Those who know me find it hard to credit that I was a Marine. That I might be a college professor – this they can believe. That I might be a unreconstructed hippy – this they can believe. But an former marine – this people find hard to swallow. The beard, the aura of books, the all too evident sloppiness, the academic air and the quirky sense of humor, none of these bear the stigmata of the former marine. But ’twas so. This, then, is the tale of how I became a Marine, how I got out, and what happened in between.
Note: This page is under construction as I add sea stories from time to time. If this note is not present the page has been completed.
After my first year at the So. Dakota School of Mines where I majored in Chess, Bridge, and Poker the powers that be informed me that my presence there was not currently required. Tail tucked between my legs, head down, I returned to the farm. This I did not need so I resolved to join the army, having a severe misunderstanding as to the nature of military life. I toddled myself down to the post office to find out how to enlist. Given that the town of Highmore had a population of 1100 (and 11 churches) there was no recruiting officer there. There was, however, a poster of a Marine in dress blues. This impressed me. I enquired and found that there a Marine recruiter in the nearby town of Huron. I toddled myself over there and was greeted by a Sergeant, very spiffy, who warned me that it was tough. Since I had no idea of what he really meant this didn’t bother me. I filled out sundry forms and signed my life away for three years. As a side note it was quite a good point in my favor that I had butchered animals. They gave me a week and then shipped me off by train to San Diego to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot where all my innocence, to say nothing of my hair, was stripped from me. I think it was the first day that I was there that a group of new victims, er, recruits were being marched to the aptly named mess hall. We were supposed to be marching in step – something that I knew nothing about and had no idea we were supposed to be doing. The DI stopped us, walked over to me, rapped me smartly on the head and screamed “You Son Of A Bitch, You Aren’t Even Trying”.
Do not think that I am complaining – being in the Marine Corps was an improving experience for me. It was what I needed at that point in my life. But it turned out that although one was issued regular uniforms you had to buy dress blues. The ironic upshot was that I never quite got around to buying a set.
One of the job benefits of being in the crotch (jarhead talk for being in the Marine Corps) is the training exercise in which you leave the God Forsaken place where you are stationed for an even more God Forsaken place out in the boonies. Most of these exercises are minor events occurring in places such as the swamps of North Carolina. From time to time they are conducted further afield on a larger scale.
During my stint our squadron participated in a major exercise in Panama. This was well before we gave the Canal zone away and took it back again, squandering Teddy’s legacy. In those days the zone was ours, by God, and we could use it for military exercises if we wanted to. We still do, only these days we use live ammunition.
My group was sent to a place called Rio Hata, well in the boonies, about seventy miles from Panama City. There was a small army detachment on permanent duty there, about twenty men, guarding an abandoned air strip. (At least I suppose that was what they were doing. I can’t think of any other reason for them being there.) We were an advance guard of about the same number of marines. About a month later several thousand regular army troops showed up for the serious exercises. (2000 RA to 20 marines is known as parity.)
In that month we settled in and participated in the good life as lived by the local army detachment. There was no mess duty – cooking and washing dishes was handled by the locals. The army detachment may have had maid service (I don’t recall) but we didn’t – we put up tents like the good marines that we were and roughed it. More or less.
One of the nifty things about Rio Hata was that the local church was off limits whereas the local cantina was on limits. This may seem backwards but it made sense. The military did not want to offend the Panamanians. The church was off limits because the powers that be did not want undesirable Norte Americanos offending religious sensibilities. The Cantina, on the other hand, welcomed any kind of trash with money.
It was there that I was introduced to martinis. As a raw farm youth cocktails had not hither come my way. Once of an evening in the Cantina I wandered over to a table where one of the staff sergeants and a lieutenant were sitting, sipping drinks from glasses with an unfamiliar shape. I enquired as to what they were drinking and they allowed as how they were having martinis. I allowed as how I had never had one. The sergeant passed his glass over to me and said “try one”. I thanked him kindly and drained the drink, allowing as how it tasted pretty good. You may imagine what happened next. The sergeant said “Have another”. I did and they proceeded to pour martinis into me as fast as I could swallow them.
