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The Noncommissioned Officer:
Images of an Army in Action

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To Range the Woods
New York, 1760

During the colonial wars before the Revolution, Ranger patrols, often led by sergeants, performed valuable scouting missions for the British regulars trying to capture Canada from the French. Such military operations in heavily forested North America differed from Old World linear tactics. As opposed to their European NCO counterparts, who were used primarily to prevent straggling and maintain fire discipline, American NCOs had the opportunity to demonstrate small-unit leadership skills and independent judgment. Here Rangers, including an American sergeant about to set off on a raiding mission into French territory, discuss their mission with a regular sergeant of the British Army.

Eighteenth-century uniforms derived from contemporary civilian clothing on both sides of the Atlantic. British coats, waistcoats, and knee breeches were made of red cloth, the "national color" (leading to the nickname "lobsterbacks"). Long leggings or gaiters protected the legs. Variation in "facings" (cuffs, lapels, and lining) and the lace around the buttonholes distinguished different regiments. The British regular sergeant shown here is distinguished from private soldiers by the sash with facing stripe worn around his waist, and by the European halberd he carries instead of a musket-the halberd being more of a badge of office than a true weapon.

American Provincial units' uniforms appeared similar, but differed in color -- either blue or, in the case of the Rangers, green. Wilderness conditions caused practical modifications, such as discarding the standard cocked hat in favor of headgear less prone to get in the way in the woods. The longer European coat was replaced by a shorter jacket, and shoes and gaiters were abandoned in favor of moccasins and Indian cloth leggings.

NCOs in this era were distinguished from privates by having better -- quality uniforms. The Ranger sergeant wears worsted cording (instead of the even more ornate silver that an officer would wear) around his buttonholes. He is armed, like his men, with a cut-down musket and a tomahawk, which the Rangers favored instead of traditional European edged weapons.

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An Ordered and Disciplined Camp
Virginia, 1781

During the Revolutionary War, quartermaster sergeants prepared camp for General George Washington's army at the end of the day's march. The technical proficiency of these NCOs contributed directly to the speed with which Washington could move his regiments. This specialty, for example, enabled the continentals to march 350 miles so rapidly that they surprised the British at Yorktown in the battle that decided American independence. Here the quartermaster sergeant directs a private on the duty detail setting up tents, preparing fires, and otherwise readying a new bivouac for the night.

After several false starts, the Continental Army in 1779 finally adopted a plan for a national uniform of modified European style, using clothing imported from our French allies. The basic color for the coat was blue, with white for the waistcoat and breeches or overalls. Facings (cuffs, lapels, and collars) came in only four colors and were used to identify the regional grouping of states from which the regiment was raised. The red facing shown identifies this unit as coming from the Middle Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware.

The quartermaster sergeant wears two white epaulets (a corporal would wear only one) and a sword to indicate his NCO status. His garments were of better quality than those issued to privates. Senior noncominissioned officers might further display their status by wearing elements common to officers' uniforms, such as silk epaulets. The private is wearing a heavy civilian-style linen

smock to protect his issued uniform while on a duty detail. The hats are trimmed with white lace and with the symbol of Franco-American friendship, the "alliance" cockade, which combined the Continental Army's earlier, black version with the French Army's white. The French regiments in the Yorktown campaign also wore the cockade, but with the color arrangement reversed.

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Checking Cartridge Boxes
Canada, 1814

During the War of 1812, the need for the Army to be drilled in the discipline of its European rivals again became apparent. The NCOs played a key role in the vigorous training required to turn civilians into soldiers capable of maintaining the linear formations and volley fire tactics typical of warfare in this period. Keeping ammunition and small arms in good condition was essential for such coordinated action. Here a corporal inspects the lead ball and paper cartridges carried by each soldier in his squad.

