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Boot Camp During 1968

Boot Camp Parris Island January 1968

Standing on the passenger side of the bench seat in my mother’s 54 Olds looking out the windows as she drove the dirt roads into town was cool to this kid. I would hold my hand out the window and pretend I was flying. There was one paved highway we eventually got to then she would say to me “Roll the window up son, I gonna be doing 60 now we’re on the highway!” There were no child seats and most disdained any restraint like seat belts. My 5-year-old mind could not conceive the mileage, speed, and distance back then. I could only watch as the telephone & power poles started to go by like fence posts as mom speed-ed up the powerful V8 car on the blacktop high way into the small town on the Western side of the great state of Georgia. As a boy I would marvel at the Olds’ radio that picked up a few AM stations, it’s gleaming knobs along with the other protrusions from the dash, the controls for all the mysterious functions of the heat and defrost, wipers and various switches. We had no idea of how dangerous these old cars were in the deadly crashes in that era before the automakers were forced into making safety a priority. I don’t recall having a seat belt in a car until the 69 Chevy I bought as an adult.

Life events are like the fence posts and power poles on the roads. When you are young the power poles seem miles apart, especially if you have ever walked a dirt road on a hot July day. As you get older they start going by your life as fence posts, closely spaced and much too fast. Those were the days my friends, we thought they would never end.

I recall going by a chain gang in the car with my mom. I was 7-8 at the time. The road was dirt/gravel with high ditch banks on each side in those rolling red clay hills of the Piedmont. The 20 or so men were in striped pants and shirts digging and cutting brush with huge blades on handles called Bush Hooks. It was a hot summer day with no shade near the road. Mom had slowed for the two guards sitting on horseback with long shotguns were halfway in the road. The prisoners were chained together and were sweating through the light cotton clothes. I could hear the men singing as they worked. I seem to recall they were some white and some black men and the guards all white men. I asked my mom why were they doing the hard work in the heat of the day. She replied, “Those boys did not mind their Momma!”

That statement and the vision of those men chained together has stayed with me all these years.

Full of Wizz and Vinegar

On the bus to Parris Island South Carolina from Atlanta where we were inducted I was surprised to find a young man who said he was from Carrollton. He was a few rows behind my seat on the bus and everyone was talking in nervous anticipation of our arrival at boot camp. The man was a crew cut blond with blue eyes around 185 and 6 ft tall. His name was Barry Sewell. Barry was talking loud and over the din, I could hear him bragging about his exploits. I had not heard of him before so I listened carefully. I eventually spoke to him and he came forward to talk. We played, Do you know? And found we did not know any of the same people, strange for a small town I thought? The next few days are a whirlwind of activity, all new experiences for recruits as we are introduced to the Marine Corps way of life and inducted into the cult of the warrior.
The sole purpose of the training is to transform the young men, boys really as our oldest was just 20, most were 18. Many like myself a misfit to society, a high school dropout. Not willing to wait for the draft and the random assignment as cannon fodder to the Army. At the least, we had chosen to be here as part of our self-worth we did have a choice in the matter of our sacrifice. One can join the Army or Air Force, even the Navy if one meets the standards. A young man does not merely join himself to the Marines like the other services. No, He becomes a Marine and is forever transformed. The very psyche and soul is altered during the training, the DIs are masters of breaking down and altering the moral fiber that makes a person adverse to killing another human. Make no mistake we were trained to kill. Without hesitation or remorse, to seize the objective, to immediately obey and destroy any organism that threatened or presented itself to our weapons. Our ethos is teamwork, our god is Mars. We fight for the Marine next to us and our Corps and Country. I have no idea what the Marines do today but then we were trained along those lines. During the 67-69 era the war was killing and wounding so many that all the services dropped their standards. Some joked that the test was standing upright and fog a mirror. At the induction center in Atlanta, I saw 4 unfortunate draftees that were “recruited “ into the Marines. They protested but were taken anyway. One of the straws that broke the camel’s back of the Corps later in the war with all the race troubles and rioting was the substandard recruits the Corps had to take. Funny back then young men would do stupid and harmful stuff to dodge the draft. Now it is considered cool to be a vet and many lie to claim the honor. There was no honor when we returned from have fought in that awful war.

