Sandlapper Society

Tomahawks to Taliban-Hunters

by W. Thomas Smith Jr. • photo by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Despite our short national history, America has an extraordinarily rich military heritage, lending itself— in many ways— to our being the most militarily powerful nation on Earth. Of course, each state in the union contributes to this military heritage, and each state brings something unique to our broader national military heritage and tradition.

But perhaps no state brings more to this national heritage and tradition than South Carolina, which brings me to the point of this column.

Beginning this quarter, Sandlapper will feature a military series written by me and focusing on South Carolina’s extraordinarily rich military heritage, tradition and connections. History to be sure— after all, our long-standing moniker, the Palmetto State, was born of the great artillery-naval gunfire duel between Continental forces and the Royal Navy in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776— but much more.

The idea for this column came to me months ago while I was hiking in northeast Columbia. It was an overcast day with a low cloud ceiling which made the sound of automatic weapons firing at nearby Fort Jackson seem as if it were only a few hundred yards away in the piney woods as opposed to the actual approximately three-to-five miles as the crow flies.

Walking through the woods, I considered several things.

First, Fort Jackson is the largest U.S. Army basic-training base in the nation, and it’s right here in Columbia, the heart of South Carolina.

Second, FNM (the U.S. manufacturing arm of internationally renowned Belgium-based Fabrique Nationale Herstal) is located a few miles from where I was hiking.

FN’s Columbia facility, which currently produces the majority of M-16 rifles for the U.S. Defense Department and 100 percent of all M-249 and M-240 machine guns, among other weapons, is, in all likelihood, the manufacturer of the weapons I am hearing in the distance. FN’s Columbia facility certainly produces the vast majority of the weapons carried by our deployed soldiers— many of whom began their Army careers at Fort Jackson— as well as Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, every U.S. Marine recruit between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River attends Parris Island, (near militarily rich Beaufort, less than 150 miles south of Columbia) before earning the title, “Marine.” I spent a life-defining 13 weeks at the somewhat notorious Lowcountry boot camp nearly 30 years ago, which I’ll discuss in a forthcoming column (recruits on the western side of “the Mighty Mississip,” attend the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego).

Speaking of Beaufort, there we have the Marine Corps Air Station— made famous by author Pat Conroy in his book, “The Great Santini,” a base which serves as an alternate space shuttle landing site for NASA and whose fighter aircrews have been heavily involved in the global war on terror. 

And if we’re talking fighters and aircrews, we have to come back up to central South Carolina where, at McEntire Joint National Guard Base (about 15 miles southeast of Columbia), fighter pilots fired some of the first shots of the first Gulf War, and they too— like their Marine counterparts from Beaufort— have been heavily engaged in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

Then there is Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, home of the Ninth Air Force and United States Air Forces Central, which is the U.S. Air Force’s component of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing all operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.

Think about that. The command headquarters for all Air Force operations over Iraq and Afghanistan is in Sumter. That’s huge, but it’s going to get bigger, because the U.S. Third Army— yes, Patton’s famous army— is moving from Fort McPherson in Atlanta to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter.

Please pardon the word play: we’re just scratching the flight deck. There is much more to the Palmetto State’s military history, heritage, tradition and connections, and we’ll be covering it all: from the Army’s operations in North America during our American Revolution to the greatest bloodbath on the entire North American continent to the U.S. Army Air Forces World War II training which operated out of an Army airfield that would later evolve into present-day Columbia Metropolitan Airport to flying over Lake Murray islands in preparation for 30 seconds over Tokyo.

Redcoats, bluecoats, Colonial militia, pirates, sailors, blockade runners, Indians, swamp foxes, gamecocks, backcountry guerrillas, Doolittle’s Raiders, Parris Island Marines, Citadel cadets, and more— no other state has what we have. From the first successful wartime submarine attack in world history (the Hunley vs. the Housatonic) to nuclear submarine operations in the Cold War, and from 18th-century regulators on horseback to secret Airborne Ranger training exercises in the
21st century, we’re just warming up.

• • •

Berkeley County native Francis Marion (1732–1795)— the legendary “Swamp Fox” of the Carolinas— is widely considered the father of U.S. Army Special Forces (perhaps grandfather, since, in many circles, the late Col. Aaron Bank is considered the “father of the Green Berets”). Marion is enshrined in the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame, and both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have named ships after Marion, one of which was designed to land U.S. Marines. Even military pilots claim the lineage, including the famous 157th Fighter Squadron of the S.C. Air National Guard. Nationwide, some 29 towns and cities, 17 counties, countless streets and highways, one National Forest, a lake, a university, amusement park rides, myriad small businesses, one hotel and a park near the U.S. Capitol building are named for Marion.


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