit. Trailers are marked with the same number as the vehicle that normally tows them preceded by the letter T.
Examples of Army vehicle bumper markings with explanations
1st Cavalry Division, 27th Main Support Bn, Company A, 239th vehicle (photo above)
Spaces and/or dashes are used to separate groups, "I" may appear for an Infantry division, and other small differences. TB 43-0209 gives some of the command, branch of service, and unit abbreviations and suggests referral to AR 310-50 as a guide for more "appropriate and non-conflicting" designations as well as for lists of Army Posts, Camps, Stations, Depots, Arsenals and other organizations. Use of the equilateral triangle with the base down designates an Armored Division. [Thanks to Michael DuPre for suggestions on this section.]
Appendix 2 of David Doyle's Standard Catalog of U.S. Military Vehicles
has extensive information on the history and evolution of olive drab paint as well as markings and camouflage patterns. This referece also includes details of the markings (stars, registration numbers, unit designation) used during World War II and later.
Technical Bulletin TB 746-93-1, Color and Marking of Military Vehicles, is reproduced in part on the M38A1.com web site. This US manual is dated 26 October 1964 and gives the correct lettering, star positions and so forth for the markings used at that time, post-WW II and pre-camo patterns.
Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force Vehicle Markings
The U.S. Navy, USMC, and USAF have different systems from the Army for marking their vehicles, generally only using a registration number at some external point on the vehicle. The number may be stenciled on in paint or may be in the form of a license plate or other method of attachment. The elaborate codes for unit designations are not generally used by the other services, just the Army. The photo to the left shows a Navy HMMWV on the beach at NAB Coronado, CA with its registration number stenciled on the tailgate (5 December 2005). On the right, a USAF R-11 Fueling Truck in England (11 March 2002). Below, an MTVR has both hood markings and a license plate, Manila Bay, Philippines, 5 Oct 2009.