I want to thank you for inviting me to be your speaker on this 227th Birthday of our Beloved Corps. It is quite an honor, and one that I never even considered happening to me when I was a young hard- charging Marine in Vietnam in the mid nineteen sixties. I only wish my father, who was a World War II FMF Marine, Pvt. William F. Roberts, Jr., USMC, serial number 555502, and who passed on last year, could be present to hear his son talk about his Marine Corps.
I know that many of you are wondering why a lance corporal is your speaker. It may because I’m a combat vet, or because I’m known as a writer of military tales, or because I can tell some great war stories. But it might also be because the rank of lance corporal is the best rank to hold in the Marine Corps. At least it was when I was in. A lance was too high a grade to do dirty details, but not high enough to take any responsibility. We supervised working parties of PFCs and Privates, but if anything went wrong, we blamed the Corporal who should have been there supervising, but was down at the slop chute or the gedonk instead, and left us in charge. Yes, lance corporal was a great rank, and a lofty one as well. At least in those days when it was not uncommon for a PFC to re-up after four years to make Lance. And the rank lasted a long time too....at one time I was senior lance corporal of the Marine Corps. I had more time in grade with a clean record than any other lance in the Corps. I was kind of like Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps...but for lance corporals.
Also, there is one misnomer I would like to clear up. There is no such thing as an "ex-Marine." There are only Marines. Some are on active duty, some on reserve duty, and some, such as I, which we can specify as not-presently-serving Marines. The formula is simple: Once a Marine–Always a Marine.
People ask me why I later joined the National Guard and eventually transferred to the Army Reserve instead of joining the Marine Corps Reserve. In 1972 the Vietnam war was still going on, and the USMC reserve unit here was a truck company. I was FMF infantry, and "Motor T" was not something an FMF grunt is interested in. At the time I thought the Guard infantry battalion here could use my experience to train their troops. I could tell you horror stories concerning that decision that would plague me for years, but I won’t. The bottom line is that after 26 years, and various duty assignments–some good and some bad–I managed to retire as a lieutenant colonel in 1999, Infantry branch. During this time with the Army I told my colleagues that if I did a good job, worked hard, and kept out of trouble, I’d eventually get my old rank back as a lance corporal. When I did retire, a Marine gunny I’ve known for years, began referring to me as a "lance colonel." So, in a way, I did come full circle. I am now the only "lance colonel" existing in any branch of the service.
I sometimes am asked what it was like in the Old Corps. Well, I wasn’t in the old corps. When I was in, between 1964-68, the old Korean War salts who served with us called us "boots" and "the new corps." At this point I must clarify what a "boot" is. According to our NCOs in days past, a boot is someone who enters the gate at MCRD ten minutes or
more after you do. From then on, he is boot to you and you’ll never let him forget it.
As time passed, the "New Corps" criteria changed with each generation, and my generation now is considered by the WWII and Korean Marines as "the semi-old Corps" or the "not-quite-so-old" Corps.
But a few years back the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, standing next to the Commandant at Parris Island during a training inspection said "Sir, There’s the old corps, the new corps, and whatever in the hell this is." I can’t comment on that, just reporting it. But now those lads at Parris Island then are now probably considered Old Corps by today’s young Marines.
I’m also sometimes asked what boot camp was like in the sixties, before Vietnam. It was rough. It was the hardest training I ever went through. It was the same as it was in the Korean War era, except the M-1s had been replaced by M-14s. In fact, my platoon commander, Staff Sergeant Joe Vierra, carried a .50 caliber receiver out of the Chosin Reservoir on his shoulder. He worked for a gent named Colonel Lewis B. Puller. Vierra was the most sadistic, meanest, most cruel bulldog-faced cigar-chomping gorilla who ever wore a campaign cover. But if there’s anyone I owe the successes of my life, and my survival in Vietnam to, it’s him.
