21 Days with the Marines
In the summer of 1970 I was a Midshipman 2nd Class in the Penn State Navy ROTC unit. Our summer training was in two parts. First we went to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base for three weeks of training in amphibious warfare conducted by the Marines. Then we went to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station for three weeks of aviation training. That part was dealt with in a previous story. This one is about my time with the Marines.
I took the 12 hour bus ride to Norfolk and somehow ended up at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. I have no memory of getting to the base from the bus station. I imagine there were shuttle buses. After checking in, I was assigned to Alpha Company. We were arranged in alphabetical order so this company was guys with last names starting with A, B, and C. We were housed in barracks that had been built in World War 2, reputedly to house Italian prisoners of war. We had bunk beds and a wall locker. We started off looking like sailors, wearing dungarees and chambray shirts with the Dixie cup hat adorned with the blue stripe that marked us as officer candidates. It was commonly called the VD stripe since real sailors would tell the hookers in seaport cities that the guys with the blue striped hats had venereal diseases.
The Marines in charge of Alpha Company were Major White and Gunnery Sergeant Morningstar. Gunny said he was a “Semihole” Indian but the truth of the matter was that his family name was Morganstern, German for Morningstar. Morningstar was a good man who knew how to take care of his men and get the job done. Major White was not.
I no longer remember the exact order of events so this will be episodic. Shortly after everyone arrived, jobs were assigned. I was the Mustering Petty Officer which meant I took roll call in the morning. I had a little notebook that I wrote all the names in and then carried it with me all the time. It was an easy gig that involved five minutes of work in the morning. At this remove I can’t recall who the Company Commander was or any of the other billets.
The first thing done was to march us to the supply building where we were issued three sets of battle dress utilities or BDU’s. Marines never refer to them as fatigues. The saying was something to the effect of “the Army wears fatigues because they get tired. Marines don’t.” Of course they had been worn by many people over the years. I don’t know how we got the right sizes but mine did fit for the most part. I was issued a cap that was frayed. Someone in authority gave me trouble about that to which I replied “issued to me, sir!” End of trouble. We also were issued an ammunition belt, shoulder straps, backpack, canteen, steel helmet, and M1 rifle. For the rest of our time there, we were dressed like Marines.
The M1’s were working models and we had to learn how to field strip and clean them. Alpha Company was lucky in that among our members was Ali Arab of the Iranian Navy. He had been a soldier in the Iranian Army and was familiar with the M1. He taught us what to do ahead of the formal instructors who were baffled when they discovered that “ignorant” midshipmen already knew what to do. I think they regretted losing an opportunity to yell at us. Yelling at the midshipmen seemed to be the reigning hobby for most of the Marines we encountered. I hasten to add that Gunny Morningstar was not among those. He was one of the very few who was interested in teaching us something useful.
The mess hall was not too far away but it was hardly worth the trip. The food was not good. It was adequate in quantity but not all that appealing. The tables were of a very old style with the hard circular seats permanently attached. Still, being young men, we ate everything they served us even as we complained. The hot food was lukewarm, the cold food was lukewarm. If it was usually crispy, there it was soggy. If it was usually soft and chewy, there it was crispy. I cannot remember one good thing about the food except that it was there at every meal time.
Major White was a runner and thus we became runners as well. Every morning we got up and ran. Most of the other companies ran three miles. We ran five. We ran in combat boots and often enough ran on sand. Inevitably many of us ended up with painful shin splints. There was a day or two when White was away and our morning run was three miles. That felt good by comparison.
Every day we went to some kind of training exercise that had to do with amphibious warfare. A few wonderful days were in air conditioned classrooms watching movies and listening to lectures. But mostly it was outdoor stuff.
