Great Pop-Pop gets his medal
By LtCol Gregory J. Johnson, USMC (Ret.)
In 1986, one week after the birth of my first-born child, a special ceremony took place on the grounds of the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia. This was a unique ceremony, but not un-similar to others, I'm sure, that have occurred before — and since. This particular ceremony the Marine Corps conducted was in honor of an enlisted U.S. Army soldier who had performed honorable service to his country during World War I. Now this individual wasn't a great war hero of any sorts in the military sense. He saw combat and did his duty to the best of his ability. He bravely fought America's fight, before returning home to become a chemist with the DuPont Company for the majority of his life. He was just one of many citizen soldiers who answered his country's call to arms in "The war to end all wars"—The Great War.
Now a little more background on this is probably in order. During 1986 I was completing a tour as an instructor at the Marine Corps' Amphibious Warfare School at Quantico. I had been married a year and we had just welcomed the arrival of our first child. My wife’s grandfather, Albert Reidinger, had served in the U.S. Army as a private during World War I. He had fought with the 78th Division (The Lightening Division) as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). He saw action at St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and the Defensive Sector. 'Great Pop-Pop', as he was called within the family, did not return to the states with his unit when the war ended. A Princeton man, he was given an opportunity to stay behind for a few months to take some academic courses at a prominent university in Paris.
[Fast forward to 1985....]
One weekend, while visiting Great Pop-Pop at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, I was helping sort through some of his belongings. Great Pop-Pop, a widower, and now 89, was beginning to get a little forgetful. It was time to move him into a place where he could get better attention and care. My duty assignment that weekend was to take care of the attic. There were a lot of old newspapers lying around that I began gathering and stuffing into plastic trash bags. After working intently for several minutes I was about to throw another piece of paper into the bag. But there was something about it that caught my attention. I stopped and unfolded it. It was a military map of the Argonne dated 1918 with a penciled FEBA (forward edge battle area) line annotated, along with observation points and other position information. The 68-year old map looked practically new despite the fact it had been laying exposed to the elements in a humid attic for at least 58 years. Also, among the clutter in the attic, was Great Pop-Pop's World War I 'Dough Boy' helmet, and a German bayonet he had secured as a souvenir—items which remain two of my most prized possessions today.
Coming down from the attic, I began quizzing Great Pop-Pop on his military service. Fortunately, Great Pop-Pop's long-term memory was still good. In fact, it was great! He recalled in great detail events of a war long ago. (Combat seems to leave an indelible imprint in the minds of those who have experienced it.) Great Pop-Pop showed me his dog tags and some medals the state of New Jersey (and his hometown of Morris Plains) had conferred on him when he did eventually return from France. He also had a diary covering his departure aboard a troop ship and some of his time on the battlefield. When asked where his U.S. World War I Victory Medal was, he stated that he had never received one. Since he did not come back with his division, I guess the processing of his medal fell through the proverbial crack.
A few day after returning home from the Delaware visit, I set to work contacting the U.S. Army about getting Great Pop-Pop his medal. Within about three weeks, the medal arrived. We were close to the delivery date of our child and knew that a Christening would take place the first Sunday in April. Great Pop-Pop would be coming down for that. And that, I thought, would be an excellent time to have his medal presented! But in thinking it over, it came to mind that perhaps a little more pomp and circumstance might be in order. After all, a veteran of World War I who has waited more than 67 years for it should surely be entitled to someone clearly more distinguished than myself presenting it!
Now during the course of my instructor tour at Quantico, the Commanding General, Lieutenant General David Twomey, had taken an interest in my dating habits. He was noted for that, according to friends of mine who had previously served under any number of his various commands. In the course of wooing my future wife, I had taken her to the numerous receptions, presentations, and other social get-togethers that come with the territory. Considering the numerous events we attended, it was only a matter of time before the general got to know Madeline well. And before too long, my boss, Colonel J.J. Carroll, would call me into his office periodically and tell me the general had told him to tell me “...to not let that girl get away!" Of course, being the dutiful officer I was, I soon complied.
