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Camp Pendleton vehicle museum largest in Marine Corps

Motor transport icon retires; his legacy preserving history flourishes.

Master Gunnery Sgt. James King officially retired from the United States Marine Corps after more than 30 years of exemplary service.

Two weeks ago, a retirement ceremony was held in his honor with the backdrop of Camp Pendleton’s Command Mechanized Museum. Now the largest properly restored vehicle museum in the Marine Corps, it includes more than 70 vehicles and weapon systems.

King’s career in the Marine Corps and the growth of the museum had a lot in common. They both flourished under King’s enthusiasm, dedication and a burning desire to preserve, in tangible form, the legacy and history of the vehicles and weapon systems used in the Marine Corps from WWII through Desert Storm.

King began as a student in the Marine Corps in 1978 and excelled at every class and school to which he was sent. The student soon became the instructor.

As an instructor he became respected for his thoroughness, knowledge, teaching ability and insistence that every project and assignment be completed correctly.

In the fall of 1998, a small vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule caught King’s eye. It had been hidden for years in the tall grass of Camp Pendleton, was in an advanced state of deterioration and had probably not been operational since the Vietnam War.

Designed as an infantry ammunition light cargo vehicle, King viewed the Mule as a classic military vehicle that should not be forgotten.

A bet with one of his superiors as to whether he could ever get the vehicle running again was the first step in a long sequence of events and restorations.

His efforts culminated in the opening of Camp Pendleton’s Command Mechanized Museum in 2002.

The supervisor told King, “If you can get it running, I’ll retire!” His supervisor rode the Mule at his retirement ceremony.

During the 10 years that followed, King found one vehicle or weapon system after another and supervised a group of more than 50 loyal volunteers restoring them.

King’s work on vintage vehicles and the museum was all done while volunteering after hours.

In addition to maintenance and restoration, King transported and provided use of these vehicles for a variety of special events that included tours, parades, static displays, retirement ceremonies and even theatrical productions.

King was deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, leaving the museum in the hands of volunteers and docents.

In 2005, he returned to Camp Pendleton and escorted a vintage 1947 Landing Vehicle Tracked Armored A5 to Iceland, where he served as technical advisor, driver and mechanic for the vehicle during filming of the movies “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

During filming, King completed 25 beach landings on Sandivik Beach, Iceland, and fired the M13, 75mm Howitzer 25-plus times, achieving maximum effective fire.

At the conclusion of filming, he restored the vehicle to its original condition and placed it back in the museum.

King has received a plethora of awards. Among those are two Presidential Service Awards for Volunteerism and the 2002 National Military Association’s Very Important Patriot Award.

Camp Pendleton’s Command Museum director, Faye Jonason, credits King as being the catalyst that ultimately established the Command Mechanized Museum while providing the initiative, perseverance, unique knowledge and selfless devotion to preserving this unique part of Marine Corps history.

Although retiring, Mastery Gunnery Sgt. King said, “Expansion of the museum will continue. There continues to be many more vehicles just waiting in the wings to be added to the museum.”

King has no immediate plans for cutting back on his volunteerism to the museum. He said, “My satisfaction comes when a veteran can show their children what they used to do and tell stories about when they used these vehicles.”

The Command Mechanized Museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment through the history museum’s office at (760) 725-5758.

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