During retirement, my parents faithfully watched certain PBS programs: among them, Lawrence Welk reruns and Washington Week. They also especially enjoyed the National Memorial Day Concert and Capitol Fourth presentations, holiday traditions I have continued during the almost 10 years my parents have been gone.
My favorite part of these concerts is the military music, particularly the “Armed Services Medley.” The official anthems of the Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army are performed with all the military pride and pomp that cause lumps in throats and soaring hearts.
I was delighted, then, when I recently discovered YouTube videos of this medley, available whenever I desire a patriotic pick-me-up. I clicked on the 2018 PBS presentation and watched the National Symphony Orchestra play each official song, with the respective color guards standing at attention.
That video also provided lyrics superimposed on the screen. True to form, I sang along loudly and lustily. As the final song began, that of the Army, I warbled the words I have known by heart since childhood, the ones about hills and dales and dusty trails and the caissons rolling along.
To my surprise, however, First to fight for the right/And to build the Nation’s might/And the Army goes rolling along scrolled across my TV screen. Huh? What about the caissons? A brief Google search revealed “The Army Goes Rolling Along” has served as the official Army song since 1956. Good to know, but what happened to the caissons?
I did read that the “Marines’ Hymn” is the oldest of the official military songs, its melody borrowed from a 19th century comic opera performed in Paris. Various Marine campaigns have been highlighted through the years: “from the Halls of Montezuma” and “to the shores of Tripoli” became lyrics when the Marines adopted the song in 1929. In 1942 “on the land as on the sea” was updated to “in the air, on land, and sea.”
The Marines had their hymn, but the Naval Academy had class fight songs each year: the school’s bandmaster composed “Anchors Aweigh” for the Class of 1907. It debuted at the 1906 Army-Navy game, which Navy won, by the way. Sometimes mislabeled as “Anchors Away,” the correct title indicates a ship is clear and officially underway. This best of those long-ago Naval Academy class songs was ultimately designated and remains today as the official Navy song.
In 1938 Liberty Magazine sponsored a contest encouraging composers to create an official song for the Army Air Corps. The song, submitted just two days before the deadline, was chosen by Corps wives from 757 entries and named “The Army Air Corps.” When the Corps became an independent military service in 1947, the title of the anthem matched the service branch, “The U.S. Air Force,” with appropriate lyric adjustments: Off we go into the wild blue yonder/Climbing high into the sun…Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!
Since 1910 “Semper Paratus,” meaning “always ready,” has served as the official motto of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1922 a Coast Guard captain wrote lyrics for a song to rival the Navy’s “Anchors Aweigh” and the Army’s “Caisson Song.” Five years later, he composed the melody – and the Coast Guard motto became its official song: Semper Paratus is our guide/Our fame, our glory, too.
Whew! With all this knowledge, I will watch future PBS concerts feeling quite informed – except for my original inquiry: What about the caissons?
“The Caisson Song,” the one I have been singing since I learned it in grade school, was composed in 1908 by an Army lieutenant referring to wagons full of ammunition during marches by troops stationed in the Philippines. It was adopted as the official song of the U.S. Field Artillery.
As World War I wound down, John Phillip Sousa incorporated most of “The Caisson Song” into his own anthem for the Field Artillery. The U.S. Army, eventually wanting its own, updated song, held an unsuccessful contest in 1948 for a replacement. Subsequently, the nationally-popular “Caisson Song” was recycled as “The Army Goes Rolling Along” and copyrighted in 1956. For all those years, the Army – not caissons – has been rolling along. I just never got the message until, well, now!
Come Sunday night, I will be celebrating America’s birthday with millions of fellow citizens. I will watch A Capitol Fourth on PBS, hoping for the “Armed Services Medley,” although in its absence I can – and will – watch a past performance on YouTube. I will consider all I have learned; I will sing along; I will revel in the military pageantry and ceremony.
But none of those features indicates what I will watch most intently. I will be focusing on the audience members invited to participate when their respective songs are played. And participate they will, many clapping with the music and singing along with great energy. Some will wave flags, while others salute. I am always glad that current military members and longtime veterans alike are thusly honored.
I will, however, be struck by the sight of the very young soldiers and the very elderly veterans standing silently, ramrod straight, with the quiet dignity of those who laid it all on the line to serve their country. Oh, they will not see my respectful tears or hear my expressions of admiration. But I do hope they will always know how deeply and sincerely I thank them for their service.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.