The American-made, smooth bore, .69 caliber musket issued to the individual soldier during the War of 1812, like the Revolutionary War French musket after which it was patterned, was effective only when fired in volleys. Volley firing, in turn, required absolute precision and teamwork. The primary duty of the squad leader was to ensure that his men kept their ammunition and weapons ready for action at all times. Only frequent inspections guaranteed results.

The corporal is identified by the single worsted epaulet on his right shoulder. He and the privates he is inspecting are wearing the winter fatigue jacket, trimmed with white worsted lace and buttons that identify it as an infantry uniform. The felt hats worn in earlier years have been replaced by leather caps, with infantry plates adorning the fronts. Each man wears black leather accoutrements of a cartridge box on the

right hip and a triangular bayonet with haversack and wooden canteen on the left. The cartridge box contained the ammunition, which came in the form of a lead ball and individual gunpowder charge, rolled into a paper cartridge. In combat the soldier would bite the end off the cartridge and use the wrapper as wadding to hold the powder and ball in place.

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Guardians of Standards
Missouri, 1820s

Barracks inspection, always a major NCO duty, was especially important in the early nineteenth century. Strict discipline and standards were vital for a small Army trying to preserve a sense of professionalism despite being scattered across a vast frontier. In spartan barracks the NCOs had to enforce the clearly defined rules issued by the War Department. Here the regimental sergeant major and the first sergeant inspect the furniture and equipment in a typical small frontier post.

During the early 1820s the Army's regular regiments were scattered in small detachments across the frontier or in coastal fortifications, living in austere barracks. Four men slept in a double-tier bunk, two men on each level, sharing the straw-filled bedsack and blankets. The soldier had to use his knapsack to store all his possessions.

Regulations issued in 1821 provided a clearly defined set of standards for uniform dress which the NCOs used in evaluating their men. European styles still influenced the design of American uniforms, as seen in the high collar trimmed in worsted lace. The regulation specified a different color trim for each branch, including the buttons. The infantry, for example, wore white; the yellow seen here indicates artillery.

Because the "Bell Crown" leather cap could be an agony on hot days, a workman's style forage cap would be introduced in 1828.

By 1820, the wearing of a sash and a sword (here, an 1819 Starr Contract model) served as badges of rank only for first sergeants and above. The 1821 regulations

introduced to the uniform shoulder wings causing chevrons, rather than the traditional epaulets, to mark the uniform as that of a regimental sergeant major shown at the left. The summer fatigue dress worn by the company first sergeant on the right had no additional insignia.

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Laying the Gun
Mexico, 1847

The development of mobile field artillery gave the NCO a new and expanded role in the war with Mexico. Capable of rapid movement on the battlefield, individual fieldpieces now became the responsibility of noncommissioned officers. The NCO in charge of each gun was responsible not only for the care and placement of his piece, but also for the necessary teamwork of the gun crew, which might number as many as eight men. Here the gunner, a corporal, checks the aim of the six-pounder in one of General Zachary Taylor's batteries fighting in northern Mexico.

The evolution of the artillery into a more mobile, mounted arm, together with the heat and the dust of the Southwest, had an impact on the Army's uniforms during the Mexican War. The anticipated combat conditions precluded the more elaborate dress of Europe's military forces. Fatigue jackets and forage caps replaced the uniform coat and cap as campaign attire, with worsted chevrons on the former to indicate NCOs. As in earlier times, the color of the worsted lace and buttons identified the soldier's branch. The crew of this 1841 model bronze six-pounder depended upon a routine as carefully choreographed as a ballet. Part of the eight-man team served with the limber and brought ammunition forward; the remaining five men, led by the gunner, manned the fieldpiece. The number one cannoneer is shown with a sponge-rammer on his toe and with a bucket of water to extinguish any remaining embers in the gun tube before the next round was loaded. The cannoneers were privates; the duty position of gunner held the rank of corporal, here seen checking to ensure that the gun is laid (aimed) correctly.

