RUBBING AGAINST HISTORY

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War stories? You want war stories?

There I was on a bar stool in the Atlanta airport looking out at a dreary rain and reading in The Atlanta Constitution right there on the front page, "309 Days to the Games," and wondering why I was waiting for a connecting flight to Tampa.

The things Walter Anderson gets me into.

Anderson is the editor of Parade and a former Marine NCO who believes if there is a gathering of Marines anyplace in the world, he ought to be there. And when he can't make it or if Eddie Adams, his star photographer and another old Marine, is busy, they send me. So here I was headed for Tampa and then to Clearwater, Florida on the Gulf of Mexico for the annual conference of The United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association.

I'll bet you didn't even know there was such an organization but there is. These people aren't just old (and some young) Marines, many of them have gone on to careers in media, in PR, in advertising. There is even one mayor, chairman of this conference being mayor of a Florida town, Bob McEwen.

Now, if I could just survive the flight to Tampa (Delta was talking about "severe" storms in the Atlanta area), I might live until next year and those Olympic Games in Atlanta.

About two hours later, with a remarkably smooth flight behind me (the Delta pilot skillfully evaded the larger thunderheads), I was being greeted in the Tampa airport by a Marine Corps master sergeant of enormous dignity and lots of ribbons including the Purple Heart. Outside, too, things had improved, with a brilliant sun bouncing off the tarmac. The sergeant, who is a local recruiting officer, got me into a car and off we sped toward causeways and blue waters and palm trees.

Well, perhaps this wasn't such a bad idea, after all.

The war correspondents were holding their sessions at the Sheraton Sand Key, which sits right there on the beach overlooking the gulf and after I got into my Bermudas and sunblock I found my way to the poolside bar where people were drinking pina coladas in huge plastic beach pails with shovels attached. Not wishing to be showy, I had a beer and perused the conference journal, a handsome magazine with full-page ads from The New York Times, National Geographic, Editor & Publisher, Advertising Age, Petersen Publishing Co. and "The John Wayne Family," so I knew I was in the right place.

Oh, yes, there was also a full-page letter from President Clinton and another from the commandant of the Marine Corps. It made me so proud to have been a Marine and to be there, I almost went for one of those pina coladas.

There were about 80 people attending the conference, half of them old timers who'd covered various wars as Marines assigned to combat reporting; the other half younger men and women on active duty and working in and around Marine Corps journalism, public information and the like. There is still alive out in California, I was told, a Marine correspondent from World War I. And in the conference Journal are the names of about 40 combat correspondents who died in combat during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Attending this year's event was the top man in Marine Corps PR, its director of public affairs, a one-star general named T.P. Murray who was smart as paint. And among the young regulars, both men and women, there was an impressive array of hardbodies out there during breaks at the pool. Were we in anything like as good shape back in my time? I doubt it; but the haircuts are the same, short and shorter.

Since all Marines are trained as and think as infantrymen and then go on to learn other specialties as pilots or tankers or meteorologists or even newspaper reporters, the hardbodies were no surprise. What was surprising, the quality of the journalistic work put out by these kids and submitted for distinguished performance awards for news writing, feature writing, photography, illustration, TV/motion picture work, sports reporting and the like. Tom Bartlett, a lean, laconic Marine from Leatherneck magazine, headed up the awards committee, noting there is still work to be done, and that some of the published stories "were not being spell checked or (in some cases) edited."

And doesn't that sound like some civilian journalism we could all hit from here with a volume of "Webster's"?

For me the stunning experience of the conference was getting to meet and hang about with Ray Davis.

The Marine Corps has in every generation its legends. Davis, a retired four-star general who for a term was the Corps' second in command, fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In my talk to the troops I remarked that while everyone ought to attend one war, one was sufficient. Though, I conceded, there were those strange individuals who seemed to me "hooked on war," men like Ray Davis who kept going. And going. And going.*.*.

He was awarded the Navy Cross in the big war and the Congressional Medal of Honor for Korea and God knows what else. It was to then-Colonel Davis at the White House in l951 that Harry Truman made his famous remark, that he would rather have the medal than be president.

I knew about Davis; in the Corps you know stuff. But here was this fine, vigorous old man who'd helped defeat the Chinese army at the Chosin Reservoir 45 years ago this month and get the entire First Marine Division out through the snow and the mountains and 30 below cold, and here we are sitting under palm trees having a cool one and the general is telling me about it.

".....MacArthur wouldn't believe the Chinese were coming into the war and by late October I had 600 Chinese bodies and another hundred in cages and MacArthur still didn't believe us....."

I just sat there like a kid, listening. Sometimes you rub against history.

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