Local Marines gather to honor comrades, the Corps
MANCHESTER There are no ex-Marines.

At 84, Gedeon LaCroix of Arlington and Bob LaPorte of Bennington are still Marines, although six decades have passed since they were in uniform.

Both grew up together and went to school in Bennington. In 1945, they shared a foxhole on Iwo Jima, scene of one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Both watched the U.S. flag rise over Mount Surabachi an image immortalized in one of the most renowned war photographs ever taken.

"We thought that when the folks back home see that picture, they'll think the island was secured," LaCroix said Thursday. "We had just begun to fight."

There are no ex-Marines on Nov. 10, the day the U.S. Marine Corps was founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775. Around the world, wherever Marines are stationed, former and active duty Marines gather and remember the anniversary, now 230 years after the founding of the nation's smallest military branch, said Donald Keelan of Arlington.

One day before all veterans of military service are accorded special recognition on Veterans Day, Marines of the Northshire converged on Manchester for a luncheon Thursday at Mulligan's Restaurant. The event was highlighted by a ceremonial cutting of a cake by the oldest and youngest Marine present a tradition that has developed over time, Keelan said.

The informal group of formerly active local Marines has seen their number grow from less than 10 to more than 30, and a decade ago began holding their own local observance of the anniversary of the Marine Corps, Keelan said. Membership in the elite military unit creates a special and permanent bond, he said.

"The spirit of the Corps is ingrained when you join and it never leaves," he said. "Old or young, it's the same way."

The spirit even trumps former military rank, said Sam Lloyd of Weston, who went on to a notable acting career after the Korean War.

While taking a break from lunch, Lloyd recalled an inspection by a senior Marine general who had arrived to review his unit, which was stationed on Guam after the hard fighting on Iwo Jima, he said.

When he finally arrived after the unit had waited several hours for him, he took a quick stroll around the group and told them, "'I'm proud to be wearing the same uniform as you men,'" Lloyd said.

"Somehow, that was all he had to say," Lloyd said. "I've never forgotten it."

Lloyd was 18 years old when he joined the Marines in 1942, and saw combat with the 21st Marine Regiment during the following three years. He returned for a second tour during the Korean War, but was never sent overseas.

There's a reason why young men go to war, he said.

"When you're young, you do stuff automatically, without reflection," he said. "I was older by the time I was called back for Korea, and I could sense a difference you pause and reflect more, and it's the pause that can kill you."

Memories of comrades who didn't make it back the real heroes, several said were never far below the surface for the two-hour lunch.

Robert Dombrosky, a former captain in the 4th Marine Division who also saw action on Iwo Jima, said he lost three close friends during the 34-day battle, among the 7,000 marines who died securing the island in the western Pacific.

"I remember them every day," he said.

He also remembers two corpsmen, or medical personnel, who risked their lives to pull him out of a ditch where he had spent the previous night, shot in both legs, he said.

"If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here," he said. "I never found out their names I wish I knew who they were."

The bond of shared experience in the Marines united both old and young Marines, said Gilbert Debus, 40, of Danby.

"It's hard to explain," he said. "But when you meet a Marine anywhere you have a brother."

Debus of Danby, 40, left active service in 2003 and Thursday was his first time with the group of veteran Marines. He got to share the cake-cutting duties with the oldest Marine present, 85-year-old John Chapin of Manchester.

The pair used a 19th-century replica ceremonial sword as a carving knife, after the Marine Corp hymn was loudly sung.

"Anyone who was in the Marines has a lot in common with the others," Chapin said. "It's a special relationship."

Contact Andrew McKeever at andrew.mckeever@rutlandherald.com.