The Marines of the Second World War are old now, very old; near the end of their lives. With canes, walkers, and wheelchairs they make their fragile way through the world. Most that still live are in their eighties. They are dying fast, like the ones did who fell on the Pacific islands 60 years ago and more.
The few remaining World War II Marines appear the same as old people anywhere. But, there are some subtle differences, if you know how to look. Many of them wear faded Marine Corps tattooes on their arms, souveniers of forgotten liberties in Dago, Honolulu, or Jacksonville. They carry the old scars, hard earned in desperate battles at places such as Edson's Ridge, the Meatgrinder, and Sugar Loaf. Inside, there are other scars that cannot be seen, memories and thoughts that ache in the night.
When they were just teenagers, the Marines of World War II marched proudly across the parade decks at Parris Island and San Diego. They hitch-hiked to Washington DC, and Los Angeles, and spent the weekends with their buddies in slop chutes. They lived in tent cities and breathed the dust of camps with names like Elliot, Pendleton, Maui and Tarawa. They chased girls in Wellington and Melbourne, lived as fast as they could, and wrote letters to their folks back home.
They should have been building jalopies, going to college ball games, and taking their high school sweethearts to the prom. Instead, they learned to hike, to shoot, and to maneuver. No matter where they were, the Marines knew they would soon shove off for the next camp, the next staging area, the next beachhead. There was no rotation plan, no shortcut back to the states. There were only two ways home - the end of the war, or the million dollar wound. There was a third way, but Marines didn't dwell on that; they couldn't.
The Marines knew something about death - too much. In their youth, they were already familiar with cemeteries. Each time they returned to their camps after an operation meant empty bunks, buddies who were just gone, and holes in the platoon to be filled with replacements. The phrase "kill or be killed" was more than empty words to them. It was life and death.
With the world in conflict, the Marines saw, smelled and tasted war on the most intensely personal level. They stood on the rails of darkened troopships and wondered how long they had to live. They looked at their buddies standing in formations and asked themselves, "I wonder who isn't gonna make it?" They saw too many of their best friends die in the most horrible ways possible.
Just boys really, they answered the call of duty. That call took them into combat against the toughest opponent in our nation's history; the Empire of Japan. Across fire-swept beaches, in trackless jungles, on rugged coral ridges, the Marines of World War II kept going. Their buddies died, they closed ranks, regrouped, and moved out. Every battle, every campaign, each freshly dug grave was a marker on the Road to Tokyo.
When the war was over, the Marines moved on with their lives. They raised families, went to work, and tried to find their piece of the American dream. The medals were put away in boxes, or maybe framed and hung on the wall. As best they could, the Marines tried to forget the time when life counted for nothing, when eternity was measured in seconds, when the only thing that mattered was the next beachhead.
Today, we honor the memory of the World War II Gyrenes. The modern Marine Corps was shaped by their war. Amphibious tactics and techniques were honed in the Pacific campaigns. But the World War II Marine passed on more than just tactical knowledge. His courage, his humility, and his sacrifices in the crucible of war have burnished the Marine Corps Emblem - today and forever. Long after the last Second World War Marine has passed on, he will be remembered. His legacy lives today and always, wherever American Marines serve, in peace or in war.
(above) Last Rites for the Sergeant, by Kerr Eby - 1944
charcoal - US Navy Combat Art Collection
"...I met Speedy and noticed that he was carrying his guitar. We trudged toward the camp. "Reckon we could stop at the cemetery and say goodbye?"
We walked through the white wooden archway where the sign read—SECOND MARINE DIVISION CEMETERY. I supposed it wasn't much different from any other cemetery in the world—except for Speedy and me. We found the Sixth Marines' section and slowly wandered between the mounds and crosses. We stopped for a moment at each grave and for that moment remembered something, the kind of thing a guy remembers about another guy. Some crazy little thing that just stuck in the mind.
JONES, L.Q., PFC...ROJAS, PEDRO, PHM 1/C...HODGKISS, MARION, CPL...GOMEZ, JOSEPH, PVT...HUXLEY, SAMUEL, LT. COL...MCQUADE, KEVIN, MGY SGT...SHAPIRO, MAX, CAPTAIN...KEATS, JACK, MARINE GUNNER...BROWN, CYRIL, PFC....
Speedy stopped over Seabags' grave and parted his lips. "I sort of made a promise, Mac." His fingers strummed a chord, but he could not sing..."
Battle Cry by Leon Uris