It was about 1900 on April 14, 1971 and I had been in the United States Navy about seven or eight hours. I sat at rigid attention with my hands clasped tightly in front of me on the tablet arm of my folding chair along with two dozen other members of Aviation Officers’ Candidate School Class 15-71. Clad only in our just issued snow white skivvies, boxer shorts and T shirts, we were uncomfortable for a lot of physical and mental reasons. We suffered, without obvious complaint, the prickling of the loose hairs on our newly shorn heads and the acrid odor of the skivvies’ sizing. The smell of the sizing did little to mask the smell of fear which our bodies radiated as we faced an uncertain future.
Staff Sergeant A.W. Meyers, USMC, our Drill Instructor for the next 16 weeks of AOCS, was giving the flower of the nation’s best colleges and universities a lesson on person hygiene. He emphasized daily showers, perhaps more, as it was fast approaching the hot humid summer of Pensacola, Florida. Particular attention was to be paid to applying plenty of hot soapy water to our nether regions to avoid Jock Itch and brushing our teeth after every meal followed by gargling with the contents of the issued bottle of nasty tasting Listerine mouthwash. Staff Sergeant A.W. Myers, USMC, did not want, as he put it mildly, “…to suffer no funky breath blasting on me from your filthy pie holes, which you will keep shut unless told to talk or, of course, suffer the consequences!”
He next passed out our dog tags and identification cards, telling us to memorize the card’s number, or suffer the consequences. It was the first, along with the chain of command, our rifle serial number, and the Eleven General Orders of a Sentry, of many things we were to commit to memory as we would be required to accurately quote one, or all of them, anytime, anywhere, to anyone senior to us or, of course, suffer the consequences.
The last thing he did before ordering the class to “mount your racks” was to issue each of us a small dark blue box, about four inches by two inches, which, according to the label, held “Medal Set, National Defense Service, Regular Size, 1 set.” The ribbon, irreverently known as the Firewatch or Gedunk Ribbon, would be pinned, exactly centered and ¼ of an inch above, the left breast pocket of our service khaki uniform or we would, of course, suffer the consequences. My hair had not even started growing back and here I was with a medal. Staff Sergeant A.W. Meyers, USMC, a beribboned veteran of Viet Nam, called us to attention and before dismissal acerbically told us that, “The Firewatch Ribbon is red for the blood we would never shed, blue for the water we would never cross, white for the eyes of the enemy we would never see, and yellow for the reason why.”
Some five months later, having survived the persuasive pedagogy of Staff Sergeant A.W. Meyers, USMC, I found myself a freshly minted Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve on the firing line of Naval Air Station Pensacola’s pistol range for qualification. It was a chance to double my ribbon display by adding a companion to my solitary National Defense ribbon. As we went through the safety briefing and basic pistol marksmanship training my mind wandered off to the history of the United States military sidearm.
During the Revolutionary War pistols were usually the private property of officers and were a motley collection of dueling and horse pistols with no common caliber and the attending difficulties. Feeling a need for standardization the Continental Congress elected to copy the 62 caliber British Model 1760 flintlock pistol, bought 2,000 from the Rappahannock Forge in Virginia, and named it the Model 1775. It saw service in the War of 1812 and was the United States Army’s standard-issue pistol for over 50 years.
Samuel Colt’s revolutionary revolver designs, the 44 caliber Walker and Dragoon revolvers were adopted by United States Army for cavalry and mounted-infantry use, seeing service in the Mexican-American War and on both sides of the United States Civil War. Just before the Civil War they were supplemented by the Colt Army Model 1860. Later the Colt Single Action Army replaced these three pistols because it used a safer and more reliable self-contained 45 caliber metallic cartridge, not the messy and dangerous loose powder, cap, and ball of the Walker and Dragoon, It remained the standard sidearm for the United States military until 1905. The last revolver in United States service was the M1917, a 38 caliber six-shot pistol made by Colt and Smith & Wesson that had an amazing longevity, remaining in the supply system through the 1970s.
The most iconic United States military sidearm in history is the John Browning designed semiautomatic, single action, recoil operated, seven shot, magazine fed, “Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A1.” It was the standard-issue United States sidearm for nearly 75 years and saw action every American conflict including both World Wars, the various Banana Wars, China and the Yangtze River patrol, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Grenada until it was replaced in 1985 by the M9, the Italian designed 9mm Beretta Model 92.
While M1911 was officially replaced in 1985 a number of special-operations units carried them into 21st century and it is still in the supply system as the Marine Corps M45A1 Close Quarters Battle Pistol.
Recently the XM17 Modular Handgun System, a variation of the Sig Sauer 9mm P320, has replaced the M9.
As for me, I used a M1911A1 to earn a United States Navy Marksmanship Medal to accompany my lonely National Defense Ribbon. I am proud to say that mine displays a silver ‘E’ to tell the world that I qualified as an expert with Old Slabsides.