FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Monday, November 9, 2015

My Marine Ball Speech: From Fonte Hill to Capital Hill: Lou Wilson, Tide Laundry Detergent and Why I Ended Up in the Navy

Happy Birthday Marine Corps!  

Since 2010, I've written a birthday post for the Marine Corps each year (except for 2013 right after we first moved to Madagascar--sorry Chesty).  

Last weekend, I had the honor to be invited as the guest speaker at our US Embassy Marine Corps Ball.  It was a great honor to share the stage and spotlight with the Marine Security Guard team that protects us every day in Antananarivo.  I've included the speech I gave below.   

From Fonte Hill to Capitol Hill: Lou Wilson, Tide Laundry Detergent and Why I Ended Up in the Navy
Just hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured the island of Guam.  But by the summer of 1944, the Japanese were on their heels as the U.S. Pacific fleet battled toward their homeland.  To counter this, the Japanese emperor heavily reinforced key islands to create a defensive barrier in the Pacific.  Guam was one of these islands.  There were over 18,000 seasoned Japanese soldiers on the island, with the majority fortifying the towering highland of Fonte Hill—an outpost directly overlooking the beach on which the 3rd Marine Division would land.  On the morning of 21 July, the Marines began their assault, suffering heavy losses as enemy artillery and mortars battered the beach head.  With high powered telescopes the commanding Japanese general peered down at the individual faces of marines as they were mowed down.

Despite this, after a day of fighting, the marines had secured the beach head.  For the next three days the marines fought their way inland through rice paddies and sloping foothills toward Fonte Hill where the Japanese headquarters rested.   On 25 July, the exhausted and battered Marines of two companies received the order to attack Fonte Hill. 

For the next six hours, the marines battled their way to near the top of the massive prominence.   Unfortunately the last third of the hill was up across nearly vertical terrain. Japanese general Takashina  concentrated all of his forces to beat back the two marine companies.  As the sun began to set,  he redoubled his efforts to dislodge the one company still hanging tough…the group of leathernecks led by one CAPTAIN Lou Wilson. 
As the son of a career Marine I grew up on Marine bases around the globe and I had a poster on one of my walls of GENERAL Lou Wilson.  Because marine corps BRATS, as we were called, didn’t just have posters of prima donna sports heros growing up—we had posters of real heros—men like Lou Wilson.  We lived on streets named after heroes like Bobo, Puller, Daly and Pendleton.  With all of this indoctrination—I mean espirit de corps, you might be asking yourself why I am standing up here as a Naval officer.  After all, not only was my father a marine, but so was an uncle of mine, a cousin, and so was one of my grandfathers AND one of my grandmothers.  I mean, what went wrong???  One word easily captures what went wrong—a beautiful little vacation spot called Quantico. 

The summer before my senior year at the Naval Academy, I signed up for the six week long “Leatherneck” course.  A fully immersive experience, Leatherneck is designed to give participants a taste—a very strong taste it turns out—of what it would be like to go through the six MONTH long Basic School course completed by all marine officers.  I remember the 2nd LT in charge giving me several hundreds rounds of blank ammo as my squad embarked on one of our first patrols.   Channeling Rambo, I reveled in expending every last bullet at the imagined enemies lurking in the forests.

BUT, what I didn’t realize till afterwards was that following each patrol we would be spending several HOURS cleaning our weapons before we could retire for the evening.  Cleaning your weapons is a lengthy process that involves disassembling the gun, and then painstakingly cleaning it with a combination of oils, brushes and clothes.  It turns out cleaning weapons was NOT my forte.  I was routinely one of the last midshipmen dismissed as the officer in charge always seemed to find a ‘filthy’ amount of dirt lurking in my rifle.  That was until I figured out that I could soak all the weapon’s parts in Tide Laundry detergent, rinse them off and be done in about twenty minutes.  The 2nd LT, however, was none too pleased when he discovered that I was using this “shortcut”—a shortcut that also shorten’s the weapon’s service life.  Needless to say, I didn’t ‘retire’ for the evening until late the night of the LT's discovery.

