The Atlantic Coast Line train squealed to a stop beneath a wooden sign lettered "YEMASSEE" and the porter with a wink in his voice wished us a good day. It was the last civil greeting I would hear for 13 weeks. Stepping on to the platform, we were entering a new and perversely strange world of barked baritone falsetto, and the original "in your face" attitude. I remember wondering what the passengers on the train must have been thinking as they click-clacked out of the station behind our line of terrified young men. More than likely they paid no intention to the seminal event of our adult life.
Preparation was certainly not a problem. My recruiter--Staff Sergeant Peter Paul Coconis-- had explained it all to me. I had seen it in Jack Webb's movie "The DI". For five years I studied military drill and ceremonies as a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I had looked at the Platoon books in the recruiter's office and I read everything I could about this thing called Marine Boot Camp.
Sure, like everyone else on the platform I was scared but it was too late now! After all, I had intended to join the Air Force and become some kind of electronics technician I had aced the electronics portion of the entrance test and the only thing open in the Air Force in 1962 were electronics jobs for those who could qualify. After receiving the test results in the mail along with a vague invitation to come in to the Air Force Recruiting Office to talk about a potential opening in the next year or so, I did just that. In fact, I did it six times and each time there was a sign on the door explaining why Staff Sergeant Stewart W. Crim was out of the office.
On my third visit to the second floor of the old Post Office Building in Lancaster, Marine Staff Sergeant Peter Paul Coconis looked out his door and offered me a seat. The next visit this same friendly gent (who just happened to look like a Greek God in his dress blues) started filling me in on the advantages of the Marine Corps. After checking my scores to make sure I wasn't just bothering Sergeant Crim, he offered to deliver a message. Before my next, and last trip, to see the Air Force Recruiter I had an argument with a former girlfriend's father, an ex-sailor, who called me a wimp. I decided then to get into the service, do my time, get out and become a Pennsylvania State Trooper to prove to him that I was no wimp. Unfortunately, I was more than 6 feet tall, weighed in at just over 100 pounds and never played sports--sort of your classic wimp.
Sergeant Coconis greeted me with a strong hand shake, a smile and a promise that Marine Boot Camp could make a man out of anyone even me. Baited, hooked and reeled in, the next thing I remember was standing with my right hand in the air at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. I took the train back home on August 14, 1962 as Private Glenn B. Knight, USMCR(J). Boot camp awaited me in mid September but until then it was PARTY TIME.
The week before I was to leave for Parris Island, my neighbor and fellow Civil Air Patrol cadet, John Howell, threw a going-away party (because it was a good excuse and because his parents had left him home alone). About a half dozen or so friends gathered at John's house and emptied a keg or so. We nipped at grain alcohol and then went to visit Vogsie (Carol Vogeler). Her mother, showing a great deal of sense, kicked us out and on the way back to John's house the Fiat we were all crammed into crashed, head-on, with a parked Chevrolet. I limped off across the Moravian Cemetery to my grandparents' house and they took me to our family physician, Dr. Art Griswold, at 3 in the morning, to treat my broken collar bone. Doc had served in the Navy in World War II and at the time was Mayor of Lititz our small Pennsylvania Dutch community. While in his office the Chief of Police called to alert him to an accident on Marion Street and warn him to be on the look out for some injured drunks. Doc was a "man's man" and he decided that I needed the Marine Corps more than I needed a police record and he gave me a "pass". He was right.
Oh, John Howell, the guy who gave the party? He graduated college, completed Naval OTS, was commissioned an ensign, drove gun-boats in the Vietnamese Delta, retired from the Navy Reserve as a commander and just recently retired from the Drug Enforcement Agency where he had been an undercover agent. Doc Griswold gave him a "pass" too.
Lou Routino and I met at the train station in Philadelphia. We had tickets to share a sleeper room on the train to Yemassee, South Carolina. While we shared our life histories, neither of us really listened to the other as we made up our bunks and slept until the porter gently knocked to tell us, "Next stop Yemassee sir". At that point life went on automatic and fear numbed me as we were "greeted" on the platform of Yemassee Station and as the "cattle cars" (actually 40 foot tractor-trailers converted to haul human cargo) drove us to reception, some 30 miles away at Parris Island, South Carolina. A trance took me through everything Sergeant Coconis had warned me about the search for alcohol of any type (including after shave and cologne) and pornographic photos (that list started with photos of girl friends) and "POGEY BAIT" all of it confiscated. Linen and PX issue (with drill instructors walking the cat-walk above the bins in front of us yelling insults and calling us "lower than whale shit" and "ladies") was all taken in stride. Even jumping in and out of bed about a bazilion times before we were allowed to sleep until what I was later to hear described as "Oh-Dark-Thirty". I slept like a baby until Pearl Harbor was reenacted in our echo-chamber of a squad-bay. All three drill instructors had positioned themselves with a metal GI can over their heads and, at reveille, they threw them on to the linoleum floor as an inducement for us to rise, strip our beds of linen and covers and appear in our underwear at the foot of our beds (A.K.A. racks). Fear was growing rapidly but the reality of the situation had not yet set in.
