Leatherneck Magazines – Marine Corps Association (2024)

Night Battle on Tinian: Marines Engage With Enemy Tanks

Executive Editor’s note: This article is based on interviews and research done for the author’s book “Black Dragon: The Experience of a Marine Rifle Company in the Central Pacific.

Private First Class Bob Funk struggled to clear his head as he lay in the roadside ditch, peering into the blackness of the night. His buddy, PFC George Michalet, was next in line behind him. They and four other Marines had already lain there for hours, soaked with rain and sweat, taking turns trying to stay awake.

They had only finished mopping up Saipan a week before. Only half of “Fox” Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines remained. The rest of those who had sur­vived Saipan were in hospitals around the Pacific, 59 of them in Naval Hospital No. 10 at Aiea Heights on Oahu. The 129 who remained were in poor shape. Even Easy Company’s commander, Major Lester Fought, was out of action with dengue, and it seemed that most had at least a touch of it. But for Funk and Michalet, this outpost job had sounded easy enough, even if they had been in the Marine Corps long enough to know better than to volunteer.

They had been sure that, after a month on Saipan and being saddled with the unsavory week-long job of mopping up and clearing caves on the northern part of the island, they would be allowed to sit out the Tinian operation. They had taken some solace in being made the reserve. But there they lay on outpost the first night, waiting for the enemy response to the landing and awaiting the arrival of some 37mm guns to join them. So much for being in reserve.
The 4th Marine Division had made the unlikely landing that morning across two tiny beaches near the northern tip of Tinian while 2ndMarDiv held the main Japanese force in place with a feint landing 5 miles south at Tinian Town. As July 24 turned into July 25, 2nd Bn, 23rd Marines formed the far right section of the division beachhead.

Funk and Michalet lay astride a narrow coral road that ran back to the company line, some 200 yards behind them. It also led straight ahead, all the way south to Tinian Town, where the bulk of the 9,000 Japanese defenders were believed to be. They peered out into the darkness, knowing the enemy was out there. And still they waited for the 37s to arrive.

Three hundred yards back toward the beach, Eddie Davis settled into his hole near Fox Co’s command post. A 20-year-old field music, Davis had covered a lot of ground on Saipan as one of the company’s runners. It was after midnight when he got the call from company commander Captain Jack Padley.
“I’m in a nice comfy foxhole,” Davis recalled. “Padley said, ‘Davis come over here.’ And I knew exactly what he was asking me to do. He said, ‘Do you know where the regimental CP is? Well you go get the 37s and put them there up on the line.’ ”

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The 2nd Bn, 23rd Marines had already placed its attached platoon of 37mm guns on the line, facing an open cane field to the southwest, the battalion’s front and the division’s far right flank. Ready with canister rounds, those four weapons stood ready to repulse the expected in­fantry attack. But the little coral road from Tinian Town pierced Fox Co’s position from the left. That was the likely approach for enemy tanks, and Colonel Ogata had a company of them. To cover the road, Padley borrowed the four guns normally attached to 3rd Bn, which was the division reserve.

Davis set off into the darkness and was challenged for the password three times along the way by his fellow Marines. Some 500 yards later, he was directed to 3rd Bn’s reserve area and eventually led to platoon Sergeant James Tillis, commanding the 3rd antitank platoon in the absence of First Lieutenant Charles H. Taylor, who had been evacuated from Saipan. Davis led Tillis back to Capt Padley, who sent them forward to 1stLt Charlie Ahern, who was on the line with 1st Plt, under Japanese infantry attack. Joined by corpsman Owen H. Bahnken, the trio set out across a field now illuminated by flares.

“I was informed by Lt C.J. Ahern,” Tillis wrote later, “that I was to take up a position astride the main road running north and south almost the entire length of the island.”

By the time Davis and Tillis reached the designated area, the enemy attack hundreds of yards behind them had apparently dwindled and, with it, the light of flares. “The night was pitch black,” Tillis explained, “making reconnaissance very difficult. Although after a time I was able to pick out positions for the four 37mms of my platoon.”

Davis and Tillis returned to 3rd Bn for the order to move up the gun sections. Then, using two jeeps, the Marines pulled the four guns to the line, two at a time. “The platoon was in position and dug in at about 0220,” Tillis reported.
Davis’ mission accomplished, he left the guns to set up and headed back to his hole.

Tillis placed one gun to the left of the road and three to the right, one of them commanded by Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Kohler. “I was just right next to the road, barely off to the right,” Kohler explained later. “And from my position, I could fire almost straight down that road. We were all about 25 or 30 yards apart.”

Kohler had no idea that, ahead of him, at the crest of the gradual slope, six Marines lay beside the coral-topped road. And 100 yards ahead, Funk, Michalet and the others lay in the ditches, trying to stay awake and still awaiting the arrival of a single 37mm. They had no idea Kohler was behind them.

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Funk peered into the darkness ahead, listening to a bizarre mix of sounds. He kicked Michalet’s helmet to wake him.

“Mitch, I hear enemy tanks,” whispered Funk.

“Aw, you’re nuts,” Michalet replied. “Those are just some Marine trucks or something.”

“Bullsh*t, those are Japanese tanks,” Funk said.

A hundred yards back, Kohler heard them too. “We heard ’em coming,” he recalled. “My god, you could hear ’em coming, 9 miles away.”

Funk and Michalet were stunned as a tank suddenly whizzed past them on the road, 3 feet from their heads. Worse yet, Michalet looked around and found that the other Marines had pulled back without them. The two of them were alone.

Back near the company CP, Eddie Davis was just settling into his hole when he heard the squeaking sounds of tanks. “Oh boy, we got ’em,” he said. “Those 37s are up there and they’ll knock ’em out.”

But evidence indicates that, in the darkness, the lead tank crested the hill and was past the gunners before they could react. It came to a halt just before reaching Fox Co’s line and sat idling in the quiet. Indications are that the infantry attack on the right had hit a lull at this time. Sergeant Bill Wyckoff was one of the Marines who had pulled back. “We were in a drainage ditch, right next to the road,” he recalled. “And they stopped right by us. And I think, ‘Oh God, don’t let a flare go up.’”

Fox Co Marines Leonard Ash and Don Milleson were horrified to see the tank in their midst. They huddled in their hole, wondering why the 37s had not fired. By all accounts, no flares were up and not a shot had yet been fired. Everyone was caught in a state of disbelief. Third Plt’s bazooka team, Walter Fritz and Bill Myers, was with Ash and Milleson. “Fritz was so close to the road,” recalled Ash, “that when the Japanese tank stopped by him, he couldn’t swing the bazooka around because it would hit the side of the tank.”

The Marines held silent. Finally, the little tank began to roll again, down into 3rd Plt, where it stopped once more. Sergeant Sam Haddad was nearby. “The tank was so close that we couldn’t depress the guns we had. The treads were right here.”

Just as a flare went up, the tank com­mander opened the hatch for a look. Im­mediately the silence was broken by the thunder of a Browning Automatic Rifle, killing the commander. The tank’s driver gunned the engine, racing farther into Fox Company’s position. “When the tank got past the end of the cane field and the railroad tracks,” recalled 3rd platoon’s Private First Class Don Swindle, “it ran through the Company F foxholes, but the guys were able to roll out and I don’t think anyone was hurt.” First platoon’s bazooka man, Corporal Leroy Surface, chased it down and destroyed it with two shots.

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Fire erupted all along the line as flares now illuminated the battlefield. Back up front, Funk and Michalet lay in the ditch ahead of Fox Company’s line. “We did not dare breathe or move,” recalled Funk. “We stayed put because we were in their line of fire.”

The two Marines had no idea what was coming at them. Some 300 yards across the cane field to their left front was an old friend from the company’s early days in North Carolina, Captain Henry Van Joslin, now commanding Fox Company of the 25th Marines. Joslin later recalled, “As the flares from the ships dropped over our position, we could see five tanks coming down the road unbuttoned and a group of foot soldiers following close behind all in a bunch.”

“Just then,” recalled Funk, “here comes tank number two and, of all the dumb things to do, he stops right next to us, inches away.”

The tank was swarming with enemy troops holding tree branches for camouflage in the middle of a dark night. “That’s just stupid,” thought Funk.

The two Marines kept their heads down. “The whole Marine Corps must have opened up on this tank,” Funk recalled, “and the Japanese were jumping off over us and running for their lives. Something hit the tank and it started to burn.”

The hit came from Charlie Kohler’s 37mm, 100 yards back, now firing anti­tank and canister rounds, scattering the Japanese infantry. “I was able to shoot the first tank,” he explained. “And he spun around, and we started knocking the hell out of them. They jumped off the tank, you know. We stopped it right there and blocked the road.”

“It was stopped in the middle of my position,” wrote Tillis, “where it exploded and began burning. This gave us suf­ficient illumination to sight in on the rest of the column.”

“The first burning tank was right next to us,” explained Funk, “the machine-gun and rifle fire had us pinned down in the ditch that wasn’t deep enough to carry water, and about that time here comes number three, full speed down the road toward us. As I looked up, this driver was coming right at us with one track in the ditch. If we move, we’re shot. If we roll out, a [Japanese soldier] might get us. Just at the last he pulled back up onto the road and pulled up right behind the burning tank, and they began yelling at each other. They decided to back up, only to be hit and start burning.”

Kohler was certain that his gun also scored this hit. “We could see pretty damn good with those big flares that the Navy was able to shoot up there in the sky. We could see all the [enemy troops] moving around—just black shadows, but we could see them. They made a real easy target. We blocked the road. So they had to spread out. And when they spread out, they were getting into the other Marines who were on the line.”

Behind them, Fox Company’s line had unleashed its firepower in the light of the burning tanks. “They burned brightly enough to illuminate the open field,” recalled machine-gunner PFC Jules Hallum. “At least they gave silhouettes to the attackers. We opened up with everything we had.”

“We had to lay there in the ditch next to those burning tanks while the line was trying to shoot everyone who was in front of them, including the two of us,” recalled Funk.

Japanese troops leapt onto them from the tanks, some wounded, some ablaze, others decimated by canister and ma­chine-gun fire. Funk and Michalet began to push forward over the crest of the hill to get out of the line of fire. “We crawled over bodies, gear, and anything that was in our way. Rifle and machine-gun fire continued over us like were on a training course. Another tank sped by without stopping, so not to worry about him.”

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The fifth and sixth tanks broke off the attack momentarily, until the fifth returned and raced through at high speed. A 37mm gun crew managed to get off a single armor-piercing round that went completely through the tank with no apparent effect. It broke into Fox Co’s lines, where Cpl Surface and Sergeant Arthur Metras again chased it down and destroyed it. Both men were recipients of the Silver Star for their action.

The sixth tank apparently veered close enough to Fox 2/25, that PFC Bascom Jordan destroyed it with his bazooka. So dark was it that, according to their Gunny Sergeant Keith Renstrom, Jordan bumped into the tank with his bazooka before seeing it.

“And it stopped,” explained Renstrom. “Then he backed off and shot his bazooka into it and got wounded by his own shell. And then the Japanese officer came out of it, and I shot him. After I shot him, he stumbled and fell, then we rolled his body back up against the tank.”

Jordan and Renstrom were also original Fox 2/23 men back in North Carolina until the regiment split to form the 25th Marines.

For the next couple of hours, 2nd Bn’s position was attacked from front and left by infantry from the Japanese 50th Infantry Regiment and the attached 1st Battalion, 135th Regiment. Fox and Easy Company’s line fired as they never had before during the war, all under light of flares. “The sky was full of them,” recalled Swindle. “You could look right out there just like broad daylight, and you could see [the Japanese] all over. And all down the line there, machine guns were hammering the hell out of them.”

“The fight was over before dawn,” recalled Hallum. “I went to sleep to a background chorus of groans of dying [enemies]. Maybe some of our guys too.”

Funk and Michalet managed to survive by crawling forward, out of the line of fire. And there they remained until light, when they were confronted with the dilemma of how to return safely to the line.
Hallum was perplexed to see his old schoolmates marching down the hill from enemy territory, and he could see from the look on their faces that they were not pleased.

“Bob came back to our area cursing at us for leaving him up there. He came over the next morning and just chewed the sh*t out of us. Our gun was firing right across, and he was in that ditch. He says, ‘you were hitting 4 inches over us.’ ”

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Post-action attempts to make sense of the action in the 2nd Bn zone that night concluded that the tanks had fought through an artillery barrage to break through the lines. But the Marines on the ground were very clear. Not a shot had been fired, nor a flare sent into the air when the barely discernible shape of the first tank appeared in their midst.

Fox Co men heard that the gunners initially had canister rounds loaded and could not fire. The gunners say that is not the case. But consideration of the conditions and an understanding of the ground on which the action occurred can offer clues.

Funk and Michalet had been positioned at the crest of the gradually sloping hill. The tank had overtaken them suddenly. With any light, it would have appeared suddenly over the crest to Kohler’s gun crew, just a short distance back, set up on the reverse slope looking uphill. But the “pitch black” darkness noted by Tillis prevailed at that time. “Not having any night firing attachments for the anti-tank weapons,” he wrote, “the crews held their fire until the tanks were at point blank range.”

In that darkness, the gunners never saw the tank until it was upon them as suddenly as it had been with Funk and Michalet just moments before. As soon as the flares went up, they were in business, and it seems clear that Kohler’s gun crew knocked out the next two tanks by Funk and Michalet. After that, hits came from all directions.

The 23rd Marines incurred 241 casual­ties on Tinian, wounded and evacuated, killed, or missing. Another 256 Marines were evacuated due to sickness. One of them was Funk, who was flown to Saipan for six days in the Army field hospital with dengue.

Author’s bio: Steven D. McCloud, is a leadership consultant, coach and speak­er, founder of TridentLeadership.com, and author of “Black Dragon: The Experience of a Marine Rifle Company in the Central Pacific.” He conducts PMEs and battlefield staff rides for corporate and government agencies. He also leads small-group expeditions to battlefields in the Pacific and Normandy.

From Bellhop to Leatherneck: “8th and I” Marine Witness to Turbulent Time in U.S. History

In 1961, in the sleepy town of Marshalls Creek, Pa., everybody knew the Huffmans.

Unfortunately for Joel Huffman, the town was also familiar with his driving record. After wrecking two of his father’s vehicles and dropping out of college, the 19-year-old was figuring out his future while working at nearby Mountain Lake House — his family’s resort.

“The insurance company said to [my dad], ‘Harvey, we will continue to give you your insurance, but we will not cover you if Joel is driving,” Huffman laughed. “I didn’t lose my driver’s license, but I lost my insurance, so therefore I didn’t drive.”

His days as a bellhop at the resort soon came to an end when he decided to heed the advice of a coworker and Marine vet­eran and enlist in the Corps. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Huffman’s three years serving his nation would provide him with a bird’s-eye view of some of the most significant events in U.S. presidential history.

After a brief stint at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Huffman was transferred to the Marine Corps Institute (MCI) in Washington, D.C. During his two years there, he was assigned to security duty for the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, David M. Shoup, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and made several trips with Gen Shoup to Camp David. He also was part of the security detail at Bethesda Naval Hospital during President John F. Kennedy’s autopsy and at the Capitol Rotunda with President Kennedy’s body lying in State.

“It wasn’t until years later I realized how close to different parts of history I was,” Huffman said. “I was standing right next to history. That was kind of stunning to me when I look back now.”

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Notable Assignments
When Huffman arrived at Marine Barracks Washington, he was assigned mail duty, which ironically required him to drive to a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., post office to pick up letters for the base. During the summer silent drill team performances on Friday nights, he worked parking detail. In October of 1962, he was pressed into a more serious role during the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I remember walking around the Com­mandant’s place to see if anybody was going to attack,” Huffman said. “We had weapons, but we didn’t have any ammunition. It was an unusual event, patrolling and walking around the barracks.”

Huffman was also sent to Camp David on several oc­casions to work perimeter security. You never knew when you were going to have that assignment, said Huffman, so the goal was always to get out of town on Fridays as quickly as you could before you received your orders. When he was selected, his trips were memorable as much for what he didn’t see as what he saw.

“They used to put curtains over the bus windows so we couldn’t see out,” Huffman said of the trips to the presiden­tial hideaway. “… They didn’t want you to get back in your car and go up there.”

On the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, Huffman was one of a handful of Ma­rines at Bethesda Naval Hospital. As­signed to the waiting room next to where Kennedy’s autopsy was being conducted, Huffman recalls then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy coming into the room briefly, blood from her husband still evident on her pink suit.

“… We didn’t have to do anything spe­cial other than just being alert,” Huffman said of that assignment.
Two days later, Huffman was standing on the Capitol steps as Kennedy’s coffin was being brought up to the rotunda. He still has his paperwork from MCI’s com­manding officer, E.B. Wheeler, thank­ing him for representing the Corps honorably that day.

“Your individual response in conduct­ing this difficult but dis­tinguished duty was in keeping with the highest ideals and traditions of our Corps and our Barracks and will be a timeless re­minder to your successors of exceptional service during a pe­­riod of profound national grief,” read the letter dated Jan. 16, 1964.

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Once a Marine…
While Lance Corporal Huffman was an expert shot [he was invited to be a member of the USMC rifle team] and a well-thought of Marine for his perfor­mance in the mail room, he decided to trade in his uniform for civilian clothes in 1964. Huffman worked at several banks before spending more than two decades as the treasurer for the Desert Southwest Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church.

While brief, Huffman said his time serving his country 60 years ago prepared him well for a life in the civilian world. In addition to learning discipline and teamwork, he also became a father while serving in the Corps.

“I grew up in the Marine Corps,” Huffman said. “That’s when I became a man. I realized I had to take care of myself … for something larger than me. And if I didn’t learn anything, I learned that … together you can do more.”
Keep reading for more tales from the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s.