But, the very next patrol we went on (and every one after that for the next five weeks), I gave all of my ammo to my elated buddies and just made shooting sounds the whole time…thereby conserving the cleanliness of my weapon.  And then there was just the general misery of lying and crawling in the dirt all day following by daily ‘humps’ of 15 miles with a 50 pound pack in humid 100 degree weather…all while pretending to be “motivated, motivated motivated sir”.   But what really clinched it for me, were the blood-sucking ticks that seems to implant themselves on every crook and crevice of the human body.  The only way to combat these ticks, was by performing rather invasive nightly body checks…one each other…every night.  Needless to say, I got to know my fellow squadmates better than I ever wanted.  Later in my career, I came across this quote by a Navy admiral: "The Army and the Navy are run like traditional military services. The Air Force is run like a corporation. But the Marine Corps is a religion."   After six weeks at the Marine Corps Mecca, I had a newfound respect for the Corps and couldn’t have agreed more with the admiral. 
This year we celebrate the Marine Corps 240th birthday—and we also celebrate 240 years of the Marine Corps here in Africa.  240 years ago, President Jefferson needed a force to strike back against the Barbary pirates terrorizing US shipping in the Mediterranean and the Marine Corps was created—a force that would battle the north African criminals for the next two decades…all the way to the ‘shores of tripoli’.   That same year when US diplomats visited the French Royal court, it was a platoon of marines that protected them during the journey.  This State Department –Marine Corps relationship wouldn’t be formalized, though, until the end of World War II when a 60 marine detachment was sent to smoldering bombed-out London to protect our embassy there.  Three years later, in 1948 the Marine Security Guard program began with an initial deployment of 83 marines across the globe. 

Since 1948, the Marine Security Guards have exhibited a track record of competence, professionalism and bravery. 

An episode that captures the very spirit and nature of their work and the Marine Corps in general occurred in 1991 in another beautiful little vacation spot called…Mogadishu.  Not many people may recall the details of Operation Eastern Exit since the events were eclipsed by the Desert Storm invasion which occurred on the same day.  The basic details were that civil war had reached the Somali capital much more quickly than anyone in the embassy had anticipated.  Anarchy reigned supreme with gangs looting and killing in the streets—and escalating violent battles between President Barre’s troops and the Somali rebels.  Barrages of artillery shells exploded, destroying neighborhoods and businesses. Heavy machine gun fire began ripping into the walls of the embassy compound .  The PAS officer at the time recalled that 'We couldn't save ourselves. Either we were going to get blown away or somebody was going to save us.'  At one point armed looters swarmed the embassy gates demanding that they be opened.  Again, this same PAS officer remembers her terror at they screamed their demands but then recalls that the looters happened to look up at the roof of the embassy where Marines were perched with giant rifles trained down on the Somalis.  She then heard them shout ‘Igaralli ahow’…which roughly translates to ‘sorry, our bad, we didn’t mean it.’   

Despite this show of force, the city descended further into chaos and the Ambassador knew that they needed to get out.  On the 2nd of January he made the request for a NEO.   What transpired over the next three days was one of the most smoothly executed non-combatant evacuation operations in history.   At 245AM on January 4th, two massive Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters lifted off the deck of the USS Guam Amphibious Assault Ship.  They would refuel twice in air over the next 4 hours and 460 miles.  Just after 6 AM the two helos landed on the embassy compound.  As the American community huddled inside the compound many were unsure if they were going to make it out alive but then they heard the familiar chop of approaching helicopters and as the twin helicopters landed inside the compound the DCM commented afterwards, "as soon as I saw the word  ‘US Marines’ emblazoned on the tails of the helicopters, I knew we would be ok."  

“I knew we would be ok”. 

An hour later they first wave of 60 evacuees took off amidst scattered gunfire.  That same morning, the Embassy released a report on the deteriorating situation that described the corpses littered outside the embassy walls, and the embassy building itself taking a direct hit from an RPG. 

Later the next night, the USS Guam was close enough for five Marine CH-46 helos to fly to the embassy under the cover of night and evac the remaining civilians. In the end, over 250 americans and foreign nationals (including the entire Soviet embassy) were rescued in less than 24 hours by the Navy-Marine Corps team.  
Back on Fonte Hill in Guam, Capt Wilson and his men had been fighting since midnight through the darkened, rainy muddy hillside.  US naval ships would fire white illumination shells to light up the sky over the Japanese front lines.  Somehow, he led his 200 men in repulsing 7 successive waves of attacks from the enemy battalions of thousands throughout the night—much of it hand to hand combat.   During this withering gunfire Wilson was shot three times in the shoulders and knee.  At one point, he spied one of his marines lying wounded 50 yards in front of him, unable to move. 
He sprinted into the open amidst blistering gunfire and pulled the helpless marine back to safety   

As the sun started to peak over the horizon, Wilson’s men conducted an inventory of their ammunition…it was almost gone.

