RALEIGH, N.C. — Decades before the television show, a Marine Corps battalion decorated for extensive combat in World War II and Vietnam earned the nickname the “Walking Dead.”
Now the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, which also saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been deactivated during a ceremony Friday at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The step comes as top U.S. military and political leaders are moving to trim the size of America’s military after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marine Corps historians say the battalion appears to have gotten the nickname because of its high rate of casualties during the Vietnam War. But the unit also has a reputation for heroism that included Medal of Honor recipients at Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II and two in Vietnam.
Formed during World War I, the battalion had previously been deactivated in 1994 and reactivated in 2007. Its insignia depicts a cloaked grim reaper carrying a scythe.
Retired Marine Col. Wesley Fox, who received the Medal of Honor while leading a company within the battalion in Vietnam, said he wasn’t happy about the deactivations.
“Not a better battalion in the world. I don’t know why they’re the ones who keep getting put on the bench, but that’s the way it goes I guess,” Fox said.
The deactivation comes as the Pentagon plans to reduce the size of the Marine Corps by several thousand to 182,000 by 2016 and could cut further. The Corps’ wartime peak in recent years was more than 200,000.
More than 300 battalion members who have been reassigned to other units participated in Friday’s ceremony, which included each platoon or company marching to the reviewing stand to salute the battalion commander. Dozens of spectators watched from bleachers and chairs, and veterans of the unit were also gathering for a reunion.
A memo by Marine Corps historian Annette Amerman says the nickname was changed for at least a while starting in 1984 to “Walking Death” and the insignia became a dragon because some members thought the older nickname was derogatory.
However, when the battalion was reactivated in 2007, “Walking Dead” was once again embraced and the battalion’s official Marine Corps website currently bears the grim reaper design.
The “Walking Dead” nickname and battalion history are celebrated on several websites run by veterans and a Facebook page that has more than 1,700 members.
The battalion’s legacy was noted at its 2007 reactivation by then-Col. David Berger, who was leading its regiment at the time. Berger is now a lieutenant general commanding the I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, California.
“No other unit can claim more history or more heroic leaders than 1/9,” Berger was quoted as saying in a 2007 article on the Marine Corps website.
The “Walking Dead” television series, about survivors of a zombie apocalypse, began airing in 2010.
On the eve of the deactivation, Fox recalled first hearing the nickname in 1968 from a personnel officer.
“He asked me if I wanted the 1/9, and I said that sounded good to me. He did the paper work,” said Fox, who’s 82. “Then he asked: ‘Have you ever heard of the Walking Dead?’ My response to him was: ‘Maybe a better name is the Walking Death.’ ”