27 May 2010

MARINES, BRASS RECYCLED, AND MYSTERY--SOLVED

MARINES, BRASS RECYCLED, AND MYSTERY--SOLVED
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 28 May 2010


"Marines are about the most peculiar breed of human beings I have ever witnessed. They treat their service as if it was some kind of cult, plastering their emblem on almost everything they own, making themselves up to look like insane fanatics with haircuts to ungentlemanly lengths, worshipping their Commandant almost as if he was a god, and making weird animal noises like a band of savages. They'll fight like rabid dogs at the drop of a hat just for the sake of a little action, and are the cockiest SOB's I have ever known. Most have the foulest mouths and drink well beyond man's normal limits, but their high spirits and sense of brotherhood set them apart and, generally speaking, of the United States Marines I've come in contact with, are the most professional soldiers and the finest men I have had the pleasure to meet." Anonymous Canadian Citizen


Today's Commentary is a strange story but a true one. And it revolves around a long-standing mystery solved from completely out-of-the-blue. One of those "You have got to kidding me" set of circumstances that could not have been planned. Not planned in a million years and leaves you shaking your head in both bewilderment and amazement, and wondering what's going on around us that we will forever, at least while earthbound, remain clueless to. How this tale came about will be penned as oddly as it happened. Bear with me. For if you read the 30 April Commentary titled, "DERRO MORF HACOS" then you know about "ORDER FROM CHAOS." How true. Here goes...

Two weeks ago this evening Big Mac asked if he'd ever shown me the photograph of him and the Commandant--the one where he and the general were standing atop the building leaning forward on the short retaining wall/railing with bullet holes still visible from the attack on Pearl Harbor. "No, Mac, I've not see that photograph but would sure like to."

Summer 1983, while a young first lieutenant assigned to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, I was told a story about a pair of U. S. Marine Corps emblems that had been presented to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The large matching solid brass emblems--eagle, globe and anchor--were a gift for General Robert H. Barrow, USMC upon his retirement from the Corps in June of that year after forty-one years of faithful, honorable and highly-decorated service. The only other tidbit I knew about the emblems was the general's intent to have them mounted on stanchions that guarded the entryway to his retirement home--a long-held family plantation named "Rosale" in St. Francisville, Louisiana--a community founded in 1809 and, because it was developed atop a narrow ridge overlooking the mighty Mississippi River, it was known as the town "two miles long and two yards wide."

Two weeks ago this morning my wife and I attended the change of command ceremony for the Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital, Twentynine Palms, California, where Captain Don Albia, USN turned command over to Captain Ann Bobeck, USN. The ceremony was impressive. One of the best I have witnessed carried out by our sister service. That the Sailors were clad in Service Dress White with large medals reflected the importance and dignity of the affair. Marine Band Twentynine Palms, sporting familiar Dress Blues, played in support and certainly added a touch of class; they always do. Anyway, that is all the comment necessary about the ceremony. In short, a new sheriff is in town and rode in in style. But it's not the last word about Mr. Bush (in case you're wondering or speculating, not kin to the former presidents).

While mingling at the reception following the ceremony, I ran into a retired Marine friend who asked if my wife and I were planning to attend the popular Mongolian BBQ at the Officers' Club that evening. Thinking the dinner had been last week we were not but changed our plans to join him and his wife and another retired couple.

So shortly after 1700 that evening we rallied at the club with Sergeant Major Ray Wilburn, USMC (Retired) and his wife Irma, and Colonel Marcel Jacques "Mac" Dube, USMC (Retired) and his wife Pat.

Sergeant Major Wilburn will turn 91 years old on 01 July. You'd never know it--he's as fit and sharp as men decades younger and quite a character. He's 'old Corps'--even to those who stake claim to being 'old Corps.' Hitchhiking, with nary a cent in his pocket, the 75 miles from his home to the recruiting station in Dallas, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in October 1939--the same year regular TV broadcasting began in the U. S., Hewlett Packard was formed, and Federal spending was $9.14 billion; the good ol' days. He retired after more than 31 years of remarkable service. He fought in three wars--WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. And to this day wears his Dress Blue uniform with fierce pride.

I remember a few years back when he was hospitalized and rising from bed to walk the road to recovery the attending nurse said something in order of, "Now, Sergeant Major, we will first step off with your right foot." To which he replied, "Young lady we will do no such thing. For my entire adult life as a Marine I have been stepping off on my left foot and that is exactly what we will do." He's a Marine--through and through.

