In June 1965, I reported to the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia, which is home to various training facilities for Marine officers, the Army’s Provost Marshal General, NCIS Headquarters, The DEA Training Academy, the FBI Academy, and the FBI Lab, as well as HMX-1, the unit that flies the President’s helicopters. We had to wait for the US Naval Academy midshipmen to graduate before starting Basic School. For two weeks we rode USMC buses into Washington, DC touring the various monuments and the Smithsonian Institute. It was a fantastic opportunity to visit DC and not have to worry about parking.
The Basic School is the Marine Corps’ training for all freshly minted 2nd Lieutenants. The course consisted of infantry training; concentrating on platoon tactics, map and compass reading, weapons training, military law, first aid, physical fitness, and most importantly, leadership. It was supposed to be a nine month course, but I went through the first six-month course. The war had recently gone from advisor status to full out combat and the USMC was in need of more officers. There were 400 officers in my class, divided into two companies of three platoons. I was in the 1st squad of the 1st platoon of A Company. (Organized alphabetically by height).
The Basic School was my kind of school, a little bit of classroom instruction and a lot of hands-on training. Normally I had the attention span of a goldfish when sitting in any class, but we studied things that kept my interest. We studied art: Camouflage is the art of concealment: hiding, blending, and deceiving. We studied hiking: We put on packs and rifles, etc and made a 20-mile march and a 40-mile march. We studied obstacles as we ran the obstacle course. We studied road running. We practiced platoon infantry tactics with blanks (which can hurt if fired too close to bare skin).
I was “so lucky” to have a lean, running nut for a Platoon Leader. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him and loved to run. The first thing every morning it was some form of physical training. We would do PT in red USMC shorts, yellow USMC tee shirts, and combat boots (very colorful and easy to spot running down the road). The platoon would run in formation. We started out running a half of a mile the first week and added on from there. The last run was 7.2 miles, which made us late to class that morning! None of the other platoons ran anywhere near that far or that much.
Running is a strange thing that affects people in different ways. Some of the guys would puke in the early days until they got in shape. I wasn’t in shape by any standard, but never lost my breakfast on a run. Some cramped up but not me. Running can be broken down into two categories: jogging for distance and sprinting for speed. I could jog along with the best of them. I didn’t know it, (since it hadn’t been invented yet) but I was “getting in the zone” and running as far as dictated. Sprinting was an entirely different matter. As I mentioned earlier, I was probably the slowest kid in every endeavor I was ever involved in. I was probably slower than the chubby kid in class. This was never more abundantly clear than one day when our platoon lined up to do 50-yard wind sprints. We were in formation with one officer from each squad sprinting against the other two. The fastest one didn’t have to run any more heats. Guess who was the loser in the very last heat? That’s right, I had the distinction of being the slowest guy in the platoon. The only time I ever won a sprint was once when we took fire in Vietnam. The Platoon Sargent was surprised when I passed him, running for cover. He said he didn’t know I could move that fast and I said I didn’t either.
After finishing whatever PT was on the schedule, we would clean up and go to class. The classroom was air conditioned so after running, etc. we would sit in class and our muscles would stiffen up during the first class. Since I was interested in the material and not doing my usual day dreaming and talking in class, I excelled on all of the written tests.
The first month we had a night compass problem. On a night with no moon, we started out with a set of azimuths and distances, a red-filtered flashlight, and a compass. We had to measure our steps in a certain direction to reach a marine that would give us a code, confirming we had made it to that point. We had to walk with the compass in one hand, while the other hand was up in front of our face; to keep from running into a branch of a bush, since we didn’t have any safety goggles. It’s amazing how much you can see by starlight, once you get your night vision.
During first aid training, some of the movies were pretty graphic. The movies were well-done and used injury/wound props that would have done justice to any Hollywood production. We would be sitting there watching some guy in the film, who supposedly had his leg blown off, and had arterial blood pumping out of his “wound”, when we would hear a dull thud. Some 2nd Lieutenant in the back of the class had passed out! As I said, the props were really life-like.
Before each long holiday weekend, we would have to watch a driving safety film. They were supposed to remind us that we were not invincible when we got behind the wheel. They were produced by various State Police agencies, and usually had film of accident sites with State Troopers talking about what happened and about having to notify the families of the victims. To this day I still remember two simple accidents that resulted in death because of a lack of a seat belt. They were very sobering to say the least. At the time I had a Corvair with no seat belts. I went out and bought a pair and installed them myself. They probably wouldn’t have done much in a serious accident, but were better than nothing.
Inspections were mind numbing. We would form up at least a half an hour before the big wheel would inspect us. For the entire time we were in formation, we would either be standing at attention or parade rest. First we had to stand for inspection by the Platoon Commander, standby, then get inspected by the Company Commander, standby some more, and then finally the top dude would inspect us. His inspection was always quicker and less intense than the one by the junior officers. We were told not to lock our knees when standing at attention. We had a saying that in the beginning there was the Word and when the Word was passed, no matter how many times, there would always be someone who didn’t get the Word. Sure enough, while standing at attention we would hear a splat as someone, who had locked his knees, did a face-plant on the asphalt.
