My freshman year I lived on the second floor of Phelps House, the freshman dorm. We shared a bathroom with three other two-man rooms. The student dorm advisor was in NROTC and thought it would be neat to have a “Navy Suite”, so all of my suitemates were on NROTC scholarships. That meant that on Thursday nights, the place smelled of shoe polish and Brasso as all eight of us got our uniforms ready for Friday’s drill.
The summer after my freshman year, I ended up on the USS Lake Champlain, an anti submarine aircraft carrier. It was the last straight-deck carrier in the US Navy. It had been in service since WWII and had been scheduled and delayed for decommissioning twice. We were escorted by four destroyers/frigates.
We boarded at Providence, Rhode Island, about 5:30 in the afternoon. The first day at sea I was informed that I was assigned mess duty, from 14:00 in the afternoon till 02:00 in the morning. The fun didn’t stop there. I was one of only two “lucky” midshipmen to be assigned to the Spud Locker. The two of use peeled carrots and potatoes for two 12-hour days straight in a space the size of a small walk-in closet. Someone said Midshipmen weren’t supposed to be in the spud locker, so we were the only two out of the 50-60 aboard to have that culinary experience. The rest of my week on mess duty was spent on the serving line and mopping the deck.
There seems to be a tradition in the Navy. When Midshipmen (or a company of 2nd Lts. from Quantico) come on board, the navy cooks make the greasiest chili in the world for their first supper. They sadistically figure that will help induce seasickness among the more sensitive stomachs. I spent eight weeks on that ship and only saw that greasy concoction the first night. I also witnessed the same thing two other times on amphibious ships. The other thing to watch out for is the upper bunk. You want to be on the bottom bunk. It moves less when the ship rolls or dips in heavy seas. If someone comes down from the top bunk in a hurry, heading for the head, you best get out of his way.
We were living in a large space under the flight deck. When an aircraft would land (more of a controlled crash) it was on the steel roof over our heads. The whole living space would shake like a bomb had gone off and then we would hear the steel arresting cable pulled back into position. Real great when a plane would land in the middle of the night! There were about 50-60 of us in racks (bunks) hung by chains four racks high. The chief loudly blowing his pipe (an obnoxious whistle) over the ship-wide PA system would wake everyone not on mess duty or standing a watch. Those of us on mess duty had just gotten off at 02:00. We’re trying to sleep while all of these other hands are getting up, coughing, farting, grumbling, and slamming lockers closed. Right after we finally get back to sleep, about 8:00, here comes some sailors to sweep and mop the deck in our quarters. Then at lunchtime some fellows come back to get something out of their locker.
When you are not on mess duty, you work a 12-hour day and stand a four-hour watch. The watches rotate around the clock, so some are during the day and you have the night off. If you pull a midnight watch (midnight to 4:00), you don’t get much sleep that night. Coffee rapidly becomes the most important fuel on board. I was told over and over again in the Navy and in the USMC that I would develop a taste for coffee, but never did.
Our first port of call was Halifax, Nova Scotia. As we steamed into port they had the sailors and midshipmen line up on deck in our summer whites. We were very impressive looking, but between the temperature and the wind created by the ship’s movement we were shivering. We spent a couple of days on shore with the Canadian military. We found it funny when they woke us up in their barracks. They would come in and shout “wakey, wakey.” Everyone was friendly and nice.
From there we headed south to spend an afternoon in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I had always pictured Cuba as green and lush. Gitmo is on the seaside of some hills and is barren, rocky, dreary, and depressing. From Gitmo we headed to Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaica was getting its independence from the UK and we were sent down to represent the USA. Vice President Johnson (LBJ) came down. We formed an honor guard along his parade route into Kingston. Kingston was pretty basic in those days. We had liberty in town and were sitting in a restaurant when a cat jumped through the window and ran across our table. We began to have doubts if that was the best place to eat.
