This may be too long for you to use, but it might be of interest to you. - Cpl Larry Woolverton, 2147898 USMC 1966-1970. Semper Fi!
October 19, 1965. I went down to the Marine Corps recruiting office and enlisted. My father went with me and I could tell he wasn’t at all happy about it. I was eighteen, though, and thought I knew what I was doing. My parents had done everything they could to try and change my mind, but one of my more unfortunate traits is having more stubbornness than good sense.
The recruiter was a real nice guy. He was a Staff Sergeant, and wore undress blues: blue trousers with red NCO stripes down each leg, tropical shirt, with a chest full of ribbons. Spit shined shoes, polished brass. A real poster Marine. At that time, you could enlist for two, three, or four years. Yep. I signed up for four. After all, wasn’t I going to make it a career? The Vietnam War was just getting going good and I wanted in on it. I wanted to be like John Wayne and all the other war movie heroes I had been raised on. The recruiter beamed. My father just looked sadder.
I didn’t leave for boot camp until March 18, 1966. They gave you five months to think about what you had gotten yourself into. Oh, they wouldn’t let you out, but they let you think about it. And I thought about it, wondering if I had really done the right thing, now that it was too late to do anything about it. On March 17, 1966, I got on a bus and went to Oklahoma City. The Marine Corps put us up in an old flea bag hotel and the next morning, we were bused to the airport. Away we went.
There were seven of us and I was placed in charge of them. I was given everyone’s records and was supposed to give them to the drill instructor when we landed. I don’t remember what time it was when we touched down in San Diego, but it was after dark. As we got off the plane, we saw a green bus and three of the meanest, toughest looking thugs I had ever seen, waiting for us. One of them was in the door of the bus talking with the driver. Well, since I was in charge of these guys, I stepped up into the bus to hand over our records. Bad move. Bad, bad move. He turned around and looked at me as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His face got red and I watched the veins in his neck stand out and I thought, “Uh, oh.” just as he kicked me in the chest, screaming, “Who the [expletive deleted] told you to get on my bus?”. As I landed on the pavement, with all the civilian passengers edging away, I realized, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that THIS was the dumbest thing I had ever done. Nothing else was even close.
I picked myself up off the sidewalk and jumped into formation with the rest of the terrified victims that were waiting to be turned into United States Marines. The monster that had kicked me off the bus paced back and forth in front of us, bellowing the way only Marine Corps drill instructors can, explaining how useless and despicable we were. How in the name of Gawd could the Marine Corps expect him to turn useless [expletive deleted] maggots like us into Marines worthy of serving in his beloved Corps? How, he wondered? I didn’t know. I wanted to tell him that it looked impossible to me, too. Maybe the best thing to do would be to just let us get back on the plane and go back home. I didn’t say anything, though. I just stood at attention and kept my eyes straight ahead like he told us. He wouldn’t have gone for it anyway, I don’t think.
He gave us ten seconds to get on the [expletive deleted] bus, find a seat and put ourselves in a sitting at attention position: both feet on the floor, hands on knees, back straight, eyes straight ahead. We were a little slow, in his expert opinion, so off the bus and at attention again. Back on the bus. Not fast enough. Off the bus. Eventually, we made it and we were off to the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California, which was just on the other side of the airport. The only thing I saw of San Diego was the back of the head of the guy sitting in front of me. The gentle transition from civilian life to Marine Corps life had begun.
On the way, the drill instructor told us that the first word out of our pie holes was “Sir”. For instance, if we wished to talk to him, the way to do it was, “Sir! Private Woolverton, 2147898, requests permission to speak to the drill instructor, Sir!”. Or, “Sir! Private Woolverton, 2147898, requests permission to go to the head, Sir!”. Don’t forget it. Don’t ever forget it.
The bus passed through a deceptively attractive gate that should have borne the warning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”. It didn’t, though. I’ve heard that the old Nazi concentration camps used similar ruses, so as not to panic their victims.
We pulled to a stop in front of a two story stucco building and scrambled out. In front of the building there were maybe a hundred sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt. We were ordered to stand on the footprints. At attention. One of the monsters hollered at us that if we had any moles, warts, or other growths on our heads to put a finger on it. Then, five at a time, we were run into the building. A barbershop. It took a barber about five seconds to turn us into skin heads and send us off to the next building of horrors.