If you remember the TV series "Gomer Pyle" you know what our utilities looked like. They were faded forest green cotton sateen utilities that we scrubbed with scrub brushes on the wash racks by hand until they looked turquoise–what we considered salty. Then they were starched like boards until the crease in the trousers could cut raw meat. Our boots were rough-out brown boots that we dyed black and spit shined, and our covers were starched and ironed until they could be used as a deadly weapon.
All this changed in Vietnam. Our boots rotted, our utilities fell apart, and our 782 gear was next to useless for the amount of gear we had to carry. Imagine a place where it is 125 degrees with 98% humidity day in and day out. It was like working in a blast furnace. Then monsoon season came and it rained hard 24 hours a day until the entire TAOR was nothing but a sauna bath of mud, and lakes of chest deep stinking rice paddies. We finally were issued jungle utilities, jungle boots, and pack boards with willie peter bags to carry our gear. The WWII canvas 782 gear, or what was left of it, was turned in or discarded. Our M-14s rusted no matter how well we tried to keep them, and M-16s wouldn’t be issued until the year after I was medevaced out of country. Our meals consisted of green cans of C-rations, normally cold, two, and if we were lucky (or unlucky), three times a day, for weeks on end, and our rifle cleaning gear was simply the butt-well gear, an old skivi shirt torn into bore patches, and a bottle of motor oil drained from a six-by. So began Vietnam for the Corps.
We learned a lot of things in Vietnam. Never return from a patrol on the same trail used in going out; tie and tape down anything that rattles; always use hand and arm signals instead of talking; always carry extra dry socks and plenty of ammo and grenades, make sure your canteens are always filled, and a thousand other things. But we also learned of danger areas when some of our Marines said certain things. For instance:
A PFC when he says "I learned this in boot camp."
A Sergeant saying, "Trust me sir..."
A 2nd Lieutenant saying "based on my experience..."
A 1st Lieutenant saying "I was just thinking..."
A Captain saying "I think I know a short cut..."
A Major saying "Chow and ammo should be on the way..."
A Colonel saying "One more mission this week won’t hurt us..."
A General saying "last night I had a dream..."
And a gunny saying, "Watch this..."
Since my walking tour of Southeast Asia, I’ve written about Vietnam, the Corps, and other wars and services. But I’m often asked why I haven’t written about other "elite" services such as the Green Berets and the SEALs. After all, aren’t they America’s super warriors?
My response is that the Green Beanies, if used according to their mission and charter are school teachers, and capable of doing a great job of working with indigenous populations. But they are not a fighting force like our Corps. But on the other hand, in Vietnam we proved to be excellent school teachers as well... evidenced by our Combined Action Platoon Marines who worked, taught, fought, organized, and lived in the villes with the locals. We didn’t need any Green Berets, we did it ourselves.
And SEALs? They are simply Marine wannabees who were afraid to go to Marine Corps boot camp, so they joined the Navy. What do they do that Marines haven’t done for years? Especially our Force Recon warriors? Can anyone name one mission the SEALs do that the Marines can’t? I can’t think of a single one.
Now, I do have great respect for the Navy. They provide us with three things: transportation to the battlefields, ships to launch our aircraft, and most importantly, our Docs.
A critical part of the Marine Corps family is our FMF Corpsmen. Unlike SEALs, they aren’t afraid of Marine Corps training. So who is the real Naval Hero here? Think about this: when you see your Doc in the field, and the bullets fly and all of us are on the deck taking up firing positions, Doc is the only guy up and running around to take care of us. Unlike some of the old jokes about Army medics, our Corpsmen do make house calls.
Since I have served in the Marines, spent time on Naval Bases and on ships, served in the Army and was attached to the Air Force, I can give you a first-hand observation of comparing the branches. I agree with Col. David Hackworth when he wrote this:
The Air Force is like a French Poodle: always looks pretty, sometimes a bit pampered and always travels first class. But the Poodle was bred as a hunting dog and in a fight it is very dangerous.
The Army is like a St. Bernard. It’s big and heavy and sloppy and a bit clumsy. But it’s powerful and has lots of stamina and is built for the long haul.
