Once a Marine, always a Marine. It’s a title worn with pride, and a hard fought one at that. While it may be distinctly different, the title of Honorary Marine is given to those civilians who have demonstrated their own unique kind of grit.
Since 1992, the Marine Corps has awarded the title of Honorary Marine to just under 100 people. It’s bestowed exclusively by the Commandant, and recognizes civilians who have gone above and beyond, typically those who have lended considerable support or contributions to the Marine Corps. No two recipients have the same story, and each honor earned was done so through individual strength.
Arguably the most obscure, Bugs Bunny is in fact considered an honorary Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps. In a 1943 cartoon titled Super Rabbit, Bugs eats a “super-vitamized, locked-in flavorized, heliomized, modern-desigonized, super-carrot” that endows him with superhuman (or super-rabbit) abilities. After getting himself into some trouble, he realizes his powers have worn off, so he runs into a phone booth, claiming that his current predicament looked “like a job for the REAL Superman!” He emerges in dress blues, singing the Marines Hymn. Bug’s performance not only earned him the honor nearly 50 years later, he’s also the only cartoon character on the list.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Joe Rosenthal was named an Honorary Marine in 1996, by Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak. Rosenthal is responsible for one of the most iconic images in American history, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, taken during WWII.
When the war first broke out, Rosenthal tried to join the Army as a photographer. He was denied due to vision problems, but eventually found his way overseas with the Associated Press. His prowess with battlefield photography quickly distinguished him, and he was with one of the first waves of Marines to land on Iwo Jima in 1945.
The flag Rosenthal captured was actually the second to be planted in Japanese soil. He had arrived late to Mount Suribachi, where the first flag was raised, but when he got there, he noticed preparations being made to raise a much larger one. Since the historic first flag was already flying, Rosenthal was part of only a small handful of people, mostly photographers, to pay much mind to the six Marines and one Navy corpsman who struggled under the weight of that larger, second flag.
The photograph became the poster image for the war almost as quickly as Rosenthal was able to develop it. The Seventh War Bond Tour, which raised $26 billion for the U.S. Treasury, used it above most all other imagery, while it also appeared on billboards, front pages of newspapers, storefronts and movie theaters. As for the men in the photo, while given a warm reception upon their return stateside, only three of the seven ever made it home.
Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo in 1945 and, after the war, went on to work at the San Francisco Chronicle until he retired in 1981. The image became the muse for the Marine Corps War Memorial, which was dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on November 10th, 1954, the Marine Corps’ 179th birthday.
Mark Noah became an Honorary Marine in 2015, for helping spearhead efforts that brought home the remains of hundreds of Marines and sailors who were previously thought to be “unrecoverable.” President and founder of the non-profit organization History Flight, Noah’s original vision was simply preserving and honoring the history of aviation in the United States. After learning that nearly 80,000 service members remained missing since WWII, Noah redirected a large portion of his time to recovery.
“In subsequent years, we were invited to instruct as aircraft history experts for missing persons recovery operations. That changed our focus from strictly historic preservation to recovering the people who made the history possible.”
Noah and his team utilize both old and new, combining old military maps and current aerial views along with cadaver dogs and cutting edge radar tech to help with their search efforts. Along with his work ethic, his humility precedes him, and it’s clear that his achievements are anything but self-serving. When asked about Noah, Retired Col. Michael Brown remarked, “He is so damn smart and determined. He doesn’t want accolades. He just looks at it as mission accomplishment, and there is nothing more Marine than that.”
In 2016, then Commandant Gen. Robert Neller awarded the title to seven-year-old Wyatt Gillette. Born with Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, Wyatt had been a fighter since day one. His father, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Gillette, had reached out to fellow Marines for prayers and support while Wyatt was going through a particularly difficult bout with his health.
One of the Marines who knew the Gillette family decided to create an online petition in order to have Wyatt named an Honorary Marine. Just days after it was created, it caught the attention of Gen. Neller and was almost immediately approved.
“The courageous fight that Wyatt continues is absolutely Marine. I hope this small gesture will bring Wyatt and his family a bit of joy during their tremendous battle. . . Wyatt is the epitome of Semper Fidelis, and we are hoping and praying for him and his family.” Gen. Neller in an interview with Marine Corps Times.
Wyatt would pass away just a few weeks before his eighth birthday, having become the 96th, and youngest, person to receive the distinction.
While they all share in the same title, every person named an Honorary Marine has exhibited unique strength, ingenuity and perseverance beyond measure and, with that, exemplifies what it is to be a Marine.