In August 1966, he was a 19-year-old corporal, a college dropout who had enlisted in the Marines. Following a tour as a machine gunner as the nasty little conflict in Vietnam was escalating into a war, he had just returned to stateside service. Assigned to Quantico, where he would be Commanding General more than a quarter of a century later, Marty Steele met Karl Taylor.
‘He was my inspiration,’ says Steele, who attained the rank of lieutenant general in the Corps and who is now President and CEO of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City.
Staff Sergeant Taylor
I was just a corporal, and Karl Taylor, a son of Baltimore, Maryland – he was about the biggest individual I’d ever seen – was a staff sergeant. When he spoke, this man who had been born with a cleft palate, everybody listened, despite his lisp. He was mesmerizing. He had such presence.’ SSgt. Taylor took the young enlisted man, the student-athlete from Fayetteville, Arkansas, under his expansive wing and pushed him to become an officer.
‘Back then, I really had no interest in becoming an officer. A sergeant, maybe, but an officer? Yet this guy, for whatever reason, reached out and badgered me. I guess he saw something in me, and he stayed on my case. And when I received my commission – at age 20, I was the youngest officer in the Corps – he gave me my first salute. And I gave him a silver dollar, as tradition in the Corps dictates.’
On the night of 8 December 1968, during a ferocious firefight, SSgt. Karl G. Taylor gave his life, not for tradition but for the men with whom he served. And everywhere he goes, Marty Steele carries a copy of his mentor’s Medal of Honor citation:
Informed that the commander of the lead platoon had been mortally wounded when his unit was pinned down by a heavy volume of enemy fire, Staff Sergeant Taylor along with another Marine, crawled forward to the beleaguered unit through a hail of hostile fire, shouted encouragement and instructions to the men, and deployed them to covered positions...
Karl Taylor, says Marty Steele, a tear glistening in his eye, ‘is the last conscious thought I have every night, and my first conscious thought every morning.’
With his companion, he then repeatedly maneuvered across an open area to rescue those Marines who were too seriously wounded to move by themselves. Upon learning that there were still other seriously wounded men lying in another open area, in proximity to an enemy machine gun position, Staff Sergeant Taylor, accompanied by four comrades, led his men forward across the fire-swept terrain in an attempt to rescue the Marines. When his group was halted by a devastating fire, he directed his companions to return to the company command post, whereupon he took his grenade launcher and, in full view of the enemy, charged across the open rice paddy toward the machine gun position, firing his weapon as he ran...
‘To me, Karl Taylor epitomized what it’s all about, how in combat you intuitively understand you’re not there for God or country or the flag, but for your comrades, and that you’ll give your life for them if necessary.’
Although wounded several times, he succeeded in reaching the machine gun bunker and silencing the fire from that sector, moments before he was mortally wounded....
What Karl Taylor did that night, as the citation reads, is in the highest traditions of the Corps. Now, part of Marty Steele’s purpose in life is to honor the Karl Taylors of this world, and to illuminate, especially for the young, the nature of service and sacrifice.
In July 1999, after almost 35 years in uniform, Marty Steele retired from the Corps. At the suggestion of fellow General Matt Caulfield, he accepted the position of president and CEO of the Intrepid Museum. The 20-year-old museum is still searching for ways to find its audience, and to become a mainstay among museums in New York, a must-visit for visitors and locals alike.
His position affords him an opportunity to honor those who served, to give breadth and scope to the reinvigorated saying, ‘Freedom is not free,’ and to probe the nature of sacrifice – particularly of those who have selflessly made the supreme sacrifice. Because, Marty Steele believes, ‘those who have served in war understand the need for peace, and understand as well that the world is a violent place filled with religious and political and ethnic hatreds.’
At the same time, he is a realist who is challenged by the need to raise the funds to keep his museum afloat, to pay for the capital improvements on infrastructure on the aging aircraft carrier that has been berthed at Pier 86 along the Hudson River, and open to the public as a museum since 1982. He also sees as integral to his mission the need to focus staff to improve the quality of the exhibits as a way of helping to educate and inspire those who visit the museum, particularly young people.
For Marty Steele, who also serves on the Board of Advisors at Veterans Advantage, the mission is really about leadership and character development, on evocating value-based behavior – behavior based on respect for oneself and one’s fellow human beings. On Mondays, when the Intrepid is closed to the public, it is open to students who visit and spend time with mentors. These men and women, who understand that there is little glory in war, serve on a pro bono basis and talk about leadership and character, values and ethics. In a pilot program, many of the young people who attended called it the most significant day of their life.
Which pleases Marty Steele.
Image Credit: https://www.moboysstate.org/mbsinaction/archives/2016/speakers/