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Once again it is the occasion of the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday, and I often think about this officer when I consider the Corps’ rich heritage. His name was Michael P. Ryan. In 1973, I was about to complete my obligation to the Marines and would soon leave Okinawa to return home to my wife and two young sons in Atlanta. By chance, I happened to be in the Officers Club one night when Gen Ryan, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, dropped by as a guest of our Battalion Commander. I introduced myself to Gen. Ryan and informed him that I would soon rotate home and separate from the Marine Corps.

Gen. Ryan graciously thanked me for my service. I noticed the Navy Cross medal he wore, the highest decoration the Naval Service can award for combat valor, second only to the Medal of Honor. In addition, I remembered from my study of Marine Corps history that he had served with great distinction at the bloody World War II battle of Tarawa in November 1943.

“General,” I asked, “what’s the one thing you remember most from Tarawa?”

Gen. Ryan replied without hesitation, “The salute.”

The battle of Tarawa was the first U.S. offensive in Central Pacific. To get to Japan, the Americans needed to take the Marianas; to take the Marianas, the U.S. needed to take the Marshalls; and to take the Marshalls, it was necessary to take Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

Tarawa was the first U.S. invasion that was opposed at the landing beaches. Planners had expected a rising tide to provide a five-foot depth over the reef, but the depth was only three feet. The Higgins boats ferrying the Marines from ship to shore needed four feet of depth. Consequently, Marines had to wade ashore under murderous fire, greatly slowing their progress. “Situation in doubt” was communicated to the top U.S. commanders.

Casualties in first waves were shocking. It was a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Still, the young Marines kept advancing.

Then-Maj. Mike Ryan landed his company to the west of the main landing areas where he consolidated the stragglers from units that had been obliterated on the beaches. Suddenly, out of the smoke comes an old staff sergeant, dragging a wounded hip, who sought out Maj. Ryan and asked what he could do to assist. When Maj. Ryan explained the situation and suggested a leadership role for the sergeant, the man straightened, voiced a resolute “aye-aye, sir,” and gave a crisp Marine Corps salute.

The attack was a success and provided pressure on the enemy’s right flank, which eventually broke. The battle turned on Maj. Ryan’s audacious gallantry and inspiring leadership. The Japanese commander had said before the battle that it would take a million Marines a hundred years to take Tarawa. It took Maj. Mike Ryan, a shot-up old staff sergeant, and 5,000 other leathernecks 76 hours.

Mike Ryan never saw the old NCO after the battle, so he never knew whether the man had survived the battle or the war. He only knew that, of the tens of thousands of salutes he received in a long and distinguished military career, the sergeant’s salute at Tarawa was the one he cherished the most.

On this the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps, I salute the Marines of the past who made our Corps into the finest fighting organization in the world. And I salute the Marines of the present who have maintained those core values of honor, courage, and commitment.

Semper Fi.

 

Sgt. Walker and me

Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, United States Marine Corps, was my Platoon Sergeant when I entered Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, in March, 1970. He was a career Marine, tested in combat and serious about his role of teaching (and screening) young officer candidates. Sgt. Walker was tough, smart, and fair. He was determined to give everyone an equal chance to succeed, but early on he told us that, if history held, fifty-percent would likely not make it through the ten-week program.

We began with 54 and finished with 27.

The very first night at OCS, after a day of shouting, processing, and more shouting, I still remember Sgt. Walker telling us that we were now in a state of culture shock, and he then ordered us to write a letter home and tell our loved ones that we were okay, and that we “wanted for nothing.” I wondered if the other candidates felt as I did, that is, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Sgt. Walker pushed us hard during those ten intensive weeks. He evaluated our academic progress, our military and physical skills, and especially our leadership abilities. He bluntly informed us that he would not recommend a candidate for commissioning as a Marine second lieutenant unless and until, in his professional judgment, that same candidate could lead him in battle. That seemed an impossible standard, but as we learned over time, impossible standards are rarely impossible; they just take a little longer. Marines have a long history of doing the impossible, which was precisely Sgt. Walker’s teaching point.