The other self-injured individuals were those that had trouble learning how to salute with the Marine Officer’s Sword. It has been known to knick more than one officer, on the outside of his eyebrow, at the end of the salute.
There was a fellow from Oklahoma in the 2nd squad (middle-inside squad) that would chew tobacco when we ran the roads during PT. Someone in either the first or third squad would trade places with him so he wouldn’t spit on anyone while we were running. I was having problems breathing as it was and this fool was chewing as he ran. He was so Gung Ho he would make his wife come in on the weekends and time him while he practiced the Physical Fitness Test.
At each location for the start of the various physical fitness tasks, there was a wooden sign that gave the name of the officer that had set the record for the best time. A 2nd Lieutenant who had won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics was listed as the record holder for the mile run. As we were finishing TBS, one of my classmates set a new record for both the single and double running of the obstacle course. He was a basketball player from UCLA. He was only 6’1” or 6’2” and slender, not at all like today’s college giants. He used his brain as much as his physical ability to work out how to run the course. He would practice using leverages and momentum to make it look like a ballet. It was so beautiful to watch that the whole platoon stood by and cheered him on because we knew he was going for the record. I learned a lot from him. I’m so slow; I probably would not have scored a 100% on both the single and the double running of the course, without using his techniques.
Once again they wanted us to practice being miserable. It was gas chamber time. When we entered the chamber, the instructor asked if anyone’s mask was leaking, so I held up my hand. I was sent outside and somehow forgot to go back in with another group. I couldn’t see why I needed it again, since I had undergone the torture the summer before and was well aware of what it was like.
We went to the pistol range to qualify with the M1911A1 .45 semiautomatic pistol. It’s called a 1911 because that’s the year it first came into service. It was carried by our troops in WW I, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. It’s heavy, not all that accurate, but packs a hell of a wallop. We were told that if we hit a man in the arm it would probably knock him down! I don’t know about that because the only thing I ever shot with it in Vietnam was a chicken. I qualified Expert with it.
It was then off to the rifle range for the M-14, a heavy rifle designed for use on the plains of Europe that fires a NATO round. The US military quickly found out that it wasn’t what was needed in Vietnam and within a year of entering the war, it was changed out for the lighter M16, the grandfather of the modern assault rifle. We had to use a certain way of wrapping the rifle sling around our arm to steady the rifle. It was uncomfortable, down right painful. We shot at man-sized targets 200, 300, and 500 feet down range. At 500 feet that target is awful small.
The M14’s we used on the range to qualify were the same ones we had carried out in the field and were not all that accurate after being beat and banged around. We were supposed to have used a set of rules set aside for range use only. As a result there was a big stink when our Company didn’t do very well at the rifle range and an investigation was undertaken to determine the cause. I along with numerous others only qualified for the lowest badge, Marksman, which was deridingly known as “the toilet seat”. I was lucky to get that since several officers didn’t qualify. If a Marine officer fails to qualify, he has to write the Commandant of the Marine Corps a letter explaining why. When I was stationed at MCAS New River, NC, I managed to bring it up to Sharpshooter (the same as Lee Harvey Oswald).
When it was time to practice an amphibious landing, we boarded an LSD (Landing Ship Dock). It was once again another dose of the world’s greasiest Chili for the faint of stomach. The Navy cooks just loved us Marine Officers. This time we were to hit the beach in Virginia in LVT’s. An LTV is basically an armored personnel carrier that has tank-type tracks and floats, only about a foot of it shows above the water. When everyone is inside, the back ramp closes and encapsulates the passengers in a steel box. Opening huge doors in the aft of the ship floods the Well Bay of the ship. The LVT’s drive out the well deck of the ship into the sea. Now that’s a real sphincter-clincher and a half! This would-be tank drives off the partially flooded deck and falls down in the sea. Hopefully it will pop back up and not keep going straight to the bottom. Of course it leaks somewhat and while you are realizing what a mess you put yourself in, seawater is dripping down the back of your neck. After a few seconds of petrified fear, we were floating and chugging towards the beach. The LVT hit the beach, the back ramp dropped and we ran out, never more glad to feel terra firma beneath our boots.
One of the coolest things about TBS were the various weapons we got to use. We got to live-fire rifles, pistols, M-79 grenade launchers, M-60 machine guns, and mortars and to throw grenades. The first thing we were taught about throwing grenades was that they were not thrown like a baseball, like all the macho movie heroes do. That’s a good way to throw out your elbow and they won’t go very far. They are thrown more like a discus. It was a good thing we threw them from inside a sandbagged parapet. As usual, someone didn’t get the Word and tried to John Wayne his grenade. Naturally it landed short and the instructor had to pull the knothead down below the sandbags before he went kablooey.
