n peace time, boot camp lasted several months. Now the Corps was expanding so fast that our training was condensed into six weeks. At the start of the war, the Marine Corps consisted of two under-strength divisions. At the war's end, a Sixth Division was being formed.
Boot camp was just as rigorous and horseshit as all the books and movies portray it, but I didn't hate it as much as most of my fellow platoon members. Those days weren't easy but I guess, even then, I could endure adversity and discomfort as long as there was some indication of a better tomorrow. Pollyanna? The elusive light at the end of the tunnel? Anyway, I just sort of breezed through those weeks without experiencing much of the rage and rebellion of many of my fellow platoon members.
We were issued a Springfield Model 1903 .30-06 caliber rifle. Mine was serial #6127218. This was the rifle used by the AEF in World War I. It became my constant companion until after the Tarawa campaign when I had to reluctantly surrender it for the Garand.
Here's another example of bureaucratic priorities. The Army had the new Garand rifle which was supposed to be the great new super weapon with tremendous firepower. Even army troops training in the States were being issued the new rifles but the Marine Corps didn't get them until the Army had all they wanted. I'd be more indignant about this except for the fact that I think the good old Springfield was (and is), the superior weapon. It didn't fire as fast, (you had to operate the bolt to load a round), but it was accurate and dependable. It never jammed... It never left you defenseless.
The .03's were pried out of boxes and handed to us covered with a sticky, stinking, grease called cosmoline. We were marched to an area with long benches and troughs filled with gasoline and ordered to clean our weapons. Now we found out why there were so many brushes and rags in those buckets we had to buy. All we could manage to do was clean the glop off the surface. Then we got instructions on how "field strip" the rifle. Inside were more pockets of goo. Cosmoline is a marvelous compound. It never gives up. It clings to all the metal parts, determined to protect them from rust. I scrubbed, I rubbed, I wiped, ... but it continued to ooze out. It seemed as if whenever I had a rare free moment, I spent it on my bunk scrubbing rifle parts with a tooth brush. Even today, when I brush my teeth, I get a flashback... and can smell, even taste, cosmoline.
Each boot platoon had two leaders, usually a staff NCO, and a corporal or sergeant. We had Gunnery Sgt. Bates, a traditional beer belly. We didn't see him very often, but he seemed to be a nice guy. Most of the Staff NCOs on temporary assignment as drill instructors, DI's, turned the duties over to the buck sergeants or corporals... sometimes even PFC's, while they spent most of their time at the slop-chute. We only saw them during inspections or on parade. Our personal nemesis was a skinny, red headed corporal whose name I have forgotten. "Corporal Red" did all the dirty work and we all came to hate his guts. Of course, all those John Wayne war movies do have some touches of reality. In typical, Hollywood style, most of the platoon celebrated with him at the slop chute when our ordeal was over and we found out he wasn't such a bad guy after all.
Any infractions of the rules brought instant reprisals. Sometimes these were individual punishments, but more often the whole platoon had to suffer when some wretch goofed off too many times. After an all night hike scheduled because of some goldbricker's slip-up, the other platoon members would usually be able to persuade the offender to shape up. An effective, often used punishment required the culprit to stand in front of his platoon area for a couple of hours, wearing only his skivvies, with a bucket on his head. Every time anyone walked by, he shouted, "I am the platoon shit-head. I am a miserable screw-up." When NCO's walked by they would rap on the bucket with their swagger sticks. Other times, the culprit would have to fill his pockets with sand, sew them shut and run the boonies for a couple of hours. That is, run down to San Diego Bay and back to the camp area until the DI was satisfied... or until he feared the culprit was about to collapse. DI's were always careful to stop on the safe side of actual homicide.
We all quickly learned never to call our rifle a gun. There were two standard punishments for this sacrilege. The first time the DI heard a recruit say the forbidden word, "gun", the hapless offender would be required to sleep with his rifle beside him in the narrow cot. If he slipped up again, he would be stationed in front of the company headquarters with rifle on shoulder, fly open, and pecker hanging out. He'd recite to all who passed by: "This is my rifle" while pointing to the rifle, and "this is my gun" while pointing to his crotch, then "this is
for fighting" and "this is for fun".
