It’s likely that in 1964, during my second year at the University of Rochester, I had pretty simple and unrefined ideas about the course my life might take—perhaps most simply captured in the word “floundering.”
Academically, I’d slipped from a major in biology (I loved nature but not at the level of Latin needed to explain it) into psychology (seemed kind of like fitting square–theories–into round holes–common sense–yet having some face-saving connection to life sciences). I was about to surrender into something I had been doing for years, English–that is, the reading of it. New was writing about it. But I managed that well-enough to get by.
But the above journey didn’t matter all that much. My Navy ROTC scholarship guaranteed a future, whatever came after the AB degree I would receive: a minimum of four years of service for Uncle Sam in the sea service as an officer in the US Navy or the US Marine Corps.
But which? The television series “Victory at Sea” made it impossible for me to go into any service other than the Navy or Marine Corps. I was devoted to the series, never missing an episode. The opening film of destroyers plowing through heavy seas and sailors working as single organisms firing their guns, keeping the ships moving, carrying Marines ashore, and saving each other as Japanese fire rained on them were captivating. The bravery, in the face of almost certain death, of Marines in the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific was even more impressive.
And the music! Richard Rogers’ “Victory at Sea” score was beyond captivating. It pulled at this adolescent’s soul. The “Guadalcanal March” had him marching around the living room like a full-fledged Marine down Broadway!! Though he had no reason to think he’d ever be one.
And of course, there was his birth in a country, Estonia, occupied by the Soviet Union–which, in effect, made service to undermine or oppose that occupation in some way a birth-imposed duty. (His escape, carried as an infant in his mother’s arms, is a posting for the future.)
And so, then-Major Ohanesian became the instrument that would point that jumble of senses and obligations into a specific and most honorable purpose–at least so I think. And in doing so, he found a quality in me that I had no reason to believe existed.
In short, he gave birth to me as a Marine. How?
First, one must know Major Ohanesian was a model of the Marine’s Marine. He made John Wayne look like a slouch—and anyone else who played a Marine in the movies. He ran 5 miles a day before daily running was cool, even in the Marine Corps. On top of that, he was a Marine from my neighborhood in the Bronx, New York.
Navy Department policy in 1964 gave Marine Option Instructors (MOIs) each the right to bring 12 percent (as I remember) of the midshipmen in NROTC units into the Marine Corps. Put another way: “a select number.” Make that SELECT.
The Major called me into his office in the spring of 1964, just before we were due to head home and to our summer NROTC “cruise”— three weeks playing at Marine stuff in Little Creek, VA, and three weeks making like Naval Aviators in Corpus Christi, TX.
“Midshipman Vaart,” he said. “I believe you would make a good Marine.”
Dropped jaw. “Guadalcanal March.” “Select few.” “Marine’s Marine saying that??”
“Think about it, Midshipman. I won’t be here next fall but check in with my replacement and let him know what you have decided.”
“Aye aye, Sir,” I responded, dumbfounded.
In Little Creek, the Major, by then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, turned up at an amphibious landing we conducted in training. He found us Rochester midshipmen, said hello, and as he left looked at me and Midshipmen Dick Hulslander, Tom King, and Bob Rivers, and said, “See you in the Corps.”
I dutifully checked in the next fall with the new MOI, Major CB Webster. I explained my conversation with Major Ohanesian and said I was ready to take the Marine Option. He pulled out the paperwork for my acceptance, completed in every detail except for my signature. Major Ohanesian had me pegged. Truly.
Hulslander, King, Rivers, and I all went into the Corps, but we didn’t see him again. Colonel Ohanesian was killed in battle in Vietnam in March 1967. I was in-country at the time and was crushed by the news. (I would again be crushed by news in July that Tom King was killed in an ambush.)
And so, all of the above is prompted by the ceremony that took place on 17 October at the University of Rochester’s NROTC unit to commemorate a plaque installed in Major Ohanesian’s honor in the Midshipmen Training Room—an effort made by the Marine Option Midshipmen of the class of 1964, men Major Ohanesian swore in as Second Lieutenants in the Corps. The Major would not swear us in, an event for two years later, but he gave us birth as Marines. (A shadow box in the same room honors Tom–and an award given each year in his name to an exemplary midshipman.)
Images following: the plaque, the NROTC training room, and the two Marines of the class of 1966, Bob Rivers (left) and the poster, Andy Vaart (right). Neither of whom today are sculpted in the form of the MOI they admired so much way back then.