MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
If a stranger were to ever watch Ray Wilburn stroll down any street aboard the Combat Center, he or she may be inclined to think Wilburn is some sort of celebrity.
As this aged man wearing clean, creased clothes and thick rimmed glasses makes his way down any hall of any building on base, Marines, sailors and civilians of all ranks and ages approach him and shake his hand.
If strangers knew the history behind retired Sgt Maj. Ray V. Wilburn, they might do the same thing.
Wilburn, who turns 90 years old July 1, has more than 31 years of Marine Corps experience under his belt and has lived to tell tales of three major wars in the 20th Century.
When Wilburn is not meeting and greeting Combat Center personnel, you can find him, well, almost anywhere. He rises early each day to take a walk around his half-acre property in Twentynine Palms. He claims weeds are not allowed to grow on his lot, and if there is anything on his car that can shine, it will shine.
Wilburn is a southern-bred man born in a small cotton farm near Wolfe City, Texas. He said despite the dignity surrounding the identity of being a Marine, his initial reason for joining the Corps was a little more primal.
“I was hungry,” he said. “I joined in the mid 30s when there were no jobs, no money, no nothing.”
At the ripe young age of 20, he hitchhiked nearly 70 miles southwest to Dallas to enlist in the Corps on Oct. 19, 1939.
Between his experiences playing softball and boxing in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and earning less than 25 cents a day working on farms prior to his enlistment, physical fitness was no obstacle for him.
Wilburn recalls how, after his arrival to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., his drill instructors used to carry 30-inch sticks with them during drill practice to “measure” distances between recruits.
“If the drill instructor couldn’t march between squads without touching you, he would introduce that 30-inch stick to your shins,” Wilburn said. “We just took things like that as corrections and we carried on.We didn’t give them a second thought.”
After graduating boot camp, he was promptly assigned to 2nd battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Brigade, as an artilleryman. It wasn’t long before the satisfaction he felt in the Corps surpassed that of having a full belly.
“I liked the regimentation,” he said. “I liked being a part of something. It also gave me an education since I had to quit school early in life. What I lacked in formal education the Marine Corps let me make up in determination and drive.”
Wilburn saw his share of bloodshed and turmoil in the next couple years after transferring to India battery, 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, at the outbreak of World War II.
On Oct. 25, 1942, Wilburn’s boat traveling from Tulagi to Guadalcanal was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Wilburn and the rest of the crew had to spend three hours in the water before being rescued by a Higgins boat.
By the end of the war, Wilburn completed nine landings over 38 months with his battalion, which was redesignated as the 2nd 155 Howitzer Battalion, 3rd Corps Artillery.
In 1950 during the Korean Conflict, Wilburn served as a troop trainer for the Supporting Arms Battalion of the 11th Marines Artillery. He eventually returned to the states in 1952 and was then sent to Japan.
Wilburn entered the Vietnam War in 1967 attached to 1st Medical Battalion. The commanding officer of the battalion asked Wilburn to shoulder the responsibilities of a commanding officer since he was too busy performing surgeries. The request put Wilburn in charge of escorting high-ranking visitors around the hospital and acting as “the commanding officer’s mouth” until he returned to the states in 1968.
Although the wars have been long over for Wilburn, he continues to pay respects to his brothers in arms by honoring their memory.
The 2nd 155 Howitzer Battalion was sent overseas and left there until the end of the war, he said. Because of that, they were given the nickname “The Forgotten Battalion.” The battalion now hosts veteran reunions each year that Wilburn and his wife Irma never miss.
Wilburn married his wife, Irma Kojundzich, at the Combat Center’s Protestant Chapel on Dec. 21, 1957. Since then, they have had a daughter, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren born here at the Combat Center, said Irma.
“I’m very proud of my husband,” she said. “He’s unbelievable. He’s like a Timex watch – just keeps on ticking.
“We have had a good life in the Marine Corps and we cherish all the friends we have made,” she said. “It was agood environment to raise our children in.”
Larry Stratton, the personal readiness and community support branch head for Marine Corps Community Services here, is considered a close friend by both the Wilburns.
Stratton first met Wilburn here in the 1990s before he retired as a master sergeant. Since the first time he met the retired sergeant major, Stratton said he has felt a deep respect for the man.
“I think he is just an awesome individual,” Stratton said. “One thing I have to say about his character that’s hard to say about anybody is that I have never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He has a very positive outlook on life.”
Stratton continued, saying Wilburn has never lost sight of how to lead by example and the importance of taking care of your own.
“You will never see that man drink or hear him say a foul word,” Stratton said. “He is a true southern gentleman. And at 90 years old, he still fits into his dress blues. Young Marines are always approaching him, and I have yet to see him turn away a Marine who wants to talk. If it is God’s will to keep me alive as long as him, I just hope I can stay as active as he is.
“I could talk for hours about how much respect I have for this man,” Stratton said. “Not only for the service he has done for this country, but also just for the man he is.”
Wilburn said the Corps greatly attributed to his health and wellness today, and there was no way he could give up that lifestyle after he retired.
“All I know and everything I have I owe to the Marine Corps,” he said. “I feel that although I’ve been long retired, I still have something to offer young Marines. If the information I give them about my experiences and background is enough to keep even one young Marine alive, then it’s well worth the while. Besides, I’m not one who can spend 31 years in the Corps and then just pack all my memorabilia away in a trunk in a garage.”
He continued, saying he hopes his words of advice can break through generations and inspire modern-day warriors to keep the Marine Corps title pristine and honored.
“Set an example not only for the Marines now, but as a person in general,” he said. “Be proud of yourself and be thoughtful, trustworthy and dependable.”
Wilburn said he looks forward to celebrating his 90th birthday at the Combat Center with friends and relatives before the Independence Day holiday.