Marines.Together We Served

Monday, September 26, 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp - Random Experiences

Roots in Ripon
Chuck Roots
26 September 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp Random Experiences

This will be my final article for this series on my experiences in Marine Corps boot camp, nearly fifty years ago.

With the presidential election only a few weeks away, I will have a few things I want to share on that four-year event in the next several articles.

Since I began these boot camp stories, I've had a number of fellow Marines, both those I have served with and some I've come to know in later years, tell me that I make boot camp sound like fun. That certainly was not my intent, nor is the experience "fun" in the sense that makes a person say, "Wow! That was fun! Let's do it again!" like a ride at an amusement park. I think I speak for most Marines when I say that I'm proud to have endured boot camp, earning the title of United States Marine. But, I would never want to go through that training again!

Last week's article was focused on our two weeks at the rifle range. One of the stories that emerges from my memory bank was when the drill instructors informed us that we were going to have a "Hog Contest". Any recruit who wished to do so could place a picture of his girlfriend/wife on the board to see if she might be selected as the best looking “hog”. I don't know just how many pictures were submitted, but it was a lot. As our time at the range drew to a close, we were allowed to pick our favorite "hog". This was certainly not a very complimentary term, but the idea was for all of us to decide who of the fair damsels was the most attractive. As it turned out, my girlfriend was chosen, although I'm not sure I ever revealed that to her. And, no, it was not Isaura. I would not meet Isaura for another five years or so. I will say this: that had it been Isaura, she would have won, hands down.

One of the recruits in our platoon had to have been one of the homeliest guys around. So when he put his girlfriend's picture up on the board everyone was curious to see what she looked like. It was frightening, really. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. We just figured they were cousins.

Well, as the time on the range was running out, some of us (Joe Harden and Larry McEntire come to mind) took this girl's picture off the board, and snuck it down to the rifle range. Since part of our time learning to shoot included "manning the butts", we took our turn hidden below the targets, running up scores and changing target sheets. When our buddy's turn to fire came up we taped his girlfriend's picture in the center of the target. We're firing from several hundred yards away, so you can't see a wallet-sized photo. We waited in anticipation to see if he'd make a direct hit on his girlfriend's image. Then, "Pop!" Sure enough - dead center on the picture. We found this to be hilariously funny, although I will admit it was mean and unkind. When he found out later what had happened, he was, shall we say, none too pleased.

During our final physical fitness test, three of us from the entire series (four platoons - better than 200 men) scored a perfect 400 points on the first four events going into the fifth and final event. Now, this was going to be a problem for me because I've never been a fast runner, and this event was a sprint. The three of us were all from the same platoon, so our drill instructors were really excited about our chances of at least one of us possibly scoring a perfect 500 points. So they took the three of us aside to give us a pep talk, or at least the equivalent of one as much as a drill instructor could give. I don't remember the distance of the sprint, but I think it was 220 yards. To score 100 points meant you ran under 30 seconds. I knew there was no way on God's green earth I could run that fast. The other guys mumbled the same sentiments. When we lined up I was determined to run as hard as I could. When the gun went off I started pumping my knees, feeling as though I was flying on the track. Then I realized I was pushing so hard that I might fall flat on my face. I even wobbled a bit, which scared me just a little. None of this mattered because I came in at 41 seconds, well off the 100 points needed for a perfect score. The other two guys came in at 35 and 37 seconds, as I recall. I was just glad I didn't wind up face-first sprawled on the dirt track!

Our platoon was highest in scoring on everything throughout boot camp. When we marched toward the drill deck for graduation, our guidon was festooned with streamers. It was a proud moment for us all. Family and friends had come to San Diego to witness this transformation of boys to men and we sure puffed out our chests. However, I almost didn’t get to march with the platoon. During boot camp the drill instructors are allowed to meritoriously promote 10 percent of the recruits. That worked out to five or six of us, of which I was one. I was a squad leader, had scored very high in physical fitness and was high shooter for the platoon. So I had to turn my uniform in to have PFC (Private First Class) stripes sown on in time for graduation. Unfortunately, mine did not get done in time. The drill instructors deliberated over my being allowed to march with the platoon. My green blouse jacket for the Class A uniform did not have the stripes, but my long-sleeved shirt that goes with the jacket did. Eventually, the drill instructors agreed to allow me to march with the platoon wearing just the shirt. I stood out, marching at the front of the platoon leading my squad with my light, khaki-colored shirt while everyone else was in the dark green blouse jacket.

