Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Seven Years Later

             Seven years ago Isaura and I were anticipating the arrival of our first grandchild. Alyssa Grace was born on November 26, 2007 much to the delight of the entire family.

I remember thinking that we’d be bringing this precious bundle home in a couple of days, only to have those expectations dashed. It seems that Alyssa had inhaled some amniotic fluid, endangering her to pneumonia. We gathered around Laura as they wheeled our granddaughter to the ICN (Intensive Care Nursery). I wrote about this in my article seven years ago: “It is at moments like this that our faith in God becomes critical. We prayed together, placing this little one in the Lord’s hands.”
I well remember visiting Alyssa every day in the ICN. I would enter this secure area, scrub my hands thoroughly, don a mask and then settle into a chair by her incubator. The nurse would carefully lift her out of her small sleeping area and hand her to me. I wanted to squeeze her and let her know everything was going to be all right, but she had an IV in her little hand, another in her foot, and various monitors, probes and tubes, all of which made it a challenge to even hold her comfortably. The weather had changed in recent days to more of a wintery feel, so I was wearing my Marine Corps black leather jacket. It had that leather smell still, so I would nestle Alyssa into my arms and snuggle her into my open jacket. She would sleep there peacefully for an hour or two before I would have to surrender her to the nurses for some follow-up examination or another.

After nine days in the ICN the medical staff declared her ready to go home. There was a huge blend of relief and joy. I wrote back then that once released we’d go home and “We’ll make cookies on Friday nights like I did with her mother and auntie. We’ll prepare a family breakfast on Saturday mornings which is still my tradition, to include pancakes, waffles, bacon, an omelet and various other goodies. We’ll make crepes one evening, and perhaps an Orange Julius. Won’t we have fun!”

Well, during the intervening seven years much has happened. Alyssa is a First Grader at Colony Oak Elementary School and has lots of friends. If you are a regular reader of my column then you know Alyssa is becoming quite the little golfer. I pick her up on Fridays when school lets out. We then drive a half mile to the golf club where we have a bite to eat, and then hit some balls before heading for the first tee.

Watching her grow, learning to read, make friends, try new things, and the whole experience of finding out what this world has to offer has been as equally enriching to me as I believe it is to her. She loves going to church, especially on Wednesday nights for the kids program. The pastor who succeeded me has two daughters, Jade and Lillie, little girls that he and his wife Jenny, adopted from China. They are best buds with Alyssa.

Alyssa and her cousin, Brookie (now six and a half), will frequently stay overnight at our home. The evening is not complete unless the girls come to me and say, “Granddaddy, we want you to play Tickle Monster with us!” Well, how can I say no to that? And we still do what I had done with their moms. Friday nights we make something decadent, like chocolate chip cookies. And on Saturday mornings they assist me in putting together a breakfast fit for a king. My home made waffles are a hit, and so are the pancakes. We also cook up bacon, a puffy omelet, juice, fresh fruit and whatever else we can find to enhance the meal. I allow them to dive into my collection of cookie cutters to use in creating their own designs from the pancakes we make. It’s loads of fun!

I know most parents and grandparents go through this emotional phase where they simply cannot imagine life without this little one. That’s me – permanently stuck in that mode. Since Alyssa arrived seven years ago, two more babies were added to our brood. Jenny and hubby Josh had Brooklyn Paige five months after Alyssa, and then Colson Charles three years ago this January. Isaura and I are ready for more of these gifts from God, but it’s not looking very promising at this point. Regardless, we have been blessed beyond measure.

Now that I am retired from both the Navy Reserve and church ministry, and Isaura is retired from her social work with foster kids, we both are spending a lot more time with our grandbabies. Just this morning, Alyssa’s class had an assembly for the school focusing on the theme of Thanksgiving. 
Thanksgiving! Yes, it is a wonderful time of the year. But I am thankful every day for God’s gracious gift of life – especially the life he breathed into Alyssa, Brooklyn and Colson. Thank you, Jesus!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


              I was going through a bunch of boxes in the garage last week at my wife’s request, in a sometimes vain, even futile attempt to rid ourselves of so much junk accumulated over 38+ years of marriage. Cleaning the garage and the loft (my “man cave”) are at the top of her “Honey Do List.” The Holidays (read: family and company) are upon us.

