Herman J. Koehler

Master of the Sword

From the 1924 Pointer
United States Corps of Cadets

From 1924 Pointer

It was on February 1, 1885, that Herman J. Koehler reported to Colonel Wesley Merritt, then superintendent, as Master of the Sword of the United States Military Academy. And on that day it may justifiably be stated that modern Army Physical Training began. The gymnasium, which measured 13x25x60 feet, boasted of equipment consisting of one horizontal bar, two wooden horses, one life size and one colt size, a swing, parallel bars, four feet high and twenty feet long, nailed to the floor, and some clubs and dumbbells of antiquated size and weight.

However, the beneficial effects of the system of instruction introduced by Colonel Koehler were so readily apparent that in 1892 a new gymnasium was completed and instruction expanded to include fencing, swimming, and gymnastics. In 1905 another advance was accomplished when boxing and wrestling were added to the Academy’s physical curriculum, instruction being extended at the same time to include the entire Corps. Five years later witnessed further recognition of the Koehler system of physical education when the present modern gymnasium was constructed. In 1920, the present course of physical and intramural athletic training was inaugurated, thereby establishing the Military Academy without a peer the world over.

In addition to his success at West Point, Colonel Koehler had distinguished himself prior to his service in the Army. Beginning physical training at the age of eight, he won the national championship in all around gymnasium and athletics at the age of nineteen. In 1880 he emerged with second rank in an international competition held at Frankfort-on-the-Main, the competitors numbered over five hundred. The following year Colonel Koehler attended as an on-looker a national competition staged in the same city. Upon discovery of the fact that the man who won first place the preceding year was competing, he entered the lists despite the fact that he had not trained for the event. The results placed Colonel Koehler first against a field of three hundred.

The recent World War supplied him with another opportunity for distinguished service to his country. Placed in charge of the disciplinary physical training in the Officers and Divisional Training Camps of the National Army, he personally instructed over 200,000 men, of whom 35,000 were aspirants for commissions. It was not infrequent for him to lead an entire brigade of 6,000 men in calisthenics. The Distinguished Service Medal was awarded Colonel Koehler in 1919 in recognition of these achievements.

Previous to the war he had assisted in the physical instruction of the New York and Massachusetts National Guard regiments in 1911, 1912, and 1913; had aided the establishment of the recruit school of the New York Police Department in 1913; had sole charge of drill and physical instruction of the New York quota during the Mexican border trouble in 1916; and was in command of the disciplinary training at Plattsburg in 1915 and 1916, serving under General Underwood. In 1921 and 1922 he assisted with the C.M.T.C. camps. It is estimated that he has during his career instructed upward of 400,000 persons, a distinction, which certainly has never been equaled.

Since the time of Colonel Thayer no officer has left the imprint of his personality and character so firmly imbedded in the atmosphere and spirit of West Point.

On December 14th, Lieutenant Colonel Koehler was retired.

The Corps extends to Colonel Koehler thanks for all that he has done for West Point, and for all that he has accomplished, by precept and practice, for generation after generation of cadets. Its good wishes are with him for many more years of activity among them. The Army Athletic Association has obtained the services of Colonel Koehler as Executive Manager of Athletics, thus assuring his continued co-operation in the further development of the athletic system he has developed.

A conversation with LTC Herman J. Koehler and his friends

Heaven’s Gym #1 is located just inside the Pearly Gates, in the Old Section. Most new arrivals to the afterlife train further out in gyms that look much like ours here on earth. Old-timers like LTC Herman J. Koehler and his friends train at HG #1. It has many rooms. Ladders, ropes, traveling rings, trapezes, and other amazing devices hang from the walls and ceilings. Wrestlers, boxers and gymnasts fill the main floor. Above the door at the main entrance there is a quote by Rudyard Kipling:

“Nations have passed away and left no trace,
and history gives the naked cause of it–
one single, simple reason in all cases;
they fell because their people were not fit.”

Koehler is still in great shape as he prepares to celebrate his 140th birthday this year on December 14. Folks in Heaven are generally uninterested in our terrestrial adventures, but civility is still the standard there. If we listen carefully, they will speak.

KOEHLER: I understand that you are with the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School. Do you know who I am?

THOMAS: You were Master of the Sword at the United States Military Academy from 1885 until 1923, and you are certainly the “Father of Modern Army Physical Readiness Training.”

KOEHLER: I died in 1927, but my system was losing ground when I retired in 1923. How do you still know of me?

THOMAS: Fragments of your work can still be found in archives at West Point, and you were the driving force behind the Army’s first physical training manuals. Captain Robert Degan wrote about you in his Master of Science thesis in physical education at the University of Wisconsin in 1966. He was killed in Viet Nam a few years later.

KOEHLER: I know. He is here with us now.

