I said, "How do you justify your existence?"
He said, "We are the watchdogs of naval power, supporters of those who fight on the sea and in the air, and believers in a strong and healthy Naval Academy lacrosse team."
I asked him, "Is the Naval Institute bullish on America?"
He said, "We can go either way, and usually do."
Some people find it hard to believe that I was a Marine. Last year at the Gridiron Dinner, the fanciest dinner in Washington, as each service tune was played, the people from that service got up and stood at attention. When the Marine Corps Hymn was played, I stood up at attention.
One guy sitting across from me asked the guy sitting next to him, "What's Buchwald standing up for?"
The second guy said, "He was a Marine."
The first guy said, " Je-esus Chr-rist !"
As time goes on, all of us who have served in different wars come to exaggerate the role we played. When I was going to the University of Southern California in the 1940s, some people asked me what I did during the war. I told them I was a rear gunner on an F4U fighter plane. The jerks were too dumb to know there was only one seat on an F4U. In the 1950s, I told everyone I had shot down 26 Japanese airplanes. By this time my children were curious, so I decided to up it even more. I said I was commanding general of the 1st Marine Air Wing and was the only one willing to give Pappy Boyington a second chance. Finally, my grandchildren arrived, and I had to do something for them. So I said I was the one who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
What did I really do during World War II? I was assigned to an air wing when I finished boot camp. I was very infuriated about this, because I wanted to see action. So I went to the drill instructor and said, "When I enlisted in the Marine Corps, they promised that I would be a paratrooper."
He took one look at me and said, "Okay, you're a paratrooper."
So I wound up being an ordnanceman in a fighter squadron. And I wasn't a very good ordnanceman.
I was once loading a 500-pound bomb on a plane and dropped it. Everyone on the island scrambled for their lives. I pretended my foot was broken so they wouldn't kill me.
The next day, the commanding officer called me in and said, "I'm putting you in for the Navy Cross."
I asked why.
He said, "You forgot to fuse the bomb and saved the lives of 500 Marines."
I know you're still asking what I did to win the war. The answer is simple: I got out. There are men and women who stayed in after the war and there are those of us who chose to serve our country in civilian life. Had I stayed in and loaded nuclear weapons on our naval ships, no one would be here today.
On a serious note, now more than 50 years after World War II, I wish to say a few words about the Navy/Marine Corps flyers who fought in that war and the men who took care of the planes. We are saying farewell to the men and to the planes at an unacceptable rate. Listen carefully, and you will hear the engines of the F4Fs, the F6Fs, the F4Us, the SBDs, the torpedo bombers, and all the other planes flown by the military 50 years ago. They are preparing to take their pilots on their final flight. World War II's Marine and Navy squadrons produced the best flyers and ground personnel that any of the services could offer. They helped save the troops on Guadalcanal, and they fought the Japanese from one end of the Pacific to the other.
They were damned good. Listen carefully as each plane readies to take off for a target unknown. As for you young pilots flying your supersonic jets, dip your wings in tribute to the Navy and Marine pilots of World War II who loved to fly as much as you do.
Listen to the distant drums sounding for the men with gold wings who flew three and four generations ago. They were the best of World War II. Don't forget it. We will never see their like again.
Mr. Buchwald is a humorist and columnist syndicated to 550 newspapers worldwide. The latest of his 28 books, I’ll Always Have Paris (1996), is the second part of his memoirs. Part I was the bestselling Leaving Home (1994). Borrowing from his official curriculum vitae, “Mr. Buchwald is a workaholic and has no hobbies.”
EDITOR'S NOTE : The preceding is an excerpt from a luncheon speech delivered to the U.S. Naval Institute's 123rd Annual Meeting and 7th Annapolis Seminar on 24 April 1997.