When we were not standing a watch, we were supposed to work off a set of training objectives. We each had a little pamphlet that we were supposed to get signed off by different department chiefs, after we had spent some time in their department learning what they did. Some of us got bored with this. Who wants to stand around all day and watch some electronics tech work on a piece of equipment that we haven’t got a clue what it is or what it does? Worse yet was standing watch down in the engineering space with the boilers that drove the props. It was hot and noisy to say the least! We discovered a place under a portion of the flight deck near the stern of the ship that was open to the sea breeze where they stored life jackets. Life jackets make a great resting place to read a book or catch up on your sleep. It lasted for several days and probably would have lasted longer but the word slowly spread and more midshipmen showed up for our version of a spa. We were discovered and sent back to the working tours of the workspaces. Since we weren’t being graded or assessed on our performance on the cruise, there was no harm, no foul. One thing that occurred while we were in our “spa” was hilarious. We overheard two sailors talking outside of our hidy-hole. One was telling the other that he had to get himself a “walk.” If he “didn’t have a walk he wasn’t shit.” We had a hard time trying not to make any noise while splitting our sides laughing. I sure hope that poor sailor developed himself a “walk” so he became something.
After we left Jamaica the ship’s evaporators broke down. The showers were shut down. Then we had only salty water to shower in and there was only brackish tasting water coming out of the water fountains. We now understood why the ship was due to be decommissioned and it was shortly after that cruise. After eight weeks of whistle blowing us awake, for each meal, for each watch, and for lights-out we finally returned to Providence.
As one journey ends, another one begins. The navy furnished us with a travel allowance to return to our respected schools. We still had a couple of weeks before school started. . I had dated a girl from Houston my freshman year and wanted to go see her. I had met a Midshipman from the Chicago area on our cruise. He wanted to hitchhike home so I decided to give it a try and went with him. The Midshipmen from our ship were bused from Providence to Boston for a flight home. We started hitchhiking on the outskirts of Boston and hiked west to the outskirts of Chicago. We wore our Midshipmen uniforms, which looked like naval officers, so it was fairly easy to get a ride, since Vietnam hadn’t started, and the military was still held in some regard. I parted ways with the other fellow just outside of Chicago and headed south to Houston by myself. After a few days in Houston, I hitchhiked back home. I only recall one of the rides that I got on that trip, so it must have been pretty uneventful, unlike future ones. That one ride was in a hearse in Texas. (I rode in front, not in the back.) It was the smoothest riding vehicle I’ve ridden in, so I always thought it was a waste of an expensive suspension for someone’s last ride. I mean, it’s not like they are going to complain about a bumpy ride to the cemetery.
NROTC Summer Training
The second summer we spent three weeks in Corpus Christi, Texas for aviation orientation. That’s where I really perfected my ability to sleep almost anywhere. We would march as a platoon to noon chow. In training situations the military liked to line us up alphabetically-by-height. Being as how my last name started with “A” and I was 6 feet tall, I was always in the first squad, and usually the first or second one. (You thought alphabetically-by-height was going to be a joke, didn’t you?) This meant that I was always one of the first through the chow line. I perfected my speed-eating prowess and was outside before most had finished eating. I would then find a shady spot and almost instantly fall asleep for 10 to 15 minutes. You see I discovered the power nap before anyone ever mentioned it. I should have patented it.
Corpus Christi was one of the Navy’s jet training facilities. We got to fly a twin engine antisubmarine plane and, best of all, in an F-9. The F-9 was a fighter jet that had seen service in Korea and was currently being used for the jet training of naval aviator student pilots. It was a blast to go up in it and do a few acrobatic maneuvers in a plane that I had built a model of, as a kid.
The second three weeks we went to Coronado, California, near San Diego for Marine amphibious orientation. We lived in Quonset huts surrounded by sand. One candidate would stand a fire watch at night, sort of a human smoke detector. The next day we would have to rake the sand in straight lines perpendicular to the long axis of the hut. The USMC is the only organization that I know of that rakes sand around their living quarters.
One night this fellow that was bunking next to me came back from the club drunk, which woke me. He was babbling away to me about something only he understood, punctuating it with sprays of saliva. I endured his nocturnal bloviating because of his size. He was a couple of inches taller than me, had Neanderthal features, deep eye sockets, simian features, and hands that hung to his knees. This guy was a walking advertisement for the missing link. Later the next day, he apologized for the misty berating and we became friendly. I was always a little wary though, that he might drink too much again and resort to his more animalistic instincts and start swinging through the Quonset hut.