Which was labeled “Receiving”. To tell the truth, much of that first night of boot camp is a little fuzzy. Everything was so alien and happening so fast. The drill instructors were yelling at us and we were running everywhere. A lot of it is just a blur. I remember it, but it is like a long ago nightmare that you want to forget, but never will.
In the receiving barracks we were issued our clothing and toilet gear. Sea bags, boots, high top tennis shoes, black socks, utility trousers, blousing bands, utility jackets, utility covers, cover block, belts and belt buckles, skivvies (boxer shorts), tee shirts, running shorts (red with yellow Marine Corps emblem), a plastic toilet kit with soap, tooth brush, tooth paste, razor and blades, and a can of Barbasol shaving cream. No comb. Comb? We were as bald as eggs. A galvanized steel bucket with a scrub brush and a bottle of Whisk inside, two blankets, two sheets, and a pillow case.
We were then run into another room in the same building. This room had a bunch of tables with boxes and rolls of tape sitting on them (I was prepared for this part. Barry and Dennis had warned me when they were home on boot leave, before I joined). The drill instructors screamed that we had thirty seconds to take off all our clothes, remove all our jewelry except for wedding rings, put it in the box in front of us and seal it up. We could keep our wallets, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, if we were smokers. “Thirty seconds! Go!” Shirt buttons went flying everywhere, since no one took the time to unbutton them, shoes were yanked off without untying shoelaces. Most of us made it in the allotted time, but a few didn’t. They were dragged out into the hall and beaten. We could hear the drill instructors hollering and punches landing. I had been wearing only a pair of jeans, a tee shirt, and a pair of tennis shoes. No socks, even. Like I said, I knew this was coming. After everyone got their belongings packed up, we filled out mailing labels to send them home and stuck them on the boxes.
We were then ordered to dress. Boxer shorts, tee shirt, yellow sweatshirt, utility trousers, web belt (which was four feet long), belt buckle, socks, tennis shoes, and utility cover.
By this time (actually long before this), we were thoroughly terrified. There were some pretty tough kids there, too, and they were as scared as I was. The Marine Corps wastes no time letting you know who’s running things.
After we were all dressed, and looking spiffy, we stuffed all our new possessions into our sea bags, grabbed our buckets, and were run over to some Quonset huts. There were maybe a couple of hundred of them along one side of the parade ground. This was to be our new home. Our platoon, Platoon 277, had about a dozen of these Quonset huts.
Each Quonset hut had about a dozen double-decker racks. Six on each side, positioned head to toe, with two footlockers under each. I was lucky and was able to snag a lower, although I guess it didn’t matter. It was the least of my worries. One of the drill instructors showed us how to make up our racks, then told us to do it. We made them up and stood at attention in front of them. He took one look at what we had done and went absolutely insane. He started tearing them up and turning over racks and throwing sheets and blankets everywhere, bellowing, “Can’t you [expletive deleted] even make up a [expletive deleted] rack? This is the easiest [expletive deleted] thing you’re going to learn!” I guess we spent about an hour making up our racks and having him tear them up. He never was satisfied, but eventually allowed us to go to sleep. I don’t know what time it was, but after midnight, anyway. No one slept. I did a lot of thinking, though. Boy, did I do a lot of thinking. My vocabulary was building up nicely, anyway. Lots of new words I had never heard before.
5:00 am. The door burst open and an already (or still) pissed off drill instructor flipped on the light switch, grabbed a garbage can and threw it down the center of the hut. “What the [expletive deleted] are you [expletive deleted]’s doing still in the rack? Where the [expletive deleted] do you maggots think you are? Vacation Bible School?” I had already figured out that’s not where I was. I knew we weren’t going to get to watch any Woody Woodpecker cartoons. It seems he thought that when we heard the light switch click, we had plenty of time to jump out of our racks and be standing at attention by the time the light actually came on. We practiced trying to beat the light for a while. We never did beat it, but I think we got pretty close.
After a lot of yelling, we were told we had five minutes to make up our racks, and get out on the platoon street, which was an asphalt sidewalk between our two rows of Quonset huts. I think we made it and were given fifteen minutes to shave and brush our teeth. Then, back into our huts to get dressed. The drill instructor yelled at us some more and again cursed the fact that we were so hopeless that his job, which was hard enough to begin with, had become impossible. I think I looked around and figured he was probably right. There we were, in our high-top tennis shoes, black socks, rolled up utility trousers, four foot long belts hanging almost down to our knees, yellow sweat shirts and unblocked utility covers down over our ears. Looked impossible.
