MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Retired Sgt. Maj. Ray V. Wilburn was not your everyday Marine. Wilburn served more than 30 years, through three wars and still calls the Marine Corps home. The Corps even called him back for one more day of duty in August.
Wilburn was born on a cotton farm near Wolfe City, Texas, July 1, 1919, a small farming community with only 1,395 people, he said.
He spent two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps building fences and terraces for $5 per month. When he finished his time in the CCC in 1939, there was "no money, no jobs and no future," he said. So Wilburn hitchhiked 75 miles to Dallas to join the Marine Corps.
"I didn’t have a dime in my pocket," he said.
Twelve others arrived at the recruiting station along with Wilburn to join the Corps, but they only took him and one other. Since he had spent time on boxing and softball teams, he said he was toughened up and ready for the Marine Corps.
"I was underweight, but I was hard as nails," he said. "The recruiting officer said, ‘Take this one, all he needs is three meals a day to fatten him up.’"
He joined on Oct. 19, 1939, and went directly to San Diego for recruit training.
By the outbreak of World War II, Wilburn had already made sergeant. He was assigned to 3rd Artillery Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, and landed on Gavutu, one of the Solomon Islands in Melanesia, on August 8, 1942, at 10 a.m., where his battery, Battery I, fired the first offensive round against the Japanese.
"They said we’d be there three days, so that’s the amount of supplies we took," said Wilburn. "It didn’t work out that way."
One long day
His battalion later hopped islands to Tulagi and Guadalcanal.
On the trip to Guadalcanal, "They wouldn’t let the Seminole and the sea-going tug [two transport ships] go at the same time because there was too much activity with the Japanese ships in the water," said Wilburn.
After the tug made it to Guadalcanal, the Seminole took off.
Halfway to Guadalcanal, they were radioed about a Japanese destroyer in the area and told to go back. The ship turned around and that is as far as it got; the Japanese destroyer found them. The first round hit the 20 mm mount; the second round hit the refrigeration system, releasing ammonia. Wilburn and the rest of the crew abandoned ship. Dive bombers in the region flew in and sunk the Japanese destroyer.
The crew did not have enough life jackets, so Wilburn, a better swimmer than some of the others, gave his jacket away. He and a couple more Marines started gathering those remaining from the ship into a circle to keep track of them.
"You get in the water and you have to get your shoes and clothes off because it’ll pull you down," he said. "We didn’t lose anyone. We were in the water probably three hours, and a Higgins boat came over from Guadalcanal and picked us up. Most of us had dog tags on, and that’s all we had on."
After cleaning up and getting something to eat, they went to their cannons, already in position awaiting them. And then their day of firing began.
Wilburn and his battalion left Guadalcanal in January 1943 for Wellington, New Zealand, to train and regroup.
They returned to the war, this time to Tarawa in November 1943.
A slight miscalculation
During the landing on Tarawa, the ship miscalculated the rising of the tide and sailed onto the coral reef surrounding the landing beach. They missed the shore by about 300 yards.
The 75 mm pack howitzers were designed to be taken apart and carried by hand. So Wilburn, now a gunnery sergeant, and his crew carried their gear – rifles, ammo, rations and howitzer pieces – through waist-high water while Japanese forces bombarded them with mortars and machine guns.
"You had to push dead bodies out of the way because we were almost sitting ducks," said Wilburn. "And you didn’t dare stop to check the bodies. If you stopped, you were a sitting target, so you got to keep going. We had to continue to push bodies out of the way to get to the shore. When we got ashore, we had to put our guns together and then go put them into position."
They supported the 2nd Marine Division who took Tarawa in three days.
After securing Tarawa, Wilburn and the battalion went to Parker Ranch, Hawaii, to train with 155 mm towed howitzers. Once he and his newly redesignated battery, 2nd 155 mm Howitzer Battery, 5th Corps Artillery, knew the guns and were ready for battle, they moved to Saipan and then Guam until the end of the war.
