TAJI, Iraq - As America celebrated its 233rd birthday this past week, a Pennsylvania National Guard unit that predates the American Revolution, continued its mission of defending freedom with combat operations here in Iraq.
The 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment is the original unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard and is one of the oldest units in the Army. The unit, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin, first saw action in the French and Indian War and today is a part of the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq, a base camp north of Baghdad.
"We're the founding unit in the Pennsylvania National Guard," said Lt. Col. Mark O'Hanlon, commander of the 1st Bn., 111th Inf. Regt. "We're very proud of our lineage. We have been around since 1747 before there was a country."
In the mid-18th Century, Pennsylvania was a British colony, but was still subject to threats from the French privateers and pirates.
"Ben Franklin understood there was a need for a mechanism to defend the colony," said O'Hanlon, of Wallingford, Pa. "He conceived of an association that would come together to defend the city in times of crisis."
Franklin organized fighting men under the auspices of a firefighting brigade, because the Quakers who controlled Pennsylvania at the time were pacifists opposed to militias. At the time, firefighters were called associators and the unit still uses the same call sign today, according to Maj. James Fluck, a 56th SBCT civil affairs officer who was formerly a company commander in the 1st Bn., 111th Inf. Regt.
"He formed it as an 'associator' brigade who trained as firefighters and gave the surface appearance of firefighting but they actually trained as a militia," said Fluck, of Lancaster, Pa. "Franklin procured money to go to New York to buy fire hoses. He came back with 10 cannons he considered fire hoses."
Franklin disguised the real mission of the association, according to O'Hanlon, by ordering fire hoses and conducting training outside Philadelphia. But when the fire hoses arrived, they didn't shoot water. Instead, they were cannons capable of heaping firepower toward any enemy.
The 111th Inf. Regt. flag has battle streamers from almost every military engagement dating back to the Revolutionary War. O'Hanlon said the Soldiers serving in the 1st Bn., 111th Inf. Regt., celebrate their heritage and educate any new Soldiers about the unit's history. A regiment mess is held every year, complete with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the attendance of an actor who portrays Benjamin Franklin.
The 111th Inf. Regt. today is the only unit in the military allowed to fly the Franklin Flag, which predates the current American flag. It has 13 red, white and blue stripes and 13 six-pointed stars.
"That flag was flying on John Paul Jones' ship when he uttered the words 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,'" said O'Hanlon.
Two and a half centuries later, and half a world away from Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin's legacy of fighting for freedom lives on in the 111th Inf. Regt.
"Benjamin Franklin would be very impressed with the Soldiers and their courage and commitment," O'Hanlon said. "I think he would also be proud that we are good ambassadors of America in Iraq."