Endless push-ups, all-night hikes, double-timing around the base, ice cold showers, and what seemed like everlasting close order drill all became accepted as normal conditions. Mercifully, this first phase only lasted two weeks.
We were loaded into cattle cars of the Southern Pacific RR and transported up the coast about 175 miles to a rifle range near San Luis Obispo. We spent two weeks there learning how to properly entangle ourselves in rifle slings. There were four rifle positions: prone, kneeling, sitting and standing (offhand), and three firing modes: Slow-fire, rapid-fire, and fast-fire. The possible results: not qualify, qualify, marksman, sharpshooter, and expert. Since I was familiar with rifles and most of the platoon wasn't, I smugly felt that I had an edge. It sure didn't turn out that way. I did qualify as marksman, just missed sharpshooter, but missed expert by a mile. Expert was doubly desirable because it meant an extra five dollars per month, and a five dollar raise was significant. To my chagrin, many of my companions, who had never fired a rifle before in their lives, did much better on the rifle range than I did.
Duty up there was more pleasant than at the base in Dago. The horseshit was toned down, the food was better, and we often got a full night's sleep. We all hated to load into trucks for the hot, uncomfortable ride down the coast. To our surprise, we didn't get delivered back to the Marine Depot but to Camp Elliott, a base about fifteen miles northeast of San Diego. We spent our last two weeks of boot camp there. These days were just as physically grueling but the mental torture, constant needling and hassling eased up. We spent the time learning how to operate as rifle squads and were on almost constant bivouac.
The great day finally arrived. There was a company parade before the boot platoons were disbanded. Then we got to enter the canteen for the first time. That's where we held our victory celebration. Corporal Red and Gunny Bates both stood us a round of brews and we felt as if we had been knighted. It was a proud moment. I had survived the notorious Marine Corps Boot Camp! Even fifty years later I can't help being
proud about it.
The Marine training theory must be psychologically sound. Probably, it's the same as brainwashing: degradation, loss of dignity, mental abuse, hatred of authority, then a determination to resist... to survive. Marine boot camp mashes your ego into a pulp and then subtly reshapes it -- Corps history, constant reminders of the greatness and glory of the Corps, how fortunate you are to be considered for membership into this select organization. The result is a Corps mystique... a brotherhood. I still feel it.
The next afternoon we were mustered in formation for the last time as boots. The new assignments were read off. NCOs from various outfits were alongside Gunny Bates as he read off the roster and they came forward to claim us when our names were called. Most of the platoon was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division, a few to a Special Weapons Company, three to a Communications Company and two, John Kiefer and me, to the 10th Marines, the artillery regiment.
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CAMP ELLIOTT & BRAWLEY, CALIFORNIA:
February 20, 1942 - May 15, 1942
A sergeant picked us up. John and I were forlorn as we were led away from the men we had enlisted with back in Montana. We wanted to stay with those buddies. As a group, we had defeated the Union Pacific Railroad, held the Shore Patrol to an uneasy truce, and survived boot camp. They were family.
The sharp NCO escorting us was friendly and actually treated us as if we were decent guys. I can recall how I felt as we drove past a boot platoon... smug and superior. They were sub-human boots but I was a MARINE!
The sergeant drove us to the area of Camp Elliot where the 3rd Battalion was billeted. The battalion consisted of three gun batteries (75mm French pack howitzers) and a H&S, Headquarters and Service, battery. After a week in the headquarters barracks, Kiefer was assigned to "I" Battery and I was sent to "G" Battery. John was killed eight months later in the Solomons when the Yippee boat transporting "I" Battery from Tulagi to Guadacanal was shelled by a Jap destroyer.