Not surprisingly, there are marvelous treasures to uncover. One item in particular was a drawing of a squadron patch of my step father’s Marine Corps squadron during World War II by famed artist, Milton Caniff. United States Marine Corps Aviation Squadron VMSB 932 Unit Insignia, 1941-1946, is of a flying bulldog. The drawing is signed by Mr. Caniff who is best known for his cartoon strip, Steve Canyon.

Marine Squadron VMSB 932 stands for Fixed Wing (V), Marine (M), Scout (S), Bomber (B), 932. As all squadrons are inclined to do, they adopt a mascot/slogan of one kind or another. There are entire books written about the names and history of squadron names and how they acquired the moniker. For VMSB 932, they were called “Teufelhund.” That’s German for “Devil Hound,” but became more popularly known as “Devil Dog,” a title one Marine attributes to another. Milton Caniff’s drawing (and later the patch) has a circled yellow background with a white flying bulldog aiming down as if in the attack mode from the air. The dog’s face is stern and business-like, wearing a spiked collar and a “campaign hat” (think Smokey Bear), used today only by Marine drill instructors and other training officers. To complete the picture, envision this robust dog sprouting yellow-orange wings.

The history of Devil Hound (Teufelhund) is a fascinating one. During World War I, the Marines distinguished themselves at a place called Belleau Wood in France. President Woodrow Wilson was loath to have the United States enter this war, but finally relented in 1917, authorizing the Army to send troops to France. When the Marines arrived, there were French soldiers wearily dragging themselves to the rear (and safety), loudly declaring to the Marines who were marching to the front, “La guerre est finie!” (The war is over). One Marine famously said, “Over? Hell, we just got here!” The first time the Marines found themselves hunkered down in the trenches, one Marine jumped out of the trench and shouted, “Come on, you SOBs, do you want to live forever?” and charged the German lines. Marines swarmed out of the trenches, screaming like banshees as the startled German soldiers looked in shock and fear. They had never seen such a display of reckless warfare before, with many of the enemy soldiers dropping their weapons and running away.

In an article written for the New York Times, June 8, 1918, entitled, “Marines Win Name of Devil Hounds,” with the subtitle, “Germans promptly gave it to them after the first clash on Western Front,” the recruitment of Marines in New York City exploded by 50%. And Congress authorized the Marine Corps to increase their force from 30,000 men to 70,000.

Make no mistake: the Battle of Belleau Wood was bloody and costly in lives lost. But it was the beginning of the end for the Kaiser’s forces leading to the capitulation and surrender long sought for by a war-weary Europe. The loss of Marines killed and wounded was 60%. In simple terms, for every ten Marines going forward to face an entrenched German army, only four survived unscathed. In 1983 I performed the funeral for one of these Belleau Wood Marines who had been shot twice and awoke in a field hospital with one lung missing from mustard gas. He came home and lived a full life, passing away at age 86, outliving two wives!

The article goes on to say, “The German (soldier) has met and named the fighting American Marine. In the past the foe who encountered the prowess of Marines received a mingled impression of wildcats and human cyclones and movements as quick as lightening. When Fritz (a pejorative term for the German enemy) was first introduced to him, he uttered one guttural gasp: ‘Tuefelhunden!’ From now on the ‘Soldiers of the Sea’ (a term used for Marines from their inception) apparently have lost their old-time name of ‘Leathernecks,’ and are to be known as ‘Devil Dogs,’ or ‘Devil Hounds.’ Take your choice. Our Marines are the third fighting unit that has been the subject of the Hun’s (another pejorative) descriptive imagination. The Highlanders of Scotland they called the, ‘Ladies from Hell.’ The ‘Alpine Chasseurs,’ that brave fighting aggregation of Frenchmen, were given the sobriquet of, ‘Blue Devils.’ We Marines are not ashamed of our new special classification.”

I should say not. We wear the title proudly.  

So now you know how the Marines became known as Devil Dogs.

Semper Fi.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Marines - God Love 'em!

              For 239 years the United States Marine Corps has been vigilant when called upon to “fight our countries battles in the air, on land and sea.” Every Marine recruit slugging his way through the rigors and demands of boot camp can tell you the birthday of this elite fighting force – November 10, 1775.

