Solemnly the four men quietly marched in step before the guests at the Veterans of Foreign Wars dinner in Coeur d’Alene, their ceremonial swords by their sides. All four are decorated U.S. military veterans who fought in Vietnam — Lew Allert, USMC; Richard Bigger and Bob Martin, Army, and Dave Morgensen, Navy.
Slowly they approached the table for four in front of the stage. Each carried a military dress hat — Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. At the center of the table, a single candle flickered.
The table cloth was white for purity of the spirit. Carefully folded black napkins symbolized departed comrades; a slice of lemon for the bitterness of war, and a portion of salt for tears that fall.
Swords have bloodied fields of battle since the Bronze Age — the earliest one found was made about 1600 B.C.
Varieties of swords are endless — some short, some long; some curved and others straight. One edge or both are sharpened to hurt and kill.
There are foils and sabres for dueling; cutlasses for close combat, and even the executioner’s sword — still used in the Middle East to punish Sharia breakers.
Some of America’s earliest naval battles were against the Barbary pirates of North Africa who were attacking American shipping, holding the crew for ransom.
President Thomas Jefferson sent ships to the shores of Tripoli with combat Marines on board armed with cannons, guns, swords and axes.
The cutlass was especially effective at sea in hand-to-hand combat and less likely to get entangled in shipboard rigging.
The U.S. military used cutlasses until World War I, with the leftover stock used again in World War II as machetes when fighting in South Pacific jungles. But after that, use of swords in combat declined rapidly.
One report said, “Even as a personal sidearm, the sword began to lose its preeminence in the early 19th century, reflecting the development of reliable handguns.”
Today, swords are only used for ceremonial purposes in modern militaries, with machetes popular in many Third World countries.
But over the millennia, history is filed with fascinating stories about swords. Here are a few of them:
When Alexander the Great came to the town of Phrygia, capital of Gordium in modern day Turkey, he noticed an ancient wagon said to have belonged to King Midas. Its yolk was tied by an incredibly complex and tight knot, with no ends visible.
Locals told him a legend that said that anyone who could untie the knot would rule all of Asia. That inspired Alexander to accept the challenge.
He couldn’t do it.
Frustrated at his failure, he drew his sword and undid the knot by chopping it apart with one stroke.
Another version says he pulled the wagon’s lynch pin out, loosening the ropes wound around it, with Alexander then easily untying the knot.
The great young general and his huge army then conquered much the western world of those times, and as far east as India before he died at age 32.
Cicero wrote a story about Damocles, who was a patronizing member of the court of Dionysius II, the tyrant king of Syracuse, Italy. Damocles praised the king’s greatness — his wealth, power and authority.
Dionysius offered to trade places with his obsequious subject for one day, just to let him feel what it would be like to be king.
Because the monarch was in constant danger from enemies, he simulated that danger by dangling a sword point down over Damocles’ head — the weapon held by a single hair from a horse’s tail.
Damocles couldn’t stand the strain long and begged to leave.
Moral of the story:
“You can’t be happy when constant fear hangs over your head.”
U.S. Marines have been called “Leathernecks” since 1798, when they wore leather collars around their necks for protection against the cutlasses wielded by the Barbary pirates.
The piracy ended, but the high-neck collar remains part of the Leatherneck uniform to this day.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s sword is another historic weapon:
When Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant met at Appomattox Court House in Virginia to discuss terms of surrender and an end to the Civil War, Lee kept his sword.
“Lee never offered it, and Grant never asked for it,” said Patrick Schroeder, historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.
Gracious in victory, Grant pardoned all the Confederates. Officers were allowed to keep their side-arms, and all could keep their private property and horses for safe travel back to their homes and farms.
Lee’s sword has been on exhibit for nearly a century at the Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond. It will soon be sent to a new museum under construction less than a mile from where Lee and Grant met.
One of Spain’s most famous swords is the Tizona at the Museo de Burgos. Made in 1002, it was owned by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar — better known as El Cid.
