South China Sea --
SOUTH CHINA SEA – There are few tokens of gratitude within the Marine Corps that carry as much weight as the paddle – a staple of the Reconnaissance community that symbolizes the respect and honor that a unit holds for a specific Marine. A tradition that dates back to World War II, Recon Marines would be issued a paddle at the beginning of their training that they would be required to take with them everywhere. When it came time for a Recon Marine to leave a unit, their teammates would take their paddle and repurpose it, placing a plaque on the blade and using paracord to intricately wrap the handle to present as a parting gift to their fellow Marine.
Aside from the plaque and some other minor adornments, however, the blade of the paddle typically remains relatively blank when compared to the ornate wrappings on the handle. To Cpl. Michael Cenci, a force reconnaissance Marine with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU) Maritime Raid Force (MRF), this blank space was an opportunity for something more.
“All of the wrappings have meaning, but they don’t have as much meaning as the blade of the paddle itself,” Cenci said. “It’s a big canvas, so I take the opportunity to draw and paint detailed backgrounds, which I think ends up capturing the setting or the mood of the whole paddle and what it’s meant to represent, more so than any wrapping can.”
Cenci, a native of Malvern, Pennsylvania, has been drawing since he was young. As a child, his uncle gifted him sketch books and pushed him to further his artistic development. This encouragement carried on through his time at Malvern Preparatory School, where he took art electives each year. In addition to advancing his artistic talent, it was here that Cenci also began to develop an appreciation for the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team, playing sports throughout his high school career.
After graduating in 2013, Cenci enrolled at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and majored in sequential art, but soon found out that it wasn’t all that he had hoped it would be. With a lack of a team to be a part of and an almost overbearing focus on self-promotion of his art work, he began to feel his passion for drawing fade.
“As I progressed in my curriculum in college, my love for drawing started to dissipate,” Cenci said. “It got to the point where I started to worry that I would never love it again or have it as a form of release and joy.”
After leaving Savannah, drawing began to fall to the back burner, becoming more of a hobby for Cenci. Instead, he began to shift his focus toward finding a career and going to the gym. He always knew that he wanted to be a part of something that had a good team atmosphere, and as his experience at school had proved lacking, he began looking elsewhere.
“I realized as I got older that I don’t really do anything in moderation so I asked myself ‘what’s the most extreme team I can find?’” Cenci said. “So I thought of the Marines and I saw this thing about Recon and then I decided to pull the trigger on that.”
After graduating from Marine Corps School of Infantry West, Cenci felt he was physically ready for Basic Reconnaissance Course (BRC) but didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect. Upon his arrival, he spoke with some Marines in the class before him and saw that they were sketching in their notebooks – a skill that is encouraged for Reconnaissance Marines so that they can gain a better understanding of target sites. Cenci’s interest was immediately piqued.
“I had already been drawing overheads of streets and neighborhoods and places I would go, and that transferred over well when I got to BRC and we started patrol phase,” Cenci said, flipping through a weathered “Rite in the Rain” notebook, revealing page after page of sketches of intricately drawn landscapes and hastily drawn overheads and explaining the importance of each drawing.
“On overhead drawings, it’s much more important to get the message across rather than all of the details and shadings. It more resembles a map, while the panoramic drawings I do when I’m on the hide site for like 48 hours or more tend to be a lot more detailed. Panoramic drawings help me to get that intimate knowledge of the target,” Cenci explained.
“You could always take a picture in a hide site – and a picture does tell a thousand words – but if I can draw and bring back sketches, it basically tells a story beyond that one picture,” Cenci went on to explain. “It shows an intimate knowledge of the target site and the enemy. It’s kind of a cocky display – the enemy didn’t see me as literally I sat there and drew them. I basically put up an easel in their back yard.”
After his graduation from BRC, Cenci reported to 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, where he began working his artistic talent into the traditions of the community. The new surroundings and brotherhood of his new unit rejuvenated Cenci’s previously diminished passion for art. In addition to his drawing of landscapes and overheads, he also began doing freehand sketches and making tattoo designs for his fellow team members, feeling that he now had more artistic freedom and a sense of pride in his work that he had never felt in school. It was around this time that he first began working on paddles.
“In college, I was totally against putting myself out there for people to see my art and saying ‘look at me, this is what I drew,’” Cenci elaborated. “However, it’s a totally different thing when it goes on a paddle. Now, I think the coolest part of me painting on a paddle and that paddle being presented to somebody is that that paddle is going to go with that Recon Marine wherever they go for the rest of their life.”
With the decoration of these paddles came a sense of pride for Cenci. After designing and painting the paddles, the eyes are drawn to the blade of the paddle, which draws attention to the plaque and what – or more importantly who – it represents.
Currently deployed aboard amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in the South China Sea with the 31st MEU, Cenci has kept his skills sharp throughout the MEU's recent operations in the Indo-Pacific. Cenci’s most recent paddle – made for his brothers-in-arms in the Royal Thai Marine Corps’ Reconnaissance community following Cobra Gold 2020 – depicted the sun setting over the jungles of Thailand. Throughout Cobra Gold, Cenci and the other Marines of the 31st MEU’s MRF worked hand in hand with Royal Thai Marines to develop an effective and lethal partnership with the nation’s oldest ally in Southeast Asia.
“It’s the only way I feel comfortable expressing myself through art,” Cenci said. “I think that’s by far the best part about being able to paint the paddle. And every time a paddle comes along and the team gets together, we take turns wrapping it – I think it’s the biggest privilege to take the time to paint that paddle. The whole paddle is a team effort.”
America, flagship of the America Expeditionary Strike Group, 31st MEU team, is operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.