It has been my honor to count myself among the men and women of this storied American fighting unit.

For me it all began when my mother, in 1955, married my step father who had served as a Marine during World War Two. Like so many others after Germany and Japan were defeated and his services were no longer needed, he received his honorable discharge and moved on with his life. I was young and impressionable, without a doubt. But even at a young age I knew Pop had done something very courageous. You see, he did not have to go to war. He was married and well past the age limit. He was certainly physically fit enough, having been captain of his high school football team in Needham, Massachusetts, and then recruited to play for the University of Alabama from 1930-32, just ahead of the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Early in the war Pop tried to become a Navy pilot, but he had difficulty with depth perception. So, wanting to do his part, he offered himself to the Marines. At that time he was 31 years old. He jokingly would tell us that during boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, the other recruits, who were 17 & 18 years old, all called him “Gramps.” Little wonder then that my brother, John, and I joined the Marine Corps, each serving in Vietnam during that long and protracted war. A generation later, John’s son, Josh, would join the Corps and serve multiple tours in Iraq.

Now, some might have the mistaken impression that the Marine Corps is all we talk about when we get together. Not so. But we are each proud to have served our country as Marines. And though none of us is still serving, are uniforms still hang in the closet. John retired as a colonel with 33 years of service. Josh graduated from the Naval Academy and spent nine years in the Corps, turning down a promotion to major, choosing to return to civilian life. And I spent nine years as an enlisted Marine, attaining the rank of staff sergeant. Later I was commissioned as a Navy chaplain, retiring after 34 years of total service, many times assigned to Marine units

This past Thursday, I once again hosted the 5th Annual Marine Corps Birthday Breakfast at Spring Creek Golf & Country Club. Each year I invite a guest speaker as part of the celebration. This year I asked my friend, Colonel Al Cruz, USMC (Ret) to be our guest of honor. As part of the program, I include the Ripon High School JROTC drill units to provide a demonstration of their silent drill, under the capable direction of Lt Col Pat Dunn, U.S. Army, (Ret). We have a birthday cake which is ceremonially cut and served to the oldest and youngest Marine present.

On Friday I drove to Sacramento at the invitation of my friend, Jim Auble, a former enlisted Marine, to attend the annual Marine Corps Birthday Luncheon hosted by the members of the Sutter Club. There is much in the way of fellowship and good cheer as Marines, past and present, share around their respective tables. This is a luncheon strictly for Marines. Steak is on the menu for this event. But my favorite part of this gathering is the time allotted for each Marine to stand and give his or her name, rank, service number, and where and what years they had served. This takes a while as there are about twenty tables of eight. A birthday cake is also cut and served to the oldest and youngest Marine present.

There is one more celebration of the Corps for me, and that’s actually on the birth date of the Corps. My friend, Rick Van Unen (Recon, Vietnam), invites his Marine friends (and those who love them) to his home for a barbeque. This is a much more casual, relaxed affair, but no less significant.

Marines are warriors. They run to the sound of battle. It’s who they are. This is why the slogan, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” rings true.

Eleanor Roosevelt had it just about right when she said this about Marines. “The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”

From that statement you can see why Navy chaplains have such a challenging job when serving with Marines! But we love them!

The following is the official prayer of the Corps, entitled, THE MARINE'S PRAYER.

Almighty Father, whose command is over all and whose love never fails, make me aware of Thy presence and obedient to Thy will. Keep me true to my best self, guarding me against dishonesty in purpose and deed and helping me to live so that I can face my fellow Marines, my loved ones and Thee without shame or fear.

Protect my family. Give me the will to do the work of a Marine and to accept my share of responsibilities with vigor and enthusiasm. Grant me the courage to be proficient in my daily performance.

Keep me loyal and faithful to my superiors and to the duties my country and the Marine Corps have entrusted to me. Make me considerate of those committed to my leadership. Help me to wear my uniform with dignity, and let it remind me daily of the traditions which I must uphold.

If I am inclined to doubt, steady my faith; if I am tempted, make me strong to resist; if I should miss the mark, give me courage to try again.

Guide me with the light of truth and grant me wisdom by which I may understand the answer to my prayer. Amen. 

