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Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful

24 November 2011

Summary:  a guest post by Beth Crumley, a Marine Corp retrospective about Thanksgivings past.  This reminds of how much we have to be grateful before, and the price paid for our liberty and prosperity.  Reposted with permission from the Marine Corps Association website.

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I love this time of year.  I love walking outside on a crisp, autumn morning and hearing the leaves crunch under my feet, and the smell of a wood fire in the air. It’s a reflective time…a time to take stock of what’s important in our lives. This weekend I was happily engaged in some pre-Thanksgiving tasks. I put a large pot of poultry stock on to cook, made pastry dough and even roasted off some pumpkins for pie. Later, while sitting at my desk, I looked at the calendar and realized that 68 years ago the battle for Tarawa raged.  I started to think about those who have served, and those who serve today, and how difficult it must be to be separated from family and friends on the holidays we hold most dear.

The Marine Corps has long taken particular care to ensure that those who cannot be with their families still celebrate Thanksgiving. In times of war, that has proven challenging.

On 26 November 1942, Thanksgiving Day, Marines were battling the Japanese on Guadalcanal. The diary of one veteran noted, “Thanksgiving…air raid siren at 3:30 A.M….very little sleep.”  A history of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines noted:

“Thursday, November 26, 1942 … a complete Thanksgiving day dinner was served to all hands on Guadalcanal. R4Ds loaded with all kinds of holiday food were flown into Henderson Field and distributed immediately to all units. Batteries of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, built ovens and roasted turkeys in them. Every Marine got a cold bottle of Pepsi Cola.”

A year later, on 20 November, 1943, Marines assaulted the bloody beaches of Tarawa.

Thirty hours after the Marines went ashore came a message which relayed the news from Colonel David M. Shoup, shore commander, reporting: “Casualties many; percentage of dead not known; combat efficiency: We are winning.” On the afternoon of 23 November, Major General Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith received the news that organized resistance on Tarawa had ceased. The island was declared secure on the morning of 24 November. The next day  was Thanksgiving Day.  For many families there would be little to be thankful for.  Some 3,407 Marines were casualties of the battle for Tarawa. 997 Marines and sailors, mostly Navy corpsmen were dead, another 88 were listed as missing and presumed dead.

This drawing by combat artist Kerr Eby captures the death and destruction that marked the battle for Tarawa:

Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection

Smith later wrote:

“No words of mine can reproduce the picture I saw when the plane landed after circling that wracked and battered island. The sight of our dead floating in the waters of the lagoon and lying along the blood-soaked beaches is one I will never forget. Over the pitted, blasted island hung a miasma of coral dust and death, nauseating and horrifying. Chaplains, corpsmen and troops were carrying away wounded and burying the dead….I passed boys who had lived yesterday a thousand times and looked older than their fathers. Dirty, unshaven, with gaunt, almost sightless eyes, they had survived the ordeal but it had chilled their souls. They found it hard to believe they were actually alive. There were no smiles on these ancient, youthful faces; only passive relief among the dead.”

On 29 November, 1943, The Pittsburgh Post ran an article written by Richard Johnson, a United Press writer who was with the Marines at Tarawa. It read:

“Back home about now, folks are settling down to celebrate Thanksgiving Day over heaping platters of turkey and fixin’s. Out here on this tiny Pacific atoll, which has just been bought with the blood of United States Marines, those of us who survive join fervently in those thanks. First of all, we are thankful that we are alive.”

Said one Marine, “Thanksgiving, 1943. Not many of us are left now, but those of us who are, will never forget it.”

One of the American cemeteries on Betio Island

Seven years later, the 1st Marine Division was advancing north to the Chosin Reservoir, near the Manchurian border. Elements of both the 5th and 7th Marines spent Thanksgiving Day, 23 November 1950, within the perimeter at Hagaru-ri.  Despite the bitter cold, every effort was made to ensure that each Marine in the division enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, fruit cake, and mincemeat pie.

Marines celebrate Thanksgiving with a hot meal as they advance to the Manchurian border:

Said PFC Richard Holgin,

“One day they brought our chow up by truck to where we were. Wow! It was Thanksgiving dinner. I was 17 years old. We all lined up. The mess kits were oblong. One side had turkey, and the other side mashed potatoes and something else. No frills. I put my tray down on this 55-gallon drum and my hot coffee froze in my tin cup. I hurried up and ate the rest of my stuff before it froze. That was the last hot meal until I got back aboard ship.”