Now those particular sojourns into Colonel Carroll's office (relative to the general's interest) were in stark contrast to the usual ass-chewing’s I'd normally get when invited "to see the colonel." Those "bonding sessions" Colonel Carroll and I had were special, to say the least—especially the one I got the day they raised the garrison flag UPSIDE DOWN at the headquarters building when I (unfortunately) was the command duty officer (CDO). (Fortunately, General Twomey was out of town that day.) Calling colors in the morning was one of the CDO's tasks, but that's another story for another time!......
One morning, during early March, I got the courage up to visit LtGen Twomey's office. I asked if I might have a moment of the general's time. My request was granted. But to my chagrin, most of the staff's senior colonels were in the general's office when I entered. The general asked me what I wanted. Nervous, especially with the entire command staff starring at me, I explained the story about my wife's grandfather and asked if the general might indulge our family by allowing us the opportunity to bring Great Pop-Pop into his office so that he could be presented with his medal by a real live Marine Corps general.
"No, Major!" the general replied abruptly.
Snapping quickly to attention I replied: "Aye, aye sir. Thank you for your time, General."
I was about to turn and exit the general's office when he cleared his voice and said "No Major, we'll have a parade!" Stunned, I looked at the colonels in the office and could see them looking at each other with raised eyebrows.
[Little note in order here... It might be interesting to note, at this point, that the Chief of Staff who reamed my you-know-what out the day of the infamous upside down flag raising incident, was among those colonels present. I could tell he was trying to figure out where he knew me from. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn't the only Marine major (especially fellow aviator-type) who had been perceived to have "screwed up" as CDO. Needless to say I particularly avoided all eye contact with the Chief of Staff. But I digress.... Back to the general's office scene....]
"Oh no," I thought to myself, "what can of worms have I opened here?"
"Sir," I stammered with some hesitation, "that REALLY isn't necessary. A simple office..."
Sternly, the general cut me off and replied: "Major, that is all.... We'll have a parade. And you are dismissed."
"Yes sir." I answered, and then departed. The general and his staff resumed working on whatever it was they were doing when I originally entered his office. [Let it be said, let it be done!]
So, on one fine beautiful cool Spring Friday morning at Quantico Marine Corps Base (not far from the Chapel where my wife and I had our wedding ceremony), immediately following the posting of the colors, a special ceremony took place in front of the Commanding General's headquarters building. A compliment of two companies of Marines, staff, guests, curious onlookers, and the Quantico Marine Corps Band assembled by the flag pole to pay tribute. (I should probably add that the colors did go up correctly that morning. Well done, CDO!)
A white haired, dapper, gentleman (in every sense of the word), Albert Reidinger, Private, U.S. Army, emerged from the crowd when summoned to be recognized by the United States Marine Corps for service and dedication to country—albeit 68 years after the fact. A citation, written by the staff, was read and presented. General Twomey pinned on Great Pop-Pop's medal adding that this was a special honor for him to bestow, particularly since his own father was also a recipient of the victory medal for services set forth in "The Great War to end all wars." Private Reidinger, to his family's delighted surprise, then popped the general a sharp crisp salute which General Twomey matter-of-factly returned. Following the presentation, General Twomey directed Private Reidinger to 'bout face before stepping into position next to him. A special serenade of World War I songs, performed by the band, followed. At the conclusion of "Over There" the band transitioned into a rendition of "Happy Birthday," in honor of Albert Dudley Reidinger's 90th birthday—that same 30th day of March 1986. It was a wonderful morning to be an American!