Sgt. Walker was the best Marine non-commissioned officer I came across in my three years in the Corps. I never saw him again after leaving Quantico, but I thought of him often. I still think of him. And so on 10 November, the birthday of the Marine Corps, I think of all the Sgt. Walkers over all the years who have trained Marines to become the finest fighting force in existence. They trained those Marines, as Sgt. Walker trained us, by demanding excellence, and commitment, and sacrifice. No shortcuts, no coddling, no excuses. They trained those Marines to go and do the impossible, if necessary.

And for 239 years, that’s exactly what Marines have done. And still do.

Sgt. Walker’s salute was the first I received the day of our commissioning. In the above picture. Sgt. Walker (at left) is holding a folded handkerchief containing 27 silver dollars which, by tradition, the new officers gave him after that first salute. Thank you, Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, for what you did to enable me to earn that salute. And thank you for giving me an example of everything a U.S. Marine should be.

I wish all Marines a happy birthday!

Semper Fi.

 

GeneralDavis2Gen. Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, is one of the more legendary figures in the fabled history of the Corps. He was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was awarded virtually every decoration this nation can bestow for acts of gallantry, including the Medal of Honor. And he attained four-star rank when he was named Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps near the end of his illustrious career.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “Always in the thick of the fighting Lt. Col. Davis led his battalion over 3 successive ridges in the deep snow in continuous attacks against the enemy and, constantly inspiring and encouraging his men throughout the night, brought his unit to a point within 1,500 yards of the surrounded rifle company by daybreak. Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and 2 bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines.”

The temperature that night in Korea was 30 degrees below zero. He rescued his Marines and opened up a critical mountain pass.

When I was a Basic School student at Quantico, Virginia as a Marine second lieutenant in 1970, Gen. Davis attended a formal dinner for our class, by tradition referred to as Mess Night. I knew of his exploits in combat, and I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other decorations on his chest. He was soft-spoken, of average height and build, but he had the unmistakable presence and aura that great leaders exude, all without a trace of vanity or condescension.

When I mentioned to Gen. Davis that I was from his home state of Georgia, he asked what school I had attended. I knew the general had graduated from Georgia Tech, and when I mentioned that I had attended his school’s chief rival, he smiled and said, “Ah, a Georgia Bulldog.”

The years passed, and I now wish that I had arranged to visit him before his death in 2003, at age 88. I could have taken along the three novels I’ve written and we could have talked about the football fortunes of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And I’m sure we would have talked about the Marine Corps. What a rich wellspring of Marine history he would have been.

Thank you, Gen. Davis, for the remarkable service you rendered this nation in its times of need. You will forever be remembered by your fellow Marines.

arl2More than 285,000 people have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Headstones of veterans from the Revolutionary War to the current struggle in Afghanistan adorn Arlington’s rolling Virginia hills. Soldiers of every age, sex, race, and creed are buried there. Many were killed in action, some dying in places named Bull Run, Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Hungnam, Quang Tri, Fallujah, and Kandahar.

There are generals and admirals and decorated heroes at Arlington, along with astronauts, Supreme Court justices, and two U.S. presidents. The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded around the clock and holds the remains of one unknown each from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Suppose for a moment we could hear from a group of twenty-year-old soldiers who died on the battlefields of each of our wars since the Revolution. Also suppose they never achieved high rank, never became fathers or grandfathers, and never tasted their mother’s cooking again. They were never again buoyed when their misty-eyed fathers extended a hand while saying, “I’m proud of you, son,” or saw the look of admiration on the faces of their younger siblings. They were just scared, homesick, acne-faced young men who confronted the enemy, fought bravely, and met a violent death in the flower of their youth.

So what would they tell us about what they understood they died for? What would they think of the America we now have, as opposed to the one they knew and loved? What advice would they give us about how we should live our lives, or treat others, or act as citizens of a free and great nation?

What would they tell us?

If we told them about how some of us felt our individual liberties seem to be eroding more and more, would the young solider of the Revolution roll his eyes and giggle at the seeming abundance of liberty we now enjoy? If we complained about the deep-rooted unethical and corrupt behavior of so many of our public officials nowadays, would the Civil War solider shrug his shoulders as if to say, “What else is new?” If we complained about having to deal with a ruthless, ideological enemy who wanted to blow us all up, would the World War II soldier say, “Been there, done that.” If we expressed our concern over our nation’s seeming incoherent foreign policy, would the Vietnam soldier consider the issue for a brief moment before erupting in loud laughter? But what about Benghazi? The American people don’t seem to care about this, we explain to the Korean War soldier. “Yeah? So get over it,” he might say.

