Saturday, February 17, 2007

Marines should toast Buchwald

Marines should toast Buchwald

Charles Norton/For the Tracy Press Friday, 26 January 2007

— Letter from Charles Norton

Marines owe the memory of columnist Art Buchwald, 1925-2007, a heaping handful of gratitude. The trouble is many of the post-Vietnam and perhaps pre-Vietnam veterans don’t know why. Buchwald’s contribution to Marine Corps history could quite possibly be held on a plateau equal to the legends of “Chesty” Puller, Dan Daley or “Manila John” Basilone. His contribution may be not equal on the heroic deed scale, but certainly significant on the scale of tradition.

Buchwald enlisted in the Corps in 1942 before his 17th birthday. The legend says he bribed a drunk with a bottle to pose as his father to give parental consent to his enlistment. According to recruiting standards, this is a fraudulent enlistment because of age. But what the heck At the time, we were in a war for survival. This already contributes to the making of a legend. Art Buchwald served with the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in World War II.

Fast forward to the 1960s. Robert McNamara was defense secretary under first, President John Kennedy, and then, President Lyndon Johnson. McNamara was tabbed one of the administration’s “whiz kids” because of his reputation as a cost-cutter at Ford Motor Co. McNamara’s Holy Grail was to cut defense spending by elimination of duplicate or redundant procurement. Uniform procurement differences among the military branches fell into his sights. McNamara gained fame or notoriety by his analysis of brassiere procurement. He was said to have questioned why the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines Corps each had different specifications for uniform brassieres for their female members. I won’t go there.

But I do remember the “McNamarazation” of the Marine Corps uniform in the 1960s.

The herringbone twill “dungarees” of World War II and Korea vintage went the way of the fair leather belt and collar clips to be replaced by a rather blah uniform identified as “sateen utilities” that were identical in appearance to the Army “fatigues.” Our combat boots and field shoes, aka “boondockers,” were replaced with the combat boot, universally maligned by Leathernecks worldwide as “McNamara Boots.” The latter were one inch shorter and eschewed the eyelet and hook lacing arrangement required by amphibious troops. The Marine Corps working uniform could be distinguished from soldiers by the USMC transfer on the breast pocket and a distinctive utility cap not resembling what we called the “Beetle Bailey” cap worn by our Army brethren.

One distinguishing Marine Corps uniform article survived McNamarazation.

The defense secretary decreed that all the services would procure identical belts and buckles as a cost-cutting measure. McNamara reasoned that the primary purpose of a belt was to keep one’s trousers in the proper position, regardless of the color or buckle. Here is where the secretary’s reasoning failed and where Art Buchwald saved a venerable tradition. Then a columnist for The Washington Post, Buchwald provided a logical reason for preservation of a distinctive buckle and belt for Marines. “The Marine Corps belt buckle is the only buckle that can be used to open a beer bottle,” he wrote.

Today, Marines can thank Buchwald for our belt buckle, which has survived the war in the Pacific, the Inchon landing, Beirut, the Cuban missile crisis, Khe Sanh, the Dominican Republic, the Mayaguez, Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti and a cost-cutting secretary of defense.

How about a cold one, Art Hand me that bottle and I’ll open it for you.

And Semper Fi, Marine.

Charles Norton, the Tracy Press Our Town Paws for Thought columnist, is a 25-year Tracy resident. He served 25 years in the Marine Corps, retiring in 1980 as a lieutenant colonel. He served in Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division.
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