It would be the last hot meal the Marines had for many days. As darkness fell on 27 November, the Marines were attacked by twelve divisions of the Chinese Ninth Army Group. Battling both bitterly cold temperatures, as well as Chinese forces, the epic retrograde from Chosin took almost two weeks.

The breakout from Chosin was marked by bitterly cold weather

The tradition of serving Thanksgiving dinner to those in the field continued into Vietnam.  In November 1965, a Navy chaplain observed that Thanksgiving was appropriately observed with services of worship and with hot meals of turkey and trimmings for all hands. It is also noted that, “ Even the line companies had hot meals taken out by choppers.”

A 3d Marine Division Thanksgiving menu (1966)

In 1968, the government of Vietnam announced the start of an “Accelerated Pacification Program, “ known as Le Loi. The 1st Marine Division planned Operation Meade River to support this campaign, essentially a large-scale cordon and search operation in the area around Dodge City, south of Da Nang. On the morning of 20 November, seven Marine battalions began moving into position to form a ring around Dodge City. Once again, it was Thanksgiving Day in the Marine Corps.  An operation report reads,

“Thanksgiving Day, BLT 2/26 and 2/5th Marines reached the Soui Co Ca. The 3/26th Marines, which had been heli-lifted earlier into the southern Dodge City area, relieved the 3/5th Marines along route 4. The latter battalion then attacked north toward a series of phase lines between the railroad berm and the Suoi Co Ca. The 3/26th Marines “enjoyed” a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey loaf and then followed after the 3/5th Marines attack. That night Marine artillery began a heavy barrage and there was six hours of intense PsyOps loudspeaker messages. The enemy troops were unimpressed and chose to fight.”

A 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Thanksgiving menu (1970)

Almost 40 years later, Sgt Mitchell S. Wilder prepares a Thanksgiving meal in Rawah, Iraq (2008):

At Camp Fallujah, Staff Sergeant Dominico Washington noted, “There are times when you think it would be nice to be home, nice to be with the ones you love, but you can’t think too much about yourself, get too down and be a disruption to the other guys.” Inside the camp’s two sprawling mess halls, 3-foot turkeys, sculpted out of butter greeted the troops. On the menu was roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cornbread and eggnog, as well as pumpkin and four other varieties of pie. The menu also included prime rib, crab legs, shrimp cocktail, fried chicken and collard greens.

One Marine Lance Corporal wrote to her parents about her Thanksgiving in Iraq:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I, as most would of thought, was expecting a very homesick Thanksgiving.

Although I wish I could have been home, my Thanksgiving was filled with motivation and inspiration. To start off, the unit got together and the CO said a couple of words to the unit. He complemented us for our hard work, and was extremely impressed with the plans we have for the future. We then had lunch with some MRE crackers, popcorn, and SPAM. Afterwards, like we do most days, we prepared for the convoy into the city. It was a good convoy and all went well. While we were in the city, we were asked to get together because the General wanted to talk to us. The General being, General Casey, a four star general in the Army who is in charge of all Coalition Forces in Iraq. He again complemented us on the good work and sacrifices we are making. He told us that our hard work had paid off and there is no longer a safe haven for insurgents in Iraq. He then said something that would inspire the weakest of heart.

He said, “The enemy was willing to die for their cause, and you gave them their wish”.

He told us that next year when we are home for Thanksgiving we will be truly grateful for all the gifts in our life. We can look back at this Thanksgiving and be proud of what we are doing. Filled with juice and energy, we convoyed back to Camp Fallujah. As we came to the first gate to the camp, I was in shock because a Marine Corps Major was stand at the post. Along with the Major was a 1stSgt. I reported to the Major what convoy we were and how many packs we were carrying. He told me to proceed and have a Happy Thanksgiving. As we came to the second gate, a Marine Capt and a SgtMaj were standing the post.

There was not a PFC or LCpl to be found.

None of the posts had young Marines at them; Officers and Staff NCOs manned them all. The command decided that the young Marines were going to have the night off to get some good chow. It was unbelievable, and a wonderful site. The leadership took charge and took care of the younger Marines. This filled me with a pride indescribable with words.

I am so honored to be apart of an organization like this. Marines taking care of Marines with such unselfishness. As I went to Thanksgiving chow with my brothers and sisters, the IMEF Commanding General LtGen Saddler and the IMEF SgtMaj, SgtMaj Kent were serving chow. The amazing part was that they were so enthusiastic about it. Everyone was in a great mood, and ready to take on anything. It makes you think that if a 3 star general in the United States Marine Corps can serve turkey to a bunch of 18-20 year old Lance Corporals, then you can suck up whatever you have to do and stop complaining. So, as I went to bed, I felt very Thankful and indeed blessed for a great life. Tomorrow, I am sure will be full of fighting and disaster, along with the added stress of little sleep and cold days and even colder nights.