The 3rd Battalion received about 20 new members from the boot platoons that had just completed training. The new arrivals spent a week listening to orientation lectures, taking tests, and being sized up by the various battery officers and NCO's. It was like a livestock auction. The new Marines milled about like cattle while the buyers made their decisions. I evidently did well on the intelligence and math tests and passed the inspections since I was assigned to the G Battery Instrument Section. This was an elite group. Wretches on the low end of the rating scales got sent to the gun sections as ammunition handlers. To continue the analogy, this was the equivalent of a trip to the slaughterhouse.
The section chiefs were two newly promoted buck sergeants, James Ernest Red Brown and Gabriel DeCaro. We also had a tall gangly corporal, "Red" White, who was a nice buy but not too bright. There were five or six other new peons, like Phil Dohrmann, a fine guy. There was a weaselly brown-noser, and a blonde Germanic asshole who thought he was God's special gift to the USMC. The bitterness
puzzles me. I can't recall any specific reasons why those two guys irritated me so much. There must have been some unpleasant confrontations since my animosity has survived for over fifty years.
Andy and I were not brash, pushy types so we ended up outside the neat little club. It turned out to be another case of the hare and the turtle. The brown-noser turned chicken in the Hebrides. The asshole was transferred, and eventually discharged as "unsuitable". I don't know why.. arrogance, as far as I know, is not sufficient cause for dismissal.
Later, Brown and DeCaro became good buddies of mine. I often berated them for their lack of judgment in those days when they considered those two blow-hards as the right stuff. They should have been smart enough to perceive that Andy and I were the slow, steady men who would add to the luster and glory of the Corps.
This period was a low point for me. I was an outsider in a new outfit. No friends, and away from all those great boot camp buddies who had shared my recent suffering. I went to my first sergeant and asked for a transfer to the infantry so I could rejoin them. He found it unbelievable that anyone would want to transfer from the artillery into the infantry. He listened to my story, gave me some unsolicited advice, and finally helped me with the necessary paper work. Then he set up an appointment with the battery Commanding Officer, who had to approve my request for transfer. The CO also offered me some fatherly advice and tried to dissuade me from pursuing my request. I stubbornly persisted, and went back to the barracks convinced that I'd soon be back in an outfit full of old buddies. Fortunately, I was wrong. When days went by and no transfer arrived, I checked with the First Sergeant. He convinced me that these things take time and during wartime other matters take precedence over transfer requests. In the meantime, I made new friends and wished I hadn't requested the transfer in the first place. I remembered how I had resisted taking the advice of the CO and the First Sergeant, so I couldn't muster up enough guts to go and withdraw my request. The transfer never came through. A few weeks later, while drinking a friendly brew with the First Sergeant at the slop-chute, he informed me that he had torn up my application as soon as I left his office that day. I probably owe him my life.
My ego, but not my morale, got a boost when I was made Private First Class, PFC. The battery had several slots in the table of organization to fill, so, since I tested well, I got a stripe. Now I assumed I was on my way to the top. If I could get promoted after only a few weeks in the outfit, I'd certainly rapidly move up in rank. Not so. I was a PFC for a year before getting another stripe and I was a corporal even longer than that.
Newly promoted PFC Paull put in some miserable and lonesome days. I was homesick for Montana and for my boot camp buddies. I remember wandering out of the PX at Elliott feeling sorry for myself. I found a phone booth and called home. Ma told me later, that at that time I sounded different from my letters. She asked me what I was going to do for the rest of the afternoon and I replied, "I guess I'll go back to the barracks and iron a shirt." I was always clean and neat, well-pressed, and had no trouble achieving the prescribed ironed-in lines running down my shirts... three creases in back, two in front. There's probably some reason that this memory is so vivid, but I don't know what the significance is. But I recall it as a low
point in my military career.
About two weeks after this, the division moved out for a training bivouac in the desert near the Mexican border. There was no camp, just sand, rocks, sagebrush and cactus. The All American Canal was under construction and this changed the Imperial Desert into a lush farming region after the war. We used to hike down the middle of the dry concrete canals.