It was great to have my sister Joy, and my folks and grandmother come from L.A. for the graduation. But in a few days we would begin Infantry Training at Camp Pendleton. And that’s another set of stories for another time!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp - Rifle Range

Roots in Ripon
Chuck Roots
19 September 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp Rifle Range

The rifle is the pièce de résistance for every Marine recruit. This two-week training evolution, which occurs at about the half-way point of boot camp, is critical. Why is it critical, you ask? Because Marines are known for their rifle marksmanship. To fall short at this point leaves a bad taste in the mouth of those who fail to make the grade, or what we call, qualify.
Every Marine memorizes The Rifleman’s Creed which was first implemented in World War II by Major General William H. Rupertus. It is also known as My Rifle, or The Creed of the United States Marine. This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.” It goes on like this for several more paragraphs, concluding with this final sentence: “So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but peace!”
Prior to my platoon’s time on the rifle range, we were taught how the rifle basically works, which includes knowing every part of the weapon. In 1969 the rifle used by the Marine Corps was the M14. Prior to the M14 rifle, the M1 Garand was used. In 1965 when the Marines changed to the M14. In 1970, the M14 was replaced by the M16 which is still in use today but with updated versions and variations. Today, the M4 Carbine seems to be gaining in prominence over the M16. Regardless of the type of rifle, Marines are expected to learn to shoot the rifle and hit their target.
Along with knowing everything about your rifle, you must take exquisite care of it. Cleaning your rifle is akin to a religious experience. In a combat situation dirt and other foul stuff can interfere with the performance of your weapon. If your rifle jams or for some reason fails to operate properly you will need to correct the problem at that moment. Your life and the lives of those around you may depend on it. This is why every recruit must learn to completely disassemble and reassemble his rifle. Once he has shown his ability to take his rifle apart to the drill instructor’s satisfaction, the room is darkened and we are blind-folded. This is the crucial test. We must once again disassemble the rifle and reassemble it satisfactorily. Why is this necessary? Because in a combat situation you may be slugging it out with the enemy in the darkness of night, or when rockets and mortars are kicking up large clouds of dirt and debris and smoke. If your rifle jams you’d better be able to clear it and get back in the fight in a hurry. You do not have the luxury of calling “time out” while you fix your rifle!
The rifle range for recruits at MCRD San Diego is located at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Known as Edson Range, our platoon made the 35-mile drive to the range where we would spend the next two weeks. Merritt Austin Edson, known as “Red Mike”, joined the Marine Corps in 1917 and retired in 1947. During WWII he was assigned as the commanding officer of the vaunted Marine Raiders. Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor, along with numerous other medals throughout his illustrious career.
Our first day at Edson Range basically consisted of settling into our new barracks and receiving a “welcoming talk” from our drill instructors. The barracks area is located close to Highway 5 which leads north to Los Angeles. The drill instructors informed us of this, suggesting that even though we could scale the fence and be in LA fairly quickly, we are half-way through boot camp, so why quit now? Though we were anxious to be done, and we longed to be free from the rigors of training, no one made the attempt.
The first week there is called “snapping in”. We would spend hours encircled around large cylinders painted with target figures that we would later see once we began live shooting on the range. Lying prone, sitting, or standing were all positions we had to learn in the process of shooting our rifle. We would aim at the diminutive targets on the cylinders and become familiar with holding our position. After a week of this we were very anxious to actually get to fire live rounds on the range!
Physical training did not stop while we were at the range. Three-mile runs were part of our daily regimen. Also, climbing the 30-foot rope was a favorite, along with push-ups, pull-ups, bend-and-thrusts, and a wide variety of exercises the drill instructors had in store for us.
When our second week began, known as “qual week”, meaning we were going to fire live rounds all week with a final day where we would be shooting to qualify. The center of the bull’s eye was ten points, with concentric rings moving out from the center in decreasing value (9, 8, 7, etc.). There are four categories within which a recruit can attempt to qualify: Expert, Sharpshooter, Marksman, and Unq. Everyone wants to shoot expert, but it’s not as easy as it appears. The range is very near the Pacific Ocean so we have winds blowing at times where the shooter must adjust his windage device on the rifle to counter the turbulence of the wind. You’re shooting from three positions: Standing position from the 200-yard line; Sitting from the 300-yard line; and Prone from the 500-yard line. All three positions are added up for your final score. A score of 220-250 points is expert. 210-219 is sharpshooter. And 200-209 is Marksman. To fail to score 200 or better means you acquired the dubious distinction of Unq, which means you failed to qualify, or as we would say, “you went unq”. A few always do, but it’s hard on any Marine who does so. Shooting badges are issued to those who scored between Marksman and Expert. They are proudly worn on the uniform.
Though I had not been shooting particularly well all week, on qual day I managed to get a good score. I fired expert, and was the high shooter for my platoon. Later in my career I would qualify expert with the 9mm pistol.
Next week I’ll share some final stories, mostly about Christmas in boot camp!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp - Sick Call