We were herded over to the mess hall for breakfast. Our drill instructors (there were three of them) said they were embarrassed to be seen with us. Once we got to the mess hall, we stood in line at attention until it was our platoon’s turn to go in. “Keep them eyes straight ahead! Don’t let me catch any of you maggots eyeballing the area!” There was a sign over the mess hall door that said, “Take all you want, but eat all you take”. Finally, one step at a time, we started inching our way into the mess hall. As we entered the door, we whipped off our covers, popped them against our thighs, and stuck them in our back pockets. We each took a tray and utensils and began sidestepping through the chow line. At least the food looked edible. I had been a little worried about that. We were served scrambled eggs, bacon, link sausages, SOS, french toast, and milk, I think. A typical Marine Corps breakfast. Once we were served, we moved on to our tables, where we put our trays down and stood at attention until everyone was through the line. Finally, the drill instructor yelled, “Ready, seats!”. At that point, all our butts were supposed to hit the bench at the same time. Didn’t happen. Back to attention. “Ready, seats!”. Nope. Back to attention. We did this while we waited for our eggs and bacon to get cold and our milk to get warm. Finally, we all plopped down at the same time and were told to eat.
One maggot at each table was given the job of keeping the two milk pitchers full. While he was eating, he had to watch the levels of the pitchers and scream for permission to go milk the cow whenever one was getting low. “Sir, Private ________, serial number _______, requests permission to go milk the cow, Sir!”. Then, he had to jump up, and run over to the cow (milk dispenser), stand in line, fill the pitcher back up, and get back to the table before the other pitcher ran out. The poor guy hardly had time to eat. It was a rotating job, though, and we all eventually got to do it.
Once breakfast was over, we showed the drill instructor that we had indeed eaten everything we had taken, scraped our trays off and gave them to the guys working in the scullery. Then we went outside and were “marched” back to our platoon area.
It seems like we spent most of that first day marking our clothing and learning how to fold everything and put it away in our footlockers. Everything had to be just so, or a drill instructor would dump it on the floor and kick it all over the squad bay. They were kind of picky. We had each been issued a marking kit and the drill instructors showed us where each item of clothing was to be marked. First two initials and the last name. They said they better not catch anybody putting Mr. In front of their name, either. Like we were going to do that. One poor guy did, though, and they slapped him around some. He didn’t have a choice. His name was M R Wilson.
We marked our clothing, polished our boots, cut our belts down to fit, and dipped our belt buckles and belt tips in ammonia to remove the protective laquer and get them down to bare brass, and polished them with Brasso. All the while, our drill instructors were bellowing about how our time in their care was going to be spent. No television, no radios, no newspapers, no magazines, no telephone calls, no Cokes, no candy, no cigarettes, unless the smoking lamp was lit “And that’s not going to be very [expletive deleted] often, Maggots!” They picked on guys at random - “What’s your serial number, Numbnuts?” or “What’s your seventh General Order, Maggot?” We had been told before we got to boot camp to memorize our serial numbers and our eleven General Orders. I had, and I think most of the rest of the maggots had, but when one of those animals is suddenly three inches from your nose bellowing out a question, you tend to get a little confused. “Wrong, you [expletive deleted] piece of [expletive deleted]! Get down and give me twenty!”
One question they asked us a lot was, “Why did you join my Marine Corps, Maggot?” “Why? Well...I dunno. The last thing I remember is being really, really drunk.” That answer would have been a death sentence. No, the correct answer, shouted at the top of your lungs, was, “Sir, because the maggot has always wanted to be a Marine, Sir!”
Ask any former Marine what his serial number was and without thinking, he will rattle it off. It is something you never forget. You can get amnesia, develop Alzheimer’s disease, forget your own name, but you will always remember your serial number. 2147898.
By noon, we had our clothing pretty much squared away and were taken back to the mess hall for chow. It was the same routine as breakfast was. Stand at attention and inch our way forward when our platoon’s time came. At the door, rip the cover off your head, pop it against your thigh and stick it in your rear pocket. Grab a tray and side step through the serving line. I remember being hungry and wondering what we would have to eat. Mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, I think, some kind of meat that I thought might be chicken fried steak, bread. Dessert was a sheet cake of some kind, I think. It usually was, anyway. Then to the table and stand at attention until everyone was through the line.