But, for tonight, it’s Thanksgiving and everything is okay.

One Motivated Lance Corporal

The Secretary of the Navy, shares Thanksgiving with the 2d Battalion, 25th Marines, at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, 2008

So what is the point of all this? The point is that Marines have always served, and will continue to serve where they are needed, when they are needed. Marines will celebrate this Thanksgiving in Afghanistan, Djibouti, at US embassies across the globe or on a MEU float.

When you sit down in the warmth and comfort of your home this Thanksgiving Day, with friends and family near, raise a glass, or say a prayer for those who are far from home.

Marines on patrol, Afghanistan

Other perspectives on Thanksgiving

(a)  “Thanksgiving is un-American“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 23 November 2011 — Excerpt:

Think, for a minute, about what happened on the original Thanksgiving. (Yes, I know that there are doubts about what really happened, but never mind.)

Here’s how it went down: a bunch of people got together, with each group bringing what it could — the Wampanoag brought deer, the Pilgrims apparently shot some birds, etc.. Then everyone shared equally in the feast — regardless of how much they brought to the table. Socialism!

Worse yet, many of the lucky duckies benefiting from the largesse of this 17th-century welfare state were illegal immigrants. (That would be the Pilgrims).

(b)  An Addams Family Thanksgiving

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About the author: Beth Crumley

Beth is currently a reference historian at History Division, Marine Corps (Quantico, VA) serving as one of two unit historians within the USMC, responsible for researching and updating the lineage and honors of approximately 435 Marine Corps units.  SHe interacts daily with units throughout the Marine Corps, answering questions concerning their lineage and honors, as well as battle streamers.

Prior to the above she was a curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and also worked as a contract historian and writer. Authored the book The Marine Corps: Three Centuries of Glory, a battle history of the Corps with emphasis on the 20th century. She also worked on the indexes for several other publications including US Army: A Complete History, US Navy: A Complete History, US Air Force: A Complete History as well as chronologies of American forces in World War II and Vietnam. Additionally, she is under contract to complete an update of the USMC Chronology that is contained in The Marines, scheduled for reprint this summer.

Other posts about the US Marine Corps

  1. Why a Marine Corps?, 23 August 2010
  2. Another perspective on the future of the Marine Corps, 24 August 2010
  3. Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, 7 September 2010
  4. Defining the Marine Corp’ Strategic Concept, 29 September 2010
  5. The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow, 21 February 2011

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. alee9 permalink
    24 November 2011 3:52 pm

    Thanks for a truly uplifting Thanksgiving post!

    I’ve heard of stories on the ‘other side of the war’ from survivors of wars, most of them from my aunts who were in their teens during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines. Theirs are tales of adventure like outwitting the Japanese during night raids, making do with a handful of clothes, scouring the riverbank for food at dawn, sharing a cup rice for supper in the spirit of thanksgiving. Of course, what they had prayed for each night, namely, the release of my grandfather from prison–he, who once filled the table with the best meals–never happened. Still, the sun never ceased to rise; they grew up into adults whose fears of those days though very much to this day have since turned into memories they recall through pink mists.

    Would you consider collecting more stories like what you have here? Thanks again.

    Like

  2. 26 November 2011 1:22 pm

    The Marines are, many times, the best of us. There are times that I believe that these modern day Centurions, and I say that with respect…as would anyone who actually studies the Roman Military Professionals, these Centurions, like those of Rome, who stood the watch hoping that the Senates and Ceasars would ‘get their stuff together’ deserve better than those who currently govern and rule.

    I fear that we are going the way of that ancient Rome. I do not see anything on the horizon to give me hope that we will triumph where that old order failed. In point of fact, each day brings anew more cause to fear that we are indeed coming to the end of our time, and we are coming to it by the same corrupt ways that Ancient Rome came to her end.

    If only there were a candidate who would run as a military Officer, NOT as a politician. I spoke in 2000 and in 2008 with a member of the McCain campaign and told them the same thing both times – If John McCain were to run as CAPT John McCain and not senator John McCain, and were to campaign to the vets – speak military TO military, the presidency would have been his for the taking. Imagine if we had a L E A D E R who KNEW HOW TO LEAD who ran as a LEADER and spoke to US – us Veterans? How much pro bono work would we do to get a LEADER elected? Look at how many vets reservists and retirees as well as vet families there are.

