Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy Veteran's Day (late)

Oh, by the way, my twin sister is having a girl! We're so excited!

I wanted to do this post on Veteran's Day or on the Marine Corps Birthday (the day before Veteran's Day) but I didn't have this information at the time.

I asked my Grandad about his service in the Marines and he wrote a really great letter for me. I want to share it with you. The photo is of my Grandad - isn't he handsome?

Here is the letter - I know it's lengthy but it's worth a read.
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Hi Sweet Girl,

Hey, what prompted this? Did you notice that last Monday (11/10) was the Marine Corps Birthday? Most Marines are very "Gung Ho" and don't fail to remind anyone within reach of the auspicious occasion of the founding of the USMC on November 10, 1775 in Tun's Tavern in Philadelphia!

You are kind to ask -- I'll be glad to give you a brief (I sometimes redefine that word!) summary of my time in the Corps.
- - - - -
I finished high school in Delta, Colorado the same month I turned 17, May of 1953. I worked all that summer, (as I had the previous summer), in wheat harvest, starting in Texas and working our way to Montana. A rancher we worked for near Boulder, Colorado was killed by a train, and his widow offered me room and board in Boulder in exchange for ranch work, if I wanted to attend the university there, (she had a son about my age, and an older daughter).
So, I started college at the University of Colorado that fall, and worked as a cowboy for the Johnson ranch. My folks had no money to help with
college, and financial aid was practically nonexistent then. My brother Max was in the Army. We hatched a "plan" for him to send me money during my college years -- and then I would send him money when he got out of the Army and went to college. It turned out that he was having a lot of fun in Germany, and never got around to sending any money. I started to drop out at the end of the first semester for (almost total) lack of cash. But the coach at CU persuaded me to stay. He got me a full scholarship in football and wrestling, including housing in the "Jock" dorm, and even a job as a soda jerk in the student union for a little cash, (85 cents an hour!). But I didn't have many hours to work, and still had very little money. I confess that I wasn't a serious student either. So, in March of 1954 I quit college and joined the Marines. I figured I would do my military service, and then have the GI Bill for college, (and perhaps be a more serious student).

I was still 17 at the time, so my folks had to sign for me to join. Then I was off to boot camp in San Diego, (recruits from the western US go to San Diego; those from the east go to Camp LeJeune, NC). My starting pay was $78/month.

Marine boot camp is everything you’ve heard, and more. (Of course everyone says it was rougher in “their” days, but it actually was at that time. It still is now, but some things happened over the years that made them ease up just a bit.) It was only 12 weeks, but extremely tough. Absolutely NO liberty, not even on-base liberty (to go to a movie, the exchange – not even to a candy machine or a walk around a block). We were blasted out our bunks at 4:30 and driven non-stop until evening; then we might have an hour or so at our barracks to do our laundry (by hand), and shine our boots and brass. We even marched in formation to meals at the mess hall, and returned to formation to stand at ease until everyone was present. If the DI felt generous we might get to have a smoke in formation while waiting for the rest to get there. We were only allowed to smoke a few times a day; and you never “sat” unless you were in class learning something such as rapidly disassembling, cleaning, and assembling various weapons. The training was purely military. Of course marching, drilling, and military rules, etc., was part of it; but much of it concerned fighting and the use of various weapons, (rifles; bayonets; grenades; etc.; etc.). Two of the 12 weeks are spent at the weapons range in the hills 20 miles from San Diego, (of course you get there by marching with a full pack and weapons). The Marine DI stresses that you’re not there to learn how to die for your country – you’re there to learn how to help the other poor bastard die for his county. And, of paramount importance for Marines –
DISCIPLINE! You can’t imagine the discipline. One of the interesting things you get to do with your buddies is to take off your gas mask in a chamber full of tear gas, and all sing the entire Marine Corps Hymn.

After boot camp, if you did well, you advance in rank from Private to Private First Class, (PFC). ALL Marines go to another base, most to Camp Pendleton in California, for advanced infantry training. Regardless of what your specialty may be later, and the particular training for it, – everyone gets complete training in infantry combat. If I remember correctly, that was another 6-8 weeks at that time.

