They could have passed for boys when they landed on those unknown islands -- Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal -- so many years ago.
Some were scared, others simply didn't think about it. Nearly all had friends who never came home.
But as hundreds of those Marines gathered last night at a reception to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.S. victory over Japan in World War II, there was no melancholy reflection in the air, only jubilation.
There were hugs and wisecracks as friends who had survived war together were reunited at the Marine Corps Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. Glasses were raised in toasts to the past.
But mostly there was pride, unabashed and sentimental, in being a Marine and in bringing home a victory four decades ago.
"I was proud to be a Marine. I had a job to do and I did it. And that's no bull, either," said Jack Schiff, who was 20 when he left his home in Florida to join the 4th Division of the Marine Corps.
Schiff, of Hollywood, Fla., was one of the first wave of 2,000 leathernecks who attacked the Japanese-occupied island of Tarawa. He saw 1,000 people die on those beaches, and memories of the landing flood back at quieter moments when he's alone, Schiff said.
Others at the reception recalled their feelings when they learned that the Japanese had surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945.
"It was just pure joy," said Samuel Jaskilka, a retired Marine general. At the time of the surrender, Jaskilka was training in California for a planned invasion of Japan, an operation that would have cost countless lives.
"As a Marine you just go where the hell you are sent and do your job," Jaskilka said. "Most people don't think about dying . . . . Nobody thinks they're going to lose."
And as they celebrated, no ill will against Japan was evident. "There is no bitterness," Schiff said.
But, like many other veterans at the affair, Schiff expressed dismay at recent protests over the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons against Japan.
"Forget Hiroshima. We remember Pearl Harbor," he said.
"These are friendships of a lifetime," said Schiff of last night's gathering. "They are based on a mutual respect and confidence. It's a very tight, clannish group."
In many ways, it was as though they were still Marines. At the weekly Marine parade that followed the reception, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan commanded no special privilege. Regan's seat was with other former lieutenant colonels.