In 1973, I was about to complete my obligation to the U.S. Marine Corps and was soon to leave Okinawa to return home to my wife and two young sons in Atlanta. By chance, I happened to be in the Officers Club one night when the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, Gen. Michael P. Ryan, dropped by as a guest of our Battalion Commander. I was introduced to Gen. Ryan, who was told that I would soon rotate home and separate from the Marine Corps.
Gen. Ryan graciously thanked me for my service. I noticed the Navy Cross medal he wore, the highest decoration the Naval Service can award, and second only to the Medal of Honor. And I remembered from my study of Marine Corps history that he had served at the bloody World War II battle of Tarawa in November, 1943.
“General,” I asked, “what’s the one thing you remember most from Tarawa?”
Gen. Ryan replied without hesitation, “The salute.”
The battle of Tarawa was the first U.S. offensive in Central Pacific. To get to Japan, the Americans needed to take the Marianas; to take the Marianas, the U.S. needed to take the Marshalls; and to take the Marshalls, it was necessary to take Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
Tarawa was the first time a U.S. invasion force was opposed at the landing beaches. Planners had expected a rising tide to provide a five-foot depth over the reef, but it turned out the depth was only three feet. The Higgins boats ferrying the Marines from ship to shore needed four feet of depth. Consequently, Marines had to wade ashore under murderous fire, at which point the attack was at risk of being repulsed. “Situation in doubt” was being communicated to the top U.S. commanders.
Casualties in the first waves were shocking.
Then-Maj. Mike Ryan landed his company to the west of the main landing areas where he consolidated the many stragglers from other units that had been obliterated on the beaches. Suddenly, out of the smoke came an old staff sergeant, dragging a wounded hip, who sought out Maj. Ryan and asked what he could do the help. When Maj. Ryan explained the situation and suggested a leadership role for the sergeant, the man straightened, voiced an “aye-aye, sir,” and gave a crisp, Marine Corps salute.
The attack was a success and provided pressure on the enemy’s right flank, which eventually broke. The battle turned on Maj. Ryan’s audacious and inspiring leadership.
The Japanese commander had said before the battle that it would take a million Marines a hundred years to take Tarawa. It took Maj. Mike Ryan, a shot-up old staff sergeant, and 5,000 other leathernecks 76 hours.
Mike Ryan never saw the old NCO after the battle, so he never knew whether the man had survived the battle or the war. He only knew that, of the tens of thousands of salutes he received in a long and distinguished military career, the sergeant’s salute at Tarawa was the one he cherished the most.
On this the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps, I salute the Marines of the past who made our Corps into the finest fighting organization in the world. And I salute the Marines of the present who have maintained that lineage.