But if we asked those young warriors if they would do it all over again, knowing their outcomes would still be the same, what do you think they would say? I don’t know about you, but my strong sense is they would all say, “Yes! My America was worth dying for.”

Is our America still worth dying for?

Well, ask a twenty-year-old soldier on active duty. He comes from the same stuff as did those who preceded him, and it’s good stuff indeed— firm, unselfish, enduring stuff. Ask today’s young soldier if the multiple deployments are worth it; if seeing a buddy’s limbs blown in different directions by an IED is part of the price; if America, despite its divisiveness and imperfections, is still worth a small plot in Arlington.

Again, my strong sense is they would say, “Yes!” They still believe in the greatness and goodness and resiliency of America. They still want to make a difference. They honor their brothers-in-arms from Arlington by their service and their sacrifice, and in so doing they honor us. All of us. Red state, blue state, every state.

May God bless them for it. And bless those in Arlington and other military cemeteries whose voices are silent.

 

Birthday of the Marine Corps

November 8, 2012

On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the creation of the U. S. Marine Corps. Two battalions were eventually raised from young men recruited from places like Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern, the very first recruiting location of the Corps.

Hence, on November 10, 2012, the Marine Corps celebrates its 237th birthday.

Those Members of Congress could have little imagined what they were authorizing in 1775, apart from an immediate need to turn back the British Redcoats by force of arms during the American Revolution. No small concern, that. But they couldn’t have foreseen the growth of the Corps over the coming years, and the expanding role Marines would assume in the defense of the nation. They knew only that the risks were great, the stakes extraordinarily high, and the plight of the fledgling country growing more desperate by the day. They needed men who would fight with tenacity and skill, who would stand their ground and man their posts even when all seemed lost, and in so doing honor and inspire the young nation with their examples of courage and commitment. What they needed were Marines.

And that’s exactly what they got.

Those Members of Congress in 1775 put into play a military force that, almost a century later, would earn additional battle streamers during the Civil War. A half-century after Appomattox, a larger, harder-hitting force of Marines would take to the field in Europe during World War I and become known as “Devil Dogs” by incredulous Germans who could only slow, but not stop, their repeated, aggressive assaults. In World War II, Marines would fight a bloody, relentless, island-by-island campaign that would soon thereafter become the stuff of legends. The Korean War was likewise bloody, with the Pusan landing and the Chosin Reservoir adding to an already illustrious history. The Vietnam War would produce more Marine Corps casualties than did World War II, with places like Khe Sanh and Hue becoming famous for Marine resolve and bravery.

More recently, Marines have seen action in Kuwait and Iraq, and today remain in harm’s way in Afghanistan. The young men and women who have worn the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor during the War on Terror have honored the county with their service, as Marines always have, for what is now 237 years.

Those patriots who were Members of Congress created things that would endure, like the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. And, thankfully, a Marine Corps to ensure their continuity.

Happy birthday, Marines.

Semper Fi.

There were five Sullivan brothers: Depression-era, Catholic Irish-American sons of Tom and Alleta Sullivan of Davenport, Iowa. George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert Sullivan discovered that when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, one of their friends was aboard the USS Arizona. In their desire to avenge a friend’s death, they did what so many other Americans did in the aftermath of that devastating attack. They enlisted in the armed forces.

They chose the U.S. Navy and insisted that they be assigned to the same ship. The Navy had a policy against such assignments, but it was loosely enforced. By August, 1942 the brothers were aboard the light cruiser USS Juneau and participating in the Guadalcanal Campaign. On November 13, 1942, their ship was hit by a torpedo and withdrew from the naval engagement. The Juneau was later hit by another torpedo which detonated near the ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and quickly sank.

Letters from the Sullivan brothers suddenly stopped arriving at their Davenport home and the parents grew worried. Letters were the lifeblood that connected anxious American families with their sons in harm’s way.

On January 12, 1943, as father Tom prepared to leave for work, three naval officers arrived at the front door. Tom knew immediately that the news would not be good.

“Which one?” Tom asked.

“I’m sorry,” one of the officers replied. “All five.”

In addition to the parents and sister Genevieve, the survivors included Albert’s wife and young son.

