by Andy Weddington
Thursday, 10 November 2011 / USMC236
"You cannot exaggerate about the Marines. They are convinced to the point of arrogance, that they are the most ferocious fighters on earth-and the amusing thing about it is that they are."
Father Kevin Keaney, 1st Marine Division Chaplain, Korean War
Today marks the 236th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.
So, fittingly, a sea story--a true one not a week old, preceded by a short intro...
A few months back I read a book titled "Brute." Lieutenant General Victor Krulak--aka: Brute--was a colorful character in Corps history (one of his sons, Charles, went on to earn four stars and become our 31st commandant). I'd read about Brute through the years and have read a little more since finishing the new biography. Somewhere amidst all the reading was a tale he told that when a lieutenant he asked his salty gunnery sergeant just how it was Marines came to be revered as fierce warriors. Not successful locating the source to cite the quote, the gunny's reply went something like this, "Well, lieutenant, it goes back to our early days when Marines first gathered and amongst themselves boasted about their toughness, superior fighting ability, and greatness. Soon that word spread and folks, upon seeing a Marine, would remark they'd heard Marines were tough fighters and to be feared. As goes gossip, so grew the reputation. And ever since, each generation of Marine has fought to live up to that public reputation." Or something like that.
But it's not gossip, not lore. The reputation of the Marine Corps was built the only way it could be--by slugging it out on battlefields while systematically destroying enemies. Yes, Marines are tough. Marines know how to fight. And fact is, Marines are feared. As longtime friend, Colonel Mike Lowe, USMC (Retired) told a company of new lieutenants at The Basic School some years ago, "Running into a Marine outfit in combat is your worst nightmare."
Now for the sea story...
While approaching the maingate to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, 29 Palms, California, last Saturday evening, a sign posted about 100 yards from the guard shack noted "FPCON A - 100% ID Check". "FPCON A" is the acronym for "Force Protection Condition Alpha"--a heightened state of security for the purpose of knowing who, exactly, is attempting to board the base.
My vehicle's windshield, driver's side bottom corner, has a current base decal with a blue stripe below it indicating officer. Above the decal is a small red sticker with white marking denoting rank of colonel. Beside the red sticker is a white one, of equal size, with black marking denoting rank of Navy captain. Normally the decal is enough to permit entry. Not this evening. As each vehicle in the short queue made its way to the sentry there was pause while ID cards, in addition to decals, were checked.
As I pulled forward the sentry, a Marine clad in desert camouflage utilities, extended his left arm motioning to stop. I complied. As I handed him my ID, I noted he was Private First Class Irwin (all of 18 or 19 years old) and said, "Good evening, Marine." He studied the ID a moment, handed it back, came to attention, saluted, and wished me a nice evening.
And with that refreshing exchange, a customary act of courtesy and respect and piece of Marine Corps tradition (in contrast, as I pulled away, I momentarily thought about the 'occupiers' and shook my head), I proceeded to the Officers' Club for an evening of celebration and camaraderie with retired Marines, and others, to mark our Corps 236th birthday.
Entering the bar, I saw familiar faces, exchanged pleasantries and small talk, grabbed a drink, and sought out an old retired Marine friend I've know for nine years.
He was born in 1919. The youngest of a dozen or so children raised on a struggling cotton farm in Texas, he once told me the lot of them damn near starved to death during the depression. He wasn't kidding. And he's told me other stories of a tough life. A favorite being one of chores shared by his siblings--with a straight face and a wink he claimed having been seven or eight years old before realizing his given name was not "get wood." Young Ray Wilburn enlisted when he was 18. With only the clothes on his back and a pair of dimes in his pocket, he walked and hitch-hiked to the recruiting station more than 20 miles away. That bold decision, as it turned out, led to fighting in the South Pacific, Korea, and Vietnam. And then, after 32 years, he retired. He still wears his dress blues to the ball. And inspection ready they are. Now approaching his 93rd birthday, he's as sharp as ever--though admitted his body is starting to fail. Sergeant Major Ray Wilburn, USMC (Retired) was the oldest Marine present Saturday evening--a distinction that earned him the first piece of the ceremonial cake. Though sounding a bit cliche-ish, he's a Marine's Marine.
