The United States is known by many as the undisputed top military power in the world. Having a budget of 750 billion dollars in 2020, the U.S. Armed Forces boasts a body of 1.4 million active personnel and leads the world in sheer amount of weaponry and machinery.
This military supremacy, however, is relatively new, as the rag-tag gang of patriots under General George Washington was a far cry from the military might of the 21st century. This week, we will look at two moments in American military history that shaped the way our nation takes up arms on the world stage. So let’s dive in!
On Feb. 23, 1778, 243 years ago, Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived at Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge.
While Baron von Steuben is not a name people think about when looking at the Revolutionary War, he was an incredibly influential figure whose efforts not only allowed for the American victory in the Revolutionary War but changed the way in which the U.S. trains its troops.
It is no secret that the Continental Army was in over its head when taking on the British Empire, whose military was considered the strongest in the world. While men like Washington had prior military experience in the British army, the vast majority came as farmers and everyday laborers with no formal training. Men came to Washington, inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” but found camp life far bleaker than imagined.
The winter of 1777 and 1778 at Valley Forge was particularly dismal, with a lack of food, water and the sheer frigid weather proving devastating for Washington’s men. Disease ran rampant in the close quarters, practically wiping out the hopes of victory for the new nation.
Von Steuben, having experience as a Prussian military commander in present-day Germany, came to Valley Forge and virtually saved the remains of the Continental Army. Von Steuben brought organization to the camps, reworking the camp’s layout by placing the kitchen area and latrine area on opposite sides. He established hygienic practices and brought stricter discipline to the camp, knocking down the egos of the men to rebuild them as a unit. Von Steuben restored the morale of the army, and built the foundation of the boot camp-style training that still exists in the military today.
Also on Feb. 23, in 1945, 76 years ago, the American flag was raised at Iwo Jima.
Quite possibly the most famous photograph in American history, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima by the U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal atop the crest of Mt. Suribachi.
The Battle of Iwo Jima began on Feb. 19 as American troops landed on the beaches of the tiny volcanic island just 700 miles southeast of Japan. Following a heavy naval bombardment and airstrike, a force of 30,000 Marines were able to secure a solid footing on the beaches of the island. Under the heavy fire of Japanese artillery, American forces pushed back defenses until Mt. Suribachi was captured four days later.
To mark the achievement, members of the 3rd Platoon hiked the summit to plant a flag and mark the taking of the island’s highest point. Marine Corp photographer, Louis Lowery, was with them, but his camera broke, rendering him unable to snap a shot. When troops went to replace the marker with a larger flag, it was Rosenthal who captured the moment. As you can imagine, Lowery never forgave him for doing so.
While many rival photographers tried to perpetuate rumors that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was staged, the rumors were proven to be baseless. The photo did, however, inaccurately portray the battle as a victory, when it was yet to be won. The battle raged on for an additional five weeks, with more than 6,000 American troops having died and 17,000 having been wounded. Among the casualties were three of the six men photographed in the picture.