Joseph L. Galloway: A great day for the U.S. Army

March 21, 2009 

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- It was a great day for the infantry and for the U.S. Army, and it was one for the history books, as well.

On a bright, sunny spring day in Georgia, Fort Benning and the National Infantry Museum dedicated a new parade ground, and the first of what will be thousands of basic training companies broke it in by marching in review for their graduation.

Before the 125 newest soldiers in the Army set boots on that field, though, it was consecrated in a ceremony that saw veterans and descendants of veterans of eight of America's wars spread soil collected from their battlefields on the new parade ground.

Douglas Hamilton, a fifth-generation descendant of Alexander Hamilton, sprinkled soil gathered from the decisive battlefield of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.

Former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, a great-grandson of Pvt. Charles Kempthorne of the Union Army's 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, and Henry B. Pease Jr., a descendant of Henry Lewis Benning, the Confederate commander at the Burnside Bridge, spread soil from the blood-soaked Civil War battlefield of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as Gen. Benning probably called it.

Soil from World War I battlefields in France was spread on the parade ground by George York, son of the legendary Sgt. Alvin York, and Samuel Parker Moss, grandson of Samuel Parker of the 28th Infantry. Both York and Parker earned the Medal of Honor during World War I.

World War II was represented by soil collected from the beaches at Normandy and those of Corregidor and Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

Theodore Roosevelt IV, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who earned the Medal of Honor on D-Day at Normandy, and Kirk Davis, son of Charles Davis, who earned the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal, spread soil from those battlefields.

Two legendary warriors from the Korean War -- Col. Ola Lee Mize, who held Outpost Harry against overwhelming odds and earned a Medal of Honor, and Gen. Sun Yup Paik, who at age 30 commanded both a division and a corps in the South Korean Army -- sprinkled soil from their war's battlefields.

Then it was time to honor the infantrymen who fought in Vietnam, and two legendary old soldiers marched onto the field wearing their black cavalry Stetsons. Retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley carried jars bearing soil collected at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley and on other Vietnam battlefields.

In the stands, a dozen or more Ia Drang veterans and other 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) veterans, most wearing the same black hats, stood at attention as Moore, 87, and Plumley, 89, carried out their mission and then saluted them.

Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. David Petraeus at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, spread soil collected from battlefields in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan during Operation Desert Storm and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Actor Sam Elliott, who portrayed Sgt. Maj. Plumley in the movie "We Were Soldiers," narrated the ceremony. (Full disclosure: The movie is based on a book that Gen. Moore and I wrote.) The program began and ended with some spectacular flying demonstrations using helicopters of the Vietnam War era, and Fort Benning once more heard distant echoes of the blades of Hueys, OH-6s and Cobra gunships.

This week's ceremony marked a partial opening of the new $100 million National Infantry Museum that adjoins the parade ground. The grand opening of the entire facility is scheduled for June 19.

Fort Benning's hometown, Columbus, Ga., provided more than 200 acres of land at the gates of the fort for construction of the Infantry Museum, and Columbus citizens, foundations and companies donated almost half the money needed to build it.

The Infantry Museum Foundation is busy rounding up the last $10 million to complete work on the displays that will fill the museum's galleries on America's wars and the infantry battles that distinguished them.

The new soldiers graduating from basic training with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry marched past the stands, which were filled not only with their proud parents and siblings, but also with the assembled VIPs and such legendary infantrymen as retired Gen. David Grange and retired Gen. Ed Burba and retired Col. Ralph Puckett.

In the infantry and in the Army, there are good days and bad days, and a few great days. This was one of the great days.

Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.

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