By Mr. David Vergun (Soldiers Front Page)June 4, 2009
Noncommissioned officers are "the backbone of the Army," states the U.S. Army's NCO Creed. "Backbone" refers to the critical role NCOs play: training and looking after the welfare of junior Soldiers, leading by example, and advising officers and executing their orders with minimal supervision.
Many of the Army's current regulations regarding NCOs can be traced to the Revolutionary War. In 1778, Gen. George Washington assigned Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to train his Soldiers. Steuben, a former member of the Prussian general staff of Frederick the Great, wrote one of the Army's first training manuals, which spelled out the duties and authority of NCOs.
Sergeant William Brown typified the high caliber of NCOs in the Continental Army. During the siege of Yorktown in 1781, he led a bayonet charge against formidable British defenses, contributing to victory in that pivotal battle.
Later during peacetime, NCOs participated in the exploration of the West. Four NCOs accompanied Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark on their expedition to the Pacific from 1803 to 1806.
The prestige of being an NCO was enhanced when the NCO sword was authorized in 1840. It continues to be used by NCOs today for some ceremonial occasions. To distinguish themselves from other Soldiers, NCOs wore green or red epaulets on their uniforms during the early years. The current practice of wearing chevrons followed the War of 1812. Chevrons went through several style changes in the 1800s, with the stripes worn in a "V" or inverted "V" fashion, depending on the unit and time period.
Good NCOs took great care of their Soldiers and used initiative to accomplish their missions, unlike in many other armies where officers assumed many duties carried out by NCOs (even today).
First Sgt. Percival Lowe is a good example of a leader who took the initiative. He was stationed on the Great Plains in the mid-19th century, where conditions were harsh, Indian attacks were common and civilization was far away. If his men were hungry, he paid for their meals. He kept good order and discipline, counseling his troopers to avoid drinking in excess and punishing offenders by assigning them extra duty. He also established nonjudicial punishment as a way of disciplining his Soldiers without ruining their careers with courts-martial.
When in 1853 the Kansa Indian tribe stole Army horses, Lowe was assigned to retrieve them. He traveled to their village with only an interpreter to ask for their return, warning that force would be used if they were not. When the chief refused, Lowe returned with 20 Soldiers, snuck into their camp and captured the chief. The horses were returned and the chief was allowed to return to his village. Mission accomplished-without a shot fired.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), NCOs prided themselves in leading from the front. They carried the flag and regimental colors, allowing commanders to readily locate their units during the chaos of battle.
Besides infantry duty, NCOs performed a host of other essential services, which frequently involved serving in harm's way. For example, Sgt. William McKinley of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, served in the commissary in 1862 during the battle of Antietam. As the battle raged, his troops became tired and hungry. McKinley led two mule teams with wagons of rations and hot coffee into the thick of the fighting, ignoring repeated warnings to retreat. Despite losing a mule team to enemy fire, he and some stragglers he'd gathered forged ahead, successfully delivering the rations to the grateful troops. In 1896, he was elected president of the United States.
The Union Army monthly pay chart of 1861 rewarded technical proficiency as well as leadership, as by then, the Army had acquired a variety of advanced weapons systems for that era. The highest pay, $34, went to NCOs who maintained and operated advanced weaponry and equipment-master armorers, master blacksmiths and sergeants who specialized in explosives. Cavalry and infantry sergeants major, on the other hand, received just $21, first sergeants $20, sergeants $17 and corporals $14. Below the NCO ranks, privates, blacksmiths and buglers earned $13.
As the Army continued to modernize, technical proficiency for NCOs was rewarded with even higher pay, relative to those non-technical billets. For example, in the 1908 pay chart, a master electrician in the coast artillery earned $84, while an infantry sergeant major made just $33 per month.
In 1909, the 417-page Noncommissioned Officers Manual was published, specifying the duties and responsibilities of each NCO rank, as well as the customs and traditions they were entrusted to uphold. The manual also gave practical advice on ways to achieve unit discipline and reform offenders.
During the Indian wars in the latter half of the 19th century, NCOs commanded small units or detachments, often far away from garrisons. Many NCOs distinguished themselves, including Sgt. Charles L. Thomas, 11th Ohio Cavalry.
In the summer of 1865, just months after the end of the Civil War, 1,400 Soldiers of the Powder River Expedition got hopelessly lost on the Great Plains. Thomas and two Pawnee scouts set off to locate them. He found the missing Soldiers besieged by Sioux warriors. He fought his way to the troops, rallied them to victory, then led them 150 miles to a supply camp. His actions were credited with saving the expedition from almost-certain annihilation.
