CAMP LEATHERNECK, HELMAND PROVINCE, ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF, AFGHANISTAN
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – It has been more than six decades since the last Marines left China in 1949. Their post-World-War II assignment is overshadowed by the occupation of Korea and the many other combative engagements the Marine Corps has been involved in during the past 60 years. The details of the “China Marines” duties and accomplishments are remembered by those who served and the few left of “The Greatest Generation” who loved and supported them.
Don G. Downer Jr., a “China Marine,” has dedicated the last four years of his life to expressing the same love and support he received when he was stationed in Tsingtao, China, from 1948 to 1949. The 82-year-old Columbia, Md., native sends care packages to troops in harms way and includes a note explaining who he is, a hasty history of his career, and a brief recollection of how he used to receive care packages from his mother while he served overseas as a young sergeant.
Mail call for Marines deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom is no different from the Marines coming out of the war with Japan in the mid 1940s and is still one of the most revered times of the day.
Imperial Japan’s leaders’ main objective during the war was to secure resources on the mainland of Asia and the islands of Southeast Asia to establish a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” under Imperial rule. They lead a massive air attack on U.S. forces in the Pacific to neutralize American striking power in hopes of limiting America’s future involvement in the war, according to the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Military History.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called this attack “a date which will live in infamy.” It struck right to the heart of all Americans and pulled the United States into the war. Japan, in turn, under-estimated the resilience of the American military. Their official surrender on Sept 2, 1945, was attributed to the crushing Island Hopping Campaign and the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When combative operations had ceased U.S. military forces were sprinkled all over the South Pacific and East Asia, including China, to accept the surrender of Japanese forces, prepare them for reparations, and man the once Imperial combat posts until post-war efforts were complete.
Downer was assigned to Communications Platoon, Headquarters Company, Headquarters Battalion, Fleet Marine Force West Pacific, as a radio technician. He was responsible for ensuring all the radio-teletype machines, used then by the military to send and receive cryptographic messages, were in working order and maintained. Despite the many hours required to keep these machines up and running, Downer and most of his fellow Marines still found time to make their way to the mail room in the afternoon.
“We had mail call once a day at [4 p.m.],” said Downer. “We would head down to the mail room, and the mail orderly would call out the name of the person who had mail, then toss it to him.”
Downer recalled the many times he would hear his name called and would expect a letter waiting for him, but to his surprise his mother had sent a care package.
“I was very young and away from home for the first time. I thought [a care package] was a gift from heaven,” Downer stated. “The excitement of opening the package and finding items that were near and dear to my heart was unbelievably ecstatic.”
He added his excitement grew as he would discover one item after the next. Downer received a variety of keepsakes and consumables, such as a can of Spam, family photos, letters from his high school friends, and even a newspaper article from his home town stating “Local Marine is in China.” His fellow Marines would gather around to see what the commotion was about and then sight in on the chow.
“When the chocolate chip cookies were spotted, they were high jacked by my buddies,” explained Downer. “After a 30-day boat ride, the cookies were just crumbs, however, they were wolfed down and the dust that remained was poured into the coffee. Nothing was wasted.”
The China Marines embarked from China in the spring of 1949 and were headed for American soil. Downer exited active service in 1952 and married a young girl he had known since his freshmen year of high school. He had not forgotten about the brotherhood he became a part of even though he left the Corps.
Downer continued his support for the services later with members of the Baltimore Marine Corps League Detachment #565 visiting the wounded warriors at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., who had sustained injuries fighting the Global War on Terrorism.
It was not until his best friend and wife of 53 years passed away in 2008 that Downer took on his current mission in life. Downer spent time grieving and reviewed his life, thinking back more than six decades of his life.
“I floundered for a period of time. I spent time searching my soul, (wondering) how to begin the rest of my life without my best friend,” said Downer. “Suddenly the light bulb lit. I gave myself the mandate to provide care packages to the troops stationed in harm’s way.”
Downer said he thought back and remembered his time in China, thinking back to frequent mail calls he and his buddies attended. He said even though most of the Marines would wait with anticipation for their name to be called for that hopeful letter, some Marines would not attend mail call because they knew there was nothing waiting for them.
“I noticed several Marines did not participate in this. I learned later that they very rarely received mail,” explained Downer. “I remember that scene, and to this day when I send a care package, I know it is going to someone who is going to enjoy opening the package and sharing the items with their buddies.
The first question Downer asks when he adopts a new unit is, “Are there any who do not or seldom received mail?” These individuals are the first to receive his care packages.
“For a Marine who hasn’t received any mail, let alone a package, this does miracles for him. A care package is the single most revered item the troops can receive,” said Downer. “It is a tremendous morale booster, but primarily, it shows the individual who receives the package that someone back home is caring for them. What a feeling it gives to this young service member who is far away from family and very lonely.”
Downer has shipped more than 1,240 packages with little assistance or donations. One group that does support his efforts is a group of ladies Downer playfully calls “The Mad Knitters.”
“During the summer of 2009 a neighbor contacted me and told me of the efforts of a group of ladies from Pennsylvania who love to knit,” explained Downer. “I asked these ladies if they would like to participate in my care package program and without hesitation they all said, ‘by all means.’”
Once these ladies began knitting the word spread and others joined in the effort to knit 100 percent wool black, brown, and olive green sock caps for the troops. Mad Knitters from four separate states have weaved together the sock caps and produced more than 3,000 to date for Downer to add to his care packages.
Marines from various units stationed half a world away receive items like the knit caps, or Downer’s signature items, such as cans of Spam and bottles of Tabasco sauce. 2nd Lt. Christopher Bockoven, the adjutant for 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, said he has received two of these packages, and the sergeant major for 3/2 has received a few packages as well.
“They have increased morale. We forward these packages to Marines who don’t have much to begin with,” said Bockoven. “I know that he has a good heart for wanting to give something to people he doesn’t know, and it really does make a difference. I would hope that he understands his gifts are appreciated.
Downer said it is important to emphasize the impact the care packages have the troops’ morale, and he is committed to continue his program until there is no longer a need for this type of support.
“I plan on continuing this project until the troops are no longer in harms way or I no longer have funds remaining to carry on,” Downer said.
For more information on Don Downer and his contributions visit www.GoDonGo.com
||CAMP LEATHERNECK, HELMAND PROVINCE, ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF, AF
This work, ‘China Marine’ Dispatches Parcels to Deserving Troops, by SSgt Earnest J. Barnes, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.