Aboard the Yorktown with 1st Marine Division veterans

Vietnam Veteran Col. Myron Harrington, who talks with fellow Vietnam Veteran Gary Petrous, took part in a meet and greet session held Wednesday on the Yorktown during a reunion of the 1st Marine Division.

Their steps might be a little slower, but each man carries the unmistakable pride of leather that goes with being a Marine.

This week in Charleston, members of the 1st Marine Division and its association are holding their annual reunion of one of the more storied forces in the military.

It is considered the oldest, largest and most decorated division in the Marine Corps, with a history dating back to 1911.

Over time, their numbers answered the call in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, several older members of the Old Breed sat down on board the Yorktown at Patriots Point to discuss their time in service and what it still means to them today. Here are their stories:

Elmer "Hawk" Hawkins, 91

Daytona Beach, Fla.

After Pearl Harbor, for Elmer Hawkins it was going to be the Marines or nothing.

His father had enlisted in the Marine Corps in World War I, getting gassed in France. The family knew that was where his destiny would be.

In a matter of months, Hawkins found himself on a troop ship waiting to land on Guadalcanal, a muddy, bug-and-malarial island that would become the site of America's first major land victory in the Pacific.

His baptism by fire came the first day and even before he'd left his transport.

"Zeroes came in and strafed us on the ship. Dive bombers came in and dropped bombs, and torpedo planes came in and dropped torpedoes."

Hawkins made it safely to shore where he would spend the next weeks taking and dispatching radio messages around Henderson airfield. Yet even on land he couldn't escape the attention of Japanese airplanes. One caught him in the open, on a trail.

"It was a Zero and he was coming right at me and I could here the thump, thump, thump of the shells hitting the ground as I was walking away."

Hawkins survived Guadalcanal but later would find himself in the amphibious landings at Peleliu, a coral rock island that brought some of the most stubborn Japanese fighting of the war. Even getting onto the island was hazardous, as the tracked vehicle that Hawkins was riding on had to climb over submerged reefs.

Once on land, Hawkins would be part of the push to claim the island's airfield, a plot that the Japanese sent 13 tanks onto to try to defend.

"I had a sniper take a shot at me and miss," he said.

Hawkins remains proud of his service and the men that he served with.

"I would do it again if I had to."

Denny Weisgerber, 84


Denny Weisgerber remembers his battlefield in Korea resembling pictures of the static trenches in World War I.

Each side faced off across a No Man's Land, and the fighting represented sequences of capturing and defending hills or outposts.

"We would get in the bunkers when they started shelling us and button up."

Weisgerber's love for the Marines came early. He was around 5 years old and saw several wearing their dress blues and marching in a July Fourth parade color guard. He was sold. He joined in 1949, at age 18, looking to make it a career.

"There was still a great surge of patriotism flowing in from World War II."

Two years into the Korean War, Weisgerber was sent to the war zone to defend a place called The Hook against "tons" of Chinese on the other side.

"They were constantly trying to infiltrate the lines. And we were being shelled 24 hours a day. Practically, by as much as 400 or 500 rounds a day."

The Chinese habit was to move into the American lines while the shelling was underway. Sometimes, Weisgerber would emerge from his bunker after the firing lifted to find enemy soldiers just a yard or two away.

"We were on a 24-hour alert, but we had 100 percent watch at night and about a 95 percent watch during the day."

During the worst of the fighting, Weisgerber recalls outposts being overrun and Marines giving all they had to keep the enemy away. Despite being wounded from mortar fire, he carried an injured man down a hazardous slope.

"That was my job. I could have sent somebody else, but I'm the guy in charge." He was later awarded the Navy Cross.

For anyone thinking of joining the Marines, Weisgerber has this advice. "It's a tough job. It will make a man out of you in a hurry. But you better be ready for it because there's no 'mama' there."

Jim Dougherty, 68

Eagleville, Pa.

Jim Dougherty's story mirrors a lot of those who joined the Marines. He wasn't the greatest student in school but still wanted to find ways to test himself.

"The challenge," he said. "I looked at the Marine Corps and I thought it was a challenge that would be great."

Dougherty enlisted in 1964 and found himself at the training depot in Parris Island.

"After boot camp, the challenges don't seem that big," he said of the first of many life lessons he would receive in the Corps.

Following time state-side, Dougherty was sent to Vietnam for what would be the first of his two tours. He compares his arrival "in-country" to that of the opening sequence from the movie "Platoon" when the raw troops exit a plane to get their first glimpse of a steamy, noisy, sun-burnt Southeast Asia.

"It's a beautiful country. The 'yellows' of the sand are deeper colors, the 'green' of the mountains ... it was like all of a sudden you were stepping into a 'live' world."

His first tour in 1966 included setting ambushes and patrols while trying to stop the Viet Cong. During his first firefight, he remembers his heart pounding "so loud that I couldn't figure out what that noise was."

He was sent home after being wounded.

Dougherty's second tour began in 1967, but it would carry him into 1968 during what would become the Tet Offensive - the all-out attack by the North on the South. He was wounded during fighting on the Troui River Bridge. Dougherty finished the war with three Purple Heart medals and a Silver Star.

One of his takeaways remains the fact that leading men in combat is a unique experience.

"When you lead people and you tell them what to do, their life is in your hands and it's overwhelming."

Of being a Marine, "I think it's the greatest thing in the world."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.