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Staff Sgt. Rogelio Gomez, airframes maintenance chief with Marine Attack Squadron 211, observes one of eight AV-8B Harrier jets taxi after landing on Wake Island Jan. 8, 2009. The return of VMA-211 to the remote Pacific atoll marks the first time since May 1993 the squadron, nicknamed the "Wake Island Avengers," has returned to its symbolic birthplace where a handful of the unit's Marines helped defend the island from an overwhelming Japanese invasion force from December 8-23 in 1941 before it was captured. The squadron departed Jan. 10 and flew to Iwakuni, Japan, where it attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit for a seven- to nine-month deployment. VMA-211 is based in Yuma, Ariz. (Photo by Gunnery Sgt. Bill Lisbon)

Photo by Gunnery Sgt. Bill Lisbon

Hallowed Ground: Yuma-based Avengers' history reawakened on trip to Wake Island

28 Jan 2009 | Gunnery Sgt. Bill Lisbon

More than 67 years ago, the forebearers of one Yuma-based squadron faced impossible odds on this remote Pacific atoll as swells of Japanese troops dashed against the jagged coral beach.

While the battle--a 20th century Thermopylae--ended in defeat, its gains included highly decorated heroes and a legacy few military units can reflect upon.

Even for Marines with the squadron today, few get to revisit its symbolic birthplace and walk the ground once stained with the blood of its inaugural ranks.

Yet on Jan. 8-10, approximately 60 men and women from Marine Attack Squadron 211 retook the island during a stop en route to Iwakuni, Japan, and a deployment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"This place is hallowed ground to this squadron," said Lt. Col. Vance L. Cryer, the squadron's commanding officer.

Although small groups of Marines from VMA-211 have visited the island in recent years, the last time a force this size-including its commanding officer, most of its pilots and eight of its Harriers-set foot here was in 1995.

The island's current inhabitants, a trio of Air Force personnel and more than two dozen U.S. civilian caretakers from the Chugach Support Services, Inc., welcomed the Wake Island Avengers as honored guests.

After a reception in the air field's terminal, where VMA-211 Marines could visit a modest museum of Wake Island relics, Marines were treated to a tour of the island that ended near the site of Marine Fighter Squadron 211's last stand on Dec. 23, 1941.

"I could almost visualize Japanese storming the beaches," said Cpl. Anthony Burton, flight equipment technician. "It's really motivating to see the history. A new lance corporal that puts on the patch doesn't see the history of one that takes a trip here."

Others, like Staff Sgt. Rogelio Gomez who has served with the Arizona-based squadron since 1997 and stopped here briefly years ago, likened returning to the island as a Wake Island Avenger to a religious pilgrimage.

"This is our birthplace," said Gomez.


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