MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
It’s this Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune resident’s birthday, but no one will actually celebrate it. Its arms droop to the ground—years of holding the weight on its shoulders have worn it down. Scars decorate its dense frame, especially on its back where a large incision was made to help protect it. It has been here well before the base—even well before the Marine Corps.
The Bicentennial Tree, believed to be the oldest living tree on base, celebrates its approximately 420th birthday this year, and it shows. Cables hold up its long, sweeping limbs that nearly touch the ground and concrete has been poured into part of the trunk for support and to stave off infection.
The live oak, or quercus virginiana, on McHugh Boulevard was dedicated as the Bicentennial Tree on July 4, 1976, in commemoration of the nation’s 200th anniversary. It was estimated at 385 years old at the time.
“The Onslow County Bicentennial Commission probably asked the base if they had anything to contribute and that could have been it,” said L. J. Kimball, a retired lieutenant colonel currently serving as a historian and vice chairman of the Museum of the Marine. “I presume that is the base’s contribution, and that is only a presumption.”
Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was established as Marine Barracks New River in 1941 when the Department of the Navy purchased 110,000 acres of land for a much-needed amphibious training facility on the East Coast. Since then, it has grown, and the Bicentennial Tree remains.
“The base was bleak in 1942,” said Kimball. “It would have been easy to bulldoze everything, but someone, whose name is lost to posterity, decided to keep it.”
Jim Lanier, a master gardener at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the New Hanover County Arboretum, stated that the fact that live oaks generally grow crooked means they are hard to use for timber.
“While other oaks in the area were being lumbered, live oaks were not really being used,” he explained. “It’s hard to cut one of these down.”
According to the USDA website, live oaks grow from Virginia to the Florida Keys and as far west as Texas. Lanier called it an icon of the South.
“The live oak is a traditional coastal tree,” he said. “It is limited not by how cold winter is, but needs a hot summer to do well. They are noted for their graceful shapes, are very easy to grow, drought tolerant, disease resistant, and just needs room. You can’t replace those in our lifetime.”
Their estimated lifespan is 300 to 400 years, making Lejeune’s Bicentennial Tree slightly older than average. “Today,” states the USDA website, “live oaks are protected for public enjoyment.” This must be true of the Bicentennial Tree. Marines run beneath its leafy canopy, rejoicing in the brief, shady reprieve, read while sitting between its branches and marvel at its majesty all on a daily basis.
Quite possibly the biggest tragedy of the Bicentennial Tree is how little is actually known about it. It is believed to be the oldest tree on base and the base has continued to maintain it, but not many people could give any information on why.
Wayne Crump, the Planning and Estimation supervisor at the operations section of Public Works Division, said several arborists have looked at it over the years and all agree it’s a special tree. In addition to an arborist, or tree doctor, checking up on the Bicentennial Tree annually, a lot of work has been done to keep the tree alive.
Base officials have uncompacted the ground surrounding the tree and have installed a lightning arrester system, because the tree has been struck by lightning on multiple occasions.
“As big and tall as it is, it’s a lightning magnet,” said Crump. “It’s been struck a few times before. The copper wire attracts the lightning and drives it into the ground.”
They have even rerouted the sidewalk at one point, because runners have collided with the Bicentennial Tree’s low-hanging limbs. It was replaced with a pervious concrete surface so water could soak through, one of the first places the surface has been installed on base. The tree’s limbs still have to be clipped by professionals occasionally to keep it from extending into McHugh Boulevard.
“Some people say the tree is encroaching on the road, but I say the road is encroaching on the tree,” said Crump.
Crump believes that the Bicentennial Tree will continue to be enjoyed by a new generation of Marines. A new dining facility with outdoor eating area is being built nearby, and he thinks some Marines may want to walk over to eat in its shade.
The Bicentennial Tree has a marker naming it the fourth stop on the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Self-Guided Tour, but according to Bob Ceklosky, the Department of Public Safety operations chief, the program was shut down about two years ago.
“We don’t let people on base to do the self-guided tour anymore,” he explained. “There used to be booklets at the visitors center.”
In an era marked by budget cuts, who can say how many years the oak will continue? Regardless, the Bicentennial Tree will live on. Danny Marshburn, the program manager for the base’s Forest Management Program, said that representatives of the state forest service have collected seed from the tree.
“They collected some seed from it to grow it elsewhere—to grow trees off the genetics of this one,” he said.
Could it be that the Bicentennial Oak is hiding mysteries beneath the shroud provided by its canopy? Perhaps Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune himself once rested in the shade beneath. Or is it simply just a tree that has been here so long no one wants to get rid of it? Either way, happy birthday.