Naturally the two outcasts, Paull and Anderson, became a pair. Since we were experiencing field conditions, there were no mess halls, no toilets, no showers. We ate cold chow from cans, dug straddle trenches for latrines, and when we couldn't abide our own smell, we took whores' baths. The recipe was simple: remove the plastic liner from a helmet and the steel pot becomes a wash basin. Water was at a premium so you needed a buddy. One helmet was wash and the other was rinse. We'd work up a lather and wash our crotches, then our feet and if there was any water remaining, the armpits got a swipe or two. These priorities are revealing. Since the climate was so dry, we never had to use a towel, the eternal hot wind dried us. We accomplished this refreshing feat with about two quarts of liquid. Water was hauled to the camp in a tank truck and strict rationing was enforced. I think we were allowed two or three canteens per day so it took some sacrifice and hoarding to save up enough water for a skimpy bath every three or four days.
Each man carried all his gear in a horseshoe pack. This consisted of one half of a pup tent, called a shelter half. It was a piece of canvas about 8' x 4'. This was spread out flat. Two blankets were folded on top. Then three short wooden poles and four wood stakes were strung out along the length. Ends were folded in and the whole thing was rolled up like a jellyroll and tied with straps until it looked like a six-foot long sausage. Our backpacks were filled with C-rations, mess kits, socks, skivvies, towels, toilet articles, and any personal items that we could manage to cram in. The bulging pack was laid face down on the deck and the blanket roll was strapped over the top and down both sides... hence, "horseshoe". It was almost impossible to get this contraption on your back without help and we all bitched and bellyached every time we had to march with full packs. Nonetheless, it's surprising how much gear one man can carry for long distances with little discomfort.
Each canvas shelter-half had buttons sewn along one long edge and button holes on the other side. When we made camp, each man found his buddy and they buttoned their house together. The poles were joined and a little shelter erected. A blanket was spread on the sand or the softest rocks available. The packs were pillows. For almost a month, this was home for Andy and me.
Andy was my first and best buddy. He was a stocky little Swede from North Branch, Minnesota. We became friends in that California desert because neither of us had anyone else to button up our shelter-half with. We bared our souls and shared our dreams. "AFTER THE WAR" . . . Almost every statement was prefaced with those wishful words. We were scared. but confident that we'd survive. Andy was going to spend weeks with me in Montana, fishing at MonoCreek. I was going to visit the farm in Minnesota. We never did any of these
things, but we did remain in contact through letters and phone calls for about fifteen years. The letters became more infrequent but we exchanged Christmas cards with personal notes until even these contacts ended. A few years ago I received an invitation to a reunion of "THE FORGOTTEN BATTALION". Enclosed was a roster with an asterisk beside the names of all those known to be deceased. It was sad to recognize so many of those ill-starred names. Andy's was one of them.
One day, while we were in the desert, the company commander gave Andy a message. His mother had died. One of my most vivid memories of those days was the knot in my stomach as I tried to sleep next to Andy in that tent hearing him trying to stifle his crying, and not knowing what to say or do to try to comfort him. By now, he and I had bonded into that mystic "buddyship" and his loss was my loss too. I called Ma from El Centro and told her about it. She wrote to Andy and they maintained a regular correspondence through the war. Sometimes my nose would get out of joint because Andy would get a letter from her when I
We did get some week-end liberties. A few times Andy and I went to Brawley and El Centro. Miserable, dusty little towns with nothing to see and nothing to do except sit in the bars and get ripped off by the local, suddenly affluent, tavern owners. One weekend, we took a bus to Yuma. Dismal! We got a room in some cheap hotel and went out to see the sights. There weren't any sights. We both got sloppy drunk. Andy was trying to cope with his grief and I was bending my elbow in unison. It's unfair, but Yuma, Arizona, will always conjure downbeat memories for me. It's probably a lovely town. We saw it's seamy side while experiencing our own stress.
The desert odyssey ended when we were loaded on trucks and returned to Camp Elliott. Flush toilets, hot showers, metal bunks.... living in a big barn with fifty other men suddenly seemed a glorious luxury.