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Help me Understand my Grandfather's Military Funeral
January 27, 2010 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Help me Understand my Grandfather's Military Funeral

My grandpa died in early January. He was a Korean War combat vet, so we had an Air Force honor guard at the graveside, and they really did a wonderful job.

It was a beautiful service, and the whole family is really grateful to the Air Force for providing that service. I've been wondering a few things about it ever since, though.

1. They had three riflemen, and they each fired three shots. Why nine shots? Why not twenty-one?
2. Their rifles looked like Garands but I'm not sure. They looked like they had blank shredders on the muzzles. Is this a standard use for the Garand rifle? I had a hard time finding info on the use of blanks in Garands when I googled.
3. As they fired, they moved their hands in a peculiar way. It seemed like they would pull the trigger and jerk their hands away from the rifle, and hold it up in the air for a while. I don't understand why they'd do that.
4. Do these guys have the honor guard gig full time? Is it a privileged position? Or a grunt job?

Please don't worry about condolences; my grandfather was a great guy who lived a great life, and I'm celebrating that, not mourning it. And thanks!

(The Military Funeral Honors web page didn't answer any of these questions.)
posted by SlyBevel to Law & Government (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
The 3-volley salute is used at military and police funerals. The 21-gun salute is mostly reserved for heads of state.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:59 AM on January 27, 2010


AIUI, honor guard members are honored to have that position. I know that the honor guard for the Tomb of the Unknowns is a highly privileged position, not bestowed on just anyone.
posted by jgirl at 7:09 AM on January 27, 2010


USAF HONOR GUARD BASIC PROTOCOL, HONORS, AND CEREMONIES

14.10.2.1. The firing of the three rounds of seven volleys dates it’s origins back to the 14th century when firearms began to appear on the battlefield. Mercenary bands (professional soldiers) grew in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany and they accepted contracts to fight for or against anyone. They varied in size from tens to hundreds to thousands. Their symbol of corporate existence was flags or colors. They respected them very much, especially the German bands. We derive our reverence for colors from the Germans who fired three volleys in the name 114 of the Trinity over the dead. Ancient beliefs say that the three volleys were used to scare away the evil sprits. Other sources say that in the early days of warfare, firing of the three volleys was a custom of opposing armies to declare a truce so that each could clear its dead from the battlefield. Also, the volleys fired three times was a signal that the burial ceremony was finished and it invited the enemy to join in battle once again.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:34 AM on January 27, 2010


Not sure if you saw it, but they have an internal web page: Air Force Honor Guard
posted by smackfu at 7:35 AM on January 27, 2010


1. They had three riflemen, and they each fired three shots. Why nine shots? Why not twenty-one?

(From one of the PDFs on their site.)
Q: Why are we not performing a 21 gun salute in the new sequence and what do we tell the family if and when they ask?
A. The Air Force does not and has not ever performed a 21 gun salute. This form of Honors is reserved for the President, past Presidents and visiting foreign heads of state. This salute is performed by the Army and executed by firing howitzer cannons 21 separate times. Our tradition of firing three volleys can be traced back to the Civil War when opposing sides would mutually agree to cease fire to clear the dead from the battle field. Three distinct volleys would then be fired into the air (so not to be confused with the random shots that would be heard during the cease fire) to signify the field was clear of their wounded and dead. After the 3 volley exchange re-engagement of hostilities would commence.
3. As they fired, they moved their hands in a peculiar way.

This document show all the individual movements:
USAF Honor Guard: Basic Protocols, Honors, and Ceremonies Training Guide (PDF) The firing sequence of movements is on page 61. They don't explain why any of them are done, but it may help to see exactly what they are doing.
posted by smackfu at 7:49 AM on January 27, 2010


In regards to the Three Volleys vs. 21 Gun Salute, found this PDF at smackfu's link.

Apparently the Air Force never has, and does not ever plan to perform 21 gun salutes. It's the Army's purview, and as mentioned before, it's for heads of state.

Good to know.
posted by SlyBevel at 7:55 AM on January 27, 2010


A bit more on my previous comment: 7 service members firing 3 times each, all in unison each time, is still considered a 3-volley salute, not a 21-gun salute. A 21-gun salute involves 21 separate firings.

Other interesting bits I found: the detail for Air Force retiree funerals was reduced from 10 persons to 7 in November 2007. The ceremony is described in great detail in this document, which specifies that the three-volley salute is done by a three-person firing party. While it doesn't give the specific reasons why they engage in the motions you saw, they do appear to be explicitly described: see sections 19.1.3.56 through 19.1.3.66.5. The document also explicitly specifies M-14 rifles are to be used.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:55 AM on January 27, 2010


Is this a standard use for the Garand rifle?