Staff Sgt Harrah, the senior DI could freeze you from a distance with eyes that had seen the elephant in Korea and Viet Nam.

Platoon 302 Entered January 1968
Our graduation pictures. Sgt Wertz, in middle of DIs, was very professional and actually a nice guy when I met up with him in Oki. Sgt Romero not so much. Rumor was He got busted later.

America’s Pit Bulls, A few days later in boot camp would be a turning point for young Mr. Sewell. We arrived on the bus in the dark of the morning and were greeted by screaming Drill Instructors. They forced us onto yellow footprints for our first formation there in the parking lot. Herded to a barracks we were allowed a few hours fitful rest until dawn when we were herded to a mess hall and served our first breakfast of champions on PI. Then with all the history and traditions of the Corps being thrown at us by the screaming, cursing DIs we were taken back to the barracks until around 8 am we began processing. Shorn of civilian locks, clothes and self-esteem we were now maggots in a festering primeval swamp of humanity not worth the Drill Instructors time. The only reason we are alive is the war in Viet Nam is in full swing and we were needed as cannon fodder so real Marines could win the war. Sadly at this time in the war, the Marines and the Army were engaged in the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Battle for Hue city during Tet of 1968. Losses were terrible, but that is another story. The movie “ Full Metal Jacket” does not come close to the carnage. Hollywierd twisted everything in the story written by Gustov Hansford who was the real “Joker” to sell tickets. The DI is very close to real because R. Lee Ermey is a former DI but we never had a shooting of a DI by a recruit. Not that we sometimes wanted to! Our emotions run from terrified of the DI to plain fear and hatred for our oppressors to faithful reverence and a great love for what they have done for us in the end. No one even trains animals by such use of fear and force unless it is pit bulls for killing in the ring.
The DIs let us know how miserable we were and how we were keeping them from joining their brothers in those glorious battles of places that were in the nightly news. It was during one of these first days when the DIs are especially cruel in removing all doubt from our minds that we are scum on the bottom of the Sea not worth a sailor’s damn that Barry Sewell made a grievous mistake. We were all at the position of attention in front of our racks, those two metal beds one on top of the other with our footlockers squared in facing the center of the long squad bay. I could see Barry out of the corner of my eye as the DIs carefully berated each man on our grooming, hygiene, and wearing of the green utilities with a web belt, polished buckle, and spit-shined black field boots. No one was up to their standards or even close in those first few days. All of us were insulted, called vile names and questioned as to our ancestry. No one was above their profanity and each race was told exactly what the DI thought of them, their ancestors and their generation. There was no political correctness or off-limits action. The DIs would prod, poke and scream as they adjusted our uniforms, our posture and stood on our freshly shined boots, grinding the toes with the DI standing on your feet screaming into your face his spittle flaying your face. During this debasement you must maintain attention with eyes focused on a point somewhere in the distance, never making eye contact, never speaking except to scream Yes Sir! Or the fabled Aye Aye Sir! That we would be allowed in later days as we grew from our status as whale excrement to somewhere close to pond scum rising higher up the food chain to one day be called a Marine.
Well, Mr. Sewell had pushed the DI back and was immediately set upon by two of the DIs who proceeded to punch, scream and kick Barry into submission, knocking over racks and scattering recruits. The senior DI called us back to attention and directed us to look at him instead of the altercation going on between the surly recruit and the two DIs.

Medics were called and removed the bloody, unconscious Mr. Sewell. Several weeks later we had moved to the barracks at the Rifle Range. The DI s backed off our torment a little and allowed the range instructors to take over our training. Learning to use the M-14, 7.62 mm rifle has now become our full-time job and our total focus is on the firing range and marksmanship. Our rifle becomes our life, an extension of our being and an entity we revere. To drop or abuse a rifle is forbidden and will bring on the wrath of the tribe. The mastery of the rifle is our salvation. Those that shoot expert are rewarded, revered and worshiped as leaders.

