The wildfire that destroyed acres of vegetation at Camp Pendleton, California, races across First Sergeant's Hill at Camp San Mateo. Crosses at the top of the hill memorialize Pendleton Marines who have fallen in battle. (Cpl. Marvin Arnold/Marine Corps)
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A treasured memorial site was saved from the wildfires burning across Camp Pendleton when a group of Marine volunteers braved the smoke and flames to protect it.
First Sergeant’s Hill in Camp San Mateo, California, is home to nearly two dozen wooden crosses memorializing fallen Marines from Pendleton, a sacred site created by and for Marines to remember lost comrades. When new Marines arrive at Camp Pendleton units, more senior troops will often take them to the site and explain its significance.
For Cpl. Marvin Arnold, an anti-take missileman with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, the location has a special meaning: four of the crosses commemorate friends he lost during a single day of fighting in Sangin in 2010, including his close buddy Pfc. Victor Dew.
When Arnold saw smoke nearing the hill on May 16, he began canvassing his company for volunteers.
“From a distance, you could see one or two of the crosses, and we knew they were going to catch on fire if we didn’t get them,” he said.
Ultimately, Arnold assembled six other Marines and three pickup trucks: two to collect and carry the crosses down from the steep hill, and one to stand as a lookout for the fire.
It took the Marines less than an hour to finish their task, but they made it just in time.
“When we were pulling the last two of them out, we were at the edge of the hill and the fire was perhaps 30 feet away from us,”Arnold said.
After they left, the fires burned across the hill.
For Arnold, saving the crosses was not just about preserving a piece of Pendleton tradition; it was about saving one of the few memorial locations that Marines can call their own, he said.
“The Gold Star mothers [and families of the fallen] are the ones with priority to receive memorabilia. They take first priority,” he said. “For us, [First Sergeant’s Hill] is really one of the only ways of making some kind of landmark.”
The Marines stored the crosses back at the company duty hut, but only temporarily: they’ve already agreed to make a return trek later today to reinstall them. Arnold said he plans to personally carry his friend Victor’s cross back to its rightful spot.