Roots in Ripon
Chuck Roots
12 September 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp Sick Call

So the drill instructor was standing in the doorway (hatch) of the supply tent, hands on hips with elbows akimbo, giving Larry and me a look that said, “You two are toast.” We both sat there very much wide awake at this point wondering when our execution was going to take place. Wide-eyed, we knew he had us dead to rights.

The silence in the tent was overwhelming. At this point I figured it didn’t really matter what either of us did, so, looking directly at the drill instructor, I cracked a silly grin. It was the sort of grin that acknowledged we’d been caught red-handed. I don’t remember specifically, but I think Larry grinned at him too. I mean we were totally at his mercy having been caught sleeping while assigned to the mess hall supply tent. Larry and I held our breath, not knowing what was coming next. What did come next totally baffled both of us. The drill instructor, never losing his authoritative stance, looked us over one more time, then turned and walked out of the tent.

Larry and I continued to stare at the hatch waiting for the drill instructor to come blowing back into the supply tent bellowing like a wounded water buffalo, reminding us of our questionable heritage and various other unflattering descriptions of us, no doubt fully intent on working us over with innumerable pushups, bends-and-thrusts, and various other physical forms of punishment which would cause us to never, ever consider falling asleep again on duty. Several minutes passed and we were still alive, so we looked at each other in relief and gratitude for the fact that we were still breathing.

Mercifully, our week of mess duty ended without further dramatic incidents. You may be wondering whether the drill instructor remembered us and still inflicted some form of punishment on us. Who knows? We weren’t even half-way through boot camp at this point. There was still plenty of time to make our lives more miserable.

Sometime not long after our mess duty a new mess hall was opened. This was a big deal! No more long wooden tables for us! No sir! We now had small four-man pre-fab tables where we could actually interact with each other, sort of. We still had to eat in a hurry and get out on the road posthaste. A new facility such as this made all of us perk up. I’m sure the food was the same, but to us it tasted much better.

One of the unfortunate unintended consequences of this new chow hall was a gift I was given - much to my chagrin. After inhaling one of our “three squares,” I began to feel somewhat out of kilter. My stomach felt terrible; I became feverish and sweaty; and I couldn’t keep anything down. This lasted for more than a week, despite a trip to sick bay in hopes of some medicine that might bring me some relief. I jumped out of the rack each morning as though nothing was wrong. Because of my trip to sick bay a week earlier for this problem, I missed out on having my picture taken for the boot camp book with the rest of the platoon. These are individual shots in which you wear a prepared set of Marine dress blues which was to be slipped on over our sateen’s. Because there was a cut-off for having the picture taken, I was sent alone to the photographer’s studio so I could have my picture included in our platoon book.

