Then and Now - Birthday ceremony a work in progress

7 Nov 2006 | Lance Cpl. Nicole A. LaVine

The Marine Corps Birthday celebration is a timeless reminder to those who wear the eagle, globe and anchor where they come from and the weight their title bears to the world. Since the dawning of its existence, the Corps has exemplified its ability to maintain tradition and honor on and off the battlefield. Little has changed since then.

Today, the Corps celebrates its 231st year of existence thanks to the men and women who have sacrificed comfort, safety, and personal well-being to bring freedom to this country. The least they can get in return is a little party time.

According to the USMC Heritage Press website, the first formal birthday ball took place in Philadelphia in 1925. Men like the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Secretary of War, and Gen. John A. Lejeune were among those who attended. Over the following years, the ball became more formal and symbolic. It was not until 1952 that the cake-cutting element of the ceremony was formalized by Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd, the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time.

Ray V. Wilburn, a retired sergeant major, has his own tales of how the Marine Corps Birthday Ball celebration has evolved through the years.

"Times and systems change," said Wilburn. "Time just doesn’t stand still. It [ceremony] has definitely progressed for the better."

The old Corps, said Wilburn, was much more cut-and-dry about the ceremony, as opposed to the formal festivities that take place today.

"It was very limited back then," said Wilburn. "There was not as much of a show as there is today. Generally speaking, the only thing the ceremony consisted of was the cutting of the cake."

Wilburn went on to explain that there were not as many readings about history and tradition as there are in the ceremonies now.

"You’ve got Lejeune’s message, then a message from the guest speaker, a reading from the commanding general and then the commandant’s reading. They didn’t have all that when I came in."

When asked about other drastic changes he saw in his time, Wilburn said the attendance of Marines has grown a great deal since his first ball.

"I did notice that more people attended the ball as the years went by. There was always the encouragement to go before, but I think just the times changing made a difference in that."

For a man with as much experience as Wilburn, significant occurrences marked his time in service as living history.

"There is one birthday ball that really stands out in my mind," he said. "It was 1991 and I was already retired. I was in Japan to see my daughter, my son-in-law and my friend, who was the barracks sergeant major at the time. He asked my son-in-law for my bio when he heard that I was going to be there. At the ceremony, I heard my name called to come forward. So I went up there and they designated me as the oldest Marine present, so I received the piece of cake that signifies the oldest Marine. At the end of the ceremony, I was approached by an admiral and a Navy captain. The admiral told me he simply had to talk to anyone with a history like mine. The captain asked if I would be available to come onto his ship and talk to his troops. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t jell, but I could say that was the most memorable and touching ceremony I have ever attended."

It is through eyes like Wilburn’s that stories of the past may be heard by the men and women who serve today. The Marine Corps’ pride in tradition and richness in history are what keep esprit de corps alive in every person who puts on the uniform and claims the title "Marine."
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