An African American NCO, Sgt. George Jordan of the 9th Cavalry, distinguished himself during the Indian wars in 1880. Leading 25 Soldiers, he rode to the town of Tularosa, N.M., where as many as 300 Apache warriors were preparing to attack. Their detachment broke the seige, saving the town and its citizens.
The enlisted men of the late 1800s were discouraged from marrying and special permission was required. Soldiers also spent much of their time engaged in manual labor, building or repairing barracks, fortifications, roads and bridges, and standing long hours of guard duty. A hard life with poor pay resulted in frequent desertions. This situation tested the abilities of NCOs to maintain an effective fighting unit.
Wives of NCOs didn't have an easy life either, often working as maids for officers or doing laundry. The wives subsisted on beans, bacon, beef and hardtack and usually lived in dugouts, sod huts or adobe buildings. Those more fortunate lived in wooden structures or stone buildings.
During World War I, NCOs continued adding to their legacy. In 1918, Cpl. Harold Turner of the 142nd Infantry, led troops under heavy fire near St. Etienne, France. When they were pinned down by fire from a machine gun emplacement, Turner rushed forward with fixed bayonet. After a desperate struggle, he captured the position, along with 50 German soldiers.
That same year, Cpl. Alvin C. York and his men of the 328th Infantry encountered heavy machine gun fire in the Argonne Forest in France. He and 17 Soldiers attacked the position, capturing a number of Germans, but losing nine Soldiers, including the sergeant leading the attack. York then assumed command, leading the survivors and their prisoners back to friendly lines. Along the way, York and his men killed at least 20 German soldiers, silenced 32 machine guns and captured 132 prisoners.
For his heroism, York received the Medal of Honor and a promotion to sergeant. When he returned home, he received offers for product endorsements and film roles-all of which he declined. He spent most of his remaining years helping the children of Tennessee acquire a basic education through a foundation he created.
Following World War I, the Army rapidly reduced its end strength and those still on active duty were often reduced in rank to balance the remaining force structure. For example, Alexander Loungeway enlisted in 1908, rose through the NCO ranks and was promoted to first lieutenant during World War I. After the war, despite his excellent service record, he was reverted to first sergeant, then to sergeant, corporal, and finally, private first class. He was promoted to corporal in 1939, a year before he retired.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, enlisted Soldiers sometimes received just half their pay or received consumer goods or food in lieu of up to half their paycheck.
Also in that decade, technicians were created to distinguish their ranks from the equivalent pay grades of corporal through staff sergeant, and their chevrons were marked with a "T." In 1948, the Army discontinued the technician ranks and subsequently created the specialist ranks in 1955.
Before World War II, NCOs received promotions through their regiments. NCOs who transferred to another regiment arrived as privates first class. The system didn't seem fair to many, and in 1940, the Army allowed NCOs to keep their ranks whenever they transferred.
During World War II, the rapid expansion of the Army led to fewer experienced NCOs because Soldiers were rapidly promoted to the NCO ranks. The proportion of NCOs in the Army increased from 20 percent of the enlisted ranks in 1941 to nearly 50 percent in 1945. As a result, this lowered the prestige of becoming an NCO.
Following the war, the ranks became better balanced and today, active-duty Army NCOs make up more than 200,000 of the approximately 540,000 Soldiers. The Army National Guard has nearly 139,000 NCOs out of more than 360,000 Soldiers and the Reserve has roughly 78,000 NCOs out of more than 197,000 Soldiers.
As in other conflicts, many NCOs distinguished themselves during World War II. For example, Staff Sgt. Charles Shea of the 350th Infantry, encountered heavy machine-gun fire in Monte Damiano, Italy, in 1944. So his men could advance, he single-handedly moved forward, silencing three machine-gun positions, killing three enemy soldiers and capturing six.
The same year, Sgt. Harrison Summers of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, led an attack against German fortifications on Utah Beach, France, on D-Day, June 6. When he and 12 Soldiers encountered heavy fire during the assault, the 12 fell back, leaving him alone to advance. He rushed to the first enemy fortification, kicked the door open, and killed all the enemy soldiers inside. He then moved down a row of stone buildings, clearing each as he advanced.
In the late 1940s, the Army emphasized training and professionalism of its NCOs, publishing the Career Guidance Plan and opening professional schools for NCOs. In 1959, the Army instituted service-wide standards for NCO training. By the end of the 1950s, the NCO ranks nearly mirrored the current structure, minus the command sergeant major and sergeant major of the Army.