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

Remember What You Represent: The Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon

A highly selective and unique niche fills the ranks of the Marine Corps’ Silent Drill Platoon. Throughout the unit’s history, the platoon has proven unparalleled among the services at their craft and represented the Marine Corps on the grandest scale. To earn a spot with this elite group, a young Marine must begin proving himself from the moment he steps on the yellow footprints.

When a new infantry Marine graduates from Infantry Training Battalion, a select few receive assignment to Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. Selections are based on multiple characteristics, but character and performance trump all. Once finished with Ceremonial Drill School, the basic training for all new marching Marines at “8th and I,” fewer still receive the opportunity to compete for a spot with the Silent Drill Platoon.

Silent Drill School commences every December. Prospective candidates volun­teer to showcase their skills and attention to detail. Some years, more than half of the platoon’s requirement of 39 Marines is vacated when some move into the fleet or civilian life. As the candidate pool is whittled down, instructors finalize the list of selectees. The platoon veterans then pack up and take off with the new selects for their culminating annual training event at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.

Spring training in Yuma lasts one month. The Marines work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, memoriz­ing every muscle movement in the routine.
“In Yuma we learn the new sequence for the year and work to get the new guys in the platoon up to par,” said Corporal Alexander A. Rojas, 2nd Squad Leader in the platoon. “Training days are very long, every day.”

“It’s a grind, waking up at 0600 every morning and working until 10 o’clock at night,” added Cpl Jack N. Conner, 3rd Squad Leader. “But it’s a great way to get away from everything here at the barracks and just focus on ourselves, perfecting everything and preparing for the parade season.”

The platoon’s Drill Master, a senior corporal in his third or fourth year with the unit, creates the routine. He envisions the flow and tempo of each Marine and invents the paths they take, orchestrating their movements into a single, purposeful design. The platoon Rifle Inspector serves as the subject matter expert in rifle manual and spins. He and the Assistant Rifle In­spector take the lead in polishing the re­flexes and hand-eye-coordination of each Marine to ensure a flawless performance.

While the Drill Master and Rifle In­spec­tor work together to create a unique performance, flavored with their personal brand of experience and style, several major portions of the routine endure as Silent Drill Platoon traditions. Anyone familiar with the platoon recognizes the iconic “bursting bomb” formation, or “long line” rifle inspection sequence. Like all Marines, Silent Drill Platoon members idolize their forerunners, em­brace their unit history, and pass their creed onto a new generation each year.

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The legacy of the Silent Drill Platoon originated in 1948. Though intended as a one-time performance, the first version of the team received an overwhelming and enthusiastic response. The public demanded repeat performances. As a result, the platoon eventually became a permanent part of Marine Barracks Washington. Throughout its history, newly minted infantrymen, prior to their first tour in the fleet, filled out the platoon. The Marines today celebrate one notable exception to this standard, memorializing a unique point in time on their barracks wall. A black and white photograph displayed in the passageway depicts the platoon during the Vietnam War, when even the Marines of the Silent Drill Platoon deployed to combat. The photo looks much like any other taken of the platoon in formation, except that each Marine wears sergeant or staff sergeant chevrons and a chest full of medals.

The Marines proudly differentiate them­selves through numerous traditions passed down over the years. From tattoos to unique uniform details, some traditions are held sacred and recognized only by veterans of the platoon. The coveted silver buttons worn by the number one Rifle Inspector represent one of the more widely known rituals. Since the 1970s, the Rifle Inspector has removed the brass buttons from his dress blues and entrusted them to his successor. Over time and through constant polishing, the buttons turned silver and became a trademark feature. The original buttons are pre­served today in a glass case, still handed down to each new Rifle Inspector for safe keeping, while he sews another set of silver buttons to his blouse to keep the tradition alive. As a far lesser known or visible tradition, when practicing drill out of uniform, the Marines adopt the style of their predecessors, drilling in Converse hightop shoes. A keen observer might notice the iconic shoes tied dif­ferently from Marine to Marine, laced one eyelet farther down to signify the number of years a Marine has served with the platoon.

The summer parade season is the pla­toon’s primary tradition and premier event, and is the most widely anticipated engagement every year. Most spectators familiar with the Silent Drill Platoon recognize the unit from one of their classic performances at a Friday Evening Parade or Tuesday Sunset Parade. Running June through August, these two performances every week represent the minimum of the platoon’s time commitment. The Ma­rines travel all over the country, and sometimes internationally, performing at a variety of venues. One day, the platoon might execute their routine in a local high school gymnasium for a group of students and their parents. The next night, the Marines could be standing on the 50-yard line during the halftime show of a National Football League game in front of thousands of cheering fans. Often, the Marines land back in Washington, D.C., within an hour or two of their next performance at an Evening Parade. They don their dress blues, proceed directly onto the parade field, then fly out once again the following morning for their next performance.

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In addition to performing, traveling, and remaining the best in the business at slide drill and rifle spinning, platoon members must maintain proficiency in the basic skills as an infantry Marine.

“It’s a tight window, but we throw in infantry classes, land nav classes, and practical application on our annex field here in D.C. whenever we can,” Corporal Christopher I. Houck stated, who serves as 1st Squad Leader. “Sometimes it’s tough to get in training here in the city, but we use whatever resources we can.”

Houck and the other squad leaders prepare the Professional Military Edu­ca­tion to be covered during their days abroad. Several times a year, the platoon travels to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., to practice infantry tactics in the field and complete their basic set of re­quirements. They spend time on the range for rifle qualification and complete their annual Physical Fitness and Combat Fitness Tests.

While extremely demanding and chal­lenging, Silent Drill Platoon Marines take immense pride in their role. Not only because of the unique opportunity they possess to be one of the very few who have ever earned a spot with the platoon, but also because of what the unit rep­resents about the Corps and our beloved history. When the elevator door opens onto the Silent Drill Platoon’s deck at 8th and I, a large wooden sign is immediately visible to anyone visiting, and to Marines returning home. “Remember what you represent.” There’s nothing ambiguous about the meaning behind those words for the Marines of the Silent Drill Pla­toon—they are part of something greater than themselves.

Plaques, memorials, and photographs evenly spaced down each passageway contrast against the black-painted walls in distinguished prominence. Each tells a proud story of platoon history, remem­bers an extraordinary example of bearing and fortitude, or recognizes individual Marines for their performance.

One stun­ning memorial just beyond the elevator door remembers Lance Corporal Davis M. Mosqueda. While on holiday leave in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, Mosqueda joined a party on Dec. 30, 2020. When gunshots rang out from the apartment parking lot, Mosqueda realized one of his friends was outside and in danger. He ignored the threat and moved outside in order to protect his friend. In the proc­ess, the assailant shot and killed Mosqueda. To recognize his off-duty example of honor, courage, and commitment, a pen­cil sketch of Mosqueda performing with the platoon stands alongside his M1 Garand bayonet and several other items in his memory.

Other memorials along the wall pay tribute to Marines who displayed exem­plary demeanor during a performance as a reminder that no matter what occurs, you must maintain your bearing. On April 28, 2004, LCpl Jamar C. Bailey executed his part on the rifle inspection team during a performance at 8th and I. According to his Certificate of Com­menda­tion, “At the moment when two rifles are exchanged between three Ma­rines, the rifle that was thrown to Lance Corporal Bailey was not in the proper position … and struck him in the face. The front sight post caught him in the cheek and opened a 2-inch long cut.”

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A photograph next to Bailey’s certifi­cate shows him standing at attention as he continued on to flawlessly finish out the remainder of the performance. Blood pours down his chin and covers his blouse. It took 14 stitches to sew his face back together. His bloodstained blouse hangs in the display case with his photo as a testament to his outstanding example of commitment to his profession.

Another plaque on display serves as a persistent reminder to all Marines in the platoon that their role is constantly under evaluation and up for grabs. Dedicated by the outgoing platoon leadership in 2022, the “Old Dogs and New Dogs” plaque recognizes both the top performing pla­toon veteran and rookie each year.

The Marines named here earn their spot in the marching 24. The remaining 22 spots are highly coveted and must be earned throughout the year. Character and discipline play a primary function in securing a role in the platoon. To achieve the highest honor of marching with the 24, each Marine must be constantly ready for Challenge Day.

The first Challenge Day of the year comes at the end of spring training when the initial marching 24 are finalized. Every Marines understands, however, that his spot in the 24 remains secure only through demonstrating the highest level of proficiency and character. The number of Challenge Days in a year varies at the discretion of the platoon leadership. They come as a surprise, un­announced until the morning of, forcing each Marine to remain constantly pre­pared. Every Ma­rine in the platoon per­forms the routine from start to finish, individually and under close scrutiny of the Drill Master. They receive a com­posite score at the end, and the highest scores fill out the marching 24. The intense level of preparation re­quired for competition against their peers enables those who achieve the marching 24 to perform under any circ*mstances, in front of any audience.

Silent Drill Platoon Marines consider their bearing as a leadership trait held in the highest regard. They revere examples such as Jamar Bailey and others who, under extraordinary circ*mstances, main­tained their bearing, performed their drill routine, and demonstrated exactly the type of character the Marine Corps wants to embody. On rare occasions, mistakes are made. Hats co*ck to the side and fall off, or rifles are dropped. In cases such as this, the Marines remain stoic on the outside while the Rifle Inspector corrects the problem as he moves down the line.

Performing on the grandest stage, at the highest level of visibility, appears not to unnerve the Marines. Representing the heart and soul of what the public envisions about the Marine Corps drives the pla­toon to perform flawlessly, regardless of the circ*mstances surrounding the oc­casion. In March 2023, the Silent Drill Pla­toon travelled to Anchorage, Alaska, to perform at the opening ceremony of the 51st annual Iditarod sled dog race. Before dawn, with temperatures hovering below zero, the platoon donned hoodies and beanies to practice their routine a final time in the quiet, empty street near the starting line. Several hours later, they marched out once more in full uniform before the cheering crowd. The Marines executed the drill on a slippery and snow-covered street, while the temperature rose barely above zero. Their incredible dis­cipline and professionalism marked an awesome first-time appearance for the platoon at the event.

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Fleet Week in New York City arrived two months later. In front of an audience of civilians, allied nation military rep­resen­tatives, and members of each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the Silent Drill Platoon shone. They performed their solemn and respectful routine in the cen­ter of Times Square with fluorescent flashing lights all around, traffic and car horns blaring, police whistles signaling, and people shouting. A nearly torrential downpour elevated the impact of the per­formance, as the Marines flowed together unfazed by the rain, spinning, flipping, and tossing their soaked rifles with soaked gloves.

One annual opportunity offers the Ma­rines a chance to prove they truly are the masters of their craft. Drill teams from each branch of service compete head-to-head at the Joint Service Drill Exhibition every spring near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. On April 15, the Silent Drill Platoon wowed the crowd once again, outperforming teams from the Navy, Coast Guard, Army, and Air Force to win the competition for the third year in a row.

The character traits Marines perfect during their time with the Silent Drill Platoon serve them well over the rest of their career.

“None of us have been to the fleet yet, but a lot of friends who have gone on from here have become very successful,” said Cpl Conner. “They have a lot of unique skills; the attention to detail, the discipline, ability to teach, ability to learn quickly; and take them with them. We’ve had guys go to MARSOC, we’ve had guys go to Recon. Others lateral move and find success in a different MOS.”

“The intangibles these Marines take with them from being part of the platoon sets them up for success,” said Captain Gregory Jones, the Silent Drill Platoon Commander. “It pays dividends wherever they decide to go from here.”
Regardless of their next duty station, a Marine’s time with the Silent Drill Platoon remains a cherished time in their career. The pride they take reflects what other Marine veterans feel when we watch them perform. Throughout our lives, the title of “Marine” endures as the proudest we have earned. With each performance, the Silent Drill Platoon offers outsiders a glimpse of why.

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.

Her Story: Military Women’s Memorial Invites Servicewomen to Take Their “Rightful and Visible” Place

Editor’s note: This article was re-published in honor of Women Veterans Appreciation Day on June 12. It was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Leatherneck Magazine.

After a recent visit to the Military Women’s Memorial and its edu­cation center, located at the cere­monial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, a group of young women in uniform seemed to stand up a little taller and straighter than when they walked in mere hours earlier. At least that’s how the memorial foundation’s president, retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Phyllis Wilson, USA, describes the visible boost in morale she observed as the noncommissioned of­ficers absorbed the stories of the trail­blazing women who came before them and paved the way.

“Many of them had no idea on whose shoulders they stand and what these women endured to make it easier for the next generation,” said Wilson, who as­sumed her current position in 2019 after 37 years of service in the Army intelligence community. “It’s a great educational op­por­tunity, and it’s empowering […] under­standing the lineage, the collective lineage: not just by your branch of service, but what all these women have collectively done for us.”

Officially named the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the unique landmark, which recently reopened to the public on Memorial Day after a six-month closure for partial renovation, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s the only major national memorial of its kind, honoring the efforts of the more than 3 million American women who have served in defense of the nation since the Revolutionary War. And while it’s cer­tainly a mecca of sorts for women who have worn the uniform, the small, dedicated group of staff members who oversee its daily operations emphasize that it’s important for all servicemembers and all Americans—regardless of gender—to understand the complete history of women’s military service and the barriers that women in uniform continue to break today.

That’s precisely what the memorial’s 33,000 square-foot education center strives to achieve by featuring artifacts from its extensive collection of memorabilia, uniforms, diaries, photographs and more in a chronological array of exhibits that detail women’s contributions to national defense which began even before women were legally permitted to serve—or even to vote.

From Deborah Sampson, who dis­guised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who served as a civilian surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War and is the only female Medal of Honor recipient in history; to the female yeomen or “yeomanettes” and the first Woman Marines who joined through the U.S. Navy Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve due to a loophole in the Naval Act of 1916, visitors to the education center learn about the women whose bravery and patriotism set the conditions for the progress that would slowly but surely follow.

Another exhibit entitled “Sweet Victory” educates visitors on the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, which came on the heels of the Second World War, during which women served in separate and distinct branches of the services: the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WACs), the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES), and the Coast Guard Women Reserve who were known as SPARs – Semper Paratus Always Ready. The act allowed women to integrate into the regular and reserve Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as full members and to serve during peacetime, albeit with significant restrictions: women had limited benefits, could only make up 2 percent of the total force, could not have children, and could not achieve a grade above O-5 unless they were chief of one of the women’s components.

According to retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Marilla Cushman, who has been on the staff of the Military Women’s Memorial since shortly before its 1997 dedication and now serves as Wilson’s senior advisor, it’s vital that young women serving in uniform today gain an understanding of their collective history and recognize that it wasn’t long ago that they were granted many of the opportunities and entitlements they are afforded today. When speaking with these servicewomen, Cushman often uses the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision in Frontiero v. Richardson, which allowed military women to secure equal benefits like housing allowances and healthcare for their spouses and dependents, as an example. They’re often surprised to learn, she said, that when Cushman was commissioned in 1972, she was not yet entitled to the same benefits as her male counterparts.

Among the education center’s other displays are a case detailing the instru­mental efforts of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), established in 1951, as well as a look at the various capacities in which women have served, ranging from Ameri­can Women’s Voluntary Service on the homefront during World War II, to nurses in the Vietnam and women who served in combat roles during the Global War on Terror. A sobering display of 177 yellow ribbons pays tribute by name to each woman who has died in service since 9/11, and the newest exhibit, “The Color of Freedom,” honors the diversity of Ameri­ca’s servicewomen throughout history.

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“The Women’s Memorial is a living tribute to all who have worn the uniform,” said veteran Marine Dr. Betty Moseley Brown, who, while serving as the 19th national president of the Women Marines Association, was an honored guest at the memorial for the unveiling of an exhibit that honored the 100th anniversary of women in the Marine Corps in 2018. “The Women’s Memorial opened their doors so we could commemorate our history and weave their stories of those in uniform today and for our future. We are honored to have this living memorial,” she added.

The memorial’s recent renovation in­cludes an update to its office spaces, rest­rooms and, most notably, the transfor­mation of its 196-seat theater into a state-of-the-art multipurpose event space known as the Vaught Center, a tribute to retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, the memorial’s founder and a pioneer of her time who was in­ducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. After her 1985 retirement as one of the most decorated military women in U.S. history to that point, Brig Gen Vaught dedicated the following three decades to serving as the memorial foun­da­tion’s president. Wilson, her successor, often refers to the memorial as “the house that Wilma built,” and lauds the tireless efforts of the general who, now in her 90s, continues to serve as the memorial foun­dation’s president emeritus.

After the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation was founded in 1985, Congress approved the story of women’s service to the nation, at its heart—literally and figuratively—is its “Register,” a central alcove of the memorial that houses its digital repository of stories of individual women’s service, to include their memorable experiences and awards and decorations. To date, they’ve collected just over 300,000—nearly two-thirds of which were gathered before the memorial even opened in 1997—and Wilson, Cushman and their team are on a mission to raise that number significantly by getting the word out to women who have served or are currently serving, or their surviving family members. Reg­istration is simple and can be done by creating an account on the memorial’s website, uploading a photo and submitting the requested information.

It’s an effort that retired Marine Lieu­tenant General Loretta “Lori” Reynolds, who served as the Corps’ deputy com­mandant for information and has been a stalwart supporter of the Military Women’s Memorial, believes in wholeheartedly.

“So much of our history is the big stories. It’s the big stories of courage and those are important. But it’s the little stories of courage and service that don’t always get noticed. I think the memorial does a fabulous job of collecting those,” said LtGen Reynolds.