I did not go on to Camp Pendleton with my class immediately after boot camp. I had scored high on the General Classification Test, (essentially an IQ test), during boot camp; and was screened for officer programs. The one I opted for was NavCad, which is pilots training at Pensacola, Florida. This is also where graduates of the US Naval Academy, if selected, go for pilots training to become Navy or Marine pilots. It sounded like fun to me! However, in addition to the GCT score required, you also had to have a 4-year college degree. I didn’t, of course, but USAFI (US Armed Forces Institute), did offer equivalency exams for various levels of education, (high school and college). I took the 4-year college equivalency exam, and had to wait in San Diego for the results after boot camp, (and also while they did extensive background checks). To my surprise, I passed all 4 sections of the exam, (I had “coasted’ through high school – especially through the 11th grade in Geary, Oklahoma, without taking much serious coursework). So, next they sent me to a Marine Corps Air Station in El Torro, California for a flight physical, (pretty demanding; they even fixed every slightest tooth cavity, etc.). During the extensive vision tests, they discovered a astigmatism on one eye – something I was not even aware of. But they said it would go away within a few months. So they returned the now thick folder of stuff to my file, and told me to tell my commanding officer, (C.O.), wherever I might be in a few months to re-do the flight physical and send me to Pensacola.

I went to Camp Pendleton for advanced infantry training, and then was shipped to Korea in the fall of 1954.

The trip to Korea was something else. We were on a modest-sized troop transport ship; it crried 2,000 Marines and the ship’s crew. It was slow compared to many larger ships. It took us 21 days to go from San Diego to Kobe, Japan, where we stopped for one evening’s liberty before going on to Inchon, Korea. That was 3 weeks seeing nothing but ocean in every direction. Most of the Marines had never been aboard a ship. Many were getting seasick the first night, and we were still tied up at the San Diego dock! And regrettably we had rough weather for the first 10 days at sea. I thought I must have been practically the only Marine on board who wasn’t seasick, (but of course there were probably a few others). It was so bad that they would send us all below-decks FIVE times a day to hose off the decks, (you can’t believe how bad it smelled – to say nothing of the slippery hazard). We would try to lean over the rail as far forward as possible to breathe fresh air – but some sucker would run to the rail even farther forward and fill the blowing air with barf to fly back onto you. Our “racks,” (bunks), were pipe-like frames with canvas flats which folded down from the bulkheads (walls). Bulkheads were only 5-6 feet apart, with racks stacked 5 high on each side and a foot or two of passageway between the stacks. Happily I had grabbed a top rack when we boarded. Guess what happened at night in the rough seas? The ship would rock, and many of the guys on the upper racks would hang over the edge of their rack to barf into the passageway. However, while the ship was tilted, that stuff would just go into the racks of the guys below, (and the first night or two, many guys didn’t know better than to leave their boots in the passageway between the racks – guess what they would stick their foot into the next morning?). Plus, the ship rocked so badly those first days that we even had to stand to eat in the mess hall, (the benches folded under the tables). And while you tried to eat, (terrible food, by the way – these were merchant ships, not Navy), a tray would come sliding down the table and stop in front of you – and it would have more “stuff” (barf, of course) on it than had been loaded at the chow line. As I said, the really bad weather only lasted about 10 days, and they troops mostly had their sea legs by then as well. So the rest of the trip wasn’t too bad – but it was really boring. Paperback books were like gold – even if some clown had torn off the last several pages!

I was assigned to Communications Company, Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division, about 40 miles northeast of Seoul, South Korea. The Korean War truce had been signed in 1953, so the “hot” war had ended. However, things were still very tense, the country was an unbelievably devastated shambles, and a fair amount of guerrilla warfare was still going on. We lived in 6-man tents, which weren’t too bad, (although that 1-ply canvas wall didn’t keep winter cold out well, and we weren’t allowed to keep little pot-bellied stoves on at night). We each had a cot to lay our sleeping bag on. We had no running water at all, and would march to shower tents once every 2 weeks. We wore only combat uniforms, and were always fully armed. We didn’t even take any “dress” uniforms to the base there. All towns and cities, (even Seoul), were simply piles of debris; so there was no conventional liberty. Some of us did get to visit some burial grounds with some interesting tombs near our compound. If we left the base for any reason we were armed and never alone. Even the base wasn’t safe. For example, one morning all 6 men in a nearby tent had their throats cut. It was unpleasant to watch even an enemy guerrilla soldier lying at your feet dying of a bullet wound. And sometimes it would be simply a poor hungry South Korean who crept into our area at night to steal food – but failed to stop when we saw him and yelled “Siga!” (stop). The plight and poverty of those people was more terrible than most Americans would imagine.

