Tom Torgerson was a United States Marine in the early 1950s. He was the first of his family to become a Marine, though that same family has a rich history in military service, with uncles, cousins and grandparents in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard — just about everything except the marines. Why was young Torgerson different?
“When I was a youngster, I saw a [film] called ‘Halls of Montezuma,’” Torgerson said. “That was for me. I knew I was going to be a Marine.”
The movie was made in 1950 about a group of Marines fighting on an island held by the Japanese set in World War II. It features actual color footage of marines fighting interspersed with the actors and sets. Heady stuff for a young Torgerson.
So he became a Marine. And then he went to war.
“We didn’t know where we were going. I couldn’t spell ‘Korea,’” Torgerson said. “[But] we were the first marines committed to the battle in Korea. We were canon fodder.”
Now, the Marines that Torgerson knew and the Marines of today are a little different. Today, Marines are armored and have high-tech weaponry and intelligence. In Torgerson’s day, their armor was a helmet. Otherwise, they wore boots, pants and a shirt.
So on one hand it may be no surprise he was injured; on the other hand, it’s a wonder he didn’t die.
“Incoming got me,” he said. “Burns. Napalm or gas or something. I was on fire is all I know.”
He spent six or seven weeks in a hospital in Japan, but was quickly back out into the fray with his buddies. But it wasn’t much longer until he was injured again — shrapnel got him just below his rib cage.
That was it for Torgerson for war. Still, he’d seen and done plenty.
“Like all wars, you dig a lot of foxholes,” he said. “We dragged the Army out of a lot of battles they got into.”
After that, it was normal life for Torgerson. He raised a family. He owned a plumbing business in the Los Angeles area. He moved to Atascadero in 1979, but the economy wasn’t great then, and the plumbing shop couldn’t quite cut it in Atascadero.
So he had to move back to where the work was in about 1984. But he was back in Atascadero in 1990 or so.
“Our hearts were here. We bought property here,” he said.
It took the Torgersons four years to build their house, but they still live in it today.
When you own a plumbing business, there’s plenty of work to do. When not actually on jobs, there’s maintaining stock, doing payroll and cleaning tools. When you’re retired, there’s a lot less that’s required.
“You twiddle your thumbs,” Torgerson said with a laugh. “You clean your rifles.”
Fortunately for him, he was already a Mason and involved with the Marine Corp League, the organization that does Toys for Tots every Christmastime.
At some point, Torgerson and the fellows in the Marine Corp League realized that, at least on the Central Coast, there was no way for a deceased soldier to be properly honored at his or her funeral. And so the Central Coast Letherneck Honor Guard was born.
According to the guard’s website, leatherneckhonorguard.org, the purpose of the guard is to “provide military honors for veterans from all branches of service at their funerals or memorial services and further to participate in public patriotic events in a way that shows pride for the United States of America, the Marine Corps, our uniform, and all veterans past and present.”
Or, in Torgerson’s words, “it’s our duty to respect them, to give them a good send-off. To be there for their final formation.”
Before the Leatherneck Honor Guard, the best a soldier’s family could hope for was a couple of active duty fellows to come out and fold a flag. The guard changed that. The guard performs a rifle salute, plays Taps on a bugle — not pre-recorded — and folds and presents the flag. It is a moving ceremony with a rich history and tradition.
And the Leathernecks do it all on their own, with no financial support.
“Every man here, we supply our own rifles, our own uniforms,” Torgerson said. “Every man is very patriotic. We know that the people who are gone are the people who made it possible to stand here. … I still get the chills when the American flag goes by.”
It’s not just funerals. Torgerson and his crew perform at various military or other patriotic celebrations. On the Fourth of July in 2011, for instance, the crew performed in Morro Bay. On Memorial Day, the Leathernecks performed at the Faces of Freedom War Memorial in Atascadero.
“Three things in my life were always important to me. The three M’s: Marines, my wife Marcia and the Masons,” Torgerson said. “As the old saying goes, ‘everyone has to march to their own tune.’ This is my forte. I like it and enjoy it. It emotionally stimulates me.”