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VMFA-323 commemorates 60 years

Marine Corps News

Release Date: 8/11/2003

Story by Lance Cpl. Paul Leicht

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif.(August 8, 2003) -- For the Marines, the legacy and tradition of the past breathes life into the present, and for some members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, the venom of air combat remains a potent force.

In celebration of sixty years of distinguished service, former and current members of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 came together here Friday morning at a cake-cutting ceremony to formally kick-off an anniversary weekend to commemorate a history of faithful dedication to Country and Corps.

On hand at the ceremony were current Death Rattlers--many of whom recently returned from a long deployment aboard the USS Constitution. Joining them were original members of the squadron and their families, as well as several aces including retired Lt. Col. George C. Axtell Jr., who, at the age of 23 and holding the rank of major, was appointed the first commanding officer of the Death Rattlers at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., becoming the youngest commander of a Marine fighter squadron.

"I'll always remember the strong esprit de corps we had in this squadron," said retired Col. Warren W. Bestwick, 81, from Bellingham, Wash., who was with the Death Rattlers from 1944 to 1945 and in Korea. "Maj. Axtell was a superb commander."

Born into the Marine Corps Aug. 1, 1943, flying F4U-1 Corsairs, the Death Rattlers of VMFA-323 forged an esprit de corps and stepped into Naval aviation history.

"When I look back at the service of this squadron, I see the building of a strong house," said Lt. Col. Robert J. Charette, commanding officer, VMFA-323. "Marines led by Maj. Axtell built the foundation of our house. The cement holding our house together solidified between wars through hard training and taking care of our fellow Snakes. Each brick in this house was forged in combat and in peace during realistic training."

Since 1943, countless Marines have contributed to the special spirit and proud legacy associated with the name Death Rattlers, said Sgt. Maj. Keith L. Williams, squadron sergeant major, VMFA-323.

"I consider it a special privilege to meet our fellow veteran Snakes and to be a part of this organization," said Williams. "When I think of this squadron, I think of esteemed institutions like Notre Dame and to be a part of the history and traditions associated with such a unit is for me very special."

During the cake-cutting ceremony, the traditional first piece of cake was passed to the guest of honor, now retired Axtell, with the second going to the oldest and youngest Marine present-Master Gunnery Sgt. Gerald Hall, 46, maintenance chief, VMFA-323, from Yuma, Ariz., and Lance Cpl. Brandon Fitzhugh, 19, electrical shop, VMFA-323, from Wingate, Md. Such time-honored Corps traditions and customs were represented by the Death Rattlers in that single gesture.

The cake-cutting ceremony was followed by several events which continued the tradition of camaraderie among the Death Rattlers family, including a golf tournament on Saturday and a formal banquet Saturday evening at the Officer's Club.

The golf tournament featured both current and former Snakes, with enlisted and officers alike often playing on the same team, sharing in the fun on the course.

"Spending time with former members of the squadron while playing a round of golf is a great way for the young Marines especially to feel like they are really a part of a living history," said Chief Warrant Officer Robert E. Miller Jr., avionics officer, VMFA-323.

Distinguishing themselves in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and most recently in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Death Rattlers' combat record is rich and esteemed.

VMFA-323 shot down more than 124 Japanese planes in the final weeks of World War II with 12 pilots earning five or more aerial victories. They flew more than 48,000 flight hours in Korea, accounted for more than 17,000 sorties in the I Corps zone during Vietnam and, during their last deployment during OIF, were the only Marine squadron to strike strategic targets in the heart of Baghdad while simultaneously supporting the advances of both I Marine Expeditionary Force and the Army's V Corps through southern and central Iraq.

Over the decades, the Death Rattler venom has always had a deadly sting.

"I've had the privilege over the past couple of days to talk to the various generations of Death Rattlers and their families," said Charette, a native of Scraton, Penn., who took command of the squadron June 13. "Staring in their eyes I see the same fire burning as in the Snake fighter pilots flying today.

Their bodies may have grown older, but the fire still burns bright in their Death Rattler spirit."

For some Death Rattlers especially, old age has failed to slow them down or cloud their memories of brotherhood.

"I will always enjoy reuniting with my old buddies and seeing the new Marines," said retired Col. John W. Ruhsam, 81, who during the Okinawa campaign in 1945 gained the distinction of becoming an ace with seven enemy planes shot down. "I've traveled all over the world, been to more than 80 countries, met former Japanese and German pilots and aces from the war, but the Marines in this squadron are really something special. They will always be dearest to me. They are my brothers, my family."

Although the aircraft, the faces and the names have changed, the spirit, the commitment and the professionalism have never wavered since August 1943, said Charette looking out at the former and current members of VMFA-323.

"On behalf of this generation of Snakes, I would like to thank our forefathers, their families, our friends and their tremendous legacy of support for 60 years of Death Rattler memories," Charette said.

With honors for the fallen members of their squadron and a cherished esprit de corps, the Death Rattlers shared new and old war stories, as well as news about families, friends and former Marines during the twilight hours of the celebration.

Although many former Snakes are now gone, their memories and accomplishments will help ensure the Death Rattlers, and the Marine Corps, will continue to overcome new challenges with vigor and determination, leaving a living and enduring legacy of honor.



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