01 July 2014


by Andy Weddington
Tuesday, 01 July 2014

"The other veteran said "Listen, mate, everybody gets scared, and anybody says he don't is a damn liar." Eugene B. Sledge

Last week I watched, uninterrupted, the HBO miniseries 'The Pacific' - the island-hopping, beach-assaulting, amphibious warfare campaign carried out during World War II by the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps.  It's captivating, sobering history (though relevant strategy and tactics still) but what resonated most was the concluding interviews with survivors (and their families and friends) - most notably the words of Eugene B. Sledge (author of 'With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa') on Disc 6.

Listening to Sledge, a Marine (artilleryman) I know, who fought in some of those god-awful, bloody battles (e.g., Gavutu; Tulagi; Guadalcanal; Tarawa) and spent time in the water (abandoning ship when a Japanese destroyer attacked their ship), came to mind. 

He missed Iwo Jima for being evacuated with malaria. More about him momentarily.

Saturday past a crowd (of old Marines, Sailors, and families thereof) numbering 120, less a few, likely totaling some 7,000+ years of life, gathered at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Officers' Club, 29 Palms, to celebrate (a few days early) the 95th Birthday of Sergeant Major Ray V. Wilburn, USMC (Retired) - that Old Breed Marine I know.

We sang 'Happy Birthday!'

And then the Sergeant Major rose, hesitantly, at the urging of his wife (of 57 years), to say a few words.

He, as always, directly spoke - clearly and with volume...

'My wife says I need to say a few words but I really don't know what to say...

Let me tell you, I am but a poor country boy raised on a cotton farm in Texas...my parents invented poverty...dirt poor, we did not have much of anything...when our dog was thrown a bone he called 'fair catch'...I don't know much but one thing I do know is the Marine Corps...and the Marine Corps has been good to me and my family...somehow I survived three wars [WWII; Korea; Vietnam]...as to being 95, well, I don't feel 95...not at all...I believe age is just a number and if you start focusing on the number you start acting the number...that's not me...I awaken every morning to the creak of my bones...and if I don't hear organ music, I get out of bed...that's about it...oh, I don't think a recording of your 'Happy Birthday' will sell...but thank you and thank you for being here this afternoon...'

I've known Sergeant Major Wilburn for 12 years or so. My good fortune is to see and visit with him with some frequency. His clarity of thought remarkable. His memories, his stories, about combat sometimes chilling. But mostly he talks about leadership. That he retired after some 31+ years of service and nine years before I was commissioned is of little, if any, consequence - we're Marines and have that spirit and speak that language, spoken and unspoken, known only to Marines.

Sergeant Major Ray V. Wilburn, USMC (Ret)
at his 95th Birthday party (with the author)
Sergeant Major Ray V. Wilburn, USMC (Ret)
USMC Birthday Ball - 2012
America is still producing Marines of the Old Breed flavor. Sergeant Major Wilburn will so attest - he mentors many of them; enlisted and officer.  


it's official today: "95 - Happy Birthday, Sergeant Major!"


Semper Fidelis, Marine. And friend.

Post Script

Before watching 'The Pacific' I watched 'Band of Brothers' (also HBO miniseries) - uninterrupted. The concluding interviews on Disc 6 likewise resonated the most.

But what was most striking between the two miniseries was the accurate portrayal of the two cultures - Army and Marine Corps. Though the warrior spirit present in both, Soldiers are not Marines and Marines are not Soldiers. 

Mr. Sledge's 'With the Old Breed' - a must read; more than once. 

Author's Endnote

Sergeant Major was not the oldest at his party. There was a woman of 102. And there was another woman, widow of a Marine general officer, the Sergeant Major's age who grew up with him in Texas. Her father was young Ray Wilburn's barber.

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