A Marine Corps Christmas
Just minutes after the USS Clymer docked in at White Beach, Okinawa; a young Marine lieutenant in sun bleached khakis and looking very much as if he would rather be in Iowa, or just about any place other than where he is. came aboard.
“You Sullivan?” asked the tall, skinny Marine lieutenant, now with the biggest grin.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said mopping my forehead. “You got a heat wave going on here?”
“Heat wave? Funny, its always a heat wave here,” he said. “This is the nicest day we’ve had in a week or two. Welcome to Okinawa, the armpit of the world, I’m Jim.”
“Hi Jim, glad to meet you.”
“Not as glad as I am to meet you!” flashing what I came to know as his trademark grin, extending his sweaty hand.
We shook hands slick with perspiration.
Jim began to fill me in, “Been here three months. I was the battalion’s green horn. No more! Now you are. When I’m leaving for home, you’ll still be here” he chortled. “Here, I got a present for you,” handing me a full roll of toilet paper.
“Toilet paper?’ I asked. “For what?”
“It’s a sanity thing, therapy! You know, after you’ve pissed away your paycheck in the vill again and are wondering what the f—k did I get myself into, you rip off a sheet,” slapping me on my back as if to emphasize his cleverness.
Cleverness lost on me standing there imagining a burst of sweat from the clinging fabric of my khaki shirt as it atomized adding to the oppressive humidity. I wondered what the heat, humidity and island fever would do to me after three months.
Jim rattled on, “Trust me, you’ll thank me, hang this on a wall near your bunk and every day that goes by, you tear off a sheet. When the roll is gone you’re heading home.”
Not the greeting I expected but a never to be forgotten and not a totally misplaced introduction to the Far East. I wondered if I’d made a very big mistake requesting Okinawa or was this some cockamamie joke courtesy of the USMC. Little did I know what was to come and how often I would long to be back on Okinawa.
Perhaps as childbirth is for mothers, my time on the island turned out not to be so bad. Jim’s oddball welcome was the beginning of a treasure-trove of fond memories.
I had my own room in a WW II Quonset hut with lizards, cockroaches and my very own mama-san named Kioko, to do my laundry and clean my room. At noon I’d return to my hut, drop my sweat soaked uniform on the floor and don a new starched clean uniform for the afternoon. By evening the uniform that I left on the floor would be hanging up in the closet ready for another day. The food was wonderful. Bargains were everywhere. I bought five tailor-made, English wool suits, and a used red, Honda motorbike to explore the island.
After three months of fun on “the Rock”, Division sent out the word; we were going to Vietnam. This meant war, what Marines are trained for. Our generation of Marines would be making history. A war against the North Vietnamese would show the world that Marines could do what the French couldn’t. I along with everyone else was elated. What stories I might tell. What war heroes we would create.
Well, it didn’t happen. Sure, I sailed for Vietnam on the USS Mt. McKinley, the Admiral’s and General’s command ship. Why was I chosen to sail the general’s command ship, I never knew.
A week or so later we were off the coast of Vietnam as part of a huge invasion force, bigger than I could have ever dreamed. Every morning, just as the sun came up, I would go up on deck and look out to sea. There I was, surrounded on every side by more ships than I could count, destroyers, troop ships, heavy cruisers, amphibious assault ships, an occasional aircraft carrier, even I’m told, a battleship. As the day went by the surrounding ships seemed to vanish. Then, the next morning we were back in the middle of the fleet.
Day after day, week after week we sailed up and down the coast. Someone remarked that we had been at sea longer than Noah was on his ark. In fact, we were at sea 52 days!
At last word was passed there would be no invasion. All the ships, except the command ship, sailed back to Okinawa or some far off naval base. The USS Mt. McKinley and I sailed off on a grand Far East excursion.
We docked in Bangkok, Thailand, and Singapore, crossed the Equator, headed North to the Philippines, finally landing at Subic Bay Naval Base. What a trip!
All Marine officers and most enlisted, except for a Colonel and myself, were ordered back to Okinawa. I was now second in command of the small Marine detachment assigned to the USS Mt. McKinley
There wasn’t much for me to do except to keep the Marines in good physical shape and out of trouble. The last was by far the most difficult of my duties. Our tour exotic tour of the Far East prepared the troops well to avail themselves of the variety of recreational opportunities cautioned by their mothers.