After a few of these I was incredibly drunk. I wandered into the bathroom, stared blearily into the mirror, waved a finger at myself, and said “Harter, you’re drunk”. I said this several times. Distinctly. Some kind soul took pity on me, poured me into the back of a truck, and hauled me back to our tents.
I was not ready to collapse in a drunken stupor and sleep it off so I wandered out to the air strip. It was a fine night, the moon was out. I bounded up and down the strip, skipping as high as I could, singing happily to the world. There is something really fine about skipping and singing to the moon on a tropical night when you aren’t sober.
One day the army guys told us excitedly, the banana guy is here. (It took very little to make for an exciting day in Rio Hata.) The banana guy, it seemed, did not have a very swift understanding of arithmetic and sold his bananas three for a nickel, four for a dime, this being in pre-inflationary days when a stamp sold for three cents.
We all took our turns buying bananas, asking for two nickel’s worth. The banana guy would mutter “Don’t want dime’s worth?” and we would patiently say “No, no, two nickel’s worth”, thus acquiring six bananas instead of four. It was great fun to watch his puzzled expression which clearly indicated to us that he knew that something was wrong but that he didn’t know quite what. We all did it.
After I got out I was fond of telling the story of the banana guy and his “three for a nickel, four for a dime”. I told the story many times over the years. Some ten years later the light dawned as I was in the midst of telling the story once again.
The proper price for bananas, I suppose, at that time and place was a penny a bunch – a big bunch. Whether the banana guy was a con man at heart or a marketing genius I’ll never know but he had a racket. The marks were so busy enjoying themselves cheating the dumb Panamanian that they never tumbled to the fact that they were being taken.
Some things are not taught at B school.
Once of an evening I wended my way out from Cherry Point in my 1952 Chevrolet (the first of a long line of 1952 vintage cars I have owned.) My objective was the usual – to make the rounds of the local beer joints. Along the way I acquired passengers and lost them. This was normal practice – most men didn’t have cars. Those of us who did provided rides to those lacking cars. After freely imbibing a number of refreshing librations I decided it were well if I made my way back to the barracks.
It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not exactly stormy, but it was raining, visibility even for the sober was not it might have been, and the roads were a bit slippery. I was driving along one of the many fine streets of one the metropolitan jewels of North Carolina when the car skidded and scraped a parked car. At least that is what I suppose happened although in truth I have no clear memory of the exact circumstances. I knew that something had happened, considered to be of no moment, and went merrily on my way.
It was not my night. Halfway back to the base I ran out of gas. I pulled over to the side of the road, abandoned the car, and hitched a ride back to the base. The next morning, somewhat the worse for wear, I prevailed on SSgt Morrison to give me a ride out to pick up my car. Disaster! No car! We went back to the base to the provost marshal to report it stolen.
I explained my plaint and the duty officer said “Oh, yeah, we had it towed in because it was too close to the edge of the road.” That was the good news. Then came the bad news. He continued “Wait a minute. That’s the 52 Chevy. Come here, boy, we want to talk to you.” This was not good. I was hustled into an office; the conversation went something like this:
|“How much whiskey were you drinking last night?”
|“None. I wasn’t drinking last night.”
|“No whiskey, huh. Drinking beer instead, huh?”
|“Oh, no sir, I never drink and drive.”
|“Well, we got a report on you. You sideswiped a parked car and somebody reported it.”
|“You picked a good one. It’s the local judge’s new white Cadillac.”
This definitely was not good. This was not a matter of military justice. This was a hit and run charge to be tried at the local court – by the local judge. Tried by a local judge with a big new dent in his white Cadillac. His brand new Cadillac.
The big day for my court case came and I was escorted over to the local courthouse by an officer from the base. I suppose he was my legal representative but his real duty was to make sure that I showed up. When I got there the first big hurdle was cleared. My judge, the one whose car I dinged, was there but wasn’t trying the case. Fortunately I had insurance (the base required it) and he and I filled out the papers he needed to get his car fixed. So that was okay. I sat down to wait for my case to come up.
