Because I live near El Toro and LTA (Lighter Than Air), I took it upon myself to be your eyes and ears during the closing of those bases on 2 July. The effort was also cathartic because I feel a great loss with the closings.
I posted earlier of my disappointment with the "official" ceremony that was little more than a commercial photo-op for local politicians. Well, that was then. I'm happy to report that the Marines can put on a show that both tears your heart out and makes you proud at the same time.
The Marine Corps officially closed the El Toro and Tustin Air Stations on Friday, 2 July 1999. The local paper predicted a turnout of (an underwhelming) 4,000. As my 15-year-old son (Nathan) and I neared the base, there were about two miles of cars on each of the three access roads. Nate couldn't believe that Mr. Impatient Driver (me) was happy to see such a traffic jam.
As we approached the main gate, sentries were handing out bumper stickers. Just inside, lining Marine Way, was a company of those fast gun-vehicles (saw 'em on "Weapons At War" but forget what they're called) with the men sitting all over them acknowledging waves from passersby. Then an old-fart in starched herringbones that you could slice tomatoes with crossed the street (turns out he bought 'em in 1957 and they still fit—Damn him!). We got to the dead-end and found a Marine directing traffic: "Left turn! Left turn! Left turn! Move it! Move it! Move it!"
So I turned left and decided to park behind an office building rather than follow the crowd.
We walked over to the flightline and established our position near the media center, next to the reviewing stand. The Third MAW Band was supposed to begin at 0930 but, due to the "overflow" crowd, it was delayed until 1000. During that time the crowd continued to roar in. A quarter mile of bleachers was set-up on both sides of the reviewing stand. The crowd ultimately was SRO, encircling the parade ground about ten deep. What a sight! The vast majority of the crowd were Marines of many generations, widows and families. Many, many civilians were there as well. The band began a marching concert to well-deserved cheers and played for 30 minutes, delighting the crowd with both their music and crisp maneuvers.
Then something magical happened—It was rather easy to spot the veterans in the crowd, so the civilians began to seek us out, hugging and shaking hands, thanking us for our service. I was in tears.
Nate, wearing his TheFew.com T-shirt, was off taking photos. Unknown to me, at about the same time the "love-in" started, a KNBC reporter interviewed Nate, then he led the reporter and cameraman over to me and I was interviewed. I have absolutely no idea what the Q&A were, given my emotional state at the moment plus having a big damn camera a foot from my face. But I guess they liked it. We were on the 5 p.m. news, and I was transmogrified into "Nathan Butsch, Sr., retired Marine"!! So much for TV news accuracy.
General Dake, ACMC, addressed the crowd with a heartfelt remembrance of deployments from El Toro and those who didn't return, ending with a Semper Fidelis! that was crisply returned from many in the crowd. Colonel Mugg, the CO of the closing of El Toro and Tustin, then addressed the crowd, asking General Dake if there was any possibility of a last-minute reprieve. There wasn't. A couple of local politicians droned and an announcer introduced members of the Orange County Legion of Valor. Then the parade began. We've all been in parades but I had never experienced one from the re- viewing stand. It is a magnificent sight—the pomp, the precision all melt into a formidable display of teamwork power. This was a small parade as they go, a rifle company arrayed in three platoons. When the platoons were formed at Adjutants Call, there was a missing platoon. That was filled by a fourth platoon streaming onto the parade ground from both sides of the reviewing stand, led by the El Toro and Tustin Colors, followed by the Colors of all of the squadrons.
After the Band Salute to the men, an F4U Corsair—one of the first planes ever to fly at El Toro—made a fly-by, did a perimeter turn, came around and performed the final touch-and-go at El Toro. The crowd went wild! Then two FA18 Hornets did a fly-over, came around, lit their burners and went vertical out of sight. WOW!
Then it was time to do the deed. The El Toro and Tustin Colors were retired and cased with great ceremony and presented to Colonel Mugg. The band played a number of verses of the Marine Corps Hymn—slow and muted during the Retirement Ceremony and ending with a verse "loud and proud"—the way it's supposed to be played. There wasn't a dry eye on the field.
Colonel Mugg did an about-face and reported to General Dake, "Sir, MCAS El Toro and MCAS Tustin are closed."
The parade continued, the troops passed in review. God! I wanted to be marching with them, just one more time. The crowd was applauding and kept on applauding after it was over. Everyone just kinda milled around like old friends. No one wanted to leave.
Semper Fidelis! and proud to be:
George Edward Butsch, 1911697, Corporal,
United States Marine Corps, 19 Feb. 1960–18 Feb. 1966
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Author: Active duty 1960–64. Served in TLC (Thai/Laos/Cambodia) theater as Avionics Chief attached to CAT (Civil Air Transport). Today he is a high-tech engineering manager. RIP: 8 Mar 2015