There are a lot of ways to invade the land from the sea. We did all of them. One day we were told to carry swimming trunks with us. We marched down to the boat basin where we were issued kapok life jackets, the big ones that were designed to keep you afloat on your back with your head out of the water. The midshipmen were loaded into LCVPs, Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. These were the same kind of landing craft that put the GIs ashore in Saving Private Ryan. They hauled us out into Chesapeake Bay perhaps a half mile, stopped the boat, and told us to jump in and swim to shore. This would have been easy except that they said “no backstrokes.” The life jacket wanted you to be on your back so it was hard to swim. I managed a usable side stroke and got to shore without too much trouble.
Another day we turned out in swim trunks again. This time we learned to invade by rubber boat. Seven men were in each boat. There was a proper way to launch a boat. Three men were on each side. The first two were “Ones,” the middle two were “Twos” and the farthest aft two were “Threes.” The odd man was the coxswain. We held onto the side ropes while carrying our paddles in our free hand. Running into the water, as soon as the boat was floating, Ones jumped in and yelled “Ones in.” Then “Twos in” and “Threes in.” Finally “Cox in” at which point we snickered like Beavis and Butthead and said “he said cox.”
We paddled out into the bay so far and then turned around and paddled ashore, reversing the procedure and laughing again when “Cox out” was heard. I think we did that evolution a number of times until the instructors were satisfied. In this case, we were taught by petty officers from the Navy’s Underwater Demolition teams. This was fun. Sailors generally treated us much better than Marines did.
Another fun day was watching the demolition people showing off their explosives. They blew stuff up with big charges and little ones. They showed us that they could blow one leg off a chair without disturbing the others. The only bad thing about that was we didn’t get to actually blow anything up by ourselves. We decided that C4 plastic explosive was just about the neatest thing ever invented and we really wished we could have some to play with. And we would not have minded getting to play with primacord. But the explosives guys had enough sense to not allow us anywhere near that stuff.
One of the harder days was spent down on the beach doing what was called small squad tactics. Some gruff voiced Marine told us the Corps had only two tactics, the frontal assault, and the single envelopment. We got the impression that this Marine thought single envelopment was for pussies. Somehow I ended up being the squad leader. You could tell that I was the squad leader because I had a piece of masking tape on the back of my helmet. First we learned how to move up on an objective by a few of us moving and then dropping down to provide covering fire while others moved up. They taught us to dive forward on the sand, planting the butt of our rifle, breaking our fall with that and then rolling over and assuming the prone firing position. We were not issued blank ammunition so we were told to yell Bang! Bang! to simulate firing. In each squad one member was the grenadier armed with a single shot M79 grenade launcher. While the rest of us were going bang bang, our grenadier was imitating the sound of the launcher by yelling something like “blook!” A Marine came up and started yelling at him and asking what the hell he was doing. Our grenadier said he was launching 40mm high explosive grenades. The Marine said “are you shooting them out your ass?” But really, blook was a closer imitation of the sound of a real grenade launcher.
So we ran across the beach yelling bang bang and diving into the sand while Marines in a machine gun nest fired blanks at us. I suspect the whole exercise had a lot more to do with entertaining the Marines than it did with teaching us anything. Of course, the correct course of action was neither the frontal assault nor the single envelopment. The right thing to do is what wise Marines have always done when close to the ocean. Get on the radio and give the coordinates to the nearest cruiser or destroyer’s fire control officer. Wait a couple of minutes for destruction to rain down and then continue the advance. During a break some midshipman asked the Marines why that wasn’t done. He got yelled at. That was me.
Our next training event would be at Fort AP Hill. But before we could go there, we had to impregnate one set of BDU’s with a tick repellent solution. We were issued a can of concentrate, a galvanized garbage can, and a mop wringer. We mixed the solution in the trash can, immersed our utilities, squeezed them with the wringer and hung them up to dry. When dry, they were stiff and smelled bad. We were ordered to put them on, and bring nothing else but our belts, canteens, and ponchos. We were piled into old Norfolk city buses and taken to the fort for an abbreviated version of the Navy’s SERE training. SERE stood for Search Evasion Rescue Escape. We had been briefed about this by upperclassmen while still at Penn State so I was a little bit better prepared than most. I had some candy bars and a penlight stashed in my BDU pockets. I knew we wouldn’t get much sleep so once on the bus, I stretched out on the floor using my poncho as a pillow, and slept the whole way.
