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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.

 

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General Louis H. Wilson, Jr. , the 26th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and a recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II, read this poem at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, Camp Lejeune, N.C. on 10 November, 1978:

Love

The wonderful love of a beautiful maid,

The love of a staunch, true man,

The love of a baby, unafraid,

Have existed since time began.

But the greatest of loves,

The quintessence of loves,

Even greater than that of a mother,

Is the tender, passionate, infinite love,

Of one drunken Marine for another.

On 10 November of every year, Marines across the globe celebrate the Marine Corps birthday. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the founding of the Corps, the original location of which was Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. Marines have always taken a special pride in tracing their historical origins to a recruiting station inside a tavern. Do you suppose a Leatherneck veteran of the Revolutionary War, sitting on a barstool in Tun Tavern in 1780 and enjoying a brew, would have any idea that nine generations later Marines would be fighting a War on Terror? “Terror?” he might ask. “Is that a place or an army?”

“It’s neither,” we might answer. “It’s an, uh, well, I suppose it’s sort of a thing.”

“Then how can you fight a thing?”

Good question. But I digress. Back to the birthday celebration.

There will be birthday balls at Marine posts all around the world. Marines will arrive decked out in dress blues, the ladies in gowns. There will be speeches, and a solemn moment of remembrance for those Marines who have given the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the nation. That number, by the way, is 44,500 Marine battlefield deaths, with another 220,000 wounded, from the Revolution to Afghanistan. The Tun Tavern Leatherneck might wince in astonishment at such numbers.

There will be elaborate cakes, often several layers high, ceremonially sliced with a sword. The traditional passing of cake from the oldest to the youngest Marine will demonstrate the passing of the honor, experience, and heart of the Corps to the next generation of Marines to carry on.

Then there will be toasts.

The stirring Marines’ Hymn will be played, bringing everyone in the house to their feet. “From the Halls of Montezuma . . . “

And more toasts.

The Marines know how to do a lot of things. They know how to fight and win (and yes, they’ve adapted to learn how to fight a “thing”). They know how to be innovative in tactics and equipment. They know how to maintain their rich traditions. And they certainly know how to throw an annual birthday bash. Nobody does it better. And I happen to know that for a fact.

Happy 240th, Marines!

And by the way, thanks to my Tun Tavern Leatherneck for not only helping to save our country, but for helping to start a Corps of Marines.

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.