The music of our military


Those of us who are John Springer devotees remember joining him as he plays and sings the song of each of our armed services. We have a rousing good (and patriotic) time as we stand to bellow our favorite military song. But how many of us know the stories behind these songs?

The United States Army is the oldest service, with a birthday of June 14, 1775. But “The Caisson Song” didn’t debut until 1908. Lieutenant Edmund Gruber and his horse-drawn field artillery unit watched from high ground as their battalion successfully navigated the path they had forged. Gruber heard one of the section chiefs shout, “Come on! Keep ‘em rolling!”

Since Gruber was related to Franz Gruber – composer of “Silent Night” – inspiration came naturally. He collaborated with a couple of Army buddies and the song soon became well known. But Gruber’s name was lost to history. During World War I, John Philip Sousa composed the “Field Artillery March” using Gruber’s tune, not knowing that the author was still very much alive. Lawsuits followed.

Army brass held a contest in 1947 to come up with a suitable tune. The contest was a bust, so they asked professional musicians to come up with something. The winning entry was “The Army’s Always There,” which played for the first time during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953.

The Army still wasn’t happy, so the Secretary of the Army dredged up “The Caisson Song,” and Army musician Harold Arberg drafted the song we sing today. This final version of “The Caisson Song” was officially adopted on Veterans Day in 1956.

As the second oldest military service (Oct. 13, 1775), the U.S. Navy has “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” as its official song. It was composed in England in 1861 and has been played at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. since 1879.

Lt. Charles Zimmermann composed “Anchors Aweigh” in 1906, and it still reverberates from the rafters. Zimmermann and two midshipmen came up with “Anchors Aweigh” just in time for the Army-Navy football game of 1906. The new song was a hit, and so was the 10-0 victory over Army!

The U.S. Marine Corps was organized Nov. 10, 1775. While its birth date is well known, the date of “The Marines’ Hymn” is not. The melody was lifted from an opera, but no one seems to know who did the lifting or when it was done.

Words to the hymn have an equally murky provenance. No one knows what the original words were. One theory is that an unknown Marine on duty in Mexico wrote them in 1847 after storming the Halls of Montezuma (Chapultepec Castle).

Regardless of its origin, the Marines were singing it as they charged into a World War I battle. One wounded French officer told of the “dashing contingent” of men who commandeered French horses as their riders were shot out of the saddle. They sang “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” at the top of their voices as they leapt into vacant saddles and raced into battle.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Wendell C. Neville, declared in 1929 that “The Marines’ Hymn” would be the official song of the Corps. The latest version of the drill and ceremonies manual requires that all Marines stand and sing “The Marines’ Hymn” whenever it’s played.

Aug. 4, 1790 is the U.S. Coast Guard’s birthday, and its motto of “Semper Paratus” served as the inspiration for its official song. The story goes that Capt. Francis Van Boskerck wrote the lyrics while chasing rumrunners off the coast of Florida and the Carolinas in 1922. Five years later, he was commander of the Bering Sea forces when he and two dentists used a fur trader’s beat up piano in Unalaska, Alaska to put music to words.

With an official start date of 1907, the U.S. Air Force is the youngest of our uniformed services, and once again Alaska played a part in its official song. Robert MacArthur Crawford was an Alaska native who was a Julliard School graduate who joined the Army Air Service when he was old enough.

In 1937, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold mounted a contest with a $1,000 prize that failed to produce a tune for the nation’s air component. He next asked the “God Bless America” composer, Irving Berlin, to come up with something. Mr. Berlin’s entry also failed to pass muster.

Robert MacArthur Crawford debuted “The Army Air Corps” at the Cleveland National Air Races in 1939. It was an instant success. Gen. Arnold had the song printed everywhere, including inside uniform hats! In 1947, when the U.S. Air Force achieved autonomy, the title became “Wild Blue Yonder.” Crawford Hall at Langley Air Force Base is named in honor of this veteran and composer.

Now when we sing these songs with John, we will have a better understanding of what lies behind the words.