Once there we were formed into ten person elements. We had a piece of colored cloth pinned to our uniforms. I was in the Brown element. We were given a military compass and a topographic map. It was getting near dusk. We had to hike through a forest to a point on the map where the safe zone was. The instructors wore gray work clothes with red stars on their caps and spoke in faux eastern European accents. They were not allowed to hit us so ten pushups was the equivalent of getting smacked by a rifle butt. We were turned loose and headed for the safe zone. Being an old Troop 99 Boy Scout, the navigation was easy. But along the way, we got stopped by the bad guys. They gave us a hard time, made us take our boots off and throw them away, gave us several rifle butts, and then turned us loose again. Luckily some guy in our element had a penlight and we found our boots right away. We got close to the safe point but we heard noises so we went to ground, heads down so we couldn’t be seen. Another element walked right over us and got captured. We lay quiet while they got abused. When the coast was clear we hiked into the safe zone. It was marked by a gray Navy ambulance. The instructors told us what our next objective was. I took the map over to the ambulance and by the illumination of the tail light, I came up with a plan to avoid getting captured again.
I explained my idea to the other guys and they all were for it. Once we were sent on our way, we walked directly away from the objective and disappeared. When the ambulance and instructors left the area, we got on a road that led to a gate that was locked. We scrambled over the fence and found ourselves on the side of US Route 305. It was full dark now and traffic was light. We got into the median strip and jogged. The bad guys were driving old Jeeps with the 75 horsepower four bangers that made a very distinctive noise. We ignored the rest of the traffic but when we heard that sound, we went to ground. Once we were as close as we could get to the safe spot, we climbed over the fence and back onto the fort proper. We found a big laurel thicket and crawled under. We slept for three hours and then headed for the safe spot. So what did we get for successfully escaping and evading? We were taken to the prisoner of war camp like everyone else. We did get some slack time because one of the elements got lost in the swamp. We laughed because they were led by a big Marine Option mid from Villanova. They finally were found and then the harassment began.
We were interrogated. Well, no, the big doofus from Villanova was interrogated. He got all macho and pissed off the instructors and did a couple of hundred pushups. Because he got his element lost and ate up so much time, the rest of us didn’t have to put up with much in the camp. The prisoner stockade was littered with C ration cans and empty M1 clips. The wise midshipmen picked up as many clips as they could and put them in their pockets, for later. After they got tired of giving the Villanova doofus a hard time, they issued us a C ration but no way to warm it up. I don’t remember it being all that tasty. Then we got a bus ride back. Those of us in the Brown Element had some bragging rights because we avoided getting caught by the bad guys again. Some of the tight-assed mids thought we had cheated but I put it this way. “If you can beat the instructors you can beat the enemy.” That notion would be coming up again.
The training schedule was 6 days so we had Sundays off. We could also go off base at night. Most nights we were too tired to do anything but walk down to the Burger Chef and eat. Virginia Beach was just down the road and on weekends we would catch a bus right by the gate. We could get a free lunch at the USO, spend a day at the beach, and get back to base having spent little money but having a good time. There was a really important rule though. You got in big trouble if you got sunburned at the beach. The concept of SPF hadn’t been invented yet. Either that or we didn’t know where such could be bought. So we wore t shirts most of the time. We would go body surfing or wander up and down the beach looking at women. And on Monday it was back into training again.
We went back to the boat basin where we were taught to drive LCVP landing craft. For most of us it was pleasant to be around sailors again. You could easily tell the midshipmen who were taking the Marine Option. They were seasick. This was one of the best days. Everyone got a turn at the wheel as we tootled around Chesapeake Bay. No Marines yelling at us, just patient sailors showing us how to steer an unwieldy watercraft.
