On December 19, 2022, the Soldiers of the Presidential Salute Battery stood before their cannons, awaiting the arrival of Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso. The Soldiers had set up three polished and gleaming 105mm howitzers at Section 37 of Arlington National Cemetery, and their two-man teams were ready to fire. Behind them stood four senior Soldiers and a captain.
“Settle down!” ordered the captain. “Stand by!” Then, the signal came from President Lasso’s caravan. The captain, who had been standing with his right arm out, curled his fingers into a fist. The gunner at the first cannon pulled the lanyard. “Boom!”
Nine seconds later, an NCO standing near the captain pointed at the second gun and called out “Top!” and the second gun fired. Then he pointed again at the first cannon, waited nine seconds and the first cannon fired again. The process continued with each cannon firing, and empty shells clinking onto the street, until they fired a combined 21 shots. The last shot rang out just as the motorcade arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The gunners at the third cannon (the backup known as “Thrape”) stood quietly, ready to take over if one of the other two cannons malfunctioned. While the NCO shouted out “Wap” (short for “One Gun”) and “Top” (short for “Two Gun”), another Soldier stood by the captain, holding a chart with one-through-21 on it. He pointed at each number as the gunners fired so that the captain could keep count. Even though the battery fired off 21 shots, the mission was not over. They would repeat the process when the president left the cemetery.
Such is the work of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment’s (The Old Guard) 1st Battalion, Presidential Salute Battery, which fires its cannons at presidential inaugurations, foreign dignitary visits, funerals for high-ranking officers, and other events such as the Fourth of July and the Army Ten-Miler race.
For a visit from a dignitary such as President Lasso, a communications representative in the lead vehicle radios Capt. Nathan Lundquist, the battery officer in charge, as the vehicle passes by McClellan Gate. That starts the firing sequence. “We found through trial and error,” explained Lundquist, “that nine seconds is the interval spacing that gets the last round fired as they get to the Tomb.”
Surprisingly, none of the gunners are trained artillerymen from the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. They’re actually mortarmen. “Because this is an infantry battalion,” said 1st Lt. Nicholas Lami, “there are no artillerymen.” Instead, they are trained on ceremonial procedures at Fort Myer and drill both there and at the cemetery.
The maintenance and performance training is intense, according to section leader Staff Sgt. Colin Cooper. “The Soldiers learn how to pull everything apart,” he explained. “Everything is cleaned and shined before it goes out for a mission.” Once the men learn loading procedures on the primary cannons, they learn it on the backup cannon, which is always present in case a primary cannon fails. “We don’t mess around,” said Cooper. When the men finish training on the backup, they learn how to be gunners, first on the primaries, and then on the backup. “Our backup gunner is typically the best gunner in the platoon,” he said. “He’ll be there to guarantee that everything goes smoothly and there are no hiccups.”
The Soldiers take acute care of their weapons. They hand-sand all the stainless-steel pieces to shine like chrome, using everything from 80-grit to 3,000-grit sandpaper. The cannon block itself requires eight hours of manual sanding. “The point being to make these as shiny and pristine as possible when they come out here,” said Cooper.
Lami agreed. “I’d never seen 3,000 grit sandpaper in my life, and I show up on my first day, and they are laser focused on one singular piece that you can’t even see because it’s in the [cannon’s] inner workings.” Lami then listed the unit’s two major functions: “One: Make sure it shines; and two: Do not have a misfire.”
The battery operates ten cannons in all. They are 105mm howitzer cannons that saw service in World War II and have been “sized down to take a 75mm blank,” said Cooper. The blank rounds look like a candle inside a shell casing, with a wax seal holding in the gunpowder and filament. The cannons themselves were used in North Africa and Europe and one even knocked out a German tank.
The officers and NCOs take a great deal of pride in their men and their ceremonial weapons. “Things are down to the second here,” said Lami. “The men’s level of proficiency between maintenance and the amount of care the guys put into doing their job is impressive.” Staff Sgt. Cooper proudly pointed to the three howitzers in Section 37 and said, “These are, by far, the nicest 105s you’ll find in the Army.” It was no boast. It’s simply part of the mission for the Presidential Salute Battery.