No, see below.

3. As they fired, they moved their hands in a peculiar way. It seemed like they would pull the trigger and jerk their hands away from the rifle, and hold it up in the air for a while. I don't understand why they'd do that.

It's a stylized, formalized version of firing, collecting the spent cartridge, clearing the barrel, loading the next cartridge, closing the bolt, etc. Garands (if that's what they were; I actually doubt it) have an en bloc clip, so technically all of this wouldn't be necessary (i.e. operating the bolt), but it's part of the routine. Which is why I'm not sure they were actually Garands, or a similar looking, bolt-action rifle.

4. Do these guys have the honor guard gig full time? Is it a privileged position? Or a grunt job?

It depends on the unit and the cemetery. For national cemeteries like Arlington, you're assigned to an honor guard full-time for a fixed period of time. You won't be there forever, but when you're there, that's your full-time assignment. It's very prestigious; a reward, if you will. Serving on the honor guard for the Tomb of the Unknown and other honor guards (e.g. the Marines at the White House) is a step above even that.

For other uses, there are honor guard units that vary in size and scope, and some that travel to private funerals. But it's still a privilege.

Two Marine honor guards assisted my grandfather's private funeral, before his internment at Arlington. The younger guy was an enormous man. The older guy was tiny, like a gymnast. They were both NCOs with medals and ribbons up the wazoo, and they stood at attention for an hour in 100-degree heat. I honestly didn't know which one I was more frightened of -- Shaq, as we called him, or the small guy, who I imagined was lightning quick and fought dirty.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:57 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


CPB: Which is why I'm not sure they were actually Garands, or a similar looking, bolt-action rifle.

I can't say that I know a lot about military rifles, but I can definitely tell the difference between a semi-auto action and a bolt action rifle. These were semis.

They cycled the actions manually, as (I thought) the blanks weren't powerful enough to do it. (Wiki's article on blank-firing weapons states that some are designed to be cycled by blanks, and that weapons intended for honor guard use have the gas action disabled.) But the cycling of the action was done just by pulling it back and letting it go.
posted by SlyBevel at 8:08 AM on January 27, 2010


From the M-14 Wikipedia article I linked above: "The United States Air Force Honor Guard uses a version of the M14 specially modified by the USAF Gunsmith that prevents semi-automatic fire; members have to manually cycle a new round by pulling on the charging handle every time they fire."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:10 AM on January 27, 2010


You might find this article, which appeared recently in the Cincinnati Enquirer, interesting. It talks about Ohio's honor guard and the people who staff it:

http://nky.cincinnati.com/article/AB/20100122/NEWS01/1240303/0/NEWS0103/Uncle-Sam-s-promise-keepers
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:30 AM on January 27, 2010


The United States Air Force Honor Guard uses a version of the M14 specially modified by the USAF Gunsmith that prevents semi-automatic fire

A-ha, didn't think of an M-14. Then it would probably look something like this one. Which does look an awful lot like an M1 Garand.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:43 AM on January 27, 2010


We were treated to a similar display last year at my grandfather's funeral. He served in the Pacific in the Army during WWII. The honor guard was made up of veterans who lived in the area. They made sure all the grand kids that wanted them were given the spent shells. Nice guys.
posted by Big_B at 8:56 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


In the award-winning 2008 article titled (IIRC) "The Things That Carried Them," an honor guard member carefully polishes all his rounds before the ceremony so that when he hands over one (or more) of the spent shells, they gleam. I had to stop reading that article five times. I wish I could find the link again; I think it was in GQ.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:16 AM on January 27, 2010


The Things That Carried Him was published in Esquire.
posted by aerosolkid at 9:35 AM on January 27, 2010


The Things That Carried Him metafilter thread with links.
posted by canine epigram at 9:44 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's the article. It is actually Esquire, called "the Things That Carried Him". Really amazing, thanks for the heads up wenestvedt.
posted by arnicae at 10:35 AM on January 27, 2010


Oops. Failed to preview...spent the last hour reading the article...
posted by arnicae at 10:36 AM on January 27, 2010


I don't know about the Air Force, but in the Army funeral detail is assigned to different units on a rotating basis. I was in the Army and was presiding officer at a number of funerals when it was my infantry unit's turn for a month. The size of the group depended on the military history of the deceased and the wishes of the family. Sometimes I went alone and presented the flag to the widow; in others we had a bugler and flag detail and riflemen.
posted by procrastination at 10:59 AM on January 27, 2010


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