In late 1944, based on casualty estimates and the inevitable need for replacement officers in the war against Japan, the US Marine Corps convened a special Officer Candidates School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Four hundred officers were trained, commissioned, and rushed to the Pacific Theater of Operations. Half would be sent to Iwo Jima in February 1945; the remainder would serve on Okinawa beginning in April 1945.
Richard Burress, a native Nebraskan, was one of two hundred officers assigned to the V Amphibious Corps destined for “Iwo.” Four days after the landing on 19 February 1945, Second Lieutenant Richard Burress joined Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment. He would lead First Platoon, Baker Company, through the rest of the epic battle.
Today, Richard Burress lives and works at Stanford University, where he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has had distinguished careers as a marine officer, as an agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as legal counsel serving on Capitol Hill and in the White House during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations.
In January 2011, Mr. Burress visited his old unit at Camp Pendleton, California. Companies of the 1/23 were spread out at different locations throughout two hundred square miles of training area engaged in live-fire and scenario-based training. With mock Afghan villages and rows of mine-resistant vehicles as a backdrop, Mr. Burress was welcomed with cheers and applause from companies of marines in combat gear. It was a welcome break from scheduled events to meet one of those of whom Admiral Chester W. Nimitz remarked that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Mr. Burress thanked the marines for their service and shared some of his personal experiences. He described conditions on Iwo and some timeless tactical lessons learned. The water on Iwo was always wretched, so Lieutenant Burress would routinely squeeze grapefruit into his water to make it palatable. Rations were scarce, yet one day he was handed a new kind of package that contained surprisingly decent-quality food. When partway through his meal he asked the lance corporal who had given him the “new rations” where they had come from, the young marine replied, “I took them from the colonel’s jeep.” Lieutenant Burress responded to the young marine, “I hope he didn’t see you!” Somehow both of them avoided the wrath of Colonel “Mad Dog” Dillon.
In one of his first days on the island Lieutenant Burress recalled being handed a cup of coffee at the company command post. As the company meeting adjourned, he intended to pause there and enjoy the rest of his warm beverage. At the urgent behest of his platoon sergeant, a veteran of Saipan and Tinian, however, he dumped the coffee and set off for his platoon position. Seconds later a Japanese mortar round slammed into the company command post, killing or wounding all still gathered there. His lesson to the 1/23 marines of today: don’t bunch up, keep as dispersed as possible on the battlefield.
In closing, Mr. Burress reminded marines that they are making their memories now. Speaking from personal experience he emphasized that, by being a marine, people will view you differently for the rest of your life and that high expectations are therefore implied. He also stated, “You share a special bond as marines. Your close friendships today will be your close friendships seventy years from now.” He continued by encouraging marines to learn and build on their experiences and consider public service or, after leaving the military, perhaps seeking elected office.
As the 1/23 deploys to Afghanistan in February, the young marines will do so inspired by a unique living link to their unit’s storied past.
For more information see the Marine Corps Gazette.