With the approach of Memorial Day, I’m thinking of those who’ve bravely served in our armed forces – and that includes my dad who was a Marine during World War II. His “hitch” in the Corps turned out to be brief, but every once in a while he’d reminisce about those days and how they helped shape the man he became.
Dad used to say that, having thrilled to too many John Wayne movies as a 17-year-old in The Dalles, Oregon, he was moved to quit high school and join up which resulted in a muddle through boot camp in San Diego and a post in the Bay Area. In the end, Dad saw no combat, but he did pick up life lessons about authority and responsibility (and a few about leave!) – and since he wrote an autobiography for fun that covered this time in his life, I’m pleased to be able to let Dad take up the story, himself:
I doubt that anyone my age could say that life was not greatly influenced by World War II. I was 14 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At first there was a flurry of action, as if there could be even the remotest possibility that The Dalles might be the next target. We had blackouts. Drivers covered car lights with purple cellophane. Dad and fellow volunteer air-raid wardens patrolled the streets and held mock responses to imaginary bombing. All of us teenagers wanted to do our part. We scavenged scrap iron, saved grease, gave blood and bought war bonds.
You felt the reality of wartime tragedy. In a small place like The Dalles, news of the death of local young men spread swiftly. War deaths never touched our family. But we were shocked by tales of brutality, depredations and slaughter, and those of us approaching manhood were ready to join the service as soon as we could.
My stint with the. U.S. Marine Corps was not what you’d call heroic, perhaps undistinguished would be an apt term. Reasonably, I’d convinced myself that I would be drafted before I could get through my senior year, and feeling a strong desire to defend our country, I elected to enlist. Who would wait to be drafted into the army when he could join the Marines? Why be a “dogface” when you could be a “leatherneck”?
So one day in August, 1945, I hoisted my 5’7″, 135 lb frame onto a train for Portland, waved goodbye to Dad and to a crying Mom, and launched into what, for a 17 year old, was a great adventure. The first steps are very hazy now: finding my way to the big city (in those days Portland was far away and exotic to me), being prodded and punched by some service doctor, signing some papers, and finding my way back to the train station, papers in hand with orders to report back in two weeks. Much to my surprise (and no little trepidation), I was placed in charge of a 4-man contingent of recruits and told that it was my responsibility to get us all on the train and safely delivered to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. By sheer luck and no commanding ability whatsoever on my part, we got there.
The Marine base was mainly a large parade ground (which I would come to detest) surrounded by 2-story barracks. The second story of one became my home for some 2 1/2 months. A bare cement floor and a line of double bunks along opposite walls constituted the decor. Each bunk had to be made up so tightly that the DI (drill instructor) could bounce a quarter on it. Footlockers were packed “by the numbers” and placed under bunks in exactly the required spot.
For weeks to come, our routine was fixed. Lights were out at ten. Sleep was accompanied by loud snoring and great repertoires of sleep talking. I recall yet one guy who counted cadence in his sleep: “left, right, left, right, left…” Most of the time, however, I think I was too exhausted to awaken to any disturbance. But the few, fateful minutes before 5:00 a.m. reveille, I was often awake, listening to barracks noises and dreading what I came to find a most repulsive sound. Reveille was actually a recording, and before the bugle blared, there was that brief scratching signaling that someone had touched the needle to the record, then the long bugle call. And never, under any circumstances, were you allowed to lie in bed a few minutes before scrambling into the cold in your skivvies.
Life was not fun, but it was healthy. Our daily routine included calisthenics once or twice a day, lots of marching and close-order drill, some hiking, bayonet practice, obstacle courses, and other fatiguing features of military life.
Among the truly trying elements of the day, perhaps the most difficult were tedious lectures (how to take your rifle apart and reassemble it in the dark with both hands tied behind your back, how to avoid booby traps, the curse of venereal disease, how to shine shoes by the numbers, and many other soporific subjects). Such lectures were almost always held outdoors in the warm sun right after eating — conditions no man could stay awake under, especially if the lecturer was singularly uninspiring and you felt as if you hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since enlisting. DI’s surrounding the sunny bleachers were each armed with a stick by which they could whack nodding heads. I took my share of whacks and threats of diabolical incarceration if I nodded again. I found that given a 5-minute break, I could sleep 4 1/2 minutes on a cold, hard, cement floor, something I could never do before or after my military career.
Since those who “passed” boot camp were assigned posts alphabetically, I missed by a hair’s breadth being sent to the Mojave Desert. Luckily I was assigned to the Marine barracks at the Mare Island Ammunition Depot. Mare Island was a real change from boot camp: single bunks instead of double, a hierarchy of command (NCO’s of all kinds, Warrant Officers, annoying junior officers, and a paternal, old company commander), a ton of regulations, spare time, and leave (we had none in San Diego).
