It started with an email and escalated from there.
“It is my distinct pleasure to inform you that your article “2d Lt Elwood R. Bailey, VMF-223” has been selected for recognition with the Foundation’s 2019 General Roy S. Geiger Award for the best Marine Corps Aviation article. The award will be presented at a black tie dinner to be held on Saturday evening, April 27th at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico….”
I read the email three or four times. I’d had a rejection already. I was tough and could take it.
The message resolutely refused to change. “…selected for recognition…”
“Holy shit!” I said. A coworker jumped. I had my headphones on and she wasn’t expecting an outburst at that volume. Whoa, I thought. How cool! An award for me! Such an honor…
…where the hell am I going to get a tux?
The whole thing was Katie Rasdorf’s idea. I knew about the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, of course, but not their annual awards program. “The Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Annual Awards program recognizes exemplary work that furthers the understanding of Marine Corps history, traditions, culture and service,” says their website. “Judged by Marines and civilian experts, the Annual Awards are a mark of distinction and achievement for journalists, writers, photographers, artists and scholars.” Katie decided to nominate a mutual friend for one of the photography awards. Dean takes amazing photographs, but hasn’t been published, so MissingMarines was picked as a possible venue for his work. While he and Katie worked on finalizing the photos, I set up a new section of the site (Essays) and organized the layout.
With the deadline approaching, Katie asked if I wanted to submit anything for consideration. I didn’t know what category MissingMarines would fall under – journalism? biography? feature writing? – but Katie can’t be dissuaded, so I picked a handful of articles and biographies and she wrote up the submission a day or two before the submissions closed. I figured we’d hear no more about it, unless Dean won, and maybe I’d get a little more site traffic out of the deal. When I got a rejection email for a journalism award, I wrote off the whole effort and went back to editing the book. (More on that later.)
Then Susan Hodges from MCHF sent her email with congratulations. A profile I wrote on 2Lt. Elwood Bailey, a Marine pilot shot down over Guadalcanal and accounted for last year, was deemed “the best article in the field of Marine Corps Aviation published during the preceding year.” I was going to Quantico.
We packed up the car early on Friday morning. Proper formal wear hung from the special hangers in the back seat. A Pack ‘n Play, stroller, and box of diapers took up most of the trunk. Our son, who likes road trips but doesn’t care much to sit still, grumped quietly in his car seat. It’s a decent drive from our house in northern New Jersey to Virginia, and all three of us were hoping he’d fall asleep in short order. We’d be meeting my parents (who were coming to the ceremony), and Uncle David and Auntie Kate (on baby detail) at the hotel. Easy peasy… except for the traffic, and the weather, and the weather-induced traffic. I groused about New Jersey drivers. My wife read off the tornado warnings. The boy slept through everything. He’s a champ.
Everybody arrived later than they wanted to, but none more so than David and Kate, whose flights were delayed until god-awful in the morning.
The next morning after breakfast, I met with Kurt Heite of Never Forget Our Veterans to talk shop on Guadalcanal. (Evidently, the DPAA is planning to return to the ‘Canal in 2020.) We were joined by Justin Taylan of Pacific Wrecks and, of course, Katie who showed up to distribute History Flight pins and coins, issue instructions, and keep everyone on task. This chat wound up being one of the most inspiring of the weekend, especially in light of the identification of PFC Dale W. Ross, a soldier who has been missing in action on Guadalcanal since January, 1943. (This was just the official announcement; Ross was recovered with compelling evidence some two years ago. Justin was extremely close to the case – in fact, he went to Guadalcanal to help receive the remains – and those interested should check out the PacificWrecks writeup of the case.)
A few other updates were teased by connections at the DPAA, and some of the news hit very close to home on a few cases which I’ve taken very personally. Nothing’s official, yet, but keep your fingers crossed (and maybe keep an eye on the Accounted For page over the next few months.)
The family reconvened for lunch, and we had an excellent and entertaining time at Bento Cafe Sushi and Roll in Woodbridge. (If you’re in the area: recommend. Even got a hands-on tutorial in the correct way to demolish a plate of raw fish. Had no idea I’ve been eating sashimi like a degen all of these years.)
And then, finally, it was time to suit up (literally) and head down to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico. The instructions were pretty simple. Show up at 5.00. Cocktail hour at 6.00. Dinner at event at 7.00. Done by 10.00. It was just a short drive to the Museum – but, with a sense of what area traffic could be like, and with a long-standing habit of running 10-15 minutes late for EVERYTHING, I was a bit nervous about our timetable. I’ve been to events run by the Marines before and, not surprisingly, they are pretty bang on schedule.
This time, though Chesty Puller smiled upon us, and we arrived at the Museum with ten minutes to spare. The last tour buses were boarding as we walked up to the entrance; tourists were looking side-eyed at the tuxedo-wearing civilians and staring at the resplendent Marines. Nothing makes a tuxedo look dingy like standing beside someone in Evening Dress. From the number of stars on shoulders, stripes on sleeves, and medal racks on uniforms and a healthy percentage of the suits, we were clearly in august company. I had the lingering feeling that, somehow, a mistake had been made.
They take care of that right off the bat, though, because they scoop you out of reception and drape a medal around your neck as soon as you step in the door.
We were then free to do as we pleased until the program commenced at 7.00. The family had never been to the Museum, so we dropped our bags and took a quick tour through the galleries.