“Ready, seats!” Nope. “On your feet, Maggots!” “Ready, seats!” We did that while we waited for our chow to get cold again. Finally, the drill instructors went off to their tables to eat. We dug in and I attacked the chicken fried steak. Forked a big bite into my mouth and .... whoa! Wait a minute, it wasn’t chicken fried steak, it was fried liver. Liver! I can’t eat liver! My stomach started heaving and I knew I was going to throw up. I stopped chewing and washed the bite down with milk. Barely got it down. Oh, man. I had gotten a big piece, too. I remembered the “Take all you want, but eat all you take” sign over the mess hall door. Somehow, I had to get it down and just the thought made my stomach heave. I cut off little pieces and buried them in mashed potatoes and peas and swallowed it without chewing, and washed it down with milk. I gagged and heaved and tears were in my eyes, but I finally got it all down. Man, I’ll never forget that.
After noon chow, we were marched over to sick bay for shots. Nothing unusual here. Walk down a line of corpsmen while they jab both arms with needles, or with a gun. After everyone was through, we double-timed (ran) back to our platoon area for some physical training to work the soreness out of our arms. Lots of push ups, sit ups, knee bends, squat thrusts, and the like. They were big on running and physical exercise. Big on it. They were determined to turn our flabby civilian bodies into hard, calloused Marine ones. All of our fat bodies were dropped and sent to the fat farm where they were starved and exercised until they got down to an acceptable weight. We lost several guys that way.
We were taken to a building where we were tested for I.Q., aptitude, and whatever. They also had more paperwork for us to fill out.
Our first few weeks were spent learning how to march, close order drill, how, when and what to salute (when in doubt, salute), rules, regulations, history and customs.
Sometime that first week we were issued our 782 gear: helmet, helmet liner, helmet cover, pack, knapsack, poncho, shelter half, three piece tent pole, tent pegs, cartridge belt, belt suspender straps, canteen, canteen cover, canteen cup, first aid kit, mess kit with knife, fork, and spoon. We spread all that stuff on the ground in front of us outside the supply building, and the drill instructor would call out items. “Canteen! Hold it up!” We did. Finally, he was satisfied that everyone had everything they were supposed to have. Then we were shown how to make up the pack. Once we had done that, the drill instructors would walk down the lines, grabbing packs and throwing them up in the air and kicking them. They had better hold together.
By the end of the first week, we were able to walk in step with each other pretty well. I wouldn’t exactly call it marching, though. About this time, the drill instructors started calling cadence. Unless you were in the Marine Corps, or have watched a program about Marine Corps boot camp, you have never heard it. It is almost musical, and they teach it in drill instructor school. No other branch of the military does it like the Marine Corps drill instructors do it. There aren’t any words, just a musical cadence. You have to hear it to understand. We slowly, and painfully, began to march.
Sometime that first week, when our drill instructor thought we had been pretty good little maggots, the smoking lamp was lit for the first time after evening chow. I remember standing on the platoon street when the drill instructor yelled, “Okay, the smoking lamp is lit for one cigarette!” We all just stood there looking around at each other, wondering what to do. We knew what it meant, but our cigarettes and lighters were all in our footlockers. Were we supposed to run inside and get them, or what? No one moved. The drill instructor lit up and smoked and watched us. From then on, we carried our cigarettes and lighters with us. Unless we had really screwed up, the smoking lamp was usually lit after chow and just before lights out. Unfortunately, we screwed up a lot and it seems like a pack of cigarettes lasted about a month. It would have been the perfect time to quit smoking, but you can’t believe how much we looked forward to that cigarette.
The smallest kid in the platoon was the “house mouse”. Sort of an errand boy for the drill instructors. When the smoking lamp was lit he would walk up and down in front of us carrying a red bucket for us to flip our ashes into. If he was slow getting to you, you flipped the ashes in your hand. Never on the ground.
Sometimes, before lights out, instead of lighting the smoking lamp for one cigarette, the drill instructor would just say, “The smoking lamp is lit.” Then we could smoke until he told us the smoking lamp was out. It didn’t happen very often, but we could sometimes smoke two, maybe even three cigarettes when he did that. He would usually do it when he wanted to tell us the latest dirty jokes he had heard at the NCO Club. Sometimes they were actually pretty funny, but funny or not, we laughed at them. If he thought he was a hit, he would let us smoke a little longer.