A recruit without a belt, cover and with unbloused trousers came up to me and spoke. It was Barry he was in the base brig doing supervised duty as a picker upper of
cigarette butts and odd jobs as he awaited a medical discharge. He said, “ I’m going home, them damn DIs gave me a concussion and I’m getting out!” He had an ugly scar across his forehead. I saw him one more time a few years later. I was home on leave from Viet Nam. I had stopped in at a burger joint near the college called the T Burger. Barry was there and holding court with a few other guys. He was not happy to see me as I knew his bull shooting stories of how he served were lies. I was leaving a while later and Barry stopped me from getting in my car by breaking a fifth of vodka on the fender and telling me he was going to gut me with it. I tunnel visioned and hit him with a throat punch that dropped him to the pavement to flop like a fish, gurgling to get air. I got in my car and left, not looking back or caring. A few years later I read in the local news about Barry. He was crazy on pills and had robbed a drug store, escaping on a motorcycle for a high-speed chase, running a roadblock at the Alabama line he was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper.
Some of the BS that Hollywierd pumps out about the Marines is too much, but some of that stuff happened at one time or another. With the exception of isolated training accidents, No recruit or DI has been murdered like depicted in the movie Full Metal Jacket. There was the infamous night hike that killed 6 recruits in Ribbon Creek on April 8, 1956. In 1976 a recruit was beaten to death in a training exercise gone wrong involving pugil sticks. I know of no one shot like the DI by the recruit as in FMJ.

I did see the DIs harass, physically and verbally assault everyone and some more than There was punishment and at time severe. For some, it was a correction, or elevation, or inspiration for others during the intense training. Those that lagged behind, did stupid stuff or worse were especially sought out for extra punishment and belittling. The push to be a team player, leader or just avoid notice is very high. We note that the DIs are focused on our successes and are almost beginning to praise team efforts that are successful, but there is no relaxing. We were broken down to our lowest level mentally and our weakest by physical exhaustion during the training. By midpoint in the training, we would kill for an hour of sleep, a cookie or sweet treat and murder our friend for a cold soda. An example was this recruit we will call Val. This mama’s boy was from New York and had mannerisms of being from the rich and famous. He cried at night and would get into trouble with the DIs because he was always a step out of snyc with the rest of the platoon on drill, He did PT exercises like a wimp, crying when he was forced to do push ups, dropped his rifle, took the rifle apart and lost the bolt. Lost his helmet on a march. Val got these huge packages from home, full of candy and sweets. The DIs made Val stand in front of the squad bay and eat candy with hot salt water chaser until he puked. All the goodies (called Pogy bait) were dumped in the trash. We were doing PT in the squad bay on the third floor of 3rd Herd’s new brick barracks as a normal work out every day. The whole time of boot camp can be explained as a ceaseless chaos that is highly organized to harass, hurt and condition the recruit to the tribe of Marines. Many push ups and squats until each of us had sweated through all of our clothes and made puddles of sweat on the clean floor of the deck.

The 20 mile march and overnight hike.