Another day we went to the obstacle course. There were two at Little Creek. We ran the easier one. The other was for BUDS trainees, that is, Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals. This was and is the hardest training in the Navy. SEALS weren’t yet the darlings of the Navy like they are now but already had a reputation for being tougher than any other unit. We walked through the course once and then we had to do it. It was fun in a slightly post adolescent macho male way. There were walls to climb over, logs to walk on, ropes to swing on, and more. I don’t remember his name but the Marine who walked us through was colorful and funny. He often spoke of what was going to happen in “our young lives.” I remember one very well. “Sometimes in your young life you are going to encounter an obstacle and overcome it and then you will find another obstacle right behind that one.” This was how he explained the double wall. For months afterward, we would start a statement with “sometimes in your young life.” He also told us to keep a low profile when going over a wall lest we get shot in the ass. Keeping a low profile became another catchphrase.
We went to the rifle range to learn to shoot the M16. First was a classroom session with the only senior Marine officer who never served in Vietnam. He was a goofy beggar who had us giving “tiger growls” whenever he felt the need to hear one. He and the other Marine instructors somehow forgot that we were smart and motivated and had already spent some time in the fleet. They treated us very condescendingly. Out on the range, most of us shot well. We used the 20 round magazine in older models, the ones prone to jamming. It’s always fun to shoot, especially when someone else is paying for the ammunition. Most of us had a good time except for that tiger growl business.
Another day we were issued gas masks and taught how to use them. Then we put them on and went into a room that was filled with CN tear gas. This is the milder stuff. CS gas is the bad stuff. Having been briefed on what was going to happen next, I mentally took a range and bearing to the door. The instructor told us to take off our masks. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, pulled off the mask, and started walking toward the door. I got outside with just a little discomfort. The guys who breathed in the gas with their eyes open were in much worse shape. Even though it was the milder CN gas, more than a few ended up barfing. At Penn State the juniors gave us sophomores a complete briefing about what we would experience at Little Creek and it was extremely useful. Apparently they didn’t do that at the other schools.
Since this was amphibious warfare training, we had to learn how to invade via helicopter. Once again we strapped on all our gear and went into the field. We were taught how to enter a CH-46 Sea Knight, what to do during the flight, and how to exit into a hot landing zone. After a couple of rehearsals, we loaded into the chopper and were flown out to a waiting gator freighter, as Navy amphibious transports are called. We exited and walked around topside, waited a bit, and entered the helicopter again. We were flown back to land. As soon as the ramp dropped we charged out into a circular formation, dropped and prepared to fire. The big Marine Op from Villanova provided another bit of comedy to the affair. When his platoon landed on the amphib, they charged out and set up a perimeter on the flight deck of the ship. I did not witness this but imagination will fill in the details of how much he was dressed down for that foolishness. He managed to piss off the Marines and got yelled at by them. And then he got yelled at by the Navy flight operations people on the ship.
We were told to pack up our gear and fall out to board buses again. This time we were going on a riverine warfare tactical exercise. Again on the city buses but this time a shorter ride to a facility on the Chowon River in southeastern-most Virginia. This was hard by the Dismal Swamp. The site was a lightly forested sandy area right on the sluggishly slow moving river. Our trainers were members of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment. They were mostly Vietnam veterans and they looked upon us as a group sent there for their entertainment. The opposing forces were BUDS trainees, about the only guys harder than the Marines. We were taught how to patrol, how to respond to an ambush, and other useful tactical things.
We were issued all the blank ammunition we wanted. Those of us who had saved those old M1 clips to the jeers of others now showed that we actually knew something. If you had no clips, you had to load your rounds one at a time. This was not easy in the dark. If you had clips, you loaded 8 rounds at once. You still had to work the action as the blanks didn’t have enough power to operate the semi-automatic loading feature. But you could make a lot more noise than the other guys. And you didn’t have to resort to bang bang like the guys who didn’t take a lot of blanks. I had dozens of rounds in my pockets and lots of clips in my ammo belt. I could load them in the dark while walking. So when it hit the fan, I was ready to do some shooting.