The months flew by while I enjoyed perhaps the best duty in the Marine Corps. Any evening I wanted, I could cross the bridge into Olonapo, “Sin City”, and the best party town in the Far East. Once, I ventured off to Baguio, a mountain resort where I paddled a dug out canoe into the jungle, ate monkey brain, and bet on cockfights. I even spent several weekends in Manila where I met Blaze Star, America’s most famous stripper and her good friend Ahnrie, madam of the largest whorehouses in the Far East.
When Christmas Eve arrived, I found it difficult to even think about the holidays back home. Here I was bathed in moonlight, cooled by mountain breezes and enjoying a memorable holiday dinner feast at the Naval Officers Club over looking Subic Bay.
Christmas morning, “The shit hit the fan.” A car bomb exploded in front of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, virtually destroying the building and killing 19 Vietnamese, 2 Americans, and 1 Filipino; 183 others were injured.
This was it. The word was that were finally sailing for Saigon, South Vietnam to rescue and evacuate American dependents.
The Naval base was in chaos. I watched cranes hoisting pallets of gear aboard ships. Tankers pumped fuel. Everyone seemed to be hollering and running in every direction. A fleeting memory of Baguio gave meaning to “running around like chickens with their heads cut off”.
Running down the gangway the Captain’s aide approached me. “Hey Sully, the Skipper wants to see you NOW! You better move it.”
“What’s he want?” I asked.
“How f–k do I know? I’m just the messenger, but it sounds like you’re in deep s–t.”
I ran up the ladder, down a passageway and with a shaking hand knocked on the open hatch to the Captains quarters.
“ENTER!” a deep voice echoed through the passageway.
Captain Tuttle was sitting behind a desk looking at some papers. He was an impressive man tall and tanned. He could be a walking advertisement for a cruise liner captain.
“Lieutenant Sullivan reporting sir.”
He looked up at me and then back to his papers. “ At ease lieutenant. MACV (Command Headquarters Vietnam) wants the code books and frequencies for the landing. Get them!” he ordered.
“Yes sir!” I turned an about face and hustled out looking for Top (a Marine expression for the senior Non Commissioned Officer of a Marine Unit), Staff Sergeant Angirome. It’s fair to say there is no officer in the United States Marine Corps whose career has not been enhanced, preserved, or in my case, rescued by an NCO. I of course had no idea what the Captain was talking about however, every smart, young Lieutenant knows the Top has all the answers.
Staff Sergeant Angirome had the answer. I was in big trouble. The Marine safe containing all the code-books was loaded in the bottom of the ship’s hold. Now, the whole ship would have to be unloaded then reloaded before sailing. Everyone was angry with the jerk responsible; everyone was certain I was the jerk.
Things took an even uglier turn when hours later. Once again I was knocking on the Captain’s hatchway.
“Sullivan, get in here! Where is your damn Colonel? He can’t be found!” he growled.
Standing at rigid attention, I could hear drops of sweat dripping off the tip of my nose to the deck. I hesitated. How could I possibly tell the Captain what I suspected? According to Top, the Colonel was shacking up with a whore somewhere in Olongapo.
Swallowing, I replied, “Sir, I have no idea where Colonel Barker might be sir.”
“I don’t care if you know or don’t know where he is. Damn you, find him! Now! If he is not aboard in a three hours, we sail without him. That will make you senior Marine officer. Understand ?”
What could I say but, “Yes sir.”
“Dismissed,” he ordered.
I did a quick about face and slipped out. What did he mean? Would I be in charge of the Marines? God help us!
In spite of my best efforts to find the Colonel, we sailed without him. As the ship pulled away, I scanned the dock hoping to see the Colonel running toward the ship. A mind can play tricks with you in times of stress. I conjured the Colonel bounding from a taxi, racing across the dock toward the ship, unbuttoned trousers thwarting his advance by falling toward his ankles.
Alas, there was no Colonel in sight!
The first two days were uneventful as we sailed across the South China Sea toward Vietnam. Rumors began to spread that Colonel Barker was found and is on board a destroyer speeding to catch fleet.