There was one case before mine, a black guy accused of stealing a radio. The case went about like this:
|Well, George, Robert says you stole his radio.
|I didn’t do it.
|Guilty. Six months hard labor.
The whole thing didn’t take more than ten minutes. Witnesses? We don’t need no steenking witnesses. This definitely did not look good. Then my case came up. The judge, the one on the bench, asked the Caddy judge about his car. The Caddy judge allowed as how everything was all squared away. The bench judge then turned to me. The conversation went about like this:
|(In kindly tones) You look like a fine young man. What happened?
|(In meek tones) You see, sir, nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I didn’t know what to do and I was confused. I know it was the wrong thing to do but I just didn’t think.
|(sternly) You weren’t drinking were you?
|(virtuously) Oh no, sir, I never drink and drive.
|(fatherly) You know the right thing to do now, don’t you?
|(virtuously) Yes, sir!
|$25 and court costs.
Southern justice sure was fine for white boys in those days.
All of my changes in rank were meritorious. I made meritorious PFC once, meritorious SGT once, and meritorious CPL twice, once going up and once going down.
Let me explain a little bit about enlisted ranks. There were six regular enlisted ranks or pay grades, E1-E6, respectively, private (PVT), private first class (PFC), corporal (CPL), sergeant (SGT), staff sergeant (SSGT), technical sergeant (TSGT), and master sergeant (MSGT). There were some special grades beyond that, E7-E9, which were used for special positions.
In the other branches of the service stripes were handed out sort of like candy. Not so in the Marines. In other branches you got your first stripe automatically when you got out of boot camp. Not so in the Marine Corps. A couple of people in a boot platoon might get that first stripe. I didn’t. About half would make PFC meritorious after infantry training. That I managed. I did well in Radar school and got a meritorious promotion to corporal. I was sent to Cherry Point to serve in a ground/air support group. I kept my nose clean, did my job well, and got a meritorious promotion to SGT. This took about two years – definitely a fair haired boy.
The official line was that stripes meant something in the Marines. However the promotion policy also kept the payroll down, which must mattered because the Corps has traditionally been on the short end when Congressional goodies are being handed out.
So there I was with my three stripes, definitely a comer. Comes the catch. As a new caught sergeant I now pulled sergeant of the guard duty. Remember this was the Marine Corps – EVERYBODY pulls guard duty. As a PFC or CPL I walked a beat when it was my turn. As the sergeant of the guard I sat in the guard shack, kept the log, and sent the guards about on their rounds. Less footwork but more responsibility.
Cherry Point was a Marine air base so everybody was in a squadron. Our squadron was a ground unit and our squadron area was a collection of quanset huts out in the middle of the boonies.
One evening when I was sergeant of the guard, one of the guards came in and reported that there was a party going in the squadron area. Our outfit had a bunch of vets from Korea and a lot of them were loose as a goose. I checked it out and one of the ring leaders, an old timer, currently a staff sergeant sweet talked me into letting it go on for a while and he’d keep an eye on things. Bad move on my part. Eventually we got it closed down and everything was quiet.
Guard duty ended and I went back to the barracks to sleep in. I wasn’t there long when I got the office to get out to the squadron area pronto. When I got there I was hustled into the squadron commanders office. It seems there was a little problem. Somebody had left a case of empty beer bottles under a Captain’s desk. The log didn’t have any entries that would explain how a case of empty beer bottles had materialized. The commander gently inquired as to how this might have come about. Naturally I didn’t have a good explanation. The commander allowed as how I was a better corporal than a sergeant and that the time for me to become a corporal was right then and there.
Easy come, easy go.
It could have been worse. I’d lost a stripe in office hours (administrative punishment) but that was it. I wasn’t restricted to the base or anything else. Naturally I went out that evening to make the rounds of the local beer joints to celebrate getting busted.
After an evening of consuming potables I made my way back to the base. As usual, since I had a car, I picked up passengers on the way back. Six of them. A large number for a 52 chevy but everybody was friendly. Counting me there were seven in the car, a car designed to seat six. I arrived at the gate. The MP tells me to pull up over by the side of the road. I go through the gate and stop on the side of the road.