Not only are the stories collected by the Military Women’s Memorial accessible online at its website, where they are fre­quently accessed by family members and researchers alike, but they also come to life in the Register room, where visitors can search their own names, or the names of family members or friends who served, which are then displayed on a screen. Often, veterans visit the memorial as part of an Honor Flight, and Wilson, Cushman and the rest of the memorial staff relish the opportunity to recognize the women veterans among the tour group by pulling up their “stories” from the register, calling them up front and center and reading their accolades and memorable experiences to the group.

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“Firsthand accounts are so critical to our database, to our researchers, to us,” said Wilson. “It’s so amazing what they tell us. It’s just stunning what these women are willing to entrust to us.”

At the foundation offices just down the road from the cemetery, a “book room” is home to wall-to-wall shelving filled with binders that catalog all of the registrations that were received by mail in the years leading up to the memorial’s opening. Within them are handwritten stories, original photographs and letters from women across the nation who answered the call when their country needed them most.

“Often we’ll have folks that say, ‘Well, I didn’t do anything.’ But you did,” said Cushman, to which Wilson added, “You served in the capacity that the nation permitted you to serve. Women couldn’t graduate from service academies until 1980. We didn’t have the first woman general until 1970 […] so there are a lot of things in very recent history that have changed and freed us up.”

Frequently, family members come to the memorial after their loved one has been buried at Arlington and want to look up the deceased’s individual story of service. Other times, it’s the women themselves, many of whom earned the title “Marine.”

Last summer, veteran Marine and form­er Private First Class Patricia Morlock Sanderson, who served in the Corps from 1954 to 1955, visited the memorial with her granddaughter. When a staff member pulled up her profile on the screen, Sanderson, in her late 80s, raised her sleeve to show off her recent USMC tattoo, which she got at the age of 85, and took a photo with her personal story “card.”

In another instance, during an Honor Flight visit, Wilson had the opportunity to present a Marine veteran, Evelyn Kandel, who also served during the 1950s, with a complete uniform that she never received during her time in the Corps. The emotion on her face, said Wilson, was priceless.

“It just illustrates the pride, and the enduring pride in service, of these women. What it meant to be able to say, ‘I’m a Marine,’” said Cushman.

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“Individually we can all say, ‘Well, what I did wasn’t much. If I had never served, the Army or Marine Corps would have driven on,’” said Wilson. “But when you see as a collective these different eras of women and the transformation over time, what has transpired, and you realize, ‘I was part of that!’ That’s what causes these women to suddenly sit up straighter, whether they’re in their wheelchairs or they’re 100 years old or they’re a young woman coming in and they’re at the front of their military career […] I think it just gives them a better sense of the lineage of which they are now part of.”

It’s important to Wilson and her staff that even those who can’t physically visit the memorial are still able to benefit from its treasure trove of women’s military history. Artifacts from the foundation’s collection are on loan at numerous museums and the memorial also has traveling exhibits that make their way to universities, libraries and other institutions. In recent years, they’ve expanded their website with a 360-degree virtual tour of the website and launched a YouTube channel with an extensive collection of videos called “HERstory Spotlights” that feature various topics and individuals related to women’s military history.

In late 2023, the memorial will close again for a second phase renovation, this time to its exhibits, which will be overhauled to include more interactive and technology-based displays. But despite current and future changes, the mission remains unchanged.

“To embrace that legacy is so important to who you are, and to know that you’ve been part of this journey, and that you have been entrusted to carry that legacy forward,” Cushman said.

VMFT-401: The Corps’ Adversary Squadron

At first glance, with their dis­similar camouflage and a red star on the tail, the F-5 Tigers on the flight­line don’t appear to be American aircraft. A closer look will reveal “Ma­rines” emblazoned boldly on the fuse­lages. These F-5s belong to Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401, currently the only adversary squadron in the Ma­rine Corps. Stationed aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, VMFT-401, the “Lucky Snipers,” are an expert team of pilots and support personnel who play an integral role in honing Marine Corps readiness through their use of dissimilar air combat training (DACT). In other words, they play the “bad guys,” and they are very good at it.
Squadron History

VMFT-401 was activated in 1986 in response to a growing need for DACT for Marine Corps aircrews. DACT places aircraft of different types against each other in simulated combat with the goal of providing realistic training and sharp­­ening the ability of American aircrews to counter peer or near-peer threats. For this training to be successful, the ad­versary needs to present an authentic opponent, and adversary pilots need to be expert in the employment of “red” tactics as well as their own.

Beginning in the 1960s, following losses in the skies over Vietnam, the Air Force and Navy began to develop and implement more intentional air combat training as they stood up their adversary squadrons. In the 1980s, as the Marine Corps adopted the F-18 Hornet, a fourth- generation fighter, the need arose for those Marine aircrews to train against a peer or near-peer adversary, and VMFT-401 was created. The first aircraft to come to the squadron were F-21 Kfirs from Israel. The Israeli pilots worked closely with the Marines of the squadron to integrate the aircraft, and the pilots trained with Navy and Air Force adver­sary units. In 1989, the squadron tran­sitioned to the F-5 Tiger, a simple but robust aircraft capable of Mach 2 with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet.

Lucky Sniper Pilots
Today, VMFT-401 flies many types of missions with the F-5, all in support of the Fleet Marine Force. Though they focus heavily on air-to-air combat train­ing, the Lucky Snipers also fly sorties to train ground defense units to hone their aircraft detection and neutralization skills, help train rotary-wing aircrew to counter air-to-air threats, and aid in the develop­ment of training programs. “Our job is to keep the Marine Corps from fight­ing the last war,” said Lieutenant Colonel Eric Scherrer, commanding officer of VMFT-401. “We don’t know exactly the enemy that we’re going to fight next, and we don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. That’s where I come in. I study that enemy.

And so when I go, when I provide fleet support to squadrons across the Marine Corps, I’m going to fight them in a way that one of our peer or near-peer adversaries will fight.” As the Marine Corps’ only squadron dedicated to acting as the opposing force in simulated air combat, VMFT-401 most often provides support for Marine fighter/attack squad­rons, fleet replacement squadrons, and for large scale exercises, like Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course and Marine Division Tactics Course.

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A defining feature of the unit is their wealth of experience, which greatly en­hances their ability to carry out this mis­sion. Each of the pilots is seasoned, hav­ing already flown multiple tours in the fleet. “There are so many deployments in the squadron. I don’t know how many combat tours or real-world tours that we all have,” said Major Joel Adolphson, a pilot with VMFT-401. “And the goal is to use our experience, our knowledge, to better train the fleet. There are thousands of hours of experience between everybody that flies here, so we use our experience and expertise not only to accomplish their training, but also to increase the quality of their training.”

Pilots come to the squad­ron from all over the Marine Corps, including from the active-duty and Reserve components, integrating the individual skills and specialties they’ve developed over the course of their careers into the mission here. Major Benjamin VanWingerden, a pilot currently assigned to VMFT-401, flew the F/A-18 in Iwakuni, Japan, before coming to the Lucky Snipers. “China was one of the threats, and it definitely ramped up while I was there,” Maj VanWingerden said, “so we had quite a few briefs when I was there. I leveraged that when I got here to try to push to the local squadrons to up their training. Because we don’t want you to go out trained to a minimal threat. That’s the mentality I bring to the Snipers—give the hardest threat available even though sometimes they don’t like it. I’d rather have them survive than get shot because they’re not upping their training.”

The squadron is also unique in its manpower. Assigned to the 4th Marine Air Wing, VMFT-401 is a reserve squad­ron with a roughly even mix of active duty and reserve pilots. “All of my Reserve aircrew are also airline pilots. They’re very, very good aviators,” said LtCol Scherrer. “They add a lot of safety and a lot of maturity to the squadron, and experience that you wouldn’t always have. So, I see it as a great gift.”

Knowledge of Tactics
Adversary squadrons, and VMFT-401 in particular, are characterized by a deep knowledge of the tactics of peer and near-peer threats. This knowledge is acquired through study and experience. The pilots not only need to know red tactics, they need to be able to employ them in order to provide formative training. “I’m very fortunate because all of our pilots are very experienced. They’ve done at least one full fleet tour before they come to us. So, they’re very well versed in blue tactics, and they’re very experienced in the airplane.” said Scherrer. “They have to learn how to fly the F-5, but they already know blue tactics, and they already have a basic understanding of what red tactics are. Then it’s just a matter of taking them from the blue side and indoctrinating them into the red.”

To become expert in red tactics, every pilot goes through further advanced train­ing to hone their adversary abilities, usual­ly including either the adversary course at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as TOPGUN, or through Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course, where they’ll serve as adversary mission commanders. Each of the pilots also be­comes a subject matter expert in a relevant field. “We’re very closely tied in with the 64th Aggres­sor Squadron out of Nellis Air Force Base,” said Scherrer. “They’re really the red adversary subject matter experts. Every one of our pilots goes up there to be a subject matter expert in every­thing from doctrine, to aircraft and missiles, to tactics. So, everyone that’s here, including myself, goes to train in that capacity.”

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After becoming a subject matter expert in a particular area, whether it’s a specific aircraft or weapons system, each of 401’s pilots can pass that knowledge on to others in the squadron and share it with other squadrons. They provide presenta­tions on their area of expertise to pilots in the fleet and use this expertise to en­hance the realism of their training scenarios. “Rarely do we have a vanilla problem for them to solve. Most of them are very difficult, especially for the weapons course,” said Maj Adolphson. “It’s extremely difficult sometimes, so that they’re better prepared when they actually go do the real thing, if that does happen.”

The scenarios themselves are not difficult just for the sake of being challenging. It’s all directed toward the formation of top-of-the-line combat aviators. The squadron’s pilots use their knowledge to hone the abilities of air­crews and provide them with training experiences to call back to in the future.

“Sometimes people say ‘red punishes blue mistakes.’ If blue wins every time, no questions asked, what will be masked by that overall win are execution errors or things that they could have done better. If somebody is always telling you you’re doing a great job, naturally you’re going to think you’re doing a great job, and you might get a little lax in your execution,” said LtCol Michael Webb, VMFT-401 executive officer. “Maybe we’re going to go to combat someday and that’s going to bite you. So, I see us as the best way to not critique blue verbally, but to give them critiques of themselves. And to build confidence in their airframe, con­fidence in their weapons systems, and an understanding of what they can and can’t do well. It’s our job to kind of pick at that perspective that they have, figure out ways to beat them so they eventually fix that gap and then they’re unbeatable.”

The pilots aren’t the only ones at VMFT-401 with a wealth of experience and expertise. The squadron’s maintainers are civilian contractors, many of whom have been working with the squadron’s F-5s for well over 20 years. “We’ve still got maybe 12 or 15 guys that have been here since 1989,” said Marcel Gaud, who has been a maintainer with VMFT-401 since July 1987. He and the other main­tainers credit much of their success to this longevity. They’re experts with the airframe, and they work well as a team, drawing on each other’s strengths to keep the squadron flying. Like many of the other maintainers, Gaud is a veteran Marine, having served with VMAT-102 from 1983-1986 in the same hangar he works in today. “It’s longevity … most of us are Marines here. I really think that that has something to do with it. Most of us are former jarheads, and we have the bar pretty high.” Many of the maintainers are also able to cross-train in positions besides their own and qualify to operate in positions besides their reg­ular spe­cialty. Their work ex­ceeds expectations, and it allows the squad­ron to keep up an incredible mission capable rate for their aircraft. This isn’t taken for granted by the Marines of the squadron, and the pilots acknowledge the maintainers’ skill as integral to their success. “Our aircraft health is very good,” said LtCol Webb. “We can have a pretty robust flight schedule because we have such a good maintenance foot­print.” VMFT-401 hasn’t had a mishap since 1995, in part because of the dedica­tion and expertise of the maintainers. “I’ve seen some amazing things done by just a group of six or seven of us,” said Gaud. “I’m very proud of the work we do here.”

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F-5 Tiger
Though the F-5 Tiger isn’t a fifth-gen­eration fighter, it lends itself incredibly well to an adversary role for fifth-genera­tion fighters like the F-35. In addition to the exceptional skill the pilots have for mimicking adversaries, the Tiger is a platform for a handful of technologies that contribute to effective and safe train­ing. One of these, the Tactical Combat Training System, or TCTS, allows pilots to track other aircraft in the training exercise through a TCTS pod mounted on each aircraft. The pilots also have access to “RedNet,” which is tied in to the TCTS system. RedNet allows for the real time tracking of any aircraft carrying a TCTS pod, increasing situational aware­ness and precision during training scenarios, but it also allows for playback. This is a valuable tool because it gives pilots an opportunity to debrief where and how they made their good shots on “blue” aircraft, enhancing the depth of understanding pilots have of their tactics, and helping them to refine their training scenarios. The enhanced situational aware­ness also creates a safer training environment in what can become very dynamic and crowded airspace.

And the Lucky Snipers love what they do. “It’s almost like this finishing school for not just red air, but for being a proficient aviator,” said Webb. “VMFT-401 is everything I ever wanted in a fight­er squadron. And we don’t have a gun, we don’t have any missiles, we don’t drop any bombs, but we get to do the fun stuff. All we do is dogfight; fight other people, fight each other, plan these large force exercises and go out and execute, and we have such a good enlisted component here. This is an awesome place to be.”

Adversary units have an increased relevance as the Marine Corps looks toward the future. Later this year, VMFT-402 will be activated at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina, increasing the avail­ability of adversary training to squadrons across the fleet. The aircraft will also continue to develop with new tech­nologies being integrated to provide the most realistic training available. And the Marines of VMFT-401 will continue to study, train, and perfect their role as red air, all with one goal in mind. “Just trying to polish the diamond, right?” Webb said. “That’s what we’re trying to do—to make them that much better so that the first time they see something in combat, they’ll realize they’ve seen it before. We’re just here to make the fleet better combat aviators in any way we can.”

Author’s note: Special thank you to LtCol Eric Scherrer and the Marines and civilians of VMFT-401 and MCAS Yuma for their assistance with this article.
Author’s bio: Patrick Reed is a historian and graduate of Abilene Christian Uni­versity. He has a particular interest in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps history and travels to speak with World War II veterans about their experiences.

Tank Attack on Saipan!

By June 15, 1944, the Central Pacific drive of the United States had inexorably pushed the Japanese back toward their homeland. Throughout the methodical island-hopping campaign, the Japanese had put up stiff resistance, fighting furiously on the sea, on land, and in the air. Unlike the Marines, who had developed a combined arms team that included infantry weapons, artillery, and tanks as well as naval gunfire and close air support, the Japanese failed to integrate all their available weapons. Noticeably absent was any significant use of tanks or armor. That would all change with the invasion of the Mariana Islands.

The 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions landed on Saipan on June 15. Japanese artillery and mortars were hidden on the heights overlooking the beaches. Small, local counterattacks attempted to push back the invaders. But the Marines’ com­bined arms teams dealt with each piecemeal attack. Despite more than 3,000 casualties and gains of less than a mile inland, in some places less than three hundred yards, the Marines had a solid foothold on the island. By evening, the Army’s 27th Infantry Division was landing.

On D-day, the men of Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones’ 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, came ashore on the extreme left flank of the invasion force. Known as “Willie K” by Marines, Jones led his men inland beyond the beaches, where the bulk of enemy forces were entrenched, passing a radio station with its tall tower a few hundred yards from the beach.

The Japanese use of tanks on the first day was disjointed and uncoordinated. At about noon, four unsupported light tanks attacked the boundary between 1st and 2nd Battalions, 6th Marines. “Amtanks,” Marine amphibious infantry support vehicles mounted with a cannon, destroyed three of the Japanese tanks.

During that first night, Japanese sail­ors attempted a small landing with a few amphibious tanks on the left flank of 2ndMarDiv. It was defeated by the combined arms of the Marines, in part due to a new weapon, the 2.36-inch rocket launcher, which would later be nicknamed the bazooka. The Japanese also carried out frequent infantry attacks that night, probing and pushing for weaknesses to exploit. Artill­ery, naval gunfire, tanks and 75mm guns mounted on halftracks supported the Marine infantry, and by morning there were over 700 Japanese dead near 2ndMarDiv and hundreds more in 4thMarDiv’s sector.

The next day, Jones’ battalion continued to carve out the island’s terrain, flanked by 2/2 under Major Howard Rice. The men of 1/6 made way for the remainder of the 2nd Marine Regiment to land.

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That night, both Marine divisions formed tight perimeters and prepared for a Japanese counterattack. Lieutenant General Yosh*tsugu Saito, the commander of the Japanese army on Saipan, issued an order for the 136th Infantry Regiment and the 9th Tank Regiment to “attack the enemy in the direction of Oreal (Charon Kanoa Airfield) with its full force.” In “Saipan: The Beginning of the End” by Carl W. Hoffman, Saito described the plan: “The tank unit will advance SW of Hill 164.6 after the attack unit [the infantry] has commenced the attack. The tank unit will charge the transmitting station and throw the enemy into disorder before the penetration of the attack unit into this sector.” Then, the Japanese 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force would attack from the north, parallel to the beach, to capture the Charon Kanoa Airfield, which was well behind Marine lines. One Japanese NCO noted, “Our plan would seem to be to annihilate the enemy by morning.”

This time, the Japanese had between thirty and forty tanks. Most were medium Type 97 Kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha vehicles armed with a 47mm main gun and a couple of machine guns. A few were the smaller Type 95 Ha-Go armed with a 37mm main gun and two machine guns.

The tanks gave away their presence moving into their attack positions. The Marines heard the sounds of their en­gines, as well as the chanting and shout­ing of Japanese infantry, early in the evening. Due to poor coordination, the Japanese attack didn’t begin until 3:30 a.m. and the Marines were ready.