I was miserable. I didn’t trust myself to go into the studio for fear that I would blow my cookies. I stood outside for several minutes before sucking it up and taking the plunge. Despite the fact there was no one else in there at the time, I still had to wait a while, feeling worse by the minute. Finally, I was directed to slip into the dress blues jacket, while a white frame-cover hat was plopped atop my head. Smiling for the picture is strictly verboten. And at this point, I definitely didn’t care. When the last picture was taken, I slipped out of the jacket and told the photographer, “Sir! Private has to go outside, sir!” I was in a near panic as I moved as quickly as I could to the door. My condition at this moment was such that throwing up was definitely going to happen – I just wanted it to be outside. I made it to the gutter and let fly. Later, when I received my boot camp book, I saw my picture and was struck by how utterly miserable I looked! Needless to say, it was not my finest moment.

Another time when I encountered an illness was in the first few weeks of boot camp. I had developed strep throat. I’d had this before in my civilian life, so a shot of penicillin from my doctor always knocked that bad boy right out. Boot camp was different. I could not swallow, or eat very much, and struggled with sleeping at night. Since it was still very early in our training the drill instructors were in the process of determining who the sick, lame and lazy recruits were. I did not want to have them thinking of me in that way! I knew if I could just get to sick bay where I could get a shot of penicillin I’d be fine. Reluctantly, the drill instructors granted permission for me to visit sick bay. Once there, I waited in line along with a number of other recruits from the various training commands. I finally was seen by a corpsman (core-man, which is an enlisted medical person, much like a nurse) who gave me some pills and sent me back to my platoon. They were useless to me since I couldn’t swallow. A few days later I again requested permission to go to sick bay, but this time I explained to the drill instructors that I needed to see a doctor for a shot of penicillin. It worked! I got my shot and the strep cleared up in a couple of days.

Because of this illness in particular, I was concerned that I might be held back from continuing with my platoon. If that happened, I’d have to wait to be picked up by another platoon that was not as far along as we currently were. I definitely did not want that. In fact, before I ever started boot camp, I determined not to let anything interfere with or get in the way of my completing boot camp with the platoon I began with.

Despite the two nasty illnesses, I hung in there and graduated with the guys I started with: Platoon 2193, December 30, 1969.

Next week: Two weeks on the rifle range at Camp Pendleton.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp - Let's Eat

Roots in Ripon
Chuck Roots
5 September 2016

Echoes of Boot Camp Let’s Eat

Dear Reader, I should have seen this coming . . .

Several of you were a bit put off by the incidents I shared where physical force was used against Marine recruits during boot camp. Well, yes, these episodes did occur, and probably still do. There are sound, well-proven reasons for recruits being subjected to physical abuses during their training regimen. The primary reason is Marines are “the pointy end of the spear.” This means when the call to arms is given, the Marines are ready to go regardless of the mission or task ahead. They know, just as the point of a spear is the first part to enter its target, the Marines are the first ones to enter the battle.

Marines must be ready to respond at the precise moment the alarm is sounded. Boot camp is not a Boy Scout outing. We do not sit around camp fires and roast marshmallows, eat s’mores, and tell scary stories. Marine recruits must be transformed from boys to men in short order. Boys who were only days before probably loafing around their homes, working a part-time job at the gas station, hanging out with their buddies, and generally going nowhere in a hurry. A reality check is in order! Life, as we once knew it, would change forever for us. You learned to obey commands immediately. It was not for you to question that command. When each of us raised our right hand, we took an oath, promising to obey the orders of those senior to us. When you’re a Marine recruit, everyone is senior to you!

For boys to become men we must be remolded into warfighters. That is the objective of the drill instructors. If we’re not prepared for war and taking the fight to America’s enemies, then America suffers, and we are weakened as a nation.

