“Every Marine has two birthdays,” Erik Klem, senior vice commander of VFW Post 6885 in Canyon Country, was saying Thursday night — on the occasion of one of those birthdays, the 241st of the U.S. Marine Corps.
With a traditional leatherneck meal of Spam and “SOS” (the last two letters stand for “on a shingle”) plus plenty of ooh-rahs and then a Corps-themed cake, several dozen members of Post 6885 gathered to mark the Marines’ anniversary — and to honor local legend Carl Diekman, a 95-year-old vet who landed on Iwo Jima in the Pacific Theater in February 1945.
Per Marine tradition, Diekman, the oldest Marine on hand, and Klem, at 45 the youngest, cut the birthday cake using a Marine sword. Klem then handed the first piece to Diekman, “out of respect’’ – another element of the Marine birthday tradition.
“We love our traditions,’’ Klem, a Gulf War vet, said.
Diekman, in a wheelchair, had come to the gala almost directly from Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, stopping off at home in Canyon Country only to change into a blue “Marines / First to fight, last to leave” T-shirt and red baseball cap bearing a “WWII survivor” pin.
His daughter, Margo Courtier, said Diekman had been battling dehydration and a bladder infection, but was not about to miss another birthday gathering with fellow grunts.
Courtier said her dad is one of an estimated 1,000 Iwo Jima soldiers – maybe 25 in Southern California – still living.
“I was aboard a ship (off the coast of Iwo Jima) when the flag went up,’’ Diekman recalled, speaking about the iconic image of six Marines raising the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi.
From his perch off shore, Diekman said, he saw that historic moment.
“All the ships started firing their guns’’ in celebration, Diekman said.
Courtier said her father never says much else about his experiences on Iwo – one of the bloodiest and deadliest battles of the war.
The Marines were formed on Nov. 10, 1775, during the American Revolution, by a resolution of the Continental Congress.
In 1921 — coincidentally the year of Diekman’s birth — Marine Corp Commandant Gen. John A. Lejeune directed that, on the anniversary of the Corps’ creation, “it is fitting what we who are Marines … commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.”
So it was Thursday night in Canyon Country, ending with a group singing of the Marines’ Hymn.
But this being a gathering of grunts, it was not without some rough-hewn humor – as when Klem, the master of ceremonies, quoted Eleanor Roosevelt’s description of those in the Corps.
Marines, the former First Lady said, “have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the lowest morals and the highest morale of any group of animals I have ever met.”
The crowd smiled.
“You have to be a Marine to know that’s not an insult,” Klem said.