We sit there waiting to find out what is up. Nothing happens. Finally an MP jeep stops and asks what we’re doing there. I allow as how the guard at the gate said I should pull over. The guy in the jeep asks why. I allow as how I don’t know why. He tells me to get the hell out of there. This sounds good to me so I head out.
Now I wasn’t exactly in that state of sobriety that one should be in when one is driving an automobile. [I don’t think highly of drinking and driving nowadays but that was a different place and time.] The base was large and laid out like a maze so it isn’t too surprising that I missed a turn. By the time I realized I wasn’t where I thought I was I discovered that I was in the PX parking lot. No problem. The barracks were a few blocks away. All I had to do was turn around and head back and hit the sack.
Wrong. Big problem.
When I stopped, headlights came on, sirens blared, and a chap with a loud speaker told us to get out of the car. Some of the guys tried to scatter and were quickly rounded up. We trundle back to the provost marshal to get it all sorted out. It seems that somebody had been stealing from the PX and that they had set a trap for the thieves and we’d sprung it. I’d been asked to pull over because of the seven people in the car. I wasn’t exactly in the wrong but a report was going to go to the squadron office. This was not going to be good.
One of my companions was a career sergeant named Hutch. Hutch had a venetian blind arm – the stripes on it were always moving up and down. In combat he added stripes; in peacetime he shed them. Hutch had experience with these little difficulties. He knew the lieutenant who was going to be duty officer in the morning. (I suspect Hutch always knew who was going to be the duty officer – it’s a survival trait.) We hunt him up and Hutch sweet talked him into not passing the report on to the CO. So that’s taken care of.
I get out to the squadron area in the morning and sure enough I get the message to bounce over to HQ. I get called into the office of the second in command. It seems that he and not the hapless lieutenant had gotten the report. He has me shut the door and looks at me. Finally he says, “Harter, if I turn this into the old man he’s going to bust you again. I’m not going to do it. But Goddamn it, Harter, you’re an intelligent man. Why in the Hell can’t you stay out of trouble?”
Damn good question.
Our “squadron” at Cherry Point was an odd duckling. Cherry Point was the Marine air wing base. We, however, were a ground air support unit which meant that we got to run around in the boonies like real Marines. My group had a fancy radar/analog computer system which could track planes and direct them to targets. It could even, if allowed, take over the autopilot and fly the plane.
This being the mid 50’s, this miracle of military technology was not all that it might have been. It had seen brief usage in Korea. Very brief. The analog computer had lots of switches and dials for setting in the coordinates of the target. One fine day someone inadvertently set the N/S switch to S instead of N. The system duly worked as advertised and directed a plane to the specified target coordinates. Unfortunately they happened to be the coordinates of a general’s tent. The system didn’t see any use in Korea after that.
The radar unit was a lot of fun to work on. It was a small mobile unit with about a six foot dish. There were tubes to replace and various different things to tune – the sort of stuff that technicians love to play with. There was one little catch.
The electronics were all packaged up in a compact area. In the middle of this mess was a bank of capacitors that were charged up to provide the high voltage radar pulse. One of the gismos that you had to tune (with a long non-conducting screwdriver) was right next to said bank of capacitors. What is more, said gismo had to be tuned while the radar was turned on. I think you can see where this is going.
Yep. One day yours truly, boy technician, is out on the mount. He’s just changed a couple of tubes. The gismo has to be retuned. It’s a nice dreary North Carolina day and he’s just a little less careful than he usually is. He reaches just a little too far and brushes something he shouldn’t. Wham! Boy technician is laying on the ground, looking very stunned.
Let me tell you about 10KV. As they say, it isn’t the voltage, it’s the current that kills. None the less, 10KV from a bank of capacitors is a healthy kick, definitely a healthy kick. If the current passes through your heart it can be serious. Fortunately what normally happens is that you have skin conduction from your hand to the nearest piece of metal that you are touching. I had some blackened areas of skin, nothing serious. The real problem is that the shock will cause you to spasm. If you’re standing on top of something you’re going to go flying. That’s serious.