After some instruction, we were told to dig two man fighting holes. I don’t know how these things happen to me but there was a real shovel lying around that I picked up right away. The rest of the mids had to dig using their helmets. My hole buddy was a guy we called Benny. Between the two of us, we shortly had a deep hole. The digging was easy because we figured out which was disturbed sandy earth and which wasn’t. We dug our hole where others had dug before. In the time allotted we got our hole deeper than anyone else and I had read enough about fortifications to know to put in a fire step. We could stand in our hole and our heads didn’t stick out. When it came time to shoot, we stood on the fire step and didn’t expose much of our bodies.
Once we were dug in, we had to go on a patrol at dusk. My M1 was loaded with 8 rounds, the safety was off. I didn’t know what else was going to happen but I knew I was going to do some shooting. We started down a trail through the piney scrub. Benny was on point, I was right behind him. Looking ahead, I saw a trip wire. I yelled at Benny so he wouldn’t step on it. One of the instructors came up and told him to step on it. The game was rigged. The trip wire set up a flare and the BUDS trainees opened up on us. We did as instructed, turned toward the ambush, took three steps, and opened fire. Those poor bastards with no blanks had to go bang bang. The ones with blanks but no clips could fire maybe one round every 8 seconds. The guys with clips (mostly country boys familiar with firearms) were firing as fast as a bolt action Springfield but with 8 shots in the clip. We got barked at a lot and at this point I don’t know just what they were trying to teach us. But it was fun shooting. After that it was full dark and we went into our fighting holes.
After dark, the BUDS trainees tried to infiltrate our position. They had M16s with blank firing adapters so they had more firepower than us. And they had artillery simulators. These were about the size of a 16 ounce beer can. They whistled and then exploded making noise but not making any shrapnel. You weren’t supposed to actually hit people with one. They would approach, throw some simulators, do some shooting while we fired back. Then they would retreat. Well, most of them retreated. One of them went to ground only about 10 feet from our hole. Benny and I were feeling our oats and when we spotted him, we started throwing pebbles at him. I suppose we hit him half a dozen times. He finally crawled back into the night. When the next attack started, he returned and threw a simulator right into our hole. Once they started whistling, it took about 5 seconds before the explosion. So Benny and I had plenty of time to bail out of the hole and hit the deck. Once it blew we jumped back in and started returning fire. This went on through the night. We were supposed to be alternating watching and sleeping but Benny had a bad cough from a cold or flu or pleurisy or something so I told him I would do most of the watching.
In the morning they fed us something. It might have been C rations but I really don’t remember. We were loaded onto an LCVP and went up river. We charged ashore when the ramp went down and came under fire from a machine gun nest. Leaving part of the squad to put down fire to keep the BUDS distracted, I led a fire team in a single envelopment and got close enough to the nest unnoticed that we could have shot them with squirt guns. Just as we were about to take them out, we were called back. This really pissed me off. Applying what we were taught, we were on the verge of success in taking out the nest, but were not allowed to do so. From here it turned into a clusterflop. A simulator exploded in the air and temporarily blinded a mid. The Marine officer lost control and went into a full bore linear panic, or so it seemed to me. We were ordered to retreat back to the boats. It was not an orderly withdrawal and two of the mids were captured by the BUDS. No attempt was made to rescue them. As we chugged back down the river in the slow landing craft the BUDS ran circles around us in the MSSC, a medium SEAL support craft. It was powered by 2 427 cubic inch hemi engines and was faster than anything Steve McQueen owned, if you know what I mean. The two captured mids were tied to the mast, stripped to the waist.
