How ‘Happy Birthday’ changed the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps’ future

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live

The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps passing in review during President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. (Photos courtesy of The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps)

On Feb. 23, 1960, the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment formed The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps as a musical support element to exemplify the role of music in the Continental Army.

“It is not a re-enactment unit,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Frederick Ellwein, commander, “it is just an emblem of the honor and precision of that time and the role that music played for the troops.”

Today, the Corps serves as a presidential escort unit, having participated in every inauguration since that of President John F. Kennedy. The most important missions the Corps has are in relation to the president, Ellwein explained, ranging from playing for foreign dignitaries at the White House to ceremonial duties overseas and at home.

Of course, the Corps’ first assignment wasn’t exactly presidential.

Pete McDermott, bass drummer, enlisted in the Army in 1959. In January of 1960, he reported to Fort Myer, Va., as one of the first volunteers with the Fife and Drum Corps, where he spent the next two and a half years. Their first assignment as a unit was a change of command ceremony for the commander of The Old Guard at the time, Col. Christopher Chaney.

“They thought it would be a nice idea for us to pass and review, and then take Col. Chaney off the post,” McDermott said.

“Now, this was without colonial uniforms. This was done in Class-A greens, Class-A greens and borrowed instruments,” he said, laughing. “The Army Band was very nice to us.”

The Corps was a provisional unit when it was first formed, McDermott said, functioning as an extra rifle platoon for The Old Guard. As with any new organization, funding was a bit of an issue. McDermott said they were saved by then-Secretary of the Army Wilbur Brucker.

“We found out it was going to be Brucker’s birthday, and the Corps moved up … in front of his quarters, and played ‘Happy Birthday.’ This put the guy over the moon,” he explained. Almost over night, funding was approved for uniforms and instruments and the Corps was taken off provisional status.

Military participation in inaugural parades dates all the way back to George Washington, Ellwein said. Washington took his oath of office on April 30, 1789 in New York City.

The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps in formation at Mount Vernon, Va., in 1961. (Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps)

“As he made his way from Mt. Vernon to New York City, the militia units joined his procession as it passed through towns along to way. Once he arrived in New York City, members of the Continental Army joined that procession and escorted him to the place where he was sworn in,” he explained. The procession was informal and ad-libbed, an outpouring of the military’s support for their commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War.

“The image of the Fife and Drum Corps directly and poignantly reflects that very first inauguration,” he said.

The first inaugural parade the Corps participated in, John F. Kennedy’s first inauguration, was marked with excessive snow. “That was a cold, cold day, believe me,” McDermott recalled. It had snowed a few days before the parade and there was still snow on the ground the day of the inauguration. “They must have had every piece of earth moving equipment they could in the Washington Metropolitan area to clear snow! So, the next day Pennsylvania Avenue was clean as a whistle.”

McDermott said it was a thrill to participate in the parade despite the weather.

Jim Coffey, another drummer, was with the Corps for 27 years, from 1979-2006. He marched in five inaugural parades — one of them President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural parade, which was cancelled due to freezing temperatures. He’s also participated seven times in other inaugural activities.

Coffey, while honored to be a part of so many inaugurations, believes the most significant event he’s participated in was a repatriation ceremony for Soldiers from the War of 1812. Human remains were found during the construction of a housing development in Canada.

“Through uniform parts that were there, they were able to determine they were U.S. Soldiers from the War of 1812, and we’d gone up for a repatriation ceremony and, I mean, there were 28 caskets, 28 American flags, 28 hearses and veterans groups from both countries lining the streets,” Coffey said. “It was the most moving ceremony I was ever in.”

But no matter the visibility of the event, the Corps maintains the same standard of performance, Coffey said. Whether playing for the White House or for elementary school children, the Corps puts its best foot forward every time.

The Fife and Drum Corps performs roughly 500 missions a year, ranging from a ceremonial colors team (two fifers and a drummer), to an arena show.

“This is just an exceptional organization,” Ellwein said, “and exceptional organizations are made up of exceptional, very broad and highly educated people. There is no exception to that.”

For more about the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps, visit http://www.fifeanddrum.army.mil/.