Saturday was just another day of the week while we were in boot camp. On Sundays, though, we went to church. Services were held in the base theater. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish services were held at different times during the morning. Take your pick, but pick one. Sunday afternoons we were given “free time”. Free time meant you washed your clothes at a big outdoor concrete slab with cold water, scrub brush and Whisk. Then, you hung everything on a clothesline to dry. You polished your boots, shined your brass, and studied your Guidebook For Marines. And wrote a letter home, lying your folks that you were as happy as a clam and were being well treated. Except for washing clothes, everything was done while sitting on our footlockers lined up on the platoon street in front of our Quonset huts. The drill instructors watched us and made helpful suggestions on how to enjoy our free time. Oh, we had a ball during free time.
The second or third week, I think, we were issued our M14 rifles, two magazines with magazine pouches, sling, bayonet with scabbard, and cleaning kit. We were told to memorize our rifle’s serial number. We went into a building and were taught everything there is to know about the M14. All its specifications and the names of each part. We learned how to disassemble it, clean it, and put it back together again. Over and over and over.
The next weeks were spent running, marching, close order drill, PT, classes, group and individual punishment. Marine Corps boot camp is brutal. We started out with close to a hundred guys in our platoon, and when we graduated boot camp, I believe there were eighty-one left. You were pushed up to and over your limit in everything. Sympathy and kindness are never shown. Never. The drill instructors’ jobs were to break you down, then build you back up into what they wanted you to be. And they were good at it. If one maggot screws up, the whole platoon is punished. Sometimes, everyone but the guy that screwed up is punished, while he gets to watch. It seems that most of our marching was done with our rifles held above our heads, because we just couldn’t get something right.
Everything was taught by repetition. Doing everything over and over until it was done right. And sometimes it was reinforced with fists and boots. One time, someone screwed up something and the drill instructors had us run into our Quonset huts and bring our foot lockers out. Then they had us exercise with them. They probably weighed fifty pounds with all our gear in them. The way they did things was they would make you do something until someone dropped. Same with the footlockers. They would exercise us until our muscles were on fire. Eventually, someone dropped theirs. This time it was me. I had been holding it above my head when my arms just wouldn’t obey anymore, and I dropped it corner first onto my big toe (we were dressed only in our shower shoes and skivvies). One of the drill instructors was on me in an instant. Finally, they finished playing with us and told us to hit the racks. I wasn’t able to sleep because of the pain and the next morning, my toenail was black and raised above my toe about half of an inch. After a lot of yelling, I was sent over to sick bay. Over there, they removed my toenail. Didn’t deaden it, just pulled it off, swabbed it with something that burned like liquid fire, put a bandage on it, and sent me back to my platoon.
Once I got back, the senior drill instructor gave me a choice. Keep up, or get dropped back to a new platoon. I told him I would keep up. There was no way I was going to go through all this again. And I did. Finally, after about a week or so, I was able to get my boot back on again.
One of the more fun things we learned was hand-to-hand combat. There, they tried to teach us how to kill an enemy with our bare hands. It was sort of a mixture of judo, karate, and just mean street fighting. We learned how to defend ourselves against someone coming at us with knives, how to throw a person, and so on. They told us if our arms were pinned to chew the guys nose off. Or his windpipe. Gouge out his eyes. Tear his testicles off. Break anything you could get hold of. It was sort of fun. We would pair off and practice. We called it Dance Class.
One of the less fun things we learned was how to use the bayonet. For hours we would practice the slash, the jab, the vertical butt stroke, the horizontal but stroke, the smash, parry right, parry left, back to the guard position. None of this was much fun. After a while, that M14 felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. “What’s the matter? You girls want to rest? Okay, you [expletive deleted] maggots! Get those rifles over your heads and run in place!”
One part of bayonet training was fun, though. Practicing with the pugil stick. The pugil stick is just a broom handle with canvas bags filled with cotton padding on each end. We put on football helmets and groin protectors and fought it out. It was a chance to get rid of some stored up frustrations. I really liked that. So did everyone else. Even the drill instructors seemed to enjoy it.
At night we had guard duty, and used to walk around the recruit training area. That was a dull, lonely duty. We could look out over the bay and see San Diego. It was really pretty, especially at night, but it might as well have been on the moon. We would never get to go into town.