In December of 1954 my brother-in-law, Harvey Haigler, (Nancy’s husband), was killed. He was an Air Force pilot, and flew jet fighter-bombers out of Japan. Harvey was a great guy. He and I had really bonded the Christmas before in Colorado doing some mountain climbing in the snow above my parents’ home in Cedaredge. Nancy was devastated, of course. Their only child, Kay, was less than a year old. It was a great shock to the family; we had been fortunate to have had very few early deaths in the family. It was to affect my own plans to become a pilot, because my mother became absolutely terrified of the idea.

During that winter in Korea, I remembered the flight surgeon’s instructions about my flight physical. I checked with my C.O. and he sent me to Marine Air Group in South Korea. The flight surgeon verified that my eye problem was in fact gone, so I was technically ready to go to flight school. However, my C.O. said he was not going to cut orders to send one person from Korea to Florida. He said he would put the folder back into my file, and I should notify my C.O. when I got back to the states, and I would be sent to the next class in Pensacola.

The entire 1st Marine Division was returned to the United States in the spring of 1955. I was assigned to MCTU #1, (Marine Corps Test Unit #1), at Camp Pendleton, California. Our function was to test new equipment and tactics for the entire Marine Corps. For example, we spent a lot of time testing of the use of helicopters to land Marines in various assault situations – this was to largely replace the use of landing craft to “storm” the beaches.

I was putting off my decision to go to Pensacola for the Naval Cadet flight program, hoping with time my mother would get over her significant fear of it. It is hard to express my love, admiration, and appreciation of my mother. She did not have an easy life, and loved and served her family more deeply than I can describe. I did not at all want to cause her pain and worry just to satisfy a personal ambition, although I really wanted to go. I think it was in 1956 that my C.O. called me in and said I needed to make a decision. Mother never pressured me about not going – she was not at all selfish, but she could not conceal her terror of the idea. So I decided to decline the program.

Some other factors made it not too tough to pass it up. By this time I had been made a Corporal, (rank is not fast in the Marines), and received some advanced NCO, (Non-Commissioned Officer), leadership training. So, I had it fairly soft. Also, there was this sweet young thing I had met while visiting my older brother in the Los Angeles area on liberty, and we were having a great time falling in love. Plus, I now had only about a year or less to complete my 3-year
enlistment. If I had gone into the NavCad program, I would have been required to start a new 4-year obligation, (1-1/2 years of training, then commission as an officer, then 2-1/2 years of additional service).

So I finished my enlistment, and was honorably discharged in March of 1957. I had been aarded these medals: Expert Marksman; National Defense; Korean Expeditionary Force; and Good Conduct. I am currently a Life Member of the Marine Corps League; and a Life Member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

It does not even compare with my love and loyalty to God, and then to my family, but I will be a dedicated Marine all my life. I believe it is clearly the finest military organization in the world, and a great fraternity. Indeed: The Few, The Proud, The Marines! Semper Fidelis!

5 comments commented:

Liz said...

I cant think of anything more precious than this. What a sweetheart of a grandfather to take the time to tell you his story. Love it.

Sweet Simplicity said...

I am so glad I read all the way through this. What a neat story for you to print out and treasure.

Carrie Willis said...

He's my Grandad and I had no idea! Thank you for asking him for this, Jame. I'm sure he loved that you asked for it too. :)

Diane said...

Excellent story! I can't thank you enough for posting this. The story of each vet is fascinating... all we need to do is ask! You have a sweet grandad :)

Glamorous Life of a House Wife said...

Hey girl - neat post! :)

My Doc said she can tell gender as early as 11 weeks! (that's next week for me!) But my next appointment isn't until Dec 17, so I will almost be 15 weeks by then and she said most definitely she will be able to tell - that is, if baby cooperates and doesn't cross his/her legs!!!!!!