Happy Birthday, Marines!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Tanks for the Lift

             A few weeks ago I wrote about a road trip that Isaura and I made to the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas to the town of New Braunfels where we had our annual reunion of Overseas Brats – folks who at one time or another growing up as military kids attended a Department of Defense (DOD) school somewhere around the world. ( The article was entitled “Brats.” In particular, I wrote about Bobby Murphy and his exploits as a young teenager breaking into a WWII German bunker on a hill overlooking the Oslo (Norway) Fjord.

Another one of the “Brats” (Peggy Reitman) shared an experience she had during her Air Force dad’s tour of duty with MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) in Tokyo, Japan. A MAAG “is a designation for American Military Advisors sent to other countries to assist in the training of conventional armed forces and facilitate military aid. Although numerous MAAG's operated around the world throughout the 1940s-1970's, the most famous MAAG's were those active in Southeast Asia before and during the Vietnam War.”

There was no American operational military base to speak of where Peggy and her folks were in Japan. They lived in the Grand Heights housing for military families located in Tokyo. It was fenced off from the Japanese civilian community, thus affording the American families a modicum of privacy and security. The housing area was overseen by Military Police with the aid of a Japanese security force.

Peggy was in high school in 1960 and had been dating Tom Elliott, also a student attending the DOD school. To Peggy’s delight, her very strict, conservative father actually approved of Tom. Tom’s father worked for Lockheed and had been in Japan for 15 years so Tom had picked up a functional use of the Japanese language.

One evening Tom showed up at Peggy’s house to take her for a ride in his father’s brand spanking new Mercedes Benz. They told her dad they were just going to go for a drive. Peggy said they were planning to park somewhere, something her father would not have tolerated. But he liked Tom, so off they drove in the Mercedes with the clear understanding that Peggy was to be home by 10:00 PM. Not 10:05. Not 10:01. Ten o’clock sharp.

Just outside the gate to housing Tom suggested they pull into a farmer’s field where they could . . . well, you know! This particular farmer was raising corn and the stalks were very tall. The car literally disappeared from view even though “you could have stood on the rear bumper and spit over the fence into the housing area,” as Peggy told me.

One rather telling detail that neither Tom nor Peggy considered was that this was monsoon season in Japan. Torrential rains are a regular occurrence during this time of year. The ground was saturated. The shiny new Mercedes sank over the hub caps with the bottom side of the car lying flat in the mud. Any romantic notions quickly evaporated as they tried to figure out what to do with their immobile chariot. Not quite sure what to do, Tom eventually climbed out and walked over to the gate. He spoke to one of the Japanese security guards, affectionately known as a “Papa San.” He explained their predicament, being sure to mention that this incident needed to be kept from Peggy’s dad – a colonel in the Air Force - who would be extremely upset. The Papa San said he’d help them, and then disappeared.

Well, Tom returned to the car which was still very much hidden in the corn field. Not knowing what manner of vehicle the Papa San would arrive with to extract the helpless car and the hapless couple, they simply sat and waited. Peggy was growing more concerned by the minute as the ten o’clock bewitching hour was creeping closer. All of a sudden, a loud rumbling noise grabbed their attention. They were then startled by a parting of the massive corn stalks, “like the parting of the Red Sea,” Peggy says. A single bright beam of light was aimed directly at them. A behemoth of a vehicle, a Sherman tank in fact, rumbled to a stop just in front of the car. Out from the turret sprang Papa San who grabbed a length of metal chain from the tank and secured the other end to the front bumper of the Mercedes. Peggy says when the tank started to pull the Mercedes free from the mud that the car popped out with a distinctive sucking sound. The time was now 9:40. Not wishing to push their luck any further, they made a hasty retreat back inside the gate.

Once at Peggy’s home they explained to her mom that they were back a bit early to clean some mud from the car. Her mom thought this was fine since they would be out in front of the house and it was still before Peggy’s curfew. Her dad had already gone to bed anyway.

Peggy assures me that her father never knew about this incident, nor did she ever tell him. Tom’s dad, on the other hand, was none too pleased with the treatment his new Mercedes received. However, even though the two families were close friends, Tom’s folks never said anything about this to Peggy’s dad.

But really . . . a Sherman tank?!