Glory Days May Be History 103rd Engineers Guard Unit Worried About Future

Posted: April 20, 1990

They fought at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Appomattox in 1865, the Meuse-Argonne in 1918 and Normandy in 1944.

And members of the "Dandy First" were on the scene with stretchers and bandages minutes after the deadly derailment of the Frankford-Market elevated train last month.

Probably no National Guard unit in the nation has seen more fighting than the 103rd Engineers Battalion, nicknamed the Dandy First during the Civil War.

No Pennsylvania guard unit has more battle streamers or such a long, rich history and tradition.

But after 213 years of blood and glory, members of the Dandy First, headquartered at 33rd Streetand Lancaster Avenue, in West Philadelphia, are wondering how much longer it can exist.

"We're 175 short of our authorized strength of 726," says recruiter Major Jerry Burns. "It gets tougher all the time. We just got new orders not to take anyone without a high school diploma."

With big cuts in military spending predicted, many units are worried about their future.

"National Guard units in New Jersey and New York have already been disbanded," Burns said. "It's common sense, the strong will survive. Weak units (with low manpower) will be axed."

Disbanding the 103rd would be a tragedy for anyone with a reverence for Philadelphia history, says J. Craig Nannos, command historian for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Nannos likes to trace the unit's roots to 1747, when Benjamin Franklin organized the Pennsylvania Associators for frontier defense. Its official birth came in 1777 as an artillery battalion formed in Philadelphia to fight the British.

Col. Jehu Eyre, a Fishtown shipbuilder, and an associator, was the first commander. The artillerymen saw action in the battles of Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Brandywine, Monmouth and were even represented when the British surrendered at Yorktown.

While its name has changed several times, the unit never disbanded and was called to active duty in every American war except Vietnam.

It not only served in small wars such as the Mexican and the Spanish- American, it participated in several nearly forgotten events that are now footnotes to history.

It help put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793. It disbursed an unruly mob in Harrisburg in 1838 in the so-called "Buckshot War."

Two members were killed and 23 injured putting down full-scale rioting between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia in 1844.

During these riots, the commander was hit in the groin by a musketball. While it was certainly painful, all vital organs were saved thanks to the silver coins in the colonel's purse.

The unit was sent to protect the Texas-Mexican border in 1915 during the hunt for Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. The only injuries sustained by the Pennsylvanians came from kicking mules.

In World War II, it was part of the 28th Army Division that fought through France and got caught in the Battle of the Bulge.

During the Korean War, the battalion was called to active duty but served in Germany.

In one respect, the Engineers' greatest glory came during the 1950s and '60s - on the sports field. The National Guard was an ideal way for athletes to meet their military obligation without interupting their careers.

It seems that half the Eagles, Phillies, Warriors and 76ers were in the 103rd at one time.

The commander of a Norristown unit once challenged the 103rd to a basketball game, having no idea about his opponent's strength.

The 103rd's roster, included Guy Rodgers (All-American-Temple and Warrior), Vern Hatton (All-American-Kentucky and Warrior), Dan Fleming (Temple), Sonny Hill, Joe Ryan (Villanova), Lew Bayne, (University of Pennsylvania.)"

"We were ahead 40-to-4 at the end of the first quarter, and had more than 80 points at the half," laughs Sgt. Al Johnson, who remembers the game.

While there are no mementos of those teams, the unit has a vast collection of historical material displayed in its own museum.

The collection, which unfortunately is not open to the public, includes everything from an Army discharge signed by George Washington to a peg leg worn by a Mexican War veteran.

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