Lejeune: A Leader Ahead of His Time

Ask any Marine who among the pantheon of notable and illustrious Marines between World War I and World War II were most responsible for the Corps becoming the premier amphibious assault force in the world during the Second World War and many names would be mentioned: The iconoclastic Major Earl “Pete” Ellis, whose ideas and assumptions, according to authors Jetek A. Isley and Philip Crowl, “became the keystone of Marine Corps strategic plans for a Pacific War;” Major General Commandant John H. Russell (1934-1936), who author Merrill Bartlett said “guided the development of amphibious doctrine, preparing the Marine Corps for its major contribution in World War II;” and Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, who played key roles in the development of the Landing Vehicle, Tracked (LVT) and the ubiquitous Higgins Boat as a young officer.

But John A. Lejeune, Major General Commandant from July 1920 to March 1929, may not be on many Marines’ short list of those Marines most responsible for transforming the Marine Corps into an amphibious assault force that had the capability of taking islands such as Tarawa and Iwo Jima in World War II. It is not that Marines are unfamiliar with Lejeune. Indeed, Lejeune, referred to as the “Greatest of All Leathernecks,” is well-known not only for his 1921 Birthday Message that is read annually but also for several other key accomplishments. He founded the Marine Corps Association in 1913, the Marine Corps League in 1923 and “created the Marine Corps Institute.” And, of course, Camp Lejeune is named after him. But most Marines may not be aware of Lejeune’s crucial role in setting the Marine Corps on the path to becoming the world’s premier amphibious assault force it would become, and the nation needed, in World War II.

In the first two decades of the 20th Century, the Marine Corps’ primary mission was to provide the Navy with an Advanced Base Force (ABF) to seize undefended or lightly defended islands in the Pacific as part of War Plan Orange (WPO). WPO was the Navy’s strategy for advancing across the Central Pacific to relieve the Philippines, fight and (presumably) win a modern-day Jutland against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the western Pacific; followed by blockading the Japanese Home Islands, leading to a complete United States victory. However, the Marine Corps Lejeune took over in 1920, while having the ABF in its force structure, was focused on the “Banana Wars,” not on supporting WPO. Lejeune would change that, ensuring the Marine Corps could survive as a separate service because it had a unique mission within the overall military establishment. Lejeune’s reforms and efforts during his nine-year tenure as Commandant laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Fleet Marine Force in 1933 and the publication of the “Tentative Manual for Landing Operations” in 1934; both of which undergirded the development of the capability to conduct opposed amphibious landings.

A group of Marine officers confer, circa 1919. Marine Corps Schools developed by MajGen Lejeune in the 1920s taught new officers how to fight modern wars with a combined arms approach. (USMC)

Background
Following the American victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the U.S. Navy needed bases between the newly acquired Philippine Islands and Hawaii to provide sheltered anchorages for their warships to use to replenish their coal supply if and when they were required to conduct a westward advance to relieve the archipelago from a Japanese blockade. “The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory, And Its Practice In The Pacific” by Jeter A. Isely and Dr. Philip A. Crowl, originally published in 1951 and republished by Pickle Partners Publishing in 2016, has this to say:

“Shortly after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War the attention of high naval planners was turned toward the problem of building a permanent force capable of seizing and holding advanced bases to be employed by the fleet in the prosecution of naval war in distant waters. Up to that time the duties of the Marine Corps had been limited largely to supplying marine detachments to vessels of the fleet and furnishing guards for navy yards, except during wartime when units of the Corps had actually participated in minor landings. The relatively easy victory over Spain did not conceal the fact that the fleet was incapable of sustained operations even in waters as close as those of Cuba, and the projection of American power far into the Pacific as a result of Commodore George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay made the problem of acquiring bases even more acute … shortly after the war the General Board of the Navy, impressed by recent events … determined to set up a permanent advance-base force within the naval establishment. It was axiomatic that warships powered by steam were tied to their bases by the distance of their steaming radii and, since it was impracticable to maintain permanent bases in all parts of the world where the fleet might conceivably engage in action, it would be inevitably necessary in wartime to seize temporary bases against opposition if necessary. Defense of such bases once seized was an inseparable problem. The Marine Corps, an organization consisting of ground troops but with naval experience and under naval authority, was the obvious solution to the difficulty. Immediately tentative steps were taken to prepare the Corps for this new line of activity.”

Though preliminary steps were taken in 1901, the Marine Corps did not officially establish the Advanced Base Force until 1913. “Although the germs [sic] of later amphibious training my be found in this early advance base activity, it is clear that the great weight of the emphasis was not on offensive landing operations,” Isely and Crowl also wrote. “In fact, there is little resemblance between this early concept of the main function of the Marine Corps and its subsequent role as a military organization specially trained for amphibious assaults against enemy shores. Although in theory the advance-base force was supposed to be prepared to seize as well as defend bases, in practice all of the training concentrated on the defense.”

The Marines Central America primarily functioned as an infantry force and con­ducted river patrols and air patrols while deployed there. Lejeune wanted to shift the Corps’ focus to strengthening its amphibious assault capa­bilities for future conflicts. (USMC)

Even then, World War I and the “Banana Wars” conspired to keep the Advanced Base Force from being front and center in Marine Corps thinking. World War I was a seminal moment in the history of the Marine Corps because the Corps went from primarily “supplying Marine detachments to vessels of the fleet and furnishing guards for navy yards” as Isely and Crowl state, to gaining the ability to fight on the most modern and intense battlefield imaginable. The Marine Corps’ ability to field a brigade that could go toe-to-toe with the Germany Army (and its attendant “First to Fight” publicity) shifted the Marine Corps, both substantively and in the public’s mind, to moving beyond only providing ships’ detachments and being colonial infantry, to being an elite conventional fighting force; an image that would be cemented in World War II.

But the Banana Wars, which started before World War I, persisted during World War I and continued post-war, was the Marine Corps’ conscious primary focus when Lejeune became Commandant. What Lejeune foresaw and most didn’t, was that the colonial infantry role was not a viable mission for the Marine Corps long-term because opposition was growing against American intervention; which ultimately led to President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933, “a policy of nonintervention in local affairs, applying specifically to Latin America.” He would be successful in his endeavor to wean the Marine Corps from the primacy of the colonial infantry role and put the Marine Corps on a trajectory to be an amphibious assault force, but only after overcoming deep-seated opposition within the Corps.

The Marine Corps’ Future:
Colonial Infantry or Advanced Base Force?
Joseph Simon, author of “The Greatest Leatherneck of All Leathernecks: John Archer Lejeune and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps,” writes “… by early 1920, the ABF—developed over the last 20 years—was in limbo, unable to support the Navy’s challenge in the western Pacific. In effect, the Marine Corps had returned to its old mission of providing troops for expeditionary and occupation duty in Haiti and Santo Domingo, acting as colonial infantry. Visionary Marines who supported the Navy’s new mission in War Plan Orange did not want to return to the past but did not have the power to establish amphibious assault as the [Corps’] new wartime mission.”

Marines had been fulfilling the colonial infantry role for the first two decades of the 20th century; indeed, “they had accumulated enough experience to write and publish “The Small Wars Manual” in 1921. (Author’s note: Originally called “The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars” when published in 1921; renamed “Small War Operations” in 1935; then renamed the “Small Wars Manual” in the 1940 revision, the title by which it is known today.)

Many Marines enjoyed being deployed to Central and South America. They lived like kings while serving in exotic lands—or what Americans perceived to be exotic lands; the reality never seemed to live up to the fantasy. Fighting natives in the jungle promoted a swashbuckling image of Marines and was an inducement to young men who sought adventure. The Banana Wars provided great leadership opportunities for junior officers who would patrol for days with their only contact with higher headquarters being a radio carried on a pack animal that had to be assembled at the end of each day’s patrol. Marine officers had real-world opportunities to employ small unit tactics against the local insurgents; gaining experience that only comes with actual combat. According to one of his biographers, the legendary Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller looked back on his experience serving in Haiti in late 1919 and the early 1920s, as a watershed moment in his career:

“It was not until years later that Puller realized the full richness of his Haitian experience, and the value of its lessons in soldiering and hand-to-hand combat—he had fought 40 actions,” writes Burke Davis in “Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller.”

An amphibious tractor heads for the beach on Tinian, July 1944. Lejeune’s focus on amphibious assault helped set the Corps on the path to becoming a premier amphibious force. (USMC)

“He had not only been bloodied; the guerrilla combat had been almost continuous, most of it introduced by ambush on the trail. Puller had stood up well under this strain, and had come to trust his own physical prowess and ability to lead men under fire. He had discovered that native troops could become superb soldiers. He had developed his instinctive talent for using terrain in battle, and learned the lessons of jungle fighting … Despite his youth, he was one of the most seasoned combat officers in the Corps.”
The greatest and most senior champion for continuing to emphasize the colonial infantry role in the Marine Corps was an Old Corps legend—Brigadier General Smedley “Old Gimlet Eye” Butler. Butler owed his career advancement as much to his father, the highly influential Senator Thomas Butler, Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, as much as to his service as a Marine fighting in the Banana Wars at Guantanamo Bay, the Philippines (three times), China, the Panamanian Isthmus, Nicaragua, Veracruz, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

“[A] highly decorated Marine officer with little formal education beyond high school, [Butler] had won two Medals of Honor and believed in the egalitarian warrior ideal. Butler supported the [Corps’] old mission, was ambivalent about the amphibious mission, and believed that the Marine Corps performed better when separated from the Navy,” according to “The Greatest of All Leathernecks.”

The difference in Lejeune’s outlook and Butler’s is the result of their different experiences as senior officers. Like practically every other Marine, Lejeune fought in the Banana Wars, but he commanded a brigade and then a division in conventional, high-intensity combat on the Western Front. Butler’s career was in essence, from the beginning to the end, fighting in the Banana Wars except for deploying to France with the 13th Marines and then commanding the personnel depot at Brest at the very end of World War I. Butler’s focus was on the Marine Corps’ celebrated past that was going away and Lejeune’s focus was on positioning the Marine Corps for the future. If that was not enough, Butler who “believed that the Marine Corps performed better when separated from the Navy,” would have had trouble working in harness with the Navy to seize and defend advance bases where coordination between the two services was crucial. (Author’s note: Butler would later write “War is a Racket,” a book that repudiated his service in the Banana Wars.)

Fortunately, Butler was sidelined in the middle of Lejeune’s tenure as Commandant when Butler temporarily left active-duty service to be the director of the department of Public Safety for Philadelphia. While Butler wasn’t the only Marine who opposed Lejeune’s desire to move away from the colonial infantry role, he was the most senior and vocal. With him out of the way, Lejeune’s reforms could move forward unimpeded.

Lejeune’s Reforms
There are numerous things Lejeune did to improve conditions in the Marine Corps and, as Simon says, “to make the Marine Corps the most efficient military organization in the world.” Lejeune provided enlisted Marines with opportunities to learn a trade through vocational programs; reorganized recruiting service to ensure the Marine Corps was enlisting only the highest quality recruits, and worked diligently to economize and cut costs, earning Lejeune goodwill with Congress. Lejeune also “defined the relationship between officers and their men as ‘that of teacher and scholar’” and “promoted the Corps as an institution that uplifted young men’s lives mentally, physically, and morally.”

Several of Lejeune’s reforms directly led to the Marine Corps developing into the amphibious assault force it became after his tenure. While Lejeune did not remake the Marine Corps into the amphibious assault force that would become its hallmark, he laid the groundwork for that to be the case.

Marines come ashore after landing on Tinian in 1944. (USMC)

Advanced Base Force Becomes Marine Expeditionary Force
Perhaps the most important of Lejeune’s reforms was to rename the Advanced Base Force (ABF) the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). (Author’s note: In this context, “Marine Expeditionary Force” is a term meaning the available Marine forces on either the East and West Coasts available for deployment [one MEF on each coast]; not what Marines today know as an MEF.) As Simon writes in “The Greatest of All Leathernecks,” “ABF operations [were] of a defensive nature” and authors Jetek Isely and Philip Crowl state in “The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War” that “The advance-base force was in actuality little more than an embryo coastal artillery unit.” According to author Joseph Alexander in his book “Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific,” the name change speaks to the offensive and more comprehensive mission of providing the fleet with “specially trained and equipped amphibious forces able to fight their way ashore.” “As of 1925 [a MEF] consisted of infantry, artillery, auxiliary troops such as engineers, signal, gas, tank and aviation units, all of them equipped and trained for service with the fleet.”

According to historian Alexander, Lejeune lobbied hard for the Navy to integrate the new MEF into the fleet.

“Lejeune understood that the future of the Marine Corps lay with the Navy and worked diligently to bring the Navy and Marine Corps closer together … Lejeune recommended to the Navy that the MEF become an integral part of the fleet, convinced the special board of policy of the Navy’s General Board that the MEF was essential to the fleet for conducting ship-to-shore operations, updated the pamphlet Joint Action of the Army and Navy (1927) to officially establish the [Corps’] role as the first to seize advanced bases in amphibious operations… .

“Again in 1926, Lejeune recommended that the MEF become a part of the fleet. He wrote to the CNO that ‘in order to clarify terminology, it is recommended that the Marine Expeditionary Force or Advanced Base Force,’ which would serve with the fleet … be designated, ‘Marine Corps Force, U.S. Fleet.’ ” Unfortunately, at this time the Navy was not prepared to recognize the MEF as part of the fleet.

“While Lejeune had only limited success in converting the Navy to his viewpoint, he succeeded in inspiring younger progressive leaders in the Marine Corps and Navy as to the importance of the new mission, a challenge that motivated these men to adopt and refine the mission of amphibious assault in the 1930s and 1940s.”

The MEF was the precursor to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) and the transitional step between the defensive-oriented ABF and the offensive-oriented FMF capable of amphibious assaults against the most strongly fortified positions in World War II.

A colorized version of an aerial view of the amphibious assault on Tinian, circa 1944. (USMC)

Marine Corps Schools
If the MEF provided the intermediate force structure step between the ABF and the FMF, Marine Corps Schools (MCS), established by Lejeune in 1921, would be the institution most responsible for providing the intellectual underpinning for the Marine Corps’ ability to assume the amphibious assault role as its own. According to Alexander, “one of Lejeune’s greatest and most enduring contributions to the Corps was the establishment of the MCS. As Commandant, Lejeune saw a great need for more in-depth military training for officers in order to modernize the Corps … Based on his own experience, Lejeune knew that the average Marine officer received minimal formal military training.

However, in the beginning, MCS did not focus on amphibious warfare. According to Alexander, Lejeune’s “original intent in developing the MCS in the early 1920s was to utilize his experiences in the world war to teach new officers and recruits infantry tactics and how to fight a modern war using a combined-arms approach. This approach stressed greater firepower by combining infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in the attack against a powerful enemy. Although this focus remained until the mid-1920s, it later became clear that Lejeune wanted to use the combined-arms approach for amphibious operations.”

As stated in “The Greatest of All Leathernecks” by Simon, the original focus of MCS was to teach “how to fight a modern war.” But after Marine officers learned the basics of combined arms on land, the MCS would transition to focusing on the amphibious assault.
“Lessons learned from the study of Gallipoli became part of the Marine Corps—Navy maneuvers of 1924 and 1925. In the early 1930s, Brigadier General James C. Breckinridge, head of the MCS, significantly increased the study of the failed Dardanelles operations. The Gallipoli amphibious disaster became a key part in the study of landing operations and helped develop the landmark ‘Tentative Landing Manual’ of 1934.”

Usually, the establishment of the MEF in 1933 and the publication of “Tentative Landing Operations Manual” in 1934, are considered separate events. But there was a relationship between them that is often overlooked. Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., USMC (Ret) says it best in his essay “The U.S. Marine Corps: Author of Modern Amphibious Warfare” in “amphibious thinkers produced the Fleet Marine Force; this unique unit in turn gave body and substance to the doctrinal theories of its creators; and the interaction of the two combined in substantial measure to make possible the victorious beachheads of World War Two.”

MajGen George Barnett, the 12th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and MajGen John Lejeune, the 13th CMC, along with staff members, taken in 1920. (USMC)

Other Reforms
There were three other reforms Lejeune did that still serve the Marine Corps today. According to Simon, based upon Lejeune’s experience in command of the Army’s 2nd Division in France, he adopted the French Army’s G-1/G-2/G-3/G-4 staff system for “independent field commands of brigade size or larger” streamlining and making staff functions more efficient.

Second, Simon writes that “Lejeune pioneered the modern use of air power in the Caribbean occupations … For the first time, Marine aircraft provided direct air support to small infantry units on the ground fighting rebels in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.” Lastly, the Butler-directed reenactments of Civil War battles in the early 1920s, would on the face of it, be nothing more than “a reproduction in pageantry form of the Civil War battle at that place, as little would be gained by either officers or men as regards lessons of a military nature.” While true to a greater or lesser extent, especially early on, Lejeune saw these reenactments as valuable training opportunities. They got the Marines into the field under wartime conditions and tested equipment “under service conditions.”

Conclusion
During his nine-year tenure as Major General Commandant, Lejeune did not transform the Marine Corps from a colonial infantry force into an amphibious assault force. Lejeune set the Corps on the trajectory to becoming the world’s premier amphibious force by moving the Marine Corps’ focus away from the colonial infantry role; changing the name of the ABF to MEF and expanding its focus; and establishing MCS, which would in a few short years after Lejeune’s tenure, write the “Tentative Landing Operations Manual.”

As Simon writes in “The Greatest Leatherneck of All”: “Lejeune’s great­est legacy to the Marine Corps of the 1930s—and even to the Corps of today—was his capability as a strategic leader in providing direction, purpose, and identity. Lejeune could envision the near future and… [could] convince the Navy Department and the Joint Army and Navy Board that his vision for the Marine Corps was realistic. Lejeune established for the Marines “their own separate and very distinct culture and identity.” Perhaps Lejeune’s greatest strength was his ability to anticipate future conflicts and prepare the corps to successfully deal with them—specifically, a likely war in the Pacific. Lejeune made the visionary decisions that changed the culture of the Marine Corps and laid the foundation for the development of amphibious warfare that established the standards realized during World War II and after.”
Major General Commandant John Archer Lejeune was indeed, “The Greatest of all Leathernecks.”

Author’s bio: Maj Skip Crawley, USMCR (Ret), was an infantry officer in 1st Battalion, 7th Marines during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. He has had numerous book reviews published in Marine Corps Gazette. This is his first article for Leatherneck.

A Furious Fight: An Artillery Marine’s Account of the Assault on Iwo Jima

Editor’s note: The following story is an excerpt from the book “The Rifle 2: Back to the Battlefield” by Andrew Biggio. When Biggio returned from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he had questions about the cost of war, so he decided to ask those who knew the answer—World War II veterans. Marines like John Trezza, whose story we published here, told Biggio about the complexities of life after combat. The book can be purchased at https://amzn.to/47lUNs2. You can listen to a few in-depth conversations I had with Biggio on the Marine Corps Association podcast, “Scuttlebutt,” www.mca-marines.org/scuttlebutt.

The sounds of explosions and distant gunfire were fierce. There was no such thing as a break during D-day on Iwo Jima, and since there was no rear echelon, the battle raged everywhere. The call for fire missions was constant, but the men of “Fox” Battery, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines, had no choice; they had to pause. “Our guns were red-hot. If we put another shell in through the cannon, we risked killing our whole gun crew,” John Trezza told me.

John Trezza stared at his 75mm how­itzer. It was glowing red. You could have cooked hamburgers for the whole com­pany on it. If another shell was placed into the artillery piece it could detonate. The Marines from his battery had just run a hundred shells through it in a short period of time. The Japanese had em­place­ments everywhere on Iwo. There was no end in sight to the calls for fire missions. They were facing an entrenched enemy estimated to be over 20,000 strong.

Casualty collection points and rendez­vous areas developed behind the artillery units on Feb. 19, 1945, throughout the day. Wave after wave of Marines landed, and those who were supposed to be in re­serve found themselves hitting the island midday on D-day instead of in the following days, as they’d initially sup­posed would occur.

