WASHINGTON -- A century ago, the Army officially recognized for the first time an echelon of Soldiers that have existed in the ranks since 1896: the Army warrant officer.

During World War I, an act by Congress in 1918 established the Army Mine Planter Service, or MPS, as part of the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps. But long before any congressional action, the Army recognized a need for technical experts and leaders in support of mine planting operations.

Before the war, mine planter ships were often piloted by civilian mariners under the direction of Army Coast Artillery Officers. Friction developed between the Army and their non-military counterparts, as civilians mariners would often leave to seek other employment, ultimately impacting Army operations.

Due to the constant flux in personnel, the Army Chief of Coast Artillery requested legislation in 1916 to help militarize the mine planting vessels. Two years later, Congress granted request. Along with the MPS, the act established the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Corps.

Shortly after the act of 1918, the Army opened its first official warrant officer training institution in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Commanded by a U.S. Navy officer, the new school taught navigation and marine engineering skills to the Army's newest warrant officer candidates.

A total of 40 warrant officers were sanctioned to serve as masters, mates, chief engineers, and assistant engineers within the Army Mine Planter Service.

With no official rank insignia, the newly appointed warrant officer wore simple bands of brown cloth on their uniform sleeves. Masters wore four bands, deck officers wore an embroidered brown fouled anchor above the braid, and engineer officers wore an embroidered brown three-bladed propeller in a similar position.

Throughout the war and beyond, warrant officers served alongside crews of enlisted mine planting specialists in support of MPS operations. Mine planting teams were responsible for the maintenance of underwater minefields to defend U.S. coastal fortifications at major ports, including the Panama Canal and Manila Bay in the Philippines.

CURRENT STATE AND BEYOND

One hundred years later on July 9, 2018, the Army still relies upon warrant officers to be adaptive technical experts, combat leaders, trainers, and advisors, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Billy L. Frittz, the Army staff senior warrant officer and the assistant executive officer for Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley.

"On the centennial of the warrant officer cohort, we celebrate who we are, knowing that every situation represents an opportunity to improve our service and support to Army leaders, Soldiers and Families," Frittz said. "Today's warrants are faced with limited resources, demanding conditions, and an Army that must meet the challenges of the day while keeping an eye on preparing and modernizing a ready force."

Today's warrant officers serve at all levels of the Army, Frittz added. Junior warrant officers are typically assigned at the tactical and brigade level, while senior warrant officers often serve at the brigade level and above. Warrant officers also hold positions throughout the Army, Department of Defense, and interagency partners.

"To date we remain leaders of Soldiers, professional members of a cohort that continues to produce amazing technicians and operators," Frittz continued. "As warrant officers, our ability to reinforce a professional culture, keep pace with emerging technologies, and remain the Army's premier technical experts, systems integrators and leaders, will define our legacy from this day forward."

Currently, more than 26,000 warrant officers -- roughly 2.5 percent of the Army -- are distributed throughout the total force. Warrant officers are highly specialized technicians spanning 17 different Army branches and 44 warrant officer specialties. About 40 percent of warrant officers are involved in aviation.

The other 60 percent are highly specialized technicians or leaders, Frittz said. These technical officers manage, maintain, operate, and integrate critical Army systems and equipment across the full spectrum of Army operations.

"The warrant officer recruiting team is working hard to increase accessions to fill the many opportunities available. In most instances, Soldiers must have experience within an enlisted feeder MOS to qualify for accession and appointment to the warrant officer ranks. Many of our branches require a warrant officer candidate to have experience before they become a warrant officer," Frittz emphasized.

"Enlisted Soldiers develop a broad understanding of the Army's profession but warrant officers must also possess exceptional intellectual and critical thinking skills, a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, and a willingness to ask the hard questions," he added. "We want warrant officers to succeed and the Army is better able to man, organize, train, equip, and lead if we have the properly prepared personnel in place -- warrant officers are force multipliers."

MODERN VOLUNTEER ARMY

Although 1918 is considered to be the year the Army established the warrant officer corps, there are also plenty of notable highlights from the first half of the warrant officer century.

"Reflecting on our history helps keep us in touch with why we exist and what we were meant to do for the Army," Frittz said.

