When Bert Russell was asked to lead this year's Memorial Day Parade as Grand Marshall, the highly-decorated former U.S. Marine, Marine Corps Reservist and Korean War veteran's first thought was he should politely decline.
“There are more important people out there…more worthy,” he explained. “I’m not a speaker or a politician or anything.”
But after hearing two disheartening stories about lack of American pride, the 79-year-old began to reflect on his own military career and his reasons for joining the war effort. He thought about lessons he learned from the corps: about respect, loyalty and love of country. And he thought about the men and women serving today - fighting for our freedoms much the same as he and his compatriots did decades ago.
He contacted the Veterans Council with his decision to lead the parade as Grand Marshall, and is set to deliver a speech during the Memorial Day Exercise at Danvers Town Hall.
Those who have been honored to know the man agree that behind the quiet strength is the heart of a true patriot, a Marine warrior who rarely shares his war-time experiences, preferring instead to keep those memories privately locked away.
“I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it,” he said. “I love the Marine Corps, and I loved every second of being in the Marine Corps, but I don’t like to talk about my service. Only a vet that has seen combat can understand. The medals speak for themselves."
By the age of 21, the gunnery sergeant had earned two Purple Hearts with a gold star, the Marine Corps Commendation with Gold Valor and numerous other awards, citations, ribbons and commendations as a member of Easy Company, First Marine Division from 1950-1953.
At the height of the Korean War back in 1950, Bertram Russell was a typical 17-year-old senior at Beverly High School. What should have been a memorable final year of high school filled with football and hockey games, capped off by walking with his class at graduation, turned into something much different for the teen. Russell’s friends, one by one, left school in favor of the war effort. Feeling it was his duty, Russell followed suit.
When he arrived back in the states, Russell made an attempt to get his diploma. He asked the school to look over his exam grades from overseas where he had carried an impressive 4.0, but at that time overseas exams were not recognized, and he was denied. He said not getting that high school diploma would haunt him for the next fifty years.
“But I didn’t push the matter, I just went on with it,” he said. Life followed, with Russell marrying his high school sweetheart, Priscilla, followed by a move to Danvers where they raised five children while Russell served on the for 26 years.
In 2009, Russell was awarded an honorary diploma from Beverly High School at a ceremony held at the . “When I finally received my diploma fifty years later, it was the best thing,” he stated. ”I would trade all my medals for what that means."
Most days he can be found tending the grounds at the local YMCA, where everyone knows his name. “We have a lot of Navy guys here at the YMCA and they’re always riding me-they say the Marines came out of the Navy, I say the Navy came out of the Marines...” he laughed.
One of ‘those Navy guys,’ is Mark McDermott, a U.S. Navy veteran and Commander of the in Danvers, and longtime friend of Russell’s who joked, “I recommended him for Grand Marshall, but I didn’t know he’d have all these Marines coming down- the ROTC, the Color Guard, the Marine Corps League of Peabody- all are coming out for Bert. But in all seriousness - he’s a nice guy, he deserves it.”
Peter Mirandi, the Director of Health and Veteran’s Affairs, agreed Russell is an excellent choice for Grand Marshall, both for his military service and for his years dedicated to the police force. “Every officer I've met says nice things about him; the younger guys say he's a swell mentor. There are a lot of veterans on our police force, and we hope his involvement this year will bring our young men and women in blue out to march for us in the Memorial Day Parade.”
Today Bert Russell is as active as ever. A devoted member of the Marine Corps League of Peabody, he attends every military funeral for fallen Marine and Navy Corps in Massachusetts. He noted his own personal heroes are the folks at the Danvers Operation Troop Support who work tirelessly to provide necessities to our troops overseas, and fears the next generation is missing out on important lessons.
“We have the greatest country in the world. I get scared when I think about what’s coming down the road, it’s a different kind of war, this war on terror. There’s no winners in war-just losers. ”
For Russell, Memorial weekend will be spent honoring those who sacrificed for our country by placing flags on military graves. He will walk as Grand Marshall, and speak afterwards, with the hope his message will be heard by the younger generation: “With the Korean War, there was no love when you got back; and then the Vietnam war-that was awful, men were spit on. My biggest message is to tell people-If you see somebody in military uniform, don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid to walk up and thank them for what they’ve done. Nothing means more to those men and women in uniform than to know they are welcomed back, are appreciated and loved.”