Packs and supplies of those killed on the island began to pile up behind Fox Battery. Then one pack arrived that seemed to hush the sounds of distant gunfire as the Marines passed it around. Written in black ink on a piece of gear attached to the pack was the name “BASILONE.” The Marines of Fox Battery studied it in disbelief.

“When it got to me I couldn’t look at it,” said John, as he sat on a couch 77 years later. He was still emotional about the Italian-American war hero from New Jersey who had been killed in action. The two had much in common. They were both Italians, both Jersey boys, both Marines, and most of all, both proud Americans. John Basilone was admired by the whole Marine Corps after his actions on Guadalcanal, actions which had earned him the Medal of Honor.

A Marine’s view while approaching Iwo Jima, February 1945. Eighteen-year-old John Trezza fought on Iwo Jima with the 5th Marine Division. (USMC)

“Before we left Hawaii, I got the chance to meet him. We all looked up to him. He didn’t have to go back into combat. He had a ticket to stay home forever and sell war bonds. He wanted to be with the Marines and he died doing so,” John added. It was amazing to see the profound impact Gunnery Sergeant Basilone still had on his Marines nearly eight decades later. These Marines were not 18 years old anymore. Here was 96-year-old man still upset as he remembered the loss of a Marine Corps icon. This was deep ad­mira­tion. No propaganda could accom­plish this. Gunny Basilone was truly a legend.

Back on Iwo Jima, an 18-year-old John Trezza couldn’t look at his fallen hero’s empty pack. It would be admitting that Basilone was really gone, and that the Japanese could kill anyone. Yet John’s turmoil over seeing Basilone’s gear was soon interrupted. It was time to start shelling again. The infantry depended on it.

John’s fatigues were powdery white, his uniform crusted by the salt from the ocean in which he had been submerged only hours before. His landing on the beach had been anything but pleasant. For all the Marines of the 5th Division, it had been hectic.

The entire 5th Marine Division was created for the purpose of taking Iwo Jima. It was the first time the Marine Corps developed such a unit with one island as its objective. John trained on Camp Tarawa in Hawaii for six months, then loaded onto the troop transport ship. It was there he met Medal of Honor re­cipient John Basilone. They and the other Marines aboard spent 38 days on the ship, heading generally west. After landing, the two would never meet again, yet John would never forget him. Iwo Jima affected the lives of all Marines who took part for generations to come.

Marines take shelter on the first terrace above the beach at Iwo Jima shortly after landing. (USMC)

After a long month of zigzagging through the Pacific, the 5thMarDiv an­chored near the island of Saipan. The Marines took to the decks of the transport ships. “We would watch the B-29s take off to do their bombing runs. It seemed like there was one taking off every mi­nute,” John said. This activity gave the Marines something to occupy their time, and the young men crowded the decks to view the mighty Army Air Corps fly away to strike Japan.

What they didn’t yet know was that those same B-29s were most likely be­ing used in an attempt to prevent the on­slaught that lay ahead for the 5thMarDiv. But aerial carpet bombing of the volcanic island of Iwo Jima proved to be unsuc­cessful. Saying the Japanese were a “well-entrenched enemy” was an under­statement. Their tunnels, caves, pillboxes, and artillery emplacements remained for the most part unscathed despite American bombing raids. Anything that could be moved was wheeled or pushed into a tunnel or cave. The only advantage the bombings gained for the invading Ma­rines was to provide defilades for cover. Other than that, Iwo Jima was like every other island, a smoky flaming mess with thousands of Japanese soldiers at the ready.

After a few days the ships left Saipan, destined for their final stop: Iwo Jima. “It was Feb. 19, a Monday morning, I’ll never forget it,” John said, shaking his head.

Before the sun rose, Marines were pushing their way through chow lines in the ship’s mess hall. It was noisy and hectic, and adrenaline was high. The first waves of Marines made their way to the bottoms of their ships. The ship carrying John’s unit was an LCT (landing craft tank). Stored inside the ship’s hull were amphibious tracs and DUKW (pro­nounced “duck”) boats that could be launched from the bow once the ramp opened. Overhead, fighter planes soared, providing covering fire for the first waves of Marines heading for the beach. The landing crafts and amphibious vehicles of this first wave chopped forward in the ocean until they reached the black sand.

A discarded LVT sits abandoned on the shoreline. Marines disembarked and headed into battle once the boats hit the beach during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. (USMC)

“The first wave was unopposed. The Japanese wanted them to make their way inland to a certain point before opening up on them,” John explained.

“Which wave were you?” I asked.

“Third wave,” he replied. “All hell broke loose on the second wave.”
It was John’s turn to load onto the DUKW boat. “There were four of us. A Coast Guard guy was driving it,” he recalled.

The DUKW is a boat with wheels ex­tending underneath it. It does not travel fast on water, as John and the other Ma­rines quickly found out.
John recalled the frightening ordeal. “We were drenched with water within minutes of leaving the ramp of the big ship. Mortar shells were landing on each side of us.”

Landing crafts were also taking direct hits not far from John’s DUKW. The ocean seemed to be crowded with burn­ing, scuttled landing crafts. The immense enemy fire, now concentrated on the beach and ocean, was causing a traffic jam for incoming waves of troops. The Coast Guard skipper in charge of John’s DUKW boat couldn’t find a place to land on his designated area of the beach.

The beach was littered with vehicles and Marines. The pileup was proving to be deadly and prevented reinforcements from coming ashore. The DUKW boats’ skippers were all having trouble finding openings, and when they did they risked running over Marines already present and bogged down by enemy fire.

The Coast Guard skipper of John’s DUKW boat had to work fast. He pow­ered the boat to the far left of the designated area. “He led us right into a cove,” John said.

The DUKW boat full of scared Marines made its way into the natural opening. As it pulled into the cove the Marines began to jump off the sides.

“I jumped off the back and nearly drowned.” Unbeknownst to John, the water here was significantly over his head. In a sheer panic, he unslung his rifle from his body. His M1 Garand sank to the bottom of the ocean. Stripping himself of his gear, John rose to the surface, gasping for air. The DUKW boat was still within arm’s reach.

“I grabbed hold of it and climbed back on,” he recalled. The incident still left John feeling short of breath 77 years later.

John boarded the boat again. “I had no helmet, no weapon, no nothing!” The DUKW boat spun about, trying to find a spot where John and the others could place their feet. The skipper was able to locate solid earth for John to step out on. John waited for the thumbs-up, then was off.

“I ran as fast as I could to the beach. When I looked up I saw a 300-foot cliff. ‘Should I go up there?’ I thought. ‘What’s on the other side?’ I figured I would go back to where I was supposed to land first, Red Beach One.”

Marines haul an ammunition cart onto the beach during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. (USMC)

John began to follow the beach farther down before making his advance inland. “I was running around bareback, with no equipment whatsoever!” John was practically shouting as he related this to me in his living room. The extreme cir­cumstances of his landing had lost none of their shock value over the years.

Nervous and unarmed, John scurried along the black sand. “I got to Red Beach 1 and there was still no possible way to get in. I don’t know how all those guys got into that little pass,” John said. Red Beach 1 was blockaded with vehicles, bodies, and equipment. There was no way around it. “That’s when I decided to go to Red Beach 3.”

John ran further along the sand toward Red Beach 3. At this beach a weaponless John observed a set of makeshift stairs that ran along the cliffs. “They must have been built by the Japanese. There were a couple hundred stairs and they ran all the way up.” This pathway seemed the only way to link up with his unit. He began to crawl up the side of the stairs.

“All the way to the top there were dead Marines along the stairs. They were slumped over and all appeared to be shot through the head and face. They each had just a small trickle of blood running from between their eyes.”

The bodies of Marines who had at­tempted to ascend the stairs were scattered over the hillside. They were the victims of earlier waves, and John gazed at each one as he climbed around them, the lifeless bodies serving as markers the higher he climbed.

“Every one of those guys I saw dead …. ” John had to pause. The memory of the fallen Marines still haunted him. “Every one of those guys, my heart went out to them.” Nearly 80 years later, the tears still came.

What happened when you got to the top of the stairs?” I asked.

“Then I found my outfit!” John said, a smile on his face. Reuniting with his field artillery battalion was obviously a much happier memory. “Right then and there I found my guys.”

 

Marine casualties are carried away from the frontlines on Iwo Jima. (USMC)

Fox Battery was set up not far from the summit of the cliff John had climbed. Their guns had been dragged into po­sition in the earlier two waves.

“The first man I saw was a forward observer from my battery, a lieutenant. I didn’t want him to know I didn’t have a rifle, so at this point I’m still trying to look for a weapon. I didn’t look long before we had our first fire mission.”
John’s attempt to arm himself would have to wait. The 75 mm howitzers were ready to fire.

“I lost count how many shells we fired. The forward observer was giving us coordinates all day, and at night we shot illumination rounds. By day two we were running out of ammunition.”

John’s battery was doing a historic job grunts of the 5th Marine Division.
At night, however, things got weird. An unknown voice called out to them. “Fox Battery, where are you? Fox Battery, where are you?” The voice seemed to come from far in the distance. “We found that so strange. We were taught never to call out to one another in the night. So we hid low behind our guns and ignored it.”

John believes it was Japanese soldiers testing to see if they could infiltrate. Some Marines and forward observers had gone missing. There was no way to tell if they had been tortured or killed for information by the Japanese.
“The next day, day three, we totally ran out of ammunition for our howitzers,” John said. The Marines of Fox Battery made multiple runs to and from the beach trying to track down any ammo they might find for their guns.
The less they fired, the less protection the infantry had. As an artillery man, you were the king of battle and often the hand of God. It was artillery that could knock down rows of banzai charges.

Ammunition finally reached the beach­head, and men ushered rounds to Fox Battery’s position. The new high-explo­sive shells had arrived just in time. Enemy counterbattery fire was incoming.

“Luckily we had a time-fire radar. We could adjust quickly and knock them out.”
By day seven, Fox Battery’s position was known to the enemy. The Japanese zeroed in. Enemy counterbattery poured in faster than John and his gun crew could adjust. Finally their ability to return fire ceased altogether when an enemy shell exploded to their left. The Japanese artil­lery blew John and the other Marines off their howitzer like rag dolls.

Stunned and temporarily deaf in both ears, John lay facedown in the dirt. Other Marines were scattered around. They slowly attempted to get up and get back to the gun. John found he could not bounce back like the others. As they sat him up, he looked down below his belt line. There was smoke coming from his groin. He had a large hole in his pants. He was hit.

“I placed my hand in my pants. I was hit right by my family jewels,” he said quietly.

John was bleeding heavily. As the men shouted for a corpsman, the roar of other artillery pieces firing drowned their screams for help. John tried to staunch the blood loss from his groin, but soon passed out.

Courtesy of Andrew Biggio

“When I gained consciousness, I was in a tent hospital. I looked down at my groin. I could see they did a good job fixing me up, and I passed back out.”

It was a relief for a 19-year-old boy to know he still had his penis and testicles. Still under a considerable amount of morphine, John was transported to a hospital ship offshore for more re­habilitation. While John was out of the fight, the battle for Iwo Jima raged on.

“Dealing with my injuries was some delicate stuff. You could put three or four fingers into my wound,” John ex­plained. He would spend the next five months recovering in hospitals both in Guam and Hawaii.

John was ultimately satis­fied with the healing process. He could have lost his man­hood on Iwo Jima. Thanks to surgeons, he was able to have a normal life and create a family.

“I came home and later joined the sheriff’s depart­ment on May 1, 1950. I retired in 1978.” John retired as the deputy warden of the Essex County Jail in New Jersey. In the prison system he would run into other Marines who had chosen to go down a dif­ferent road after the Battle of Iwo Jima. “It makes you think if the war contributed to the behavior of some Marines after their return home from combat.”

John had a point. Like many others, he and I both had chosen law enforcement after the Marines. By doing so we were at times con­fronted with the fact that some Marines chose crime.

As I placed the rifle into its case, I believed my time with John had come to an end. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“Well, I got a long drive back to Boston.”

“You aren’t going anywhere until you have some of my meatballs!”

John hobbled over to the kitchen and turned on the burners on the stove to warm up a pot. A few minutes later, he was off-loading giant meatballs on a plate for me.

I knew I had a long drive from New Jersey to Boston ahead of me, but I sat down with the Italian-American Marine. I bit into one of the meatballs he had made, and he told me I couldn’t leave until I was finished with my meal.
I can honestly say they were the best damn meatballs I ever had.

Author’s bio: Andrew Biggio is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently serving as a Massachusetts police officer and is the president of the nonprofit Boston’s Wounded Vet Run. “The Rifle II” is his sec­ond book.

Showing Her Mettle: Olympic Hopeful Goes Full Speed as Marine, Bobsledder

By the time Captain Riley Tejcek was 7 years old, her father, John, knew he was raising a tough kid.

Tejcek sported a Power Rangers watch at the time, and like many children her age, was learning how to ride a bicycle. After her first fall onto the pavement, Riley said something that left her dad incredulous.

“She looks at me and says, ‘Dad, would the Power Rangers quit?’ I’m not quitting,” John recalled. “She gets back up on her bike and says, ‘let’s go.’ I am laughing inside, and I’m like, ‘oh my God, what kind of reaction was that?’ ”

Two decades later, the 2021 Female Marine Athlete of the Year and U.S. national team bobsledder is using that determination to try and accomplish what no other active-duty female Marine has done: qualify for the U.S. Winter Olym­pics team. Capt Tejcek wants to show the next generation of leathernecks that it’s possible to use your athleticism, desire and skill for something bigger while still serving your country.

“Being the first in anything is cool, but I want to normalize that,” Tejcek said of her dream of qualifying for the 2026 Winter Games. “Every Marine is a tactical athlete. Every Marine is an athlete, period, in the way we train.”

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Riley Tejcek, a supply officer with the Amphibious Warfare School, a native of Carmel, Indiana, signs autographs and talks with others about her experiences during her careers at the Commissary on Marine Corps Base Quantico. Tejcek will be the first female Marine to participate in the Olympics for bobsledding. Her Olympic debut is set to be in the 2023-2024 season. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jeffery Stevens)

While she is training for the Games, Tejcek hopes to use her charisma and success on the sled and turn it into a future billet with the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. Along the way, she hopes to inspire more females to become Marines—and eventually officers. Since donning the red, white and blue of Team USA, Tejcek has documented her life as an Olympic hopeful and as a Marine on social media. That includes producing a variety of short videos on Instagram, where she has garnered nearly 50,000 followers.

“I don’t know of a better example for young females to emulate than Riley,” wrote Colonel Jason Graul, the deputy director of the Expeditionary Warfare School and Tejcek’s commanding officer at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “We are proud to have her in our ranks and serve beside her. She is serving her country, and we are excited to see her [possibly] represent our country in the Olympics.”

Toughness Taking Root
Growing up in suburban Indianapolis, Ind., Tejcek was not always the most talented kid on her athletic teams but worked extremely hard to achieve suc­cess in every sport she played, said John, who played minor league baseball.

And Tejcek’s parents did their best to engender her competitive streak, whether it was epic games of Uno with the family or weekly spelling tests.
Tejcek eventually earned a softball scholarship to George Washington Uni­ver­sity, helping the Colonials to their first-ever Atlantic-10 Conference title in 2019. At the same time she was scooping up ground balls, she was training to be­come a Marine through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course program. It took meeting a Marine recruiter during her fresh­man year to consider a career in the Corps.

Marines are “tactical athletes” according to Capt Tejcek, who changes up her training during the fall and winter months to meet the rigorous physical demands of competitive bobsledding. (Courtesy of Capt Riley Tejcek, USMC)

“I loved everything he had to say,” said Tejcek, whose grandfathers served in the Corps and Army, respectively. “I was like a kid in a candy shop, my eyes were wide open. [He said], you can be a leader. And not only that, you can be a female leader … You can be part of the fewer, the prouder. You can do that and make a difference for people.”

And John saw his daughter’s toughness continue to blossom while she was in college. While the two were participating in a 13-mile overnight Go-Ruck event in Washington, D.C., John broke his ankle when he accidentally stepped in a hole in the sand near the Potomac River. Tejcek was leading her group and started crying when she saw her dad’s condition, knowing he couldn’t finish.
Her cadre of Marines saw her reaction and began questioning whether she had what it took to be in charge, said John. But she wiped the tears away and led her team to the finish line early that morning. Seeing her finish at the Pentagon was a relationship-changing moment for John and his daughter and a glimpse into what Tejcek would become as a Marine.

“She’s worn out to s–t but she’s still going,” John said. “… If that wasn’t the best analogy, [that] you don’t need your dad to push you or motivate you. You’re on your own. In fact, you’re motivating me now.”

Riley Tejcek, pictured with her parents, was commissioned in 2019 after graduating from George Washington Uni­versity in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of John Tejcek)

After graduating from college, Tejcek was commissioned in 2019 and was as­signed to Camp Pendleton as a logistics officer with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 39, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Like many of her peers, she was hoping to get deployed. However, her billet kept her out of any overseas action. And due to COVID-19 restrictions, she couldn’t satisfy her com­petitive urge by playing on the Marine Corps softball team.

“I said, ‘what am I waking up for? What am I training for?’” said Tejcek after learning she would not be deployed. “The PFT and CFT twice a year wasn’t enough for me, especially as a competitor.”

Meeting Olympic bobsledding medal­ist Elana Meyers Taylor, who also played softball at George Washington, quickly quelled Tejcek’s restlessness. Soon after­wards, Tejcek made a tape of her athletic resume for the U.S. National Team selec­tion committee. That led to a tryout in Colorado in the fall of 2020 as the pilot of a two-woman bobsled.

John volunteered to be her brakeman for her tryout since she didn’t have a part­ner yet. On her second trip down the course, they flipped the sled, leaving John bruised and a little wobbly. Instead of calling it quits, Tejcek found a new brake­man from the track crew assembled there and was able to complete her third and final run in flawless fashion, said John.

Living Her Dream
Once she made the U.S. team, Tejcek knew she needed to get stronger if she wanted to be successful on the inter­national stage. When she first began train­ing three years ago, Tejcek weighed just 150 pounds, significantly lighter than most of her counterparts. In order to muscle the nearly 300-pound sled, she bulks up 20 pounds each winter and then cuts weight in the spring to fulfill her PFT and CFT requirements as a Marine.

Tejcek also has to juggle her year-round commitments at Quantico in order to find time to train. That includes traveling up to Lake Placid, N.Y., for training and competition and flying across North America and Europe to compete in the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation series.

(Courtesy of Capt Riley Tejcek, USMC)

Since the Marine Corps does not sponsor prospective Olympic athletes, Tejcek is always looking for ways to pay for her training. In 2022, she was fortunate enough to come into some unexpected funding after landing a spot on the game­show “Lingo.” In typical Tejcek fashion, she and her mother, Ann-Marie, decided to take on the challenge, practicing for hours online from their respective homes. Their hard work paid off as they took home more than $90,000 in prize money, which covered her training and travel costs for 2023. Last fall, she acquired a new sponsor AMETEK, an American-based international designer and manu­facturer of electronic instruments and electromechanical devices.

“No organization in the United States is more revered for excellence than the United States Marine Corps and no com­petition has a more longstanding legacy than the Olympics,” said Jason Marshall, AMETEK Director of Business Development for its Fluid Analysis Com­panies. “As an organization who has de­manded results for its investors for over 94 years, AMETEK couldn’t conceive of a more flesh-and-blood example of ex­cellence than Riley Tejcek.”

Thanks to a successful 2023-2024 cam­paign, Tejcek has qualified for the two-woman bobsled competition in this month’s World Cup at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run in Lake Placid. Last November, Tejcek finished third in the North American Cup event at Lake Placid with teammate Emily Renna and placed fourth at Park City, Utah, a month later with teammate Macy Tarlton.

Tejcek has also found time in 2023 to stump for the Marine Corps. Last May, she participated in the WeCoach conven­tion in Denver thanks to the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. MCRC formed a partnership with WeCoach in hopes that coaches from around the country can influence their athletes to join the Corps when their playing days are over. The partnership also encourages more inclusion in the military, including promoting more females into leadership positions.

