Here come the Marines!
Last Friday, a Marine celebrated his 100th birthday. On December 7, 1941, he was sitting in the “great room” of his fraternity when news of Pearl Harbor arrived in the form of a shout. A fraternity brother was listening to the radio and loudly announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl. America was at war, and so were each of the “brothers” in the house. Some joined right away. Others waited.
This Marine finished his freshman year and then enlisted. Why the Marines? “Because the Marines are first in the fight,” he said.
So, in 1943, he was shipped to Camp Pendleton in California. He traveled by train and was put in charge of three other recruits, given money by a Marine corporal to make sure they were fed, and he made sure that they were.
At boot camp, he was put in charge of his “platoon” because he had been the first to wake up and dress. When the drill sergeant entered the tent on his first day, he was already up. It was 4:30 AM. That was about the time he would milk the cows on the family farm so, no big deal. He finished boot camp and was assigned to a specialty school called JASCO (Joint Assault Signal Corp). With his JASCO training complete, he was shipped to Hawaii for more training. There he was assigned to the 22nd Marine Regiment.
This Marine and thousands of other Marines trained for combat, and soon they were headed to fight the enemy. It was on the island of Engebi where he saw his first combat. The ramp came down and Marines ran for cover under fire. The man next to him was hit in the chest by a round and he went down. A Corpsman was called. Off to another hole in the sand, next to his Captain. The Captain was shot and killed. No time to grieve — off to another shell hole and thereafter to just do his job.
He participated in four more assault landings in the Pacific and would participate in one of the bloodiest battles of the war – the assault on Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa. On Sugar Loaf, he was in a shell hole hunkered down under mortar fire when a shell landed close. Moments later, he was hit in the butt. He thought he had “bought the farm,” but fortunately he had not. What hit him was a water can that was blasted in the air by a mortar round and hit him on his “backside.” No permanent damage, just a massive bruise, and a good laugh.
The year before, he had received his “Dear John letter.” His fianc? had taken the engagement ring back to his parents and called off the wedding. She had met a “flyboy” and fallen in love with a pilot (it’s always a pilot). A world away, an 18-year-old girl was pledged to her sorority and was cleaning the floor of an upper-classman. She wasn’t happy with that “pledge duty” but was doing it anyway. She looked up and saw a handsome man in a frame and asked “Who is that boy?” The sorority sister said: “That’s my brother, he’s in the Pacific, Maybe you should write him.” She did.
The Marine and his new pen pal corresponded for the remainder of the war. The last letter he wrote while overseas was written in Tsing Tao, China while on occupation duty. The Marine returned to the United States in one piece and went home to his family, meeting his mom and dad who cried when they saw him get off the bus in his Marine uniform.
A month later, he asked his pen pal to visit him. She did (after asking her mom for permission, of course). She flew to his hometown and waited at the small airport. While she was waiting, she read the Saturday Evening Post. A man said her name, and she looked up. She said she fell in love with that first in-person look. The Marine said he “had never seen a more beautiful woman.”
They married in 1946. Last year, they celebrated 75 years of marriage. This year that Marine, now slightly less willing to assault the enemy but still a proud Marine, stood and held his salute as uniformed Marines presented him with challenge coins and more. He held his salute in freezing weather and was touched beyond words. He knows that he was one of the lucky Marines to come home. The heroes, he said, never came home.
Donn Thompson receives a letter from Marine Corps Commandant on his 100th Birthday. (Credit: Trevor Thompson)
I tweeted about having difficulty getting the Marine Corps online portal to work. And boy, did I get an awesome response. 1.3 million.
From the DAR, to the Commandant’s office, to fellow Marine Congressman Rich McCormick, to the local Marine Recruiting station, to Marines who traveled 400 miles to salute and shake the hand of a 100-year-old Marine.
Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.