During the Korean War in 1953, Sgt. Ola L. Mize, of the 15th Infantry, distinguished himself in battle and received the Medal of Honor. Near Surang-ni, Mize advanced through an intense enemy barrage to rescue a wounded Soldier.
Upon returning to his outpost, he organized an effective defense and inflicted heavy casualties against attacking enemy forces who had penetrated their perimeter. During the intense fighting, Mize was blown down by artillery and grenade blasts three times, but each time he got up and continued repelling attacks.
While the fighting raged inside the outpost, Mize moved from man to man, distributing ammunition and shouting words of encouragement. When he observed a friendly machine gun position overrun, he fought his way to the position, killing 10 of the enemy. He continued fighting and helped regroup for a successful counterattack.
NCO legends and stature continued growing through the Vietnam War years. In 1968, Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ashley Jr., an African American Soldier, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for action in South Vietnam. As the senior special forces advisor, he led a mission to rescue Soldiers under attack at Camp Lang Vei, near Khe Sanh.
During the ensuing battle, Ashley led five assaults, continuously exposing himself to enemy grenades and automatic weapons fire, as well as booby-trapped satchel charges in each of the bunkers he overran. During his fifth and final assault, Ashley called for air strikes nearly on top of his position, forcing the enemy to withdraw. While exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he was seriously wounded but continued his mission without regard for his personal safety. A short time later he was killed by enemy artillery fire.
An NCO milestone was reached in 1966, when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson chose Sgt. Maj. William O. Wooldridge as the first sergeant major of the Army.
The SMA serves as the senior enlisted advisor to the secretary of the Army and chief of staff of the Army on enlisted matters. In 1967, Johnson established the position of command sergeant major. The CSM serves as the commander's enlisted assistant at and above the battalion level.
In 1969, the Army established the Noncommissioned Officer Education System, designed to provide NCOs with a progressive system of career courses, beginning with the Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course and then the Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course. The Sergeants Major Academy was established in 1972 and other leadership courses were added over the years.
The NCO Creed, a summary of NCO ideals, has existed in various forms for many years. At the start of the all-volunteer Army in 1973, the current form of the creed was written and later distributed to NCOs around the Army. It is still in use today.
Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey became the first senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1, 2005. He provided input on enlisted education, health, welfare, morale and housing matters for all of the services.
On Jan. 30, 2009, President Barack Obama met with Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston and the senior enlisted advisors of other services to hear concerns from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. This was reportedly the first time a commander in chief held an official meeting with senior enlisted leaders.
Today, NCOs continue to fight and lead by example. Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor, typifies the courage and sacrifice that an NCO could be called upon to make.
During heavy fighting in Baghdad in 2003, Smith and 100 Soldiers came under attack by a much-larger enemy force. After organizing a defense, Smith braved hostile fire to engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded Soldiers.
Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, he moved under fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun, mounted on an armored personnel carrier. Disregarding his own safety, Smith maintained his exposed position to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded. During the engagement, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers, and in the process, allowed the safe withdrawal of wounded comrades. His Medal of Honor was the first since operations in Somalia in 1993.
There have been many changes in the Army and the NCO Corps since the Revolutionary War, when von Steuben shaped the NCO Corps. But the pride and professionalism of its ranks have remained steadfast and its legacy continues to grow.
(Compiled by David Vergun from Field Manual 7-22.7 (Dec. 2002); A Short History of the NCO, by L.R. Arms, director of the NCO Museum at Fort Bliss, Texas; and www.army.mil).
No one is more professional than I. I am a Noncommissioned Officer, a leader of Soldiers. As a Noncommissioned Officer, I realize that I am a member of a time-honored corps, which is known as "The Backbone of the Army." I am proud of the Corps of Noncommissioned Officers and will, at all times, conduct myself so as to bring credit upon the Corps, the Military Service and my country regardless of the situation in which I find myself.
I will not use my grade or position to attain pleasure, profit or personal safety. Competence is my watchword. My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind-accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my Soldiers. I will strive to remain tactically and technically proficient. I am aware of my role as a Noncommissioned Officer. I will fulfill my responsibilities inherent in that role. All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my Soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my Soldiers and never leave them uninformed. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment.
Officers of my unit will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine. I will earn their respect and confidence as well as that of my Soldiers. I will be loyal to those with whom I serve; seniors, peers, and subordinates alike. I will exercise initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of orders. I will not compromise my integrity, nor my moral courage. I will not forget, nor will I allow my comrades to forget that we are professionals, Noncommissioned Officers, leaders!