“Our demographic, we aren’t hitting that mark,” Tejcek said. “We have women I’ve met in the Marine Corps that are some of the most solid people I have ever met. But I know that there are more. I know that we are not getting some of that talent. Personally, I don’t think these people know [about the Corps].”
In addition to her engagement with WeCoach, Tejcek spent some of her free time in Park City last December visiting with Marine poolees as well as at a Christian school where she and her teammate spoke about bobsledding and her Christian faith. A few weeks later, she served as the Grand Marshal of the Military Bowl, held annually in Annapolis, Md.

With more than two years until the Games, Tejcek recognizes a lot can hap­pen that can get her off track. She has already fought through a foot fracture from overuse that left her unable to train for three weeks last fall. She also knows her competitors will always have more time to devote to the sport because of her commitment to the Corps. But these are just obstacles, not excuses to quit, said Riley, who is writing a book entitled “If You Can Dream It, Be It.”

“The book is about a little girl with the task of figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up,” Tejcek said. “She inter­views key people in her life, to include her grandfather who was a Ma­rine, and is pressured from outside society to pick one career. In the end, she realizes you can do and be whatever you want, so she decides to be a Marine, professional athlete, pageant winner and author.”

“[Tejcek] has accomplished more in the past couple years than most will do in a lifetime,” said Col Graul. “She has done this on top of her normal assigned duties.”

Author’s bio: Kipp Hanley is the deputy editor for Leatherneck. The award-win­ning journalist has covered a variety of topics in his career including the military, government, edu­cation, business and sports.

Creating Leaders and Leathernecks: Young Marines Program Focuses on Community Service, Citizenship

Pyramid Rock Young Marines Commanding Officer LtCol John DiGiovanni, right, marches to the front during a graduation ceremony for Young Marine Recruit Platoon 2-14. (Courtesy of Young Marines)

The philosophy of the Young Ma­rines still resonates with today’s youth—64 years after the organization’s inception. In the last decade-plus, numerous Young Marines have gone on to serve in the Marine Corps, crediting their time participating in the leadership building nonprofit as the reason for serving their nation.

Lance Corporal Macie Ross was a Division Young Marine of the Year in 2019 and later, the honor graduate of her boot camp platoon. Currently serving as a combat photographer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Ross said her military career has been influenced by the time she spent in the Young Marines.

“Young Marines is a one-of-a-kind type of program,” Ross said. “They teach us to honor our veterans, help our communities, and to become a better version of yourself. We learn core values—leadership, teamwork, and discipline—which transfer to anything you do in your future.”
Volunteerism and community service is at the heart of the Young Marines program. From a young age, the youth participants are exposed to events and experiences where they honor veterans and volunteer their time in their community. Young Marines participate in color guards, veteran appreciation events, community events, assist at food pantries and soup kitchens, help other nonprofit organizations and teach drug prevention and resistance classes in schools and religious organizations. Many units have created events that bring their communities together and raise awareness for the needs of their specific community.

The last few years have seen Young Marines participate in disaster response cleanups from tornadoes in Tennessee to hurricanes in Florida. Toys for Tots is a major element of community service in partnership with the Marine Corps League. Youth members helping other youth makes an amazing impression on the members.

Young Marines support Veterans Day and Memorial Day events around the country, visiting veterans in homes, mailing out cards, and helping pack gift boxes. At the national level, the Young Marines program supports the national Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C., helping carry all the parade banners and other parade elements as needed.

Some of the other more notable annual events that Young Marines take part in include the Navajo Code Talker Day in Window Rock, Ariz., and the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Parade in Hawaii. In Arizona, Young Marines perform community service projects, participate in the parades and ceremonies and support the Code Talkers and their families where requested. A plankowner of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Parade, Young Marine units across the country fundraise to come to Hawaii in December to be a part of the remembrance activities and the parade. They complete a community service project (usually a beach cleanup at MCB Kaneohe), perform their own memorial service at the Cemetery of the Pacific and support the annual parade by carrying banners and all the parade balloons.

LCpl Macie Ross. (Courtesy of Young Marines)
National Executive Director of Young Marines, Col William “Bill” Davis, USMC (Ret), far left, and LCpl Macie Ross, right, with Young Marines at the National Leadership Academy. (Courtesy of Young Marines)
LCpl Macie Ross, a Marine combat photographer, speaks with members of Young Marines of the LCpl Caleb J. Powers unit. The Young Marines teach today’s youth valuable leader­ship skills. (Courtesy of Young Marines)

At the end of each year, Young Marines support Wreaths Across America at national cemeteries across the country. These events have introduced Young Marines to veterans from World War II to the present, giving them firsthand knowledge of the service and sacrifices made on behalf of our country and others around the world. They have learned history from those who were there, including Hershel “Woody” Williams, who explained firsthand about the landings on Iwo Jima; Thomas Begay, who talked about becoming a Code Talker; and Pearl Harbor survivor Jack Holder, who talked about watching the enemy aircraft descend on them. These are lessons they will never forget.
“Although Young Marines is not an official recruiting program for the military, you are surrounded by Marines and veterans,” said Ross. “Their stories and attitudes towards the Marine Corps definitely influenced me into looking into the Corps. The Young Marines program also allowed me to explore my passion for photography through a public affairs … course that I was able to attend. All of the people I met and the opportunities I had in this program is why I am a United States Marine.”

The Young Marines program began when a group of fathers wanted to encourage their children to be good citizens and role models for other youth. Many of these parents had served in the Marine Corps and wanted to use the values and experiences they had adopted from their time in service to make the world a better place. So, in 1959, the first Young Marines joined the program in Waterbury, Conn., where the Brass City Detachment of the Marine Corps League (MCL) took a huge interest in the program and has been a staunch supporter ever since.

In 1965 a member of the MCL Valley Detachment in Connecticut raised more than $5,000 to fly an entire Young Marine unit to the MCL National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., where the MCL adopted the Young Marines as its national youth program. Though originally chartered as a subsidiary organization of the MCL, the program grew exponentially. In 1980, the Young Marines branched off and became its own entity, with its own national non-profit 501(c) (3) status as a youth education and service program.

SgtMaj Carlos A. Ruiz, the 20th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, meets with members of the Potomac River Young Marines unit at the Pentagon in December 2023. The Young Marines were there to accept the Fulcrum Shield Award for excellence in youth anti-drug programs. (Courtesy of Young Marines)

In the 1990s, Young Marines was competitively selected as the youth drug demand reduction (DDR) program for the Marine Corps, when each military service was tasked to have a similar program. Young Marines has continued and expanded the DDR mission to this day. In 2014, the Young Marines took its DDR efforts to the next level by launching a successful program called Closing the Gate on Drugs. The word “gate” links to “gateway drugs” which are tobacco, marijuana, prescription medication, inhalants, and alcohol.
This drug prevention and resistance program remains a positive, flourishing piece of the Young Marines program that has steered tens of thousands of young people away from drugs. Each Young Marine receives a minimum of 12 hours of DDR education and training each year to include using peer to peer education. Young Marines are consistently going out into their communities and sharing information about why it is important to live a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

Young Marines start their leadership journey at entry-level recruit instruction. They learn the fundamentals of leading through drill and other opportunities to take the lead in daily activities or service events. As leadership is so important to the program, the Young Marines hold three specific leadership schools with a designated curriculum: Junior Leadership School or JLS, Senior Leadership School (SLS) and Advanced Leadership School (ALS). Successful completion of leadership schools is a requirement for promotion.

There is a National Leadership Academy that is typically held in the summer over a two-week period. Young Marines must qualify to attend and then learn strategies and skills that they take back to their units to put into use.
“Having had so much practice with bearing and drill really helped me make it through boot camp and thrive,” said Lance Corporal Abbigail Waters, who was the 2020-2021 National Young Marine of the Year and is now an aircraft mechanic at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. “My time in the Young Marines helped to set me up as I grew into the adult I am today by teaching me how to think and make decisions for myself. Another great benefit is that I had many experiences working with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s no different in the Marine Corps, there are people from so many different backgrounds and knowing how to work with anyone has helped me significantly.”

LCpl Abbigail Waters. (Courtesy of Young Marines)
Before becoming an aircraft mechanic at MCAS Miramar, LCpl Abbigail Waters was in the Young Marines program and was the 2020-2021 National Young Marine of the Year. (Courtesy of Young Marines)

Surveys of Young Marine alumni show that more than 30% of Young Marines choose to serve in our nation’s military services. The next largest employment choices from that survey are first re­sponders and teachers. Whatever they choose to do with their lives, Young Ma­rines find themselves in high demand due to the solid personal qualities learned in this program.

Now a Border Patrol Agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Devin Lewis was a Young Marine before enlisting in the Marine Corps where he served as an engineer heavy equipment operator at Combat Logistics Battalion 5 (CLB-5) at Camp Pendleton from 2010-2015. Lewis said his time in the Young Marines helped give him a leg up when he went into the Corps.

“I already knew that I was going to be a Marine because I was third generation, but the Young Marines program better prepared me for my military service. The program helped me to come out of my bubble. I was a very shy kid, and the program was instrumental in making me more outspoken and not afraid to be a leader. The Young Marines is the only youth organization that I can think of that gives the opportunities it does. No other youth organizations rival the Young Marines when it comes to leadership, teamwork, and discipline. All three core values were important to me. I still use the Young Marines and the Marine Corps core values to this day; they help to remind me who I am and who I want to be.”

Lewis still carries on the Young Marine attitude of giving back and serving.
“I continue to volunteer with the Young Marines program,” Lewis said. “I was a Unit Commander of the Lewis & Clark Young Marines in Vancouver, Wash., from 2017-2022, and I am now the Arizona Grand Canyon Regiment Commander … I look at it this way, the Young Marines gave me so many opportunities that I would have never had. So now that I am an adult, I want to give those same opportunities that I had back to the youth of today.”

Participants with the Young Marines program collect debris during a beach cleanup at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Dec. 2, 2022, in commemoration of the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (LCpl Chandler Stacy, USMC)
The Rhode Island National Guard hosted members of the Young Marines for an orientation and open house on Camp Fogarty. These Young Marines traversed an obstacle course, set up a rope bridge, and received an orientation flight in a Blackhawk helicopter. (Sgt Terry Rajsombath, USMC)

Staff Sergeant Joseph Harding was a Young Marine with the Mid Cumberland Young Marines in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., from 2010 to 2016. He is still involved with the Young Marines as an adult volunteer with the Fall River Young Marine unit in Fall River, Mass., and previously, with the Cherry Point Young Marine unit in Havelock, N.C. Harding said he had many mentors from the Corps during his time as a Young Marine.

“These Marines taught us what it meant to truly be a Marine,” Harding said. “Being a Marine is about selfless service, giving back, steadfast commitment to our nation and its people, and that you are a Marine for life. This resonates with me daily. I wake up each day, knowing the shoes these gentlemen, and thousands of other Marines, have left are hard to fill. However, I do my best to live up to their legacy to honor their selfless service, steadfast commitment to our nation and its people, and to embody ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’ ”
The Young Marines is always looking to add youth mentors to the program. If you are interested in volunteering as an adult or have a young relative you think would benefit from the program, please visit www.YoungMarines.org.

Former Young Marines unit commander Devin Lewis, left, with Logan Nelson, the 2018 Young Ma­rine of the Year. (Courtesy of Young Marines)
Devin Lewis participated in the Young Marines program before joining the Corps. Even after leaving active duty, Lewis continues to volun­teer for the Young Marines program as the Arizona Grand Canyon Regiment Commander. (Courtesy of Young Marines)
Devin Lewis enlisted in the Marine Corps and was a heavy equipment operator with CLB-5 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He now serves as a Border Patrol Agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Courtesy of Young Marines)

Author’s bio: Abra Hogarth is the director of strategic communications for the Young Marines and has worked in the communications field for over 25 years. She has a communications degree from George Mason University and has been writing articles and short stories her whole life.

Trapped: Marine Tankers Come to the Rescue on Iwo Jima

Marines with Co C, 5th Tank Battalion walk across the sands of Iwo Jima’s Red Beach. Third platoon, led by 2ndLt Leonard Blake, joined the fight on Iwo Jima in support of 2nd Bn, 28th Marines. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

The moment the bow doors opened, and the ramp dropped on LSM-44, Company C’s tanks from the 5th Tank Battalion were on the move into the gritty black sand of Iwo Jima’s Red Beach 2. There had been six tanks aboard—a mix of Headquarters’ and 2nd and 3rd Platoons’—and they had been called on at 11:48 a.m. to hit the beach in support of 1st Battalion, 28th Marines. Co C turned right as they dis­embarked, following the beachmaster’s directions to the safest egress point. How­ever, the loose volcanic sand wreaked havoc on the tank tracks, and one of 3rd Plt’s tanks threw a track as they headed up the beach. They were under mortar fire almost immediately, but the rise in the beach protected the crews from direct fire enough to enable them to dismount, drop their tanks’ wading stacks and remove any waterproofing that might hinder them in the fight.

Co C, split evenly between LSM-43, -44 and -46, landed with 14 tanks, one tank dozer, two flame tanks and an M32 Recovery Vehicle. The company broke down into the Head­quarters Plt with two tanks and the dozer, four line platoons with three tanks each, and two attached flame tanks, to be used wherever they were most needed. Second Lieutenant Leonard Blake from Pennsylvania led 3rd Plt. His three tanks, “Jeannie,” “Killer” and “Lucky,” were all brand-new M4A3 Shermans, the Marine Corps’ new standard tank which was making its combat debut on Iwo Jima. Jeannie, driven by 19-year-old Corporal Leighton Willhite, would be the first from LSM-44 on the beach.
Issued to the battalion in October 1944, the new tank had better armor protection, better and safer internal ammunition stowage, and a gas-powered Ford V-8 engine that replaced the M4A2’s twin diesel. In addition to these improvements, each company in the 5th Tank Battalion utilized materials on hand in Hawaii to better defend against Japanese magnetic and shaped charge antitank mines that had been encountered in previous cam­paigns. Co C’s report outlines the basic modifications: “2-inch planking with a 2-inch air space between planks and hull were placed on sides of tanks. Drivers hatches had a frame welded to them which was covered with chicken wire. The hatches on the turret and the area around them had 10 penny nails welded to them so that they resembled a ‘bed of nails.’ ”

Wooden planks were also mounted on the suspension, and corrugated sheet metal, cut into jagged patterns, was nailed to the upper edges of the hull-mounted planks, making it difficult and hazardous for enemy infantry to grab or climb onto the tank. The upper surface of the tank’s hull was also covered in sandbags, held in place by chicken wire, to further deter magnetic mines from adhering flush to the hull.

Co C’s mission was to support the 28th Marine Regiment’s drive westward across the island to the western beaches before turning south and heading for the most significant terrain feature on the island: Mount Suribachi, code-named “Hot Rocks.” With the infantry landing almost three hours prior to the tanks’ arrival, they had already gained a foothold, with 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, leading the way and 2nd Bn deployed east of them, oriented to the south and Suribachi. The tanks were a welcome sight as they crested the beach and entered the fray.

Tank number 31 “Killer” leads a group of Marines from 1/28 against Japanese positions on Hill 362. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)
2ndLt Leonard Sokol assigned to 2nd Bn, 28th Marines, stands in front of Lt Blake’s tank “Jeannie,” on March 1, 1945. Sokol would be killed in combat two days later on Nishi Ridge.
(Photo courtesy of National Archives)

The tanks’ 75 mm guns gave the 28th Marines a significant increase in fire­power and a better means for taking out bunkers and machine-gun nests. Each tank carried 100 rounds of ammunition: 60 rounds of high-explosive M48; 30 rounds of armor-piercing, capped-tracer M61; and 10 rounds of white phosphorus. While the armor-piercing round did give Co C’s crews the ability to penetrate con­crete bunkers, it was the M48 high-explo­sive rounds that would see the highest rate of consumption in the assault on Suribachi.
With the whole company ashore, Co C’s commander, Captain Edward Nelson, found the command post and spoke to the first sergeant, who was the senior surviving man. According to Nelson, Marines of the 1/28 had reached their objective “but were pinned down and receiving heavy casualties from pillboxes and block houses bypassed in the attack.”

He and the 1st Sgt agreed that the entire Tank Co would eliminate any enemy positions between the command post and the front lines. However, immediately after moving out, the tank column came under fire from a hidden 47mm antitank gun. Four tanks were hit before the gun was destroyed. Two of those tanks re­ceived penetrations through the front face of the turret on the right side of the gun shield.

In 3rd Plt, Sergeant Donald North’s tank, Killer, took two 47mm antitank rounds through the front of his turret, badly wounding him and his gunner. They were lucky, though, because their tank was still functional, and they drove back to the assembly area where they could be tended to.

Moving the wounded out of harm’s way was critical. Because there was minimal cover anywhere on the island, crews using the tank’s upper hatches were exposed to enemy sniper and artillery fire; climbing onto a tank to get a wounded crew out was almost impossible. It was suicide to leave the tank through the upper hatches. As a result, all ingress and egress on the battalion’s tanks was routed through the bottom hatch for the entire campaign. Wounded crews in an immobilized tank would either have to be taken out through the bottom hatch or wait for a recovery vehicle to move the tank to a safer area.

Armed with a Thompson submachine gun, Lt Blake clears the side of the “Lucky,” while Cpl Leighton Willhite keeps an eye out for the enemy.

North and his gunner were on their way to a hospital ship by the next morning, while Killer was repaired by battalion maintenance. Since the tank had not burned, the armor was not compromised and could be repaired. The 47mm shell holes were patched, the fire control was repaired, and Killer returned to the front lines with a new commander and gunner two days later, bringing 3rd Plt back to full strength.

Over the next three days, 3rd Plt would be on Co C’s right flank, supporting land­­ing team 128’s advance on Mount Suri­bachi, firing high explosives at targets on the mountain’s slopes. By noon on D+4, Co C was sent back to the bivouac area for refueling, re-arming and main­tenance. One of 3rd Plt’s most intense actions came on March 1, when they were in support of 1st Bn, 28th Marines during the assault on Hill 362. Blake’s three tanks approached a cave complex on the western side of Iwo Jima and attempted to engage Japanese forces. Platoon Ser­geant Robert McIntire’s tank, Lucky, was in the lead, with Jeannie behind and to the right. Killer and the flamethrower tank “Torch” followed closely behind. As they advanced, McIntire sighted a cave with several Japanese soldiers in it and moved his tank to engage. However, what he didn’t see was the Japanese ma­chine-gun emplacement dug into the ground ahead of his tank. When the tank drove over it, the roof collapsed, trapping the tank and its crew.

As the tank nosed down into the hole, Japanese infantry swarmed out and onto the tank. Blake quickly grabbed the tank commander’s override and slewed his tank’s turret to engage the enemy infan­try. Its coaxial .30-caliber machine gun killed a number of the Japanese soldiers climbing on McIntire’s tank, but he and his crew were still trapped inside. They couldn’t go out the bottom hatch because it would open right into the pillbox of more enemy soldiers. With the potential for Japanese soldiers on top of the tank or waiting just outside, hidden from Blake’s view, McIntire realized his crew had no place to go. Grabbing the radio mike, McIntire called Blake for help.

Blake realized the only way to get McIntire and his crew out was to go over to the tank, climb on top, and let them know it was safe to come out. He turned to his crew and asked for two volunteers to accompany him and attempt the rescue. While initially no one volunteered, Cor­poral Willhite grabbed his .45 and said, “I’ll go with you, Lieutenant.”

The pair cautiously made their way over to the disabled tank, Blake moving left toward the rear of the tank and Willhite covering him. Neither knew how many Japanese soldiers were on the far side of the tank. A burst from Blake’s Thompson killed three soldiers as he rounded the corner. Willhite covered him as Blake then climbed up onto the tank’s hull and banged on the driver’s hatch.
“Two Japanese came out of nowhere with their rifles and bayonets,” Willhite recalled. “I shot them, but I don’t know if I killed them.” McIntire and his four Marines climbed out of the tank and rallied at its rear with Blake’s crew. They removed the gun’s breechblock and the critical radio components before aban­don­ing the tank.