People can get killed falling down. I was lucky.
I did boot camp in MCRD San Diego. (MCRD is Marine Corps Recruit Depot.) The Corps had two boot camps, one in San Diego and one in Paris Island. San Diego had the reputation of being easier. I don’t know if that was really true – our drill instructors did their best to give the lie to any such rumors. I will say this – nobody ever drowned at San Diego. After 12 weeks of boot camp I went on to infantry training at Camp Pendleton. My take on this is that the purpose of boot camp is to shake the civilian out of you and teach you the formalities of being in the military. Infantry training is where you learn to be a real marine.
Camp Pendleton is a large amount of acreage of nowhere, located in California. In boot camp we had marching drills. In infantry training we had forced marches. In boot camp we had barracks. In infantry training we had quonset huts and pup tents. In boot camp we had spit and polish. In infantry training we had mud. I think you get the picture.
Once of an afternoon the company next to ours had failed an inspection. The company commander held them in formation and dressed them down, explaining to them at great length their many character flaws and their thorough inadequacy as marines. It was raining lightly but fair is fair. If they had to stand in the rain why so did the company commander.
He capped his lecture by announcing that liberty was canceled for that weekend. As he turned away somebody shouted out from the back ranks, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The CO whirled and demanded loudly, “Who said that?” The same voice from the back ranks cried out, “Patrick Henry, you Damned Fool!”
The CO held them at attention and told them nobody was going anywhere until the culprit was identified. Nobody spoke up. The CO had them stand in the rain for four hours before finally giving up.
Marines believe that they are the best military people in the world. They may be right. The ex-marine is sometimes very certain about that, past the point of wisdom.
A friend of mine, Dr. Anthony Lewis, is fond of reminding of an incident of that sort. He and I were riding on the Green Line, a local Boston subway line when three or four military wannabes, Air Force Kay-dets got on.
The details of the incident are a bit fuzzy with time. Tony claims that I offered to beat them up. I think his memory fails him; I’m sure that I wouldn’t have said that. I did, however, make some less than flattering remarks about the Air Force. My recollection is that I said:
“The Air Force is nice if you don’t want to be in a military outfit.”
His version, and he insists on it, is that I said:
“I don’t understand why it takes four years to turn a boy into a second-rate imitation of a Marine.”
We’re probably both right. I can be a pain in the ass sometimes.
“Why is the Marine Corp so much different than the Army in terms of culture even though both units participate in ground combat?”
In a few short words: The belief that you are better than the other fellow gives you an edge.
The belief and trust in your fellow marine/soldier, the willingness to charge into the unpleasant, the motivation to be attempt to be superior, these factors are literally life-savers in combat. The objective of Marine training and culture is to establish an effective attitude.
It is possible to take a small group and persuade them that they are an elite and that they should act like an elite. It isn’t possible to do that with everybody.
I won’t speak to the new Corps but in the old Corps everyone, regardless of MOS (military occupation specialty), was a combat troop by default. Everyone went to the rifle range. Everyone marched. Everyone went on field exercises.
In the old Corps boot camp was an exercise in brain washing. You were stripped of all civilian pretensions and harrassed to your limits. And it was driven home to you that as a recruit you were the lowest of the low but that you were going to become a Marine and that was the best damned thing thing you could become. And it was borne in on you that you really had to try and want to try.
That attitude is a hell of a good thing to have if you are an 18 year old on a beach with people shooting at you. Running gets you killed. Squatting and quivering gets you killed. Courage, gung ho, and believing in the guys next to you gives you a chance.
I was in the old Corps. But when I was in it was the new Corps. Every Marine is in the new Corps; it’s all new for him or her. But each Marine knows that they are part of a long tradition of being the best that they can be. Each Marine reinvents that tradition and takes it on to the next generation.
That’s what it’s about.
DMOZ has a nice collection
of personal pages by Marines.
Maplesearch.com also has an extensive listing of Marine personal pages.
This page was last updated November 1, 2004.