Army Branch Songs: Where Did They Come From?

Just recently, the National Guard Bureau (NGB) released the news that it now had its own official song! Now, this was not something that the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard had ever asked for, or even desired, but like most things coming out of NGB, we got it anyways. And, like most things coming out of NGB, it is something that makes us turn to the bottle for comfort. Sounding like a cross between a bad Broadway tune and the “Men in Tights” song from the Robin Hood movie of the same name, it’s an experience that we now truly dread.

Although this is a fair representation of some Army units I’ve seen. (20th Century Fox)

But it got me thinking; seemingly, nearly every branch has its own song or hymn. The infantry sings about the heat of the jungle, the engineers clamor about pinning castles on collars, ordnance yelps about arms for the love of America, the medical corps yodels about medics going everywhere the Army does, the transportation corps keeps it movin’, reluctantly, while the signal corps croons about satellites and flags. Regardless, they all have one thing in common: they’re godawful, and we hate singing them. So where did they all come from?

Surprisingly, there’s just not a lot of information on the songs out there. Weirdly enough, when you compose a song and give it to the U.S. government, somehow they no longer have to cite you as the creator. Odd how that is. Still, there were enough breadcrumbs to be able to follow most of the songs back to their points of origin.

The most famous – or infamous – is one of the only really decent songs out there, “The Caisson Song,” of the Field Artillery, by John Philips Sousa in 1917 and also by Edmund L. Gruber in 1908, who Sousa kinda copied his version from, resulting in a good ol’ legal battle. Regardless, the thing was incredibly popular around the country because it was from Sousa, who knew how to make a rattling good march. Incidentally, it’s probably the only Army song to ever have a line from Shakespeare in it (“Over Hill/Over Dale” being from A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Well anyway, it got too popular. In 1948, when the Army was all bent out of shape because it didn’t have its own official song and had lost the Air Force – which already had its own song – they held a contest to get some new, fantastic song. But all they got was garbage (the winner sounded too much like “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”– go figure) so they simply had the lyrics to the “Caisson Song” rewritten to be all-Army-inclusive and called it good in 1952. Which is a damn shame, because the original is far better.

The Transportation Corps song was written nack in 1943 by Herman Hupfeld, himself a veteran of World War I. He’s perhaps better known for having written the song “As Time Goes By” from the movie Casablanca. We shan’t hold his work for the U.S. government against him, I suppose.

The Signal Corps has two songs. An official song, and the “US Army Signal Corps March,” which is the “official preferred” song. Leave it to the Signal Corps to make even songs confusing to the point where they won’t work. Its “preferred” song was composed in 1961, which is about right; it’s got that “we still think it’s the 1950s” tone of desperation about it, common with all the branch songs.

“Above the Best,” the song for U.S. Army Aviation was written in 1987 by Mrs. Jo Johnston – who shares culpability for the Army Corps of Engineers singing about pinning castles and completing training for the team (Which team? What training?), having also written “Essayons” in 1989. Why it took the Engineers, an old branch, until 1989 to get a service song, I don’t know; but I think we should’ve held out a bit longer.

So, the Ordnance Corps managed to snag the one and only Irving Berlin to write a zippy little march for them, called “Arms for the Love of America.” Written in 1941, the title hasn’t aged super well. But, hey, we can all snicker at the line, “the man behind the man behind the gun,” and it’s Irving Berlin, so that’s pretty cool.

Also cool is the “Song of the Medical Corps,” written on New Guinea in 1943 during World War II by 2nd Lieutenant Leeon Aller, Jr. and Warrant Officer Leeon Aller, Sr. Well, the setting of it is cool, as well as the father/son combo. It still sounds like, well, a Broadway show gone very much awry.

Naturally, the “Military Police March,” written in 1979 and revised in 1994, is…horrid, just like the MP Corps itself. There’s an “Armor Song” – which they seem not to be proud of, since there’s little information on it out there – and a Judge Advocate General regimental march (and a bluegrass song). JAG also got weird and starting making their own songs, including one to the tune of the “Ballad of the Green Berets.”

But the award for the absolutely worst branch song has to go to the Infantry. I vividly remember the day at Benning when our drill sergeants awkwardly shuffled their feet and told us that we had to learn the Infantry Song. We all seized onto the idea with gusto, thinking that surely it would be a badass and military-like anthem for we few, we shaved-head, idiotic few. And then we heard it played for the first time and the resolve died within us. So our drill sergeants – hardened veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan – had to coax, threaten, and belittle a horde of America’s young men to belt out, “YOU CAN HEAR IT IN THE HEAT OF THE JUNGLE…YOU CAN HEAR IT ACROSS THE SEAAAAAA…IT CALLS TO EVERY FREEDOM-LOVING MAN, IT’S THE CRY OF THE U.S. IN-FANTRYRRYYYYY…” It just gets worse from there. But don’t take it from me, you can hear it here.

Possibly the most infuriating thing about the“Infantry Song” is that there’s barely anything out there about it, other than the lyrics. So we can’t even pin it on anyone. Perhaps it’s better that way. I wouldn’t want that on my resume either.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter: we’re still going to have to sing all of these corny tunes and pretend to enjoy the experience. In that sense, it’s a bit like all the other unpleasant bits of the Army, such as command climate surveys and resiliency training. So we’ll grin and bear it, and think about how we’d rather just do the bit from Stripes instead.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

Cover Photo: Army Maj. Terri Rae Lopez-Homestead stands among the nine 100th Missile Defense Brigade (GMD) Soldiers who were honored during a Dec. 5, 2017, graduation ceremony at 100th MDB Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., to recognize their successful completion of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Fire Control Operator Qualification Course (GQC). Homestead is now serving as the first female tactical crew director of a missile defense crew at Fort Greely, Alaska. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jennifer Beyrle/Released) (Photo Credit: Capt. Jennifer Beyrle)

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