After safely extracting the crew trapped inside the “Lucky,” Lt Blake and PltSgt Robert McIntire devise a plan to safely remove both crews from the combat zone. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

Meanwhile, Torch, their accompanying flame tank, moved up to cover the crew’s extraction. According to Torch’s com­mander, “The [enemy] dived into a shell hole and [that] is where they met their doom with our flame.” McIntire’s crew piled into Killer and Jeannie as the pla­toon pulled back to safety. McIntire took over as the commander of Killer, and 3rd Plt operated with two tanks until Lucky could be recovered. Because of the inten­sity of combat in the area—and the sever­ity of how deeply Lucky was stuck in the hole—it would be a full three days before the tank was retrieved.

Third Plt and Co C continued to support both the 28th and 26th Marines as they pushed north on Iwo Jima’s west side. Three weeks after rescuing McIntire, Blake’s platoon was called upon to de­stroy an abandoned Co A tank so the Japanese couldn’t get any information from it. As they neared the target, Blake’s tank hit a mine, breaking the track and immobilizing them. His gunner quickly fired upon the abandoned tank, setting it ablaze, while another 3rd Plt tank crew hooked up their tow cables and prepared to pull Jeannie to safety. As they were leaving the area, a Japanese infantryman threw a satchel charge under the engine, knocking it out but not stopping the two tanks from making it back to friendly territory.

The battle officially ended five days later. After the battle, the entire 5th Ma­rine Division returned to Hawaii for re­fitting and training for the invasion of Japan. The 5th Tank Battalion turned in their tanks to the depot on Oahu for maintenance and refurbishment. Blake and Willhite received the Silver Star and Bronze Star, respectively, for their heroic actions on Iwo Jima.

Flamethrower tanks provided assault support for Marines on the field during the heat of battle against enemy forces. (USMC)
Many tanks like “Lucky” were put out of action on the first days of battle on Iwo Jima. (USCG)

The after-action reviews from both 4th and 5th Tank Battalions, which had used the POA-CWS-H1 flame tanks like Torch, were unan­imous in their comments that more flame tanks were required. The 4th and 5th Marine Division comments echoed those sentiments, and as a result, 72 tanks were pulled from existing stocks on Oahu to be converted into the new POA-CWS-H5 flame­thrower tank. This new variant was built on the existing M4A3, but unlike the eight POA-CWS-H1 tanks used on Iwo Jima, the new H5 mounted a flame­thrower coaxially with the main gun. This was intended to give Marine tank crews the ability to engage with both the 75mm cannon and the flame thrower.

Jeannie was the 50th tank selected for this con­version, so in August 1945, the ammunition stowage bins under the turret floor were removed and two massive napalm storage tanks were added. The ammunition capacity for the main gun was reduced by 60%, retaining roughly 40 rounds. She would be ready for combat by the end of the month, but fortunately there would be no need for her further combat service.

Jeannie—or M4A3 serial number 49617—then returned to the States and made her way to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., where an attempt was made in the 1970s to preserve her. But because of a lack of funding, she was moved off into the woods in one of the 2nd Tank Battalion’s training areas, where she remained until being rediscovered in 2000 and shipped to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., the following year. The tank remained in storage until 2020 when, due to a reduction in storage buildings, it was sent out on loan to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz., where it currently sits. A curatorial visit by museum staff in June of 2023 identified the weld scarring patterns on the turret roof as unique to the 5th Tank Bn on Iwo Jima, and from there, research into the 5th Tank Bn and this tank’s history was underway.

“Jeannie,” 3rd Platoon’s Tank 30, is currently located at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz. The National Museum of the Marine Corps is working on a restoration plan for the tank.

Author’s bio: Jonathan Bernstein is the arms and armor curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Pre­viously he was the director/curator of the Air Defense Artillery Museum. Bernstein began his museum career in 1991 at the USS Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum and has served in nu­merous museum roles since then. He was an Army aviation officer, flying AH-64A and D Apache attack helicopters with the 1-1-4th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, PA NG from 2006-2012. He has published a number of books and articles on military and aviation history. He is the 2023 winner of the Marine Corps Heri­tage Foundation Robert Debs Heinl Jr. Award.

Enemy in the Wire: The Fight for Survival on LZ Russell

A CH-53 helicopter resupplies 105mm ammunition to the gun pits of Hotel Battery, 3/12, stationed at LZ Russell. (Photo by LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)

Dusk settled over the hilltop on Feb. 24, 1969. Lance Corporal Patrick “Mac” McWilliams examined the Marines assigned to him for listening post (LP) duty. All of them were green, recently arrived in country and shuttled out for their first stint in the bush. Mac’s four months in Vietnam made him an old salt in their eyes, with experience to help keep them alive. He previously spent time on the hill, and already acquainted himself with the menacing jungle beyond the perimeter. The grunts were exhausted from patrols over the last few days. Some in the company treated LP duty with complacency, despite the inherent danger being isolated outside the wire. Mac resolved to teach the new guys cor­rectly. He passed out grenades and trip flares and performed final checks. The four-man team proceeded down a finger, beyond the final defensive web of wire and into enemy territory.

Mac found a spot 100 yards into the jungle and set up the radio. Private First Class Dennis Gardner moved farther ahead to set up a trip flare across a trail.
“If that thing goes off, we need some­one to throw the first grenade,” Mac said.
“I used to play quarterback,” Gardner told him. “I’ll do it.”

For Mac and numerous other veterans from “Echo” Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, their return to guard duty on the hill 10 days earlier proved appre­hensive and unwelcome. In November 1968, their platoon scaled the mountain­side to carve a remote base out of the Viet­namese jungle. They strung together C4 explosives and blew down trees in the rough shape of a landing zone (LZ). Helicopters lifted in heavy moving equip­ment to finish off the stumps and flatten the crest. Marines dug fighting holes and constructed bunkers out of old ammo boxes while more chop­pers off­loaded a battery of 105mm howitzers into newly constructed gun pits. The position, named LZ Russell, became the newest fire support base in a nexus of interlocking artillery. Multiple hilltops similar to Russell blanketed the jungle, covering infantry operations along the Demilita­rized Zone (DMZ). Since Russell’s estab­lishment, nearly 300 Marines continuous­ly occupied the hill. Mac’s platoon de­parted to fight in other battles along Mutter’s Ridge and near Con Thien short­ly after the artillery pieces arrived. They returned to Russell for their turn on guard duty less than three months later.

An aerial view of the main landing zone at LZ Russell, with several howitzer gun pits extending down the finger of land. Note the sandbagged paths and bunkers built into the steep hill on either side of the flattened top. (LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)

Six guns from “Hotel” Battery, 3/12, occupied the crest. They presented an attractive target for North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fire. The base sat in the remote northwestern corner of South Vietnam, a stone’s throw away from the DMZ and within view of the Laotian border. Daily ground operations in the vicinity generated fire missions around the clock. In the month of January 1969, the three 105mm batteries of 3/12 fired nearly 30,000 rounds. Totals from later months that year reached closer to 40,000 rounds.
Three gun pits surrounded the main LZ at the summit. The remaining three stretched out down a long finger protrud­ing east. The entire position lay exposed to enemy view. Enemy soldiers probed the grunt perimeter and fired mortars sporadically around the hill, mapping out Marine positions and registering their fires. By the end of February, platoons from Companies E and F, 2/4, and one platoon from Co K, 3/4, defended Russell’s perimeter around Hotel Battery.

Shortly after midnight on Feb. 25, a fire mission crackled to life from the radio. Fire Support Base (FSB) Neville, located just 5 miles west, called urgently for help. The voice on the other end reported the news most dreaded by Marines on an isolated hill; NVA sappers penetrated the wire and overran the base. Hotel Battery sprang to action. All six guns opened fire on pre-registered targets surrounding Neville. For three hours, the battery pounded Neville’s entire perim­eter, firing over 300 rounds of high ex­plosives or illumination. The artillerymen endured the work, many without even knowing what was happening on the nearby out­post. To them, it was just another midnight fire mission.

The roaring howitzers kept Mac and his Marines awake at the LP. They rotated through radio watch as the hours passed and tried to sleep. Around 4 a.m., the fire mission ceased and the jungle fell quiet. Before their ears adjusted to the silence, without any warning, mortar rounds impacted behind them inside the perimeter at the top of the hill. Mac, Gardner, and the others bolted upright and clinched their rifles. A chorus of small arms fire punctuated the space between explosions. The Marines under­stood, without a doubt, that NVA soldiers broke through the perimeter and were already overrunning LZ Russell, even under their own mortar fire.

Marines from Hotel Battery 3/12, fire their 105mm howitzer from LZ Russell. Around-the-clock missions kept the artillerymen busy, firing thousands of rounds per month. (USMC)
Cpl Alvin Winchell in his bunker, constructed of dirt-filled artillery ammo boxes, at LZ Russell. Winchell was one of numerous Marines from 2/4 that carved Russell out of the jungle in November 1968, then returned to guard the hill in February 1969. For his actions the night the LZ was overrun, Winchell received a Bronze Star with combat “V.” (Courtesy of Alvin Winchell)

Mac tried to raise the command post (CP) but received no reply. He ordered the others to grab their gear and move out. He figured their original position had been spotted and set up again near a large fallen tree. Gardner hit the deck, sheltered behind the uprooted base. The trip flare he placed earlier in the night suddenly ignited down the trail in front of him. A blinding light illuminated numerous NVA moving up the hill. Gardner pulled the pin on his grenade, cocked his arm back, and let it fly. The perfect toss landed on the trail and exploded amongst an enemy group. More unseen NVA opened fire in the LP’s direction. The four Marines fired rapidly at sounds of movement in the surrounding jungle. Heavy impacts from a .50-caliber machine gun threw up dirt in mini explosions all around them. With nowhere to run and no one to help, the LP stayed put and fought for their lives. They were not alone in their plight, as the sounds of battle from the hilltop increased in a terrifying pitch.

Lance Corporal Bruce Brinke stood radio watch in the platoon CP bunker, having checked in with the LP throughout the night. When the howitzers ceased fire, the “Thoomp, thoomp, thoomp,” of mortars in the distance resonated soon after. The first explosion struck right outside the bunker, with a second scoring a direct hit. Brinke and the other Marines inside dove for cover as explosions en­veloped the hill. He landed halfway through the door of another adjacent room inside the bunker. A satchel charge flew through the open bunker door, falling next to Brinke’s platoon commander, Second Lieutenant William Hunt. The bunker erupted in a ball of fire. Shrapnel ripped a large gash through Brinke’s leg, but the wall of the adjacent room pro­tected his upper half. He tried to move as the bunker burned and collapsed around him. In the chaos, he discovered the remains of Hunt, who absorbed much of the blast and died instantly.

Another Marine assisted Brinke outside the burning structure. As they exited, muzzle flashes pierced the darkness within inches of Brinke’s face. An NVA sapper waited outside against the bunker wall within arm’s reach. He unloaded on Brinke and his companion as they walked out. The two Marines fell back, hitting the ground outside the doorway. Miraculously, Brinke suffered only one gunshot in the arm near his shoulder. The other Marine was hit once in his leg. The enemy soldier scampered off to find his next victims, believing the two Marines were dead. Brinke lay bleeding from his wounds, waiting for another enemy to find him and finish the job.

LZ Russell occupied an exposed hilltop in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam. It sat less than 4 miles from the DMZ along the border with North Vietnam and within view of the Laotian border to the west. (Photo by LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)
Marines from 2/4 fire an 81mm mortar from LZ Russell. Note how the hill disappears steeply downward just beyond the parapet wall, with the jungle nearby marking the edge of the perimeter. (USMC)

Corporal Alvin Winchell took shelter in a fighting hole with his squad as the mortars impacted. A bunker nearby sud­denly exploded and collapsed, burying six Marines inside. In the flashes of light, Winchell saw NVA sappers advancing up the hill under the fire of their own mortars. Some of the enemy carried no weapons, but cradled explosive satchel charges in their arms and tossed them in each Marine bunker they passed. Winchell’s platoon sergeant ordered him to move his squad down the hill to a breach in the wire where sappers streamed through. Winchell gathered his machine gun team and sprinted toward a bunker near the breach. He set up the gun on the roof and scanned for targets.

“You could only see shadows in the dark until somebody popped up a flare,” Winchell remembered. “You don’t know if it’s a Marine or NVA, but it was just like ants coming up that hill.”

The machine-gun team opened fire on the shadows swarming from the jungle. The rattle of violence filled the air behind Winchell as the NVA overran LZ Russell and the battle devolved into utter chaos. Wounded and dying men screamed for help. American and Vietnamese weapons chattered back and forth. Darkness veiled the horrifying realities of hand-to-hand combat from a broader view. Through this phase of intensely personal killing, every Marine on the hill experienced his own unique version of the battle, and cemented in their minds the memories that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Numerous stories from the savage fighting that night later emerged. The overwhelming volume of simultaneous events, the darkness and the unmitigated confusion shrouded the details. Many of the Marines who inspired their legend are now gone. To many more, Feb. 25, 1969, remains a night too painful to discuss, even 55 years later. The stories that have come to light illuminate the ferocity of the battle, and how the actions of individual Marines across the hill turned the tide against the enemy.

GySgt Pedro Balignasay, Company Gunny for E/2/4, at LZ Russell. A three-war veteran and legend in his own time, he received a Silver Star for his actions on Feb. 25, 1969. (Courtesy of Robert Skeels)
In a glimpse from one Hotel Battery gun pit on LZ Russell, a friendly airstrike explodes on a nearby hill. NVA occupied the jungle surrounding LZ Russell, routinely harassing the Marines with mortars and small arms fire. (LtCol Charles Perriguey)

As Brinke lay on the ground, after being blown up and shot outside his bunker, Gunnery Sergeant Pedro Balignasay eventually passed by. By this point in his career, Balignasay earned renown as an old breed legend of the Corps. The Marines affectionately referred to him as, “Gunny Huk,” in honor of his Filipino roots. Born in the Philippines in 1927, Balignasay immigrated to the U.S. and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served in WW II, Korea, and saw three combat deployments in Vietnam before he retired in 1973. He was widely known by the grunts of 2/4 for his weapon of choice, carried at all times; a Filipino bolo knife.

“Hey Gunny Huk! Can you help me?” Brinke cried. “I need to get up!”
Balignasay approached. He held his bolo knife in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He hastily triaged Brinke and saw that he would survive, and he lay in a covered position.

“Sorry Marine, I can’t do anything more for you. I gotta go kill some NVA.”
Balignasay’s Silver Star citation de­scribes multiple times he was wounded that night as he roamed the hill directing uninjured Marines or helping move the wounded to cover. It alludes to his in­strumental role in, “killing numerous enemy and successfully defending their position.” At least five of these enemy reportedly fell victim to Gunny Huk’s beloved bolo.

LCpl Rick Davis in his bunker at LZ Russell. Davis took shelter in his bunker during the initial onslaught of Feb. 25, 1969, before exiting and discovering his gun pit overrun by NVA. (Courtesy of Rick Davis)
Capt Albert Hill, Company Commander of E/2/4, at LZ Russell. He was one of many Marines intimately involved in the hand-to-hand fight over the hill on Feb. 25, 1969. For his actions, Hill received a Silver Star. (Courtesy of Bob Skeels)

Captain Albert Hill, the Echo Co Commander, survived the initial barrage of mortars and satchel charges and entered the hand-to-hand clash over the hill. At one point, Hill pulled the pin on a grenade to hurl at an enemy. At that very moment, another NVA sapper rushed him. Hill locked into mortal combat, the live grenade still clutched in his hand. Unable to let go, lest he blow himself up alongside the sapper, Hill prevailed over his foe and used the grenade like a rock in his hand to bludgeon the enemy to death. Like Balignasay, Hill received a Silver Star for his role in defending the hill.

LCpl Rick Davis served as an artillery­man with Hotel Battery. His reinforced bunker withstood multiple direct hits during mortar barrage, and a thick wool blanket hung across the doorway de­flected satchel charges tossed by NVA sappers. The bombs detonated outside, disorienting the Marines, but leaving them unharmed. Davis searched the bunk­er for a rifle as an NVA officer boldly barked out orders from somewhere nearby. Davis and the other Marines pushed through the doorway with rifles ready. They killed several NVA outside their bunker as they moved a short dis­tance over the parapet into their gun pit.

The enemy soldier shouting orders stood on the parapet wall. Davis fired several rounds into him. Another Marine shoot­ing from the opposite direction fired into the soldier at the same time, and he fell dead. The Marines arranged in a small defensive position around the gun. Wounded men called out for help all around them. Amidst the explosions, gun fire, and hand-to-hand combat, Davis set out with the others to rescue them. They recovered several Marines, some lying wounded around their gun pits, others partially buried inside the collapsed bunkers.

Typical bunkers constructed at LZ Russell and dug into the hillside. Tragically, numerous Marines died in bunkers such as these as NVA sappers demolished them with satchel charges once they penetrated the wire. (LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)

When not preoccupied with beating back the NVA sappers, many like Davis undertook the enormous effort of saving the lives of their fellow Marines. Doc Rich Woy, a corpsman assigned to Brinke’s 3rd platoon, found Brinke lying outside the bunker door where he fell. Woy bandaged his wounds before pro­ceed­ing onto other patients.

“I could see Doc Woy working on one guy up by a mortar pit behind us,” said Winchell, recalling a scene from memory as his squad held the line. “Doc had a tube in his throat trying to keep him alive.”

Woy survived the same satchel charge that killed Hunt and wounded Brinke in the CP bunker. He extricated another platoon corpsman from the CP and moved him to safety near Winchell’s squad. From there, he worked his way up and down the hill treating wounded Marines. Eventually, he remained at the LZ triaging and loading critical patients on medevac choppers. For his tireless work, Woy received a Silver Star.

Many of the wounded lay trapped in bunkers, collapsed from the onslaught of satchel charges. Private Michael Harvey, a radio operator with 2/4, discovered two partially buried Marines. He worked feverishly removing the heavy debris. A bullet pierced a nearby fuel drum, lighting it on fire. Without hesitation, Harvey threw himself across the wounded Marines as the drum exploded. His body shielded them from the resulting fireball. He died as a result of the injuries he sustained. For his incredible actions, Harvey was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

Private First Class William Castillo, a mortarman with 2/4, freed several Ma­rines from a bunker destroyed in the initial moments of the attack, then single-handedly returned to firing his mortar. Incoming rounds blew him off the tube twice, but he got up and returned each time to continue firing. When another bunker exploded and started burning, Castillo ran to the entryway and pressed ahead through a thick cloud of black smoke rolling out the door. He discovered five Marines inside, blinded by the smoke and in shock. Castillo led all five outside to safety. He survived the night, and for his heroic actions, received the Navy Cross.

Looking up from a position down the hillside, a CH-46 prepares to land on top of LZ Russell. (LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)

Winchell remained with his squad on the perimeter mowing down sappers as they appeared from the jungle. For his courage and leadership over his squad through the battle, Winchell received a Bronze Star with combat “V.” He heard a scream for help up the hill behind him. He moved toward the voice and found the severely wounded corpsman moved to safety by Doc Woy. In excruciating pain, the corpsman instructed Winchell to grab two morphine syrettes from his bag and inject them into his buttocks. Winchell administered the medication, then rubbed his finger in the Doc’s blood and drew a “M” on his forehead. A new and deafening roar of explosions suddenly split Winchell’s ears and lit up the jungle around him. Friendly artillery fire, similar to the barrage Hotel Battery provided for FSB Neville earlier in the night, began raining down.

“It sounded like a freight train coming in,” Winchell recalled. “They rang the hill all around the perimeter. Some landed inside. I looked at the corpsman and told him, ‘I think we’re f—ked.’ ”

Mac, Gardner and the others on the LP willed their bodies into the dirt through the barrage. Still outside the wire, they lay directly under the intended impact zone.