Captain C.G. Rollen called for armored support as the enemy tanks approached the front line of Company B, 1/6. A pla­toon of M4A2 tanks from Company A, Second Tank Bn, and a section of the halftracks were dispatched to support the infantrymen. Rollen called for artillery and naval gunfire support. The Navy provided an almost constant supply of star shells, turning the night into an eerie bright daylight.

Correspondent Robert Sherrod, in his book “On to Westward,” quoted one Marine who said: “The [Japanese] would halt, then jump out of their tanks. Then they would sing songs and wave swords. Finally, one of them would blow a bugle, jump back into the tanks, if they hadn’t been hit already. Then we would let them have it with a bazooka.”

Major James A. Donovan Jr. executive officer of 1/6, noted: “Many of the tanks were ‘unbuttoned,’ [with their turrets open,] the crew chief directing from the top of his open turret. Some were being led by a crew member afoot. They seemed to come in two waves, carrying foot troops on the long engine compartment or clustered around the turret, holding on to the handrail. Some even had machine guns or grenade throwers set up on the tank.” Marine artillery and machine guns stripped away their infantry support. Then the infantry Marines took over.

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The armor of the Japanese light and medium tanks was so thin that, in many cases, Marine antitank rounds went com­pletely through them. Several Japanese tankers became disoriented as star shells and tracers lit up the darkness. They strayed into nearby swamps and were immobilized, making them easy targets for the Marines.

Donovan recalled, “The battle evolved itself into a madhouse of noise, tracers, and flashing lights. As tanks were hit and set afire, they silhouetted other tanks coming out of the flickering shadows to the front or already on top of the squads.” Marine infantrymen hunkered down in their foxholes as some of the enemy tanks managed to reach the front-line positions.

Jones related in a June 1988 Leatherneck article, “One tank, leaking oil heavily, soaked a Marine as it passed over his foxhole. Another Marine, also lying low in his foxhole until a tank passed over him, jumped out and stuck a coconut log in its bogey wheels. The tank spun in circles. And when the bewildered tank commander opened his turret top to see what was going on, the Marine jumped on top and hurled a thermite grenade into the open turret. The tank blew up like a volcano.”

As the battle grew in ferocity, Rollen was injured by the concussion of a near miss. Jones ordered Captain Norman K. Thomas, the Headquarters Company com­mander, to take over the command. Oddly enough, Thomas had earned a Silver Star on Tarawa in relief of Rollen there. Now, as Thomas advanced, he was struck and killed by fire from a Japanese tank. Sergeant Dean Squires saw the captain fall. He shot the Japanese vehicle commander and placed a demolition charge on its back deck—the resulting explosion disabled the tank.

Corporal Donald Watson threw two phosphorous grenades on the back deck of a tank passing by his foxhole, then shot the crew as they exited the burning vehicle. Despite machine-gun fire from another tank, he retrieved a wounded comrade who was stranded in the midst of the enemy tanks. He would be awarded the Navy Cross.

Two other Marines were awarded Navy Crosses by knocking out seven tanks with seven rockets. Private First Class Charles D. Merritt and PFC Herbert J. Hodges moved into the open, dodging from left to right and back again. Both were untouched by enemy tank and in­fantry fire.

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Private Robert S. Reed used his rocket launcher to hit four Japanese tanks. After he ran out of rockets, he mounted a Japa­nese tank and put it out of action with a grenade down the hatch. PFCs John Kounk and Horace Narveson stalked the enemy tanks. Ultimately, they scored hits on three tanks with four rockets.

Machine-gun squad leader, Sergeant Alex Smith, frustrated that the bullets of his guns bounced off the tanks’ armor, left his Marines and moved into the open. Using the grenade launcher mounted on his carbine, he disabled three tanks in quick succession.

Japanese artillery attempted to silence the Marine artillery instead of concen­trating on the Marine front-line positions. This let the infantry Marines concentrate on the enemy assault. Marine artillerymen suffered many casualties but continued firing.

During the action, Donovan noted, “The Japanese tanks … appeared con­fused. As their guides and crew chiefs were hit by Marine rifle and machine gun fire, what little control they had was lost. They ambled in the general direction of the beach, getting hit again and again until each one burst into flame or turned aimless circles only to stop when hit.”

As daylight spread across the battle­field, Marine tanks and halftracks ad­vanced into the area, finishing off many of the derelict enemy vehicles. By 7 a.m., the attack was over. Only one Japanese tank remained in action, but it rolled away into the hills. A call for naval gun­fire brought down a barrage of 5-inch gunfire from a destroyer, which turned the tank into a smoking pyre. Despite the long night, Jones’ Marines began the day’s attack at 7:30 a.m.

If all the claims of destroyed tanks were added up, including those of the infantry, antitank guns, tanks, and half­tracks, they would have equaled over 50 tanks. After the battle, 2ndMarDiv ob­servers counted 31 metal carcasses. Perhaps a thousand Japanese men were dead. Jones was circ*mspect, stating that if the Japanese attack on June 17 had been successful, it “would have been fatal to the division’s fighting efficiency.”

For the rest of the campaign, Japanese tanks were used only in small numbers, the largest armored attack occurred on June 24, when tanks of Co C, 2nd Tank Bn, destroyed seven Japanese tanks near the town of Garapan.

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Slowly, relentlessly, the Marines and soldiers conquered the island. Airfields were secured, allowing B-29s to bomb Japan. The only major counterattack was a banzai charge on July 7, the largest in the Pacific Island campaigns, of 4,000 bedraggled Japanese soldiers, sailors, and civilians without armored support. They smashed through front-line positions but were ultimately killed. The campaign for Saipan ended with the island declared secure on July 9.

In Oscar Gilbert’s book “Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific,” the commander of the Marine tanks, Captain Ed Bale, talked about credit for the destruction: “The argument has never been settled who destroyed the Japanese tanks, whether B Company [2nd] Tank Battal­ion or whether Weapons Company, 6th Marines did.” Sherrod gave credit to the infantrymen in an article for Leatherneck: “But most of the [Japanese] tanks were knocked out by infantrymen … who declined to get panicky. They waited in their foxholes until the moment was right, then they let go with bazookas or with antitank grenades. Some of them sat in their holes until the tanks rolled over and past them. Then they aimed at the weaker rear armor.” Ultimately it was the individual Marine, acting as part of the combined arms team, that defeated the Japanese in the Pacific.

General Thomas Watson, commanding general of 2ndMarDiv, surveyed the destruction around 1/6 and pronounced, “I don’t think we have to fear [Japanese] tanks anymore. We’ve got their number.” The general was right; the Japanese never tried a large-scale tank assault in the Pacific.

Author’s bio: MSgt Jeff Dacus, USMCR (Ret) is a retired Marine tanker. He is the 2020 recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation General Roy S. Geiger award. He is the author of the books, The Fighting Corsairs: The Men of Marine Fighting Squadron 215, Desert Storm Marines: A Marine Tank Company at War in the Gulf, and Perceptions of Battle: George Washington’s Victory at Monmouth.

Return With the Elixir: The Psychology of Pilgrimages to the “Devil Dog” Fountain

A shuttle van rolled to a stop across the street from the Belleau Town Hall. Out of the side door emerged an elderly gentleman, hunched over, his physical frame sharply contrasted by the fierce resolve propelling him forward. Protruding from his bowed head was a red hat emblazoned with a vibrant yellow USMC.

His eyes rose to meet mine as I introduced myself and he waved his hand for me to follow him. The 82-year-old man was named James, and he told me he had been a recruit at Parris Island in 1959. He had dreamed of coming to Belleau Wood for over six decades. With his health in decline, it was now or never. Earlier in the day, James and his wife walked through Belleau Wood with the intent of “walking in the footsteps of those heroes from 1918.” James was adamant that their day end with a visit to the “devil dog” fountain.

It was clear there was a lot riding on this moment, and he wanted it to unfold exactly as he envisioned. We walked to the iron gate, and after a woman from the local museum had unlocked it, James slowly pushed it open with his cane. He beckoned his wife to join us, and the three of us walked into the old farmyard. When he saw the fountain, James whispered, “It all makes sense.

This is why we are the devil dogs. I knew we earned this title from the Germans in World War I, but now it all makes sense. I’m here because I’m a Marine.”

James hobbled toward the fountain. His wife held his right arm, stabilizing him as he leaned forward to position his head near the water trickling out of the dog’s mouth. He removed his hat, closed his eyes, and craned his neck to drink from the fountain. He paused with his eyes closed, then turned to his wife and said, “I’m done. It’s complete.” His face was splashed with water droplets. He shuffled back to the van and climbed into his seat. After a few minutes, his wife joined him and we waved goodbye as the van drove up the hill. I was left to ponder what I had witnessed—and to reflect on James’ words, which seemed to imbue a profound sense of meaning. He hinted at a lifetime of reasons that motivated him to make a pilgrimage to Belleau Wood and the bulldog fountain.

The fountain positioned him in a line of continuity existing within a sacred landscape. It reaffirmed an overarching narrative that as an individual Marine, James existed inside the collective. He and the Corps were one.
I’m here because I’m a Marine.

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History of the Fountain
The Marine Corps has long understood the power of place and the importance of inculcating a sense of connection to hallowed ground. Servicemembers of all branches are tied to particular places, but Marines are collectively tied to the same places: Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Fallujah. This list of sacred places includes the devil dog fountain, which has become synonymous with Belleau Wood. However, because Marines were never in this exact location in 1918, the site’s prominence is not grounded in historical events. Rather, it emerged from the confluence of geo­graphic proximity to Belleau Wood, in­dividual and group identity, rituals and rites of passage, personal relationships, devotion, and collective memory. The site is an exemplar of how once-insignifi­cant places can evolve into pilgrimage sites—and of the symbiotic relationship that emerges between sacred sites and pilgrims.

The fountain is located inside the vil­lage of Belleau on private property, formerly the 16th century chateau built for the Graimberg family. The current owners are descendants of Alphonse Paillet, who, in 1842, purchased the chateau, along with most of the hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. Paillet sold Belleau Wood to the Belleau Wood Memorial Association in 1923, and it was dedicated as a shrine to the American Expeditionary Force. The family retained the chateau ruins and have been an in­tegral part of the growth of pilgrimages to the site. The fountain is sourced by a spring-fed aquifer that supplies water to the entire area.

The sculpted bronze bull­dog head is more accurately a Dogue of Bordeaux, a hunting breed that gained popularity in France in the mid-to-late 19th century. This particular fountain was used inside the farm area of the chateau grounds and is an unlikely struc­ture to emerge as a sacred site. However, its proximity to the battlefield and the significance of the bulldog coalesced into the birth of a Marine Corps shrine. Visits to this shrine are a relatively recent phe­nom­e­non, as Marines were not in the village of Belleau during WW I. There is a possibility that a Marine may have been held as a prisoner of war or treated in the German first aid station under the chateau. But, despite this, there are no accounts of Marines drinking from the fountain during the war.

The historic silence on the topic of the bulldog fountain is conspicuous given its current prominence. It is particularly noteworthy because of the number of fountains established by Americans as living memorials after WW I, such as the fountain on Belleau’s main road that is dedicated to the memory of soldiers from Pennsylvania who died in Belleau Wood. There is no mention of our foun­tain in the writings about Belleau visits to in­clude the 1920 Knights of Columbus pil­grimage, the dedication of Belleau Wood in 1923, or the 1929 reconstruction of the church that also serves as the U.S. Army 26th “Yankee” Division memorial.

Brigadier General James Harbord, USA was incensed by the location of this memorial and released a number of press statements asserting that Belleau Wood belonged to the Marines. Had the fountain been important to the Marines, this would have been a perfect time to emphasize their connection not only to Belleau Wood but to the village of Belleau. Gold Star Mothers also visited the area as part of the U.S. government funded pilgrimages of 1930-1933, and there are no written or photographic rec­ords of them visiting this particular fountain.

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After World War II, veterans of both wars continued visiting the area, and the Yankee Division veterans again paid for repairs to the church, which was rededicated in 1953. Also visiting during this time was 20th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Lemuel Shepherd. He was concerned that people were for­getting the contributions of Marines in Belleau Wood and initiated a plan to erect a monument, which was dedicated in 1955. It seems likely that Shepherd, along with other dignitaries, would have paid a visit to the fountain had there been an established Marine Corps connection to the site. The following decades reflect a similar lack of attention.

Based on testimonies from Belleau res­idents and press pieces from the 1980s, it was sometime during this decade that Marines began to visit the village of Belleau and the fountain as an extension to Belleau Wood itineraries. In the November 1988 issue of Marine Corps Gazette, author Agostino von Hassell described Marines visiting the devil dog fountain and proposed an interesting rationale for why Marines were connected to the village of Belleau. He referenced an account wherein the Germans oc­cupied Belleau in 1914 and encountered the “Hounds of Belleau” inside the cha­teau. During the subsequent fighting in June 1918, the Germans recalled their first skirmish in Belleau, which resulted in the devil dogs moniker. On July 15, 1990, Boston Globe sportswriter Bud Collins asserted that the Marines had bivouacked in the former farmyard of the chateau during the war. This is par­ticularly interesting given the fact that the date of Collins’ visit to the location corresponded to the dates in 1918 when the Yankee Division liberated the village.

Despite the historical inaccuracy of the Marines’ connection to Belleau, both authors linked fragmented pieces into one integrated framework. From this point, the village of Belleau was sub­sumed into the Belleau Wood narrative and fused together as one place within the collective memory of the area. This is illustrated by a conversation I had with a veteran Marine visiting Belleau Wood, who stopped me to inquire about the location of the fountain inside the woods. This man had actually been at the foun­tain and inside Belleau Wood in the early 1990s with a group from The Basic School but had forgotten the sites were geo­graphically separated. At some point in the decades following his visit, his in­dividual memory of the fountain’s lo­cation had merged with the collective memory of Belleau Wood.

While Belleau Wood had been hallowed ground since 1918, the subsummation of Belleau into Belleau Wood was cemented by 31st Commandant General Charles Krulak during his 1997 and 1998 visits. Gen Krulak’s personal connections to the area ran deep—he grew up hearing about the battle from his godfather, General Holland Smith, who had seen action at Belleau Wood—and these visits sacralized the oneness of the landscape in four significant ways. First, he chose the battlefield as the setting for the 222nd Marine Corps Birthday film. Like a prophet standing in the wheatfield, with one arm seemingly reaching back to WW I-era Marines and the other arm extended to future generations, Gen Krulak passionately spoke of continuity, identity, and shared vision. He also ef­fectively used water as a connective motif by saying Belleau Wood was “like a river that runs through all Marines and all Frenchmen … rippling through our souls, renewing us, sustaining us and fortifying us for the trials to come.”

Sec­ondly, Gen Krulak was photographed drinking directly from the devil dog fountain, giving a visual template for how future Marines would engage with the site. Third, he referenced his visit to Belleau Wood as a “pilgrimage of great personal meaning” and emphasized the importance of reenacting the journey of the 1918 Marines. Lastly, Gen Krulak acknowledged the local residents by presenting the fountain landowners with a Certificate of Appreciation, a powerful indicator of the importance the Corps placed on the site.

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Current Practices at the Fountain
The devil dog fountain’s emergence as a sacred site is concurrent to the growth of pilgrimages worldwide. The practices there mirror those at other sacred sites involving wells or fountains. These places are often associated with healing properties, miracles, or divine connections, which makes them focal points for spiritual practices and pil­grimages. Pilgrims and visitors come to these wells seeking physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being and either ingest the water or immerse themselves in it. Over time, stories and legends associated with such fountains get passed down through generations.

Like other sacred wells, the bulldog fountain is a center point of gathering for those who share a common identity and has become an important site for rituals and rites of passage, including reenlistments, promotions, and retire­ments. Moreover, the fountain shares another characteristic with other pilgrim­age sites: an element of challenge or dif­ficulty to access. The courtyard gate is locked and knowing how to access the key becomes part of the experience and affirms a sense of exclusivity.

I spoke to a Marine sergeant who told me she had waited her entire life to be at the fountain. The fact that she was sta­tioned in Europe was a dream come true, and being at the fountain was her sign that she was in the right place at the right time. She attributed her good fortune and life trajectory to the Marine Corps and was eager to send photos to her family and friends to show them how she made it to the fountain, knowing how proud they would be.
Another Marine I spoke to, a captain who was a prior enlisted Marine, told me being at the fountain reminded him of the yellow footsteps at PI and how he was walking in the footsteps of Marines from 1918 and taking his place among all Marines. He said that he felt a great deal of responsibility to honor the Marines of the past.

It is customary for Marines to drink directly from the fountain rather than filling a canteen or bottle to drink from. Either during the initial drink or the subsequent one, most Marines are photo­graphed in the same pose as Krulak in 1998. If they are part of a group, they will often flank the fountain for a photo. These photos are subsequently posted on social media with the hashtag #BelleauWood, further cementing the oneness of the two places.

The water’s meaning has evolved over time, too. Marines drinking from the fountain in the 1990s focused on the power of the water to extend one’s pro­fessional life in the Corps. Now, it is said that the water extends one’s physical life for 20 years. It is also considered the ele­ment that links all Marines to one another. Marines drink the water for those at Belleau Wood, for the current Marines, and for future Marines. Many Marines report taking home bottles of water from the bulldog fountain in the same man­ner as pilgrims do from other sacred wells. These bottles are treasured arti­facts that form part of a collection that may include sand from Iwo Jima or one of the Normandy beaches.

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Not all visitors coming to the fountain are Marines; others such as civilians and non-USMC servicemembers frequent the site. U.S. Army and National Guard personnel visiting the fountain often recount contested battle histories and the evolving collective memory of the war. In many ways, this reinforces the foun­tain’s status as a pilgrimage site—con­tested narratives always characterize such places. The long-standing inter­service rivalry between the Marine Corps and the Army is also a point of dialogue, with a particular emphasis on WW I. Soldiers often remark that the Marines were never in that location and jest that they will post photos in front of the foun­tain on social media with messages re­lated to historical accuracy.