The DI was screaming at Val to get up! Val had collapsed and refused to do another push up. The DI was picking him up to adjust Val’s attitude when Val jumps up and takes off screaming “I going Home!” and runs out the squad bay to the stairwell where he jumps without stopping over the low wall to the parking lot where he crumpled into a pile with his leg at an odd angle. The medics come and we do not see Val anymore. The DI says “ Looks like the trash took itself out.” No one misses him nor anyone else that is a non hacker during our training. Our tribe must be strong. The strengh of the tribe is our goal. The DIs have begun to single out the “Birds” that are not conforming or keeping up. These receive special attention and the platoon is told everyone must suffer for their less than perfect effort. The “Tribe” is forming and by week 4 leaders within the tribe have appeared. The stuggling are mentored by the leaders and if one were observing they would see the Marine Tribe forming. Gung Ho! Chinese war cry of workers pulling together adopted by China Marines of the early 1900s.
We begin to learn the legendary team work that has carried Marines to victory in many battles. The heart of this ethos lies the fireteam and the squad. Close order drill and rifle drill molds us to respond to commands without question. Two overweight recruits are on short rations and extra PT. Another recruit who the DI says” Look at this walking skeleton, He has to walk around in the shower to get wet!” is on double rations until he gains weight. Up for a run before breakfast, PT while waiting in line for chow. The main course is chipped beef on toast, (Called SOS) we learn to crave it as our calorie burn must be over 3000 per day or more. During boot camp most of the “Fat Bodies” lose weight or they are sent to a motivational platoon where everyone runs with WW2 knap sacks (back packs) full of sand for miles through the swamps. Others like myself gain weight in the form of muscle. I go from 128 to 145. 3 mile Run after breakfast, more PT in a formation spread out in front of an instructor on a stage. A short lesson on a new procedure of killing, many practice drills and more PT then run to Chow hall to fuel the machine. Run back to another training lesson with doses of PT and more lessons on use of knife, pistol and rifle. Training on first aid, use of explosives and history of the Corps. If some one dozes we all do more PT. Push ups and many of them. We are told “Pain is weakness leaving the body”. Squats and jumping jacks along with leg lifts and drills with the 9 pound rifle. We march and drill until we start to enjoy the DI’s singing of the cadence. We toughen with new found skills. We do bayonet practice, fight with hands, knifes, throw grenades, fight with pugil sticks to simulate hand to hand combat and climb huge obstacle courses and at all times with experienced instructors expecting the best of us to teach the rest as we slowly bond into a team of green machine “Gung Ho” recruits. We low crawl under barbed wire as the instructors fire machine guns over our heads as others throw small explosives at us to stimulate mortars and grenades. Our civilian personalities slowly slip away, our psyche is changing from good well mannered American youth with the morals, derived in most cases from our Judeo-Christian values into a creature that will kill another person if ordered or placed in a position to kill the enemy. This change is required to become a member of the tribe. We are taught to run to the sound of the guns, into danger instead of the natural emotion to flee danger. Those that fail are ostracized and left behind. Cowards are not looked upon for long in this culture of warriors. The weak in body or mind are lost and forgotten, driven from the tribe. The idea that the stranger on my left and my right are my keepers and my brothers is easy to adopt when the recruit is handed a telephone pole and told to lift it and carry it on a trot across the obstacle course. Without the squad/the platoon/my fellow marines in training the task is impossible. After several practice runs the squad can now quickly lift the huge log and carry it at almost a run cheering as we outrun the other squad. We started with over 80 recruits now we are down to 76 to graduate. We lost another recruit at the pool during the drown-proofing exercise. The pool is ice cold.

We are in utes (Green cotton utility shirt and trousers) with all our gear, boots, web belts on the final test. We swim, treading water, learning not to drown by almost drowning. We are allowed to try without the boots. Some can some can’t. The instructors pick a few stragglers and they are forced to tread water or drown. One can not get it and freaks out. He almost drowns, choking and then vomiting up all the water he swallowed. He does not stop screaming and crying. The medics come and away he goes. We never see him again. We are in some sort of training mode almost 18-20 hours a day. It never stops, you constantly being watched and instructed. The squads are now in place and we have squad leaders and fire team leaders to correct and challenge us. We are pushed to the breaking point and beyond on several levels. The physical side is easier now nearly 8 weeks in, a three mile run is hardly taxing and a round of intense PT is done with a little effort and no one is slacking off. We learn first aid and each man must pick up and carry another on his back across a field as if in combat where the wounded are never left behind. We find that our web belt makes a tourniquet to be used along with the field dressing, how to stop a sucking chest wound. We are told Marines die, that is our fate and honor, but it is better that the enemy dies first for their country. Nonetheless we know now the Marine Corps lives forever. These few facts are drilled so deep into our psyche that we are becoming marines, fully believing we are the finest fighting force the world has known, unhesitating killers without conscience. The rifle range is rigorous and cold as the wind off the ocean is frost laden with snow flurries on Qualification day. We are solemnly reminded that good Marines are dying in the fight to drive the NVA from Hue City. The tension among the DIs is contagious we can not wait to get there. For over a week we have dry fired our rifles, Called “Snapping In” we learn sight picture, ballistics, wind and elevation. We dress with our shooting jackets and use our rifle slings to help us get into the positions that make our body into a shooting platform. Pain is ignored as we train to use the rifle as a extension of our being. The DIs are telling us stories of legendary marine marksmanship deeds. We hear of Pvt. Dan Daly, alone, guarding on the wall of Peking shooting over 200 Chinese in a night of the Boxer Rebellion in the 1900s. We hear of WW1 Marines killing the Hun, making the Germans run for cover at 600 yards with their venerated 1903 30-06 Springfields. We fire live rounds and our buddies work the targets in the “Butts”. Each recruit is coached by a experienced marine.