Now I really felt bad about the imposition being laid on the Headquarters staff and its Marines that day—having to participate in the extended morning formation activity. But I must have been the only one that felt that way! After the ceremony concluded, the Marines didn't leave. One by one, a significant number of them formed a line in order to file by and shake Private Reidinger's hand. This was NOT orchestrated in advance! They did it because they wanted to. Now you'd think it couldn't get any better than that—but it did! Not only did the young Marines file by to shake his hands; several took the time to say wonderful things to Private Reidinger. I was suitably impressed. Where were we getting such Marines I asked myself? (Our recruiters were obviously doing one hell of a job!) There were no dry eyes among the Reidinger clan that day. Nor, might I add, a certain Marine major named Johnson. Both twin sons of Albert Reidinger (one a World War II Marine Corps lieutenant; the other a World War II naval officer) witnessed the event with great pride, passion, and pleasure. Additionally, one brand new week-old great grandson, a little confused about the whole procession, also looked on between naps.*
Following the ceremony, we hosted a reception in our home to any and all interested. Great Pop-Pop, as I mentioned, was becoming a little forgetful. But the gravity of the ceremony he had just participated in was still with him. He knew this was a special day, not just because it was his birthday. My close friend, Curt Rastetter, was also stationed at Quantico during that time and attended the ceremony. A World War I buff, Curt asked if he might have some time later in the day for an interview with the grand old man. Prior to Curt and I going down into the basement to tape the interview, Great Pop-Pop and I were sitting in our living room talking. At the time, I was holding my new born son—his third great grandchild. The conversation was going nicely when he paused and asked: "You seem like a nice young lad, do you live around here?" Well, that kind of caught me by surprise, but I smiled and told him: “Yes sir, I live nearby.” I began wondering if the interview Curt would be having would be fruitful. Amazingly, Great Pop-Pop's long term memory was still fine (at that point). We heard some interesting stories and enjoyed "talking to history."
Albert Reidinger would live close to another four years, dying peacefully, and with typical grace, at age 93. At his memorial service on a rainy but chilly July morning in Wilmington, just prior to the burial, three fragile, stooped World War I veterans appeared. Their arrival was quite conspicuous. Proudly sporting their blue VFW caps, which denoted World War I service, they arrived all together in the biggest, darkest, non-black sedan I had seen in quite awhile. These gentlemen arrived with no assistance, although they probably could have used some. Instead, they roared up in that big sedan. The coke bottle-bespectacled driver was barely able to peer over the steering wheel. Parallel parking that monster car into the premium space they had staked out was a sight to behold. Missing the fore and aft parked cars, which bracketed their space, by mere nano-inches, the lurching vehicle finally came to a rest—perfectly centered I might add! Helping each other out of the car, like the Three Musketeers they were, it was clear these men had developed friendships many years earlier. Each seemed to know the other's limits, capabilities, and challenges. As we looked on in awe, the gents hustled themselves past us and into the warmth of the church. After the service was over, the Three Musketeers paid their respects to the Reidinger family, climbed back into their sedan and then roared off in reckless abandon! Where were they going? We didn't know! But it was a departure to behold—a hell-bent-for-leather departure that left us gasping, not only in fear for their safety, but also in just plain amazement. They seemed in a hurry. But maybe, when you're that age, you look at time as premium and make the most of every second. But maybe—they were just horrible drivers!
I think most of us there that day who observed these men realized that they were ultimately on a rendezvous with a destiny that has since surely claimed their souls. Indeed a sight to behold, these gents knew who they were, what they had done and, presumably, where they were going. They came to wish one of their brothers off to The Promised Land. These gentlemen; the ones that came before them; as well as all others who continue to follow, will always represent America to me. God Bless them all!
Our family will forever remember, with great pride, the special event that took place on that beautiful Spring morning during March of 1986. The Marine Corps looks after its own, but it seems there is always plenty of room for them to look after others also. But that's really one of its missions, if you think about it. Just one more essence of a Corps that serves this nation splendidly.
* I would add that that week-old grandson would grow up to enter the United States Military Academy, become a Ranger, and serve with distinction in Afghanistan.
Greg Johnson serves as research administrator for ARL Penn State's Institute for Manufacturing and Sustainment Technologies, a U.S. Navy Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence at Penn State. He is a native of Southern California