“It was raining hell fire!” said Gardner. “Arty was landing all around us. The ground shook, the darkness lit up, and shrapnel was flying from the explosions striking the trees. All we could do was hug the ground and hope a round didn’t land on top of us!”

After what seemed an eternity, dawn broke mercifully over the hilltop. The friendly barrage ceased, and the fight for LZ Russell trailed off. The only NVA remaining inside the wire lay dead. The rest vanished back into the jungle. The morning revealed the battle’s horrific aftermath. The enemy successfully dis­abled three of the six howitzers. Bunkers around the hill crumbled in ruins with screaming Marines trapped inside. American and Vietnamese bodies lay intermingled in a grotesque spectacle attesting to the savage combat. Unidentifi­able body parts littered the hill, remnants of the many satchel charges employed by the sappers with devastating effect.

A view of Marines entering the wire at LZ Russell, taken in the summer of 1969 after the base was overrun on Feb. 25. (LtCol Charles Perriguey, USMCR)

This headline ran in Stars and Stripes within a week after the attack, succinctly describing the horror the Marines faced.

Miraculously, the four Marines on LP duty survived the night unscathed. They remained outside the wire waiting per­mis­sion to reenter friendly lines, lest they be mistaken as enemy and gunned down. Their anxiety soared as they sat in the quiet jungle. The peace was broken by a lone Marine somewhere nearby up the hill, calling out to God for help. Finally, they received the all clear.

The body of an NVA sapper shot through the head greeted them as they passed through the wire. Almost imme­diately, Mac directed the others toward a collapsed bunker to retrieve the body of a Marine buried inside. Gardner dis­covered the bunker was his own, which he shared with three others. They moved sand bags and ammo boxes to create an entrance. Inside, Gardner found the re­mains of another Marine from his squad who was up for LP duty the previous night, but Gardner went in his place. He suffered the initial onslaught of survivor’s guilt as he dug the Marine out and dragged the body up the hill to the LZ for evac­uation. His squad mate was the first dead body Gardner had ever touched. After­wards, Gardner and the others continued from bunker to bunker carrying dead Marines to the top of the hill.

The LZ shrank as bodies collected near the crest. Dead Marines were lined up awaiting their turn for evacuation, with dead NVA stacked nearby. Marines and corpsman triaged the wounded for evacuation as helicopters trickled down through a thick haze that settled over the hill. Twenty-nine Marines and Navy corpsmen were dead. Nearly 80 more were wounded. Those who remained piled the enemy dead high on a cargo net in an unsuccessful attempt to lift them from the hill under the belly of a helicopter. Finally, Marines were forced to toss the bodies over the steepest side of the hill to be burned. The helicopter squadrons stretched thin as they simultaneously evacuated casualties from LZ Russell and the fight at FSB Neville, where 14 died and almost 30 were wounded. In one night between the two hills, the price paid by the Marines and Navy corpsmen defending them amounted to 43 killed, and over 100 wounded.

Taken after dawn on the morning of Feb. 25, 1969, two Marines observe the body of a dead NVA soldier left inside the wire. These Marines and many other survivors endured the monumental task of evacuating their dead and wounded, removing the NVA bodies, and rebuilding LZ Russell to fight again. (Courtesy of Alvin Winchell)

In the weeks following Feb. 25, the infantry platoons that guarded the hill moved on quickly. In typical grunt fashion, no significant period of rest or reflection could be afforded. The Marines moved on to other hilltops, other jungles, other battles. For many, the experience at LZ Russell stood out as a defining moment of their time in combat and would forever dominate their dreams. In contrast, many artillerymen of Hotel Battery remained at LZ Russell through the spring and summer of 1969, daily reliving the fight they had all survived.
“I never slept after that night,” said Rick Davis, who remained on the hill with Hotel Battery for several months after the attack. “I just never would have put it past the NVA to come back and try to finish off the rest of us. We got resupply of some new guns, new ammo, new people. There was a lot of work to do.”

Some Marines, like LCpl Ken Heins, spent nearly their entire 13-month deployment on the hill. During the battle, Heins was blown up inside his bunker and trapped after he blacked out. He came to after daybreak when Marines entered the ruins and rescued him. Other Marines inside with him reported that NVA soldiers had entered the bunker during the night and stolen items off them as they played dead. Miraculously unwounded, Heins stayed on the hill and helped rebuild some of the bunkers where his friends were killed or maimed. The artillerymen started carrying loaded rifles and grenades to defend themselves at a moment’s notice, rather than relying solely on the grunts for protection. The NVA continued probing the lines and firing sporadically into the perimeter, but another assault like the night of Feb. 25 never materialized.

The battery fired thousands of rounds per month as the year wore on, staying busier than they had ever been. At one point, the work so thoroughly exhausted Heins that he slept uninterrupted through the awe-inspiring and earth-quaking devastation wrought by a nearby B-52 “arc light” bombing run. In September, the fire missions unexpectedly came to an abrupt and definitive halt. The Marines received orders to vacate the hill and destroy the base. Reasoning behind the decision failed to disseminate through the ranks. To a Marine like Heins, after spending his entire deployment on the hill, surviving the February assault, and grieving the friends he’d lost there, the abandonment of LZ Russell made all of it feel like a tragic waste.

Hotel Battery prepared their guns and equipment to be hauled out. Engineers rigged explosives to all the bunkers and piled high the extra powder bags, fuel, ammo, and any other gear condemned to destruction. They drenched everything with gasoline in preparation for the great conflagration that would render the hill­top useless to the NVA. On Sept. 21, Heins loaded the last of his gear onto a helicopter and climbed aboard. LZ Russell shrank beneath him as the chopper ascended. Without warning, a massive explosion detonated on the LZ. Heins felt and heard the “BOOM” over the sound of the heli­copter. A mushroom cloud expanded into the sky.

“Holy shit!” he yelled. “They just blew the hill up! They didn’t leave us much time to get the hell out of the way!”

When the chopper landed, Heins learned the explosion happened pre­maturely, and by accident. Reportedly, a Vietnamese Kit Carson Scout on the LZ flicked a burning cigarette butt into a pile of powder bags. The powder ignited, sparking a monumental chain of explo­sions. Two Marines and two Kit Carson Scouts perished. Numerous others were severely wounded. One Marine, PFC James W. Jackson Jr., was evacuated to a hospital in Quang Tri alongside the other wounded, but somehow mysterious­ly vanished from the emergency room. Investigators never discovered any evi­dence or sign of him, and to this day, Jackson is listed as missing in action, presumed dead. The victims of Sept. 21, 1969, marked the tragic ending to the existence of LZ Russell.

Survivors fought to move on from the battle. Other veterans from Vietnam or later wars who endured similarly horrific events are the only ones who can truly understand the struggle these men en­dured. They fought for a return to normal life. They fought for their families and fought for themselves. Today, even five and a half decades later, they still face the demons of LZ Russell on a daily basis. Tragically, a few of these veterans ended their own lives, becoming the last victims claimed by the long-forgotten hill.

“There are veterans from LZ Russell all around the country, and they are all wounded,” reflected Rick Davis. “They’ve been wounded for a lot of years, and everybody is on a mission to help everybody else. Everyone saw what happened that night in 100 different ways and has been affected differently. There have been divorces, people getting fired and losing everything they have, people getting sick, committing suicide, families left with questions. There was a lot of stuff going on, and it was a mess. Somebody had to pay the price for what happened that night. We’ve been paying it ever since.”

In the late 1990s, a Marine from Hotel Battery named Skip Poindexter published a website in memory of LZ Russell. The site evolved into a repository of photo­graphs and written memories of veterans who spent time on the hill. In August 2000, the LZ Russell Association was officially founded, with Heins as pres­ident. The organization scheduled the first reunion of LZ Russell veterans in Las Vegas. Marines gathered from around the country. For some, the initial excite­ment faded quickly as they sat face to face with other veterans, some of whom they had not seen since Feb. 25, 1969.

For years, they buried memories that they hesitated to unearth. Old animosities between the artillery battery and the infantry units reared. The Marines spent their lives after Vietnam refusing to speak of the events with people who could never understand them, and now suddenly faced the only ones who could. After a time, and with enough alcohol, the tension dissipated. The Marines pieced together the puzzle of the battle, filling in gaps for each other that had bothered them for years. More reunions took place, aiding greatly in the healing process. For numerous veterans of LZ Russell, how­ever, attending the reunions and the pas­sage of time remains inadequate, and they refuse to discuss the battle to this day.

Heins returned to Vietnam on several occasions in the years after the war. On five different trips, he scaled the old hill back to the top where LZ Russell once stood.

“Personally, I feel like half of me died up there.”

In this sentiment, Heins is not alone. On two of his trips to the hill, Heins took with him the ashes of other LZ Russell survivors to spread on the hill. Their final wishes were to be reunited with their brothers lost there, and the part of their youth that never returned home.

“It is with you, my friend,
who died so long ago
with a gasp and eyes rolled back.
So why can’t I feel?
Because my presence is not present.
My presence is with you…
I’m searching, searching for you.
Let me touch ‘The Wall’ where your name is,
and recall the face and the voice with a silly grin.
Let me reach out and touch you,
instead of a black granite slab.
I’m searching for you, and searching for me.”
(Poem by Dennis Gardner).

Author’s bio: Kyle Watts is the staff writer for Leatherneck. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2009-2013. He is the 2019 winner of the Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr. Award for Marine Corps History. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife and three children.

A Self-Imposed Charter: Marines Take the Initiative to Record their Own Histories

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Marines bear the responsibility of honoring and preserving our heritage. We are instilled with the significance of our history from the moment we set foot on the yellow footprints. The qualities that define Ma­rines and differentiate us from the rest of the military are derived from many timeless examples set across the past 250 years.

To capture the spirit of this heritage, organizations like the USMC History Division are charged with recording, pre­serving, safeguarding, and disseminating volumes on the cumulative experience of Marines. While these official histories magnificently document the Corps’ achieve­ments, the sheer volume of in­for­mation available leaves the work incomplete.

Every Marine possesses a story worth telling. Individuals from each Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) create a unique slice of Marine Corps history, in many cases known only to those involved in that community. The stories from these niches energize and animate the details of an official history, describing not only what happened, but illuminating what it was like to be there. As time progresses, much of this history will only be passed on through individuals or groups who take it upon themselves to do so.

For one group of Marines representing an eliminated MOS, this self-imposed charter is not taken lightly. The veterans of the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association (VTA) are setting the example for other groups or individuals exploring options to preserve their own history.

The VTA launched its historical pres­er­vation efforts in 1998, even before the organization’s incorporation. Volume one, issue one of the VTA’s signature pub­lication, “Sponson Box,” was mailed out as a one-page document advertising an upcoming reunion for the 30th an­niversary of the Tet Offensive. It listed the names of the tank officers killed in action in Vietnam from 1st and 3rd Tank Battalions.

The VTA began as a chapter of a broad­er organization, the Marine Corps Tankers Association (MCTA). At the time of the newsletter’s publication, World War II or Korean War tankers filled out the MCTA. As the veterans from Vietnam neared retirement and watched their children grow families of their own, many found a renewed desire to connect with their buddies from the war. The first “Sponson Box” call went out and the group planted roots. In 1999, the USMC VTA was established as a non­profit organization.

The VTA eventually separated from the MCTA as its own entity, allowing it the freedom to financially support its own activities and priorities. While many of the veterans retained membership with the MCTA, the new association flourished. Any Marine of any MOS who served with a tank or Ontos battalion in Vietnam was eligible to join. Membership peaked at over 500 members around 10 years after the association was established. Today, some 400 veterans retain VTA membership. These include tankers, mechanics, various support MOSs, and even several infantry Marines who did not serve directly under a tank battalion, but credit tanks with keeping them alive through their time in country.

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USCMC VTA President John Wear, right, inspects an M48 “Patton” tank at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2018. (Photo courtesy of USMC VTA)

VTA events focus on a structured ef­fort and purpose, described in the as­sociation’s motto: “Ensuring our legacy through reunion, renewal, and remem­brance.” Individual members passionately carry out the spirit of this creed through their financial support and avid partici­pation in the group’s events and historical programs. The VTA’s methods of ensur­ing that legacy and preserving their his­tory evolved significantly since the first volume of the “Sponson Box” was mailed out 25 years ago.

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Member stories from the VTA’s newsletter, the “Sponson Box,” are compiled into four volumes titled “Forgotten Tracks.” These books are currently housed in various collections, such as the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Kyle Watts.“Sponson Box” remains the flagship publication of the VTA, and a hallmark of their historical program. Published four times a year, the magazine spans 48 pages with history, humor, association news and upcoming events. Individual Marines share their stories from Vietnam within its pages, affording them both a lasting place to see their work printed, and an audience that will understand and respond to them in the following issue. Hundreds of stories, otherwise told only in conversation around a reunion table, have been recorded and are publicly avail­able through the VTA website. Some Marines like Ben Cole have written nu­merous times for the “Sponson Box.” Cole served with Company A, 3rd Tank Battalion in Vietnam. He carried a cam­era throughout his time in combat and captured many stunning images. The newsletter provided a space for Cole to share some of his photographs with the people who would best relate to them, and explain the background stories.

Member stories from the “Sponson Box” were eventually clipped from the publication and reproduced as stand-alone books. So many writings existed from past issues that four full volumes were necessary to house them. Titled, “Forgotten Tracks: Stories from Marine Tankers in Vietnam,” each of the four books are currently included in the Library of Congress, the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive, and the Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center.

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Wally Young, center, and other VTA members had the opportunity to drive their beloved tanks once again in 2022 at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Wyo. Courtesy of National Museum of Military Vehicles.

In 2014, the VTA added one of its most popular and widely recognized historical programs. A local news agency attended the reunion that year in San Antonio, Texas, to record the stories of veterans from the area. The recordings grew in popularity and the agency included association members from other locations. From then on, the VTA hired a professional videographer to attend each reunion and expand their video library. At their most recent reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo., during Sep­tember 2023, VTA members recorded an additional 17 interviews to be added to the collection. These included tankers and other Marines such as infantryman Gil Hernandez. Hernandez served in Vietnam with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He suffered severe wounds and was nearly killed while riding on a tank, and credits the tankers with saving his life. He is an active VTA member and has attended three reunions.

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Young Marines from the local Pikes Peak region joined VTA members at multiple points throughout the 2023 reunion, including serving as the honor guard at the farewell banquet on the final night of the gathering. Clayton Price.
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Peter Ritch, left, and John Wear at the 2015 reunion in Washington, D.C. Ritch served as a board member for the VTA and played a critical role in its history program. Ritch passed away in September 2021. (Photo by Richard Carmer)

Even before the addition of interviews recorded in Colorado, the VTA YouTube channel boasts impressive numbers. As of September 2023, the channel contained 91 videos with more than 1,100 subscrib­ers. Over 400,000 viewers from 40 dif­ferent countries have spent more than 85,000 hours watching the interviews. The videos offer a unique glimpse inside the stories, allowing viewers to see the veteran in action, and hear the candid stories in his own words.

For the veterans who have no desire to write and do not wish to be on camera, VTA member Frank “Tree” Remkiewicz created a third venue for capturing their stories. In 2020, Remkiewicz recorded the first episode of the podcast, “Tracking Our History.”

“We’ve got over 30 podcast episodes now, and almost every one of these guys has never written a story or recorded a video,” said John Wear, the VTA pres­ident for the last 18 years. “Frank figured out that these guys know they can’t write or don’t want to, and that they don’t want to go on camera. But you get them on the telephone, and they can’t shut their mouth. All they need to do is talk.”

The expansive historical program main­tained and operated by the VTA came about over a long period of time and through the tireless efforts of many VTA leaders. The commitment of one man, however, helped the project progress to its current extent. Peter Ritch, a former platoon commander with Company B, 3rd Tank Battalion during 1968 and 1969, took the lead for the VTA in organizing the historical program. He played a key role in curating “Sponson Box” stories for the four volumes of “Forgotten Tracks.” He initiated the video oral history pro­gram and coordinated its execution at each reunion. Sadly, Ritch passed away in September 2021, but his impact on the program endures. His voice is heard from behind the camera as the interviewer in many videos, and he took part in a group recording in 2015, sharing his experience in a larger event.

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VTA members and other reunion guests ride an M48 “Patton” tank at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in 2022. Courtesy of National Museum of Military Vehicles.

An important piece of the legacy to be preserved by the VTA comes not just from being tankers, but from being Ma­rines. Like many USMC veterans, VTA members hold their time in the Corps as a defining feature of their lives, and share that passion with younger generations. At the most recent reunion in Colorado, for example, youths from the local Young Marines organization joined in at numer­ous points. One evening, 15 Young Ma­rines, ranging in age from 10 to 18, spent several hours at the hotel reception area with VTA members asking what it was like to be a tanker and fight in Vietnam. The older veterans explained in many different ways what it meant to them to be a tanker, but more importantly, what it meant to wear the uniform of a United States Marine.

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Peter Ritch, far left, served as the interviewer behind the camera on numerous occasions, helping develop the impressive library of oral histories created and maintained by the VTA. Richard Carmer.

With the removal of tanks from the Corps, an end date now exists in the lineage of Marine tankers. For the vet­erans of the VTA, the change highlights the significance of their work and the importance of passing the torch onto the generation of tankers who came after them.

“Most of the younger tanker veterans from Desert Storm or the Global War on Terror are still at the age where they are highly interested in their families and their careers,” said John Wear. “The MCTA is recruiting and trying to get more interest in attending their reunions, but it is a struggle.”

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VTA member Bob Peavey conducts the “Fallen Heroes” presentation at the 2019 reunion in Seattle, Wash. At every reunion, Peavey creates a presentation detailing the life of a tanker killed in action in Vietnam. These stories include commentary from surviving family members, when possible, and leave a profound impression on the viewers at each occasion. Richard Carmer.

As younger veterans reach the age where reflection and communion take on a greater importance, groups like the MCTA will be present to give them a forum to reconnect. Hopefully, the path laid down by the VTA will both inspire these Marines to share their own stories, and show them how to successfully do so. For other groups of Marines who feel their stories have not been adequately told, the VTA’s example proves that, while it may be tough, and it may take time and prodding, recording your own history will have a lasting impact.

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Peter Ritch, Robert Skeels, Harold Riensche, and Mike Bolenbaugh discuss their viewpoints on the tank retriever ambush of March 24, 1969. For his heroic actions that day, Riensche received the Navy Cross. Courtesy of USMC VTA.
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The VTA reunion group gathered at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Wyo., in 2022. Courtesy of USMC VTA.
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John Wear, left, and Bruce Van Apeldoorn Sr., an executive director on the VTA board, at the 2023 reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo. Clayton Price.

Author’s bio: Kyle Watts is the staff writer for Leatherneck. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2009-2013. He is the 2019 winner of the Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr. Award for Marine Corps History. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife and three children.

Blurred Boundaries: The Front Lines and The Homefront

On Oct. 6, 1862, The New York Times ran a short article wedged in the corner of a page in their daily paper titled “Antietam Reproduced.” The Battle of Antietam had occurred a few weeks before and had resulted in the worst casualty numbers the war had seen thus far. It would be the bloodiest single day of combat for the U.S. military until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistants rushed to Sharpsburg, Md., to capture the aftermath of the conflict. The photographs they produced showed the state of the battlefield before the Confederate dead were removed. Soon afterward, Mathew Brady, a photographer who worked closely with Gardner during the war, displayed these photographs for public viewing in his personal studio in New York City. “If our readers wish to know the horrors of the battle-field,” said The New York Times, “let them go to Brady’s Gallery, and see the fearful reproductions which he has on exhibition, and for sale.”