With the Ave Maria prayer inscribed on the blade, the Tizona helped El Cid drive out the Moors and retake Spain.
The Tizona is only a little over 3 feet long, but Spanish legend says it invoked fear in those who faced it. One legend tells of a Jew who plucked the whiskers of the dead El Cid whose body was seated in full armor at the monastery church of San Pedro de Cardeńa. Suddenly the dead El Cid struck the Jew down with his Tizona sword. The stunned victim later became baptized and served as a servant to El Cid’s squire Gil Diaz.
Interesting how so many swords become legends.
One historic samurai sword important in Japanese history is missing.
After Japan surrendered in 1945 ending World War II, U.S. authorities decreed that all Japanese families must turn in all weapons — including family heirlooms.
The famous Honjo Masamune samurai sword was one of them.
Made by Goro Nyudo Masamune during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) the sword is considered one of the best ever crafted. It was owned by the powerful Tokugawa family that ruled feudal Japan from 1600 to 1868 and became a symbol of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Today, it is considered a Japanese National Treasure.
But where is it?
To set a good example, the post-war Tokugawa family turned the treasured sword over to U.S. military authorities as ordered.
No one has seen it since.
One theory is that an American G.I. took it back to the U.S. as a war souvenir. One suspect was a “Sergeant Coldy Bimore” — but no one has ever been able to identify or find him.
The question often asked is which sword is superior — the Japanese samurai sword (katana) or European/English/Scottish broadsword or longsword? Broadswords were longer — about 55 inches including the two-hand hilt and weighed 4 to 6 pounds.
They were sharp on both edges and less wieldy than the katana, but had the advantage of keeping the enemy at a safer distance away compared to the 36-inch katana.
But katanas had another advantage — their steel blades were much stronger by swordsmiths repeatedly heating, cooling, reheating, pounding and folding the metal over itself.
The curved katana blade is sharp on one side and has a pointed tip — excellent for cutting and stabbing. (Some are sharp on both edges.)
During the 17th century Tokugawa-Edo Period, new samurai swords were tested on cadavers — usually criminals. Sometimes the tests were actual executions.
Skilled katana swordsmen develop almost superhuman speed which must be a great advantage in facing the cumbersome broadsword.
There may be no universally accepted answer to which is the best sword; but one martial arts sportsman on Quora probably had the right answer:
“I love longsword, and it was the most versatile cold weapon in history of mankind. In terms of quality, katana wins hands down!”
The four Vietnam veterans circled the small memorial table at the VFW — glasses turned upside down symbolizing fallen comrades who couldn’t be there.
Each reverently placed a service hat on the table in front of each chair.
Then they drew their swords and crossed them over the table in salute, the steel blades reflecting the light from the lone candle.
Returning the swords to their scabbards, the four veterans gave a sword salute to the guest — then quietly departed.
What will never depart are the memories of comrades who didn’t come home…
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Charge of the Light Brigade…
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred…
— Alfred Lord Tennyson
Katana vs. Broadsword…
For a demonstration of a samurai katana sword and European style broadsword, see the difference in performance on YouTube at:
The surrender at Appomattox Court House was not at a courthouse — it’s the name of a small village in Virginia. When Clover Hill became the county seat of the newly surveyed Appomattox County in 1845, it did have a courthouse. The surrender by Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, actually took place in the home of wholesale grocer Wilmer McLean.
Queen Elizabeth’s sword…
England’s Sword of State is called the Sword of Mercy, dating back to 1678 and has been used for the coronation of every monarch since George IV and possibly from James II.
Japanese super star Toshiro Mifune who became famous to western moviegoers in “Shogun” was not an experienced samurai swordsman, but his coach Stephen K. Hayes said, “He was very adept at understanding the feeling of the character, and then they would have martial artists show him the moves, but he would interpret them his way. But it looked so good on the screen and so convincing that people watch it and think that’s what sword fighting is.”
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‘Look for History Popcorn every Wednesday brought to you by Ziggy’s.’