Each Marine will be a rifleman no matter what the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). We learn the creed of the rifle. We sleep with our rifles, we clean them with reverence. We polish the walnut stocks with gallons of linseed oil. We keep a notebook record of our every shot. It is cold that week of qualification. Almost everyone’s score is down. My sight fills with snow. The range instructors ask for a postponement and the Range Officer refuses. My hands are frozen especially the left one that is tightly tied off with the proper sling placement for a tight shooting position. My score drops from Sharpshooter to marksman and the number of Unks (unqualified) shooters is up as the red flag of a miss called Maggie’s Drawers is flown many times. We shoot at 200 yards, 300 yards and 500 yards for a total of 250 shots. I get 190 instead of my usual 220. I won’t fire an M14 in service until Gitmo and then only to FAM (familiarization). Instead we are issued M16s at Pendelton and shoot them at 100, 300 yards for FAM. The M14 is a powerful rifle shooting a 7.62 MM (.308 Winchester Cartridge). The round has very similar ballistics (only shorter overall length) of the 30.06 round used in WW1- WW 2 and Korea with telling effect. The Marines had a hard time giving up the Garand for the M14 and later the M16. Until the M16’s 5.56 round was improved it was considered inferior. The saying is “If it’s Mattel it’s Swell!” is said in pure Marine sarcasm. We were told the M16 has been adopted by the services because our allies in Vietnam are smaller. Well let’s look at the facts. The major weapon of the VC and NVA is the AK47 shooting a 7.62mm X 39mm that weighs in at 10.5 pounds with 30 round clip. The SKS a rifle found in large quantities among the VC weighs in at 8.5 pounds with a 10 round of the same 7.62X39mm with en bloc clip. Our M16 weighs 8.9 pounds with a 20 round clip. The M14 has a 20 round clip and weighs 10.7 pounds. The Garand of WW2 fame is 9.5 pounds. The Garand or M1 is used by several Asian countries and was in use by our allies in Vietnam. I feel the weight issue was a side show act, the real reason was the money to be made on these new rifles. The facts that came after the war reveled that the M16 was fired more than any previous bullet with a very low kill score looking back at previous wars and firearms.

Iron sights at 500 yds is never forgotten.

We fire 1911 .45 caliber pistols that are so old and worn they rattle when shaken. We learn to take these apart blindfolded as we did our rifles. This old pistol will be used by many in MOS (military occupational specialty) other than 0311 rifleman. The 0311, 0351, 0331 are known as “Grunts” as they are the “Soldiers of Foot”. We receive our MOS assignments at the end of boot camp. Most are 03 grunts. I am given the mos 2531 Field Radio Operator. I will carry the .45 and a rifle at times.

Several weeks into our rite of passage we received mail from home. We had been warned not to ask for and specifiably to tell our parents not to send “Pogy Bait” as candy and sweets were known to be. Each recruit was allowed to open the boxes of pogy bait and were derided by the DIs. The each person was allowed to give a small piece or half a cookie to his mates. The DI then instructed the forlorn individuals to get their canteens and fill with hot water. Then to stand around the trash cans and eat All the pogy bait in their respective box, chugging the hot water. We others were allowed to do push ups, deep knee bends and other fun stuff until all had finished with their respective repasts and regurgitated the mess into the cans. Then they were allowed to join us in Physical Training or PT as it is affectionately known. Every minute of those weeks was closely regulated and filled with activity. We were constantly watched by the Dis. The DIs were starting to identify leaders and favorites. The leaders were especially stressed and burdened with making sure the other recruits did as they were told. The favorites were poor souls that just could not get their act together. In drill they had two left feet or they dropped their weapon, or they dressed like sack of potatoes. What ever the fault the Dis and the newly appointed squad leaders were set to turn them into hard charging marines in the few weeks left or recycle them to another 9 week course, or turn them out a unsatisfactory for service in the words of the Senior DI “My Beloved Marine Corps”
Some one has said the the Army and the Navy is a job, the Air Force a corporation but the Marines is a cult. Or a Tribe as either one will fit. I prefer tribe and when you think on what we require Marines to do. It takes a cult-like mentality and a total respect for the tribe to carry it through to completion. This was the purpose of the brainwashings and focused training the Marine goes through. Individually you may have big dudes that can bench three times their body weight and skinny runts that are mean as snakes. Each to be a member of the tribe has to be able to pull the weight of the unit. At the basic level, this is the four-man assault team of the Marine rifle company. My point is this, In combat, if Big Charley goes down then Little Billy has to get him to safety. Marine tradition allows no one left behind even if it means more dead and wounded. We may have joined up because of what John Kennedy said or Mom’s Apple Pie or pure patriotism, but when in combat it was the man next to you that mattered.

