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Tomahawks to Taliban-hunters

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

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South Carolina’s unique military heritage and tradition

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
March 5, 2013


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 S.C., which brings us to the point of this column.

Beginning this month, MidlandsBiz will feature a military series focusing on S.C.’s unique military history, heritage, tradition, connections, and relationships. 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 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 was 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 S.C.

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 – which currently produces the majority of M-16 rifles for the U.S. Defense Dept. 100 percent (or nearly 100 percent) of all M-249 and M-240 machineguns, as well as the Special Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR), among other weapons – is in all likelihood the manufacturer of the weapons I was hearing in the distance. FN 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 operating worldwide.

Third – and speaking of Marines – every U.S. Marine recruit between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River attends Parris Island, S.C. (near militarily rich Beaufort, less than 150 miles south of Columbia) before earning the title, “Marine.” I too spent a life-defining 13 weeks at the somewhat notorious lowcountry boot camp 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 San Diego, California.).  

Speaking of Beaufort, there we have the Marine Corps Air Station – a base 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 a base whose fighter aircrews have been heavily involved in the global war on terror.  

But if we’re talking fighters and aircrews, we have to come back up to central S.C. where at McEntire Joint National Guard Base (about 15 miles east 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 (less than 45 miles from Columbia), which serves as the 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 (CENTCOM), which oversees all operations in Egypt (AFRICOM has the other African nations), Central Asia, 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 even bigger as the headquarters for the U.S. Third Army – yes, Patton’s famous army – has relocated from Fort McPherson in Atlanta to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. And United States Army Central – yes, the U.S. Army’s component of CENTCOM – is also based at Shaw.

We’re just talking central S.C. Yet there’s the enormous military impact from these and other bases and stations statewide and those businesses that support them (vitally important when we consider the next round of federal base realignments and closures or BRAC).

If you’ll pardon the play on the cliché, we’re just scratching the flight deck. There is so much more to the Palmetto State’s military history, heritage, tradition, connections, and relationships; and we’ll be covering it all, from the beginning-of-the-end (an end which began here in S.C.) of the British Army’s operations in North America during our American Revolution to the greatest bloodbath on the entire North American continent (which began here) to the U.S. Army Air Forces World War II training – operating out of an Army airfield that would evolve into present-day Columbia Metropolitan Airport and 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.

Look for us each month, and let us know what you want to see (marine1@uswriter.com).


– Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. online at http://uswriter.com.