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Dress on the Colors
Virginia, 1864

During the Civil War, sergeants and corporals preserved order when troops massed in line and assisted the officers by leading small units deployed for skirmishing. The color sergeant, performing what had once been an officer's duty, became the pivotal point in battle around which the regiments advanced and wheeled. Visible through the smoke and dust of battle, the sergeant's colors attracted the heaviest enemy fire and became the center of hand-to-hand combat. Here a regiment advances during the siege of Petersburg by aligning itself on the color sergeant.

Each infantry regiment had two colors, the Stars and Stripes and a second with a solid field bearing the national arms. Both flags were large, 6 by 61/2 feet, mounted on 91/2 foot pikes. The national colors, shown here, bore the regimental designation on the central stripe. It became the battle flag, the one usually carried into combat. The practice of inscrib-ing honors on the other stripes during the Civil War led to the modern custom of streamers. Each flag was borne by a color sergeant, a special duty position distinct from the company-level NCO. He was protected by the six corporals of the color party.

Sergeants in the Civil War were distinguished by their chevrons and trouser stripes and by their right to carry a sword, in this instance, a model 1840 NCO sword suspended from a shoulder belt and waist belt with distinctive eagle plates. Branch insignia included devices (for infantry, the light infantry horn) as well as the distinctive color of the uniform trim. Each foot soldier carried his possessions in a painted canvas folding knapsack with blanket roll strapped above. The knapsack was the first thing dropped before going into action. The soldier, however, was rarely separated from his haversack, which contained his rations, and from his tin canteen.

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Ready for Patrol
New Mexico, 1870s

The Army's noncommissioned officers emerged from the Civil War with new requirements for technical competence. Their growing specialization was evident in the small, isolated coastal and frontier forts garrisoned by the regular forces. Each line soldier, whether a cavalry trooper, infantryman, or cannoneer, was supported by a growing number of technicians. Here, in a Southwest garrison, a cavalryman gets ready for a long desert patrol. An ordnance sergeant, a farrier, and a saddler check the equipment. A soldier's life could well depend on the NCO's competence during the course of a dangerous patrol.

New regulations prescribed in 1872 included improved fatigue clothing for general wear and a dress uniform influenced by contemporary Prussian practices. The basic branch of service was indicated both by trim colors (here yellow for cavalry and crimson for the ordnance department) and by insignia on the front of the forage cap worn in garrison. The trooper ready for patrol wears the less formal fatigue hat. His footwear, made at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, consists of new, taller boots with tops that permit him to tuck in his trousers.

The trooper's mount bears a saddle pack in full marching order, ready for patrol. The pack includes small saddlebags for personal articles, extra ammunition, spare horseshoes, and nails; a cantle roll of shelter tent, wrapped around a blanket and extra clothing; and a pommel roll of caped overcoat, poncho, and forage sack with rations for the horse. Balanced on the near and far sides of the mount are the side line, lariat, picket pin, tin canteen, cup, and haversack with rations, the nosebag, and a grooming kit with brush and curry comb.

Each staff NCO had his function indicated on his chevrons-a leather knife insignia for the saddler, a horseshoe for the farrier, and a star for the ordnance sergeant. Other stripes on the sleeve indicated years of service and, when edged in white, wartime service.

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A Hidden Resource
Philippines, 1920s

NCOs assumed a major role in the civic action programs begun when the Army took over the defense of the Philippines. Always recognized for their skills as trainers, NCOs have frequently found themselves with the additional duty of teaching in local schools, promoting literacy, and working toward the elimination of disease. In the 1920s, the Army began working with the Filipinos to prepare for independence. Here the corporal assumes a new task, that of teaching citizenship skills to Filipino civilians.

Budget constraints and large stocks left over from World War I delayed official changes in uniforms during the interwar period. Soldiers with pride in their appearance quickly turned to private purchases of tailored garments as a "local option, " producing considerable variation in colors. These unofficial changes often anticipated official changes in Army uniforms. They most often occurred in overseas garrisons such as in the Philippines.

