Two hundred and thirty-nine years ago today, they were born at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. The news of their birth traveled far more slowly than they did. A short time later, according to their lore, their first man reported for duty aboard a US Navy ship. The officer of the deck barked, “What the hell are you?” and said, “You go aft and sit down ’till I find out.” The Tripolitan pirates didn’t know who they were when a handful marched across five hundred miles of Libyan desert in 1805. Led by a fiddle-playing Irish-American lieutenant named Presley Neville O’Bannon, they attacked Derna under a fierce barrage from three U.S. Navy ships, overcame odds of more than ten-to-one. and seized Derna in less than three hours.
The first American body armor, a leather collar, was added to their uniform to protect against saber cuts, so they were soon labeled the “leathernecks.” When about fifty of them led the attack and scaled the heights of Chapultepec in 1847, the Mexicans probably didn’t know who they were. Led by men such as Sergeant Major Dan Daley, they earned a new nickname from the Kaiser’s army in the First World War battle of Belleau Wood. Daley led them in one charge shouting, “Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” For their ferocious bravery, the Germans named them “teufel hunden” — devil dogs — a name they wear proudly to this day. Before the end of World War II, everyone knew who they were: the U.S. Marines.
Those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s knew them as a breed apart. All my friends’ fathers had served in World War II, and they all had the same odd reaction to my father. He never shouted or growled (well, not that often), but when the veteran of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima spoke, his peers maintained a respectful silence. He was a Marine, and nothing trumped that credential. At Iwo Jima, it was said of them that uncommon valor was a common virtue. Americans understand that is still true today, but too few have a good idea why. What is a Marine? Let me suggest a definition.
A big part of it is still about valor and skill in combat, as Marine Sergeant-Major Brad Kasal proved in 2004 in Fallujah. Leading a handful of Marines to rescue three other wounded Marines, Kasal charged into a small house and shot it out with insurgents — sometimes so close he could ram the muzzle of his M-16 into their chests as he fired — for forty minutes. Kasal insists he wasn’t a hero, even though he dove atop another Marine and absorbed the blast of a grenade. He told me the Marines who dragged him out of the house after that forty-minute firefight were the heroes. But it’s not only heroism and skill in combat that defines a Marine. Maybe the tale of my late friend, James G. Hart, does.
Young Jim Hart, growing up poor in Montana, was punching cows at the age of fifteen, and getting into some typical teenager troubles. Somehow his family scraped up enough money to move to Minnesota and to send Jim to the Shattuck St. Mary’s School there. A little discipline went a long way in Jim’s life and — just for the heck of it — he applied for a nomination to Annapolis. Marine Second Lieutenant Jim Hart graduated in 1965 and soon found himself in Vietnam.
On his second (third?) tour there, Jim took a rifle round in the chest. At the field hospital, he waved off the priest coming to give him the last rites. Recovering from wounds no one thought he could survive, he was told his infantry career was over. So he learned to walk again, and then to run. He blarneyed his way into flight school and a couple of years later flew night missions over Vietnam in an F-4. What would be beyond the call of duty for normal people was routine for Jim. After Vietnam, he went into the Marine Force Recon, their special operations unit. When I met Jim he had just served a tour as the chief test pilot of the Marines and was stuck in Headquarters, fighting the political battles of budget and taking on the Hill’s grandstanders.
The Marines fly the noisiest aircraft in creation: the AV8-B Harrier, a vertical-takeoff beast that, like the bumblebee, appears to break laws of physics whenever it flies. Jim was program manager for the Harrier and he had to face a hostile Congressional hearing, so someone sent him to me to get advice on how to handle the questioning. I talked to him for a couple of hours, giving him political advice he probably didn’t need. In the hearing, he performed as only he could.
This was 1991: the Democrats held the house, and investigating committees were mighty hostile. This one, run by Michigan’s John Conyers, thought it was going to tear this example of Pentagon arrogance apart. Everything went well enough until one Connecticut Republican who shall remain nameless asked Jim about some problem with the Harrier and ran well beyond his headlights by asking if it worked at a temperature of minus 40 degrees. Jim said yes. Then the gent asked if that was true at both minus 40 Fahrenheit and at minus 40 Centigrade. When Jim said, “it doesn’t matter,” the room exploded with members shouting for everything from a contempt citation to, well, something short of a beheading. When the harrumphing slowed, Jim explained why it didn’t matter (at minus 40 degrees, Fahrenheit and Centigrade are mathematically equal) and the hearing came to a crashing halt.
That was James G. Hart: cool, competent, and ready for anything from a knife fight to a black-tie party. Someone you wanted to have at your side when times were tough, and when the living was easy. His life was all about his two families: his wife Martha and his sons, and his extended family, the Marines. He liked fine scotch and good cigars, but Jim was always happiest playing golf. That’s what he was doing when he died suddenly in May 1999. He eagled a hole, began jogging to the next tee and a massive heart attack ensured he didn’t make it. Jim’s unblemished character, his absolute commitment to the defense of this nation, and his forceful personality made him someone I was proud to have call me “friend.” That was Jim, and his life is as good a definition of “Marine” as you’re likely to see.
Happy Birthday, Marines. And God rest ye, Colonel James G. Hart, USMC.