For those who have never been, the National Museum of the Marine Corps is stunning. The main atrium is covered by a big glass dome, which is raked to evoke Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Inside, aircraft dangle from the ceiling, and Marine mannequins spill out of a helicopter and an LVT – one of the originals used in the Tarawa landings. Each immersive gallery blends diorama displays, multimedia, and an unreal collection of artifacts. Speaking of the flag raising, that flag is there too. (Which one? some of you are asking. Both, clever clogs I reply. They rotate, although one of the docents mentioned that they’re expanding the space to display them both at once.) Multiple times over the evening, Marines referred to the place as “our church” – and it’s easy to see why; the Museum has been the site of promotions, commissionings, retirements, weddings, and even funerals. I could spend actual days there, but we had to settle for a quick highlights tour and a few photos.
We spent an enjoyable hour tearing through the history of the Corps, and then an additional hour hovering near the bar eating little snacks on trays and taking in the sights. This was theoretically the time to do some networking, and I’d even brought some business cards for once, but the whole atmosphere was pretty overwhelming. Most everybody seemed to know each other – I knew only Kurt and Katie, and recognized only one of the fellow awardees, author Hampton Sides. This is not to say anyone was unfriendly – far from it – still, surrounded by all the martial glamour, yours truly felt like a fish out of water.
I think we looked pretty damn good, though. The last time I dragged Esther to a formal Marine Corps event was an IJAA reunion dinner in 2011. We had NO idea what we were in for, and were comically underdressed. Our table mates were a bit confused by us, but when we failed miserably to Lindy Hop they decided we were OK. We learned a great lesson that day: Marines don’t tend to care that much about who you are or where you come from; as long as you’re passionate about the Corps, you’re going to get along just fine. This same sentiment was reflected throughout the evening, from personal interactions up to a quip from one of the keynote speakers (“…if you’re *not* a friend of the Marines, I’m not sure why you’re here.”) I may be miserable at circulating at parties, but that’s my own issue. Either everyone I managed to meet was thoroughly interested in Lt. Bailey’s story, or the Corps trains up some good actors.
Guests were called to tables promptly at 7.00. We found ourselves between an extremely outgoing general in uniform (I missed his last name, but he had people calling him “Bill,” and a slightly more reserved gentleman in a suit. General Bill kept calling him “sir” with a tone that suggested a bit more than mere politeness. He turned out to be Major General David Richwine, USMC (Retired). I was impressed by the decorations on his jacket, which included a Silver Star, Legion of Merit with star, a Purple Heart, and a pair of aviator’s wings. My parents were impressed that Mrs. Richwine had lived in our hometown for many years.
We sat for the opening remarks and invocation, stood for the national anthem, and were getting settled for the salad course when an usher appeared and told me to go back behind the curtain. There, the award winners were arranged in alphabetical order by award title. We shuffled our feet and made small talk. I struck up a conversation with SSgt. Daniel Kujanpaa, a Marine videographer whose documentary MAWTS-1 40th Anniversary was up for the Genaust prize, and pretty soon the line was moving forward and I got to hear a bit about each of my companions as they received their honors.
I’ve been a bit flippant in describing this event, mostly because I’m still not sure how someone like me wound up sharing a stage with this group. We all had to send in biographies (which, it turned out, were read aloud as we crossed the stage) and I wish I had a copy of each one. You can take a look at their awarded work on the awards website, but that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what these individuals have done and accomplished. The only other name I’d ever heard before (besides Hampton Sides) was Hope Hodge Seck, because she’d beat me out for the journalism (remember that rejection email?) Taking a look at some of her accomplishments – managing editor of Military.com, multiple overseas deployments, more published articles than I can count – it’s no contest. This is the caliber of people on that stage, and somehow they let me up there too.
(If you want to learn a bit about your webmaster and also watch him walk across a stage without falling over, my dad has you covered.)
As I made my way back to the table, General Richwine stood to shake my hand. “You know, I was on the committee that chose the awards, and I pushed for yours,” he confided. “These are the stories that need to be told. Well done.”
As he said that, I wished that Lieutenant Bailey’s family could have been there, especially Wayne and Scott Tompkins who were so kind and willing to share the family photographs and stories that brought the article to life. However, they had a good reason to be elsewhere – the debut of Going Home: A Story of Courage, Sacrifice, and Friendship, a documentary about Elwood and his college buddies, Zenneth Pond and Bill Maher, who all went to fly in World War II. (Dear readers, Lt. Pond also flew with the Cactus Air Force and was shot down just a few days after Lt. Bailey. He has never been found.)
The rest of the evening ran on a clockwork schedule. There were a few achievement awards given out, with addresses by General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., and General Robert Neller, the current Commandant. General Neller was a particularly good speaker; witty, personable, and – of course – right on schedule. He led the guests in singing the Marine’s Hymn (“just the first verse, that’s all they make ya do at Parris Island”) and wished us all well at 9.59 on the dot.
(I took about four pictures the entire time, so if you want to see All The Finery you can check out the MCHF Flikr album.)
And then we went back to the hotel to see the boy, who had behaved very well and slept through almost the entire evening. Did I mention he’s a champ?
We’ll just gloss right over the trials of the drive home and say only that we had a fantastic brunch at Red’s Table to celebrate Uncle David and Auntie Kate, who in addition to their other fantastic attributes conveniently share a birthday.
Yes, I did take my medal off for brunch.
Yes, okay, I kept it in my jacket pocket all day and occasionally had to touch it to make sure it was real.