He has some interesting stories about his time on active duty. And equally interesting and entertaining stories about growing up the youngest of 10 children in a cotton farm family near Wolfe City, Texas, during the Great Depression, and, as he says, "nearly starving to death." His experiences--the kind that build character of steel--as a youth were not funny at the time but make for good humor today. My favorites are his tales of the children only having one bed and him waiting to climb in last so he could be on top, and, as all the siblings had chores, it was not until he was 7 or 8 did he realize his given name was not "Get wood."

Now Mac is not quite as old as the sergeant major but he is full of equally colorful stories and is a character in his own right--I particularly like his 'no nonsense' outlook on life and wish I'd have had the opportunity to serve under him. Anyway, Mac started out as an enlisted man. And he too fought in war and has some debilitating battle injuries and scars to prove it. He also served a tour of duty as a Drill Instructor in the early 1950s aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island--several years before the disasterous Ribbon Creek incident. Yes, he well remembers the iconic sign that once greeted all boarding the Depot. And like all others is none too happy about what stands at the entry today.

This is where today's Commentary begins to get even more interesting.

Put three retired Marines around a dinner table and what else are they going to talk about--of course, the Marine Corps. Far junior in years and experience to my dinner mates, I mostly listened. At one point during the meal Mac, a regular reader of this Commentary and one who typically offers an encouraging word each week, turned to me and remarked he has been waiting to comment on the Parris Island sign matter. He said he had been looking for a letter and some photographs at home but had yet to find them.

He began to talk about General Barrow and telling a story about a time General Barrow, while Commandant, visited his command in Hawaii in April 1983. At the time Mac, a colonel, was the Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks Hawaii. Overseeing Marines in seven sites throughout the islands his headquarters was Pearl Harbor. It was during the Commandant's visit that the photograph mentioned in the second paragraph was taken.

Then Mac began telling a story about a pair of emblems, identical to ones that graced the exterior of Puller Hall--his headquarters building--he had made for General Barrow. What? Now he really had my full attention.

But first he spoke of the parades his command put on--complete with parade companies, a silent drill platoon, and a 75mm Pack Howitzer battery for ceremonial gunfire--tailored after the summer Friday evening parades at Marine Barracks, 8th and I, Washington, D.C. He recalled the parades and reception thereafter were an island highlight always well-attended by distinguished politicians, ranking military officers, and businessmen and prominent citizens from the community. As Mac reflected, it was quite the show seeing his Marines on parade...spit and polish. His outfit was affectionately known as "8th and I West." Note: The 75mm Pack Howitzer was designed in the U. S. and fielded in the 1920s to meet the need for an artillery piece that could more easily negotiate rough terrain--used by the Marines and Army during WWII. The "Pack" comes from the fact it could be broken down and carried by pack animals.

Interestingly enough, Sergeant Major Wilburn, an artilleryman, was most familiar with the 75mm Pack Howitzer--he used them for conducting "business"--not ceremonies--against Japanese forces while island-hopping in the South Pacific including battles on Guadalcanal and Tarawa.

As the story goes, Mac had been saving the expended brass casings from the 75mm howitzer gun salutes until enough had been amassed to be melted down and molded into a pair of emblems matching those of the Barracks; which General Barrow so admired. In fact, in a letter the general sent Big Mac following his command visit he penned at the bottom, "I am really looking forward to my brass USMC emblems! Most kind of you. They will adorn my entrance gate posts!" and signed it "B". Mac recalled the emblems must have been nearly 2 1/2 feet in height and at least 2 feet wide. And they had a one-inch diameter pin projecting from the back for ease of mounting. Oh, and they were a bear to lift.

He told how once the foundry turned the emblems over to him he personally polished them, oversaw crating, and attached a personal note for the Commandant before loading them aboard a military aircraft headed from Hickam Air Force Base to Andrews Air Force Base on the east coast.

Mac said he notified the Commandant when the emblems were en route. The general sent his aide out to receive them and later went himself to inspect them. And then tough ol' Mac got a little choked up talking about the letter he received from the Commandant. It, like the first letter, was on the Commandant's official stationary--a red flag adorned with a centered Marine Corps emblem surrounded by four stars embossed on the header. The type-written letter was formally addressed, "Dear Colonel Dube," to which General Barrow had stricken through and penned "Mac" and written "In a word, magnificent!" to open his letter.

What's odd is that only a few weeks ago General Barrow's son, Rob (who told me the emblem story those twenty-seven years ago), and I were on the phone talking about those very emblems. Rob did not know how they came about. Only that they had been given to his Dad. And they were impressive. And he was rather surprised that I remembered him telling me about them being presented to his Dad as a retirement gift.

How strange after all those years, nearly three decades, and of all places--at the Officers' Club on a Marine Corps base in the middle of the Mojave Desert, a story comes full circle and only because of an impromptu dinner invitation that included the man who had the emblems made. And he brought up the subject during dinner only because the Parris Island sign Commentaries I wrote were on his mind, and he remembered just how important our emblem was to General Barrow.

