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Ken Bales - 1

Ken Bales talks about his time in the U.S. Army Honor Guard.

Ken Bales is glad he didn’t become a geologist.

Had he, he likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve in one of the U.S. Army’s most prestigious units.

The Mason City veteran was a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — commonly known as “The Old Guard” — in the late 1950s.

After graduating from Clear Lake High School in 1953, he attended Iowa State University in Ames where he planned on studying geology, but when certain math and chemistry classes didn’t come easily, he changed courses.

“Fortunately, that turned out to be a pretty good decision,” he said.

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Ken Bales, a Clear Lake High School graduate, served in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, in the late 1950s.  

Bales took Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, classes at Iowa State for two years before enlisting in the U.S. Army between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Those ROTC classes, designed to train commissioned officers of the U.S. military, helped him secure leadership roles in basic training in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and Fort Hood, Texas.

“(ROTC) allowed me to get on top of things for the future,” he said. “It was a good decision. I never regretted that at all.”

Bales was among a small number of men selected for The Old Guard, the oldest active infantry regiment in the Army stationed in Fort Myer, Virginia. Others were sent to Europe or Korea.

At Fort Myer, he was selected for Company A, a unit responsible for “a lot of different things” in the honor guard, like escorting the president, welcoming international dignitaries, conducting memorial affairs to honor fallen comrades laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, maintaining 24/7 surveillance at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and performing at parades, ceremonies and special events as part of the drill team.

“We were kind of on show for the U.S. Army,” he said.

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Members of the U.S. Army Honor Guard Drill Team, including Ken Bales, execute a formation in the 1950s.

Bales described the honor guard as disciplined and polished in its demeanor and its appearance. Shoes were shined, ties were tight and coats were pressed. There were no exceptions.

“We were very much in order,” he said. “There was no messing around, and if you did, you’re out.”

Because of his height — 5 feet 10 inches tall — Bales was unable to serve as a guard for The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument in Arlington dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains haven’t been identified. The guards must be 6 feet tall.

He did, however, have the opportunity to serve on the U.S. Army Drill Team, a precision drill platoon that’s primary mission is to showcase the Army through routines with bayonet-tipped 1903 rifles.

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Members of the U.S. Army Honor Guard Drill Team, including Ken Bales, of Mason City, in the late 1950s.

The drill team performed at parades, ceremonies and special events.

“We had a lot of fancy things we could do with (the rifle),” he said. “It was quite exciting for people to see that.”

The unit Bales was a part of also greeted visiting foreign dignitaries, like Queen Elizabeth II and Saudi Arabian King Saud bi Abdulaziz Al Saud, at nearby Andrews Air Force Base.

He said he’ll never forget when Queen Elizabeth II made her first state visit to the U.S. in October 1957, midway through President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term.

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President Dwight Eisenhower escorts Queen Elizabeth II to review the troops, including the U.S. Army Honor Guard, at Andrews Air Force Base in October 1957.

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The commander was escorting her to review the U.S. troops, and when she got to the U.S. Army Honor Guard, she stopped right in front of Bales.

“At that point, you’re at position with your rifle and bayonet, like this, and I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t you blink, don’t you move your eyes, don’t do nothing except look straight forward because that’s what you better do’ and I did, but I couldn’t help but notice she was a pretty lady,” he said.

Bales was also part of Eisenhower's honor guard at his second inauguration in January 1957 and attended the inaugural ball, which was a “different and unique” part of his job.

Although The Old Guard provided memorable experiences for Bales, the service was also somber as it escorted numerous soldiers to their final resting place in Arlington.

“The spirit of serving overwhelms anything that comes your way, and I think anybody who was there, if asked to serve in Korea, you’d go,” he said. “We were very proud to have served in that capacity, and we did a lot.”

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Ken Bales, far left, and the U.S. Army Honor Guard participates in Queen Elizabeth II's departure ceremony at Union Station in Washington, D.C., in 1957.

Bales, who retired from the North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corp. earlier this year, said he’s most grateful for the U.S. Army because it made him a better person and he developed special relationships with his fellow servicemen, some of which remain today.

Since serving in The Old Guard, several of the Company A members have gotten together with their families for reunions across the country.

They Served with Honor: North Iowa's Korea Veterans

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Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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