    Of course, that is an empty hope. A) No one with any integrity or even a shred of Honor would run – who would willingly put themselves through the foulness of an election? B) the powers that elect (i.e. the extremes of each party and the myriad special interests) would never allow a real leader, should such a one actually chose to debase themselves thus, to get elected.

    terminus adveho

    Like

  3. 27 November 2011 2:56 am

    Chet, I was a Platoon Commander with Fox 2/26 on Operation Meade River, November 1968. We had tighten the cordon to then Suoi Co Ca River and after some sustained firefights settled down for a hot Turkey dinner. We had been out eating two rations a day of C-Rations for about a week and looked forward to a hot meaL. We rotated the company marines through the chow line. As always, officers eat last, after all the enlisted marines. After I was sure all my marines had gotten a meal I went to the B-ration can a found one small piece of ham left. Well, what is one to do. I added the hame to my Ham & Limas, hot sauce, and heated it with some C-4. Tasted terrible as usual.

    And as said above, the PhyOps did not work and we fought it out with an NVA Regiment to the death.

    Good Holidays to all and in particular to all the marines out there. I have never forgot that Thanksgiving and thanks to all the marines of Fox 2/26 who got me home alive.

    Semper Fi,

    Terry

    Like

  4. Jose Garcia permalink
    27 November 2011 7:36 pm

    “This will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”
    Elmer Davis (1890-1958)
    I kiss the ground I walk on, which is this United States of America
    I humbly salute our great United States Marine Corp. May God bless and protect.
    As for Mr. Krugman, may he go fly a kite.

    Like

    • 27 November 2011 8:25 pm

      Mr. Garcia demonstrates the peril into which the US has fallen, as he quotes words which he appears not to understand. Mindless conservative propaganda designed to destroy our Constitutional Republic.

      Elmer Davis (1890 – 1958) was a leading journalist and author. He wrote But We Were Born Free when we were in the midst of the cold war, with our freedoms under assult from both enemies both external (the USSR) and internal (McCarthy and his unamerican allies). Let’s look at the full quote for that book, not the snippet.

      “I believe it {America} will endure, but only if we stand up for it. The frightened men who are trying to frighten us, because they have no faith in their country are wrong. Even wronger are the smart men who are trying to use the frightened men for their own ends.

      The United States has worked. The principals of freedom on which it was founded — free thought as well as political liberty — have worked. This is the faith once delivered to the fathers — the faith for which they were willing to fight, and if necessary, die. But for which they fought and won. Those men, whose heirs and beneficiaries we are, risked and knew they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. We shall have no heirs and beneficiaries, and shall deserve to have none if we lack the courage to preserve the heritage they won for us.

      The national board of the Americans for Democratic Action remind us that this will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

      Whose actions best exhibit the spirit of Davis’s words? Those who advocate wars without Congressional authorization, domestic surveilance without warrant, indefinite deterion — even execution — without trial or warrant, and torture in violation of both laws and treaties? Or is it those who protest and organize against these things? Like Davis, we can ask the members of the Americans for Democratic Action, a progressive organization founded in 1947 and still going strong. Visit their website and see their view of these issues.

      We cannot summon a panel of the Founders to advise us. We have only their words to guide us — in the Constitution, their speeches and writings. I believe this says it well:

      “They who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”
      — From the title page of An Historical review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania (1759); written by Richard Jackson and published by Benjamin Franklin

      Like

  5. 27 November 2011 11:13 pm

    Fabius Maximus, your comments and references are well taken. From my perspective the United States need both; those willing to defend freedom, by the gun if necessary, and those to ensure that we are steadfast to the constitution. Each member of the US military takes the following oath: Text of the Oath —

    I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

    That oath is to the Constitution of the United States and not to the president. So our military is committed by oath to support and defend the constitution. My point being that we need both a strong military and a strong citizenship that both understand the constitution and will speak & act up to support it.

    The Romans tried and failed with this approach:

    The triumphator rode on a biga, a chariot pulled by two white horses. A slave behind the triumphator held a laurel crown over his head (not touching it). Notably, this slave had to repeat continuously ‘Memento homo.’ (Remember you are mortal).” (source)

    I disagree with your point that “mindless conservative propaganda designed to destroy our Constitutional Republic.” It is part to due to the demagoguing on both the left and right that is expanding the social divides in our country. And sadly, much of it is lead by out president. However, we have had demagoguing from the days of Franklin and Jefferson and by both of them.

    I go agree with Ben Franklin’s quote and understand its meaning. Now it only the legislative branch of government would do its part.