Capt. Wilson directed his men to fix bayonets.  (pause)

Because when the going gets tough, that’s what Marines do—they fix bayonets.  (pause)

Marines don’t despair--they don't grumble—(pause)they fix bayonets. 

Wilson and his men prepared themselves for a final battle against impossible odds.  And then a miracle, they heard the rumble and creaks of the tanks that they’d requested some four hours earlier lumbering into sight.  The enemy immediately shifted their attacks on the tanks.

Capt Wilson used this distraction to lead a group of 17 marines to attack the headquarters on the hilltop.  As they fought their way to the top, marine after marine was struck down by machine gun fire and mortar shrapnel.  But they pressed on returning fire.  By the time they captured the hill top, only 4 of the 17 had survived and 350 enemy troops lay dead. When Capt Wilson returned to the United States after the war, President Truman awarded him the medal of honor for his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.   Nearly 50 years later, he would be awarded the Guam Medal of Valor on 21 July—today celebrated as Guam’s Liberation day. 

Wilson would go on to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps and would rescue the Corps from a dark period of discipline problems, rampant drug use, obesity and low morale and recruitment following the Vietnam War.  Wilson’s command presence as Commandant was a thing of legend--the Secretary of Defense at the time liked to tell a story about an old gunnery sergeant who lost 13 pounds just by keeping a picture of the Commandant in his refrigerator. 

General Wilson is known as the father of the modern marine corps and importantly fought on Capitol Hill to become the first Marine Commandant to serve as a full member of the Joint Chiefs—an incredible accomplishment for a service that other components once argued for the abolition of.   He shaped the Marine Corps into the service we know today—an expeditionary and ready force with integrated firepower on land, air and sea—quite simply, the best fighting force on the planet.
Now, I’ve spent much of this speech extolling the virtues of the Marine Corps and one marine in particular but the people I would most like to honor tonight are the heroes among us.  These are the brave men and women—the marines--that have pledged to protect us each and every day here in Tana.   They have deployed all around the globe in service to our nation—from Afghanistan to Okinawa to India to Berlin to Peru to Thailand to Mexico City. 

And I would like to close this speech tonight by acknowledging and thanking these heroes among us—the members of Marine Security Guard Antananarivo:  Sgt Kight from Ozark, Missouri, Staff Sergeant Guittierrez from Miami, Sgt Hattabaugh (had ah baw) from Dudley, Massachusetts, Corporal Bates from Alberquerque New Mexico, Sgt. Leoni and Sgt Arcia from Naples, Florida, Sgt. Frey from Euless, Texas, and Cpl Castillo from the Phillipines.   

Now, as you can see tonight, Marines take their balls (pause) seriously, so seriously in fact that the official “Marine Officer’s Guide” has a special section dedicated to Marine Corps Balls.  In that section it states this: There is only one ironclad rule for the birthday ball: Make it a good one.
So I’d like to read former Commandant of the Marine Corps Lou Wilson’s own Marine Corps ball speech from 1978 in its entirety.  Instead of a traditional speech, he penned a short poem and entitled it LOVE.

 “The wonderful love of a beautiful maid,
The love of a staunch true man,
The love of a baby, unafraid,
Have existed since time began.

But the greatest of loves, The quintessence of loves.
even greater than that of a mother,
Is the tender, passionate, infinite love,
of one drunken Marine for another.
"Semper Fidelis” 

I provide a quasi-bibliography here.  I use the term 'quasi' because I didn't write this speech like I would a paper for publication.  My focus for this speech was on telling a specific story/narrative--NOT on getting all the rewording and properly citing everything (so large historical sections I just cut and pasted, condensed and reworded a little as needed).  I started out with a vague notion that I wanted to talk about General Lou Wilson and the Marine Security Guard program--so that's where I began my research--and down the black hole I went.   So if you are a history nerd, my apologies for any inaccuracies--my intent was not a precise retelling but a conveyance of a feeling.   Hope you enjoyed.

No comments:

Post a Comment