Combat Comrades Reunited At Marine Bash

Marines celebrate by finding missing man from a squad of heroic veterans from Vietnam


Marine heroes of Operation StarLight, Vietnam 1965: Jorgen Gertz, Jimmy Martinez, James McKnight and Medal of Honor winner, Robert O’Malley.

Marine heroes of Operation StarLight, Vietnam 1965: Jorgen Gertz, Jimmy Martinez, James McKnight and Medal of Honor winner, Robert O’Malley. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Bagpiper Colonel Rob Welch played traditional patriotic songs throughout the birthday celebration. Welch retired from the Army in 2001. He currently plays for the Mesa Fire Department, the Arizona DPS, the Arizona Law Enforcement Emerald Society and is president of the Phoenix Pipe Band.

Some 47 years ago, 12,000 miles from home on a hot LZ, a handful of Marines from I-Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division came under intense enemy fire as they loaded their severely wounded buddy on a medivac chopper. They waved their final farewell and hustled back to the fight.

Subsequently, these Marines all went on to earn distinguished recognition for bravery ... including the nation’s highest. Sergeant Robert O’Malley was awarded the first Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

This past Saturday night, that intrepid group, consisting of Sergeant Jimmy Martinez, PFC Robert Rimpson, Sergeant James McKnight and O’Malley, reunited at the 237th Marine Corps birthday celebration held at the Mazatzal Casino, just a week before the celebrations that will mark Veterans Day on Sunday.

As with many veterans who have felt the brotherhood of combat, they have stayed in touch throughout the years and gather as often as possible ... all except that Marine they put on the chopper that day.

Imagine their surprise when master of ceremonies Colonel Bill Sahno, USMC retired, recounted that day from so long ago. He then electrified the crowd by introducing Yon Gertz, the missing Marine loaded on that Huey by his buddies.

Despite the Marine Corps tough as nails image, the tears flowed as a 45-year-old memory was allowed to return. Gertz recovered from his wounds, graduated from Louisiana Tech where he played football with Terry Bradshaw.

Veterans from the Army, Navy and Air Force all joined in the celebration, recognizing that the event honored all those who served — not just the founding of the Corps at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia 237 years ago.

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One of the highlights of the evening was the traditional cutting of the Marine Birthday Cake.

Keynote speaker Korean War Marine veteran Nick Gervase, at 20 received a battlefield promotion to sergeant due to his prowess with a machine gun. He recounted his struggle as a machine gunner with the 1st Marine Division to fight on the steep, ice-covered slopes of “Bunker Hill.”

Gervase earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart, after receiving multiple shrapnel wounds and a close combat bayonet wound to the chest.

Passing the legend and lore of the Corps from one generation to the next is a Marine tradition symbolized with the cutting of the birthday cake. This year, Sergeant Major Chuck Johnson, USMC retired, represented the oldest Marine present. Active duty Sergeant Matthew Johnson represented current and future Marines. Johnson joined the Corps in 1948 and served 30 years. In the small world category, Sergeant Major Johnson was the company 1st Sergeant of the writer’s outfit in Vietnam.

Sergeant Johnson, representing the youngest Marine present, joined the Corps in 2006 following graduation from Coronado High School in Scottsdale. Johnson has served a tour in Iraq and on embassy guard duty around the world.

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A memorial shrine was displayed next to the head table and included, pictures of fallen comrades, a Bible, an American flag, a proclamation of the Marine Corps League and other symbols.

An unscripted highlight of the evening came when the Town of Payson recognized Colonel Sahno as the “Ambassador of Patriotism” for our community. A quote from the proclamation states: “Colonel Sahno has brought distinction and honor to his community with his vigorous defense of veteran and patriotic endeavors statewide, culminating in his 2011 induction as the first Rim Country representative to the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame.”

Sahno said, “It is the spirit of the Marines, past and present, and their magnificent deeds and accomplishments that this birthday tradition continues. It is our time to reflect on the Marines who accomplished those deeds and to remember those Marines who paid the supreme sacrifice in defense of our Corps and Country.”

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