It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago today, on 2 Sept. 1977, I went active in the United States Marine Corps.
On that day, to Mom’s horror, my recruiter pulled into our driveway to pick me up. He put me on a bus to St. Louis where I joined three other enlistees and boarded an airplane to boot camp. Future Marines from west of the Mississippi River, except Louisiana, are always sent to MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego in California. Always…except that we didn’t. We were sent instead to MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina, which has the reputation of being the tougher of the two Marine Corps boot camps.
No biggie to me. I was looking for the challenge. I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle the toughest training that the toughest branch of the service could throw at me.
They didn’t waste any time testing my resolve.
As our bus entered the base at Parris Island, I remember glimpsing a sign that said something like, “Through these portals pass America’s finest fighting force – United States Marines.”
Yup, I was in the right place.
When the bus stopped, several inhuman beasts leaped aboard and began screaming, “Get off the bus! Move it! Move it!” One of them introduced himself at the top of his lungs, “I am your mother, your father, and the devil himself in spit shined boots!”
Welcome to receiving, where you get your initial look at boot camp.
Our first night as Marine Corps recruits was spent at full attention. No sleep, no slouching, no movement. The hours dragged on, boredom broken only when a young inductee requested to go home. Sadly unprepared for manhood, he missed his mommy.
Everything, and I do mean everything, we brought with us was taken away and stored. Then we were issued everything we would need for our stay on Parris Island.
Somewhere in there we visited barbers who all had a sadistic sense of humor. One would ask, “How do you want it cut?” then run the hard, steel blade over your surprisingly bumpy, sensitive skull. Another would ask, “You want to keep your hair?” then hold out a handful. Mine told me, “I don’t do shaves,” and skinned my skull, leaving me with just a mustache…and sideburns.
After receiving, we were assigned to a training unit. I went to platoon 1109.
A day in Marine Corps boot camp typically began at 0500 (5 a.m.) when a drill instructor stepped out of his office and started to yell at maximum volume, “Get on line!” That was our cue to erupt from our racks (beds) and to a position of ramrod straight attention along a line painted down our side of the middle aisle, wearing only shower shoes and white boxer shorts.
We counted off to clarify that no one had snuck out past the fire watch recruits during the night. Then we dressed to exact Marine Corps standards and marched to the chow hall. After inhaling a bland but nourishing meal, we moved on to a day of PT (physical training) and instruction in such things as walking, speaking, Marine Corps history, military rank, military deportment, drill, land navigation, swimming and water survival, first aid and CPR, combat tactics, hand-to-hand combat, fighting with a bayonet, rifle maintenance and shooting, proper hygiene, the 11 general orders, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It was all interspersed with more PT.
The day ended about 2200 hours (10 p.m.) when we stood beside our racks. The drill instructor yelled, “Prepare to mount!”
Every recruit would pound his rack and yell, “Good night Chesty Puller, you fightin’ son of a b—-!” *
Everyone would leap into his rack and lie on top in an exact reclining imitation of attention.
The drill instructor’s final order of the day (if we were lucky) was, “at ease.”
Recruits would sigh loudly, “A-a-a-ah” and get comfortable for a few hours of sleep, unless they were scheduled for fire watch. **
Mile after mile, marches were made to the sound of Marine Corps chants. “Lo right-a left, right-a lo right-a left, right, right-a lo right-a left, right …left right left.” But runs were accompanied by songs. “Momma Momma can you see, what the Marine Corp’s done to me!”
No one who has ever survived Marine Corps boot camp can forget the gas chamber. After gas mask training, recruits are taken into a chamber and CS gas (tear gas) is released into the room. I’ve heard variations of the procedure but my platoon donned our masks, then removed them and each of us had to repeat his name, rank, birth date, and service number. Somewhere in the recitation, a breath becomes necessary. That’s when the young hopefuls realize they can no longer remember, not only their service number, but their rank, birthday, or name!
The worst cold, flu, and allergy attack you’ve ever had combined can NOT equal the amount of bodily fluids your face will expel when exposed to CS gas.
At the rifle range, recruits are required to hit targets from 200, 300, and 500 yards. Yep, a prospective jarhead must hit a man sized target at 500 yards, without a scope!
The booby trap course is exactly as it sounds…only worse. You are taken to the starting place and told where the finish point is. You then have to go from start to finish. Sounds simple enough except, remember, the course is booby trapped…and it is dense woods…and it is the middle of a dark night…and you have no compass…and no light. Nothing quite matches moving slowly through the woods, guarding your eyes from low branches and feeling ahead of you for trip wires with a slender twig, all the while hearing the silence interspersed with the explosions as fellow recruits were “killed”.
In boot camp, any infraction of the rules was punished with PT. “Get on the quarterdeck, recruit! I’m going to PT you until I get tired,” the drill instructor would bellow. Any mistake was met with a tirade, “Did your parents have any children that LIVED?” and often more PT, “You’re gonna bend-and-thrust South Carolina off the MAP!”
The more you sweat in boot camp, the less you bleed in combat.
The Marine drill instructor’s job is to take “civilian pukes” and tear them down, then build them back up into Marines, the world’s most elite fighting force. There is no time during boot camp when the recruit is referred to as a Marine. That only comes at graduation…for those who succeed.
As tough as it was, it was worth it, and most Marines speak of their time in boot camp and their drill instructors with reverence. Those of us who made it learned that we could accomplish more than we thought we could. We learned how to react calmly while the world around us was going to s—. We learned how to lead, and we learned how to follow. We learned how to think as a team and we learned that we were all brothers. We became men.
We became Marines.
It all started for me forty years ago today.
* Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller is a Marine Corps hero. During the Korean War, he was commanding the First Marine Division in bitterly cold conditions at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir. When advised that his lone division was surrounded by ten (yes, I said TEN) divisions of Chinese communists, Chesty, commented, “Good! Now we can advance in any direction and engage the b——-.”
** Fire watch is an hour of walking around the barracks with a flashlight, making sure no one leaves or a fire breaks out. Each fire watch is responsible for waking his own relief. The final fire watch of the night wakes the drill instructor to begin a new day.
In forty years some things change; other things never will. (above, left) The day I was promoted to sergeant E-5 after three years in the Marine Corps. (above, right) A photo I took to send my kids on the Marine Corps birthday last year.
(below) The finished photo I sent out last year.