The fourth or fifth week was spent doing mess duty, which was a nice break. Not that it wasn’t hard work. It was. We had to get up an hour and a half earlier than usual, but it got us away from our drill instructors for a while. I started out in the scullery, loading the huge dishwasher, and taking the clean trays and dishes out to the serving line. I had to run almost constantly, because if they ran out of forks or cups, or something I’m pretty sure they took you out back and shot you. After a couple of days, I was re-assigned to the reefer. Reefer Man! They had a room-size refrigerator and my job was to take stuff out to the cooks and receive the incoming crates of food. Pretty good assignment. One of the best things about it was I was left alone.
After each meal, we cleaned the mess hall. All the tables and benches were shoved to one end and the other end was swept, scrubbed, squeegeed, and swabbed. Then the tables and benches were shoved to the other end and the process was repeated. Everything was then put back, ready for the next meal.
There was one really great thing about mess duty. After each meal, there was always a lot of dessert left over and the mess sergeant let us have as much as we wanted. He was a pretty decent guy, by boot camp standards. There was a bakery somewhere on base and it was always fresh. And good. It was usually sheet cake of some kind, and I never got tired of it.
All silver linings have clouds though, and soon it was back to our drill instructors. More close order drill, PT, classes. PT was done on the parade ground. The Grinder. It was the beginning of summer, and the asphalt got really hot in the afternoon. Push ups were murder. So was running. We ran about three miles every morning and evening and the Grinder sapped your strength, it seemed like.
The rifle range. We finally went to the rifle range up at Camp Pendleton. Two weeks. The first week was spent learning about “sight pictures”, how to adjust our sights, and “snapping in”. Snapping in was aiming at something while in the various shooting positions (standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone), dry firing, and having someone sitting in front of you kicking the rifle back into your shoulder to simulate recoil. I got tired of that in a hurry. I was ready to shoot some live rounds.
Week two at the range. Finally, we started live firing. 100 meters off-hand (standing), 200 meters off-hand and kneeling, 300 meters kneeling and siting, and 500 meters prone. We would shoot part of the day, and part of the day we would pull butts. Pulling butts meant working in the target pits behind and below the targets. There were forty or fifty targets and two maggots were responsible for each target. We would sit on a bench and stare up at the target and as soon as the guys on the firing line finished shooting, pull it down and check it for hits. Then we would raise the target to show the shooter where he had hit. We had a disk on a long stick that we would hold over each hit. The disk was white on one side, and black on the other for contrast on the area of the target hit. If the hit was in the black, we would cover it with the white side showing. If it was outside the black, we would cover it with the black side. If it was a bull’s eye, we would raise the disk up over the center of the target for a couple of seconds and pull it back down. Then we would pull the target back down and paste patches over the holes. As we pulled one target down, another was raised automatically, so the shooter didn’t have to wait for a target. As we patched the old target, the shooter would shoot at the new one. Then it was repeated. It kept us hopping, but we got breaks as the shooters moved back to the next firing line. Like from the 100 meter line to the 200 meter line.
After the first group of shooters finished, they would pull butts for us while we shot. What we were doing the first few days was working out the sight dope for our rifles. How many clicks of windage and elevation for each distance. That, and practice.
Friday we shot for qualification. There were 250 possible points. You had to shoot at least 190 to qualify as Marksman, 210 for Sharpshooter, and 220 for Expert. I shot 218 to qualify as Sharpshooter and I was mad about it, because the day before I had shot 223. Didn’t count, though. They only took what you shot on qualification day. Anyway, I qualified, and 218 was respectable. Don’t shoot at least 190 and you are set back. Sent back to a new platoon. You have to qualify with a rifle, or the Marine Corps doesn’t want you. I think we lost a few guys at the range.
Back at MCRD, things got a tiny bit better, I guess. It seems like our drill instructors were a little less inclined to use their fists and boots to reinforce lessons. Or maybe we just weren’t screwing up as much. Don’t get me wrong, they were every bit as tough and demanding and in our faces as ever. It’s just that they weren’t as physically brutal as they were before we went to the range.
Once we got back from the range, we were allowed to unbutton the top button on our utility jackets, and block and starch our utility covers. It sounds like a small thing, I know, but it wasn’t. It made us feel a little bit more like Marines, instead of maggots. We were kind of proud of the fact that we could take what our drill instructors dished out and would likely graduate.