We had training on climbing both knotted and unknotted ropes. One of the midshipmen with us was a college gymnast. It was beautiful to watch him climb an unknotted rope with just his arms, holding his legs held out in a horizontal position. The rest of us had to use both our arms and legs. He was so strong that he accidentally broke a warrant officer’s arm while they were arm wrestling in the O Club.
The culmination of the training/orientation was an amphibious landing. We went aboard an LSD [landing ship dock] and were served the infamous navy’s greasy chili again. The next day we loaded into a LCM, the type of landing craft that hit the beach on D-Day. When I say loaded, I mean we climbed down a landing net on the side of the ship, wearing a helmet, pack, and rifle, and dropped into a moving landing craft. We were crouched down on one knee, unable to see out of the craft; even if we stood up, smelling the diesel fumes from the engine, while the craft was rocking in the sea. There would always be someone in the landing craft that would blow his cookies and a couple more would follow suit. The trick was to look away, try to ignore it and hope you are up-wind. The craft stopped just short of the surf line and dropped the ramp in front. We hopped out in the surf and ran up on the beach. I couldn’t help but think of those men in WWII that had to do this under fire! I can’t begin to imagine how scared they were. They truly were The Greatest Generation.
One of my suitemates from our freshman “navy suite” was from Miami. We decided to hitchhike home, so we rode a city bus as far as it went in San Diego. We were still in town, hitchhiking, when a cop stopped and asked where we were going. He gave us a ride to the city limits and wished us well. Things were pretty normal till we got to eastern California. We were standing by the side of highway 90, in the blistering desert sun, with nothing for miles except an old gas station. A guy picked us up in one of the last Studerbakers made. It was a sporty white two-door with a radiator leak. We had to keep stopping at bridges and climb down into the riverbed and hope there was enough water to scoop up with a Dixie cup. Once we got to civilization we said, “let us out.”
Our next ride was a car with two young guys in front and a girl in back. They said they would give us a ride if we would buy them some gas. We were standing in the Arizona sun in August, so of course we agreed. It soon became self-evident that they were worried about something. The girl in the back was no more than 20, her fingers already stained with nicotine, but she never smoked while we were in the car. She kept turning around and studying the road behind us every couple of minutes like she was afraid someone was following them. Since we were out in the desert we couldn’t exactly say, “please stop and let us out here,” to die of heat exposure or thirst. When they stopped for gas they asked for some gas money. We said we were broke and they settled for a can of oil.
I think most people must have traveled at night, because there wasn’t that much traffic on Highway 90, which ran from San Diego to Jacksonville. It was probably because a lot of the cars didn’t have AC back then. The first night found us in New Mexico where we got a hamburger, our first food since we hit the road. A guy in a two-door Pontiac picked us up and started driving rather fast through the mountains. We were to find out that he was testing out tires for Michelin. He said not to worry, he had driven the route many times and was very familiar with it. He had a machine that sat on the floor in front that measured his distance and speed. He said he had to maintain the fast speed for the test. Dick, the fellow with me, was nervous as a prostitute in church. Never one to miss an opportunity to catch some much needed sleep, I sacked out. When we got out Dick asked how I could sleep during that hair-raising ride. I told him that we were going over the side of a mountain, I’d just as soon not be aware of it. I’d rather die in my sleep than wet myself on the way down.
When you are driving across Texas it seems to go on forever. When you are hitchhiking it’s even bigger. It took us three days to get to New Orleans. We decided to go to the YMCA and clean up and spend the night. I called up a girl I knew and asked her out that night. We decided to take a nap around noon. I woke up the next day at 2:00 in the afternoon. I slept 26 hours! I called the girl and tried to explain the situation but she didn’t believe me. I gave up on trying to date her. I mean I was truthful with her! Why didn’t she believe I had slept 26 hours?
We arrived in Miami at Dick’s home five days after we left San Diego. I started out with a check from the Navy, for travel back to school, along with a five- dollar bill and less than a dollar in change. When I got to Miami I still had the check and some change. Coast to coast on $5! I lost 13 pounds in those five days. Once again I had invented a new diet, hitchhiking on cokes with an occasional hamburger thrown in for good measure.