After a few stints at regular duty (guard duty, police duty, inspections, and other drudgeries), I was assigned to the mess hall. Horrors! KP right off. But the advantages were quickly apparent: no regular guard duty or inspections, every night leave, no weird hours, and after serving some unappetizing meal to the troops, we could cook up whatever we felt like. I scrubbed pots and pans for two weeks and then became the salad and vegetable man, which was fine except that I was already showing a tendency to absentmindedness. I sometimes forgot the potatoes in the peeler (resulting in potatoes the size of hummingbird eggs) or the beans in the pot (burned beans really smell). But I did well enough to stay on mess duty for about 4 months before some of the others in the company started complaining that they wanted their share of KP. So eventually I had to leave the security of the kitchen and return to regular duty, but I returned considerably heavier.
Regular duty involved manning one of some dozen posts on the Ammunition Depot. I got to know them all intimately. There was the main gate — no fun at all. You checked all ID’s and saluted anyone with gold braid on his cap. I once saluted the laundry man. Several posts were on bay piers, where various warships docked to unload surplus ammunition. A few posts meandered among the depot buildings. The post I most liked was a tiny, sentry shack atop the only hill on Mare Island. You were really alone up there, especially at two o’clock in the morning.
We had to learn a list of general orders, the first of which was “I will walk my post in a military manner, keeping always alert and…” (I’ve long forgotten the rest). We were told to challenge any approaching person with “Halt! Who goes there? Advance and be recognized.” Anyone who didn’t halt was to be shot. As I remember, this last order was exercised only once, when some salty sentry shot a cow that failed to halt.
We fierce guardians of munitions rotated among the watches twice daily. Ah, the joy of arising at 3:30 a.m., grabbing a quick coffee, and marching around a cold, fog-shrouded pier from 4 to 8 a.m. We all had books, fishing gear, and other diversions hidden on post, the use of which depended on an alert, early-warning system. Whenever the corporal of the guard, sergeant of the guard, or officer of the day left the office to check the watch (rather frequently as I remember), post one called post two, two called three, etc. until each man on watch knew to put his book away and start diligently marching around his post as if he’d been a paragon of post protection during his entire watch.
Life was not all work. There was leave.
On liberty, we were free to frequent the bars on Lower Georgia Street in Vallejo, thumb through Northern California, or just relax in the barracks with a book or a pool cue. A slightly older buddy introduced me to the delights of whiskey and burlesque. We’d bottle-up at the PX, catch the free bus to Frisco, and hit a show, where you could buy Coke from an aisle-walking hawker, pour some whiskey in the Coke, and sit back to make a complete ass of yourself. These trips were my first introduction to injudicious imbibition (and its often sickening consequences). Fortunately such excursions were very infrequent (I think I lacked the taste and the stomach for them). I tried a number of times to go tavern hopping with buddies in Vallejo, but I almost always ended up outside with my nose pressed to the bar window, after being carded by the bartender (well, I was only 18 and probably looked about 15).
There were many other things to divert a regularly-carded, very young Marine. I saw my first professional theater on Geary Street: The Student Prince and The Firefly I remember well. Playland, a 24 hour carnival of “midway attractions” dominated the beach south of the Cliff House. The Sutro Baths were just a block or two north.
One big adventure resulted from a phone call my diminutive mother made to the company commander. She asked that I be given leave to attend my high school graduation (I’d qualified to graduate by passing five USAFI, high-school-equivalence tests). A three-day pass and a frustrating bus ride left little time to get to The Dalles and back, but I did graduate with my class. I also felt some pride that I had become a muscular, worldywise man among my class mates.
As I grew older and “saltier,” I gradually learned many tricks to ease the work, such as emptying my field pack and filling all the compartments with wadded toilet paper. This greatly reduced the weight when we were called upon to make rather frequent, 5-mile hikes. Fortunately, we were never required actually to camp or to use any field gear on these hikes, otherwise I might have been very cold, hungry and embarrassed. And I “acquired” spare uniforms, so that I always had a good looking one for inspection.
Finally the news came that I would be discharged in August, 1946, after a year and 13 days of service. I was supremely happy to pin on my “ruptured duck” and board the bus for home.
As a life experience, my stint in the Marines probably stood me in good stead all of my life. It was a frustrating, maddening hitch, but not without its humorous, instructive aspects. I can truly say that I went in a naive, skinny, undersized kid with little smarts and came out a man of reasonable stature and maturity.
So those are some of m’ dad’s Marine recollections (edited a bit here for time). Dad couldn’t have known but he’d enlisted just before the war’s end so, although prepared, he wasn’t called on to give that last full measure of devotion as so many did. He was able to go on to college and become a professor at UC Berkeley, a devoted family man and an avid world traveler. And while his self-deprecating joke used to be that he was well trained to defend us if we were ever attacked by bales of hay, Dad neglected to write in his memoirs that another of his accomplishments was to tie a camp sharpshooting record. Yup, back in those uncertain days in 1945, Dad had been both willing – and able – to do his part.
My deepest gratitude goes out to those who’ve also made that commitment and, especially on Memorial Day, to those who gave their lives for their country as a result. They are truly heroes all.