Moments later I ran into a Marine I'd served with aboard the Combat Center years ago. He'd invited a special guest and introduced me. His guest, clad casually and wearing a lightweight black sweater embroidered with our eagle, globe, and anchor on the left breast, was sitting in a wheelchair. The emblem and his closely cropped snow white hair strong hints he just may be a Marine. I bent down for our introduction. Though his soft voice was hard to understand, no question he was tuned in--the glint in his eye and occasional smile attesting. Master Gunnery Sergeant Chester Walton, USMC (Retired) enlisted in 1940. He, too, fought in the South Pacific--including Iwo Jima. And he fought in Korea and Vietnam--two combat tours each. His daughter, dad's escort for the evening, is a Marine--something that made perfect sense once she'd revealed completing recruit training in 1979.
The dinner bell rang.
I was seated at Table 8. With the exception of one Marine (and his wife), the two other Marines (and spouses), colonels, and a Navy Captain (and spouse), and the widow of a Marine colonel, I was, by far, the youngest. The other colonels and the Captain retired in the early 70s. Aggregate years of service to Corps and Navy--about 170 (not including the ladies). And that was probably about average for the other 14 or 15 tables.
So that's over 2,500 years service to country--with Purple Hearts and other combat decorations for valor worn by many. By comparison, the aggregate years of service of an active duty infantry battalion would not eclipse that number by much, if at all. Our active ranks, by necessity and design, young.
The script for the evening was inked long ago in Marine Corps directives--cocktails, cake-cutting ceremony with traditional reading of thoughts from our 13th commandant and the current commandant's message, guest of honor remarks, dinner, and dancing--though not many in this crowd take to the dance floor any more.
The guest of honor was the Combat Center's commanding general--a brigadier (though wearing a star he was not the evening's star--that distinction belonging to the retirees). Commissioned in 1985, he was one of the younger Marines in attendance. An interesting happenstance, his 4th grade teacher, the wife of a retired colonel friend, was in attendance. During his opening remarks he acknowledged her and admitted taking extra care preparing his comments to ensure proper noun/verb use (the crowd chuckled). His remarks centered around Marines, regardless of generation, being Marines. Tough. Fighters. Fearsome. He told the story of a young corporal leading his squad on a foot patrol in Now Zad district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, on 22 March 2009. The squad, from L 3/8 (Lima company, 3rd battalion/8th Marines), was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) which triggered an ambush. Keeping his cool, the corporal led his Marines directing their fire and calling in supporting arms. Not known by those on the other end of the radio, because he was calm and deliberate, the corporal had been seriously wounded (severed left leg and peppered with shrapnel) by the IED (it detonated under him) and was being treated by a Corpsman amidst the battle. His leadership led to the destruction of the enemy--that running into a Marine outfit in combat their worst nightmare thing. But he, while en route to a field hospital, succumbed to his wounds. For extraordinary leadership and gallantry, Corporal Michael E. Ouellette, USMC was postumously awarded the Navy Cross. The general summed up by saying the "Nintendo" generation of Marine, despite their doubters, were every bit as Marine as those before them.
With a decade of fighting, multiple combat tours under their belt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instance after instance of sometimes bewildering heroism--some decorated, some not--every bit as good. Maybe better.
One nice thing about the evening--for the 100% ID Check at the gate, there was no chance of bumping into a fake Marine--something I've written about on occasion and as recently as a couple of weeks ago. But this evening, not a chance. Twenty-six balls while on duty. Six since hanging up the uniform. Yet the title "Marine" once earned is for eternity. As I've corrected many a folk, there are no "former" Marines. Marines are: active duty; reserve; retired; not in a duty status; dead.
Happy Birthday, Marines!
It was unanimous, even amongst the ladies, I had the best shoes there--a pair of bright red canvas slip-on Crocs. They matched my vest. I wore them especially for friend Colonel Mac Dube, USMC (Retired)--a hero of our Corps whom I've written about in the past http://acoloneloftruth.blogspot.com/2010/08/heroisms-always-rewarded-sometimes.html and http://acoloneloftruth.blogspot.com/2010/05/marines-brass-recycled-and-mystery.html who, after I retired, ribbed me regularly about continuing to wear shoes with laces (and not shaving every day). He'd say, "Andy, you need some slip-ons. Here, look at mine. Oh, did you lose your razor?" I finally found a pair of slip-ons I liked. And found my razor. Regrettably, Big Mac, under the weather, was unable to attend the ball--the first he's missed. So, his wife took notes and we took pictures. Big Mac's wife, Pat, was the general's teacher. Small Corps.
1. Our commandant and sergeant major deliver 2011 message--11 minutes 51 seconds. As the video is every year, first class. Time well spent. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I79UW6-NAAU
2. A hand-numbered/signed limited edition copy of "Making Marines" to the first reader citing this endnote. See book link left for book overview. Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org
3. A classic: Such as Regiments hand down forever. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIKeSPK6I3g