USMC OFFICER’S CANDIDATE SCHOOL
USMC Officer’s Candidate School (OCS) at Quantico, Virginia, is different from marine boot camp. In boot camp the drill instructors take the recruits and build them up physically and mentally to become a physically fit member of a team with their fellow marines. OCS is designed to tear down the potential officers and see how well they perform their mission while undergoing physically demanding conditions, lack of sleep, and of course lots of harassment.
We were awoken at 05:30 by one of our two platoon sergeants screaming to get up. A couple of times they sneaked into the squad room and threw the fifty-five gallon metal garbage can down the room. That will definitely wake you up. There were about 30-35 of us in our platoon, sleeping in one long room. The head (bathroom) was composed of six sinks, six urinals, six toilets with no doors on the stalls, and one big walk-in shower. Private it was not! We had about 10 minutes to whiz, brush our teeth, wash our face, get dressed, and make our bunk up to Marine standards. Since my beard wasn’t too heavy I would shave right before lights out the previous night. I was multitasking before it was even invented. I would swipe my toothbrush under the running water as I walked by someone else and proceed to brush my teeth while standing in line for and while using the urinal. (I made real sure I didn’t turn loose of my toothbrush!) I have always been able to bound out of bed when awakened, unlike some of my fellow midshipmen. It gave me time to ensure that my bunk was in good order and I was usually one of the first in formation for breakfast. The first day we had the mandatory recruit haircut. I had a flat top throughout college so there wasn’t much to cut off. My roommate from Tulane had short, wavy, red hair. I couldn’t stop laughing. He looked like a freshly plucked chicken.
A warm welcome to Bulldog
The first real character I ran into in the Marine Corps was our platoon commander. He was a skinny, alcoholic first lieutenant who liked to run our butts off. We double-timed to every meal and then marched to the next training site. At Quantico, they have what is known as the hill trail. It’s a narrow winding dirt trail up and down hills covered in vegetation, the roots of which are sometimes in your way as you try to navigate it. We were supposed to march up and down it in full combat gear, pack, rifle, and all. The key phase is “supposed to march” so no one would trip and get injured. Our platoon commander made us run it every time. If we were the first platoon to use the trail that day we would run the whole way. If we weren’t first then we would wait till the platoon ahead of us had a head start, then we would run to catch them, wait again and repeat. We never walked that trail once! One day he came in looking like he had been rode hard and put away wet, but ran the trail with us as usual, puking alone the way. We found out later he had gotten his butt kicked the night before and had two cracked ribs. At the end of the six weeks course we had a field day where our platoon competed against another platoon of NROTC midshipmen and 2 platoons of Platoon Leaders Class candidates that had been there for 12 weeks. I’m sure that the fact that we ran everywhere had a lot to do with our platoon winning the competition.
There were a lot of candidates going to the sick bay with shin splints and blisters and a few sprained ankles. I made every hill train march (run) except the last one. My blisters got so bad that there were bloody blisters under the calluses on the ball and heel of my feet. Like I said it was designed to tear us down and test our mettle.
We would go out in the field for all- night exercises then return to the barracks for an inspection of our rifles, uniforms and boots. Having spent a year on the drill team, I could march a platoon around with the best of them and was very proficient at cleaning a rifle. The platoon sergeants never yelled me at while we were standing in formation. I did almost get caught giggling when they would be ragging on someone behind me, in the second or third squad.
One of the more memorable events in OCS was the gas chamber. We went into this shed-like building wearing gas masks. A CS (tear gas) grenade was then popped. We would stand and listen to a short lecture on the effects of CS gas. Then the fun part would commence. We had to take off our masks and stand there in the gas and sing the first stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn at normal speed. We tried to rush it and had to start over. When we came outside, our eyes, noses, and any uncovered skin was burning. I saw big college football players reduced to quivering lumps of misery. You wouldn’t believe what came out of those men’s noses. We called it “practicing to be miserable.” Other than the gas chamber and the blisters, I thoroughly enjoyed OCS.
Note: When we returned to Quantico the next summer, we found out our Platoon leader had been discharged from the Marine Corps. He returned to base one night and blew right through the gate and didn’t stop at the MP post for permission to enter the base. When the MP’s caught up to him he was drunk as a skunk.