New memorial honors Camp Pendleton’s ‘Fighting Fifth’

SAN DIEGO -- Retired Marine Stephen Colwell has been waiting for this moment for more than 50 years: a new memorial at Camp Pendleton to honor a special group of heroes very near to his heart.

The year was 1967 and Colwell was a 2nd Lieutenant in Vietnam when a landmine detonated nearby, riddling him with shrapnel.

“Looking over my right shoulder and there were gurneys to the ceiling, floor to ceiling of wounded Marines...I’ll never forget these nurses. My God, they were heroes, you know. They ran from bed to bed keeping us alive,” Colwell said.

He considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“I was your typical Vietnam veteran who got off the plane and rolled off the gurney and kissed the earth and said, 'thank God I made it back,'” said Colwell.

He survived being part of Camp Pendleton’s storied “Fighting Fifth,” the most decorated combat regiment in the Corps, and also one that had the most casualties in Vietnam.

“They wrote a book about us called ‘The Class of ’67.' You don’t want to be in that book,” said Colwell.

Two-thousand, seven-hundred and six Marines and sailors died in the five years the “Fifth Marine Regiment” was in Vietnam.

“We lost almost as many in Vietnam as we did in 9/11,” Colwell said.

Decades later, Colwell came up with the idea to honor each of the fallen, with their names etched on six large granite slabs, along with a spire in the center.

“I think sometimes that it’s a lot of work and it is but it’s an honor to able to do this for me,” said Colwell.

First, it took more than a year to research and confirm all the names. Then came the design and lengthy approval process. The granite walls were built in Vermont, then carefully loaded onto trucks and driven across the country to Camp Pendleton, escorted by the Patriot Guard.

“It’s been really touching to talk to these guys and say I wanna be a part of this...it’s been 50 years and thanks for remembering our guys,” said Colwell.

The memorial wall will stand proud in the Camp San Mateo Memorial Garden, which is a public part of Camp Pendleton. The assembled wall will be unveiled and dedicated on Memorial Day.