In 1920 a new simplified chevron system with olive drab stripes on a dark blue background came into being, reflecting a reduction in the number of grades to seven. Shiny brass collar insignia soon replaced the duller bronze. Black silk ties appeared, along with the Army custom of tucking them into the shirt. Every soldier in the tropics was allowed to wear an improved service or "campaign" hat, with characteristic "Montana peak" indentation. It was often the soldier's most prized possession, with its brim sometimes stiffened with sugar water. The corporal shown here, a squad leader, indicates his membership in the Signal Corps not only by collar insignia, but by the use of the orange and white (branch colors) cord around the base of his hat, a Stetson costing nearly a month's pay.

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Teamwork, Firepower, Responsibility
Belgium, 1944

Sergeants became a vital element in the combined arms formations of World War II. The increase in firepower and growth in the size of a squad, from eight men led by a corporal to a twelve-man unit led by a sergeant, placed greater emphasis on leadership skills. In fact, the team shown here in late 1944 boasted greater combat power than a Civil War regiment. It pairs an M4 tank crew with a basic infantry squad, both commanded by sergeants. Its firepower includes the tank's cannon, several machine guns, a Browning automatic rifle (BAR), and the infantrymen's semiautomatic Garands.

Sergeants and corporals in combat units during World War II continued to wear chevrons of the 1920 pattern, although the Army had changed most of the other items of clothing. Olive drab wool shirts and trousers of a lighter shade were rapidly supplemented by heavier garments in cold weather. New replacements often entered the line with the M1943 olive drab field jacket, while "old hands" often retained the long overcoats issued when their units went overseas. Crews of the armored force had different apparel designed for use in vehicles, including a fiber and leather crash helmet with headset and M 1943 goggles instead of the "G.I. " (government issue) two-piece steel M1 "pot." Clothtop over-shoes designed to keep the cold and wet out of a soldier's footwear proved to be a temporary expedient, since it was impossible to march in them for any distance.

Individual field equipment, updated only slightly since World War I, was reduced to a minimum. The M1928 haversack, containing the " C " or "K" rations and personal items, often was left behind. Soldiers opted to stuff essentials into pockets instead. The rifle or automatic rifleman belt supported the canteen, first-aid packet pouch, and other items. Attached by equipment hooks, the bayonet for the Garand rifle and a folding entrenching tool were carried on the haversack.

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Keeping the System Moving
Southwest Pacific, 1945

Keeping the System MovingAmerica's mass mobilization to fight World War II brought large numbers of women into the newly created Women's Army Corps (WAC). They soon filled numerous administrative and technical positions, thus increasing the numbers of men, available for combat. For many of these women, promotion to NCO grade came quickly as they adapted to their military duties. Here a WAC first sergeant in the Southwest Pacific processes a newly arrived replacement on his way "up the pipeline" to the front.

Male and female soldiers in the rear areas in the Pacific theater wore the cotton khaki service uniform as basic attire. For comfort in the heat, local commanders had the option of allowing the troops to roll their sleeves up and leave their collars open, instead of wearing the regulation mohair necktie. As a protective measure in malaria areas, WACs could replace their skirts with slacks (or even altered male trousers). For comfort, female personnel traded their stockings and Cuban heel shoes for cotton anklets and high quarter russet field service shoes.

The garrison cap, worn with the khaki uniform and web belt, included cord edging braid in the branch colors (blue and red for the Adjutant General's Corps). The variation in shades and patterns of uniforms found in the theater reflected the inevitable loss of quality control as factory production surged in an attempt to keep pace with requirements. Significant variations also took place in the chevrons used to indicate NCOs. Wartime changes are reflected most noticeably by the increased role of the first sergeant, marked by the addition of a third "rocker," and by the creation of a parallel system of technical grades. These technical specialists were identified by a "T, " as worn by the technician, fourth grade, beginning inprocessing.