I think it is absolutely true that most Marines “go home” after their service in the Corps, whether that is at the end of their first enlistment, or at some future intermediary period, or upon retirement. By “home,” I mean the environment that is most familiar and comfortable to them. This could mean back home with Mom and Dad, or it could be the hometown of the girl or guy they married. For some Marines, home becomes the area nearest their last duty station before retirement.
Not all Marines go back home, though. Some Marines never really had a home. Rather than loving parents, they had a working mother who did the best she could for them; a woman who was relieved when their child finally found a place where they could excel. For many Marines, the Corps became their family —their home became a spotlessly clean barrack at any number of Marine Corps posts or stations.
This has been true for a very long time —perhaps even for as long as we’ve had a United States Marine Corps. Colonel John Thomason wrote about some of these people in his book, Fix Bayonets (after which I named this blog). Thomason was born in Huntsville, Texas in 1893, joined the Marine Corps on 6 April 1917, and served until his death in March 1944 achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel.
During World War I, Thomason served as the Executive Officer (second in command) of the 49th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his sustained courage and leadership throughout America’s participation in the war. Following the war, Thomason served in Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, China and in California. He commanded the Horse Marines at the American Legation in Peiping and later commanded the 38th Company, 4th Marines, the Marine Detachment aboard USS Rochester (CA-2), and the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines. Before the outbreak of war with Japan, Thomason was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 1942, he was assigned to Admiral Nimitz’ staff in Hawaii.
Thomason tells of one Marine, who he refers to as Sergeant Bridoon of the Horse Marines at the American legation in Peiping. The sergeant was a fine leader of men who had become romantically attached to an American missionary woman. As he was nearing retirement, the Marine Corps decided to return Sergeant Bridoon to the United States where he would be processed for separation. The problem was that his fiancé, “Miss Jones” would not return to the States; she had important work to do in China. Bridoon would not leave her, and so on the eve of his retirement, Sergeant Bridoon deserted.
Years later, while conducting a “survey” of the Far East —by which I mean spying on the Japanese during their unofficial Sino-Japanese War, Lieutenant Colonel Thomason made his way to Mongolia via Kalgan and Mukden where he joined an assortment of international journalists, which included a few Japanese reporters. Finally the unseemly group arrived near the Khingan Mountains. Thomason wrote of approaching a Japanese brigade:
“As we came down the last slope toward them, we saw cavalry and armored cars moving to the left of the main column —about two squadrons of mounted men and fifteen to twenty vehicles. … They were tired. I’d say they had marched all night, and possibly the day before, with not much rest or food. Now they drew off the road, stacked arms, and lay down … but I noticed that each unit disposed itself in such cover as there was, taking full advantage of ditches and gullies and the thin mountain scrub; a very disciplined, orderly command. At intervals there were machine guns laid for antiaircraft fire, and their crews were alert. The equipment was good, and the whole look of them soldierly. “
Colonel Thomason then described how the Japanese brigadier prepared to serve lunch and tea to the unexpected journalists as the mixed brigade moved off to confront their enemy within the Mongolian valley. It was now time for the Japanese troops to do their work, but Colonel Thomason and the journalists never had their lunch …
“The advance companies disappeared as if they had never been, and half a mile ahead of us, in the low road and in the dry stream bed, the closed battalions and the horse batteries were floundering and writhing in a confusion of tormented yellow dust. One minute, they went in progression as orderly symbols on a map; the next, they were disintegrating. The gun teams reared and plunged, and the rifle battalions tried to shake themselves out into combat groups, and the agitation around the guns was stilled, and the troop formations shredded away into shapeless crawling masses, from which detached units milled hopelessly —and you heard the frantic human cries, and the animal sounds men make in despair— all strained out fine by distance…”
“Peering over a shoulder of our ridge, I saw an armored car burning, and saw some running horses. And there were revolver shots around me. I suspect what they were for, but I do not know —the headquarters group was not there any more. I remember an orderly carefully stowing teacups in a wicker basket, and I remember the brigadier drawing his samurai sword and plunging down the hill, two or three officers with him. I never saw the Japanese journalists again, or the Chinese. My Danish colleague was beside me, stretching his neck and sputtering, when something hit him; he sat down, folding his hands in front of his stomach, then stretched himself out on his back, dug at the ground with his heels, and died.
“I got myself behind the most substantial tree I could find and lay myself down…”
Colonel Thomason described how on the slope where once stood the field headquarters of a Japanese brigade there suddenly appeared strange looking men, some of them standing, others mounted on shaggy ponies —huge, inhuman looking people dressed in the round cloth caps of the Chinese armies, assorted patterns of steel helmets, fur caps, and a variety of uniform items. But they all had weapons and they seemed to know how to use them, and as a Mongolian soldier took Thomason captive and began to search his person, he wondered if his bones would ever see the burial ground at Arlington.
“… A man on a woolly buckskin stallion reined in beside me and shouted at my captors and they stood away from me. The mounted man and I stared at each other. He was obviously an officer of some consequence. He wore an American steel helmet, a Russian blouse, whipcord breeches, and soft black boots which must have belonged to a Japanese once. Belted on him was one of our service automatics, and he carried in his right hand a very elegant Mongol riding-whip, the handle fashioned from an antelope’s foot, and the loop of braided silk. He stared at me for some seconds, straightened himself in the saddle and saluted me with precision … I knew that leathery face under its larding of dust. It was Bridoon, late sergeant of the Mounted Detachment of the Peiping Guard.”
Not every deserter becomes a general in the Chinese army, not every sergeant a tactical or a strategic genius. I cannot even say that every sergeant is an outstanding leader of men. What I can say, however, is that some extremely interesting personalities have worn the uniform of the United States Marine. They may have been misfits “back home,” and they may not even have amounted to very much beyond our Corps … but we remember them fondly, and we pray for them dearly. They were we …
Today, we continue to find our former comrades living in far off lands: Japan, on Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and in Vietnam. Where do Marines go? They go to places where they can discover their own niche in a complex, often unforgiving world. Ultimately —and I have this on good authority— they will one day guard the streets of Heaven.