Forty years ago today: the striking scene on the Parade Ground at Camp Pendleton on 30 April 1971, as RN reviews the 1st Marine Division before awarding it the Presidential Unit Citation. On POTUS’s left is the Corps Commandant, General Leonard F. Chapman. What appears to be dust is, in fact, smoke from the artillery weapons that had just fired a 21 gun salute. There was a large crowd of wives and dependents, as well as invited dignitaries, on bleachers behind the photographer and on the other side of the troop formation. Thanks to Jack Brennan for sending his personal copy of this hitherto unpublished photo.
Forty years ago today, President Nixon went to Camp Pendleton, California, to award the Presidential Unit Citation (Navy) For Extraordinary Heroism to the First Marine Division.
The First Marine Division was activated aboard the battleship Texas at the beginning of 1941. It is the oldest, largest, and most decorated division in the United States Marine Corps, having received nine Presidential Unit Citations — the first for Guadalcanal in 1942, and the most recent for action in Iraq in 2003.
The President spoke on the Parade Ground just after noon. Also on the stand with him were USMC Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman, and Navy Under-Secretary —and later Senator— John Warner.
The President began by welcoming the Division home:
This is one of the proudest moments of my service as President of the United States–to be here for this ceremony; to award this Unit Citation, the eighth Unit Citation this division has received in its long and proud history, to the First Marine Division; and to welcome home the major elements of that division from Vietnam.
As I welcome you home, I can say to you that the Nation is proud of you. I can say to you, you come home mission accomplished.
He continued, providing a context for their service in Vietnam:
When you went to Vietnam 5 years ago, you found a country there with millions of South Vietnamese under Communist rule, and the whole country threatened by a Communist takeover.
As you return, you left a South Vietnam with the South Vietnamese now assuming the major burden of their own defense, and soon developing the capability for their complete defense without the assistance of American fighting men.
Because of your service and the service of other Americans, we can now say that Americans can continue to be withdrawn at approximately or almost at a division a month. And because of your service and the service of other Americans, we can set as our goal–and achieve the goal–of a total withdrawal of all Americans; that goal to be achieved when the South Vietnamese have developed, as they will develop, the capability of defending themselves, and when we have returned all of our prisoners of war wherever they may be in Southeast Asia.
And now to the many of these marines who are young marines, and most of you are young marines, may I refer a bit to the history of this division going clear back to World War I, when the Fifth Regiment, which later became part of the First Marine Division, served them. It is a proud and distinguished history. The names are proud in the history of the Marine Corps and they are very proud in the history of this Nation: Belleau Wood, in World War I; Guadalcanal in World War II; Inchon, in Korea; and now Vietnam.
The question that I am sure must be in your minds is: What will the verdict of history be about your service in Vietnam? Certainly in terms of personal heroism there is no question about the verdict of history. Forty-eight members of the First Marine Division were awarded the Medal of Honor. It is the most decorated Marine division of all. This is the second Unit Citation in this war.
And there are other heroes in this division–heroes who received no medals; heroes who had a kind of heroism that was not required of your grandfathers who served in World War I or your fathers who may have served in World War II–a kind of service that was special to Vietnam: building a nation, building schools and hospitals and clinics, and helping people, and contributing thousands of dollars of your own funds for helping the people of Vietnam gain what you wanted them to gain–the right to build a nation free from outside control.
So there is no question about the verdict of history so far as your heroism is concerned.
He ended on a proudly personal note:
And as I stand here today I look back again over the history of this country. The marines and other Americans who fought in World War I thought they were fighting in a war to end wars, and then their sons fought in World War II.
The marines and other Americans who fought in World War II, after it ended and the United Nations was formed, thought that now at long last we can have an era of peace. And then their younger brothers fought in Korea, and their sons fought in Vietnam.
Now the question is: What happens after Vietnam? How do we end the war? What kind of a peace do we want? And we do want peace.