The Navy is like a Golden Retriever. They’re good natured and great around the house. Their hair is a bit long and they often go wandering off for long periods of time. They love water and kids love them.
The Marines come in two breeds, Rottweilers and Dobermans. Some are big and mean and some are skinny and mean. All are mean. They’re aggressive on the attack and tenacious on the defense. They’ve got really short hair and they always go for the throat.
My thanks to Colonel Hackworth for those observations. Now here are a few of my own:
From my perspective, a major difference can be seen in how the services build their bases and installations. I now give this insight to our younger Marines so you can see how the system works.
When setting up a new base, the Air Force first decides where to build the clubs and swimming pools and PX, then if any money is left over, where to build the runway and hangars. They know they can still go back to Congress and say, "gee, we ran out of money and we still need a runway," and they know they’ll get it.
The Army first brings in the engineers to build the golf course, then barracks that would put a mid-eastern sultan to shame, a fantastic officer’s club, a recreation center, and a huge PX, all hosted by civilian contractors. They then request more money to build ranges and training areas. And they get it.
The Navy builds a port by erecting a pier or two, while the chiefs develop a liberty call plan and arrange for transportation for the sailors to the bar district. When all is said and done, they have a great facility and all the comforts of home. And they usually have a few bucks left over, hidden in accounts in the budget of the submarine base, which is all secret–but accessible.
The Marines do it different. We find a mud-flats stretch of beach, slog inland until we find a steep hill, build a swamp on one side and a desert on the other, a rifle range at the bottom, and call it a base. If there’s any money left over, which there normally isn’t, we might think of building barracks.
Tactically and politically, there is also something that needs to be said about the Marine Corps. The Marines are the worlds greatest pacifists. According to the dictionary, a pacifist is someone who wants to end war, establish peace, and resolve political unrest. This is exactly what the Marines do best. If you want to pacify a world hot spot, send in the Marines. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours later the place is pacified.
Our motto, First to Fight, is more than that. It is a way of life. Since November 10th, 1775 when a group of fighting men gathered for the first time in a little tavern in Philadelphia to form the Continental Marines, to the fighting tops of the Bonhomme Richard, to the Barbary Coast, and from the Halls of Montezuma to Belleau Wood, Nicaragua and China, and on to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Okinawa, then the frozen Chosin and the bloody hills of Korea, and then to the steaming jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, and beyond to the Mayaguez mission, Beirut, Grenada, the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, and now Afghanistan, and a thousand other battlefields, our Marines have truly been the "First to Fight" and have distinguished themselves with honor, bravery, sacrifice, and love of God, Country and Corps.
The Marine Corps is more than a service. It is more than a team. It is a family. I want to tell you a little bit about MY Marine Corps Family.
When I was working on my book, "Combat Medic–Vietnam," I had the honor of interviewing and telling the story of many medics and corpsmen. But one gentleman stuck in my mind for years, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Douglas Wean, a silver star recipient who served with Kilo Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines at Dong Ha, Vietnam in 1968. He told me of an incident that we can all relate to.
One of the Marines in his unit had been wounded during a resupply run, bringing 155 howitzer rounds up the road to the firebase at Camp Carrol on the DMZ. The word came that the resupply truck had hit a mine. Doc Wean ran down the trail to where the smoking six-by rested, twisted and riddled with holes. Doc Wean worked on the wounded until he came to a personal friend, Jimmy. Jimmy was in bad shape, and Doug knew that the best he could do would be to cheer him up by telling him he was going home.
"Doc, ya can’t medevac me," said Jimmy. "Ya gotta fix me up so I can stay."
"You’ve done all you can do here, Jimmy. It’s time to go home.
"But you don’t understand, Doc. My battery needs me. I gotta drive the roads to bring up the rounds. If I don’t deliver, they can’t fire the missions. They all depend on me. I gotta take care of MY guys."