The saddest moment
While on Guam, Wilburn saw one of his saddest moments of World War II.
When the Japanese took over Tarawa, they took all the villagers as prisoners. Toward the end of World War II, the Marines pushed the Japanese military forces so hard they could not handle their prisoners as they retreated across the island.
"My battery happened to be on the main line and as far you could see the natives were coming through – the Japanese had turned them loose," he said. "That was the saddest thing that I have ever seen in my life. Those people were ragged and tattered and undernourished."
After the war, Wilburn’s battalion returned to Hawaii. By this point, Wilburn was down to 127 pounds after having malaria five times. He was "pretty well gone," he said. A doctor forced him to return to the United States to recover.
Wilburn spent the next few years bouncing around multiple stations from McAlester, Okla., all the way back to Japan and finally Dallas for Inspector and Instructor duty.
When the Korean War started, Wilburn was transferred to Camp Del Mar, Calif., to set up a school to train Marines in artillery before sending them to join 11th Marine Regiment already in Korea. After teaching seven courses and sending those Marines to war, Wilburn, too, received orders to Korea in 1951.
On Oct. 25 that year, his unit, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, set up in Artillery Valley received a barrage of enemy 122 mm rounds.
The first round hit the water tank of a nearby battery, the next round hit the communications tent and the third round hit the mess hall and knocked off the number four gun’s sight mount. The whole attack left four ammo trucks burning. Remarkably, everyone survived with only injuries to account for any losses.
One last war
Wilburn arrived in Vietnam as a sergeant major with the 1st Medical Battalion in 1967. Capt. Jim Sharp was the commanding officer of the medical battalion, but he was also a surgeon, so he spent much of his time in the operating room and did not have time to lead, said Wilburn.
"He’s one of the best sergeants major the Marines Corps ever had," Sharp said on the phone Sept. 21 about Wilburn. "He was my best problem solver and my most reliable advisor. He’s been through a little bit of everything. I relied on him, and he always had an answer."
The Viet Cong mortared the battalion nightly, leaving them to operate behind shaking walls in flak jackets and helmets.
Wilburn gladly took charge of the battalion as needed. He took care of them because he wanted to, not because it was his duty, he said.
"It was one of my most rewarding experiences of my life," he said. "There was so much I could do."
A final tour of duty
Wilburn requested to stay in the Marine Corps beyond 30 years and was approved. But after three wars and 31 years, four months and 15 days in the Corps, he was medically retired March 4, 1971, as the Combat Center Deployable Force Troops sergeant major.
"If you can retire after three wars, that’s something to be proud of," he said.
But the Marine Corps was not finished with him.
They asked for one more day. The Marine Corps needed him one last time, so Wilburn was issued orders to attend a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Combat Center Aug. 18. Along with orders to report to the commanding general, they issued him the proper uniform of the day, a set of desert digital camouflage utilities and a pair of new boots.
He remarked that they were a definite improvement on what he had grown used to during his career.
"I put this on and paced up and down the front of the house," he said. "This is the greatest invention since canned beer."
Many things have changed since Wilburn retired. Everything from leadership styles to military vehicles has evolved, and Wilburn remains confident the Marines of today will take care of America the same as those of yesterday.
"It’s mind-boggling the responsibility placed on these young Marines today," he said. "We’re about as protected as could be. You see these young lads and you know you’re in the best hands."
Looking back on his life, Wilburn accomplished what he set out to do. He survived three wars, traveled around the world a couple of times, and finally settled down in Twentynine Palms, Calif., with his wife, Irma, of South Gate, Calif.
"I wouldn’t do anything different," he said. "I set out to go from the bottom to the top in my career. What I lacked in formal education, I made up for in determination and drive."
Wilburn did not have much to begin his life’s journey, but he set out, headstrong, "tough as nails," and ready to take on whatever the Corps threw at him. He became a Marine, but he accomplished more in his 31 years of duty than the everyday Marine.