The first week back from the range we went down and were fitted for our dress uniforms. Dress greens, tropical shirts and trousers, ties, khakis, horse blanket (overcoat), raincoat, shoes, and all the other bits and pieces of the dress uniforms. There were tailors, and we tried everything on while they took measurements. Marine uniforms are supposed to fit snug, unlike Army or Air Force uniforms. I guess that’s one of the reasons the Marine Corps doesn’t like fat bodies - doesn’t look good in the uniform. They like flat tummies. About a week later, we went back and, after trying everything on for fit, took it back to our Quonset huts.
Somewhere around this time we were introduced to tear gas, and it is a vivid memory. We were issued gas masks and shown how to put them on, adjust them so that they were sealed, and how to clear them. Then we were shoved, about twenty of us at a time, into a small, windowless building. The gas chamber. After we were in, the door was closed and a device in the center of the room started filling the room up with tear gas. We were ordered to take our gas masks off, and sing the Marine’s Hymn. We rushed through the thing and the drill instructor (who, by the way, kept his mask on) didn’t like our rendition of it. “Belt it out, girls!”. We sang it again and it sounded even worse than the first time. Again. Everyone was gagging and crying, about to panic. Finally, we were told to put our masks back on and clear them. Yeah, right. The door opened and we hurried out and washed our heads and hands with garden hoses by the building. I didn’t really like the gas chamber all that much.
There was a swimming pool where they taught us how to stay afloat in case we fell off the side of a ship, or something. Drown Proofing, it was called. They showed us how to tie our trousers legs at the bottom, and sort of make water wings out of them. We had to jump off a platform that was about as high as the side of a ship, float in the pool until they figured we knew how to do it, then swim over to the side and get out. It was funny, but almost none of the black guys knew how to swim, and they were terrified of the water.
The obstacle course was fairly easy for me, for some reason. Maybe because I wasn’t very big. The ones who had the most trouble with it were the bigger guys. I got a little dizzy on some of the really high obstacles, but other than that, I really didn’t mind it at all.
One thing I did have trouble with was carrying a buddy in a fireman’s carry through ankle deep sand. We had to carry someone like that for fifty yards, or so. Luckily, I got paired up with someone about my size. I couldn’t have done it with a six foot, 220 pounder, I don’t think. Well, maybe I could have. Those drill instructors were pretty good motivators.
The last weeks of boot camp were no more fun than the first weeks were. There was no let up. We were starting to feel salty, though, especially when we would pass by a bunch of scared new boots. We were starting to look like Marines. We didn’t bounce when we marched and our boot heels cracked on the asphalt like one boot. We were looking forward to getting out of this place every bit as much as a convict anticipates getting out of prison.
Nowadays, the Marine Corps has something called the Crucible at the end of boot camp that is supposed to test the boots to the limit of their endurance. We didn’t have that, but it was still similar. We were run through a series of tortures and timed events designed to do the same thing. Push us to our limit.
During the last week we prepared for our final inspection. Then the big day arrived. Graduation Day. We went to breakfast as usual, then went back to our huts to get ready. We laid all our clothing and equipment out on our racks for inspection, exactly as it was shown in our guidebooks (junk on the bunk). The drill instructors checked to make sure it was perfect. Then we showered and shaved and the drill instructors inspected our faces using a flashlight to make sure we hadn’t missed any stubble. If we had, we were made to dry shave. Shoes and cover brims were polished like mirrors. Brass gleamed like gold. Then we got into our dress uniforms. The tropical uniform, since it was summer. Finally, we were ready.
Our drill instructors gave us their final rifle and personnel inspection, then marched us out onto the parade ground. There were four platoons in our series, and we were all lined up side by side. All the drill instructors were in dress uniforms, Smokey Bear covers and NCO swords. The band was in formation in front of the base theater, and in front of them was the color guard. Directly across from us were portable bleachers that had been set up for families and friends.
Final inspection. The battalion commander and his staff inspected us, and our drill instructors were as nervous as we were. They were being inspected, too. After all, we were the proof of all their work. If we failed, so did they. We were gone over with a fine toothed comb. Uniforms were inspected for military alignment, Irish pennants (loose threads), shoes and cover brims checked for any stray flecks of dust, rifles were randomly inspected, and questions were asked. We passed.
