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In 2009, my wife was invited to a function in Washington, DC. Our local library had won a prestigious national award and, as treasurer of one of the library’s most popular community programs, she was asked to attend. When she arrived, she found herself seated at a table with an elderly gentleman in his mid-80’s. Raised on a dairy farm in West Virginia, he had lived quite a life. He had worked odd jobs and drove both trucks and a taxi for a living before he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was working on a project through them in Montana on December 7, 1941.
Like most healthy American males, he went to enlist but he was rejected for military service for being too short. By May 1943, with the war dragging on, he was finally accepted into the Reserves of the United States Marine Corps. A little over a year later, this young man would be in combat with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines on Guam and, in February of 1945, on the island of Iwo Jima.
It was on Iwo that he truly distinguished himself. With advancement stalled by a series of pill boxes built into the black volcanic sand, he became a one-man assault force. Covered by only four riflemen, he fought with a 70-pound flame thrower on his back and took out the enemy positions with fire and explosives. When his fuel tank was empty, he crawled back behind the lines and rearmed. Again and again he did this, for four long hours under withering Japanese fire.
Now my wife’s table companion, this small, elderly man was there as the guest of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, a co-winner of that year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The Pritzker, you see, is where his Congressional Medal of Honor found a permanent home to be displayed for all to see.
When my wife told him our (then) 13-year old son had an interest in the Corps, Hershel “Woody” Williams reached into his pocket and pulled out a challenge coin. “Here, you give this to your son. Tell him he can do no better than the Corps.”
That young man is now a Lance Corporal in Woody’s beloved Corps and he cherishes his special gift from a special man.
Today is the 240th Birthday of the Marine Corps. When Marines cut their cake at events held throughout this week, tradition has it that it will be done by the oldest and the youngest in attendance as a symbol of continuity, an unbroken line in a story of honor, courage, and commitment.
From generation to generation, from the hands of a hero to the hands of my son. Semper Fidelis.