Former Marine reflects on Corps' courage and sacrifice

Tuesday, November 25, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:35 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Being somewhat weary of political campaigns, elections and unending promises of change, this week, I am moving happily to more familiar ground, one upon which change is neither necessary nor desired. On Nov. 10 and again on Nov. 15, I was privileged to attend the 233rd birthday of the United States Marine Corps – on the 10th in Branson and on the 15th at the Lake of the Ozarks with the Navy and Marine ROTC unit at the University. This was my 52nd year of attending these celebrations.

For those not familiar with these proceedings, the Marine Corps was born on Nov. 10, 1775, in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern. Each year on that date, wherever two or more Marines congregate, the birthday is celebrated in some fashion. In commands and affiliated organizations, the ceremony is a solemn and formal occasion with Marines, present and former, in either dress uniform or appropriate civilian attire.

The pageantry begins with the march of the Dress Blue-clad, sword-carrying escort detail, followed by the senior Marine and honored guest, the color guard and the subsequent playing of the national anthem. After the colors are posted, the birthday cake is wheeled in along with the playing of the Marine’s Hymn. Then the birthday messages are read – first, the traditional message of Gen. John A. LeJeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and then the message of the present Commandant.

The ceremonial cake cutting features the first piece presented to the guest of honor, the second to the oldest Marine present and the third to the youngest Marine present – all during the playing of "Auld Lang Syne." The pageant then ends with details departing in reverse order to the tune of John Philip Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis.”

The two such events I was privileged to attend this year were models of the tradition described above. Both guests of honor were former Marines – Lt. Col. Oliver North at Branson and Speaker of the Missouri House Rod Jetton at the Lake of the Ozarks. The two oldest Marines were World War II corporals, one of whom was Ken Sultzer, a fellow member of Military Order of the Purple Heart – he was wounded in the Saipan/Tinian campaign. The youngest Marines were equally impressive – fit, sharp and dedicated to carrying forward the traditions of the Marine Corps.

Why do I believe this to be important or relevant? Quite frankly, because in this age of fast-moving, fluid and promised change, it is reassuring to know that there are some traditional values that remain constant – those of the U.S. Armed Forces in general and of the U.S. Marine Corps in particular. To be sure, weapons, equipment and tactics are subject to change; nevertheless, the mission – that of defending the nation against its enemies – requires the same selfless courage, sacrifice and loyalty established in 1775.

I readily admit to a bit of parochialism; however, the Marine’s birthday celebration is unique, as is the Marine Corps itself. Smaller and more mobile than the other services, we take pride in our readiness and being “the first to fight.” And, while the Marine Corps’ recruiting pitch has been refined over time, it is virtually unchanged as the challenge “Are you good enough?” has been enduring and effective.

One of my most touching memories connected with the Marine Corps birthday took place in 1976 on Capitol Hill in the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing room. The occasion was a reception for repatriated Prisoner of War Medal of Honor recipients, Navy Adm. William Stockdale and Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day. As I was serving as a Marine Corps Liaison Officer to Congress, I was present in the Blue Dress uniform.

At one point during the reception, I was approached by Col. Day who offered his hand and stated, “I always got the first piece of cake, Colonel.” He then went on to explain that the Marines in the “Hanoi Hilton” saved bits of food all year from their meager daily ration in order to fashion the traditional, albeit inedible, birthday cake for Nov. 10. He further related that he had served as a platoon sergeant of Marines in the early days of World War II on Guadalcanal and, as the oldest Marine present, was entitled to the first piece of cake.

With each succeeding year, I am reminded of that selfless courage, sacrifice and loyalty inherent among our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and of Col. Bud Day’s reminder of the proud axiom “once a Marine, always a Marine.” There are entities for which change is neither appropriate nor desirable – the U.S. Armed Forces merit that status.

To all who have served, I render a well earned salute. To those who were not Marines — well, if everyone could be a Marine, it wouldn't be the Marines. Semper Fidelis.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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