Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Turning Points

June 14, 1775 is officially recognized as the birthday of the Army of the United States. However, this date, February 23, in 1778, should be celebrated as the date that the Continental Army became a modern, professional fighting force. It was on this date, 232 years ago, that Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin Ludolf Gerhard von Steuben (aka: Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge and offered his services to General George Washington.

The Continental Congress authorized the raising and organization of the "Continental Army" on the 14th of June in 1775, and in so doing, took responsibility for the other bodies of colonial troops in the field opposite British regular, mercenary, and loyalist forces. The next day, George Washington (at the insistence of John Adams that at Southerner be so chosen to broaden the appeal of the theretofore largely New England rebellion), was appointed "General and Commander in Chief" of all the forces of the colonial rebel alliance. With minor, but much heralded, exceptions, George Washington and his ragtag army (an army in name only) stumbled, staggered and ran from defeat to defeat at the hands of the highly disciplined British. Were it not for the incompetence and sloth of their most senior leadership, the British should have easily crushed Washington's force and the rebel movement in the first two years of the "troubles." In the early winter of 1777, as the British army occupied the rebel capital, Philadelphia, Washington and less than 12,000 revolutionaries encamped on high ground within a day's march of the city at a place called Valley Forge. By February of 1778, Washington's force had been so depleted by disease, starvation, and quite-understandable-desertion that he could barely muster half that number of effective fighting men, and could have been easily routed by a British commander not so abhorrent of the "uncivilized" idea of fighting in winter.

Enter Baron von Steuben. A soldier of fortune with a somewhat checkered past and a falsified pedigree, von Steuben was possessed of a rare talent much needed by Washington--he was a master trainer. His service in several different armies in Europe had exposed him to the best and worst of professional armies and von Steuben had developed his own vision of a battlefield-mastering military force that was more modern than any in Europe at the time. In Washington's beleaguered force at Valley Forge, von Steuben found a lump of clay, unbound by tradition, with which he could could fashion a vessel for the receipt of his discipline and visionary fighting style.

When he arrived at Valley Forge, von Steuben first cleaned up the camp. As the army had theretofore wallowed and sickened in its own filth, he insisted that common latrines be dug, and that they be situated on the opposite side of the camp from the troop kitchens. Having taken these and other like measures to care for the health and welfare of the men, he next embarked on a program to "train the trainers." As he could speak little or no English, the "Baron" drafted a field manual in German, that Washington aides Hamilton and Greene translated. He then handpicked a company of 120 of the "best and brightest" and drilled them relentlessly until they could not only perform von Steuben's battlefield tactics flawlessly, but could now, in turn, train others. This development of subordinate leadership in the ranks, responsible for the care and training of other soldiers, can be seen as the forerunner of the professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps in today's U.S. Army in particular, and the U.S. military, in general. The efficacy of his fighting style was evident in the predominant colonial victories thereafter, and von Steuben's "train the trainers" approach is still the model for professional military forces the world over.

Another February 23rd is arguably the most important date, after November 10th, 1775, in Marine Corps history, and is also arguably one of the most important dates in U. S. history. On February 19th, 1945, two divisions of U.S. Marines landed on the beaches of a strategically located Japanese-held volcanic island called Iwo Jima. In the brutal fighting that ensued, nearly seven thousand Americans gave their lives to wrest the island and its vital airfield from the Japanese defenders. Four days into the battle, and a month before final victory would be declared, a patrol of Marines scaled the summit of the island's creator volcano, Mt. Suribachi, and raised the Stars and Stripes. The flag was a small one, and the powers that be demanded that a larger one be raised to replace it. This second flag raising was captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. That image, of which it was said by the editors of US Camera Magazine, "recorded the soul of a nation" was sent home to a war-weary America and seized upon by a desperate Roosevelt administration.

By 1945, the American people felt pretty much tapped out by the war against Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Sales of war bonds, the proceeds of which were needed to finance the gigantic war material effort, had been disappointing. The last three of six war bond drives had fallen significantly short of their goals. While the flag-raising on Iwo Jima had not been a turning point in the battle (it had provided a momentary lift to the spirits of the men who would fight on for 31 more days), Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the second flag raising on Iwo's Mt. Suribachi proved a turning point in public sentiment on the home front. The Iwo Jima flag-raising image re-captured the American sense of patriotic duty, and the ensuing seventh war bond drive exceeded its target substantially.

In remembrance of these two momentous dates in the history of our nation, the Colonel--sole arbiter of such decisions aboard Eegeebeegee, capital of the Tallahatchie Free State, a virtual republic situated at the northern end of southern nowhere and founded as much hand-on-wallet as tongue-in-cheek--does hereby declare the 23rd of February, "Turning Point Day." This day, each year, for so long as the Colonel remains in possession of sufficient cognitive cells in the amorphous goo lying fallow in the recesses of his brain-housing group with which to remember it, shall be observed in solemnity and thanksgiving for the vision of von Steuben and the view-finder of Joe Rosenthal's camera.
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