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Bombs Bursting in Air


Do people really understand what the July 4th Fireworks symbolize?





By:  David Deschesne

Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal

July 3, 2019


 I was in the Maine Army National Guard in the late 1980s thru early 1990s with the job designation, 31C—or Radio Teletype Operator.  Attached to Headquarters in Caribou, my job was to type messages over the radio via a teletype system to other companies in our battery (That’s right, kids, the internet hadn’t been invented yet!  Huh?  There was a time when there was no internet? Yep. And we all survived through it just fine!)

   Back then (am I really getting that old that I can use that phrase?) the Guard units in this area were part of a Field Artillery battalion.  Some of you might still remember those giant towed guns, called 155mm howitzers, on display in our local parades.

   During our annual training I can remember laying in my cot outside  at night and hear the gun fire several miles away.  “Boom!”  Then, if the air was still enough and our campsite near the trajectory of the round, I could hear the slight whistling of the 100+ pound artillery round flying a couple thousand feet overhead.  If it was a HE round, when it reached its destination there would be another “Boom!” as it exploded over its target, raining down a deadly rain of steel shrapnel on the fictitious enemy in our training drill.

   My last year in the Guard, I transferred to the gun section in Presque Isle and found those weapons to be awe-inspiring.  These guns could fire improved conventional munitions (ICM), White Phosphorus (this will eat a hole through an engine block and do worse to human bodies), smoke, illuminating, and High Explosive, or HE, rounds. (Some nuclear rounds were also developed).  The 155mm howitzer had a maximum range of 30,0000 meters—or around 18 miles.1  Let that sink in; that would be like firing the gun in Fort Fairfield and having the artillery shell land somewhere in between Mars Hill and Bridgewater.   

   An HE round had a timer on it that started “ticking” after the round left the gun.  It was set, using some pretty fancy-pants mathematics by the guys in Fire Direction Control, to explode only a hundred or so feet above the ground when it reached its target.  This way, an explosion of steel shrapnel could render a large number of soldiers either dead, or mortally wounded by slicing their bodies up into bloody ribbons.  Sorry for the graphics, but this is what man has designed his weapons to do to his fellow man.

   Our current artillery technology is a result of many centuries of development.  In the early years of our country, the large scale weapon of the day was the cannon.  Some of those cannons fired cannon balls with timed fuses in them to make them explode in the air, sending deadly shards of steel through the air to cut a swath of vulnerable soldiers or sailors to their deaths.  In addition to cannon, various rudimentary rockets and rocket propelled grenades were also being developed and deployed on both sides.

   It was the deployment of these weapons of war in 1814, during the battle for Fort McHenry that provided the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner, which ultimately became our National Anthem.  The morning after the battle, Key observed the U.S. flag was still flying.

   Back in those days, flags were much more important symbols than they are today.  There were no radios or cell phones for instant war updates.  A general, or other commanding officer, would simply watch the progress of his troops from high ground by observing where the flag bearer was.  The flag bearer had to carry that flag through the battle—sometimes using its staff as a spear—so his commanders could see where the troops were.  Flags also signified who held possession of various forts, ships, or tracts of land.  Today, we have relegated flags to only so much decoration.  Back when the states united against England, flags held much more significance.

   Mr. Key was the District Attorney for the District of Columbia and was on an errand to negotiate under a flag of truce with the British fleet, off the coast of Baltimore, for the release of his friend, who had been captured.  He was detained while the bombardment of Fort McHenry was taking place.   Excerpted from a letter Key wrote to his friend, John Randolph, he recounts the events as he witnessed them;


   ...The heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame, and the waters of the harbor, lashed into an angry sea by the vibrations, the Minden rode and tossed as though in a tempest.  It is recorded that the houses in the city of Baltimore, two miles distant, were shaken to their foundations.  Above the tempestuous roar, intermingled with its hubbub and confusion, were heard the shrieks and groans of the dying and wounded.  But alas!  they were from the direction of the fort.  What did it mean?  For over an hour the pandemonium reigned.  Suddenly it ceased—all was quiet, not a shot fired or sound heard, a deathlike stillness prevailed, as the darkness of night resumed its sway.

   The awful stillness and suspense were unbearable…

    [I turned my] eyes in the direction of the fort and its flag, but the darkness had given place to a heavy fog of smoke and mist which now enveloped the harbor and hung close down to the surface of the water…

   Sometime must yet elapse before anything definite might be ascertained.  At last it came.  A bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another and still another, as the morning sun arose in the fullness of his glory, lifting “the mists of the deep,” crowning a “Heaven-blessed land” with a new victory and grandeur.2


   Key’s vivid writing style—which is lost on most public-school educated kids these days, unfortunately—depicts a drastic, deadly scene which ultimately ends with U.S. troops holding the fort and the U.S. flag still flying, signifying that fact.  All night long he watched the progress of the fight and in the morning, seeing the American flag still flying, he wrote a poem which ultimately was set to the tune, The Anacreon in Heaven.  It became instantly popular among American troops throughout the 1800s.  In 1904, all military posts were required to perform it during the posting and retrieving of the flag.

   Congress then formally adopted the song as the national anthem in 1931.3  After World War II a derogatory reference to the British, which was featured in the original version was deleted for diplomatic reasons since the British were our allies in that war.

   The song we know as our National Anthem today is not the whole poem that Key wrote, it is a very much edited version.  Here it is in its entirety:   


Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?


Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?


And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.


Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,

Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,


What is that which the breeze o’er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?


Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream.


‘Tis the star-spangled banner; on, long may it wave

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!


And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion.


A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution [of the British]


No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:


And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!


Oh, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;

Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!


Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

And the star spangled banner in triumph doth wave,

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!


   While fireworks are a popular attraction for their beauty and majesty today, it can’t be forgotten that these fireworks on July 4, our day of declaring independence from England, represent some of the most horrific and deadly symbols of war man has ever deployed against his fellow man.  For some, those “bombs bursting in air” were the last things they saw before their bodies were cut to pieces.

   Thankfully, the fireworks today, which symbolize those flying bombs, do not pack high explosive shrapnel packages and are not aimed at the spectators.



1.) The Cannon Crewman’s Handbook, USAFACFS Pam 350-4, 1 February, 1991, p. 8

2.)  This is America My Country, ©1952 Veterans’ Historical Book Service, Inc., p. 347

3.  Our Nation’s Archives, ©1999 Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., p. 211


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