There is also a sense that the Marine Corps has system­atically removed the Army’s presence in the Belleau Wood narrative, and one soldier told me that the Corps was “doing what Marines do and making everything about themselves.” Soldiers visiting the fountain who know about the Yankee Division’s liberation of the village of Belleau also recount the actions of July 1918. In addition, they point out the weather­ vane on top of the nearby barn, which depicts a Yankee Division soldier with his boot permanently kicking east, symbolizing pushing the Germans out of Belleau.

There is also a local impact resulting from the prominence of the site. The museum across the street, opened in 2008, retains the key for gate access and now has vessels for the water, similar to other holy wells like Lourdes. Local guides have incorporated a stop at the fountain as part of battlefield itineraries in the area. The fountain landowners re­main central to the site and fund ongoing maintenance and access for ceremonies and cultivate personal connections with the diplomatic and military communities in France.

Memorial Day
The steady stream of Marines visiting the Belleau area rises to a groundswell during the Memorial Day weekend. There is a growing list of ceremonies for the weekend occurring across multiple sites, to include the German cemetery and the village church where a Catholic mass is held on Saturday evening. The recent inclusion of Marine Corps participation in this service is conspicuous due to its overtly religious nature, indicative of the evolution of pilgrimages in Belleau.

During the 2023 service, there were con­tributions by French clergy members, local residents, and American military dignitaries. During the sermon, the priest referenced “martyr Marines” who died in Belleau Wood, which is interesting given the fact that the church itself is a memorial for the Yankee Division. During this service, Marines inhabit a space that was paid for by the sacrifices of their brothers-in-arms in the Yankee Division. For the locals, though, these Marines seem to personify the names of the war dead flanking the church walls. The Yankee Division soldiers, who lib­erated the village of Belleau, seem to have been reborn as Marines, a nod to the Corps’ powerful influence on the collective memory of the area in WW I.

On Sunday, the culminating ceremony, infused with grand military pageantry, occurs at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Similar ceremonies take place at all American Battle Monuments Com­mission cemeteries in France and all of them include military representation. However, the ceremony at Aisne-Marne is palpably “Marine Corps” in choreog­raphy, presence, and tenor. The list of distinguished guests continues to grow and is evidence of the increasing impor­tance ascribed to the ceremony by French military and government officials. More­over, the German Army has a burgeoning presence, and several German soldiers I spoke to shared that they were there to honor the war dead of “our allies” and focus on reconciliation.

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The Marine Corps understands the power of place, and the Memorial Day ceremony demonstrates a superior grasp of symbolism, ritual and narrative. Cere­mony attendees from many countries fill the parade ground, and their gazes are initially fixed on the Memorial Chapel, ascending as a stark reminder of the human costs of war. Behind the chapel is Belleau Wood. Prior to the start of last year’s ceremony, visitors watched the Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps descending from Belleau Wood, shoulder to shoulder with the Chief of Staff of the French Army and a German Brigadier General. Not only was this a powerful symbol of reconciliation between former enemies, it was also a reminder that the Marine Corps, which had been untested in the conflicts of WW I, matured inside the primordial darkness of Belleau Wood and emerged victorious.

The speeches given by dignitaries men­tioned the sacrifice and loss of life in WW I. This reality was made more poig­nant by the setting, which includes over 2,200 graves of servicemembers who died during the war. Death and burial are tangible at places like this, and the proximity of the cemetery to the battlefield creates an immediate sense of the gravitas of the toll of war. The entire Memorial Day ceremony was a well-choreographed display of order, dis­cipline, and precision that sharply con­trasted the chaos and carnage of 1918.

As the ceremony ended, hundreds of attendees made a procession through the town, down the main street, and into the courtyard for a reception at the devil dog fountain. Like other pilgrimage processions, an amalgam of people moved together toward the sacred site. It was even more remarkable given the blending of military ranks within close proximity, which would not occur in any other set­ting. The climactic event was Gen David H. Berger’s arrival at the fountain, where he gave a speech thanking the local hosts, allies, and partners and mentioning the “sacrifices of those who fought here at Belleau Wood.” He posed for a photo with the other generals, who represented the military alliance amongst the United States, France and Germany. He re­enlisted a Marine during the reception as well.

Memorial Day weekend is also about the local inhabitants, often silent stake­holders in the pilgrimage saga of Belleau Wood and Belleau. During this weekend, the Belleau locals are co-creators of the experience; they renew personal relation­ships with Marines and other visitors and have a sense of agency in decision-mak­ing about the ceremonies. This agency is increasingly important as the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The added notoriety and people visiting these sites impacts the locals and, like other pilgrimage sites around the world, their voices are often marginalized. Many of the families have lived in the area since before WW I, and they have their own strong attachments to the sites. These attachments often reflect a dif­ferent type of priority, function, and meaning than for American pilgrims and visitors. During the Memorial Day week­end, the locals also host Marines in their homes, and the relationships forged over decades are treasured by all involved. Finally, the fountain landowners have the opportunity to remind visitors of their benevolence and hospitality, while also ensuring a seat at the table regarding the future of the fountain.

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The Hero’s Journey
The Marines fighting in Belleau Wood in 1918 engaged in a hero’s journey mir­rored by an archetypal psychological process. They left their ordinary world for a call to adventure and reached a place known as “Hellwood.” After fighting with the enemy inside this Hell, they were bruised and battered; many were dead. The survivors emerged and returned home with the elixir of victory. Their reality set the stage for a new type of journey: walking in their footsteps through reenactment. Such reenactments began as early as 1919 as pilgrims flocked to Belleau Wood to follow in the footsteps of the heroes. And it was important for them to retrace the steps exactly as the events unfolded in June of 1918. However, the reenactments could only reach the resurrection stage of the archetypal Hero’s Journey through the practice of calling to memory the Marines and their actions—they could not return with the elixir of victory as their forebears had.

Gen Krulak tapped into this need for the completion of the quest in his 1997 video. He provided a pilgrimage template as he moved from the wheatfield into the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, while recalling the people and events of the battle. He was then photographed at the devil dog fountain drinking direct­ly from the source of the water. This imagery sent a powerful message that pilgrimages were a sanctioned part of the Marine Corps experience and further cultivated the idea that places connected to the Corps could be spoken of in overt­ly spiritual terms. His use of the water motif provided further language to de­scribe how Marines are connected to hallowed ground and that there is a life force that fuses all Marines together. The fact that the water originates from the same source as it did in 1918 carries deep spiritual significance. And Krulak’s language around renewal and rebirth set the stage for a shrine that could be visited and revisited by future generations of Marines seeking exactly that.

For James, the 82-year-old Marine vet­eran, his visit to the devil dog fountain was a moment of completion to the nar­rative of his life that opened at Parris Island. He was looking to reaffirm his place within the collective, and it must have been reassuring to know that the memory of past generations of Marines lives on at sites like Belleau Wood. In knowing this, there is the comfort that he will not be forgotten. He had walked the battlefield and communed with the Marines of 1918—and the last step was that he needed to ingest the water from the sacred fountain. Within the fusion of the individual with the collective, I am here because we were here is inter­changeable with we are here because I am here. “Here” is Belleau Wood, which now includes Belleau—their oneness understood through how average places evolve into sacred spaces through their relationship with pilgrims.

James was a pilgrim reenacting the Hero’s Journey, and his final quest was to return home with the elixir from the devil dog fountain. He found completion, belonging, and continuity with the Ma­rines of the past and the Marines of the future. He became fused with a landscape that emerged as hallowed ground. It is quite appropriate that Belleau means “beautiful water”—and the elixir pil­grims seek is the essence of the place.

Author’s bio: Heather A. Warfield is a professor, researcher, author, and con­sultant with subject matter expertise on pilgrimages to the Western Front of World War I. She was a 2022-2023 Fulbright France Research Scholar at the University of Lille where her research focused on post-war pilgrimages to Belleau and Belleau Wood. While in France, she contributed to a number of staff rides and educational experiences for U.S. military groups. In addition, she is the series editor of Pilgrimage Studies and is the co-editor of the book “Pil­grimages to the Western Front of World War I: Historical Exemplars & Con­temporary Practices,” to be pub­lished in 2024. Her book on pilgrimages to Belleau and Belleau Wood is forth­coming in 2025.

Battle Scars

Executive Editor’s note: In 2003, NBC News journalist Chip Reid embedded with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines during the opening days of OIF. He spent six weeks living with the Marines and telling their stories to TV audiences back home. He developed a better understanding of what it means to be a Marine—he also developed a profound respect for these young men and the sacrifices they made. Twenty years later, Reid interviewed those Marines again. In this book he tells their inspiring stories of heroism in battle, camaraderie, patriotism and belief in the mission. Reid also writes about recovery from wounds—both physi­cal and mental—and delves into the new appreciation for life that results from post-traumatic growth. We chose to publish this excerpt in this issue because June is PTSD Aware­ness month, and hope that it reinforces the importance of speaking openly about mental health issues. For information about resources available to veterans, visit: www.mca-marines.org/blog/resource/resources-for-veteran-marines/

On Thanksgiving Day 2021, while driving from my home in Washington, D.C., to the Philadelphia suburbs for a family dinner, a souped-up pickup truck roared past me on I-95. It had temporary plates and two Marine Corps stickers, one on the rear window and one on the bumper. I thought: “Isn’t that just like a Marine. He just bought the damn thing and it’s already plastered with Marine Corps stickers.”

That got me thinking about the most challenging, gratifying, jaw-dropping, and frightening story I covered in my 33 years as a journalist—the slightly less than six weeks I spent embedded with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, dur­ing the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as a correspondent for NBC News.
For years I had thought that one day I would escape the journalism rat-race and write a book, but I hadn’t settled on a topic. “That’s it!” I thought as the pickup disappeared out of sight. For the 20th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2023, I would write a book about the Marines of 3/5.

As I drove, I thought of questions I wanted to ask them. Where are they today and what are they doing? Do they have families? How did their lives change due to their first combat experience? (It was the first combat for almost all of them.) What did they learn as Marines that helped them prosper in civilian life? Did they struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? What do they think about the war today?

When I returned home, I reached out to some of the Marines I had occasionally stayed in touch with and started asking questions. I found their stories fascinating and powerful—and they were eager to tell them. They clearly did not want their service and their sacrifice to be forgotten.

At first, I thought I could get a good cross-section with about a dozen Marines, but word spread about my project and requests to be included started pouring in. Eventually I interviewed more than 40 Marines, plus several wives and grown children, whose experiences and insights were often as engrossing as those of the Marines.

I was often surprised, sometimes stunned, by their honesty, how deep they reached to tell me their stories. On several occasions I heard the words “I’ve never told this to anybody who’s not a Marine, but …”

I was deeply gratified that they still trusted me after all those years. Many of them talked about arriving home from Iraq and discovering that their families knew all about where they had been and what they had done because they had been glued to NBC and MSNBC, waiting for my frequent updates on their progress along the road to Baghdad.

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Whenever I appeared on TV, I was later told, the phone tree would “light up” with wives, mothers, and other loved ones speaking only two words before hanging up: “Chip’s on!”

Of course, their passionate interest in my reports had nothing to do with me—it was because they were desperate for information about their Marines. Where were they? What were they doing? Were they in danger? Had anyone been injured—or, heaven forbid, worse? When were they coming home? They hoped to catch a glimpse of their Marine in the background of my live reports—or even better—to see and hear him in an interview. I interviewed as many Marines as I could convince NBC and MSNBC to put on the air.

One of my most prized possessions is an immense photo book with “Ma­rines” stamped on the front in gold letters. It contains dozens of letters and family photos from the Marines’ wives, girl­friends, fiancées, parents, grandparents, etc., thanking me and my crew for en­during battlefield conditions to report on their men.

This book is a tribute to the dozens of Marines I interviewed, and to everyone who served in the Iraq war. Many of the Marines I interviewed also served in Afghanistan, so I think of this book as a tribute to all who served in those wars.

World War II and the Iraq War, of course, have very different places in American history. World War II saved the world from fascism and dictatorship. The Iraq War, by contrast, is a war that many Americans, especially young ones, know little about. Many Americans who do know about the war believe it never should have happened.

I had serious reservations about the war in Iraq even before it began. But I believed then, and I believe even more strongly now, that the stories of those who fight our wars should be told. Even if a war is unpopular, even if you think it was a mistake, our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line and answered their nation’s call.

In writing a tribute to the Marines of 3/5, I believe it’s important to honor not only their service, but also their sac­ri­fice—in battle and in the two decades since. Indeed, there is quite a bit of sacri­fice in the pages that follow, including death in battle; death by tragic accident; life-changing injuries; and the whole panoply of nightmarish symptoms of PTSD. Also, of course, addiction, divorce, and suicide, which tend to plague the armed forces to a greater degree than the non-military public.

But there is also much that’s positive and life-affirming in this book: heroism in battle; the intense, life-long camara­derie among Marines; patriotism and belief in one’s mission; life-changing traits learned as Marines; and the post-traumatic growth that often follows PTSD.

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For the most part, I have told the 2003 Iraq invasion story chronologically, from Kuwait to Baghdad, while interspersing that account with stories from the past 20 years about Marines who were affected by specific battles and other incidents along the way. It took only 22 days for the Marines of 3/5 to fight their way to Baghdad, but the effects on those who fought in that war have lasted two decades.

As the convoy moved toward Baghdad and the Marines came under attack almost daily, I was awed by the fact that men as young as 18 and 19 were charging forward under machine-gun fire and making instantaneous life and death decisions at an age when my biggest worries were who to take to the high school prom and what courses to take in college. I developed enormous respect for their courage and devotion to duty. That respect only increased during my time writing this book.

From someone who doesn’t have a military bone in his body, this is my small contribution to ensuring that the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform—even in unpopular wars—are not forgotten.
Marine Families Tell Their Stories:

The Martinez Family
In early September 2003, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines came home from Iraq after a seven-month deployment. NBC News asked me to cover the homecoming of “my” battalion. I met Joe Klimovitz, who was my cameraman in Iraq, at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

We waited for the Marines to arrive, standing with their wives, newborn babies, mothers, fathers, and other family members, who profusely thanked us for our reports. In previous wars, those with loved ones on the front lines often went weeks or months without hearing a word. With our live and taped re­ports airing multiple times every day, the families kept their televisions tuned 24/7 to MSNBC or NBC.

The Marines arrived in three waves with the last arriving at 2:30 a.m. The families of the final group had waited in a state of nervous excitement for more than eight hours. When the Marines finally got off the buses, Klimo shot video of the emotional reunions and I did interviews for stories that would air later that day.

Looking at those stories years later, one of the lines I wrote stands out: “Many here say that after so long apart, getting back to normal will be hard work.” That turned out to be an enormous understatement for many of the Marines and their families, including Corporal Mike Martinez, who held his son Mike Jr., while I interviewed him and his wife Stefanie, who held their newborn son Scott.

A photo of this moment is in­cluded in this book. Stefanie was overwhelmed with joy to have their family reunited, but Mike was stoic and distant. Looking at his eyes, he appears to have what is known as “the one-thousand-yard stare.”

At the time, I thought that’s just the way Marines are. They don’t like to show their emotions. And of course, he must have been physically and mentally exhausted. In fact, though, as I later learned, the ex­treme disconnectedness of some of the Marines, including Martinez, was also a sign of difficult times to come.

Almost 20 years later, I interviewed Mike and Stefanie Martinez again, this time on Zoom from their home in Califor­nia. Their son Mike Jr. is in the Air Force and joined us on Zoom from a base in Italy. Son Scott, a Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, joined us from Annapolis, Md.

My first impression of the family on the screen in front of me was of the quintessentially happy military family—the proud father wearing a shirt with the Marine Corps eagle, globe, and anchor symbol, sitting next to his beautiful, smiling wife; the sons, Mike Jr. and Scott, both handsome young men proudly following in their father’s military foot­steps. And in fact, I was right. They are a happy family. But it took a long time, a tremendous amount of patience, and a lot of love to get to this point.

Mike had told me before the interview that he struggled mightily with PTSD for several years following his 2003 de­ployment in Iraq, so I approached the topic gingerly because his family was present. He told me not to worry about it. He was totally open to any question I wanted to ask. “They know 100 percent,” he said.

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All four members of this courageous family were not just willing, but eager, to talk about their struggle in detail. Their hope is that other families can learn from their difficult experience. Perhaps someone else who reads this—and is driving his family to the ragged edge because of PTSD—will seek help right away, instead of putting it off for 15 agonizing years.

Mike said he had several symptoms of PTSD, including explosive anger. Just about anything could set him off. He had such a short fuse that his family was always “walking on eggshells.”

Mike Jr. said there was never any physical abuse—but the mental abuse was at times, severe. His father could explode without warning. He said it was like living with a drill instructor. “We were scared. I was always angry, hearing my dad going off on our mom. Why is he doing this? Why is he like this? I didn’t understand at the time.”

Younger brother Scott said: “It was something that we just had to keep going through and endure, despite the fact that we knew it was wrong.”

There were some good times. Even some good years. “It wasn’t 24/7,” wife Stefanie said. “It would come and go in spurts.” But the bad times always seemed to return.

Anger was not Mike’s only PTSD symp­tom. Many veterans with PTSD suffer from addiction. Mike’s addiction wasn’t drugs or alcohol. He medicated himself with food, gaining an enormous amount of weight and peaking at 340 pounds. That made him even more frighten­ing. Stefanie said his attitude was: “I’m big and intimidating, and I don’t care what people think.” Mike said his mindset, before he sought help, was: “This is just who I am. I’m the big bad guy. I’m right, you’re wrong.”

