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Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps celebrates Corps’ birthday with Marine legend

By Gunnery Sgt. F. B. Zimmerman | | November 19, 2009

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A small contingent of Marines left the Pentagon Nov. 10 and headed here on a mission – to celebrate the Marine Corps’ 234th birthday.  But at this celebration there was no band, no color guard, no grand pageantry – this was a simple celebration with one goal in mind, to ensure one Marine who couldn’t make it to the ball had fellow devil dogs to celebrate the day with.

Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, the 16th sergeant major of the Marine Corps, and eight fellow Marines, spent the afternoon and celebrated with retired Sgt. Maj. Henry H. Black, the 7th sergeant major of the Marine Corps. 

While the small ceremony at Black’s house was missing some parts of a formal Marine Corps Ball, the main elements were still there.  It started off with the playing of this year’s commandant’s video, followed by the traditional reading of birthday messages – the 1921 letter from Gen. John A. Lejeune and this year’s letter from current commandant, Gen. James T. Conway.  The ceremony was then followed by a cake-cutting with the first piece going to Black, the oldest Marine present, and the second going to the youngest Marine, Sgt. Kenneth Lindsey Jr., Kent’s driver.

“This is the first piece of [Marine Corps birthday] cake I’ve had in 10 years,” exclaimed Black, who was sporting Marine Corps colors with a yellow shirt and red sweater.

Kent visits Black at his home as often as he can, having lunch with him and his wife Fannie, and during his last trip, he asked Black if he would like to attend the Commandant’s Ball this year.  Black, who uses a cane to help him get around, explained he didn’t get out too often and would not be able to attend.  Kent did not hesitate and quickly arranged the trip to ensure the former sergeant major of the Marine Corps celebrated the proper way.

“Sgt. Maj. Black is a true warrior,” Kent said.  “And it’s only right to pay tribute to those who have gone before us and gave us the proud legacy to live up to.  Since he couldn’t make it to the ball, we took the celebration to him.”

The visit lasted several hours and in addition to the ceremony, stories were shared.  Black told stories about when he was a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., and when he was the sergeant major of the then Marine Corps Development and Education Command on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.  The current state of the Corps was also brought up, and Kent shared stories of the amazing job Marines are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Of today’s Marines, Black stated, “Marines today are tremendous. They are always ready, and I know they’re ready to get out of Iraq and get to Afghanistan where the fight is. This generation of Marines is the greatest generation.” 

That comment is something Kent said he hears regularly from former Marines – that today’s Marines are the best there have ever been.   

For the Marines who attended, they said the intimate ceremony was a memorable one.

“‘Once a Marine, always a Marine’ comes to mind when meeting him,” said Gunnery Sgt. Min Ellis from the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Protocol Office. “He could vividly recall the fond memories of being a Marine in uniform like he was telling the story like it just happened.  I am glad I had the opportunity to meet him and share the birthday tradition.”

Gunnery Sgt. Jason Politte, administrative chief for Kent’s office, said it was an honor to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday with “a Marine whose legacy we’re living.”

Black, who is the oldest surviving former sergeant major of the Marine Corps, enlisted in the Corps in April 1948, and served in the senior enlisted billet from June 1975 to March 1977.  He served in the Korean War, where he received a Silver Star Medal and Bronze Star Medal for bravery as a private first class. He also served two tours in Vietnam, in 1966 and 1968, where he received his second and third Bronze Star Medals during his latter tour.

After several hours of camaraderie, Kent and the Marines packed up and prepared for the short trek back to the Pentagon.  Black said he was very appreciative of the visit.

“It was tremendous, it took my breath away,” he said. “It was an honor to have you all here, to have you all take the time to come down here all the way from [Washington,] D.C.  It was really great.”


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