As Marines know, "It's a small Corps; damn small."

I've known Mac (and Sergeant Major Wilburn) for eight years and we've visited and talked many times during our friendship but there would have been no reason for those emblems to have ever come up in conversation. How coincidental they finally did. And how fortuitous.

"Where are those emblems today?" Last I spoke to Rob he was unsure. Guess it's time to find out.


And now for that last word on Mr. Robert E. Bush--a native of Tacoma, Washington. In 1945 Petty Officer Bush was a Hospital Apprentice First Class, U.S. Naval Reserve--a Corpsman--serving with a rifle company, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division during the battle for Okinawa Jima, Ryukyu Islands. On 02 May he, "Doc" Bush, distinguished himself on the battlefield. His citation reads:

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Medical Corpsman with a rifle company, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Okinawa Jima, Ryukyu Islands, 2 May 1945. Fearlessly braving the fury of artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire from strongly entrenched hostile positions, Bush constantly and unhesitatingly moved from one casualty to another to attend the wounded falling under the enemy's murderous barrages. As the attack passed over a ridge top, Bush was advancing to administer blood plasma to a Marine officer lying wounded on the skyline when the Japanese launched a savage counterattack. In this perilously exposed position, he resolutely maintained the flow of life-giving plasma. With the bottle held high in one hand, Bush drew his pistol with the other and fired into the enemy's ranks until his ammunition was expended. Quickly seizing a discarded carbine, he trained his fire on the Japanese charging pointblank over the hill, accounting for six of the enemy despite his own serious wounds and the loss of one eye suffered during his desperate battle in defense of the helpless man. With the hostile force finally routed, he calmly disregarded his own critical condition to complete his mission, valiantly refusing medical treatment for himself until his officer patient had been evacuated, and collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle aid station. His daring initiative, great personal valor, and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in service of others reflect great credit upon Bush and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service."

President Harry S. Truman presented Petty Officer Bush the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony on 05 October 1945. Bush was 19 years and 1 day old. He died at age 79 on 08 November, 2005--two days before the Marine Corps 230th birthday.

Post Script

I visited with Big Mac and Pat Dube the day before polishing this Commentary. He was not able to find the photograph of him with General Barrow and the bullet holes. And that's okay--it'll turn up one day somewhere amidst his boxes and boxes of memorabilia. The photograph of him and the general posted left had to be cropped to fit the space. Missing is the top right inscription, typical from General Barrow when commending Marines, acknowledging Mac as one of the Corps "stalwarts" for whom he admires and respects and thanking him for superb contributions to Corps and country. 

I've not spoken to my friend, Rob, about Mac's story. So he, like you, learned the history of those emblems reading this Commentary. Rob, we need to find them and get a picture for Mac to close this story.

Thanks to Big Mac and Pat Dube for the first four photographs supporting today's Commentary. And special thanks to Colonel "Mac" Dube, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Barrow, USMC (Ret), and Sergeant Major Ray Wilburn for the stories, Marine Corps history, and most of all friendship. Semper Fidelis, Marines.

Colonel Harvey C. Barnum, Jr. USMC (Ret) (pictured with the couples Wilburn and Dube--a handful of years ago) was awarded the Medal of Honor, while a first lieutenant, for valor in Vietnam. For his citation visit the Congressional Medal of Honor Society link: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3225/barnum-harvey-c-jr.php

Interestingly enough this story indirectly includes another Medal of Honor recipient. Sergeant Major Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr. USMC (Ret) was awarded the medal, while a gunnery sergeant, for valor in Vietnam. Sergeant Major Kellogg was Colonel Dube's sergeant major at Marine Barracks, Hawaii. For his citation visit the Congressional Medal of Honor Society link: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3328/kellogg-allan-jay-jr.php

Author's Endnote: In recognition of today's bit of Marine Corps history and in honor of Memorial Day, a numbered and signed copy of "MAKING MARINES" to the first reader who sends me an email mentioning this gratuitous offer. Thanks for reading!

3 comments:

M-Cat said...

The quote from the anon Canadian at the top of your post sucked me right in!
My son is a newly oathed Marine Recruit. Now, I'm doing all I can to research and learn of this new culture and family we are joining.

I notice your side bar pictures are Parris Island, since we are UT - he'll be in CA. Hope that's not a deal breaker for this new blog friend.

keep enlightening me! : )

Kevin said...

John Finn USN Ret LT Finn recently passed; Pearl Harbor recipient of award; these men will be missed; never forgotten

TPB said...

I mey Col Dube when I was in 29 Palms, what a great and memorable Marine. Thanks for relaying this story.