Much of that attitude was aimed at Stefanie, who says the hardest part was that she always doubted herself. “I always felt like there was something I did wrong. Everything I did was never right, and I couldn’t keep him happy.” She was often too frightened and confused to respond to his outbursts. “I would always shut down. I couldn’t say anything.”

Her job, she said, was to try to keep peace in the household. When Mike was angry, she would sneak away to warn the boys. “Just stay away from dad, he’s in a mood,” she would tell them. “I was always protecting them so they wouldn’t get the brunt of the anger,” she told me, as her husband nodded in agreement beside her. Mike’s PTSD almost tore the family apart. “There were moments where I wanted to just give up and leave, take the kids and go,” Stefanie said. “There were many nights I cried myself to sleep because I just didn’t know what else to do. I was stuck.”

She said three things kept her going: her sons, her faith, and her commitment to helping her husband climb out of the dark hole he was in. “Don’t give up. He needs you,” she would tell herself. “You have to stay. You love him. And I do. I love him to death. And I decided, I’m going to fight for him. I have to fight for him because he’s not fighting for himself.”

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Mike had sought help at the VA in 2007, but says they weren’t helpful at all. A nurse even told him he needed to “suck it up.” Instead, he gave up. It took him another 12 years to try again. For most people, New Year’s resolutions rarely meet with success, but on Jan. 1, 2019, Mike’s resolution was to get help. And it turned his life around.

He started seeing a therapist who guided him through his time in combat and the horrors he had witnessed, zeroing in on one particular incident—the death of Michael “Doc” Johnson, the battalion’s first fatality in 2003. For years Mike had blamed himself for Johnson’s death, even though his reasoning made little sense. This is how he explained it: “When Johnson got hit, I felt like I failed. As a forward observer my job was to call for fire, to provide support for anybody who’s in need. I broke my radio; I could not maintain communication. My one job was to maintain communications. I could not do that. Because I failed, Johnson died.”

With the help of his therapist, and the strong support of his family, he finally accepted the fact that blaming himself was absurd. “It’s the Marine Corps,” he says now. “… Things break. It was absolutely not my fault that Doc Johnson died.” That was the beginning of the end of 15 years of self-imposed torture over unfounded feelings of guilt.

Eventually he reached the light at the end of the tunnel—and turned PTSD into Post-Traumatic Growth. Stefanie, who attended some of Mike’s therapy sessions, says his turnaround has been the answer to her prayers. He’s growing in ways that amaze and inspire her. He’s going to school, with the goal of trading his monotonous job at the post office for his dream job—teacher and sports coach.

“He’s now in a very happy place,” she says. “He’s very content with his life now.” Mike calls it a “positive place,” a dramatic change from the constant negativity of just a few years ago. And he adds that there’s no chance he could have made the change without the love and support of his family. “They were my rock,” he says. He now has a new mantra: “Better every day.” A vast improvement, he says, over his previous mantra: “F— ’em.”

Scott sees a silver lining on the dark cloud of his father’s PTSD. It taught him an important life lesson. “We saw firsthand what PTSD can do to those around you,” he said. “I feel like we have a different understanding than what the average person has.”

And here’s an update on Mike Martinez. During his interview he said he wanted to leave his tedious job at the post office and pursue his dream—to become a teacher and a coach. Well, guess what. He did it. In October 2023, while I was narrating this audiobook, I received the following email from Mike: “After read­ing the transcript from our interview, I wanted to update you with more informa­tion. I have now finished my bachelor’s degree program and I am working full time as a 7th grade math teacher. I also became the head coach for our high school cross country and track and field teams. I genuinely believe PTG is real but strangely must appreciate the PTSD that allowed me to rebuild myself into something that I never thought was pos­sible. I guess it’s true that you can’t have a rainbow without the rain.”

Author’s bio: Chip Reid’s journalism career has spanned 33 years. In addition to being embedded with Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Reid re­ported from Ground Zero and the Pentagon after 9/11. He has also covered stories on the war on terror from Afghani­stan, Israel, Gaza, Uzbekistan, Egypt and around the world.

Safeguarding the Airspace: Marine Air Traffic Controllers’ Critical Role in Marine Aviation

Marine Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) represent a small slice of the active-duty component. Less than 1,000 of these Marines exist in the service today, with even fewer operating in capacities actually control­ling aircraft. Though small in number, these Marines perform a vital “behind the scenes” function for Marine aviation, providing safety and order within their assigned airspace.

The path to achieving the Marine ATC designation 7257 looks different from other MOS training pipelines. Following boot camp and Marine Com­bat Training, prospective ATCs attend entry-level training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Fla. Marine and U.S. Navy instructors teach students the fundamen­tals of air traffic control, tower and radar operations, and provide them with a base­line understanding of Navy and Marine Corps policies and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Grad­uates depart less than six months later as 7251 Air Traffic Control trainees. Each trainee receives an assignment to one of the 10 permanent Marine Corps ATC Facilities around the world, where the training continues.

A controller’s credentials vary depend­ing on the facility to which they are assigned. In order to control aircraft in­side the assigned airspace, new trainees must complete certifications within an allotted timeframe from the day they check in. This process can take over a year in some cases. Because of this extensive training, ATC candidates enlist for an initial period of five years, rather than the standard four-year contract. During their training period, Marines are cleared to operate from the tower, communicating with aircraft actively landing or departing the runway, and the radar room, keeping an eye on the entire airspace and communicating with incoming aircraft beyond visual range.

In a world where specific credentials are required to hold increasing levels of responsibility, Marine Corps rank structure matters little in deciding who performs what duties. Lance corporals on their first enlistment might act as tower supervisors, watching over cor­porals as they talk with aircraft and instruct sergeants or staff sergeants who just checked in. This practice is largely unique to the ATC field. Every duty station requires its own set of credentials to understand the specific airspace and the types of aircraft it accommodates. As a result, moving to a new location at any rank can be like starting over again. Career Marines can easily spend three or four years away from their craft on a special duty assignment such as recruit­ing, drill instructor or Marine Security Guard. Loss of currency, coupled with the requirement to obtain credentials upon return to the community, can be a daunting task.

At the Marine Corps Air Facility in Quantico, Va., roughly 40 Marines control the airspace in shifts around the clock. Corporal Abraham Gamboa serves as one of the tower supervisors.

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“Painting the picture for the pilots will solve all the problems,” Gamboa said, breaking down the essence of his job in its simplest terms.

Tower-related aircraft mishaps typically result due to a lack of communication be­tween controllers and pilots. It is the responsibility of the ATCs, Gamboa explained, to inform the pilots of anything that might inhibit their safe landing or departure. During a Leatherneck visit to the tower at Quantico, Gamboa dem­onstrated this tenant of air traffic control with a sophisticated simulator. All kinds of variables can be entered to throw off the ATCs. While another Marine demonstrated how he would bring in a simulated plane, Gamboa manipulated helicopters circling, weather patterns changing, flocks of birds swarming, and even a herd of deer sprinting across the runway.

“We sequence, we separate, and we make sure everyone abides by the rules to remain safe within the airspace,” ex­plained Staff Sergeant Marcus Beacham, ATC Training Chief at MCAF Quantico.

Controllers assigned to USMC air stations and facilities, like the Marines at Quantico, are also somewhat unique because they are non-deployable. They serve as permanent staff members of each Marine Corps installation. To deploy, controllers must achieve their 7257 des­ignation and be assigned to an Air Traffic Control Company. These units fall under the Marine Air Control Groups of their respective Marine Aircraft Wing. Ma­rines train for deployment in scalable units, from single Marines deploying as liaisons to allied airfields around the world, to a full company deployment into a combat zone. The capabilities they offer scale in relation to the size of the unit going forward and the gear they carry. This quality of Marine ATCs makes them the only branch of service with ATCs trained and equipped to provide expe­ditionary Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) services.

Marine ATCs have accompanied avi­ators in combat since WW II. The first of these Marines served with the Marine Air Warning Group established in 1943, focusing their radar capabilities on pro­viding early warning and fighter direc­tion. Post-war changes upgraded and reformed the group into Marine Air Traffic Control Units (MATCUs). By the Vietnam War, MATCUs offered a full complement of all-weather capabilities.

A small detachment from MATCU-62 served admirably in one of the most high stress and high visibility settings of the war. Led by Captain William J. Flahive Jr., the section of controllers and radar operators arrived at Khe Sanh in February 1967. The North Vietnamese Army shut down all road traffic to the base by the fall of that year. Defenders depended on aerial resupply to keep them in the fight. The ATC detachment faced difficulties of every variety in their effort to orchestrate a continuous flow through the airstrip. A deep gorge just beyond the end of the runway threatened to swallow any aircraft that ventured beyond the tarmac. Thick fog often formed in the warm air, making it difficult for pilots to locate the base in the mountainous terrain. The enemy, however, presented the most deadly and consistent obstacle to overcome.

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North Vietnamese antiaircraft and indirect fire kept the Marines under con­stant attack. The ATCs performed their duties regardless. On Jan. 31, 1968, NVA artillery and rockets struck the airstrip, killing Capt Flahive and wounding other Marines of the detachment. More enemy rockets destroyed the primary ground approach control radar a few weeks later. The Marines adapted another radar system, typically employed for bombing missions, to take over this vital task.

As the demand for supplies increased, and enemy fire limited the availability of of the runway, the ATCs played a critically important role coordinating with aircraft to drop supply crates under parachute. They worked directly with pilots, com­municating compass headings and wind conditions in order to precisely time each drop into the designated zone. At the prescribed release point, pilots nosed up and applied full power, forcing pallets of supplies to roll backward out the open cargo door. By the end of the siege at Khe Sanh, the MATCU-62 detachment coordinated nearly 500 container drops, equaling roughly 8,000 tons of supplies.

Marine Air Traffic Control evolved further after Vietnam. By the beginning of the global war on terror, a new de­ployable team of ATCs existed within the Marines’ organization; the Marine Mobile Air Traffic Control Team, or MMT. MMTs operate today as the small­est scaleable unit capable of providing air traffic control services. A textbook MMT is composed of six Marines; one team leader, three ATCs, and two equip­ment maintainers. In Iraq and Afghani­stan, MMTs worked in conjunction with IFR Detachments, today the equivalent of a full Air Traffic Control Company.

Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Kiley, currently serving as the Commanding Of­ficer of Marine Air Control Squadron 1 out of Yuma, Ariz., remains one of the few Marine officers still on active duty that deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with a full IFR Detachment under his com­mand.

“Marine air traffic control is what makes the Marine Corps an all-weather aviation force,” Kiley said. “For a flying squadron to be all-weather and instrument rated, that means somebody has to be on the other side of the microphone with radar capabilities providing you with instrument flight rules air traffic control services. If you go back to OIF or OEF, IFR Detachments were out there with the ability to provide full radar services and precision recovery.”

Two IFR Dets deployed to Iraq, and one to Afghanistan. These units, nearly 150 Marines strong, provided the crucial capability for Marine aviators to fly 24/7 and beyond visual range. Numerous MMTs moved further out from the main air bases providing ATC services on the front lines. The equipment they carried limited their services to visual range. From January to August 2008, Kiley served as the IFR Det Commander at Al Taqaddum Air Base in Habbaniyah, Iraq. U.S. Navy ATCs augmented the Marines as the detachment became overtasked with air traffic control requirements to support the war. Four MMTs under Kiley’s command went forward from Al Taqaddum to provide ATC services in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mudaisis and Rawah. Controllers in these locations routinely endured enemy fire while performing their duties.

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“We’ve always been a hot spot for the pot shot,” Kiley reflected. “You can’t put a tower on top of a building and not expect your adversary to shoot at it.”
In one example, Kiley described the conditions faced by the MMTs stationed in Ramadi at Camp Blue Diamond. “The Marines who manned that tower would peek over a wall just to be able to control aircraft in and out.”

While serving as the Ramadi MMT leader from January to August 2007, Kiley explained the creativity the Ma­rines used in tower construction. “We took previously destroyed humvees and removed their up-armor and put it in the walls of the towers we built. We used their ballistic glass windows as the windows for the tower. The early days of just covering your position with cammie netting were gone. We had to adapt, over­come, and harden those towers with what­ever we could get our hands on to make it a little bit safer for the Marines.”

Marine ATCs remained in Iraq and Afghanistan until the very end of Ma­rines’ involvement. They supported the withdrawal from Iraq during 2010 and 2011, and again from Afghanistan in 2014. In Iraq, during Operation New Dawn, Kiley partnered with U.S. Air Force personnel and the Iraqi government to develop the Iraqi Civil Aviation Au­thority, their version of the FAA, and design their airspace so that Iraq could take over management from the Marines and Air Force.

Outside of combat, the skills of Marine ATCs have been showcased time and time again through disaster scenarios and aircraft emergencies. Corporal Justin McDaniel earned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal in December 2015 after an AV-8B Harrier pilot de­clared a state of emergency while coming into Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, N.C. When his navigation system suddenly died, the pilot was un­able to locate the airfield through the darkness and inclement weather. Seated at his radar station, McDaniel calmly communicated with the pilot, guiding him to the runway for a safe and success­ful landing.

In 2013, Marines deployed to the Philip­pines in support of Operation Damayan following a catastrophic typhoon. Marine ATCs scaled an exterior stairwell to the top of a damaged air traffic control tower in Tacloban to coordinate the ar­rival of disaster relief supplies. The typhoon blew out every window in the tower, leaving the Marines exposed to the elements and noise of the flight line and the surrounding devastation. The storm destroyed part of the only available runway, leaving extremely limited space for aircraft to land, park, and offload sup­plies. The Marines worked tirelessly alongside volunteer civilian controllers to maintain safe separation in the sky as planes waited to land, and the efficient arrival, unloading, and take off of planes on the ground.

Marines performed similarly during a stateside natural disaster in 2017. That September, the category 5 hurricane Irma pummeled the Caribbean before making its way up Florida’s Gulf Coast. Just two weeks later, another Category 5 storm named Maria struck the Caribbean before swinging wide of Florida’s Atlantic coast and proceeding out to sea. U.S. Navy personnel evacuated Naval Air Station Key West. In their stead, Marines de­ployed into the disaster zone to keep the airfield running and ensure the arrival of relief supplies.

“We took over NAS Key West as the air traffic control authority,” remembered Master Sergeant Kevin Haunschild, leader of the Defense Support Civil Au­thority Detachment from the 26th MEU, deployed to Florida for humanitarian relief operations. “There was only one Navy controller that remained behind when we showed up, so myself and the team that I took down there ended up taking over the airport with a couple of handheld radios out of the back of a F-350.”

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The conditions Haunschild and his team faced in Florida would pale in com­parison to the obstacles that he and the MMT from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) endured several years later, performing their duties through another humanitarian crisis with the eyes of the world watching.

On Aug. 13, 2021, Haunschild and Gun­nery Sergeant Julio Josem*ndez, the 24th MEU MMT leader, arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The airport was calm and operating under normal con­ditions, de­spite the deteriorating situation outside the gates. Everything changed less than 48 hours later. As the Taliban overran the city, the civilian Department of De­fense employees con­trol­ling Kabul tower were ordered to evacuate. The 24th MEU MMT remained the only air traffic controllers on the ground able to take their place.

“We were at a meeting with the colonel when the civilians were ordered to leave,” remembered Josem*ndez. “The colonel turned to MSgt Haunschild and said, ‘the controllers evacuated the tower. How long until you can get your team up?’ Master Sergeant looked at him and said, ‘Fifteen minutes.’”
Haunschild and Josem*ndez arrived in Kabul as part of the MEU’s advanced party. The rest of the MMT remained aboard a U.S. Navy ship. They took a pair of handheld radios and set up on the ground near the taxiway. The new “Kabul tower” location proved safer than the actual control tower due to the increasing security threat. They worked with U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controllers to connect with pilots and let them know an air traffic control authority had returned. The Marines sat on the ground or stood as they controlled aircraft, exposed to the baking sun, noise of planes taxiing on the runway, and rotor wash of helicopters constantly flying low overhead. At some point, an airman brought out a cheap pop-up canopy and couple of commandeered office chairs to upgrade their new home.

“Typically, an MMT is only sustainable for 72 hours,” Haunschild said. “We were able to do it for 17 days. We didn’t do it with much, but we did it.”
On Aug. 15, Haunschild was on shift working the radio when, across the flight line, civilians started pouring over the airport’s outer wall. Hundreds became thousands. A crowd converged on the run­way preventing air operations. Haunschild left the tent at Kabul tower and joined the Marines of “Alpha” Com­pany, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, as they attempted to push the crowd off the run­way. A C-17 taxied through the mass of people. Prior to the now-infamous video of the plane lifting off with civilians clinging to the outside, Haunschild walked alongside the aircraft removing civilians as they held on for the ride. Everyone watched in shock as the plane departed and people fell from the sky.
“At that point, we weren’t in a position to control any aircraft,” Haunschild re­flected. “We were in fight or flight mode. We were trying to do crowd control, and it just wasn’t working. Those first four days were the most chaotic and, unfortunately, the most memorable. You just really can’t explain it.”

By the evening of Aug. 16, the crowd retreated from the runway. GySgt Jose Mendez put on his headset and keyed up once again.

“I wanted to let everybody who was still flying know that there was an air traffic control authority still on the ground,” he said. “We were going to prop back up the control functions and enforce some form of procedures to make the pilots feel safer and know this was not yet the wild west.”

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The rest of the MMT arrived the fol­lowing day. With Sergeant Ian Chryst, another Marine ATC, now on deck, the team paired each Marine with a USAF controller in three shifts operating around the clock. The tempo increased as more and more civilians processed through for evacuation and loaded onto waiting aircraft. Traffic flowed constantly through the single available runway. The Marines coordinated an average of 110 aircraft per day, nearly five coming or going per hour around the clock. Stateside rules and procedures went out the window as the Marines did what they had to do bringing in aircraft of all types and sizes, one right after another in whatever order they arrived.