Make no mistake – I didn’t always like it, nor did I appreciate the tough discipline administered by our drill instructors. Were they overly abusive at times? Unquestionably, yes. But you sucked it up; you pressed on to the goal of earning the right to be called a United States Marine. Or as we would say, “Lean, mean fighting machine.” Those of us looking back on those years long ago voice it a bit differently now, “Not so lean, not so mean, but still a Marine!”

Boot camp is designed to be tough. It is intended to find the weak ones, the “sick, lame and lazy,” the slackers and ne’er-do-wells and send them home. War is hell, and combat is grueling. The faint of heart need not apply. You want men toughened and prepared to fight America’s wars. That what Marines do.

Okay, so I was planning to write this week about the excellencies of Marine Corps repasts. Hollywood movies always seem to portray Marines and Army soldiers eating K-rations (field food during WWII and Korea), or C-rations (Vietnam). These pre-packaged morsels of culinary delight (gag!) were given various names over the years, names which I cannot provide in this article. In today’s military, we have MREs which means: Meals Ready to Eat. I’ve been retired for a while, but I believe there is a new type of field meal today that has superseded the MREs. One entire meal, from the entrée to the dessert, is packaged in a water-tight bag. These MREs are far superior to the old K & C-rations by a long shot. You can eat them cold right out of the bag, or heat then up with a watery chemical. If a company of Marines is to be in the field for an extended period of time, then hot chow is usually provided courtesy of the mess hall on whatever base you happen to be training. These meals-on-wheels, transported to us by deuce-and-a-halves, are a welcomed break even from the MREs.

But in boot camp we would march to the chow hall in the morning at like 5:30 for breakfast. We all knew that lunch was a long way off. We would march in, single file, back to belly button, with no talking, and hold our metal food serving tray out for the mess cooks to slop the chow on. We had wooden tables and benches protruding from the walls where we would seat at attention waiting for the drill instructor to come by our table with the command, “Ready – Eat!” We quickly learned to get that meal down as fast as possible because the drill instructor might come by two minutes later with the command, “Get up, and Get Out!” It didn’t matter if you had eaten your meal or not – you stood to your feet, grabbed your tray and moved smartly outside where you dumped whatever was left of your meal into a trash can, then shoved your messy tray into another trash can of steaming hot water, only to then place the tray in a stack. From there you moved ran to your platoon formation. But before you assumed the position of attention you would drop to the ground and pump out 50 pushups as quickly as possible. Or 20 pullups, whichever command was given.

There is always one week during boot camp when each platoon goes on “mess duty.” The majority of your day was spent doing the myriad of jobs necessary in feeding a lot of hungry recruits. I was assigned to work in the supply tent based upon my having attended college. The assumption was that I could keep track in a ledger the number of cans and other assorted food stuffs coming in and going out of the tent. We would be awaked at “0 dark-thirty,” which simply means an ungodly hour. I was usually in the tent by 4:00. It was November in San Diego and at that hour it was bitterly cold. I would sit at my small desk with the ledger book and pencil, huddled in my field jacket with my head scrunched down as far into the jacket as I could go, doing my best imitation of a turtle. The sun simply could not come up quickly enough, and even then it took a while to warm the tent. One of my buddies, Larry McEntire, from Texas, was originally assigned to wash out the big garbage cans, getting soaking wet every day. He faked being sick, so the drill instructors had him go to sick call whereupon the medical types said he should be on light duty. That simply means not doing anything strenuous. So the mess hall folks weren’t sure what to do with Larry. Having seen the cushy job I had sitting in the supply tent, Larry suggested he might work in there. They agreed, so I now had company.

One morning when Larry and I were seated in that nasty, cold tent, snuggled into our field jackets, we both made the mistake of drifting off to sleep. I don’t know how long we were resting this way, but something warned me that this was not a good idea. I opened my eyes only to see one of our drill instructors standing in the doorway of the tent, hands on hips, staring at Larry and me. Not good!

I’ll tell you what happened in next week’s article.