“Hey Sully! You must be popular. The Captain wants to see you again. What didya screw up this time?” the Ensign laughed.
“F-ck you,” I replied as I ran down the passageway to see Captain Tuttle.
Once again I was knocking on what had become a far to familiar hatchway to hear a foreboding “Enter Sullivan.”
Coming to attention I started, “Lt. Sullivan repor..”
“Stop!” he ordered. “Colonel Barker is arriving on the destroyer Hawkins at 15:00 hours. He will be high-lined aboard the ship. I want your entire Marine detachment on deck. As soon as Colonel Barker is near enough to hear you, I want the entire Marine detachment to sing Jingle Bells in their loudest, most spirited voices.
I want Jingle Bells sung loud enough so everyone aboard my ship, including the Colonel will hear it?
“Sir, yes sir,”
“Good. Now, get the hell out of here out of here,” he ordered in a kinder tone. I think the Captain was smiling.
I had imagined telling my grandchildren heroic stories of my time in the Marine Corps. It wouldn’t happen. Instead my mind struggled to come to grips with my court-martial, drumming out of the Marine Corps, and be remembered as the idiot that buried the Marine safe under tons of cargo and led a Marine detachment in a chorus of Jingle Bells for their Colonel. Yes, I was the Marine that conspired to humiliate his commanding officer in front of Navy brass and sailors.
I found Sgt. Angirome on deck cleaning his weapon.
“Top?” he sprang up to address me.
“Yes sir,” he responded.
“At 15:00, Colonel Barker will be high lined aboard ship. At 14:30, an hour from now, I want the entire detachment of Marines on the flight deck in summer service uniform with weapons, ready for inspection.”
“Yes sir,” came a Marine’s only expected reply. He did not question why. He would do exactly what I ordered. But, what would he do when I ordered the Marines to sing Jingle Bells?
Polishing my shoes for inspection, I played my coming suicide over and over in head. Would I give the order? Would Top obey my order? Would the detachment sing Jingle Bells? Knowing Marines I knew the answer to all of the above was yes.
Arriving on deck at 14:15, I found the detachment standing at ease ready for inspection. Top sounded off in his deep husky voice, “Detachment all present or accounted for and ready for inspection Sir!”
I proceeded with the inspection. As expected the Marines were in near perfect order. Now was the moment. It had to be now. I had to sound like a Marine officer giving a no questions asked order.
“On my command you will lead the Marines in singing a hearty Jingle Bells. Understood?” He turned red and responded.
“Yes sir.” Then he did an about face to face the detachment.
“Listen up Marines. On the Lieutenant’s command, you will, in your loudest and best choirboy voices, sing Jingle Bells. You will not smirk. You will not smile. You will sing like Sinatra. You will continue to sing until you are given the order to cease. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” they responded in unison.
Soon a destroyer came up along side. With the huge ships steaming full ahead in a tight formation, a line was fired linking the destroyer to the Mt McKinley.
The waves, produced from the two ships cutting through the water in such close proximity, were enormous. No one in their right mind would risk their life trying to transfer to our ship in conditions like this. Oh yes, the transfer will be called off.
Then I saw my worst fear happening. Colonel Barker was climbing into the breeches buoy for lift off. He really was coming across that ocean death trap. What an idiot he must be!
Up he flew. Then over the rail and suspended above the sea.
When both ships leaned in toward each other, down he’d drop, his feet touching the top of a wave. When the ships leaned apart, he’d catapult violently upward. I was certain he’d soon drown.
“Colonel Barker must be a very brave Marine!” I thought as the tableau continued, in my mind fearing he would soon be giving his life for his country.
He didn’t die. After twenty minutes or so of up and down, buffeted with foam and spray, he stepped red faced, soaking wet with an unconvincing smile onto the deck of the USS Mt McKinley.
“Marines, sing!” I ordered.
“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells Jingle all the way ……..” they sang their hearts out. Their voices resounded across the ship. Captain Tuttle, tears in his eyes and unable to stifle the biggest grin imaginable escorted Colonel Barker below.
And that kids is how your grandpa became a legend . . .