Charles Russell was one day past his 18th birthday in 1943 when he packed up his draft notice and reported to the Armed Forces induction center in Des Moines, Iowa. “They asked me where I wanted to go,” Russell recalls. “I told them it didn’t really make a difference, Army or Navy. Then I saw some guy in a green uniform with a red stripe down the leg. He looked at my physical report and said, ‘Put down MC.’ I asked what M.C. meant. For all I knew, it could’ve been the Medical Corps.”
It was, in fact, the Marine Corps, and that day Russell became one of 450,000 recruits who joined the Corps’ ranks during WW II. Through the years those ranks of wartime comrades have thinned, and last month the still-tough leatherneck stood alone as he snapped off a final salute and walked out the main gates of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Although Russell’s leave-taking received almost as little fanfare as his entry, he carried with him more than old battle scars and campaign memories. With Russell’s mandatory retirement at age 62, the Corps lost the last active-duty marine who saw combat in WW II.
The combat veteran liked the camaraderie and even the danger in his line of work. “I’d like to do it over again,” says Russell. “Ninety percent of the time I had fun in the Corps, in the field, in combat. There’s risk in any job, but if you know your job, have a desire to do it, you’re going to have fun.”
Shipped to the western Pacific seven months after his enlistment, Russell first saw fire on the beaches of Peleliu, where he drove an amtrac, or amphibious tractor. “I was with the third wave going in,” he says. “It was hotter than hell, and the first three days we didn’t know if we were going to keep the beachhead or not. The Japanese were primed for us, threw everything at us—mortars, small-arms fire, artillery, all zeroed in on us. We had amtracs being hit right and left, blown up, marines being killed and injured. The infantry called the amtracs ‘floating coffins.’ ”
With the beach finally secured, Russell became a stretcher-bearer and helped man secondary defenses. Under heavy fire at Peleliu, where 1,250 marines lost their lives, he remembers that the two basic rules were, “Keep your head down and keep your a—down.” He did, and before leaving the island 30 days later had earned a field promotion to corporal. Next came Okinawa, where, almost unbelievably in light of the Corps’ more than 20 percent casualty rate there, Russell found “the firefights were fun. I was scared, sure, but action, something going on, something doing, that’s what I liked.”
After the war Russell was shipped to Guam, then mustered out of the service in 1946. Returning to Iowa, he bought a gas station, went bankrupt and rejoined the Corps in 1954. “As the saying goes, Once a marine, always a marine,” he says. Two years later he was a sergeant, married to a hometown Iowa girl and beginning a series of peacetime assignments as an armorer in charge of weapons repair.
By 1969 he was back at the front, this time in Vietnam, where he joined the First Marine Division at Da Nang as an ammunition officer. “I did not enjoy Vietnam in any way, shape or form,” he admits. “I couldn’t trust the younger marines like I did in the ’40s. Ninety percent of them were good; it was the 10 percent that went bad. It was the resentment of being in Vietnam that brought it out. I felt insecure around them. If I went out on watch, I wouldn’t go unless I had a shotgun in my hand, not only against the VC, but my own marines. There was some fragging going on.” Still, says Russell, “I’m a Marine professional. That was my job, and I did it.” Five months into a one-year tour he broke his ankle during a rocket attack and was flown to Guam for surgery.
Now, only weeks after his good-bye at Camp Pendleton, Russell is left with four scrapbooks of photographs and the memories of his 36-year career. He shares a modest three-bedroom stucco home with Carol, his wife of 31 years, at the edge of a small housing tract four miles from his old base. He isn’t sure what he’ll do next, although he is forcing himself to face his separation from the Marines head-on. His uniforms, he says, already have been packed away—permanently. “I want to do some traveling, just get in my pickup truck and go,” he says. “Or be a sidewalk superintendent, watching traffic and waving at the pretty women who go by.” Sound taps. Haul down the standard. The last marine of WW II has gone home.