    Ipsa scientia potestas est
    — A good debate stimulates the mind and challenges our rationale and logic.

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    • 27 November 2011 11:31 pm

      I am confident you mean well, but I have lost confidence with these “both sides are right” arguments. Most, like yours, are based on false equivalences.

      “So our military is committed by oath to support and defend the constitution. My point being that we need both a strong military and a strong citizenship that both understand the constitution and will speak & act up to support it.”

      How is that remotely relevant here? Do you know anyone — excerpt the rare Quaker or pacifest — who disagrees with that statement?

      “The Romans tried and failed with this approach:”

      Ditto. I don’t see any relevance here.

      “I disagree with your point that “mindless conservative propaganda designed to destroy our Constitutional Republic.” It is part to due to the demagoguing on both the left and right that is expanding the social divides in our country.”

      Very fair-minded and moderate sounding. I and so many others have documented the flood of lies coming from the Right, dwarfing anything seen in US history (and very effective, o surprise to anyone familar with history). The ship USS America has a hole in it and is sinking fast. Closing your eyes to this does not help.

      “And sadly, much of it is lead by out president.”

      Our inexperienced (perhaps foolish) President has wrecked his Administration chasing the bipartisan center, with mostly mild rhetoric (esp compared to that of our effective Presidents). That folks like you criticize this so inaccurately is sad. But then the point of this series of posts is conservatives disconnect with reality.

      “However, we have had demagoguing from the days of Franklin and Jefferson and by both of them.”

      True. But magnitudes matter. Without seeing such changes the past and present are a blur, an inability to see the shifts in degree that make history.

      Like

  6. Jose Garcia permalink
    28 November 2011 1:05 am

    Honorable Maximus, Forgive me for using Elmer Davis out of context. I do not know nor have I read any of his works. I only used the quote to honor our men and women in uniform. I may be conservative in thought due to having lived under a dictatorship, of which many in my family, down to my grandparents also lived under. I do not espouse any propaganda from left or right.

    To me the individual is the source of all answers, not government or party. Our Constitution, written by the most intelligent group of men in history, is also my source of deep thought. I would never give up even a hair of my freedom to have temporary freedom, for no man, party or government. Washington said it perfectly when he wrote about the dangers of poilitical parties, and that means left or right. To me Washington was, and always will be, the greatest American who ever lived.

    And last but not least, this President has wrecked his Administration not by chasing the bipartisan center but by his profound lack of experience. He should never have been elected in the first place, REGARDLESS of skin color. Skin color does not make a man. His character does.

    Like

    • 28 November 2011 1:54 am

      “To me the individual is the source of all answers, not government or party.”

      Yes and no. Party and government are merely the collective action of individuals, with no life of their own. Nations where individuals pursue only their personal or family interests are called failed states.

      “Our Constitution, written by the most intelligent group of men in history, is also my source of deep thought.”

      It’s dying. That’s obvious to anyone who looks. It might be too late to save this Republic.

      “Washington said it perfectly when he wrote about the dangers of poilitical parties”

      Washington was not a political philospher; fortunately others wrote the Constitution. His opposition to “faction” was daft. No group larger than a small family is without parties.

      “this President has wrecked his Administration not by chasing the bipartisan center but by his profound lack of experience.”

      Yes, as I said in February 2008. But inexperience creates his problems; it’s a cause not an effect. In this case, allowing the GOP to use “the worse, the better” tactics to destroy his Administration.

      “REGARDLESS of skin color. Skin color does not make a man. His character does.”

      Can you quote anyone who says otherwise? Why would you say such a thing? It creates ugly echos.

      Like

  7. Jose Garcia permalink
    28 November 2011 3:01 am

    Honorable Maximus, why I made the comment on race is because many on the left state that if you oppose the actions of this President it is because you are a racist. From columnist David Sirota to Maureen Dowd to Jimmy Cater, to name a few. Many on the left use that tactic on many occasions that is disgusting in nature.

    Like

    • 28 November 2011 3:22 am

      Thank you for explaining.

      Race is a posinous subject in America. A century of slavery plus the gentlemen’s agreement to allow the Southern whites to use state-sanctioned violence to restore their dominance for another century. Plus the continuing endemic racism of our educaton and criminal justice systems.

      And then there is the widespread belief among conservatives that Obama is not a US citizen, or Islamic — which look highly racist (in a deranged, flat-earther sort of way). As if they’re looking for a reason to declare him guilty of being President while Black.

      These things provide no basis for conservatives to cry when acused of racism, as if raccism never happens. They don’t come to the issue with clean hands.

      Like

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