Many of you may have seen the viral video Hurrah! The Viral Video of Marines Singing a Popular Christian Worship Song embedded below. I watched all those young Marines belting out Days of Elijah with an enthusiasm that would have any minister wetting his pants in sheer joy, especially when punctuated by the bellowed OORAH! I watched it a second time, and a third.
It was deeply moving to see Marines have not changed at all, at least within the last 55 years and particularly to an old Jarhead like me. I was one of them once.
The last time I was this moved over the esprit de corps and camaraderie was over a half-century ago aboard our troopship U.S.S. General J.C. Breckenridge en route across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands.
We finished evening chow a couple of hours before and many Marines were on deck having their last smoke for the night before Taps. I was on the starboard side watching the sun as it sank toward the sea. As a boy I had read many accounts and descriptions of sunsets at sea, but none of the authors ever came close in accurately describing the serenity and peace of the sun sinking into the sea at the end of the day. There are no adjectives in any language that can come close. You have to be there.
Someone began playing an accordion amidships behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him sitting on a generator cover with his back against one of the massive vent pipes. I was impressed at how much the Marine must have struggled when he boarded ship lugging a bulky musical instrument along with a forty-pound seabag down the steep ladder wells and narrow companionways to get to our area three or four decks below.
He ran his fingers over the keys, lightly and timidly at first until he got his “sea fingers”. When he began to play Onward Christian Soldiers it was immediately obvious he was an accomplished musician. A dozen Marines had gathered round and those who knew some of the words began to sing along quietly.
It’s remarkable how even the most desolate, God-forsaken places on the planet are morphed into serenity with the added component of music or singing. A guitar around a campfire at night, German soldiers singing Stille Nacht in the trenches or a ship bulging with soldiers and Marines at sea.
Hearing music across the deck, more Marines began gathering around, like moths to a flame. Noting that his audience was growing, the accordionist broke into The Marine’s Hymn and the men began singing, timidly and shyly at first, then growing in strength and volume as they found the right key or because their buddies were singing. More Marines drifted in and the number of voices and volume swelled even louder. I lit another cigarette and leaned my arms across the rail listening. There were now perhaps 50 or 75 Marines singing, many with far more enthusiasm than actual talent but hey, I am talking Marine Corps spirit here, not American Idol.
The sun was submerged halfway into the Pacific changing the vast surface into gold. The accordionist began hammering the keys, launching into the Marine’s Hymn once more to match the fervor of the voices around him. The Marines were now pumped up and more were gathering by the minute belting out the familiar lyrics,
..If the army or the naaaavy
Ever look on heaven’s sceeenes!
They will find the streets are guarded
By United State Marines!
It made for a dramatic musical score while the tip of the Pacific sun disappeared below the horizon. The scores of singing voices spread beyond the decks and out over the sea. I idly wondered that if there were a Russian submarine out there listening, they would have been impressed. Maybe. Or frightened.
A young seaman 1st Class with glasses passed near me and I heard him try to be funny by remarking to someone in the group, “Geez! You guys sure make a lotta racket!”
“Fuck off, deck ape!” some Marine snarled at him. The sailor wisely chose to leave the area.
The accordionist swung into the Marine’s Hymn for the third time. The Marines were now almost shouting the words. Of the first stanza. Again. I don’t think a lot of the guys knew all the words to the other two stanzas very well so they just sang the first stanza over again. What did that matter? One could have reached out and physically touched the Esprit de corps hanging thick in the air.
A number of years ago I bought a used book, Strong Men Armed by Robert Leckie. It was tattered and had certainly been read by many others. On the flyleaf inside the cover, someone had scribbled a paraphrased version of Cast Your Fate to The Wind. I had no idea who had written it but I copied it down:
We were young then, full of hell
Warriors all, laughing at death
Sailing upon the Seas of War
We cast our fate to the wind
The enthusiasm behind me waned when the musician finished that last bars of The Marine’s Hymn and began to play something else. I don’t remember what it was, maybe something like Stardust or Moon River or some other anticlimactic drivel.
I field-stripped my cigarette and went below.
About the Author: Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day. Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife live quietly in Colorado.