Walter Mencken 2 p.m., Aug. 22
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A Torchlight Tattoo Memory for Memorial Day
I was never in combat, but I was in the infantry right after the Vietnam Conflict. Just about anybody who knows anything about the history and organization of the United States Army will call me crazy for writing this, but I actually had a five-star general in my rifle squad of the Old Guard in the Military District of Washington.
In the years after the Bicentennial, the Third United States Infantry Regiment would have an evening pageant in front of the Jefferson Memorial on Wednesdays throughout the summer months, and it was called the Torchlight Tattoo. Old Guard soldiers would reenact scenes from history to go with each of the different versions of the Flag, starting with thirteen stars and stripes up to the fifty-star Flag we have today, and each of the scenes had something to do with whatever military campaigns the Army was involved in at the time. All scenes taken together, it was a weekly production that lasted several hours, including the scene of a rolling horse-drawn wagon driven by 19th century soldiers and being set upon by several bare-chested Native American warriors with tomahawks.
For at least one of those years between 1976 and 1979, my firing party squad from Delta Company reenacted scenes from World War II and the Korean Conflict. What was memorable for me was the reaction one of my squad members would get for the uniform he happened to be wearing as we waited to go on. The particular squad member I am thinking of was nicknamed Elmo, and he happened to be portraying General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur at the Japanese surrender that mostly ended the WWII.
Now, you've got to get the proper mental picture of this. Elmo was issued the Army tan uniform for the period, with the general's appropriately-decorated head gear, sunglasses, and a corncob pipe. On his collars, he wore the five stars of someone holding the rank of General of the Army. We'd be somewhat bored waiting through the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the early Indian Suppression campaigns, the Mexican-American War... hopefully you get the picture, since from the campaigns before the Civil War, we still had a least a century to wait around until 1945.
Being a low-key prankster, Elmo would sometimes wander off around and behind the Jefferson Memorial, looking like the General of the Army himself. The rest of us squad members would hang back at a discrete distance to watch what would happen when some unsuspecting military officer happened to walk past Elmo, noticing all those stars flashing in the moonlight.
If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. The same can be said of Generals of the Army.
You see, running into a five-star general while strolling through the park can cause instant mayhem if you don't salute the general with the corncob pipe sticking out of the side of his mouth, especially when said general is backed up by a motley crew open-carrying M1 rifles and Thompson submachine guns. Of course, as soon as he was saluted, Elmo would straighten up and return a proper salute, as it would be a breach of military etiquette not to return a salute and totally inappropriate to correct a "junior" saluting officer by stating “I'm just pretending to be General of the Army” as a court-martial offense.
While Elmo was wearing that uniform and those stars, and sucking on that pipe in the moonlight east of the Potomac, he was the highest ranking individual on active duty in the entire United States Army. After all, he was wearing the insignia of rank that the Old Guard had issued him, and he was wearing those stars as he was ordered, so for all anybody knew in that instant it took to decide whether to salute or not, he was the only General of the Army in the Army, and by God and Country, the one and only General of the Army needed to be saluted.
Of course, this didn't work on Old Guard and other MDW officers who were in on the joke unless they were very, very new. Still, there were enough company and field grade officers from all services in the greater Washington metropolitan area to insure that on any given summer Wednesday evening, somebody would be braced at Present Arms on apparently having a late-night encounter with the most senior corncob-smoking officer in all of the Armed Forces of the United States of America.