At one point during the evacuation, as the situation devolved into chaos, a small Afghan Air Force plane landed without clearance and stopped on the runway. The pilot and crew inexplicably abandoned the aircraft and disappeared into a nearby hangar. Was the plane left as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device to sabotage the airfield? The Marines knew it had to be moved and no one else was going to move it. Aircraft stacked up overhead waiting to land. Haunschild, Josem*ndez, and two Special Forces operators drove a pickup truck onto the runway and inspected the plane. They determined it was not rigged to detonate and towed it out of the way to resume operations.

Personnel on the ground presented one of the greatest threats to the flow of aircraft. At any given time, a vehicle or group of people on foot might cross the runway, leaving the ATCs scrambling to call off an incoming or outgoing plane. At one point, a bus full of people crossed the runway directly in front of a jet barreling down the runway for takeoff. The ATCs stood in shock as the plane creeped off the runway and missed the bus by less than 20 feet. Miraculously, throughout the evacuation, zero aircraft mishaps occurred.

Operations continued uninterrupted until Aug. 26. That afternoon, Haunschild and Chryst manned the radios at Kabul tower when the explosion at Abbey Gate detonated across the airfield directly in front of them. They immediately under­stood what had happened.

“We ceased all air operations for two to three hours as vehicles started coming across the runway with casualties,” Haunschild remembered. “We cleared the airport so they could get over to the medical facility. After that two to three hours, we started landing C-17s at the cyclic rate, strictly to get casualties out.”
The MMT remained at Kabul tower until the very end of the evacuation, finally leaving on the evening of Aug. 30 in one of the last American planes to depart. They handed control over to the Air Force Combat Controllers with whom they had partnered throughout the evacuation. Little remained to be done as the final few aircraft prepared to leave. Despite the myriad of obstacles, primitive conditions, lack of supplies, and skeleton set of equipment, the Marines accomplished a critical mission under the microscope of the world, one they didn’t even know would be their task until they arrived on the ground and took the initiative to get the job done.

“It’s what Marines do,” said GySgt Josem*ndez. “Sometimes, you have to do more with less. Sometimes, you’re going to be put in a position where it’s not a specifically fine-tuned and planned situation. It’s a crisis, and no matter what your cards are, you have to play them to the best of your ability.”

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For their outstanding performance in the evacuation, Haunschild and Josem*ndez both received a Bronze Star. Chryst received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. The MMT’s experience in Kabul serves today as the most recent major example of the type of situation Marines can encounter at any time.

“God forbid another MMT finds them­self in this kind of situation where everything is unknown,” Haunschild reflected. “You run out of food. You run out of water. You run out of resources. Your logistics chain is cut off. You land, you walk out, and you don’t know if you’re going to leave. This is why we train, this is why we consider ourselves consummate professionals within our MOS, so we can do it anywhere.”

For now, MMTs offer the primary source of deployment with each MEU. The expeditionary capability that Air Traffic Control Companies provide will no doubt be called into action in the event of a major conflict. New gear has been distributed to the companies to upgrade their capability in austere environments and more thoroughly integrate their data into the overall aviation command and control systems. The MMTs deploying with MEUs, or ahead of airfields in a combat zone, will also see changes in the near future.

“Our current organization limits the ATCs within a MMT from providing the full capability of what those Marines are trained to provide,” said Kiley. “We are currently rewriting our Marine Corps Task to unchain our folks and acquire the equipment that allows them to be much more capable, similar to the actions that occurred in Kabul. What those Marines did was herculean. They acquired equip­ment and gear and did things well beyond the scope of an MMT. The future MMT will be a robust C3 node. They will be able to disaggregate into multiple teams to support multiple sites.”

The necessity for the all-weather capa­bilities Marine ATCs offer will only be magnified in the next war. As they stand poised to provide this critical enabling function for Marine aviation in combat, the future for these Marines looks dy­namic and active.

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.

Plane to See: The Evolution of Marine Corps Aircraft Art and the Artist Keeping the Tradition Alive

As a tradition, aircraft art in the Armed Forces has been en­cour­aged by some branches while being heavily regulated in others. And though there is currently a massive re­surgence of interest in aircraft art, which has become more widespread within the Marine Corps and generally accepted over the years, that was not always the case. What was once a wartime tradition has now become a way for Marine avi­ators across the Corps to connect with their squadron’s history and their roots as Marines. One artist, through her ex­perience in the Air Force, has dedicated her time to helping depict these histories, using military aircraft as the canvas and bringing new life to the practice of air­craft art as a form of expression.

Placing personalized decorative images on attack aircraft first gained traction among German forces in World War I after a sea monster was painted on the nose of an Italian Macchi M.5 flying boat in 1913. By this time, some squadrons had started to use general unit identi­fication markings. The sea monster was meant to be menacing, a way to grab the attention of enemy pilots and stand out from others in the unit. Upon their return from missions, Allied pilots said they had seen German fighters painted in a multitude of colors soaring through the skies and took inspiration from the unique art. Soon after, Allied forces everywhere, including Marine pilots, began painting aircraft art of their own.

But aircraft nose art did not rise in popularity among U.S. forces until World War II, where it was primarily used as a method to boost morale during the war as it progressed, although it was not officially authorized. The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) pilots had more freedom to personalize their aircraft and were even encouraged to do so by their command, while the strict regula­tions upheld by the Navy were put in place to ensure that no markings aside from squadron badges or national in­signia were permitted on its airplanes. That regulation made it particularly dif­ficult for Marines to participate in the popular practice, which is why there are more existing USAAF bombers with distinctive nose art displayed in museums than Marine ones.

“The Navy did not want the Japanese to be able to identify particular units and recognize when, for instance, a particular carrier was in the area or not in the area,” said Larry Burke, the aviation curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. “So, for much of the war, there is no readily visible individual identifier [on the aircraft] other than the Navy Bureau number. But those are small and generally not terribly visible once you get a few feet away from the airplane.” And though that regulation came long before World War II, the rules have been broken from time to time, particularly in the Pacific, where the crews rarely saw top brass. In other words, Marines did it anyway. Paintings of pinups were some of the most popular displays of nose art. But pilots would paint anything from animals to squadron mascots or even Disney characters on their attack aircraft, along with distinctive names for further personalization.

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In fact, Walt Disney’s relationship to the military was largely personal. Not only did his older brother Roy O. Disney serve in the Navy during World War I, Walt Disney himself also served in the military as a Red Cross ambulance driver during the same war, where he decorated his ambulance and others in his unit with cartoons. Those ties had a big impact on the appearance of Disney cartoons on military aircraft, which started in 1933. Walt Disney Productions provided more than 1,200 insignias during World War II, creating designs of recognizable characters that would later be used for flight jacket patches, pins and nose art. These designs were done by the studio free of charge and provided to Allied military units as a donation to the war effort.

According to an article on Disney aircraft insignia in World War II pub­lished by the Department of Defense, Donald Duck was the most requested Disney character, with over 216 requests. But Pluto, Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Dumbo were other highly requested characters. Marine Utility Squadron 252 displayed their nose art painting of Disney’s Dumbo on the side of their Curtiss R5C Commando, calling it “The Flying Elephant.” Other squadrons, like Marine Utility Squadron 352 and Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 344, requested insignias that featured Donald Duck with the eagle, globe and anchor tattooed on his left wing, and a bulldog, bearing a similar resemblance to Disney’s Butch the Bulldog, holding a skull-decorated bomb in his paws.

The end of World War II marked the steady decline of aircraft art across all branches—mostly due to the end of wartime activity, but also due to the dis­appearance of the airplanes themselves. After the war, the United States dis­mantled what was left of the 300,000 warplanes or sold them off. Nose art would resurface during the Korean and Vietnam wars but was still more com­monly seen on Air Force aircraft. How­ever, that did not stop Marine aviators from taking part in the tradition, even though Navy restrictions on nose art never truly relaxed.

Aircraft art has continued to fluctuate in and out of use during the turn of the century. Peacetime regulations between wars dimmed the spark of tradition that was eager to grow and evolve, and many were unsure of how to continue the legacy of the aircraft artists before them. But hope was not lost. For over 20 years, one artist has dedicated her time to help­ing aviators across the Armed Forces carry on the legacy of those who came before them through the artistry she paints on the aircraft they fly. Her name is Shayne Meder, and she is a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant who works under the alias “Flygirlpainter.”

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Alongside her work as a restoration manager at March Air Reserve Base in California, MSgt Meder has volunteered her services to help military flight crews express their pride and dedication in the form of art. For the Marine Corps, whose history details a strenuous fight to em­brace air­craft art as a tradition amid strict uniformity, her services are welcomed and highly praised.
Meder’s work as an artist started long before she began painting aircraft art for military aviators. “My grandmother was a painter, so I was doing art before I even went into the Air Force,” she said. “I was in support equipment maintenance and did some aircraft maintenance in­spection over the years.

Once they find out you can paint, you end up painting everything from designs on hangar doors to tool­boxes.” In 1987, while working in Stra­tegic Air Command, MSgt Meder began painting nose art on B-52 bombers before transferring to California in 1990. Short­ly after, the base where Meder was sta­tioned was put on a closure list, prompt­ing her to retire. However, that did not stop her from working on aircraft. Years of experience in the Air Force brought along new opportunities, and shortly after retiring, she signed on as the Res­toration Manager at March Air Reserve Base in California after it transitioned from military to private operations. Meder continued to work on and maintain old military aircraft like she had during her days in the Air Force, but it would not be until 1999 that she would begin her journey as Flygirlpainter.

While painting a piece of nose art on a B-17 at the March Airfield Museum, a Navy crew in the area stopped by on their way back from the San Bernadino Mountains. The previous year, there had been a crash, and the crew had traveled back to the crash site to pay tribute to their fellow Marines. One of the crewmembers saw the work that Meder was doing and asked her to paint the tail of an H-60 Seahawk for them. “They wanted this blue tail with a hawk and an eagle on it … I had never painted a helicopter like that before.” Though she was unsure at first, the crew persisted, and in 1999 they flew the helicopter from San Diego, Calif., to March Airfield Base, providing paint and other materials for her to create the design for their show bird. Meder got straight to work.

“I’d always been doing nose art on the base for the KC-135s. And I still do that, but it just steamrolled into this huge thing.” Since then, MSgt Meder has offered her services to any flight crew that has reached out, as long as travel expenses, room and board, and painting supplies are provided. Over the course of her years working as Flygirlpainter, Meder has painted over a dozen V-22B Ospreys for various aircraft squadrons across the Marine Corps, and the number of requests grows with each passing day. For Meder, her work is a way to give thanks to those who serve and have served, and to keep the tradition of air­craft art alive. “I know a lot of people support our military,” Meder said. “They might make cookies or send them care packages, and I love all that, but if I can make them happy and help them by painting them a bird, then that’s what I’ll do.” Her dedication and commitment have garnered her a large following of military aviators all over the country who seek out her services regularly.

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Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 764 “Moonlight,” VMM-364 “Purple Foxes,” VMM-268 “Red Dragons” and VMM-162 “Golden Eagles” are just a few of the Marine squadrons that have worked with Meder over her years as Flygirlpainter. The designs are striking and detailed, illustrating each squadron’s story in a colorful and creative way. Recently, VMM-268 and VMM-364 spoke with Leatherneck about the work that Meder has done for them and what each of their tail designs represent.

As support squadrons with the Ma­rine Air Ground Task Force, VMM-268, located at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and VMM-364, located at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., provide assault support transport of combat troops as well as supplies and equipment during expeditionary, joint and combined oper­ations. Their coastal locations, combined with the long-range capabilities of the MV-22B Osprey, allow the squadrons to conduct transpacific assault operations day or night, under all weather conditions.

“Our job is to insert Marines into key positions on the battlefield so that they can attack the enemies’ critical vul­nerabilities. As they execute their role as the front-line war fighters, we ensure that they stay supplied with what they need to continue the fight. And when that fight is done, we bring them home,” said Captain Casey “Mouth” Funk, a pilot with VMM-268. Having always aspired to become a pilot, Funk enlisted in the Corps for the opportunity to fly but was also drawn to the Corps’ values and cul­tural environment. “It’s a community of service built around a requirement to constantly better oneself and help those around you do the same,” he said. While nose art united Marines of the past with their shared longing for home, today’s Marine aviators can find community through art that represents the squadrons’ past and its future.

In 2019, MSgt Meder traveled to Hawaii to paint the tail of an MV-22B Osprey for VMM-268. The design featured two starkly different images, one on each side of the tail. One side displayed the squad­ron mascot, Trixi the Red Dragon, which was inspired by the dragon Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit.” The painting of Trixi also pays tribute to VMM-268’s legacy of night operations, which began in 1982 when then-Marine Medium Helicopter (HMM) Squadron 268 became the first Marine Corps squad­ron qualified to fly with night-vision goggles. The other side of the tail features an image of two surfers looking out over the ocean at the setting sun. That image is known as “Endless Summer,” based on surfers Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Patrick O’Connell, who were documented in a 1994 film titled “Endless Summer II,” directed by Bruce Brown. During the film, the two surfers travel the world in search of the perfect wave. “This squadron has a passion for excel­lence, and every day we show up in search of the perfect flight,” Capt Funk said. “That image, and the spirit carried with it, have long been a part of the squad­ron.” Though completely different in appearance, both paintings show a different part of VMM-268’s history and the fundamental purpose of the artistic expression that aircraft art brings for military aviators.

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Nearly three years later, Meder would make her way to Camp Pendleton to paint a tail art design for VMM-364, the “Purple Foxes.” Once designated HMM-364, the squadron was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their service during the Vietnam War and became well known throughout the Corps for descending into landing zones to support ground troops while under fire. On Oct. 9, 2014, the squadron was redesignated. During the redesignation ceremony, all CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters were retired and have been replaced by the MV-22B Osprey.

“The Purple Foxes have a couple of historic stories that blend together to form where that [mascot] came from,” said Lieutenant Colonel John C. Miller, the commanding officer of VMM-364. “HMM-364 was formed in the early ’60s, and the squadron members would visit a bar called the Purple Fox. So that was where the original name came from. They liked this bar, and they would visit on R&R. As they started deploying to Vietnam in combat operations during the war, they acquired a fox pelt that was dyed purple, and that supported the purple fox name that they acquired through the bar.”

Their design features the face of a fierce purple fox ripping through metal with sharpened claws on both sides of the tail. “The purple fox on the aircraft is the traditional patch that we wear around. It’s a more aggressive, I would say, warfighting logo, and it takes up the whole tail of the aircraft,” LtCol Miller said. As with most squadrons who have had aircraft painted by Flygirlpainter, VMM-364 first discovered her work through her social media, where Meder showcases her work and the service she offers for military aviators. In all, it took a week and a half for Meder to complete the painting, but with the help and hospitality of the Marines of VMM-364, the process went smoothly, and the final product pays homage to the squadron’s history and the legacy that they carry with them.

But it isn’t just the artwork itself that differs from the wartime art of the past. As aircraft art continues to resurface within the Marine Corps, aviators who fly a variety of aircraft have the desire to take part in the tradition. This leads to the invention of new ways to express pride and dedication to the Corps without the perception that aircraft art is reserved only for attack aircraft. “The tail is a great canvas for us to show our squadron art. It is easy to see even from a distance,” said Funk, when asked about the im­portance of featuring art on the tail of an aircraft. “The art on the nose was always meant to look menacing … the art on the tail for assault support aircraft is a signal of hope to the troops on the ground that the Red Dragons are here, and we will not stop flying as long as they need us.”

The significance of what Marine aviators do and how they support their Corps is something that Flygirlpainter has been able to depict on the aircraft they fly. Her artwork signifies that there are no limitations to art, whether it’s on an easel or an aircraft. “For an aviation unit, artwork is everything to a squadron. It represents the culture, and each individual squadron that is dedicated to the mission that they have,” LtCol Miller said. Flygirlpainter embodies this mentality in her work. By revisiting this old tradition, Marines have the opportunity to express their love for the Corps, to celebrate those who passed their legacies on, and to take pride in the hard work, the long hours and the sacrifice that it takes to serve as a Marine.

Executive Editor’s note: You can see more of MSgt Meder’s incredible work on Instagram and Facebook under the name @Flygirlpainter, or on her website: www.flygirlpainters.com

Author’s bio: Briesa Koch is the edi­torial assistant for Leatherneck and a graduate student at Old Dominion Uni­versity where she is earning a master’s degree in library and information science.

History of the Marine Gunner: Unearthing the Roots of This Misunderstood Distinction

Executive Editor’s note: This article explores the origins and inception of the Marine gunner and is the cornerstone of an upcoming series in Leatherneck tracing its often-mistaken evolution. Written using official Marine Corps history, it draws extensively from the documents and personnel records stored at the U.S. National Personnel Records Center and National Archives in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, Mo., and at the Marine Corps Archives in Quantico, Va.

One of the Marine Corps’ three original warrant officer ranks, the Marine gunner is arguably the most coveted in the service’s nearly 250-year history. It is also the most misunderstood. In more than a century since its inception in 1916, the Marine Corps has abolished and reinstated the Marine gunner on three occasions. The Marine Corps eliminated the rank and in its distinctive “bursting bomb” insignia first in 1943, only to restore both in 1956 as a designation for non-technical warrant officers. After discontinuing both in 1959 and restoring and revising their use in 1964 as a designation limited to warrant officers in combat arms military occupational specialties, the Marine Corps dissolved both again in 1974. Finally, in 1989, the title and insignia returned for warrant officers assigned as crew-served infantry weapons officers, where they still reside. Unfortunately, with no official written history to reference, the Marine gunner has become an institutional treasure cloaked in confusion.

