It is fitting that, as Marines and soldiers are currently locked in a death struggle with terrorists in Fallujah, we should reflect on the meaning of two dates in November. November 10, 2004, was the 229 birthday of the United States Marine Corps. And November 11, 2004, is Veterans Day. During the recent presidential campaign, John Kerry spoke often of his “band of brothers.” When they heard this reference, most Americans probably thought Kerry had taken it from the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO TV series, Band of Brothers. But Ambrose himself took it from the Saint Crispin’s Day speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
In his birthday message to Marines this year, the Commandant, Gen. Mike Hagee, related a story about a Marine who had been wounded in Iraq earlier this year. A squad leader, he refused evacuation until he finally passed out from a loss of blood. When he woke up in an Army hospital in Germany, he talked the staff into releasing him. He borrowed some utilities from a Navy corpsman and then talked his way aboard an Air Force transport that was flying back to Iraq. But before boarding the plane, he called his wife to tell her that he was O.K. but that he wouldn’t be home because the Marines in his squad needed him. As the old question goes, where do we find such men?
The truth is that we find them all the time. My father was a Marine who fought and was wounded in the Pacific during World War II. Marine Sgt. John Basilone, a contemporary of my dad, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal. Though he was not obligated to do so, he insisted on returning to combat and was killed on the first day of the struggle for Iwo Jima. Where do we find such men?
The struggle for Fallujah puts me in mind of my own band of brothers: the Marine rifle platoon that I led in Vietnam from September 1968 until May 1969. The men of that platoon would all have preferred to be somewhere other than Vietnam’s northern Quang Tri Province, but they were doing their duty as the understood it. In those days, men built their lives around their military obligation, and if a war happened on their watch, fighting was part of the obligation. But there is one Marine who stands out in my memory: Corporal Larry Boyer.
The fact is that Corporal Boyer went far beyond the call of duty. At a time when college enrollment was a sure way to avoid military service and a tour in Vietnam, Corporal Boyer, despite excellent grades, quit, enlisted in the Marines, and volunteered to go to Vietnam as an infantryman. Because of his high aptitude-test scores, the Marine Corps sent him to communications-electronics school instead. But Corporal Boyer kept “requesting mast,” insisting that he had joined the Marines to fight in Vietnam. He got his wish, and on May 29, 1969, while serving as one of my squad leaders, he gave the “last full measure of devotion” to his country and comrades. Where do we fid such men?
Larry Boyer was an only child. I corresponded with his mother for some time after his death. Her inconsolable pain and grief put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son:” “I have slain none but my mother, She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.” Kipling too, lost his only son in World War I.
Unfortunately, Larry Boyer did not get to enjoy the fruits of being a veteran as described by another Marine with whom I had the pleasure to serve. Master Gunnery Sergeant Rogers was one of the most remarkable Marines I ever knew. He was a “Montford Point Marine,” named after the base in North Carolina where African-Americans who enlisted during World War II and served in all-black units in the segregated Marine Corps of the era, mostly in combat-service support jobs, were trained. One of his first assignments was to help transport the bodies of dead Marines back across the beaches of Okinawa during the ferocious battle for that island in 1945. As distasteful as his early experiences may have been, he persevered; the Marines were the first service to integrate in the early 1950s, and Master Gunny Rogers had a long and distinguished career in the Marine Corps, lasting well into the 1970s.
If Master Gunny Rogers was bitter about his early years in the Corps, he never said so. What he did say is pertinent to the observation of Veterans Day: “There is nothing sweeter than to be an old man who has fought for his country.”
So pray for our servicemen in Fallujah today and for the souls of those who have given the last full measure. May they rest in peace. Happy birthday, Marines. Semper fi. And to all veterans, God bless you and thank you for your service. And may you live long, sweet lives.
–Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.