On a fall Tuesday morning, Tom Bussjaeger stood in front of the three-foot block of concrete, back bowed and body propped up by his two canes, time weighing on his knees.
A black granite marker sits atop the concrete block, and another slab with a list of names sits on the face.
Bussjaeger, using one of his canes like a long finger, points to one of the names.
“That’s me right there,” he said, pointing to his name. “The other guys are right here.”
The names are of the members of the U.S. Marines 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, who served in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II from 1942 to 1945. The concrete block is a monument that Bussjaeger and two other members of his battalion build and dedicated 16 years ago to keep the memory of their unit alive.
The “other guys” are Bob Limpus and Bob Ornsby, members of the WWII amphibious unit whose members were known as “Gators.”
Sixteen years later, Bussjaeger, advanced in years and one of the last of his battalion members standing, is working to keep alive the memory of his unit and the monument, which sits outside of a museum dedicated to amphibious tracked, or Amtrac vehicles, at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton’s Del Mar boat basin area.
He is working on putting together a re-dedication ceremony on Oct. 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the monument.
“I doubt if we have five, six guys left from our group,” Bussjaeger said. “I just want to make sure that we aren’t forgotten.”
Bussjaeger, who lives in an assisted living facility in Encinitas, said a spark was lit inside of him when he realized the Oct. 11 anniversary of the dedication was a few weeks away. He pulled out a black binder that he keeps with mementos from the dedication, and the memories started rushing back.
The Marine Corps amtrac battalions fought in some of the key Pacific battles during the war, including Saipan, Tarawa, Tinian and Okinawa.
The amtracs, short for amphibious tractors, are the predecessors of the amphibious assault vehicles used in today’s military that can operate on land and at sea. The military began using them in 1942 as a way to transport troops from ship to shore. The vehicles were critical to the Pacific efforts because they could traverse coral reefs that tanks and other vehicles couldn’t.
Bussjaeger reached out to a gunnery sergeant at the base’s Assault Amphibian School this week to schedule the re-dedication. He also reached out to Limpus, his longtime friend and collaborator on the monument, to set up a reunion.
Ornsby, Bussjaeger said, died five years ago.
Bussjaeger vividly recalls the initial monument-making effort, borne from a reunion in 2000 of the members of the 2nd Amtrac Battalion Association. They reached out to more than 200 of their fellow members, and heard back from 35 of them.
The three decided in 2001 after not getting enough donations from the reunion group to pull their own money together to pay for the supplies. Between the three of them, they raised $1,800. They purchased the supplies from Home Depot and several Marines from the 1st Amphibious Assault Vehicle Battalion on the base assisted them in erecting it.
Bussjaeger said he hopes that some of the Marines will be able to attend the ceremony if he is able to pull it off.
“It would be nice to have them there, it would mean a lot to us,” Bussjaeger said. “I still love the Marine Corps.”