The loss of a single service member is a devastating event for a family. We’ve seen it repeated across the nation for the past ten years with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of us can still remember the losses from Vietnam. It’s always heartbreaking, always painful and gripping.

But five?

Can you imagine the shock and inconsolable despair the Sullivan family felt on that day in 1943?

No, of course not. Only the Sullivan family knew the pain, the numbness, and the utter disbelief in losing all five of the brothers. The blue-star flag in the window, indicating sons serving in the military, would now have five gold stars. FDR would send a condolence letter and resolutions honoring the family would be passed by state and local governments. Later, a U.S. warship would be named after the Sullivan brothers. But nothing could bring those boys back.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we honor all the gold-star families who have lost sons and daughters in service to our nation. If not for the willingness of our citizens to serve and sometimes sacrifice, American history would have charted a far different course. That willingness is still on display, from the distant battlefields to the blue-star flags in the windows. Thank God for those magnificent Americans in uniform, and those equally magnificent families supporting them.

In the movie The Fighting Sullivans, made in 1944, Tom watches with pride as Alleta christens the new destroyer, the USS The Sullivans

. As the ship sails away, Alleta turns and says, “Tom, our boys are afloat again.”

A Marine Hero

September 16, 2011

Today former Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer was presented the nation’s highest military award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, by President Obama in a White House ceremony. Corporal Meyer’s Medal of Honor award is the first to a living Marine since the Vietnam War.

Disobeying an order to remain clear of a deadly ambush zone, Corporal Meyer moved forward in a Humvee driven by a fellow Marine to provide covering fire and to also evacuate several wounded against what was right on the verge of being an overpowering enemy force. Corporal Meyer entered the lethal space four separate times in the process of rescuing 36 Afghan and American troops, several of whom he personally carried to the Humvee for evacuation to the rear. After already performing well above the normal call of duty, Corporal Meyer learned that four of his mates were still in the ambush area. Making a fifth trip, Corporal Meyer again braved withering fire only to find that his three fellow Marines and a Navy corpsmen had been killed in the vicious firefight. “It’s what Marines do,” he replied when asked why he moved forward when others stayed back.

At the time, Corporal Meyer was 21 years old.

Like other Medal of Honor awardees, Corporal Meyer insists he is hardly a hero. He says he will accept and wear the medal to honor the Marines he served with, especially his four buddies who died. “The worst day of my life,” he says of his profound sense of loss. “I feel like I failed them and failed their families.”

My gosh. A failure?

This young man made five trips into what was a hot combat hell, with 36 men alive today based directly upon what he did. He drove out under the threat of likely violent death five different times. He tore into the enemy with the ferocity of an enraged United States Marine, the flashing of his weapon the last sight many of his Taliban ambushers probably ever saw. He left his position several times to bring wounded to his vehicle. He himself was wounded. He left no one on the field. All of this after having been ordered to stay put.

A failure?

No. A warrior.

One hears the term “warrior” these days to describe athletes and others who play games. The word’s use is widespread and gratuitous, much like the young use “amazing” to describe anyone or anything only slightly above ordinariness. To see an NFL wide receiver thumping his chest after a routinely “amazing” play and hear him characterized as a “warrior” is ludicrous when compared to a real warrior like Corporal Dakota Meyer.

That our nation produces such courageous, selfless people as Dakota Meyer should make us ALL better. You have the gratitude of this former Marine for what you did and who you are.

Semper Fi, my young brother.

The Flag Raising

February 23, 2011

“The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” – Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

Sixty-six years ago today, February 23, 1945, six U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman raised the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi on the fifth day of a thirty-five day battle, one of the most intense in World War II. Of the six flag raisers, three would die in battle shortly thereafter. The Americans would suffer 26,038 casualties, of which 6,821 would die on an island 4.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. The number of U.S. casualties at Iwo Jima was greater than the total Allied casualties on D-Day.

With the battle still raging, the iconic, Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal has often been described as the most famous photograph ever taken. The image was the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The three surviving flag raisers became national celebrities as they eventually traveled the country in endless bond drives, so far from the horrors they had experienced at Iwo Jima.

Marines have flag raising in their DNA. From Iwo to Hue City to Baghdad, there always seems to be a Marine with a flag when the situation arises. I have seen the actual flag raised on Iwo Jima, and the sight of it made my throat constrict. I cannot remember viewing any other museum artifact that affected me so instantly and so deeply as did the sight of that slightly faded, bullet-scarred flag.

