This article was found among my e-mail files, dated 11 July 2001.
Col Ripley Remembers...
All of this discussion on the Navajo Code Talkers brings to mind an incident I think you would enjoy hearing about. We don't need much reminding of the close bond we Marines have with this particular WWII group, but this will cement it even more, and I dare say you will not have heard of a similar story.
Several years ago my Vietnam battalion, 3/3, a very tight group consisting of some legendary Marines we've all heard of, had its reunion here in Washington. We had met here before but decided to come back because one of our members agreed to be the honored guest and speaker for the banquet; a former Company Commander, now CMC, named Krulak.
All of the usual events were planned; a visit to the Vietnam Memorial (where, remarkably, the Park Service permitted us to have a Battalion formation with wreath-laying, etc. -- a first), the Friday night parade, a visit to the Museum here and other Marine Corps related events. I organized a separate, special event as the reunion coordinator. This was a personalized, Marine Corps oriented tour of the Arlington National Cemetery with our own private trams and exclusive access to off route locations the general public doesn't see.
Its a pity that more people don't do this, as I have done for over 30yrs for private groups. It is one of the most beautiful, moving, poignant and proud events you can imagine; impossible to describe. One of our purposes was to see and decorate the graves of the former 3/3 CO's all of us had at one time or another served under, and we are very well represented there.
Joe Muir, the first battalion commander KIA in Vietnam; Josh Dorsey, later to become the Senior Marine Advisor during my year as an advisor; Jim Marsh, a great Marine by anyone's standards; and Dutch Schultz, for whom all of the previous superlatives can be said. None of these Marines need embellishment or introduction, and they are all there in Arlington.
We were enroute to Jim Marsh's gravesite when we passed two quite senior men in Navajo dress walking slowly on this very hot summer day. They waved politely and I stopped the tram to offer assistance. They wanted to know the location of Ira Hayes grave. We would be going there at our next stop after paying respects to Jim Marsh, but they preferred to walk. We carried on to Col Jim's grave site (the columbarium) and spent some time there as most of us had either served with him or knew him. Leaving this site we proceeded to Ira Hayes grave which was central between Dutch Schultz and Josh Dorsey.
On arriving there we saw the two men we had passed earlier. Although they were tired from the long walk in the hot sun, it was easy for my party of 200 plus Marines to see that something had happened, just looking into the faces of these old warriors. They had created an air of dignity and reverence that was thicker than armor. At first we would not disembark from the trams and go up the short hill to the grave because it was obvious that we were intruding on something solemn, something of great meaning. They had decorated the grave with stones, feathers and what looked like beads, painted sticks, etc. Seeing us there they motioned us forward and we reluctantly, slowly approached; surrounding them and the grave. What happened next is hard to describe.
These men spoke English, somewhat imperfectly, but their meaning was clear. They knew we were Marines and were pleased that we would join them, for "it gives great honor to our brother Ira". Already my eyes were getting that familiar sting and I wasn't alone. Then for the next 10--20 minutes they went through a prayer ritual that was so beautiful, so moving and poignant that we stood there transfixed, speechless. They picked up rocks from the headstone where they had placed them and gestured toward the sky, and then other artifacts as well. They swept their arms slowly around and over the grave while softly, respectfully incanting their prayers and singing; all in their own language. The meaning, however, came through profoundly to all of us. By this time we --all of us-- were sobbing openly, and then the real surprise came.
They began to look directly at us and ever so often we would hear "semper fidelis" or "Marines", and one one occasion "they look after Ira". We were all to pieces, and not the least bit ashamed. Indeed, we were damned honored that they would include us.
Like most of us I have attended more than my share of funerals, in and out of uniform, and each have been meaningful, dignified and memorable. But nothing in my entire life was like this, and all of us said so. We returned to our tram and carried on with the tour, but we were emotional basket cases. It took me weeks to recover, and the memory of that quiet, dignified moment on a lovely Arlington hillside will never leave me.
We belong to a proud Corps. I have often said that pride is the high octane fuel of the Marine Corps. If you can't be proud, you can't be a Marine. I thought about that as I stood there with those humble, respectful warriors, tears running down my cheeks, my shirt and damn near to my shoes. Most Americans have no idea of the meaning of pride; the kind of pride that comes not from what you do, or who you are, but because you belong to something so much greater than the individual himself -- our Corps. And it is this Corps that produced such men as Ira Hayes, and the two lonely warriors that came all the way from Arizona at no small expense just to pay homage to their fallen brother. God bless these wonderful Marines. They gave us Vietnam vets a dose of pride that will last a lifetime.
Semper Fi, Rip
John W. Ripley Col. J.W. Ripley USMC (ret.) Director History & Museums Division United States Marine Corps (202) 433-3838
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