In his dark blue Marine dress uniform trimmed with red piping, wearing white gloves and a white hat, Ernie O’Brien of Port Charlotte, Fla. stands ramrod straight at 87. He looks as if he could hit the beach at Guadalcanal, as he did more than 65 years ago. His silver mustache adds a touch of manliness to a face that has seen war up close and personal.
The red master gunnery sergeant stripes on his left sleeve — three stripes up, three rockers down with a bursting bomb in the center — complement seven gold hash marks above his left cuff, each stripe representing four years of service in the Corps. The six rows of campaign ribbons on his chest, set off by 10 battle stars signifying major battles he was involved in, plus an additional star denoting a Presidential Unit Citation he received, don’t tell the whole story of this Marine poster boy.
The year after graduating from Wickliffe High School outside Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939, O’Brien joined the Marines. In March 1942 he shipped overseas to British Samoa where his unit trained for months before sailing to Guadalcanal, one of the major Pacific battle sites during World War II.
O’Brien arrived a week after the landing force charged onto the beach and began a six-month siege of the island. He hadn’t been on the island long when he contracted dengue fever and spent nine days recuperating from the tropical disease. A short time later he was reassigned to New Caledonia where his outfit kept Marine units supplied.
“When we arrived on Bougainville in November 1943, Marine Corsair fighter planes were fighting a big air battle against Japanese Zeros right over our heads,” O’Brien explained. “It was like something out of World War I.”
His unit supplied the 3rd Marine Division fighting the Japanese on Bougainville.
“Every night a (Japanese) plane would come over and drop a bomb or two near us and the next morning the same thing happened. One night they hit our supply dump, it was like the Fourth of July with ammunition going off all over.
“I helped wheel out 55-gallon drums of aviation gasoline before it exploded. I was awarded a Bronze Star with V for valor, and I also received a Navy Commendation for this action,” he said proudly.
It took his outfit two days to extinguish the fire ignited by the Japanese bomb. The supply dump was a shambles.
From Bougainville, O’Brien and his unit shipped out for Benika, in the Russell Islands, and on to Guam where they supplied the 1st Marine Division fighting the Japanese forces on that Pacific island.
When the war ended in August 1945, Gunnery Sgt. O’Brien was still helping guard a supply depot on Guam.
“I came back home in early December 1945, my folks didn’t know I was coming. I arrived in Cleveland in the dead of winter. The Greyhound buses were on strike, so I decided to walk the last 15 miles to get home with my sea bag on my shoulder. I surprised the hell out of my family when I showed up at the front door,” he recalled.
O’Brien ended up in China after WWII serving with Marine forces battling Chinese communists from 1946-1949. By 1952 the Korean War was well under way when he arrived there as a member of a Marine guard company.
“Korea was the worst place I’d ever been in my life. It was stinking hot in the summer and so cold in the winter,” he said. “I spent a year in Korea and was glad to get out of there.”
After returning to the states, O’Brien took a Mediterranean cruise as part of a NATO task force. For several months he and his unit played war games with Greek, Turkish, Italian and American forces in Europe.
Years before the Vietnam War broke out, he was a logistic specialist serving with the 1st Marine Air Wing out of Iwakuni, Japan. It was 1962 and his unit was supplying American advisors and intelligence specialists serving as instructors to South Vietnam forces.
“One of the first things we did over there was moved the mountain people out of the South Vietnam highlands away from the Viet Cong who were attacking them,” he said. “We took ’em by helicopter to safer locations where they could be protected from the communist forces.”
In August 1970 when he retired from the Marines, O’Brien had served 30 years and two days in the Corps. He had taken part in three wars and seen the world as a “Leatherneck.”
“It was the best 30 years I ever had,” he said.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Feb. 2, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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**O’Brien died on Nov. 7, 2012 in North Carolina. No further information is available at this time.