Dec. 2013: Letter of the Month
I joined the Corps 75 years ago. I am well past 92, and my memory leaves a lot to be desired. I was in the “Banana Fleet” for more than two years. I would like to know if any Marines are still alive who served in USS J. Fred Talbot (DD-156) when all the Marines had to stand by wearing Navy uniforms for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inspection. The ship only had a Navy quartermaster crew and “black gang.” As the former Secretary of the Navy, FDR would stop and ask questions if he saw Marines on a “tincan.”
When they evacuated the women and children from the Panama Canal Zone, they took eight Marines and put us on the ship as antiaircraft defense. You won’t believe this, but they gave us .38-caliber revolvers for antiaircraft defense.
Another question: Has there ever been anything written about the battalion they sent north of Peleliu after the island was declared secured? As you know there were thousands of Japanese on Babelthuap, which was only 15 miles north of Peleliu. Headquarters were set up on Kongauru and gun positions on seven little islands between Babelthuap and Peleliu.
With General Douglas MacArthur tak-ing up all the newspaper headlines, there was very little news regarding this opera-tion, but a year out of the life for a lot of Marines nonetheless. I think it rates at least a footnote in Corps history.
I realized this when I attended the Ma-rine Corps Birthday Ball two years ago and they showed a video about all the wars in which the Corps had been involved. I heard at least 15 Marines ask what were the “Banana Wars.” These series of inter-ventions in the Caribbean area actually lasted from 1898 to 1934, which is a pretty big slice of history.
I was sent to the Troop Training Unit in Coronado, Calif., and Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was the commanding general. I had been there three or four days when he saw me and motioned for me to come over.
We talked for a few minutes, and he said, “Come on in and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” After about 20 minutes, I made the mistake of saying, “General, I need to get out of here, I have work to do.” He said, “You don’t have a damn thing to do except what I tell you to do. Captain, bring the ‘gunny’ another cup of coffee.” From then on, he always dismissed me with, “Well, Gunny, get out of here and get some work done.” This went on for about a year, sometimes two days a week and sometimes five days a week. The sessions would last from 20 minutes to two hours.
I was a master sergeant (E-7) when I retired—just about the time they changed the rank structure.
I hear Marines today talk about having to be gone six to eight months at a time. My son was 26 months old when I saw him for the first time, and my daughter was 18 months old when I saw her for the first time. After a brief 30-day leave, I would be gone for another year or more. Things do change.
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my Marine Corps history.
I loved the Corps then, and I still do.
MSgt W. Frank Roberts, USMC (Ret)
• Thank you for your service and your walk back through Marine history. I would add that in a search of our digitized Leatherneck archives, I found that USS J. Fred Talbot was part of the Navy’s Special Service Squadron, and Marine Detachments were common on the destroyers of the squadron as early as 1931.—Sound Off Ed.