John Wayne. More specifically, watching legendary actor John Wayne up on the movie screen, playing a Marine who uses his teeth to pull the pin out of a grenade and then hurls the grenade at the bad guys in a classic war film.

That was the moment Charles Sanford knew he was going to join the United States Marine Corps. The year was 1953, and he was 17.

"I didn't know then that you would break your teeth if you tried that, but boy, that stayed with me," said Sanford, who now resides in Eagle Crest, near SaddleBrooke.

His military career began in San Diego. It then moved him to Yerba Buena Island, near San Francisco, where he served as a brig guard.

Then he became part of an elite group. After eight weeks of sea school, he was assigned to the USS Boxer, a 27,100-ton Essex class aircraft carrier that made 10 deployments to the Western Pacific from September 1945 into 1957. His two years aboard the USS Boxer made him a Seagoing Marine, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps who served as part of the crew of a Naval warship.

Marines had been stationed on the warships since 1775. Their broad mission was to provide gun crews as required and to provide internal security aboard the vessel. Aboard the USS Boxer, there were about 60 Marines to the vessel's 3,000 sailors.

The Marines "owned the brig," said Sanford.

"We manned the 40 mm and 5-inch guns," he said. "And we looked pretty in our dress uniforms," he added with a smile.

The practice of Marines serving on Naval warships ended when the last Marine detachment - embarked in the nuclear-propelled carrier George Washington - went ashore on April 3, 1998.

Two years later, Sanford had another "a-ha" moment. Much like when he saw John Wayne in the movies during his youth, this moment would change the course of his life as an adult.

In 2000, Sanford and three of his ex-Seagoing Marine buddies - William Graham, Byron Babbitt and Boyce Ross - reunited in Las Vegas. Babbitt wanted to form an association before people forgot the Marines served on Naval warships.

"We have to have ourselves remembered," Babbitt told the men.

After four hours holed up in a hotel room and a couple six-packs later, the United States Seagoing Marine Association was born.

It turned out other Marines wanted their service to their country to be remembered, too, and 21 Boxer Marines joined the association the same day it was born. The USSMA was well on its way.

Part of the association's mission is to preserve and remember the historical incidents, missions and accomplishments of all these "Soldiers of the Sea" between 1775 and 1998.

Its memorial fund establishes historical markers at various locations. It also assists in preserving some warships at museums, and to preserve and promote the Marine Corps' history.

To date, its members have dedicated plaques on more than 20 warships on which Seagoing Marines served. The ships include the USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat and known to many as "Old Ironsides," and the USS Midway, the longest-serving U.S. Navy carrier of the 20th century and largest ship in the world, 1945-1955.

Last month, Sanford received one of his greatest honors when he was elected president of the USSMA. He's proud of the service its members are providing.

Last year, the USSMA donated $6,000 to Marine-related groups, including $3,000 to the Wounded Warrior Project, $1,000 to help World War II veterans see military monuments, $1,000 to the Semper Fi Fund for wounded Marines at Camp Pendleton, and $1,000 to retrofit the home of a young Marine, who had lost both legs and an arm in the line of duty.

Nearly 60 years after enlisting, Sanford still remembers his experiences fondly.

"I was a bad little boy, running away and joining the Marine Corps at 17, but the drill instructor broke me down and made a man out of me. It was the best thing that could have happened to me."


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