Throughout the campuses of military academies across the nation, you will often hear the cadets chanting in a sing-song manner as they march. These chants usually are a call-and-response in which the officer or cadet in charge starts calling out a line and the formation of marching cadets answer.
These marching chants are known as cadences.
This practice of "calling cadence" while marching is said to have originated in the US Army at Ft. Slocum, NY, in 1944. As the the US Army tells the story, young soldiers were marching back to barracks from an exhausting day of training, a draftee from Sandersville, Georgia, started calling out a rhythmic chant to help the troops stay in stride and put a little more pep in their step. Pvt. Willie Duckworth's initial "Sound Off! 1, 2!" soon grew to include a number of verses expressing the soldiers' shared complaints of being away from home and working so hard.
The training officers noted that these rhythmic complaints actually served to raise morale and built a real esprit de corps as the troops joined in heartily shouting out the cadence. They asked Pvt. Duckworth to write more of these verses and choruses. Many of the verses featured a villainous character known as "Jody," a fictitious civilian back home who was having fun while the soldiers worked hard in boot camp.
The story of Pvt. Willie Duckworth and "The Duckworth Chant" made it all the way to the Pentagon, and military leaders recognized its benefits. Soon, audio recordings and written copies of the Duckworth Chant were being distributed throughout the military service to posts and bases all around the world.
A musical recording of a version of the Duckworth Chant was recorded by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra and released in 1951. Willie Duckworth was made a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and royalty checks soon started arriving in his mailbox.
Versions of the Duckworth Chant have been featured in movies ranging from1952's "Sound Off" starring Mickey Rooney to "Taps" starring a young Tom Cruise alongside Timothy Hutton and George C. Scott in 1981, which was filmed on the campus of Valley Forge Military Academy.
The son of a sharecropper, Willie Duckworth returned home to Georgia when his Army days were over. He used the royalty checks he received to buy the equipment needed to start a pulpwood business, which he operated until his death in 2004 at the age of 80.
New verses and choruses continue to be developed wherever units are marching in formation. Some of these chants may be comical, a few may be a bit controversial and inappropriate in nature, and many are designed to be a shared expression unit pride. But all these marching cadences are all descended from the original, "The Duckworth Chant," created by a young draftee in boot camp back in 1944.
In 2022, with a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts, the City of Sandersville, Georgia, placed the Private Willie Lee Duckworth Sr. Mural on a wall at 125 E. Church Street, to honor the memory of a young Army private who created a new military tradition that lives on across the world today.
Willie Duckworth's rhythmic chant still can be heard bringing a spring in the step to the Corps of Cadets on the campus of Fork Union Military Academy.
Dan Thompson has been with Fork Union Military Academy since 2004, specializing in strategic communications and marketing. He enjoys sharing the success stories of the school and its cadets.
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