It was a pitch-black night – early morning, really, long before sunrise. 15,000 of the most patriotic, courageous soldiers in the US Army had marched to the parade ground at Ft. Lewis, WA and were at parade-rest waiting for an encouraging address from the Commanding General of the Ninth Infantry Division. As the wife of the Commander of 1-84 Field Artillery, I wanted to be a part of this special event. We lived only a few blocks away – how to get there in the dark and as quickly as possible? I really didn’t want to be out in the dark by myself. No one was stirring in the family housing area where we lived; Bill had gone to the Battalion Headquarters long before to march with his soldiers across post to the field.
I decided to ride my bike – that would be quicker than walking and the light on the bike would guide me there safely. So, I left our daughters asleep and sneaked out of the house, jumped on my bike and found my way to the field. I stayed near the street-side of the parade field but could see the stage and podium that had been erected for the Commanding General and his staff who were waiting there. Stretched out over the whole field before the General were all of his soldiers and the 9th ID band and chorus.
Are you wondering why all those soldiers were there on the field at that hour? It was Independence Day 1987 and the entire Division standing on the field was preparing for the traditional Division “Independence Day Fun Run”. Later in the day, it would be too warm for them all to start the run, even though it was Ft. Lewis, not Ft. Polk! There would be other festivities later in the day so before dawn was the time to start the race.
MG John Shalikashvili*, Commander of the 9th Infantry Division, took to the podium on that dark, warm morning and gave a rousing Fourth of July address to the soldiers of the Division.
He reminded them why they serve and the greatness of the USA because of people like them. Towards the end of the ceremony, he related that he had recently been in Los Angeles for an event, where the attendees were inspired by a patriotic program headlined by Lee Greenwood. Though it had been released several years before, the song that Lee Greenwood sang at the event in CA especially touched MG Shali. He asked Lee if he could have permission to bring the song to his soldiers. It must have taken some time for the copyright arrangements to be made and for the 9th ID band and singers to learn to play and sing the music, but they were ready for this early morning presentation. For me and for most of the assembled soldiers, it was the first time we heard God Bless the U.S.A. No one there knew the words at that time; we could only listen and be inspired by the soldier that has been selected to sing this new song. Like MG Shalikashvili, we were touched, and the soldiers ran a little faster that day being motivated by Lee Greenwood’s song.
What were the other events the soldiers would enjoy throughout the day? There would be Battalion picnics/BBQs planned for the soldiers and their families along with games to play and watch. At the end of the day, the 9th ID band would set up at the Ft. Lewis football stadium and play a wonderful concert of patriotic music for the soldiers and their guests. The culmination of the long, wonderful day would be the playing of the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. This inspiring music tells the story of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. It opens quietly with a Russian Orthodox hymn – a prayer for peace. Following this, there is a bit of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, indicating the invasion by Napoleon. In musical tones, the Battle of Borodino erupts with the cannons firing as the French are driven from the field of battle.
(You can hear the cannons firing at 12:06 and again at 14:10.)
Have you ever wondered about those cannon volleys in the middle of a beautiful piece of music? As the Commander of the Battalion that included the salute battery for the 9th ID, Bill and his cannoneers were tasked to be a part of the classic performance. Many days before July 4, the Battery soldiers with their 105mm howitzers had been out on the football field practicing with the Army band to “play” their cannons in the 1812 Overture. Our daughters and I would get to the stadium early, but not as early as Bill and the salute battery.
When we arrived in the stands, we would see the Battalion howitzers arrayed across the field away from the band and Bill walking around checking his walkie talkie and talking with his “musicians” and the band. He would direct his soldiers to “play” their instruments just at the right time in the Overture. When they actually began to fire, the cannon would sound every four seconds – check your watch – just as in a salute (count the seconds the next time you hear the 1812 Overture or attend a salute – it’s more complicated than you might guess.). They had practiced so often that their enormous sound would vibrate the whole stadium at just the precise moment. I always wondered how Bill knew the exact moment to give the “Go”! He would have answered, “We practiced.” To our delight, it went off without a hitch. The inspiring performance was followed by the rousing Armed Forces Medley. Fireworks would end the salute to America’s 211th birthday. What a great way to end the day that had started so early. I was so glad that I made the bike ride before dawn that day – as for other Americans, Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. has become very special to me and every time I hear it, I think of that assembled group of soldiers and all who have served our country in uniform who love their country more than self! God Bless the U.S.A.!
Follow-up: The next year, the girls and I rode our bikes to the stadium to avoid the difficulty of parking the car. What was I thinking? I was pregnant with our new baby due in three weeks. Having ridden a bike for much of my life, from elementary school years, I didn’t think a thing of it, though navigating after dark was a little tricky. Oddly enough, the baby didn’t wait for three weeks. Was it the startling booms of his Dad’s cannons or the late-night bike ride that caused the baby to come just two days later? Actually, I tripped and fell as I was packing the car with items I needed to lead a Battalion Wives Coffee that evening. I didn’t know it at the time, but this Coffee was to be a baby shower; instead, I was in the hospital in labor – beside me was one of our battalion wives who just happened to be a nurse on duty. She was the one who broke it to the waiting ladies – enjoy the party without the honoree – the baby is on the way!
*Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – 1993-1997