JACKSONVILLE, N.C. --
On cue, the bugler drew a heavy breath, and with the morning light dancing off the contours of his instrument, released the slow, somber notes of taps. For one member in particular, the notes created a deep tribulation as she batted away the welling tears. However, her waves of emotion are not in remembrance of a lost husband or fallen son, but for a brother - a past sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
The gravesite of Thomas J. McHugh lies among those of other veterans within the Coastal Carolina State Veterans Cemetery, adjacent to the Lejeune Memorial Gardens, with the words “WWII, Korea, Vietnam” below his name. It was on the morning of Nov. 10 that elements of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune conducted a wreath-laying ceremony in accordance with the Marine Corps birthday tradition.
“He was so dedicated to the Marine Corps - it was his life,” said Mary Ellis, 95-year-old sister of McHugh who, along with other family members, was in attendance for the ceremony. “He was about three or four years old when he saw a Marine in dress blues walk by him on the street. It was then and there that he decided to be a Marine.”
Per the Marine Corps Casualty Procedures Manual, every year on the Corps’ birthday, wreaths are laid at the gravesites of former commandants and sergeants major of the Corps who passed away, regardless of where they rest in the world.
“This is just one of the many traditions we as Marines hold in high regard to help remind ourselves of our rich legacy,” said Cpl. Noor Elquadi, clerk with the Installations and Personnel Administrative Center Legal Department. “We still hold much respect for (McHugh) as a Marine, even after death, because death is no excuse for us not to honor those who stood before us.”
From Guadalcanal to the Chosin Reservoir to Vietnam, McHugh wrote himself into the annals of Marine Corps history, eventually becoming sergeant major of the Marine Corps from June 1962 to July 1965. McHugh left active duty in December 1970, and passed away 20 years later, earning the respect of the following generations of Marines and the laying of a wreath every Marine Corps birthday.
“If it weren’t for the past Marines and their accomplishments, we wouldn’t be here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Laura Bigley, career planner for Headquarters and Support Battalion, MCB Camp Lejeune. “If we lose sight of the traditions done to honor them, I see the Marine Corps eventually dying. Traditions epitomize who we are as well as ensuring we never forget our history.”
As Marines and civilians alike departed following the ceremony, the wreath stood proudly over McHugh, acting as a beacon of the exploits of yesteryear. Across the globe, 34 wreaths were posted for 27 past commandants and seven past sergeants major, all instrumental in crafting today’s Marine Corps and laying the groundwork for its future.