In 1920, The National Defense Act opened opportunities for warrant officers to serve in clerical, administrative and bandleader positions. Approximately 1,100 warrant officers were on active duty. However, warrant officers were excluded from performing similar functions as their enlisted counterparts.

In 1926, Jen Doble and Olive Hoskins were the first two female Soldiers to be appointed to the warrant officer rank. After 20 years of service, Doble and Hoskins retired and were the last female warrant officers to serve until World War II.

In 1953, the Warrant Officer Flight Program led to the training of thousands of Soldiers, and they were later utilized as helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War. In addition to supporting aviation operations during the war, warrant officers served as platoon leaders and operations and liaison officers. Some warrant officers also held command of their company for brief periods of time.

In 1954, the Warrant Officer Personnel Act officially eliminated the Mine Planter Service and established the grades of W1 through W4.

Three years later, in 1957, a Department of the Army study determined two essential guidelines regarding warrant officers. First, the study determined that the Army needed more warrant officers. Second, the study determined that the warrant officer rank should never be used as a reward or incentive. Most importantly, this was the first time that the Army defined the mission of the Army warrant officer.

"The warrant officer is a highly skilled technician who is provided to fill those positions above the enlisted level which are too specialized in scope to permit effective development, and continued utilization of broadly trained, branch qualified commissioned officers," Army Regulation 611-112 reads.

However, according to retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jack Du Teil, the national director of the U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association, the actual evolution of the warrant officer cohort started in 1968.

"From the campaign trail, presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon vowed to end the draft and create the 'Modern Volunteer Army,' or MVA. When he became president, he charged then Army Chief of Staff Gen. William C. Westmoreland with this duty," Du Teil said. "With Nixon's 1972 campaign looming, Gen. Westmoreland ordered the formation of a small MVA task force of 15 officers and NCOs, led by Lt. Gen. George I. Forsythe and Brig. Gen. Robert Montique."

At the time, the MVA task force was authorized by the Army chief to operate outside the chain of command to complete the MVA mission. A significant goal of the initiative was to establish an educational system to develop and grow professional officers and NCOs throughout their career.

Representing the warrant officer corps was Chief Warrant Officer 4 Don Hess, a vital member of the task force, Du Teil said.

"[Hess] approached Lt. Gen. Forsythe with his vision of professionally developed, well-managed warrant officers, and their greater value to the Army by serving at progressively higher leadership tables throughout their careers," Du Teil said.

"While Lt. Gen. Forsythe believed this was both a logistical and cultural 'bridge too far' within the time constraints levied on the MVA task force, he became a true believer in Don Hess' vision," Du Teil added. "[Forsythe] shared it with numerous other senior Army leaders in those days."

Forsythe further encouraged Hess to establish the warrant officers association to serve as a collective voice to engage with Army senior leaders. Hess followed suit and founded the organization in 1972.

Most importantly, in 1975, the Warrant Officer Division was formed by the U.S. Army Military Personnel Center, Du Teil noted.

Over the next 40 years, the Army continued to make changes to the Corps to better define the roles and responsibilities of warrant officers. The force added training, education, and promotion requirements, and changes to the rank structure, which included authorization of the W5 pay grade in the 1992 National Defense Authorization Act.

That same year, the Department of the Army developed a new definition to encompass all warrant officer specialties and grades. And Army pamphlet 600-3, Army Field Manuals 6-22 and 7-0 clarify the role of the warrant officer. Army Field Manuals 6-22 and 7-0 include further clarification of the warrant officer role.

"As I look back, I recognize I was fortunate, in that each of my warrant officer assignments offered me a growing understanding of my potential career opportunities, and the positive impact a professionally developed Warrant Officer Corps could potentially have on the Army. This was a perspective most warrant officers in those days were never afforded," said Hess, in his final article posted in April 2018.

"In retrospect, I believe I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right times -- and afforded the right perspectives from senior leaders, and others," added Hess, reflecting on his impact as a warrant officer advocate.

Hess passed away in September 2017.

"Warrant officers have evolved over time," Frittz said. "Moving forward, we must re-evaluate the norm, and prepare a future cohort that can continue deliver highly specialized, well-developed and ready system operators, managers, integrators and leaders.

(Editor's note: U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, U.S. Army Historical Foundation, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Recruiting, and retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 David P. Welsh, with the USAWOA and the Warrant Officer Historical Foundation, contributed to this story.)