Seeing the 21 gun salute rendered for outgoing President Trump on Wednesday reminded me of an incident that I can probably talk about now because I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out. At least I hope so!
Many people don’t know that in addition to training officers for the Army, every class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point also includes a number of foreign students from Allied countries. They receive the same training as any other cadet, take the same classes, and live in the same barracks. Everything is the same except that when they graduate they go off to their own country to serve in its military forces.
During my time as a firearms instructor at West Point we had several foreign students, including one that was from some banana republic whose name I don’t remember and that may not even exist anymore for all I know. He arrived in a limousine, and nobody was surprised to learn that his father was some big wig in their government, probably equal to what our vice president would be. As it turned out, he was actually a pretty good kid, and he got over being spoiled pretty quickly. A new cadet, called a plebe during their first year, doesn’t get much love from anybody.
It being West Point we had quite a few dignitaries visit, both from the United States and other countries, and depending on their status, some of them were entitled to a 21 gun salute if requested. I can’t think of any American politician who ever visited who had such an ego that he requested a 21 gun salute, but on occasion it happened, and it was always some foreign VIP who were touring the Academy. At the end of this young cadet’s first summer of training, which is known as Beast Barracks, his father was going to be in Washington for some meetings and then was coming to visit him. And his people let it be known that he wanted a 21 gun salute when he arrived.
We had three 105 mm howitzers that were used for this purpose, and I was on the gun detail. The job really sucked because the guns were packed in heavy cosmoline, which is a very thick grease that prevents them from rusting, and we had to completely unpack the barrels, which was a tedious and messy task. Then they were transported to where they were going to be used, and the firing team, led by a lieutenant, did their thing. Each gun fired seven rounds, and when everything was over they were taken back to their storage yard, cleaned thoroughly, and repacked with cosmoline. When we had a gun salute detail, it was easily a 12 hour day, and sometimes longer.
At any rate, we were told that this man would be arriving at such and such date and time, and we prepped the guns and got them ready. Three hours before the event, we got word that there had been a scheduling mixup and he wouldn’t be there until the next week. So we took the guns back, repacked them, and got ready to do it all over again the next week.
The day he was to arrive, there was no notice of what time it would be, and nobody knew what to do. After several phone calls between the administrative office at West Point and this gentleman’s people, it was determined that he would not be there until the next day. Okay, fine, but it would be nice if they told us before we cleaned the damn guns. At least the lieutenant figured they’d be okay overnight so we didn’t have to repack them, and he dismissed us. Five hours later, the message came that somebody had everything wrong and he was not going to be there for another week. Well, darn. We went back and repacked the guns in cosmoline.
The next morning the official word came down that he had wrapped up his business elsewhere and would be there that afternoon. This was on a Sunday, and soldiers don’t like to have their weekends disturbed if they are off-duty, but we had no choice, so we hurried to get the guns cleaned and ready to go. And then… you guessed it, we got a message saying no, it would not be until the next Sunday. It was like nobody could make up their minds what was happening, and a bunch of frustrated, cussing G.I.s started repacking the guns. About the time we got the first one finished, there was yet another update saying no, we were still on and to prepare the guns. By then, everybody on the gun detail was thoroughly ticked off, including our lieutenant. But we got them ready, and we took them to be positioned for the ceremony, which was supposed to be about midday.
As I recall, we waited, and we waited, and we waited, and it rained for a while, and we all got wet, and we waited some more. It was chilly, so we all were shivering when finally, two hours lateer, we got the word that the man was on the base and it was time for our dog and pony show. Now, being the sergeant of the detail, I was the second man in charge and I swear I knew nothing about what was going to happen. I don’t believe the lieutenant did, either. At least that was his story, and he was sticking to it.
The Corps of Cadets was assembled, all kinds of dignitaries were there with all their fruit salad hanging from their uniforms, a red carpet was in place, and a big limousine pulled up. An aide opened the back door, and the guy got out and was saluted by the Superintendent and the Commandant. Then he began his march down the red carpet, and we started shooting our blank 105 mm howitzer shells. Boom! Boom! And on the third shell, it suddenly started snowing. Except it wasn’t snow, because the snow was on fire. It was little bits of newspaper that had been shoved down the barrel of the third gun. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run.
It created what I guess you would call an international incident, and there were threats that heads would roll. The CID, which is the Army’s investigative service, and the FBI came to talk to us. There were all kinds of rumors about what was going to happen, and I really thought I was going to spend some time in Leavenworth with a cellmate named Sweaty Eddie.
Then the lieutenant, who shall remain nameless, came up with an explanation for what had happened. He said that when we unpacked the guns and got the cosmoline out, we always ran loosely wadded newspapers down the barrels to get the last bits of it out (this was true). Apparently, with all of the last-minute scheduling changes, someone screwed up and forgot to get the newspapers out of the last gun barrel. It was completely accidental, of course. We would never want to pull a prank that would offend one of our foreign allies. I really don’t believe anybody actually bought that story, but it was the best excuse anyone could come up with. Our punishment was that we were all removed from the gun detail, which was supposed to be a very prestigious position. I don’t think any of us ever missed it.
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Thought For The Day – Love your enemies. It really ticks them off!