SAN JOSE, Calif. --
Marines take care of their own. It’s a mantra every Marine learns in recruit training, and a proud declaration of devotion passed along from generation to generation.
The Inspector-Instructor staff here recently kept true to the saying, by taking care of a Marine who died 37 years ago.
As the Marine Corps’ Birthday drew to a close last year, 1st Sgt. David Lee, I&I first sergeant, knew his staff was responsible for a wreath laying ceremony at the gravesite of the first Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Wilbur Bestwick. The Marine Corps Casualty Procedures Manual mandates that wreaths be laid at the graves of all former commandants and sergeants major of the Marine Corps on the Corps’ birthday.
“We knew we had to [render honors] about a month and a half out, so we started preparing for it,” Lee said. “About two weeks out we looked up the listed cemetery to confirm that’s where he was buried and they didn't have any record of him. Once we realized he wasn't there, we began searching for where he was buried, and it took about a week to find.”
The cemetery listed as the burial site on Bestwick’s official bio is Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, Calif., but they had no record of him. Lee said the cemetery staff called surrounding cemeteries, but the result was the same -- no record of Bestwick anywhere.
Lee contacted his predecessor to see if he knew where the sergeant major was buried, but he too was never able to find the grave. That Marine had even gone so far as to hire a genealogist, but had no success at locating the grave or family members, Lee said.
One Sunday, only a month prior to the Corps’ birthday, Lee and his Commanding Officer, Capt. Brandon Boers, were brainstorming while watching football. Lee was a prior recruiter, and Boers asked him how he was able to locate vital records on those he was recruiting. That’s when it clicked that the answer may be at the county records office.
So, the next day, Boers and Gunnery Sgt. Antonio Uriegas, made a trip to the county records office to see what they could find. When they received the certified true copy of Bestwick’s death certificate, they finally had the information needed – his burial place was listed as Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo, Calif. A quick call confirmed Bestwick was there.
“I knew we could find it because I knew there was a record of it somewhere,” Boers said. “We just had to figure out where to find the record. Within about 15 minutes of finding the actual burial site, we were able to find exactly where the gravesite was.”
Bestwick is buried in the Veterans’ section in lot 74, section A, space two.
A week prior to the birthday ceremony, Lee said a trip was made to the cemetery to scout the location. He said the marker was weathered and overgrown with weeds. A tree root underneath Bestwick’s headstone caused the marker to slant.
While the cemetery staff told Lee he could request to have the site cleaned up, he wanted to make sure it was done by the ceremony, so a small working party was sent to take care of it. The Marines cleaned up the area, and even leveled the headstone.
“It now sits a little higher than the others,” Lee said.
On Nov. 10, 2008, Boers, Lee and their Marines from the I&I gave proper honors to Bestwick, for what Lee thinks was the first time. Since honors had never been rendered, Lee said they wanted to do something extra, so in addition to laying the wreath and playing Taps, a rifle detail gave a 21-gun salute.
Lee said it was an honor to be able to finally locate and pay respects to Bestwick, but what made it more special, is Bestwick was the first Marine to serve as the I&I San Jose first sergeant. Lee said has even jumped on board with his predecessor’s idea of naming their building after Bestwick, and is going to work to get that approved.
“It was great … it was like solving a mystery,” said Boers of the challenge of locating Bestwick’s gravesite. “It was a huge honor. I think it’s important for us to remember where we came from and honor those who came before us.”
During a recent visit to the I&I, the 16th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, made a special trip to the cemetery. Despite heavy winds and driving rain, Kent, in his Dress Blue Bravos, paused for a moment of silence before laying a wreath to pay tribute to the first sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
“It was an honor for me to be able to honor Sgt. Maj. Bestwick at his gravesite,” Kent said. “Not only is his warfighting legacy an important part of Marine Corps history, but he’s also important since he was the first sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
“I would just like to thank the Marines from I&I San Jose for being persistent in locating the gravesite of Sgt. Maj. Bestwick. What the Marines have done just echoes what Marines have been doing since the founding of our Corps in 1775, and that’s to ensure we take care of our fellow Marines.”