As I think of peace and as you think of peace, I think of the hundreds of schoolchildren who are here today. I think that the kind of peace we want–and this is our goal is just not peace in our time but peace in their time.
By your service you have done your part in trying to achieve that kind of peace, and I pledge to you that in the conduct of our foreign affairs we shall bring this war to an end in a way worthy of your service and the service of other Americans-to achieve a just and a lasting peace; to achieve what Americans have never had in this century: a full generation of peace.
So proudly today, as Commander in Chief, as one who was proud to serve with you and your predecessors in World War II, I say, America welcomes you home with pride, and we will not fail you in winning the peace.
After the ceremonies, RN greeted the crowd of some 10,000 by circling the Parade Ground standing in the back of a jeep. After saying goodbye to Commandant Chapman, the President started walking towards his waiting limousine, for the short drive back to San Clemente.. Suddenly, a remarkable thing happened. As the headline in an AP story datelined Camp Pendleton and published in the Oxnard Press-Courier on 2 May, described it:
LEATHERNECKS CARRY PRESIDENT ON SHOULDERS
A crowd of Marines carried President Nixon on their shoulders for about 15 yards as he toured the parade grounds after welcoming home the 1st Division from Vietnam, a base spokesman said Saturday.
The incident Friday wasn’t seen by most spectators, but television cameras picked up a distant shot of the President being surrounded and then hoisted and carried until Secret Service agents called a halt.
A crowd of more than 10,000 was on hand for the affair but most didn’t see the incident as Nixon was several times surrounded by scores of well wishers as he slowly toured the grounds, standing erect at the rear of a jeep.
The incident Friday wasn’t seen by most spectators, but television cameras picked up a distant shot of the President being lifted and carried until Secret Service agents called a halt.
The witnesses said the Marines involved were from Camp Pendleton and the 1st Division. “The President walked by the bleachers and waved,” said a corporal. “Suddenly about 15 to 20 guys spilled out of the bleachers, grabbed him, and put him on their shoulders.
“They went about 15 yards when the Secret service forced them to put the President down.”
Nixon then shook hands with many of them…..the witnesses said.
Here is the text of the President Unit Citation that RN awarded that day:
By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States and as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, I have today awarded
THE PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION (NAVY)
FOR EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM TO
FIRST MARINE DIVISION (REINFORCED) FLEET MARINE FORCE
For extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against enemy forces in the Republic of Vietnam from 16 September 1967 to 31 October 1968. Operating primarily in Quang Nam Province, the First Marine Division (Reinforced) superbly executed its threefold mission of searching for and destroying the enemy, defending key airfields and lines of communication, and conducting a pacification and revolutionary development program unparalleled in the annals of warfare. With the Division responsible for over 1,000 square miles of territory, it extended protection and pacification to more than one million Vietnamese. The countless examples of courage, resourcefulness, and dedication demonstrated by the officers and men of the First Marine Division attest to their professionalism and esprit de corps. Their combat activities were skillfully carried out in the face of adverse weather and difficult terrain such as canopied jungles, rugged mountains, swampy lowlands, and hot, sandy beaches. During the enemy Tet-offensive in late January of 1968, the First Marine Division dealt a devastating blow to enemy forces attempting to attack Danang. Again, in May 1968, the Division totally crushed an enemy drive directed against the Danang area through the Go Noi Island region southwest of Danang. The Division achieved this resounding victory through the skillful coordination of ground forces, supporting arms, and aircraft support. Most action in the I Corps Tactical Zone during August of 1968 was centered in the First Marine Divisions tactical area of responsibility. The enemy, now looking for a victory which would achieve some measure of psychological or propaganda value, again mounted an attack of major proportions against Danang but were thoroughly repulsed, sustaining heavy casualties. The valiant fighting spirit, perseverance, and teamwork displayed by First Marine Division personnel throughout this period reflected great credit upon themselves and the Marine Corps, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.