Marines have almost continually worn ceremonial Mameluke swords as part of their dress uniforms for more than 210 years.
The first Mameluke sword was presented to Marine First Lt. Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire viceroy, Prince Hamet, on Dec. 8, 1805, during the First Barbary War, in Libya. It was gesture of respect and praise for the Marines’ actions at the Battle of Derna (1805).
In the early 1970s, Wendell C. Chinn Sr. received his Mameluke sword during his graduation ceremony at Prairie View A and M University in Prairie View, Texas.
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Nearly 50 years later on the evening of June 15, the 69-year-old Indianapolis resident watched as that sword was enshrined in the African American Museum of History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
It was a bittersweet moment, said Chinn, who has served as pastor of New Life Apostolic Church in Seymour since 1991.
While at Prairie View, Chinn was a member of the university’s Navy ROTC. At that time, officials at many universities and colleges across the country were encouraging ROTCs to leave campuses because of protests against the Vietnam War.
Prairie View, one of the more than 100 historically black colleges and universities in the country, bucked that trend by adding the Navy ROTC in 1968. It was the first African-American Navy ROTC in the country.
“Those were some very tumultuous times,” Chinn said.
Chinn, a native of Edna, Texas, said there was a antiwar protests during every one of his first three years at Prairie View.
“We didn’t have a riot during my senior year when I was president of the student body,” he said. “I consider that very significant.”
Smithsonian officials told Chinn his sword was significant to the institute because he was the top midshipman in the first class to graduate from a African-American Navy ROTC at a college or university in the United States.
While he has given his sword to the Smithsonian for permanent display, Chinn said it’s nice to know it’s there and that relatives, friends, classmates and Marine Corp friends and other can go and see it.
Chinn graduated from Prairie View in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“When I graduated, I was both the president of the student body and also the top midshipman in my graduating class,” Chinn said.
As such, he earned his Mameluke sword and didn’t have to pay for it.
“When you graduate, you have to be in full uniform,” he said. And that includes the Mameluke sword, which costs about $400 to $500.
“My mother and father were not able to pay for the sword, so heading into my senior I knew I had to be the top person,” he said.
After graduation, Chinn was commission into Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He would spend the next 10 years serving his country including stints in Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.
During that time, he was in charge of platoons assigned to amphibious vehicles that hauled Marines to shore from trooper carriers during invasions. He spent the last three years of his military career as a senior guard officer at a Marine Corps barracks in Florida and a logistics officer at Camp Lejuene, North Carolina.
Chinn earned two presidential unit citations during his military, both for protecting presidents. He retired in 1982 as a captain.
After his time in the service, Chinn came to Indianapolis and earned his master’s degree in social work from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He graduated on Mother’s Day in 1984.
Chinn, who is a retired certified American Family Therapist and clinical social worker, was installed as pastor of New Life Apostolic Church in April 1991.
He does the things other pastors typically do so that means a lot of trips between Indianapolis and Seymour for him and his wife, Pauline, Chinn said.
Chinn said he considers it an honor to allow the Smithsonian Institute to have sword for permanent display
He said most items displayed at Smithsonian came from a person who has passed away.
“So I am a part of living history,” he said.
Over the years, Chinn kept the sword on a shelf at home, and his son, Wendell Chinn Jr., who is 47, always asked his dad when he was going to give it to him.
“I would always say ‘Son you’ve have to earn this sword,’” Chinn said. “I just can’t give it to you. He sent me a text the other day and said ‘Dad, I’m sure glad you didn’t give me that sword because we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.’”