All in a Day’s Work: Four Historical Military Occupations You May Not Be Familiar With

Throughout the 242 years since the birth of the United States and the branches of US Army, Navy and Military there have been many military occupations that have become outdated with advancements in technology and general irrelevance at various times.

As genealogists conduct family history research, a military occupation is something commonly found for an ancestor. Have you come across any military occupations for an ancestor? What did they do? Does that occupation still exist?

Today, we’ll discuss four such occupations with James McGregor, a former US Army Captain and Marine Sergeant who holds a BA in History from the University of Central Missouri.

1. US Army Motorcycle Rider

Have you ever seen the movie “Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade”? If so, remember the scene when Indie and his father are being chased by Nazis riding motorcycles? For anyone who ever served in the military, the idea of your sole job is to ride a motorcycle in combat probably sounds wonderful. Well, there was a time when this was a reality, even in the US Army. According to a 2017 article by Logan Nye entitled 6 Awesome Army Jobs That No Longer Exist’, there was a time when motorcycle riders were an excellent and highly used support system for the early tank units. Most popular around World War I, the “motorcycle men” were primarily used to deliver repair parts and replacement crew members to tanks under fire. For obvious reasons, tank-delivery motorcycle riders were re-classified after the Army figured out how to use tanks to recover one another.

2. US Army Morse Interceptor

As one might readily assume, many of those military occupations that have gone the way of the dodo bird did so due to nothing more than advances in technological capabilities. One such obvious account of this progression is seen with the outmoding of Morse intelligence in military operations. According to a 2015 military news article by Tanja Linton of the Fort Huachuca Public Affairs office entitled Fort Huachuca Bids Farewell to Morse Code Training on National Morse Code Day’, the final teaching of the Manual Morse Code class at Fort Huachuca took place in the spring of 2015. Thereafter, a similar course would be offered as a “self-paced” course for service members at Goodfellow Air Force Base, TX, but that the Army stopped treating the course as any formal requirement in 2012 when deciding that “it no longer has a requirement to train soldiers.” The article also stated that “the military first used Morse code during the Crimean War. Both the Union and Confederate armies heavily relied on Morse code during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln utilized it to get military intelligence as well as command and control of his generals in the field.”

3. US Navy Pigeon Trainer

Before the development and wide use of military radio communications, the Navy utilized carrier pigeons to transport military messages quickly and over great distances. According to a 2014 article by US Naval Institute Staff entitled A Brief List of Old, Obscure and Obsolete U.S. Navy Jobs’, the Navy made use of these pigeons from early in the 20th Century up until 1961. The birds’ carriers, called “pigeoneers,” were tasked “with feeding and caring of the flocks of birds used to deliver messages. In addition to their natural homing abilities, pigeons were valued because they could quickly carry messages over long distances at high altitude. The development of radio soon brought more efficient forms of communication, but the Navy continued to include pigeon trainers in the ranks until 1961 to ensure there was an emergency line of communication in periods of radio silence or in the event of technical failure.”

4. US Navy Schoolmaster

Long before our current military recruiting pre-requisites of obtaining a high school diploma or GED, as well as passing the ASVAB test, American men of the 18th and 19th Centuries often served in the military without having any formal education whatsoever. According to the same article that briefly described the use of carrier pigeons, many Navy ships of the 1800s “carried a schoolmaster who was responsible for instructing the crew in reading, writing and arithmetic. The schoolmaster also taught navigation and the other advanced skills to make the men better sailors. A schoolmaster might even try to culturally enrich the crew by exposing it to music and art. However, many captains came to view schoolmasters as ineffective and a waste of ship resources. It was frequently reported that many schoolmasters were lazy and ubiquitously drunk. The Navy decided chaplains had the educational background needed to help enlighten a ship’s crew and the schoolmaster rate was eliminated in 1900.”

The Meaning of Military Occupation Specialties and Their Evolution

0311, 12A, 4341, 18X – these may look like unrecognizable groupings of letters and numbers to the common eye; to others, they define one’s whole identity as a professional. For example, have you ever seen a young American male with his hair cropped close to the skin and wearing a t-shirt that has “11B” prominently displayed on it for all to see? If so, you were just in the presence of a proud US Army infantryman.

For many who have served or still serve today in the US Armed Forces, alpha-numeric designators such as these were and are of vast importance – especially regarding their professional identity and development as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. When an American citizen enlists to serve in any branch of the US Armed Forces, one key point in the enlistment process is the selection/assignment of an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). An MOS is simply the job title that any service member will end up with after completing all basic entry requirements (boot camp, ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], basic MOS schooling, etc.).

For most of those who enlist, an MOS is assigned prior to the act of raising one hand to swear to the official Oath of Enlistment. Many specialties require certain pre-requisites to be achieved before becoming acceptable choices for enlistment.

For example, when James enlisted in the US Marines in 1999, he decided early on that he wanted to be enlisted in MOS 4341 (Combat Correspondent). Before he could take the Oath of Enlistment as a Marine recruit with this specialty, he was administered a typing test to demonstrate that he could type at least 30 words per minute. Many job specialties require that the enlistee achieve a set minimum score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test.

Once the service member has passed all initial entry requirements, he is then posted at his first occupational duty location (as the Marines would say, when you first join the “fleet”). At this time, he begins to perform his actual job in the military – his MOS. Through years of professional development and experience, the service member may become wise and proficient in his MOS, be promoted in rank, and be given follow-on assignments of greater responsibility. On rare occasion, a service member may seek to change from one specialty to another – just as on occasion one may seek to switch from one branch to another, or from enlisted to commissioned/warrant officer ranks. James is an example of both. Upon his completion of service as an enlisted Marine in MOS 4341, he went to college and eventually earned his commission as a US Army officer; and this commission also came with a whole new MOS (19A, Armor Officer).

Along with being points of identity, pride, camaraderie, and unit cohesion; Military Occupational Specialties also serve to organize the many functions required to keep the US Armed Forces organized, efficient and ready to fight and win America’s battles, maintain friendly relations with our allies, and deter foreign aggression by projecting our military might around the globe.

As we see advances/changes in national/global economy, technology, warfighting strategy, and foreign relations; so must our Nation’s military occupations evolve as well. Many of today’s specialties could not have possibly existed in years past: Navy MOS 8284 (Imagery Ground Station Operator), Army MOS 170A (Cyber Operations Technician), Air Force MOS 1A8X1 (Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst), and Marine Corps MOS 0212 (Technical Surveillance Countermeasures Specialist).

About James McGregor

James currently resides in the Denver, Colorado area.

He is a former US Army Captain and Marine Sergeant who holds a BA in History from the University of Central Missouri.

His Military background includes the following;

  • US Marine Corps, 4 years enlisted, Combat Correspondent, highest rank: Sergeant.
  • US Army ROTC, 4 years, highest rank: Cadet Battalion Commander
  • US Army, 6.5 years commissioned, Armor officer, highest rank: Captain