Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful
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.
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:
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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
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.
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
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
- Why a Marine Corps?, 23 August 2010
- Another perspective on the future of the Marine Corps, 24 August 2010
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, 7 September 2010
- Defining the Marine Corp’ Strategic Concept, 29 September 2010
- The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow, 21 February 2011