In the late 1970s, Wayne L. Fisk underwent Pararescue Requalification Training at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. US Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. W. D. Boradman.
A word of advice to anyone not thrilled by the possibility of seeing a man naked from the waist down: Never ask a United States Air Force pararescueman (aka a PJ) to show you his tattoo. If you do, there’s a chance he will drop his pants so you can see the pair of green feet inked on his posterior.
To the uninitiated, the green feet might seem a bit random. You might also wonder, why are they on his ass? The confusion is justified, but rest assured, the man standing with his buttocks exposed before you is not a crazy person with a foot fetish. He’s just a PJ.
Green feet are seen painted on the ground above the pararescue motto, “That Others May Live,” in front of the 79th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, on April 26, 2023. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman William Turnbull.
The tradition of PJs adorning their bottoms with green feet traces back to a man named Wayne Fisk, a pararescueman who retired from the Air Force at the rank of chief master sergeant after 27 years of service and three tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It was in 1971, when Fisk was finishing his second tour, that one of his butt cheeks became the first PJ butt cheek ever to be stamped with a pair of little green feet.
As he was preparing to return to the States after more than two years overseas, it occurred to Fisk that he wanted to “take something back” with him. A tattoo seemed like a good option, but Fisk didn’t want the usual GI shoulder ink that read, “Southeast Asia,” with a date range inscribed below. No, Fisk wanted something that wasn’t just unique, but also meaningful, something that encapsulated — in a single image — his war experience. He decided that such a tattoo be one that symbolized his assignment to the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
Based out of Thailand, the 40th ARRS was a helicopter squadron that flew missions to rescue downed American pilots in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. On every one of those missions there was always at least one pararescueman, who like Fisk, are the only members of the US military specifically trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery missions. Often, the helicopter would hover over the vicinity of the crash site while the PJ went down the hoist and into the jungle alone, hoping to return alive and with the pilot.
A Jolly Green Giant helicopter in Southeast Asia. US Air Force photo.
Considering the exact look of his tattoo, Fisk knew that the imagery had to somehow relate to the 40th ARRS’s rescue helicopters. The squadron flew HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopters and, later, HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants, to conduct their combat search-and-rescue missions. In Southeast Asia, the Jolly Greens — which share their name with General Mills’ vegetable-man mascot — would often land in rice patties or fields of elephant grass. When the helicopters would take off again, they would leave deep impressions in the ground that looked sort of like giant green footprints.
When the idea of getting a pair of green footprints inked on his body dawned on him, Fisk knew his search for the perfect tattoo was over. “The emblem of the Jolly Green Giants were green feet, and so I would have green feet,” he recalled years later in an interview with the National Museum of the United States Air Force. As for determining where the tattoo should go, he decided that it would have to be “someplace that people are going to remember.”
And so, in 1971, an incredibly drunk Fisk stumbled into a tattoo shop in Thailand and got a pair of green feet inked on his buttocks. His friend and fellow PJ, Chuck Morrow, went with him and got the second set, also on his bottom. Back on base, the matching tattoos drew a lot of attention in the showers, and before long, other guys — PJs, pilots, administrators, mechanics — started showing up to bathtime with green feet freshly inked on their butts.
According to Fisk, the tattoo became “the emblem of the Jolly Greens.” But alas, that is no longer the case. The last of the iconic rescue helicopters have long been retired. However, PJs, as well as other rescue squadron personnel, carry on the tradition, and they carry it proudly. Soon after earning their maroon berets, most newly minted PJs head to the nearest tattoo parlor, drop their trousers, and get green feet tatted on their derrieres.
Editor's Note: The text originally stated that only PJs get green feet tattoos today. However, that is not the case. Other members of the Air Force rescue community get the tattoo as well.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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