There was that word again. My. My guys. My Marines. At first I hadn’t really understood. What was it that brought men so close together that they would do anything–including die–for their fellows? Now I was beginning to understand. It wasn’t any one thing. It was a combination of several factors that all meld together to form a bond stronger than steel. The war, the terror, the dying and every other unspeakable horror men face in combat is countered by a combination of comradeship, trust dedication, an ingrained instinct for survival, and in the Marine Corps, history and tradition. These guys weren’t only responsible to each other, but to ALL the Marines who had come before. It was a family where one generation followed another and each passed a code of honor to the next. It wasn’t really patriotism or loyalty to a higher authority, it was a sense of responsibility to fellow Marines–past and present. Everybody felt like they were an important part of a family, or a team. They were made to feel that way. A feeling of need built dedication, and the dedication built pride, and a special spirit known as esprit d’Corps. Nowhere at home, or anywhere else in life, did a man feel as needed by his friends as he did here. It was all beginning to make sense. And I was beginning to feel a part of it. They made me feel just as needed and as important too. I was part of the team. I was THEIR Doc. And they were MY family. My Marine Corps family.
The Marine Corps Family. It kind of boils down to that. A team. A tradition. Brothers and sisters in arms, ready to go into harm’s way at a moment’s notice.
And our ancestors all had something in common with those who serve today, and we with them. A common link, and a common bond, forged by uncommon men and women. When we look back to such places as the misty, muddy forest of Belleau Wood in World War II, where the Fifth and Sixth Regiments of Marines earned the nickname of Teufel Hund, or Devil Dog, by the Germans who respected them for their bulldog tenacity and fighting spirit, we find they wore a small badge of recognition that set them apart from all other services: the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
The China Marines, who patrolled the Yangtse River and the Leathernecks who patrolled the jungles of the Philippines and Nicaragua in the 1920s, also wore the Eagle, Globe and the Anchor.
During World War II, our Marines went ashore at places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa and dozens of other islands and atolls, and shed blood in the sand and coral, their utilities stenciled with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
On the rugged hills of Korea, and at the famous Chosin Reservoir, our Marines fought against odds that were often greater than ten-to-one, and we won every battle and fought the greatest marching battle since Napoleon left Moscow when we came out of the Chosin to the coast bearing all of our equipment and our wounded and even our dead. And in the process, destroyed 13 communist Chinese divisions. On the left pocket of the field jacket of every man was printed the Eagle, the Globe and the Anchor.
In Vietnam, we conducted thousands of combat patrols, hundreds of sweeps, dozens of major operations, and fought in steaming jungles, muddy rice paddies, and even house to house in cities. We endured, we fought, and we won every engagement. And we, America’s young men who volunteered for America’s most unpopular war, also proudly wore the Eagle, the Globe and the Anchor.
In Beirut, 242 Marines died in a horrible terrorist atrocity that is yet to be avenged. But it will be. And for all of those brothers that died and those that did come home, they had one thing in common: They all wore the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
In Grenada, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, our brethren also all wore with pride and honor the Eagle, the Globe and the Anchor. Through all of these campaigns, and through all of these generations, we have all shown that our beloved Corps, and our beloved emblem have literally, as our hymn says, served "in every clime and place."
It’s a small emblem, but it says it all. We serve on in the air, on the land, and on the sea. We go anywhere, accomplish any mission, and are indeed, as the popular saying goes today, America’s 911 service.
And there’s one more family member that ranks alongside every Marine here and in the past. The Marine Corps Wife. God Bless her, she puts up with us, suffers when we suffer, supports us through good and hard times, and above all, understands us. No other wife in the world can claim the honor of being a Marine Corps wife. These women are special, and in their own way, also wear the Eagle, the Globe and the Anchor.
So here’s to OUR Marine Corps family. Here’s to MY Marines, past, present and future, and ....
As we used to scream in unison in boot camp in 1964: God Bless the United States Marine Corps, and Chesty Puller, wherever you are!
Happy Birthday, Marines, and Semper Fi!
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