No one could have known that such a seemingly simple flag-raising would result in something as symbolic and powerful and enduring as those Marines and that flag pictured atop Suribachi.

To the Marines of Iwo Jima, Semper Fi.

Happy Birthday, Marines!

November 9, 2010

On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the raising of two battalions of Marines. Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern—yes, a beer-serving establishment as its name suggests—was the very first recruiting location of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Thus, young men were recruited with the promise of a cold beer and an opportunity to serve in a Corps of Marines. I can only imagine the excitement those young men felt at being able to attach themselves to something with equal parts of mystery, glamour, and danger. I can only imagine the yarns that followed in Tun Tavern after they had stepped forward and signed on. I can only imagine the stories that were later told in Tun Tavern after those initial recruits had served during the Revolution and returned home to tell about it. Tavern tales have become as much a Marine tradition as the eagle, globe, and anchor symbol. Not so unexpectedly, Marines have always prided themselves on the fact that their branch of service was birthed in a tavern.

And why not?

The thread of history from Tun Tavern to Afghanistan shows that Marines have served America extraordinarily well, with dedication, professional competence, and unsurpassed valor. The Marine Corps has always stood at the cutting edge of military readiness—prepared at any moment to move into harm’s way. And, as is their habit once they find themselves committed to action, they have fought and won. An adversary on the verge of a fiery encounter with U.S. Marines would hardly be in a festive mood, and for good reason. No better friend, no worse enemy.

As is the custom on 10 November, Marines will gather far and wide to celebrate the birthday of their Corps. The larger Marine Corps bases will have well-planned, well-attended, formal birthday balls. The smaller outposts will improvise, a key Marine skill. Former Marines will take a moment to reflect back on their years of service, most likely with pride and nostalgia. The history of the Corps will be commemorated; old friendships will be renewed; the fallen will be remembered. Prayers will be lifted for those still in the fight, and for the families who anxiously await their return.

Here’s to the Corps on this 235th birthday!

And here’s to the Marines whose duty and blood and sacrifice have saturated the Corps in hard-won glory.

Here’s to an organization that is not only unique, not only elite, but without equal.

Here’s to the United States Marine Corps!

Semper Fidelis.

Memorial Day, 2010

May 26, 2010

Since the sound of the first shots being fired at sunrise on April 19, 1775, in Lexington, MA, through the present-day sounds of battle being heard in Afghanistan, there have been an estimated 1,314,000 Americans killed in combat in service to this Nation.

Think of it this way: Twenty-two miles driving distance from Lexington is Boston’s Fenway Park, with a capacity of 39,600 people. Fenway would have to fill to capacity a total of 33 times to equal the number of American war dead in our history. Thirty-three times! It would have to sell out every day in May, plus June 1st and 2nd, with different people each day, to reach the 1.3 million total.

And that doesn’t count the thousands upon thousands of wounded–physically and/or emotionally–who bled and suffered and came home changed forever. It doesn’t count the grieving parents or the widowed spouses. It doesn’t count the children left without a parent. It doesn’t count the friends and classmates and teammates and unit buddies whose grief also adds to and pushes out those ripples of impact that spread far beyond the home address of the deceased. For every U.S. soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman who has fallen, for every white cross or Star of David in an American or foreign cemetery, many, many more have been touched.

Our fallen heroes are our collective loss. And, odd as it sounds, it is also our collective gain. We are free because of them. We can choose how we work, how we play, how we worship, whom we vote for, where we live, because of them. We have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in more than just the theoretical, because of them.

This weekend, when Old Glory snaps in the breeze, proudly displaying its radiant colors and soliciting emotions that tend to constrict one’s throat and moisten one’s eyes, when taps plays and drives its somber notes into the very deepest parts of us, think of them. And their families. And those who are in harm’s way, still, in dangerous and far-away places.

But especially think of them.

All 1,314,000 of them.

They gave us all they had. They’ve honored us, and made us better. “The last full measure,” as Mr. Lincoln so aptly spoke at Gettysburg.

Now we pause to honor them.

And to thank them. All of them. The thirty-three stadiums of them.

May they rest in peace, and may God bless.