This marked a major step forward in the way the civilian population interacted with the Civil War. For possibly the first time, the public was exposed to “all the literal repulsiveness of [the] nature” of combat, and they witnessed “the naked corpses of our dead soldiers side by side in the quiet impassiveness of rest. Blackened faces, distorted features, expressions most agonizing, and details of absolute verity.” The article goes on to praise the enterprise, perseverance and courage of these artists, noting that the photographs could “teach us a lesson which it is well for us to learn.” However, it is left up to the reader to decide what conclusion should be drawn from these gruesome images—from the effects of combat on the human body. But given that the anonymous author wasn’t writing from one of the bloody campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley or from the ranks of the Army of the Potomac, it is safe to assume the collective “us” he refers to is the civilian population far from the front lines. He drives this point home when he pairs the images of the soldiers killed in action with that of the throngs of people walking down Broadway in New York City. The author imagines that “they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.” This is his attempt to force a collision between the battlefield and the homefront in the mind of the reader, to merge the two spheres and bring the horrors of war to the civilian mind.

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Recruit Isaiah Holloman (above) and other recruits with Platoon 3084, Co I, 3rd Recruit Training Bn (right) pose for boot camp photos during training on Parris Island, Sept. 5, 2013. Cpl Caitlin Brink, USMC
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Cpl Caitlin Brink, USMC

The term “homefront” is relatively new, first appearing around World War I in various bond drive literature and other campaigns that encouraged civilians to support the war effort and the courageous men who were fighting at the front. It grew in popularity during World War II when similar sentiments helped drive industry to support war efforts while much of the manpower was fighting abroad. But it is a concept that feels, at best, tenuous in the 21st century. If there ever was a distinction between the homefront and the front lines of war, that chasm appears to be shrinking—or may not have ever existed in the first place. This blurring of boundaries is in large part due to the proliferation of photography, videography and social media in our increasingly digital age.

Photography occupies a unique place in military culture. We still rely on it heavily to reinforce our ideal of what the military should be. Anyone who has been through Parris Island in the last 30 years knows this phenomenon all too well. There are photographers at every major training event, from the moment you step off the bus and onto the yellow footprints to the eagle, globe and anchor ceremony when you are first given the title of Marine. The quintessential dress blues photo taken near the end of boot camp doesn’t include the infamous blue coat at all but rather a modified vest (more bulletproof vest than dress coat) that is quickly switched from recruit to recruit as they move in front of the camera, assembly line style. Outside of the military, there are any number of websites, that offer full-size cardboard cutout photographs to temporarily take the place of your loved one while they are deployed abroad. For an additional $20, you can add a customized text bubble. This style of photography is in some ways a far cry from Gardner’s wet plates of bloated corpses on major battlefields of the American Civil War. Yet in other ways, it is the exact type of evolution one might expect as photography became more accessible to the masses, as well as easier and more financially reasonable to produce.

Photography has long been an inte­gral part of the military experience in war and garrison. From the moment cameras became compact enough to be trans­ported, they found their way onto the battlefields. Roger Fenton documented the Crimean War in 1855, less than 30 years after the first still photo was captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using a sliding wooden box camera. Alexander Gardner was just one of several photographers to document the American Civil War less than 10 years later. While Fenton’s work was largely relegated to the rear and to scenic por­traits of battlefields, the American Civil War offered ample opportunities to cap­ture the grisly effects of combat. In her book on Mathew Brady, Mary Panzer remarked that one of the unique features of Brady’s work as a photographer was that his “photographs allowed viewers to see the war through the eyes of their loved ones. Gardner’s, by contrast, re­vealed the world that those soldiers would never see. Even as early as 1860, it was clear that Brady’s gallery contributed to the changed understanding of American heroes and history.” Still, it wasn’t until World War II that photographers at­tempted true combat photography in earnest.

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“The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” captured by photographer Robert Fenton in 1855 during the Crimean War, shows an empty battlefield littered with cannonballs. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Photographers such as Robert Capa landed on the beaches of Normandy with American forces and took photos as bul­lets ripped past him. These same photos were replicated in painstaking detail for the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” which attests to the magnitude a series of photographs can have on the collective conscience of future generations.

And it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that civilians began to experience some­thing closer to the truth during war. The telegraph gave way to the phone, which gave way to cable news, and by the time of American involvement in Vietnam, civilians at home were witnessing the war from their living rooms, night after night, year after year. According to the Library of Congress, 9% of households in 1950 owned a television. That number skyrocketed to 90% by the mid-1960s. The rapid expansion of television owner­ship in the United States meant that the vast majority of the population had access to nightly reports from the war in Viet­nam. This jump forward in communi­cation brought about the abrupt realiza­tion that the distinction between the home­front and the front lines of combat had been punctured.

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During the fighting on Okinawa, Marine Paul Ison dashes “through Death Valley” to a forward point of cover to avoid a hail of enemy machine-gun fire. USMC photo.

This advancement coincides with another major milestone in combat photo­graphy. For perhaps the first time in history, iconic photos of spontaneous moments in the war were exactly that: spontaneous. Whereas public movie theaters had shown carefully orchestrated propaganda reels during World War II, American citizens were witnessing the war in their private spaces in a way that hadn’t happened before. This advance­ment played a major role in shaping the public perception of the conflict. It is not difficult to see the ubiquitous smartphone as an extension of a loved one’s eyes in the ever-increasing digital age, especially when considering the events of Afghani­stan and the United States’ withdrawal. Obviously, the real, physical dangers will always pose their most immediate threat to those located on the front lines of the action. But the distinction between the two has become muddled and blurred in a way that will change the way we see war.

TSgt Heber D. Maxwell, chief cameraman of the 3rd Amphibious Corps, captures live footage of Marine aviators on Guadalcanal with the Mitchell camera. TSgt Dave Looney, USMC.
An overhead view of Japanese RADM Shigematsu Sakaibara, center right, signing documents for the surrender of Wake Island into U.S. hands on board USS Levy (DE-162) on Sept. 4, 1945. Among the Marines and Sailors witnessing the signing are BGen Lawson H.M. Sanderson, center left, the commanding officer of the 4th Marine Air Wing (MAW), who signed the document for the United States. USMC photo.
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CBS news commentator Walter Cronkite prepares to cover the Marine advance into Hue City, Feb. 20, 1968, for television audiences, allowing civilians at home a look into war on the front lines. Cpl M.J. Smedley, USMC.
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During Operation Desert Storm, an M60A1 Marine tank with Task Force Papa Bear moves through a battlefield darkened by burning oil wells, which have blocked all sunlight in the area. LtCol Charles H. Cureton, USMC.

A similar and wider-reaching parallel can be made between smartphone own­er­ship and social media usage in the 21st century. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Americans own a smartphone, which has jumped from 35% less than 10 years ago. Seventy-two percent of Americans use some type of social media, which has grown from 5% when they first began tracking this figure in 2005. These figures reflect a broad population that is using this technology daily. It indicates a deep saturation that affects how we witness the world.

Author Susan Sontag viewed photog­raphy as the most democratic of all the arts. In her estimation, “photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced.” The proliferation of social media use only makes this idea truer. Censorship by these various applications remains a contested and ongoing conversation, but it stands to reason that it has never been easier for a single individual to voice an opinion or broadcast an event. Sontag wrote that “there is a peculiar heroism abroad in the world since the invention of cameras: the heroism of vision. Photography opened up a new model of freelance activity—allowing each person to display a certain unique, avid sensibility.”

This unique sensibility she describes has never been more acutely felt in the mind of the American public than with the recent events of the drawdown in Afghanistan. It has only increased in the intervening decades between Vietnam and the global war on terror. Individuals now have the ability to broadcast instantly without the backing of any major network or government. There is a colossal amount of power in this. We are no longer bound by major network corporations or pub­lications. The gatekeepers have all been removed.

In August of 2021, the United States ended its 20-year war in the Middle East in an event that was watched in real-time all over the world. The poorly executed exit resulted in mass confusion and hysteria. There were many casualties in the course of several days, including many of our allies who risked their own lives to help the United States. The Taliban followed closely on the heels of the U.S. military and took back cities in hours that had taken U.S. forces years to cap­ture. Anyone with a stable Wi-Fi con­nection could watch in real-time as overcrowded airplanes took off from the airport in Kabul, dropping Afghan citi­zens clinging to the outside of the aircraft to their deaths. The parallels to the photo­graphs of people falling from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks were remarked on ad nauseam, as were the chilling similarities to photos of the fall of Saigon in 1975 which, when placed side by side, look almost identical.

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Vietnamese refugees from Saigon board a CH-53 Sea Stallion during an evacuation after the city fell. GySgt D.L. Shearer, USMC.
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Afghan civilians line up and wait with their belongings to board U.S. aircraft during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021. Sgt Samuel Ruiz, USMC.

This collective reaction suggests that the compiled recorded history of war has had a lasting effect on the American psyche. It is no longer possible to fully separate the horrors of the front lines from the safety of the homefront. The idea that there was ever any real separa­tion was probably closer to an illusion, one that we have collectively engaged in for the last century. What we are exper­iencing today in the hyper-realistic and immediate realm of social media has been a long time coming. When one watches the footage captured in Afghanistan on smartphones held by everyday citizens and noncombatant civilians, it is hard to think back to a more fully realized, vir­tual viewing gallery like the one Mathew Brady established during his career. Of course, those who are physically sep­arated from the battlefield, whether it be by hundreds of miles or large bodies of water, will always be safe in the physical sense. But it stands to reason that bearing witness, however distant, is a form of participation. If we are participants, we are in some way complicit.

There’s a moment in Jess Walter’s novel “The Zero,” published in 2006, in which a New York Police Department detective named Paul who responded to the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks remarks, “Sometimes I wish we’d just gone to a bar that morning and watched the whole thing on CNN. You know what I mean? I envy people who watched it on TV. They got to see the whole thing. People ask me what it was like and I honestly don’t know. Sometimes, I think the people who watched it on TV saw more than we did. It’s like, the further away you were from this thing, the more sense it made. Hell, I still feel like I have no idea what even happened. No matter how many times I tell the story, it still makes no sense to me. You know?” Paul feels unable to accurately process what really happened to him, with the wider implication that somehow the events captured from a distance are more real than having been there in the moment itself.

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GySgt Ryan P. Shane runs into enemy fire on a street in Fallujah to pull a wounded comrade to safety, Nov. 9, 2004. Cpl Joel A. Chaverri, USMC.
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This photo captures a mine clearing line charge detonating while Marines with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion conduct a clearing operation on Route 611 during Operation Outlaw Wraith in Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2010. Cpl John McCall, USMC.

This moment lends even greater weight to the idea of media and the rapid transfer of this information holding more validity in the collective American conscience because of its ability to spread a particular narrative to a wide audience. It is a scene that perfectly captures what French phi­losopher Jean Baudrillard refers to as “the image as simulacra,” wherein the representation of reality (e.g., news foot­age of the terrorist attacks) contains more truth than having experienced the event in person—and therefore becomes reality. Social media use is only going to continue to grow and, with it, the re­sponsibility for that usage. We can no longer rest on the idea of being on a homefront while we witness the events of war as they occur in the palms of our hands.

The likelihood of increased conflict abroad has only grown since the with­drawal of American forces from Afghani­stan. Less than a year after people wit­nessed the chaos and horror at Hamid Karzai International Airport, they were able to witness actual trench warfare unlike anything that has been seen since WW I from footage captured on GoPro cameras mounted on the helmets of Ukrainian soldiers and Western volun­teers. In October 2023, I watched one in­dependent journalist livestream incom­ing rockets from Gaza as convoys of Israel Defense Forces troops passed him along a highway in Israel. He remarked on how he was hoping to capture as many interviews as possible within the narrow time constraint he had for being on the ground in country. He was using paid time off from his full-time job as a special ed teacher to be there. The era of distinct, easily identifiable divides between the homefront and the front lines is a thing of the past if it ever really existed at all. In the book “On Photography,” Sontag likened the camera to a firearm, writing, “one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring.” If the camera is a fire­arm, then social media is a nuclear warhead. With growing instability and conflict on the rise all over the world, civilians will have to reckon with whether their voyeurism is just benign spectator­ship or something closer to a type of participation that we are only just begin­ning to understand.

Author’s bio: Michael Jerome Plunkett is a writer from Long Island. He served in the Marine Corps, and after working in the financial industry for Fidelity Investments and Morgan Stanley for several years, began pursuing writing as a career. He leads the Patrol Base Abbate Book Club and is the host of the LitWar Podcast.

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Marines who were present during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport looked after children who had been separated from their families amidst the chaos. Sgt Samuel Ruiz, USMC.
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During Urban Advanced Naval Technologies exercise 2018, Marines with “Kilo” Co, 3rd Bn, 4th Marine, 1stMarDiv look at a smartphone with Beartooth radio capabilities, which allow them to talk, text and see teammates on a map without requiring cellular service or Wi-Fi, March 21, 2018. LCpl Robert Alejandre, USMC.

 

A Day in the Life of a MARSOC Critical Skills Operator

It’s a few minutes after 4 a.m. when Marine Staff Sergeant Steven McCall rolls out of bed. His alarm isn’t set to go off for several minutes, but his body is accustomed to the early morning wakeups. He sets the alarm on his phone out of habit. McCall ambles to the bath­room, shaves, and brushes his teeth. He quietly gets dressed without turning the bedroom light on, so as not to wake his half-sleeping wife. It’s a kind gesture, but she’s used to the early mornings. They’ve been happening for 13 years.

McCall has been waking up before dawn since he first enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2010. He joined as an infantryman when he was 18. Since then, he’s deployed all over the world from Afghanistan to Somalia. But he’s spent the majority of his career working along the coast of North Carolina at Camp Lejeune and its satellite facilities.

Camp Lejeune—a sprawling 156,000-acre plot of coastal swamps and long-leaf pine forests—is home to the venerated 2nd Marine Division. McCall spent his first decade in the military assigned to the division’s 8th Marine Regiment. But Lejeune and its satellite facilities are also home to an elite unit: the Marine Raider Regiment. It’s there, among the revered amphibious warfighters, that McCall now spends his time.

It’s a cool 52 degrees this morning, but McCall knows the crisp air will soon give way to temperatures in the mid-70s. He throws a hoodie on for his drive to work and tosses his 60-pound pack in the backseat of his truck. In it, he’s got everything he’ll need for the day’s work. McCall packed the night before, like all of the Critical Skills Operators (CSOs) in his team did. Unlike during McCall’s time in the infantry, there was no packing list for the upcoming training cycle.

“They’re not children,” McCall said. “At this point in their careers, CSOs should know what they’re going to need. If there is something special for a par­ticular training event, they’re told ahead of time. There’s no need to micro­manage here.”

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An explosive ordnance disposal technician with Marine Forces Special Operations Command prepares to safely reduce an improvised explosive device during a training event on June 17, 2022. Sgt Brennan Priest, USMC.

For those Marines who prove them­selves worthy of serving in the Raider battalion, there’s a little more room for autonomy. There is no handholding in the world of special operations—and for good reason. Most of the missions given to Ma­rine Raiders require small teams of CSOs to thrive on their own in remote corners of the globe with minimal guid­ance. Micromanagement during training only hinders the Marines’ ability to excel where others can’t.

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A Marine with the 3rd Marine Raider Bn performs close-quarters battle training at Eglin Range, Fla., May 22, 2018. Marine Raiders work in small teams in remote locations with little guidance, requiring intense and rigorous training. SrA Joseph Pick, USAF.
Since their official inception in 2006, members of Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) have deployed more than 300 times to over 40 countries and executed myriad complex missions. Marine Raiders have been called upon to conduct foreign internal defense, coun­terinsurgency, direct action, special re­connaissance, maritime interdiction and counterterrorism operations. In short, they do it all. But what separates Raiders from their special operations peers who hail from branches of the military? According to MARSOC plankowner Clint Trial, it comes down to one factor. Unlike special operations soldiers, Sailors, and airmen, all CSOs are Marines first, operators second.

“What you see in CSOs are the qual­ities you see in all Marines, but amplified tremendously,” Trial said. “The same aggressive, no-fail mindset instilled in all Marines on training day one of bootcamp shines brightest among CSOs. These guys never do anything half-assed.”

Trial adds that CSOs aren’t just par­ticularly aggressive or gung-ho—they’re also cognitively gifted and intellectually capable of thinking outside the box to solve a problem. They can analyze rapidly evolving situations and consistently respond with workable solutions.

“If you give them a task—no matter how daunting or challenging—they will get it done. No matter what,” said Trial.

That no-fail Raider mentality is some­thing Trial is intimately familiar with.

In 2019, Trial was operating in Afghan­i­stan’s Nangarhar Province along the Pakistan border as part of a Joint Spe­cial Operations Command (JSOC) spe­cial missions unit. The small team was com­posed of members from every branch of the U.S. military, and whose job it was to hunt high-value targets of both the Islamic State and the Taliban. While navigating through the country’s rocky terrain, Trial triggered an improvised explosive device. The blast severed both of his legs. While Trial lay in the rocky Afghan soil, hemorrhaging deadly amounts of blood, he fought to remain conscious. With his life in limbo, Trial helped coordinate a response over the radio. His actions after the explosion exemplified the grit and no-quit attitude Marine Raiders have built their reputation around.

Trial may have epitomized the spiritus invictus of Marine Raiders as recently as a few years ago, but that tradition has passed through generations of Raiders. The elite Marines trace their lineage back to the very first official special operations unit in American history: the Marine Raiders of World War II.

When the Empire of Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, it set the wheels of history into motion. The brazen attack became the catalyst that launched the United States into WW II and let the Marine Corps off its leash.

Following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. military to create a group of highly specialized troops similar to British Commandos. As a highly adaptable amphibious fighting force that already had a reputation for being consistently reliable, the Marine Corps was the obvious choice for where the experimental new commandos should come from. However, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Thomas Holcomb, was not keen on designating a select few Marines as “elite.” To Holcomb, the entire branch was already considered as such. But when the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, seconded the President’s request, Holcomb capitulated. In February 1942, he ordered two bat­talions of specially trained Marines to be formed. Holcomb dubbed the new com­mandos “Raiders” two months before the Army established their own elite light infantrymen known as Rangers. While the two branches formed similar units almost simultaneously, the Raiders were the first to test their mettle against America’s enemies.

The 1st and 2nd Marine Raider battal­ions were among the first American troops to go on the offensive against the Japanese. Less than six months after form­ing, men of the 1st Raider Battal­ion—led by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson—landed on the island of Tulagi and fought a vicious 24-hour battle against the Japanese. The Raiders emerged victorious, suffering 45 Marines killed in action while killing more than 300 enemy troops. A few days later and more than 1,000 miles away, the 2nd Ma­rine Raider Battalion—commanded by Major Evans Carlson—used small in­flatable boats launched from sub­marines to conduct a nighttime raid against Makin atoll in the Gilbert Islands. In spite of poor weather and stiff Japanese resist­ance, the Raiders destroyed several Japa­nese boats and inflicted heavy casualties.

Notwithstanding their early successes, the island hopping campaign in the Pacific ultimately required more conventional Marines with little need for a commando-style special operations force. So, in February of 1944, the Raider battalions were disbanded, and the men dispersed to units across the Corps. The former Raiders went on to fight in every major battle in the Pacific, spanning the top of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi to Okinawa’s Shuri castle.

Although the need for Raiders dis­sipated as the Pacific devolved into total war, the Marines’ venture into special operations was not in vain. The Raiders proved the value of highly trained war­fighters capable of carrying out missions beyond the scope of conventional in­fantry. It also showed the United States that Marines make exceptional special operators—a fact that directly contributed to the creation of MARSOC six decades later.

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This Special Operations Command Marine provides security support of a key leadership engagement operation during Weapons and Tactics Instructor course 2-19 at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., April 11, 2019. Sgt Sean J. Berry, USMC.
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While acting as a host nation military member, a special operations Marine clears a building during a RAVEN unit readiness exercise in Nashville, Tenn., April 30, 2021. RAVEN is a training exercise held to evaluate a special operations company prior to deployment. Cpl Brennan Priest, USMC.
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During a company training event in Jacksonville, N.C., Marine Raiders refine their marksmanship techniques while firing the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. (Photo by Cpl Brennan Priest, USMC)

By the time McCall pulls onto MARSOC’s private compound aboard Marine installation Stone Bay, the early morning darkness has given way to dawn. When he steps out of his truck, he hears the familiar hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle circling overhead. Marines who work with small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) are there testing new systems most mornings. After all, it’s that kind of integration with cutting-edge technology that some Marines believe separates Raiders from the rest of SOCOM.

