The Songs They Sang:  Battle Hymn

By Ron Wanttaja

Hap Arnold built a fighting force that sang a fighting song
About the wild blue yonder, and the days when men were strong
But now we're regulated 'cause we don't know right from wrong
The force is shot to hell!

Glory, flying regulations
Have them read at all the stations
Crucify the man who breaks one,
The force is shot to hell!

For this final installment in our series, let’s turn our attention to a specific tune rather than the subject of the songs.  Specifically, let's take a look at the aviation songs that stem from that old American standard, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

While "Battle Hymn" is inextricably linked to the Civil War, the tune itself comes from a spiritual written five years before the war started.  As the Federal forces began to assemble, the song emerged as "John Brown's Body."  It was originally written to tease a young Scotsman by that name in a Massachusetts regiment.  But as its popularity grew, new lyrics referenced the famed abolitionist, executed just prior to the war.

Most histories say that Julia Ward Howe heard the song sung in a military camp, and was inspired to write a new set of lyrics in support of the Union cause.

Others have a slightly different explanation:  The soldiers' bawdy lyrics so scandalized Mrs. Howe that she wrote a set of "clean" verses to go with the popular tune.

In any case, the music of "Battle Hymn" has been hijacked countless times since, for songs both clean and bawdy, from the Boy Scouts to the Rangers, and from the potato-peelers to the pilots.

Why the attraction?  First, it's a tune everyone knows.  When folks know the music that well, writing new lyrics for it is relatively easy.

Plus, the chorus is easy... “John Brown’s Body” repeats the first line three times (“Glory, glory, hallelujah”), so plugging in one's own chorus is easier.  Plus...well, if they repeat lines in the chorus, why not in the main lyrics?

The B-36 it flies at 40,000 feet,
The B-36 it flies at 40,000 feet,
The B-36 it flies at 40,000 feet,
But it only drops a teensy-weensy bomb!

Tons and tons of ammunition,
Tons and tons of ammunition,
Tons and tons of ammunition,
But it only drops a teensy-weensy bomb!

One famous flying song uses most of the tune...but abandons it on the last verse:

By the ring around his eyeball, you can tell a bombardier,
You can tell a bomber pilot by the spread around his rear,
You can tell a navigator by his charts and maps and such,
You can tell a fighter pilot...but you cannot tell him much!

My references show at least three more songs set to the tune.  One isn't really flying-oriented (being about a young woman digging clams), another is written from the point of view of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunner during an F-105 strike ("Battle Hymn of the 85mm Gunner").

The last of the three is probably the most famous of the aviation songs using "Battle Hymn", but it isn't about pilots, either.  It’s the famous song of the airborne troops, "Blood Upon the Risers”:

He was just a rookie trooper and he surely shook with fright.
He checked off his equipment and made sure his pack was tight.
He had to sit and listen to those awful engines roar:
“You ain't gonna jump no more!”

Gory, gory, what a hellava way to die.
Gory, gory, what a horrible way to fly.
Gory, gory, what a hellava way to die.
And he ain't gonna jump no more!

The song tells of the rookie’s first parachute jump.  Unsurprisingly, it does not end well.

I own four different recordings of "Blood Upon the Risers."  The version that really stands out was recorded by the West Point Glee Club.  They take a different approach:  They sing it perfectly seriously, as if it were the original "Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Joining in a-cappella harmony to sing the "punch line" as solemnly as if they were standing in church:

There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the 'chute.
Intestines were a-dangling from his paratrooper suit.
He was a mess, they picked him up and poured him from his boot.
And he ain't gonna jump no more!

Like many of the songs sang by pilots, it parodies the dangers feared the most.  But "The Air Corps Lament," the song that began this article, brings the concept full-circle.  It's a song of peace, not of war.  A song for an era where the biggest threat the pilot faces is a stern-faced senior officer calling them on the carpet.

It speaks of the boredom of peacetime—but pays tribute to the sacrifices of combat pilots...

Once they flew B-26s though a wall of flak,
And bloody dying pilots gave their lives to bring them back
But now they're playing ping-pong in the operations shack
The force is shot to hell!

...but like many of the songs they sang, it ends on a note of hope.  A twisted note of hope, but when pilots are singing, one has to take what one can get:

Glory, no more regulations!
Tear them down at every station
Burn the guy who tries to make one

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