The band and color guard started down the parade ground playing a Sousa march and we fell in behind them. It was the first time we had ever marched with a band and it felt good. As we passed the reviewing stand the band played the Marine’s Hymn. Our senior drill instructor turned around and said, “They’re playing it for you.” I know that every one of us got a lump in our throat.
We halted in front of the reviewing stand and listened to a speech by the base commander congratulating us and welcoming us into the Marine Corps. Then the drill instructors were ordered to dismiss us and let us have base liberty for the rest of the day. The drill instructors saluted with their swords, turned and dismissed us. One step to the rear, “Aye, aye, Sir!”, about face and we were dismissed. A few of the guys had family and friends there to watch them graduate and they went to be with them. The rest of us stood around, not sure exactly what to do.
I just walked around and explored the base for a while, then went to the PX snack bar and got a milkshake, then browsed the PX for a while, waiting for someone to tear my head off. I bought a Zippo cigarette lighter with the Marine Corps emblem on it while in the PX. We were given free run of the base until late afternoon, then were supposed to get back to our platoon area.
Back at the platoon area, we all stood out on the platoon street while our senior drill instructor called our names and gave us our new orders. He also told us what our MOS’s were going to be. MOS stands for Military Occupation Specialty. Most of the ex-maggots were 0311's. Infantry. That’s what I expected to get, but I was supposed to be going into electronics. 2800 series. I didn’t really want that. I didn’t join the Marine Corps to learn how to fix radios and radar equipment. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, though. Anyway, that was still a couple of months down the road. First, I had to go through ITR at Camp Pendleton. Infantry training.
We spent the rest of the day and evening turning our rifles and equipment back in, packing our seabags and getting ready to leave. I think we could pretty much do whatever we wanted to as long as we didn’t try to leave the base. I went down to the telephone exchange and called home.
The next day, we were bused up to Camp Pendleton for ITR. This was a four week ordeal and not much more fun than boot camp had been. More Quonset huts. More sadistic instructors.
We were issued 782 gear and old worn out M1's for use during ITR, and it seems like we carried some configuration of pack, cartridge belt, canteen, and rifle in everything we did. There’s no way of telling how many miles of running up and down those hills we did, carrying all that junk. There isn’t a flat area at Pendleton. Or if there is, I didn’t see it. As a matter of fact, there was one hill in particular that they called Old Smokey that was almost straight up and probably four or five hundred feet high. It was used as punishment. If you screwed up, they would make you run up and down that hill. Luckily, I never had to run it. Not that I didn’t screw up - I did. They just inflicted other creative forms of punishment on me.
I can’t remember everything we did. Lots of running, though. Marines are the runningest bunch of people in the world. Learning and practicing infantry tactics, learning how to use all the different small arms that the Marine Corps used in those days. I remember shooting the Model 1919A4 .30 caliber machine gun (fun), the M60 machine gun (fun), the M2 .50 caliber machine gun (Ma Deuce! Really fun), the M79 grenade launcher (fun), the 3.5" rocket launcher (bazooka) (fun), and the flame thrower (not fun). I didn’t like anything about the flame thrower. That’s a scary weapon no matter which end of it you were on. I’m glad I never really had to use one. I’ve never hated anyone enough to want to incinerate them.
We learned how to use hand grenades, too. The M26 fragmentation hand grenade. There’s not much to it, just pull the pin and throw. Just make sure you throw it out there far enough, and remember to get down. You know how you see guys pulling the pins out with their teeth in the movies? Well, you really can’t do that in real life. About all you will do is pull your teeth out. It’s a little hard to pull the pin out of a grenade. For a reason. You don’t want the thing to come out when you are crawling around in the brush, or something.
Another thing you don’t want to do with a hand grenade. Remember in the movies watching some guy pull the pin on a grenade then count off three or four seconds before he throws it? Not a good idea. They say you have five or six seconds before it explodes. Hmm... maybe, but a hand grenade isn’t a Swiss watch.
We each fired one round from the 3.5" rocket launcher. They had an old tank a couple of hundred yards out that we fired at. I hit it, but couldn’t see that it did much damage. It might have, though. We never went out to look at it up close.
We had night firing demonstrations with the M60. That was cool, watching the tracers and all. We didn’t get to shoot, we just stood around and watched. Every fourth or fifth round was a tracer round.
Four weeks finally dragged by and ITR ended. I was almost as happy that was over as I was boot camp.