Why I Joined the Marines

The following remarks were delivered by U.S. Marine Sgt. (retired) Steven Holt at the 2023 John Wayne Birthday Celebration: A Salute to the Armed Forces.

“I’m gonna make it simple so you all understand it. They handed me you guys as a present, a regular Easter basket. They told me to get you into shape so you can handle a piece of this war. That’s what I’m gonna do and that means I’m gonna tell you what to do every day, and every minute of every day. I’m gonna tell you how to button your buttons, I’m even gonna tell you when to blow your noses. If you do something I don’t like I’m gonna jump, and when I land it’ll hurt. I’ll ride you until you can’t stand up. When you do stand up, You’re going to be Marines.”

With those inspiring words, John Wayne as Sgt. John M Stryker inspired thousands of young men to go see a recruiter and join the Marines. I know this because that’s exactly what happened to me – after seeing SANDS OF IWO JIMA shortly before my 18th birthday in January of 1976, I went to the local Marine recruiter and signed up for the Delayed Entry Program, and I headed to boot camp in June after I graduated from high school. The night before graduation from Marine Corps boot camp, our Drill Instructors marched our entire company of recruits to the theater, we actually got popcorn and pop – and we watched SANDS OF IWO JIMA – that shows just how powerful and important the film was, that it was standard procedure at that time that every Marine recruit be shown this film the night before graduation, the night before becoming a Marine. The message – this is the legacy that you must never betray.

In the center of the parade field at Parris Island is a re-creation of the famous flag raising depicted in the film, which happens shortly after Sgt Stryker is killed. Only four years later I was a Drill Instructor channeling Sgt Stryker. John Wayne’s presence permeated Marine Corps culture during my time in the Corps. The can opener we all carried around our necks to open our Sea Rats cans was called a JOHN WAYNE. It was not uncommon to hear a Marine Sgt shouting “Let’s go, we’re burning daylight” – words made famous by John Wayne as Wil Andersen in THE COWBOYS. In the initial part of my career, I was in aviation and trained to work on Harrier jets, and on one of our 6-month deployments, some of the Marines got the idea that they would show FLYING LEATHERNECKS every night for the entire deployment – and they did. The audience often included both enlisted personnel and officers – the pilots – we all loved the movie and the esprit de corps it engendered.

It was well known to Marines at the time that John Wayne almost single handedly saved the Marine Corps from being disbanded by Congress. The story goes that Congress was seriously considering getting rid of the Marine Corps in the late 1940’s, foolishly believing that the Corps was obsolete. High ranking Marine Corps personnel flew to see John Wayne and asked him to make the film. He was initially not thrilled about doing the part – but readily agreed when told what was going on and what was at stake. The film was a huge hit, reminding the public of the valor and heroism of the Marines in World War 2, and any talk about disbanding the Corps quickly evaporated. John Wayne saved our beloved Marine Corps, and as a result, his boot print at Grauman’s Chinese Theater contains sand from Iwo Jima.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA. FLYING LEATHERNECKS. FLYING TIGERS. BACK TO BATAAN. OPERATION PACIFIC. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. THE FIGHTING SEABEES. WINGS OF EAGLES. THE ALAMO. THE HORSE SOLDIERS. IN HARM’S WAY. Inspiring every branch of service. And there are more – THE LONGEST DAY – who can forget when Duke sees paratroopers dead on the poles and orders that they be taken down – and who does not fill with American pride at that moment? And let us not forget THE GREEN BERETS – the only positive film made about Vietnam, because John Wayne was not about to see our brave men and women in uniform maligned and spat upon without a response. I saw it when I was 10 years old and it inspired me, as it did so many others. It is a powerful statement of John Wayne’s devotion to the American fighting spirit and the United States military. John Wayne also donated to help build a Special Forces Memorial at Fort Bragg called Bronze Bruce.

John Wayne inspired all branches of the military in a way that no other actor ever has, or likely ever will again – that is a fact – prompting General Douglas MacArthur to praise his portrayal of the American serviceman on the screen.

“In Harm’s Way” – he was the ROCK – Rockwell Torrey – a courageous naval commander battling the odds following the attack on Pearl Harbor – Go get ‘em Navy.

In “The Green Berets” he was Colonel Mike Kirby, Special Forces Army – inspiring soldiers to be all they could be.

In Sands of Iwo Jima, he was the Marine Sergeant everybody wants on the wall – an inspiration to his Marines, the enemy’s worst nightmare, & a role model for Marine non-commissioned officers since 1949.

John Wayne served his nation by becoming the face of the American fighting spirit on screen and inspiring both service personnel and civilians through the uncertain darkness of war. He inspired me and the Marines I served with.

For my entire 20 years in the Marine Corps, I carried a picture of Stryker in my wallet – when I became a 1st Sgt Stryker’s picture was on the wall behind any desk I had – no matter where we were deployed.

John Wayne’s portrayal of the American fighting man deeply impacted me and thousands of other military personnel who felt the blood of those warriors who came before us coursing through our veins – we could not let them down, and he was the face of their courage and their sacrifice. More than once, when a challenging situation was before us, I would hear a Marine chuckle and say – “what would John Wayne do?”

 John Wayne’s words on screen – they motivated us. They gave us faith in hard times:

“Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

“There’s some things a man just can’t run away from.”

“Out here, due process is a bullet.”

“It’s not how you’re buried. It’s how you’re remembered.”

“All battles are fought by scared men who rather be someplace else.”

Sometimes his words reminded us of why we served –

“Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words.”

John Wayne’s incredible contribution to this country, and his inspiration for our military, are immeasurable. I and countless other young people grew up with courage and patriotism defined in the words and actions of John Wayne, both on the screen and in his personal life.

I have often wondered how I could ever repay the debt I owe to John Wayne for the inspiration he gave a young, long-haired kid who was scared to death, but joined the Marines anyway. I am not alone in being inspired by John Wayne to serve. To Brian Downes and the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum, thank you for allowing me to repay this debt in a small way.

“Sure, I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure, I love my country with all her faults. I’m not ashamed of that, never have been, never will be.” I agree, sir.

God Bless the United States of America, and God Bless John Wayne.