“CSOs carry out traditional special operations missions, but they have the capacity to conduct cyber operations in ways conventional units can’t. Cyber operations are emerging as one of the things we do better [than other SOF],” McCall said.

But today isn’t about cyber warfare or experimental unmanned aircraft. Today, McCall’s eight-man team is sharpening their close quarters battle (CQB) skills. Room-clearing is a perishable skill each of the CSOs first learned in the infantry but have since gone on to perfect as Raiders.

“Everyone loves CQB. It’s fun and it’s always relevant,” McCall said.

The members of McCall’s team have practiced the ins and outs of fighting in urban terrain at every level. They’ve prac­ticed CQB as individuals and prog­ressed to working as a team, complete with an array of attached enablers. CSOs even perfect the art of CQB when they’re only a small part of much larger oper­ations. But for today, the training is about bringing it back to the basics.

In preparation, McCall’s Marines have already drawn their weapons, ammunition and equipment. Here at the MARSOC compound, even something as simple as taking weapons out of the armory is a bit different. McCall delegates specific jobs for each member of his team in order to prepare for the day’s training. One Ma­rine draws ammunition, another checks out vehicles, and another oversees the prep­aration of explosives. For the Marine who draws the team’s weapons from the armory, McCall has very spe­cific directions.

“Go get all of the guns out of the armory. When I say all the guns, I don’t mean all the guns you think we need. I mean all of our weapons out of the armory.”

McCall feels the need to specify what he means when he says, “all the guns,” because a slack-man—usually the junior CSO in his team—might over­think the broad directions. Slack-man is a Recon term leftover from MARSOC’s early days, when it was virtually indistinguish­able from Force Reconnaissance.

When Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in the 1980s, every branch was invited to the table to contribute something to the new com­mand. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all volunteered their most elite troops. The Marine Corps was the only holdout.

“The attitude was, ‘We’re already spe­cial. So no, we don’t need a seat at your ‘special operations’ table,’ ” said Trial, who used his experience as a Recon Marine to help establish MARSOC.

It was the same attitude Holcomb voiced when Roosevelt asked for Marine commandos in 1941—all Marines are elite and creating a specialized unit is redundant. But by remaining unaffiliated with SOCOM, the Corps’ most elite troops—Recon Marines—missed out on SOCOM missions and SOCOM funding for the next two decades.

This left the responsibility to remain a highly capable force up to Recon Marines themselves. With little financial support, Recon continued to produce some of the most disciplined, lethal and versatile warfighters in the entire U.S. military.

Rather than becoming a crippling blow to the Reconnaissance community, that lack of access to SOCOM funds and high-profile missions ended up fueling them to work harder. It put a chip on the shoulders of Recon Marines, driving them to continuously and consistently do more with less.

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A critical skills operator patrols with explosive ordnance disposal technicians with Marine Forces Special Operations Command and Air Force Special Operations Command during a training event, June 24, 2022. The EOD primer tests all aspects of a technician’s knowledge and expertise needed to perform in the field. Cpl Brennan Priest, USMC.

“We took it upon ourselves to maintain the same high standards that a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) shooter would,” said Trial. “We might be poor, but we’re going to do way more with way less.”

By refusing to allow a lack of funding and real-world missions to dilute the quality of Marine Recon, the Corps’ best troops were ready to step-up following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the wake of 9/11, Secretary of De­fense Donald Rumsfeld asked Lieutenant General Dell Dailey, then the commander of JSOC, to create a contingent of Marines to bolster JSOC’s capabilities. The result was the creation of an experimental unit known as Marine Detachment One.

The detachment—known as MARDET and more often as DET One—was created on June 19, 2003. The bulk of DET One consisted of hand-picked Force Recon Marines, most of whom were also school-trained scout snipers. The rest of the 86-man unit was composed of Navy corps­men and Marines with intel, signal, fires, and communications backgrounds. In September 2004, after completing pre­deploy­ment training alongside Naval Special Warfare Group One, DET One deployed to Iraq. It was there, among the dusty urban corridors that defined Op­eration Iraqi Freedom, that the experi­mental Marines made a name for themselves.

Relying on their deep bench of exper­ienced scout snipers, DET One dominated the battlefield while conducting combat operations near Al Najaf, Iraq. Then, in November, DET One advanced north to fight in the notoriously deadly Operation Phantom Fury. It was there, in the dusty blood-soaked streets of Fallujah that DET One caught the attention of the entire special operations community.

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Multi-purpose canine handlers practice fast-roping with canines aboard Stone Bay, N.C., Oct. 1, 2014, to prepare them­elves and their canines for new areas of operation and unexpected situations. (Photo by Cpl Steven Fox, USMC)

“It was pretty apparent to everyone across the branches—special forces, Rangers, SEALs, PJs, and combat con­trollers—that there’s a new kid on the block and he’s not f—ing around,” said Trial.

Following their victories in Iraq, DET One returned to the United States and immediately set to preparing for the next deployment. However, like their WW II Raider forefathers, DET One was disbanded after less than two years. The Corps’ needed to make room for their permanent contribution to SOCOM: Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC).

MARSOC’s creation got off to a bumpy start. For one, the unit was stood up be­fore there was an established pipeline or even a selection process. Candidates consisted primarily of qualified Recon Marines, yet MARSOC still lacked the necessary assessment and selection hurdle that ensures other branches’ special operations units remain of the highest order. It was a factor that irked Trial from MARSOC’s inception.

“I liken the creation of MARSOC to the most badass Corvette in the world, only it doesn’t have a paint job,” Trial said. “You take the ’vette onto the dragstrip, get it going 200 miles an hour and while it’s going 200 you try and give it a paint job. That’s what MARSOC felt like in the early stages.”

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A Marine Raider from MARSOC K-9 unit conducts over-the-beach-bag (OTB) training at Naval Air Station Key West, Nov. 29, 2018. Danette B. Silvers, USN.

In spite of no selection process and a training course getting put together on the fly, MARSOC was generally viewed favorably within the Marine Corps. It brought much of the same skillset to the table as Marine Recon, yet it wasn’t restricted by the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). In the early days of Oper­ation Enduring Freedom, Recon Marines felt underutilized because they were tethered to the MEU commander. In 2006, as a new special operations entity, MARSOC was given more room to flex its muscles.

Since their creation, Marine Raiders have deployed around the globe where they’ve pushed the fight against a variety of enemies. Raiders have hunted the Taliban in Afghanistan, defeated ISIS in Iraq, and killed terrorists across Africa. In their short tenure as a modern special operations force, Marine Raiders have earned more than a dozen medals for valor and show no signs of slowing down.

“MARSOC is still growing and evolv­ing. It’s a new asset within SOCOM and within the American military,” said Trial.

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During an urban operations raid at Camp Lejeune, Nov. 17, 2016, Marines with 3rd Marine Raider Bn move a wounded Marine to safety. Marines attached to the 24th MEU from 3rd Bn, 6th Marines, 2ndMarDiv teamed with MARSOC for a joint raid to strengthen operability between two types of forces. Cpl Christopher A. Mendoza, USMC.

Being new to SOCOM is something McCall keeps in the back of his head while he oversees the day’s training. Marine Raiders are aware of their status as the most junior members of SOCOM. Because of that, they’re eager to show the community what Marines are capable of. But the desire to prove themselves is still rooted in a mastery of the basics. With that in mind, McCall has every member of his team prepare their own explosives for the day’s training.

One member of his team previously attended the five-week Master Assaulter Course where Marines learn the art of blowing things up by hand. It’s that Marine’s responsibility to oversee the configuring of charges, but McCall tasks each Marine to do the work themselves.

“There’s a slightly greater risk toler­ance here,” McCall said. “Safety remains paramount, but the nature of our job re­quires us to accept more risk than the units these Raiders came from before they were CSOs.”

During an urban operation raid at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Raider prac­tices holding security. MARSOC con­tinues to train Marine Raiders to exe­cute complex missions and work inde­pendently from command as a cohesive team.

The Master Assaulter supervises as each Marine prepares 14-inch strip-charges meant to dismantle deadbolts and doorknobs. Other Marines build roller charges intended to blow doors completely off their hinges. When they finish configuring their explosives, the team begins rehearsals.
“We probably do five or six dry runs before we load up and go live,” McCall said. “That might sound like training wheels, but you lose valuable learning opportunities if you don’t take advantage of rehearsals.”

The MARSOC compound at Stone Bay has its own shoot house: a structure spe­cifically designed for firing live ammuni­tion without Marines having to worry about bullets ricocheting or punching through walls. The shoot house is also equipped with an overhead catwalk, where instructors and teammates can observe the teams as they work. Watching from overhead is akin to professional athletes critiquing game film. It allows Marines to see how things should and shouldn’t be done, drastically reducing the learning curve.
After the Raiders finish dry runs and test the charges they built on various doors and barriers, they load their weap­ons and prepare to go live. They progress slowly, building on each aspect of their training from individual actions to fight­ing as a team. They clear rooms, practice communicating through the deafening gunfire, and simulate taking casualties.

The only time they pause to unload is when they take a “casualty.” While McCall keeps the training as realistic as he can, the risk of a negligent discharge outweighs any benefit of forgoing a pause to unload weapons. Once the mock-casualty is cared for, the Raiders reload their weapons and finish clearing the shoot house.

They have the shoot house all to them­selves, giving the Raiders every oppor­tunity to perfect their CQB skills un­impeded by having to share training space with other units. It’s a relatively easy day for the CSOs, whose days are often filled with more complex training. Some days they practice helocasting out of UH-53s into the Atlantic Ocean or teaching a partner force that doesn’t speak English how to conduct counter­terrorism operations. As Raiders, the elite Marines need to be prepared for any mission.

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A Marine practices giving orders during a building clearing scenario at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Train­ing Center, Oct. 27, 2016. (Photo by SSgt Michael Battles, USMC)

While McCall’s team is sharpening its CQB skills, other Raiders are operating in the shadows around the world. Like all Marines, Raiders remain ready to deploy anywhere, tackle any mission, and win any fight. They’re the Corps’ most highly trained Marines and now part of America’s special operations spear tip. But it’s not a specific kind of training that makes the Raiders such valuable assets to SOCOM. Ask any CSO what separates them from the rest of the pack, and you will get the same answer; it’s the warrior foundation they’re built upon.

“Raiders hold the highest standards of physical and mental fitness,” Trial said. “But their success comes from that Marine Corps ethos. That same intangible thing that all Marines experience at some point in their careers; the idea that they are underdogs who can—and will—do more with less. And on top of that, they’ll do it better.”

Editor’s note: For operational security, some names have been changed.

Author’s bio: Mac Caltrider enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009 and served with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines until 2014. Caltrider has since written for various online and print publications, including Coffee or Die Magazine, Free Range American, and OAF Nation. He was the 2023 recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Master Sergeant Tom Bartlett Award. He is also the author of “Double Knot,” a forth­coming memoir about his service in Afghanistan. Caltrider currently teaches history in Baltimore, Md.

Attitude and Spirit

Marine Reconnaissance Veterans Combine Efforts to Inspire the Next Generation

Aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., one training company is tasked with produc­ing a coveted and demanding Marine specialty—elite among the elite.

Reconnaissance Training Company (RTC), nestled within the School of Infantry-West, holds sole responsibility for transforming Marines into 0321 Re­connaissance Marines. Prospective candidates endure a rigorous training pipeline. They must volunteer for a shot at the advanced qualification, and RTC representatives extend the opportunity to Marines of nearly every Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

Following completion of basic combat training, volunteers enter an additional 18 weeks of training and assessment. The Recon Training Assessment Program is a grueling five weeks, pushing Marines to the limit and screening out any who will not make the cut. The Basic Recon­naissance Course (BRC) follows. In 13 weeks, the same amount of time spent in Boot Camp, RTC staff completes the transformation.

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Marines from BRC 4-21 carry small boats along the Silver Strand near Naval Base Coronado, Calif. Courtesy of Reconnaissance Training Company.

From the moment they step on the yellow footprints at Parris Island or San Diego, to graduation day at BRC, Recon Marines endure nearly 40 weeks of continuous training to earn their MOS. BRC graduates have only just begun their journey, however, and remain unqualified to enter the Fleet Marine Forces. An additional six months of training must be completed. All 0321s earn their jump wings at Basic Airborne Course and Multi-Mission Parachute Course, their dive qualification at Marine Combatant Diver Course, and pass through two weeks of hell at Survival, Evasion, Resist­ance, and Escape (SERE) School. Only then is a newly minted Recon Marine fully qualified for assignment to a fleet Reconnaissance Battalion.

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Marines complete their final movement to extraction during the patrol phase of BRC 4-21. The movement includes 8 miles of arduous terrain with weapons and gear shared among the class. Courtesy of Reconnaissance Training Company.

The advanced training and stringent requirements exist as a result of the com­munity’s experience in combat and their mission as the Marine Corps special operations-capable force. The activation of Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) came about large­ly through the reassignment of Force Recon or Recon Battalion Marines to the MARSOC pilot program known as “Det One” in 2003. Again, several years later, 1st and 2nd Force Recon Companies saw wholesale deactivation and redesignation to create the genesis of the Marine Spe­cial Operations Battalions. Today, Marine Raiders exist as an elite force of warriors operating under the purview of U.S. Spe­cial Operations Command (USSOCOM). They are, in effect, Special Operations forces who happen to be Marines. Recon Battalions exist within the USMC chain of command, operating at the will of for­ward deployed commanders.

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Marines with All-Domain Reconnaissance Detachment, 13th MEU, move across the deck of training vessel USNS Atlas as part of a maritime interdiction operation training exercise on Aug. 31, 2022. Sgt Brendan Custer, USMC.

Recon Marines have always been, and remain today, the special operations-capable force of the Marine Corps. The community traces its lineage back to the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion of World War II. The Vietnam War, brought about the most significant evolution in Recon doctrine and cemented their role in the Corps’ mission. It’s been 50 years since Recon procedures and tactics were written, but the lessons learned remain critical today. Despite the advent of new technologies, weapons and entirely new battle spaces, the key attributes that de­fine a Recon Marine or corpsman remain unchanged and are amplified as the Recon community looks toward the future.

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Marines undergoing the Reconnaissance Training Assessment Program receive their final instruction prior to a night land navigation exercise. Courtesy of Reconnaissance Training Company.

The Corps began a dramatic reshaping and reorganization several years ago under Force Design 2030 (FD2030). The advance technologies and new adversaries shaping tomorrow’s war initiated changes felt across the fleet, affecting each Ma­rine, down to the individual rifleman. While many MOSs now look significantly different, or even simply no longer exist, the Reconnaissance community dis­covered in its future a return to its roots established in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Retired Force Recon Marine Jose “Pep” Tablada III, currently serves in a crucial role to the advancement of FD2030. Tablada spent 13 years as a Force Recon Marine, deploying in sup­port of Operation Iraqi Freedom and being named the Force Recon Team Leader of the Year twice before his med­ical retirement in 2005. Since then, Tablada has held a series of civilian roles within Marine Forces Pacific (MAR­FORPAC), presently working as the deputy assistant chief of staff for Oper­ations of all Marine Corps forces in the Indo-Pacific region. He was part of a team hand-picked by General David H. Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Ma­rine Corps, tasked with devising the strategies for future warfare and working with I and III Marine Expeditionary Forces to implement force modernization and forward posturing in the Pacific.

“Recon Marines primarily focus on deep reconnaissance, battle space shap­ing, and direct action precision raids,” Tablada explained. “In the traditional sense, much of the deep recon and battle space shaping missions remain the same as in Vietnam. What is very different is the fight we are in today is much, much more advanced. You’ll hear detachments getting deployed today being called, ‘All-Domain Reconnaissance,’ and the reason why that’s different is because Marines and Sailors today have the technology and training to bring cyber, signals in­telligence, and space capabilities to the fight. It’s amazing what today’s Recon­naissance Marines can do.”

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Marines with Force Reconnaissance Platoon, 31st MEU, perform a visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) exercise aboard dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD-42), on March 7, 2021. (Photo by LCpl Joseph E. DeMarcus, USMC)

Detachments from Recon Battalions deploy with each Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), as well as in support of numerous other specified tasks around the world. While the naming of these detachments varies depending on the parent command of the MEU, the func­tion is identical. A host of “enablers” de­ploy alongside them, such as cyber or signals intel-trained Marines, allowing this special-purpose force to conduct a wide variety of missions. The detach­ments train for maritime-specific direct action raids, such as gas and oil platform seizure and “Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure” (VBSS) to support interdiction operations of a naval vessel. Technologies such as satellites and drones assist them in locating the enemy, understanding what they are doing, and directing other friendly forces within the battle space. The ideas surrounding deep reconnais­sance in a future war present a different set of challenges.

“The next war in the Pacific will look different from anything we experienced in the Global War on Terror,” Tablada said. “Small units will be dispersed across a large area. They will have to be independent in austere environments, on their own for long periods of time, and possessing their own means of mobility. There will be limited or no resupply, and no Forward Operating Base to return to in many instances. Imagine a Recon de­tachment having its own long-range maneuver platform, like a modernized PT boat from WW II. They go out in the waterways and the littorals of the Western Pacific searching for maritime targets. They’re going to use their all-domain capabilities to find those targets, fix those targets, create targeting data, then hand it off to the bomber or the submarine or the cyber strike to destroy it. This doc­trine is new in terms of the expansiveness of what will be expected from a Recon detachment. They will have to operate truly independently of the commander’s intent. Not only will they have to com­plete the mission, but they will have to figure out how to sustain themselves for longer periods. They will have to be smart, resilient, and professionally aggressive with a mature sense of tactical judgement.”

As new doctrines progressed, Colonel Robert J. Coates, USMC (Ret), recognized a potential area for improvement in the Recon training pipeline. During more than 32 years on active duty, Coates served as the officer in charge of the Amphibious Reconnaissance School, commanding officer of 1st Force Recon­naissance Company, and later as CO of the MARSOC pilot program, “Det One.” In 2016, Coates was inducted into the USSOCOM Commando Hall of Honor. He is one of only nine Marine inductees since it was established in 2010. Other inductees include well-known Marines: Evans Carlson, James Capers and John Ripley.

Now in retirement, Coates continues serving the Marine Corps as a mentor to deploying MEUs and Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces, includ­ing their respective Recon Battalion de­tachments. He understood the role of deep reconnaissance was not going away, and the only place in history to find the experience was Vietnam. Throughout the Global War on Terror, the mission set dealt to Recon focused heavily on direct action raids against insurgent leadership. They simply did not operate within the battle space in the same way Marines did during Vietnam, nor will they be expected to in the future.

Coates remembered his own Recon instructors as a young Marine growing up, veterans of the early 1960s and 70s, immensely proud of their service. They exacted standards of perfection in ap­pearance, discipline and physical fitness. Even years later when he was a colonel in charge of 1st Force Recon, Vietnam vet­erans continually impressed him by visiting the company offices and attend­ing company functions in order to remain connected to the community and support active-duty Marines. Being a Marine remained the most defining and profound experience of their lives, and despite the decades passed, they continued to un­selfishly give back to the Corps. As Coates considered the details of creating a professional military education (PME) on Vietnam-era reconnaissance, and who to lead it, he requested help from a per­sonal friend and mentor: legendary Re­con Marine, Sergeant Robert Buda.

Buda’s name is no stranger to Leatherneck readers. Stories of his combat exploits are told in “First to Fight: First Force Reconnaissance in Hue City” (February 2018), and “The Flying Ladder: Emergency Extractions and the Lifesaver from the Sky” (April 2018). During 13 months in country with 1st Force Recon Company, Buda took part in 46 long-range recon patrols along the Laotian border, six combat dive missions, and earned two Bronze Stars with combat “V.” He extended his tour to remain in country, but received his third Purple Heart in January 1969 and was sent home.

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Sgt Robert Buda, center, stands with Col Robert J. Coates, USMC (Ret), center left, after receiv­ing a paddle from the Reconnais­sance Training Company in honor of his service at the BRC 3-23 gradua­tion ceremony in July. Buda’s two sons, right, and the sheriff from Buda’s home county in Illinois, far left, also attended the graduation. Courtesy of Robert Buda.