When we got to the base, the two captives were released but the Marines made them dig a foxhole for the full size fire truck that was there in case of brush fire. The rest of us had free time. They told us we could go swimming but the sight of swimming snakes near the landing craft suggested that would be a bad thing. So we sat around and waited for the bus. It was an unsatisfactory experience. There was a debriefing by the young officer who lost it earlier. When we suggested that he did badly, he got emotional, barked at us, and made excuses. We lost a lot of respect for Marines from that operation. Later, we got word that the group that was supposed to be training us were all busted and punished for things they did to other groups.
There was one final evolution in our training there. We were taken by LCVP to the USS Newport, LST-1179, somewhere out at sea off the Virginia Capes. We boarded by climbing up the cargo nets. We were berthed in the Marine compartment in racks stacked 4 high. Sailors were only stacked 3 high. Then we went to the mess decks. Dinner of course was greasy pork chops, gravy, and mashed potatoes. This was the traditional meal guaranteed to make Marines seasick. But we weren’t Marines. We were squids in green suits so we were fine. Later that night, the Newport unrepped from the USS Antares. Unrep is Navy talk for underway replenishment. No Navy does this better than the US Navy. Two ships sailing parallel only a few yards apart, passing cargo from the stores ship to the warship. The midshipmen were pressed into service handling the stores as they came aboard. The boxes and crates were slid down ramps to three decks below. At each deck, each had to be picked up and carried to the next ramp. There were boxes of lettuce, frozen beef, canned vegetables, all kinds of foodstuffs. After the unrep was over, we racked for the night. In the morning we were going to invade Virginia.
Before we went to the ship, we were issued one M60 machine gun per platoon. This had a blank firing adapter. Midshipman Caldwell was our machine gunner. He took his role seriously, asking to be called Machine Gun Caldwell. He begged, borrowed, or stole as many belts of ammo as he could find. He wore a double bandolier over each shoulder. He wore a belt made of bullets, and he even had a hat band made of 7.62mm rounds. The rest of us were issued blanks like before and the prudent ones among us had full clips.
After breakfast, we assembled on the helicopter deck and waited. Tony Cassano and I played Gin while the other guys slept or talked. Finally we were taken down to the well deck and loaded into amphibious tractors, commonly called amtracs. These were the old ones with the ramp in front. Someone later figured out that the door in front made it too easy for the enemy to know where the Marines were coming from. Thus the new amtracs have the door in the rear, or stern as we would say. There were benches against the outer bulkhead and we sat there wearing the big kapok life vests, our rifles between our knees.
The way these things were launched is that the diesel engine was fired up and the driver steered the huge boxlike vehicle to a ramp lowered from the stern of the ship until the amtrac fell off the ramp into the ocean. The gaskets in the roof hatches leak a bit and salt water came in. I had the good luck to be in the same amtrac as the aforementioned Major White. We had hardly gone 50 yards before he was puking in his helmet. The rest of us chuckled inwardly because we weren’t ashore yet. Of course, there were nudges and pointing as he ralphed, yakked, upchucked, and blew chunks. Normally we would be sympathetic to someone being seasick because some of us had experienced it. But it was Major White after all and this was all the revenge we were going to get for those long morning runs in the sand.
There was a little bit of a lurch when we hit the beach and the amtrac started moving faster. They are much more agile on land than in the water. All we had to do was run out when the ramp went down, fire off our ammo, get on the bus, turn in our gear, dress like sailors again, and we would be off to Corpus Christi. But the Marine driving our Amtrac had to get one last shot at the mids. He dropped the ramp right in front of a large briar patch. We had to run through the tangled branches before we could start shooting. Machine Gun Caldwell had us link all his ammo belts together and he held the trigger down and fired all the rounds without stopping. I am glad I would not be the one cleaning that weapon later.
And that’s my 21 days as a Marine. By and large, we enjoyed the business. It was disappointing that so many Marines and BUDS chose to give us a hard time instead of treating us as eager students and future leaders. Later, after all the military Mickey Mouse at Corpus, we looked back on Little Creek with something like fondness. I enjoyed it most when we were able to beat the system, to fool the instructors, to show initiative and good problem solving skills.