This story originally aired on KLAS-TV on May 4, 2008.

MYSTERY WIRE — The deserts of the American southwest are pockmarked with secret military bases housing classified projects. It’s been said there are secrets in the desert that could make Star Wars creator George Lucas jealous.

Over at least the last 80 years the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on what’s commonly called black projects.

This would include development of the stealth fighter, a black project the public didn’t know about for more than ten years after it began flying.

But some people are able to interpret messages hidden in plain sight sewn into patches handed out to black project workers. U.S. military patches have been around since World War II.

Anyone can drive to the gate of secret bases like Area 51 but most will never truly know what is taking place. That is, unless you get a glimpse of worker’s patches.

Author Trevor Paglen collects the colorful patches, created by outfits you’ve never heard of,  working on projects you may never see. The imagery in many of the patches is menacing. You can see ghosts, skulls, specters, and spooks. Many of them look like something a teenage boy might draw.

However, if you know how to read them the patches are packed with information about the black project they represent. Patches showing clues to the secret projects have been used dating back to at least the Manhattan Project.

Thanks to the Los Alamos Historical Society we learned an original Manhattan Project patch is on display at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. The following list is how the museum describes the colors and symbols on the patch:

  • Blue: Symbolizes the Universe
  • White Cloud & Lightning Bolt: Forms a question mark which symbolizes the unknown results and secret nature of the program.
  • Split Yellow Atom: Represents atomic fission and confidence that the Manhattan Project would be successful
  • Red & Blue Star: Insignia of the Army Service Forces

Other patches have collections of six stars, separated into a group of five and a single star to the side, representing that the patch belongs to a project being conducted at Area 51.

Based at Area 51, the Special Projects Flight Test Squadron is the Air Force’s only “black” flight test squadron for classified prototype aircraft and advanced concept technology demonstrators. (Source: I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me)

The lightning bolt seen in many patches is commonly associated with electronic warfare.

“The Grim Reapers were one of the old stealth squadrons at Tonopah,” Paglen told Mystery Wire. “Grim Reapers and Nightstalkers. And when those units became public, they had to change their names. Grim Reapers was apparently too satanic for military brass. So they became the ghostriders.”

There are also some inside jokes embroidered on the patches. In one patch Paglen found the acronym NOYFB. is at the bottom. A large question mark and moon are in the center and the phrase “DON’T ASK!” is on top. One’s imagination might help you interpret what NOYFB stands for. According to at least one account online, the “DON’T ASK —NOYFB.” patch is from the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron that flew C-5 cargo aircraft out of Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. This unit conducted late night operations picking up classified aircraft from aerospace plants in Southern California and delivering them to classified locations for testing and evaluation. 

A common theme in some are aliens and UFOs like a patch used for a MARS (materials application repair section) project. Its members were known as Martians. The Martians job was to repair radar absorbing coatings on stealth jets.

Other patches have Latin inscriptions. The patch for the classified flight test unit 509, the same unit involved in the infamous Roswell incident, includes a reference to an old Twilight Zone episode in which aliens ate humans. The patch shows an alien appearing to hold a stealth fighter near its mouth. It includes the Latin phrase “Gustatus Similis Pullus” which when translated means “tastes like chicken.”

Sometimes the clues are hidden. The patch for the Bird of Prey jet, which the military flew for 6 years in secrecy, shows the shape of the futuristic jet in the handle on the sword.

Patch designs are approved by higher-ups in the chain of command, ensuring secrecy. 

Paglen’s book is appropriately titled I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me