Naval Origins
To understand the evolution of the Marine gunner is to understand the origins and historical background of the warrant officer itself. The earliest known warrant officers date back to around 1040 in England. According to British naval historian Nicholas Roland, to compensate for the lack of experienced seamanship on the part of the English noblemen and, later, the army officers placed in command of maritime expeditions, skilled civilian journeymen accompanied the ships’ crews to supervise its more technical functions. Hundreds of years later this practice continued to allow commissioned naval line officers to focus on the tactics of fighting a ship and not its operation. This custom extended to providing persistent crew training and equipment maintenance during and between expeditions.

As a reward for an acumen uncommon among its line offi­cers who received their authorities from the king or queen of England, the Royal Navy’s Board of Admiralty issued to select journeymen warrants granting them what naval historian Russell Borghere defined as permanent or “standing” officer status while onboard a ship. An element of the agreement between the board and these warranted or “warrant” officers was they remain with a ship from its construction to its decommissioning, unlike line officers who might transfer to another ship following an expedition. Although an appointment held less authority than a commission, it offered higher pay and seniority over the ranking enlisted Sailor. In time, warrant officers proved to be a necessary and vital link between a ship’s crew and its commissioned officers and the ship’s captain.

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The Royal Navy’s first warrant officer ranks (and their corresponding departmental functions and titles) were the boatswain and the master. The lengthier expeditions of the 15th and 16th centuries brought about new functional specialties requiring a warranted officer. The sailmaker, carpenter, surgeon and purser were but a few additions. In response to advances in military engineering, the Royal Navy replaced its vintage cannons with large artillery pieces on their ships of the line in 1571. The change required extensive and continuous crew training on operating procedures, supervised maintenance on the ship’s guns and gunnery equipment, and preservation of the gunpowder, ammunition, cartridges and gunlocks stored inside a ship’s magazines. The Admiralty Board addressed the transition from cannons to artillery pieces by adding veteran army artillerymen to ships’ crews and warranting them to the rank of naval gunnery officer or “gunner.”

A popular Scandinavian term (and name) meaning “one who battles,” artillerymen and grenadiers in several European armies adopted gunner as a title to distinguish themselves from line soldiers. Still today, the Royal Army artillery’s equivalent to the American rank of private is gunner. Royal Navy artillerymen adopted the title for the junior-most seaman and even elevated its significance by using it as the gunnery warrant officer’s official rank and title. To distinguish between the two, commissioned officers and seamen refer to the gunnery warrant officer as “the gunner” to emphasize his singularity, expertise, and authority—and as a matter of prestige.

Warrant officers in American military history date to October 1775, when the Second Continental Congress authorized General George Washington to assemble a colonial fleet to make war with England. Washington used the Royal Navy as the model from which he organized his fleet, including the practice of warranting standing officers “under the rank of third lieutenant” in accordance with Congress’ Naval Committee directives. Among Washington’s warrant officers were gunners. When the new U.S. Congress established a navy in 1794, gunners were again one of its seven standing officers and performed the same duties as their Royal Navy predecessors. The U.S. Navy further institutionalized its warrant officers after the American Civil War by extending appointments to its most experienced enlisted Sailors demonstrating exceptional technical skill and leadership potential.

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Warrant officer uniforms in the U.S. Navy were similar in every way to a commissioned officer’s and distinguished only by a half-inch long by quarter-inch wide blue and gold cloth stripe on the uniform cap beginning in 1853. Beginning in 1864, select English, French, and Italian infantry and artillery units incorporated a “flaming grenade” insignia for wear on their helmets and coasts as a mark of distinction. In 1883, when the Navy added insignia devices for each warrant specialty, officials approved for wear on the gunner’s frock coat collar and on the collar of the blue service coat a version of the flaming grenade insignia. The Navy went as far as to distinguish between gunners with 20 years in grade, who wore an insignia cast in silver, from those with less than 20 years, who wore a gold insignia. Overseers of the naval uniform regulations added a blue and gold stripe and the flaming shell to the coat sleeves in 1899.
That same year, the Navy added a com­missioned warrant rank to offer its senior warrant officers an opportunity to advance and take on positions of greater authority. As an aside, the Admiralty Board in England warranted the rank of gunnery sergeant major to that of a Royal Marine gunner, an equivalent rank to the Royal Navy’s gunnery warrant officer in July 1910. The Royal Marines adopted the ‘flaming shell’ as well.

Search for a Mission: The Advance Base Force
The Spanish-American War arguably marks the birth of the modern Marine Corps and the end of the service’s search for a mission. Previously, Marines were primarily ships’ guards, provided physical security at naval stations and American embassies around the world, and formed small landing parties for minor seaborne raids and assaults against enemy coastal defenses. This changed for good in April 1898 when Secretary of the Navy John D. Long directed Marine Corps Commandant Major General Charles Heywood to organize a battalion for duty with the Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron. By June 10, five infantry companies and an artillery battery under Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington’s 1st Marine Battalion was ashore at Guantanamo Bay where it established an expeditionary base for operations against Spanish forces a mere two months after America declared war on Spain.

Although the Guantanamo landing was not the Marine Corps’ first, it was its first attempt at establishing an expeditionary base comprising fixed defensive positions with integrated advanced weaponry and equipment like medium machine guns, light artillery, naval gunfire, searchlights and signals communications. The expeditionary or advance base concept changed significantly how the Marine Corps viewed its role in modern naval warfare and how technological advances impacted its success. It would also become the genesis of its creation of a warrant officer structure, namely that of the Marine gunner.

The war against Spain was a byproduct of a doctrine established in 1823 by President James Monroe to prevent European powers from encroaching upon American interests in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain was the first real test of the Monroe Doctrine. Control over the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean and Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific at war’s end meant the U.S. now had to develop an approach to defending these territories from a strengthening German and Japanese hegemony in both regions. An advisory committee, the General Board of the Navy, recommended to Secretary Long that he assign Marines with “emplaced naval guns, high angle artillery, machine guns, infantry and water and land minefields” to the mission.

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Between 1901 and 1913, the Marine Corps tested and evaluated the advance base concept. In February 1914, the commanding officer of the 1st Advance Base Brigade, Colonel George Barnett, assumed the Marine Corps Commandancy.

Among his chief concerns was managing the service’s commitment to the concept while at the same time providing Marines for protracted naval expeditions to Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Believing also that America and the Marine Corps would enter the war in Europe, Barnett wanted Marines organized into larger tactical formations equipped with the latest battlefield technologies. To prepare for potential war, the Navy’s number of warrant officers, ranging normally between 200 and 300, rose to more than 1,000 in 1916 after the House of Representatives’ Committee on Naval Affairs authorized a 34 percent end strength increase. In much the same way the new Navy Secretary, Josephus Daniels, was expanding and modernizing the Navy to counter Germany and Japan, Barnett petitioned he do the same for the Marine Corps.

The Case for Gunners in the Marine Corps
Essential to modernizing the service and ensuring its mission success, in Barnett’s judgement, was the continued retention of experienced senior enlisted Marines and getting the most from their leadership and their proficiency with the latest military technologies, particularly advance base force weapons and equipment. In an Oct. 11, 1915, memorandum drafted in advance of his annual testimony before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Naval Affairs, Barnett wrote that the “reenlisted noncommissioned officers constitute, next to the officer, the most important part of any military organization.” As for their specific role, Barnett conceived that since “the services of warrant officers are just as badly needed in the Marine Corps as they are in the Navy,” making them officers might be the best approach to maximizing their continued service.

Barnett conveyed the same to the House Naval Committee on Feb. 29, 1916. Describing the most recent expeditions as “naval mission[s]” contributing directly to the “highly tech­nical” advance base concept, Barnett stressed that integral to the concept’s continued success hinged upon maximiz­ing experienced noncommissioned officers skilled in caring for and maintaining “the heavy guns, sub­marine mines, searchlights, [and] field wireless stations” and to serve as “infantry, as engineers, and as aviators, etc.” Their continued service in one of the recommended two “grades of warrant officers,” Barnett offered, was not only beneficial to the Marine Corps but “an act of simple justice to the senior noncommissioned officers” who “perform the most responsible kinds of duty in an extremely efficient manner.” After his testimony, Barnett took questions from committee members. As to what he intended to call these warrant officers, he replied, “We would call them marine gunners and quartermaster clerks.”

News that the U.S. Senate had approved the committee’s House Resolution 15947 reached Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels in early August, prompting Barnett’s staff to draft Marine Corps Order (MCO) 27 on Aug. 18, establishing the service’s first warrant officer screening and appointment process. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916 into law on Aug. 29, specifying that “the warrant officer grades of [M]arine gunner and quartermaster clerk shall be created, and that 20 [M]arine gunners and 20 [M]arine quartermaster clerks shall be appointed from the noncommissioned officers of the Corps.” These were to be the only permanent appointments, though the act prohibited neither Barnett from recommending nor Daniels from approving any number of temporary appointments on an as-needed basis.

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In accordance with Article 1645 of the Navy Regulations, MCO 27 directed that only after being “satisfied from their records” that applicants were “mentally, morally, and physically qualified” could Barnett recommend a Marine for appointment. The mandatory first step in assessing the applicant’s moral aptitude was through an interview with a commanding officer. Measuring the applicant’s mental fitness would come through a battery of written academic and military-specific tests. Those applicants scoring high enough on the written exams would undergo a thorough medical screening.
Barnett organized an examination board comprised of four Marine officers whose responsibility was to track the process and then recommend to him the names of 11 noncommissioned officers to serve as technical specialists and another nine for non-technical or ‘general duty’ leadership positions requiring Marine officers. The fields and specific areas of expertise necessitating a “warrant gunner” were:

• Main Battery (Advance Base): ordnance and gunnery, fire control, handling heavy weights, and boat seamanship.

• Submarine Mines: use, care, and preservation of submarine mines; fire control; electricity; and boat seamanship.

• Field Artillery: field artillery and drill regulations, fire control, field service regulations.

• Searchlights: use, care, and preservation of portable searchlights; electricity; and gasoline engines.

• Signals: use, care, and preservation of various forms of visual signal, telegraph, telephone, and wireless outfits; electricity; and gasoline engines.

• Engineering: military field engineering; military field topography; demolitions; explosions; construction of bridges, roads, etc.; and field service regulations.

• Aviation: use, care, and preservation of aeroplanes; dirigible balloons; balloon kites; captive balloons; gasoline engines, and military topography (especially with reference to terrain observation from air machines).

• Machine Guns: use, care, and preservation of the various types of machine guns; machine gun tactics; and field service regulations.

• General Duties: firing regulations, field service regulations, and administration.

Getting the Word Out
For years the Marine Corps kept its personnel and the pub­lic informed through announcements in national and local newspapers. Promotions, assignments, retirements and deaths, and news of interest all appeared in print. Two additional sources were the Recruiter’s Bulletin, published by the Marine Corps Recruiting Bureau, and the Marine Corps Association’s Marine Corps Gazette (and Leatherneck beginning in 1917).

As early as Sept. 9, Ohio’s Dayton Daily News reported the Naval Act’s details. One article in particular spoke to an advancement opportunity for noncommissioned officers whose “over age, lack of education, and other deterrent circ*mstance” precluded them from the traditional path to becoming Marine Corps officers. The article went on to explain that “these warrant officers will be known as [M]arine gunners and quartermaster clerks and their pay and allowances will range from $1,250 to $2,000 a year.” An unnamed Headquarters Marine Corps official interviewed emphasized that the service was seeking worthy enlisted men over 30 years of age and simply “who are able to do things.”

In the weeks and months ahead, newspapers like The Washington Post kept Marines apprised during each step in the screening process. On Dec. 3, the Post announced that a board “engaged at the headquarters of the marine corps in examining recommendations of the commanding officers and other papers pertaining to enlisted men” who seek to become Marine gunners.

The Marine Examining Board
The phased screening process laid out by MCO 27 began when an interested noncommissioned officer initiated his intentions to apply for an ap­pointment and culminated with Barnett forwarding the names of selectees to Secretary Daniels for appointment. Each applicant first had to complete an interview with his commanding officer (field or post command and naval com­mand) to obtain a command endorsem*nt. En­dorse­ments had to attest to the applicant’s moral fitness to perform the duties of a Marine officer. Applicants then submitted handwritten requests to the board to take the required medical and professional exams. The interview results, com­mand endorsem*nt and hand-written request had to be sent to Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., by early December, when the next phase of the screening was to begin.

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In between the endorsem*nt interviews and the final selection were the actions of the “Board for Recommendation of Marine Gunners and Quartermaster Clerks,” known also as the Marine Examining Board. Barnett issued a letter on Nov. 20 directing Brigadier General John A. Lejeune to preside over the board and the second screening step. Present at his House Naval Committee testimony, Lejeune understood what Barnett desired in warrant officers. Joining him as board members were Colonel Charles G. Long, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Lemly and Major Harry R. Lay. Their primary task after reviewing applications and applicant service records was “recommending to the Major General Commandant the names of noncommissioned officers” to take the medical and professional exams.

According to its official signed report, the board met daily between Nov. 25 and Dec. 5 and reviewed applications from 117 noncommissioned officers who applied for Marine gunner. They selected 54 to advance to the third phase, which was the professional exams. In preparation, the board solicited from subject matter experts in each field and specialty exam questions and answers as well as to determine how the professional exams were to be administered. As the questions and answers arrived, the board mailed them to some 16 separate locations, 11 of which were naval stations along with three ships, and, finally, to the Marine commands deployed to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

As the screening process and exam preparation played out, questions as to what the Marine gunner’s rank insignia would consist of sur­faced. Barnett’s choice was a chased spherical shell three-fourths inch in diameter similar to the Navy’s device with the flame five-eighths inch high. The 1917 revision of the 1912 Marine Corps Uniform Regulations dictated that the Marine warrant officer’s uniform requirement “will be the same as prescribed for a second lieutenant, but that the Marine Corps emblem and the sword knot will not be worn.” In lieu of the emblem would be an insignia of “silver on the collar of the undress and white undress and of bronze on the summer field and winter field coats and on the shoulder straps of the overcoat and on the collar of the flannel shirt when the coat is not worn.” Marines would soon after refer to the insignia as a “bursting bomb.”

The Washington Post announced on Dec. 17 that the Marine Examining Board had issued notices to selected applicants to report to various naval stations within the continental U.S. on Jan. 29, 1917 for the medical exam and, if cleared for duty, to take the week-long professional exam. Those overseas were to return to America at once if commanding officers could not arrange an adequate exam facility. A memorandum released by the board directed that the professional exam period run from Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, with at least one test administered each day except Sunday.

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The Professional Exam
Three components made up the professional exam required for Marine gunners with a maximum of 100 total points. The first measured the applicant’s aptitude in composition, reading, writing and spelling as well as basic arithmetic, with the second testing the general knowledge of the Army’s Infantry Drill Regulations. The material covered in these first two components were identical and subject to the same grading values with a maximum possible combined score of 30 points.

The third component challenged the applicant’s advanced knowledge and proficiency in their identified fields and specialties. Depending on the field and specialty, an applicant could expect a different number of tests, though each required the interpretation and drafting of schematics and calculations to answer the many scenario-based questions taken from actual events related to the areas of expertise highlighted in MCO 27. Each area had specific grading values with a maximum possible combined score of 30 points. Testing for aviation and engineering applicants covered six separate specialty areas with main battery and submarine mines tests covering four different areas. Field artillery, searchlights, signals, machine guns and general duties applicants underwent testing in only three specific areas.

The remaining 40 points would come from the board’s review of each applicant’s official service record, including the results of their commanding officer’s interview. The board considered recommendations from past commanding officers or officers in charge, expeditionary service, marksmanship, and military and civilian education and training, as well. Applicants had to obtain an overall average of 75 percent to undergo further consideration.

On March 16, Barnett received from Lejeune the board’s report, ranking highest to lowest in order of exam averages the names of 20 noncommissioned officers. Barnett signed and forwarded the list to Secretary Daniels, who issued the signed appointment letters on March 24. The board then sent telegrams to the commands of selectees and released the names to the Recruiter’s Bulletin and news outlets. The Washington Evening Star was one of the first papers to reveal the names on April 2. In the hometowns of those selected, local papers published more personalized announcements. On April 4, the Daily News in Lebanon, Pa., announced “Lebanon Boy Gains Distinction in the United States Marine Corps.” The following day Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, bragged “Rochester Man Goes Up In The Marine Corps: Promoted After Passing Competitive Examination.” Across the country, towns celebrated those “rising from the ranks.”

The first 20 noncommissioned officers proudly pinned the bursting bomb insignia on their stock collars for the first time in Marine Corps history only days after Daniels signed their appointment letters. Several received orders to the 1st Advance Force Brigade. Those already overseas on expeditionary duty in Haiti and the Dominican Republic remained with their commands and assumed various leadership roles. Others boarded transport carriers at Quantico for movement across the Atlantic to France; some would not come home. All, however, played a part in fostering the reputation retired Marine Major Gene Duncan spoke of in his 1982 book “Fiction and Fact from Dunk’s Almanac.”

“God made Warrant Officers to give the junior enlisted Marine someone to worship, the senior enlisted Marine someone to envy, the junior officer someone to tolerate, and the senior officer someone to respect.”

Author’s bio: Dr. Nevgloski is the former director of the Marine Corps History Division. Before becoming the Marine Corps’ history chief in 2019, he was the History Division’s Edwin N. McClellan Research Fellow from 2017 to 2019, and a U.S. Marine from 1989 to 2017.

Leatherneck Magazines – Marine Corps Association (2024)


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