Memorial Day: Young Marine, Old Marine Honors the Dead
From the time I was a young child I have always been drawn to wrinkled, warm hands and the soft, slow countenance of the aged. Their smiles always seemed to linger, their mannerisms gentle and light. The older generation has always seemed to have more time and patience. Their propensity to share heartfelt and profound stories filled with wisdom (and frequently wit) have always drawn me into, and left me somewhat entranced by, their mysterious long lived lives.
Even as a young professional I found myself gravitating towards the elders I had the privilege of working for or rubbing elbows with, appreciating that they were unconcerned with ladder climbing and slick “get ahead” ideas. Their presence was a calming balm in the world of dog eat dog attitudes.
Many volunteer jobs and committees I have gravitated toward through the years have been chosen based on the seniors who were involved with the endeavor. Recognizing their presence added more value, and a proper rudder, to the journey embarked upon.
As Memorial Day approached, I have prayed and pondered how to adequately and properly pay tribute to those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedoms. Interesting, that through one of my “older generation” friendships God provided a tribute. I met this friend years ago online, and his written words have had an impact on me for several years. These words of his left me weeping, with a deeper, more profound, appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice of those who serve for our freedom.
I know no better way to honor Memorial Day than to ask that you take a moment and read the gentle, heart gripping words of my friend John.
I’m going to have a hard time in writing about this and I might not do a good job of it. Because this is Memorial Day weekend when we honor our military dead, I feel the need to share some of my personal experiences with death in the only war in which I participated – The Korean War.
I landed at Inchon, Korea on September 15, 1950, as a member of the 1st Marine Division. I was assigned to Graves Registration Platoon. There were only about forty of us, all enlisted but for our lieutenant. This unit only exists during wartime and there didn’t seem to be any guidelines on what our duties would include. By our very title we knew we would be dealing with dead Marines. That was about all our lieutenant could tell us. I don’t know about the others but I vowed I would deal with this assignment as I would any other and I would do the very best I could. I also promised I would treat the dead with dignity, always remembering they were still Marines.
My introduction to the dead did not take long. There were casualties in the Inchon landing and I volunteered to accompany my officer and a few others in collecting the dead. The first body we picked up as at the field hospital. He was wrapped in clean white sheets, head to toe. He had died in hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses. I learned much later he was also a hero and would be awarded the Medal of Honor. The second body we collected that morning was at the frontline position of a Marine regiment. This one was a Naval Aviator, a Marine pilot who made five passes with his aircraft at a column of enemy tanks. He destroyed one tank with each pass but on his final swoop down to rooftop level, he crashed and burned. His remains were handed to us in a poncho by very respectful combat Marines.
In the next few days I would be assigned to what we called a collection point, situated just behind the advancing infantry in their push to recapture Seoul, the capitol city of South Korea. I had three Marines under my charge. The fighting was fierce and casualties were high. It was not unusual for us to receive as many as twenty dead Marines and Navy Corpsmen in one day. Each one was laid gently on a stretcher and carried into our isolated tent where they would rest until I radioed for transportation. At night, we stood guard over the tent, one man on watch on a rotating basis. Before the city was cleansed of the enemy, approximately two-hundred dead Marines made their journey through our tent. One of my men had a nervous breakdown and had to be sent back to the rear. He simply did not have a heart for handling the dead.
Once the dead where in our care there was a careful process that was initiated. The only search we did of the bodies was to insure there was no explosive or harmful ordinance on the body, such as hand grenades. Back at the cemetery each body was then searched for personal objects such as wallets, rings, watches, etc. Those were inventoried and would be returned to the next of kin. Fingerprints and dental records were made to insure proper identification. Each body was handled with respect right up to the temporary interment in the temporary cemetery.
I was in this unit, Graves Registration Platoon, until the Inchon/Seoul campaign was complete. When we sailed for a landing in North Korea in November, I was reassigned. Incredibly, I was sorry to leave the unit. I did not enjoy my job there. Who could? But there was something very useful in what we did there that had been missing from all of my other duty assignments up to now. These Marines had paid the full price for the privilege of wearing the uniform. They deserved the very best in care from the battlefield to their final resting place in whichever community of the United States that would be. Their parents, relatives, loved ones and friends, deserved the comfort of knowing their Marine was treated with respect and honor all along that long journey. I had been a part of that and I felt pride and satisfaction. More than I ever felt for any of my other duty assignments. I would not be spared from dealing with death until I left Korea and the combat theater there, but I was never again so responsible for their remains.
This weekend has always been a special one for me. When I salute the flag, or stand for the anthem, these dead Marines are what I think about. I hope I’ve made it a bit personal for you too with my words here. God bless. Semper Fidelis.
GySgt. John Boring, USMC (Ret.)