As a team leader on deep reconnais­sance patrols among large North Viet­namese Army (NVA) formations and staging areas, Buda faced decisions and situations that seem insurmountable. His experience and point of view offered the perfect vehicle to communicate the lessons learned from Vietnam, serving as a living link between the past, present and future of Marine Reconnaissance. Buda developed a class to present to the students of BRC. He based the content on a series of his patrols that best illustrated the role of Recon, the discipline and atti­tude so vital to success and the types of challenges Marines could one day face in combat. To get the class financially backed and implemented, the RTC cadre turned to Jose Tablada. In addition to his senior role with MARFORPAC, Tablada serves as the president of the Marine Recon Foundation (MRF), a nonprofit organization doing impressive work within the community.

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Marines take part in the Recon Challenge at MCB Camp Pen­dle­ton, Calif., sponsored by the Marine Recon Founda­tion. The 14th annual event took place in April. Teams of two com­plete a combat equipment surface swim off the Pacific coast (below), then continue over land across Camp Pendleton (above) for more than 26 miles while carrying a combat load over 50 pounds. Each team bears the name of a fallen Recon Marine, honoring their memory. (Photos courtesy of Marine Recon Foundation)

MRF is fully staffed by volunteers—­­primarily of retired staff noncommis­sioned and commissioned officers. Even though they exist on behalf of a relatively small contingent of active duty or vet­erans, the organization has accumulated astounding support. MRF maintains over 325,000 followers between Facebook and Insta­gram. They operationally support, co­ordinate, and when necessary, finance a seemingly endless list of programs that provide tangible and immediate help to Reconnaissance Marines, Special Am­phib­ious Reconnaissance Corpsmen, and their families.

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Marines take part in the Recon Challenge at MCB Camp Pen­dle­ton, Calif., sponsored by the Marine Recon Founda­tion. The 14th annual event took place in April. (Photos courtesy of Marine Recon Foundation)

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Members of the Marine Recon Foundation gather around legendary Reconnaissance Marine, Maj James Capers Jr., USMC (Ret), seated center. Courtesy of Marine Recon Foundation.

The foundation offers reoccurring pro­grams, including retreats for wounded veterans and Gold Star families, and the annual “Recon Challenge” in California. They also provide emergency support to Marines in crisis; for example, helping rebuild the life and home of a Marine and his family after fire destroyed their house or covering the funeral expenses for a Marine lost to suicide and establishing college investment accounts for his children left behind.

The foundation’s final line of effort is dedicated to promoting and preserving the legacy of the Recon community. They accomplish this task through written narratives, audio and video recordings of veterans to capture their experiences, and sponsoring mentorship events where veterans are brought in to speak with active-duty Marines.

Major James Capers, Lieutenant Col­onel George “Digger” O’Dell, and Col Robert Coates are a few of the Marines who participate in mentorship events. Master Sergeant Earl Plumlee, USA, also attends. Before receiving the Medal of Honor as an Army Special Forces soldier, Plumlee served as a Reconnaissance Ma­rine, earning Recon Team Leader of the Year in 2008. He credited his gunfighting skills to his time with Force Recon.

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Sgt Robert Buda, left, and Cpl Sam Carver, right, prepare for a long-range recon patrol at An Hoa, Vietnam, in November 1968. Courtesy of Robert Buda.

“A lot of Americans don’t know Ma­rine Recon history,” Tablada said. “A lot of Marines don’t know Marine Recon history, and frankly, some of the young Marines and Sailors in Recon don’t know the rich lineage and storied history of their community. We are brought up to be silent professionals. We don’t have a lot of books, there’s no calendars, we aren’t talking on the news. A lot of people just don’t really understand what Marine Reconnaissance is, so through our men­tor­ship program, we send these legends of our history, these senior mentors, down to the active-duty Marines in the fleet or at the schoolhouse to talk to them about their experiences and lessons learned in combat.”

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Sgt Robert Buda, standing far right, with his team “Moose Peak” in November 1968. Courtesy of Robert Buda.

Through the mentorship program, MRF coordinated with RTC staff and arranged for Bob Buda to travel to Camp Pendleton and present his pilot class. The first PME took place in July for a BRC class nearing graduation. Buda walked the students through the evolution of recon tactics in Vietnam, explaining some of the tragic events that led to the successful implementation of standard procedures, such as operating in larger teams, and the immediate action of ex­treme violence and huge amounts of fire power on enemy contact to stun the enemy and give the team a chance to escape. He covered several specific long-range Recon missions in which he took part, including the missions covered by Leatherneck in previous stories. These case studies presented the students with real situations that can be faced in combat, and the types of challenges they could encounter.

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Recon legend LtCol George “Digger” O’Dell, USMC (Ret), spoke as the guest of honor at the graduation of BRC 1-23 in January. Courtesy of Marine Recon Foundation.

“When you’re out on a long-range Re­con mission, the terrain and environment will often be harder to deal with than the enemy,” Buda stated. “It’s just extreme hardship, and you have to learn to develop the right attitude in your head.”

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Recon Marines on patrol in Vietnam return enemy fire with their M60 machine gun. Courtesy of Marine Recon Foundation.

The class was so well-received that RTC staff invited Buda back the follow­ing month to present to the students of the Recon Team Leader’s Course. This more senior group of warriors also in­cluded USSOCOM Special Operations Forces personnel from other branches of service. Buda tailored his presentation to highlight the vital role the team leader plays in the success or defeat, life or death, of their team.

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Marines from 2nd Reconnaissance Bn, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU, conduct a Helo-casting mission out of the back of a CH-53, and a closed-circuit dive during sustainment training in Djibouti. GySgt James Frank, USMC.

Combat decision making occupied a central theme in the team leader’s course presentation. To open the discussion, Buda presented the group with a case study on one of his patrols where a Ma­rine was killed by enemy fire after the team encountered a NVA antiaircraft gun that was turned on them. The Marines successfully eliminated the gun with nothing but their organic small arms, the only Force Recon team known to have accomplished such a feat. Despite the victory, Buda faced numerous decisions that day that as the team leader, only he could have made. His choices held direct and immediate sway over the lives of his teammates. To this day, he wrestles with the choices he made, debating if they were correct and if he should have done something differently. These cir­cumstances and thought processes were candidly presented to the students to demonstrate the kinds of situations they will face in the field.

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HM3 Taylor Hale, left, a special amphib­ious reconnaissance corpsman, and Sgt Trevor Lynch (right), a Recon Marine as­signed to 3rd Reconnaissance Bn, 3rdMarDiv, participate in a Marine Corps Combat Diving Supervisors Course on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan, May 20, 2020. Cpl Savannah Mesimer, USMC.

“The most important concept we try to push into the students in BRC, and more importantly the team leaders, is to implant and enhance the concept of the recon brotherhood and the proper team spirit, which is vital to conduct real long-range Reconnaissance missions in the most hostile and challenging environ­ments in the world,” said Buda.

“Attitude and team spirit; those words are easy to say, but the team leader must develop those in order to succeed.”

To close his presentation, Buda high­lighted the importance of training your replacement and discussed the warrior who raised him in the field. Buda served as a junior Force Recon Marine under Lawrence H. Livingston. Livingston even­tually retired as a giant of the Corps; a Major General, two-war veteran, and recipient of five Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and a Navy Cross. In Vietnam, Livingston was a staff sergeant who taught Buda how to run point on patrols, and eventually, how to lead a recon team in the jungle. When the Corps plucked Livingston from combat to return home for officer training, he selected Buda to replace him as team leader. Livingston passed away in 2018 at the age of 77. Buda dedicated his presen­tation in Livingston’s memory.

With the experience of these two classes, Buda continues working to im­prove the lesson content for future itera­tions. Tablada and the MRF are com­mitted to sustaining this type of activity as part of their historic preserva­tion line of effort and the Recon Mentor Program. At a minimum, Buda hopes to continue presenting the class as a stand­ard PME included in the biannual team leader’s course.

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Sgt Robert Buda stands alongside the Marines of BRC 3-23 following his first presentation of a class covering the evolution of Marine Recon in Vietnam and the lessons learned for the future. Courtesy of Robert Buda.

Marines of every MOS take pride in our history and bear the responsibility of honoring the service of those who went before. The Recon community to­day ex­emplifies an enduring truth; no matter what may change in weaponry or tech­nology, Marines today fight as part of the same spirit and enduring legacy, and Marines of eras past are their backbone, offering experience and wisdom from combat that no one else can provide. There are many warriors from Vietnam, like Bob Buda, who volunteer their ex­per­ience today for the good of the Corps. The Recon Marines preparing for tomor­row’s war will reap immense benefit from hearing his firsthand account of what they will face in combat.

“At the end of the day, it isn’t going to matter how many new accoutrements you have that make you pretty, what rank you are, or how many accolades you may have achieved,” Buda reflected. “At the end of the day, when you’re out of water, out of ammo, you’re starving, surrounded by bad guys, can’t get extracted, soaked by rain, covered in bugs, mud, and shrapnel wounds, the only thing that will sustain you in that environment is if you have deeply cultivated the proper attitude in your team, where they look to each other in those absolutely destitute conditions and someone cracks a contagious smile. You can’t talk. Everything has to be done through hand signals and mental telepathy, but everyone is smiling at each other thinking, ‘I’m ready, and we are still in this fight. Love you brother.’ ”

Author’s bio: Kyle Watts is the staff writer for Leatherneck. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2009-2013. He is the 2019 winner of the Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr. Award for Marine Corps history. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife and three children.

“Six Days in Fallujah” Review

Opinion: Long-Delayed Video Game
Delivers Realistic Depiction of Iraq Battle

War has forever been entwined with popular culture. Artists have attempted to replicate, with great attention to detail, iconic scenes of countless battles. Homer’s “Iliad” was spread throughout antiquity as poets recited the mythological history of the Trojan War. Many of today’s Ma­rines were first exposed to the history of the Corps through literary accounts such as “Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific,” by Robert Leckie or Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” With the creation of film, and movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” storytelling evolved, redefining how war was pre­sented to the public. Perhaps it was in­evitable, then, that video games—as a form of entertainment—would take up the mantle of trying to depict war within popular culture.

As long as storytellers, writers, artists, filmmakers, and game designers tried to replicate war, controversy closely fol­lowed. Painters have been accused of glorifying war. Poet Walt Whitman claimed, “The real war will never get in the books.” Director Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” was labeled by a writer from the New York Observer as a “pornography of violence and cruelty.” A World War II-themed videogame directed by Spielberg, titled “Medal of Honor,” became so mired in controversy that it was almost pulled from release before now being recognized as one of the greatest first-person shooters on the PlayStation platform. Ultimately, the question as to whether war should be depicted in popular culture is moot—as storytellers and creators will always adapt their depictions of war with evolv­ing media. Rather, we should be asking how to best depict war in popular culture. Enter “Six Days in Fallujah.”

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“Six Days in Fallujah,” a first-person shooter (FPS) game, simulates the chaos of urban warfare. (Photo courtesy of Victura)

The Fight
On Nov. 7, 2004, the city of Fallujah, Iraq, ignited into a conflagration as Ma­rines and soldiers of U.S.-led coalition forces launched Operation Phantom Fury to rid the city of militant Islamic extrem­ists in what would be later called the Second Battle of Fallujah. The insurgents had turned the city into a fortress com­plete with tunnels, trenches, spider holes and improvised explosive devices of all varieties. Further complicating the co­ali­tion assault were the thousands of civilians who were unable to evacuate the city and remained hidden on every block. In the ensuing one month, two weeks, and two days, the Marines and members of the coalition fought in the bloodiest instance of urban combat in the 21st century—only to be surpassed almost two decades later with the ongoing war in Ukraine. The cost was terrible. Close to 100 Americans died and more than 500 were wounded. In addition, there were over 60 coalition casualties, the insurgents were largely annihilated, and at least 800 civilians were killed. Controversy closely followed the battle, as various media outlets reported on the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium munitions, the extensive civilian casualties, the destruction wrought upon the city, and both real and supposed atrocities committed by both coalition and insurgent forces. Despite this, the Second Battle of Fallujah has become enshrined within the pantheon of Marine Corps battles—further demonstrating the combat prowess of the Corps against all enemies.

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Sgt Eddie Garcia fought in the Battle of Fallujah and wanted to develop a game based on his experience in combat. Courtesy of Victura.

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During game development, former infantry officer Capt Read Omohundro describes the Marines’ encounter with the enemy during the battle. Courtesy of Victura.

Among the wounded Marines was Sergeant Eddie Garcia, who was serious­ly injured by an insurgent-fired mortar. His fellow Marines managed to stop the bleeding and bring him to safety at a nearby field hospital before he was trans­ferred to Baghdad, then Germany, and eventu­al­ly to the United States. Upon re­turning home, Garcia reached out to Peter Tamte—a video game developer with Atomic Games.

The two had met before the battle. Garcia had been sent by the Marine Corps to be their subject matter expert for various training simulations that Atomic Games was developing. Through­out de­veloping these Marine Corps train­ing simulations, the two got to know each other quite well, with Garcia providing keen insight into how Marines fought and operated. However, when Garcia ap­proached Tamte after his return home, it was not to develop another training sim­­ulation—he wanted to de­velop a video game based on the battle he had just fought.

The idea of a game quickly went from concept to reality. As the veterans of the Second Battle of Fallujah began returning to the United States when their deploy­ments ended, Tamte and Atomic Games began conducting interviews with dozens of Marines who were willing to share their experiences. The interviews were expanded to include Iraqis who survived the battle. Recurring motifs from these interviews were the uncertainty and intimacy of close-quarters combat, the fear of what lurked behind the next door, the utter necessity of teamwork, the dif­ficulty of fighting a radical enemy that could easily blend into a terrified civilian populace, and the combat fatigue induced by constant fighting and witnessing death regularly. It soon became apparent that the game needed to be grounded in re­alism and authenticity—both in gameplay and storytelling.

The game’s development was formally announced in 2009 and was planned for a 2010 release. However, problems began to arise. The controversy of the Battle of Fallujah and the public distaste for Ameri­can intervention in the Middle East reared their heads. Some argued that the game’s subject was too recent to tastefully be de­picted in a video game; others argued that the game would neg­atively depict Muslims by their worst stereotypes and devolve into a racist kill simulator; and some accused the de­velopers of creat­ing a propaganda piece that glorified a con­flict that many viewed to be unjust. The controversy spawned by this crit­icism pushed the game’s publisher, Konami, to suspend its role in the project in April 2009. Within two years, Atomic Games went into bankruptcy—putting the future of “Six Days in Fallujah” into question.

Despite this series of obstacles, Tamte held onto hope. He eventually formed a new gaming company, Victura, to carry the mantle of producing “Six Days in Fallujah,” with developers from games such as “Halo” and “Destiny” jumping on board to help finish the project. Within two years, in late June, an early access version of the game became available for purchase via Steam. Since its release, “Six Days in Fallujah” has undergone a few updates, and the completed ver­sion will be available in 2024. Currently, the game is limited to online cooperative mode with teams of up to four people. However, a single-player campaign is in development. Based on the available content, we can begin to disseminate how “Six Days in Fallujah” authentically depicts war as a means of popular cul­ture and to what degree it maintains authenticity.

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Courtesy of Victura
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Players are provided with a unique experience each playthrough. Gameplay includes environmental im­mersion, differing map designs and relentless enemies.

Gameplay
Upon starting the game, the player is presented with a short film (with a History Channel-esque vibe) describing the situation with period footage, photo­graphy and interviews. Loading screens include images of veterans and Iraqi sur­vivors accompanied by their quotes describing the battle. From this onset, the player realizes they are part of a real story with real people—not a generic war story where the characters are made up. In doing so, the game is trying to place players into the shoes of someone who took part in this battle—putting extra emotional weight behind the experience they are about to have.

After assembling a team in the co-op mode lobby, players are then thrust into a generated situation to accomplish a randomized mission, such as locating and destroying an enemy supply cache, securing an enemy strongpoint, or re­pelling waves of attacks supported by vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIED). To repli­cate the fear of not knowing what lurks behind every door, “Six Days in Fallujah” employs a map-design randomizer feature that creates new maps every playthrough: buildings will not appear in the same place, entrances will be along different walls, enemies will not hide behind the same doors, etc. This randomizer is per­haps the strongest feature of gameplay, as it forces the players to handle each situation uniquely, rather than memoriz­ing a cookie-cutter scenario as in most other first-person shooters.

The learning curve for playing “Six Days in Fallujah” is steep and the game­play is unforgiving—reminiscent of the famed game “Oregon Trail”: you can easily die at any time, for any reason, in any possible way. Snipers fire with deadly accuracy should you expose yourself for too long; mortars can wipe out an entire team with a single round; the enemy will fix your team with machinegun fire while a VBIED rolls up your flank and detonates behind you; insurgents will fire at you be­tween cracks of war-torn buildings; your team can easily be caught in the fatal funnel of every doorway; the list is end­less. This is not your typical run-and-gun game. The weapons feel weighted, and the recoil must be accounted for when pulling the trigger. Wounds must be bandaged; injured teammates must be assisted to get back into the fight; and ammunition can only be replenished at your AAV. Additionally, to quote Murphy’s law of combat operations: “Friendly fire isn’t,” which was a hard-learned lesson while clearing buildings. Many first-person shooter gamers may not be used to the slower pacing of the game; however, many gamers—some of whom served in combat—have applauded the game’s pacing as being more realistic.

You learn quickly that teamwork is the only way to accomplish missions—and even that does not guarantee success. If you try to move too fast, your team can get caught in an ambush; move too slow, the enemy can gain the initiative and outmaneuver your position; stay too close together, a single grenade can wipe your team; and spread too far out, you risk be­ing defeated in detail. From my own experiences, of the 30 games played by myself and with two teammates, we were defeated within two minutes on 18 at­tempts, lasted longer than five minutes on 11, and accomplished the objective once. However, with proper coordination, patience and a basic understanding of the principles of fire-and-maneuver tac­tics, players can fight and win in the labyrinth of Fallujah.

Ultimately, “Six Days in Fallujah” is an experience akin to a horror-survival game that strives to ground its gameplay in a higher level of depth and realism. To an extent, the game is a teaching tool as much as it is a means of entertainment. Yes, not every feature is perfect as some reviewers have pointed out, but with the game still being in development, time allows for the edges to be smoothed out for greater historical accuracy. However, in an era where Nicki Minaj is a playable character in “Call of Duty” and where “Battlefield V” bastardized World War II with historically inaccurate character customizations, “Six Days of Fallujah” is a breath of fresh air for those who want a historical experience when gaming. And to those who question as to whether this game is coming out “too soon,” I respond with this:

After over 20 years of fighting two wars, many Americans cannot name a single battle or recall any cities in Iraq or Afghanistan besides maybe Baghdad. To them, places such as Fallujah, Marjah, Mosul, Basra, or Kandahar mean nothing. They cannot recall any place where their tax dollars sent our country’s finest to fight and die in wars that were fought for reasons that are increasingly unclear to the general public. What “Six Days in Fallujah” has done is keep the Iraq War in the public consciousness, to remind us that these wars involved real people who had to live with the consequences of being in monumental historical situa­tions. It portrays war as a human exper­ience and attempts to do so as accurately as possible. If “Six Days in Fallujah” can encourage a young gamer to reflect upon the struggles of the Iraq War, watch an educational film on the subject, or read histories or biographies from survivors, then the game has served its purpose.

For now, gamers must be content with the available cooperative mode. Only with the release of a single-player campaign can we truly understand the full extent to which “Six Days in Fallujah” can be used to tell the story of one of the Marine Corps’ most hard-fought battles in Iraq.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Danny Roldan and Ricc Donate-Perez for playtesting “Six Days in Fallujah” with me to help write this article.

Author’s bio: William Treuting is an editor and content creator for the Marine Corps Gazette. He is a cohost of the MCA’s “Scuttlebutt” podcast and direc­tor of MCA Films.