When we did our 40-mile march we spent the night in a sleeping bag. It was in the 40’s that night. The trick is to take off your uniform and jacket and put them in the bag with you. The sleeping bag will keep you warmer in your undies, than it will if you are dressed. You do it quickly and jump in for the night. The next morning you repeat the exercise in reverse. You would be surprised how fast you can get dressed when you are standing around in your underwear in 40 degrees.
At The Basic School we were graded on everything we did: leadership, written exams, PT, marksmanship, etc. The PT consisted of The Physical Fitness Test (pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, leg raises, a wind sprint (ugh!) etc.), The Physical Readiness Test (running 50 feet, picking up another Marine and carrying back 50 on your shoulders, mile run, etc.) and a single running and a double running of the “O” Course. There may have been more, but this is all I remember. Before we did any PT, we always did a set of 12 exercises called the daily dozen. They were jumping jacks, pushups, sit-ups, leg lifts, leg thrusts, running in place, etc. I now realize in retrospect that about half the daily dozen were designed to loosen up our back muscles, which is probably why I can’t recall anyone ever having back issues. Pretty smart, huh?
When it came time to put in for our prefaces of MOS (military occupation specialty) and duty station, I was unsure as to which route to take. At the time I was planning on a career in the marines. I wanted to go to flight school and I wanted to go for a ground MOS, Artillery. I figured if I went aviation and later decided to switch to ground, the USMC wouldn’t be too happy after they had put out the considerable cost of my flight training. If I went ground and switched to aviation later no one would be upset. So I put in for Artillery School and for the 3rd Marine Division (which was in Vietnam). The way the military looks at things is that if there’s a war going on you need to get combat experience for your career. At the time we didn’t know how long things would last (what a joke) so I was Gung Ho to get some experience. After all war is their business and business was good. The Lt’s that put in for the 1st or the 2nd Marine Divisions still ended up in Vietnam a year or so after I got there. Most did not get out of the big trip!
While in TBS, I ran some on the weekends and worked out a little with weights. That was the one and only time in my life, I had the beginning of a six pack. By the time we were graded on these physical activities, I was able to score 100 on everything but the wind sprint. The USMC got me in really good shape. The USMC is an amazing organization that has done so much, for so long, with so little that they can do the impossible with nothing at all, but even they couldn’t do anything about my lack of speed. Somehow I still managed to graduate 47th out of 400 in my class.
January 1966 found me at the Army Artillery and Missile School at Fort Sill, in Lawton, Oklahoma. When I arrived I asked one of the locals if it snowed much there. He said not that much, but that winter they had a record snowfall! This Florida Cracker had only seen snow in the freezer section of our refrigerator when it needed defrosting. It would snow, warm up a little, and then freeze again so everything would end up covered in ice. We had to put chains on our rear tires to get to work. There were three of us that carpooled: I had the Corvair, one guy had a VW bug, and the third one had a mustang. The Mustang was no good on the icy roads, but the other two cars with their rear engines were good to go. We were lucky and never had an accident, unlike some of the locals. As we drove to school we would see cars that had slide off the icy street into the ditch alongside of the road. When I would go to the grocery store the parking lot would be coated in ice. Wearing my combat boots for traction, I would exit the car carefully, holding onto the door and walk very carefully to the door, like an old man with bad hips. Since they were not used to that much snow and ice in Lawton, they didn’t have the means to remove it.
Being enrolled in artillery school meant I had to learn how to call in artillery on an enemy position. We had practice sessions in the daytime and at night. One night we were out calling artillery with 13 inches of snow on the ground. I was colder than a Siberian stripper. It was so cold and windy that I was shaking in my boots, my nose was running, and my eyes were watering, while I tried to hold the field glasses steady enough to see where the rounds were landing and make adjustments to hit the target. The locals liked to say that the only thing blocking the wind from Canada was four barbed wire fences. I believed it.
I spent 10 weeks there. The Army said the dental facilities were pretty much non-existent in Vietnam at that time and recommended that I have my wisdom teeth removed before I went overseas. The first time a dentist took out both teeth on one side using the usual method of cutting the roots and pulling. I looked like a one-sided chipmunk. A week later another dentist took out the other two. His method was to drill down in the middle of the tooth, put a chisel in the hole and hammer the crap out of it, shattering the tooth and my nerves! Even when you are shot full of Novocain and can’t feel any physical pain, the mental anguish of feeling the vibrations while he is pounding his chisel and when your tooth shatters and watching him pick out the pieces is rather disturbing. I was another one-sided chipmunk for a few days and lost 5 pounds in the process.
Speaking of wisdom teeth reminds of an incident that occurred during my second tour in Vietnam. One of the Lieutenants in my squadron and the Air Group dentist were drinking one night in the “O” Club, well into their cups, when the pilot mentioned that he had never had his wisdom teeth removed. They went over to the sick bay and the dentist removed all four! The pilot looked like he had a golf ball in each cheek and couldn’t fly for several days. No one would have been able to understand him on the radio.