THOMAS: What was the source of your unparalleled genius for Army physical training.

KOEHLER: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1859. My parents were German and deeply involved in the Turnvereine, and I began training when I was a child.

THOMAS: What is the Turnvereine where did it come from?

KOEHLER: During the early 19th Century, Germany was weak and divided into hundreds of independent sovereignties that were no match for Napoleon’s mighty army. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the Father of German Gymnastics, was not yet 30 years of age when he rushed to help defend Prussia at the Battle of Jena in 1806. He arrived to witness overwhelming defeat, the loss of almost half of his beloved homeland, and its eventual occupation by 150,000 French. Jahn eventually inspired a system of physical training that transformed the nation. Here he comes now. Turnvater Jahn, this rookie wants to know about the Turner system of gymnastics.

JAHN: I was born in Prussia on August 11, 1778 and grew up longing for a good education. Unfortunately, the schools were decadent. I spent my youth as an outsider to the inertia, drinking, and fighting that dominated much of the academic environment. I spoke out against the decay and was dismissed from numerous universities. My real education came from wandering throughout the countryside and coming to love my troubled nation with a fervor that aroused all I met along the way. Between my retreat from Jena and the War of Liberation, which eventually led to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, I began teaching at Graue Kloster, a boys’ school in Berlin. There I planted the seeds for a system of gymnastics that transformed German physical culture.
Gymnastics is not merely the means of augmenting physical powers, but a tool for achieving political goals as well. German freedom and strength revolved upon the youth of the state and, therefore, the supreme aim of physical education was to develop sturdy citizens possessing a love of their homeland and the aggregate strength to throw off the rule of the oppressor from either outside or inside the nation.

A wave of patriotism followed the defeat at Jena, and my call for action made me a national hero. By 1814, I was even receiving a government salary, and the Turnvereine Gymnastic Societies grew rapidly. I had inspired a nation of citizen-soldiers. After Germany was liberated, the Turners joined the call for more personal and political freedom. The government reacted. Many Germans had hoped that Napoleon’s defeat would be followed by national unity under constitutional rule. Instead, the monarchs banned the Turnvereine.

I was eventually arrested and jailed. It took around five years for me to be free of charges. It all eventually led to a failed and bloody revolution in1848. Thousands of Germany’s best and brightest fled their homeland, and many chose America. I stayed behind in Germany and died a few years later in 1852.

KOEHLER: The first American Turnvereine opened in Cincinnati. Twenty-two Turner Societies were operating in the United States by 1851. Ten years later, the Turners, vehemently opposed to slavery, were among the first to volunteer as units in the Northern Army. Of an estimated 10,000 active Turners, approximately 6,000 enlisted. Many of them were lost in battle.

THOMAS: I have read that the Turners fought valiantly during the Civil War, and afterwards, many school districts eventually began to adopt the Turner physical education system. What role did you play?

KOEHLER: I studied in the Turnvereine throughout my youth and graduated in 1882 from the Milwaukee Normal School of Physical Training, a Turner school. My uncle, George Brosius, directed it. He fought bravely in the Civil War and later served as superintendent of Physical Training in the public schools of Milwaukee from 1875 to 1883. After graduating, I worked for a while teaching and building physical education programs in Wisconsin schools. In 1885, I was appointed Master of the Sword at West Point Military Academy.

THOMAS: An 1889 report to the Board of Visitors at the Military Academy in 1889 stated:

“We confess that it was exceedingly difficult to believe that the gymnastic exercise performed by the fourth class could be the result of only one year of practice under the instruction by Professor Koehler. The feats of agility were simply wonderful; they are valuable chiefly as evidence of sound, muscular, trained bodies. Professor Koehler is an accomplished teacher.”
How did you do that?

KOEHLER: My system had four main functions: To build the men up physically, to wake them up mentally, to fill them with enthusiasm, and to discipline them.” I believe that mechanical proficiency through physical training is essential for self-reliance, courage, and personal discipline. I further argued that the discipline of the individual determines the discipline of the mass.

THOMAS: What is discipline?

KOEHLER: It is the voluntary, intelligent, coordinated and cheerful subordination of every individual in an equal degree with every other individual of the mass to which he belongs, and of which he is an interdependent and not an independent unit, through which the object of the mass can be attained. Discipline is behavior that punishment unnecessary. In order to be disciplined, a soldier must be committed to ideals larger than himself. The disciplinary value of military physical training should equal, if not surpass its purely physiological value.

THOMAS: Did the Army ever fully embrace your ideas?

KOEHLER: No. In the early 1900s, sports and games gradually began to replace rational physical training. What is Army PRT like these days?

THOMAS: We could use a few guys like you.

KOEHLER: Stop by again sometime.

THOMAS: Thanks. I will.


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