I discovered a photo on social media the other day of a group of Marines just graduating from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
There were approximately 60 newly minted Marines dressed in khakis and holding their rifles at port arms. Their two drill instructors, both corporals, are posing with them. The group was “Platoon 46, Marine Barracks, Parris Island, SC.” No company or battalion listed.
Modern Marines will note that the South Carolina base is now not the “marine barracks,” but the MCRD – the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. The date on the photograph is June 1941.
In June 1941, America was at peace, though much of the world was at war. President Franklin Roosevelt won re-election, in part, by promising to keep America out of the conflict in Europe.
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, desperately desired for the United States to enter the war. America, at least most of it, wasn’t interested. It has been just over two decades since the conclusion of The Great War, before it became known as World War I. That European bar fight saw 117,000 Americans killed and some 204,000 wounded. No, America wasn’t going to war anywhere and certainly not in Europe.
When it came, it came from the other direction. Just six months after the graduation of Platoon 46, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise ambush on the United States forces at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, in his address to Congress, called it a “dastardly and unprovoked attack.”
The nation declared war on Japan and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. America, including the Marines of Platoon 46, were going to war. When it was over, 407,300 Americans were dead — almost four times the number killed in The Great War. 671,801 were wounded or injured in combat. Between 70-85 million people, 3% of the entire world’s population, died in the world’s deadliest (so far) conflict.
As I looked at the photo of Platoon 46, I wondered, “How many of them survived the war?” Did any of them? How many were maimed? How many mothers and fathers, wives and children received that dreaded telegram?
They all looked so proud, so fit, so young. There was no war at that time. All that would change. By Christmas it is very possible that some of them were dead already.
Of the 669,100 Marines who served in that war, 24,511 would be killed, 68,201 would be wounded and 2,274 would be prisoners of war, most of them suffering at the brutal hands of the Japanese military.
This is the way it has been for generations. No one, draftee or volunteer, enlisted or commissioned, knows what the future holds. It has been said that every military person hands the government a blank check which promises payment up to the maximum of his or her life.
All total, 1,354,644+ have had that check cashed in full. Another 1,498,240+ were wounded, injured, or maimed. Still an expensive check.
About 7% of the U.S. population has served in the military. Only about 1% of the population currently serves, defending the interests and freedom of the other 99%.
So, does that make military personnel and those who served special? Well, it certainly makes them unique. Someone in a letter to the editor somewhere commented that these people are not special at all. Nor should they receive any unusual consideration.
I think these men and women are, indeed, special. They are special in the way that police officers who face the possibility of death everyday are special.
They are special like the firefighters who run into a burning building when literally everyone else is running out.
They are special like teachers who, day after day, try to make a positive difference in the lives of kids when many of the kids themselves, and their parents could not care less.
Not every soldier, sailor, airman, coast guardsman, or Marine finds himself or herself in harm’s way. I was one of those who served as a Marine during the Vietnam Era but was never deployed there. Compared to many, I had it easy.
But that’s the thing. One just doesn’t know. None of the 60 Marines in Platoon 46 knew that, in a few short months, they would be in the midst of the most deadly, most destructive, and most violent war the human race has ever seen.
I have a son and a daughter-in-law who served in the Air Force during the War on Terror. I have a young man in our church who just came off active duty who gave years of his life to serve. I have another young man whom I baptized as a child who has been told his Marine unit is about to be deployed to parts undisclosed. I have two grandsons who are currently U. S. Marines.
And I know enough to know that what happened to the men of Platoon 46 could happen to any service man or woman at any time during their service. So, yes, I think they are special.
In this current America, they are the 1% (7% if you include the veterans) who did what the other 93% chose not to do. That alone makes them special in my eyes.
Veterans Day is a few days away. It is the one day in the year when the 93%, who should be grateful, give national recognition to the 7%.
Our church will recognize the veterans and military personnel present that day. It is a way of saying, “Thank you.” It’s the least — the very least — we can do.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]