782 gear from Korean War and WW2.

The smallest had to carry the biggest, if you could not hack any part of the test you went back to another cycle.

The instructors were all veterans and told us stories of what to expect.

Never had to use this skill.

Each individual must master the course. The team building begins.

500 yards with iron sights.

Read the whole story of my war.

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Karl - February 20, 2023

Good story. I went through PI boot camp 6 months after you did. You reminded me of things I have forgotten about. Plt 395, Senior DI SSGT Shoemaker a little but rough dude. Sgt Holtzapple a tall Recon Marine with a scare on his face. He would sneak around the squad Vay at night waiting to pounce on those talking.

lewis shaffer - December 14, 2022

i also went to Parris Island from Jan. to Mar. 29th 1968 we may have been in the same series, i was in Platoon 310. SSgt. Schmick, SSgt Starr and Sgt. Stevens D.I.’s

William B Johnson - September 5, 2022

I was in the Marine Corps Boot Camp in San Diego June 2 May, 1968 he got out 10 weeks later I would like to get a picture of a me and my for 10…… Platoon 3012 and graduated August 10, 1968

W Bruce Johnson
please call ASAP

Richard McGurn - April 16, 2022

I was in the 3rd BN in Sept of 1968. everything in your article is spot on. I also agree with what you said about Full Metal Jacket. The DI would have finally been pleased with Pvt Pile because he could shoot. I also think it would be impossible to get a round back to the barracks let alone two. We had a guy who supposedly took to many pills off the DIs deck. they turned out to be some cold remedy. So he made him do side straddle hops until the corpsmen got there.

Wayne Dillon - June 4, 2020

I enjoyed your writing. Ordinarily, I am thinking, “Oh, another boot camp story…” But you put it together well. I went in August 1975. They had toned it down a bit, but a lot of the attitude from Vietnam was still there. Let’s just saying that the DIs weren’t shy about hurting our feelings or “healing” us with a little “laying on of hands!” S/F

Harry - June 4, 2020

We had a Sgt Wertz as one of our DI’s in 67′ Skinny dude probably weighed about130#s He was not a nice guy! I think anyone in the pltoon could probably kick his ass . I was pretty sure he only had one ribbon (Natnl Defense) I just looked in my platoon book from PI and all the DIs are showing overseas ribbons except Wertz. Maybe its not the same Wertz Harry PLT. 3056 Oct-Dec 67′

louis goodsell - June 4, 2020

Same thing happened at MCRD San Diego…same time frame….same lesson.

aardq - June 4, 2020

Went through boot the same time he did, and never crawled under wire while explosives were thrown at us. That was ITR at Pendleton, and the explosives were in 3′ deep pits, not thrown. We fired 50 rounds, not 250. The 250 was the max score possible. Why post what you went through in boot camp to a bunch of men that went through the same thing. It was very hard reading your story, and the reason for writing it to this group still escapes me. Realizing that every platoon went through similar, but different experiences, your story strikes me as over dramatic and sensational.

Gunny Mac - June 4, 2020

I have the hardest time convincing people who’ve seen FULL METAL JACKET that NO BODY would kill themselves the day before they outpost from MCRD PI! First night, sure, but not the last. We had an idiot try it that first night in July of 1969 and failed miserably. The next evening, we were called into a school circle and given a class on the proper way to commit suicide. They stressed cutting the carotid artery. That was my first formal class in the Marine Corps. Shocked the hell out of all of us. We now knew these people were real serious.

WR Walters - June 4, 2020

We went through MCRD three years later in 1971. This is one of the best depictions ever read of what boot camp is really like. Semper Fi. The Colt 45 acp is still the best side arm ever created thanks to JM Browning. God created man and Sam Colt made him equal. Thanks, Rob

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