Later that morning I hit the brick wall of recognition. Seated in a chair at the Triangle PX Barber Shop I could feel my Elvis-esque pompadour flutter across both ears three more swipes and my trademark DA was merging with the kinky and soft, crimson, brunette and blond tonsorial remains of my Platoon mates. As we left that building we were indistinguishable one from the other. We had no individual identity, only shades of color and that didn't matter. Our only claim to life itself was that we were part of Platoon 387, Third Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. Good God, what had I done. No ex-girlfriend's father was worth this. I'd have gone AWOL if I could have figured out how to do it. (At Reception, even before we met our own drill instructors they were kind enough to tell us that it was called Parris Island for a reason--the causeway that our bus brought us in on was the only land link and it was guarded by real Marines with 45 cal. pistols and riot shotguns. The swamps around the island were populated with hungry 'gators who long ago had developed a taste for young recruits. Our choices for leaving the island were: 1) in the belly of a 'gator, 2) in a pine box, 3) in both custody and disgrace or 4) as a United States Marine sitting proudly in a Greyhound bus enroute to Infantry Training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina). [In 1963, when I graduated as a Marine, boot camp leave was not granted until after MCT. Current practice is to grant recruit leave on graduation day.)
Staff Sergeant Eddie Johnson, black (remember I came from Lititz, Pennsylvania and had to drive to Lancaster's 7th Ward to see a 'Negro'), a survivor of the Frozen Chosen in the Korean War and at 5 feet and a few, looked more like the Marine Corps Bulldog than "Chesty" (See Note 1) himself, was my senior Drill Instructor. Jack Webb not withstanding, if there are DIs in this world they are all at that other depot where recruits were issued sun glasses and tanning lotions--make no mistake these guys are DRILL INSTRUCTORs. Calling one a DI would evoke a monologue involving Jack Webb, John Wayne and other pseudo-Marines along with the offer to "ship you to Dego (San Diego, California)" where they would turn us into Hollywood Marines vice the real Marines (who could only be created at Parris Island)
But something was not quite right. My "Guidebook for Marines" had a section in it showing rank but for the life of me Sergeant Johnson's rank was not shown. Neither were the rank insignia of my other two drill instructors, Sergeant Nicolopolus and Corporal Frank. The pictures in my guidebook did not have crossed rifles. I knew right away that the Senior Drill Instructor in our sister platoon was a gunnery sergeant (three up, two down and nothing in between that space was reserved for stars, diamonds and bursting bombs). The Marine Corps was in the middle of changing its rank structure to add three more pay grades to conform to the Department of Defense grade structure). Sergeant Johnson cleared it up for me and I was offended that not only had I been issued a defective Guide Book but also I was going to have to pay for it, along with the other items in our PX issue, from my first pay check (at this time I was struck with the thought, "Gee, all of this and pay too"). Hell, I was really mad when I learned that I would also pay for my "haircut". As I was inquiring inwardly on the state of justice in the Corps I was quickly learning that there is no such thing. There is only stark reality. I would soon learn that the first person you turn to in trouble is yourself, often relying only on the knowledge and instinct that drill instructors, marksmanship instructors, platoon sergeants and your fellow Marines have taught you. It all starts with taking care of yourself. You know for certain that your buddy can't help you if he is wounded or dead and you can't help him if you can't function.
Boot camp it turned out was 13 weeks of threats, sweat, physical and emotional abuse, deprivation, horror, fear, loathing and ugliness I hated it--and I loved it. The discipline of 80 booted feet striking the ground together each second, being able to respond to non-words barked as commands, learning to place your ultimate trust in another Marine, feeling your body harden, learning to take strength from small successes and at the end, having a Marine reviewing officer say, "Dismissed Marines"------there is no word for that feeling and once you've experienced it, you never forget it.
The Third Battalion was then known as Disneyland (mostly because we were housed in new brick, three-story buildings which by now permeate the whole island). The Second Battalion, across the main street from the "largest grinder in the world", was Dodge City (with War II wooden two-story barracks). For the life of me I can not remember what we called First Battalion, on the bay side of the drill field, AKA grinder. After 30 years I have finally decided that the only advantage we had was an easier to clean squad bay and head.
As one of the tallest recruits I started out as a squad leader until I screwed up (it took about two and a half hours as I recall) and I never filled any leadership position after that. So much for five years as a Civil Air Patrol cadet. The early days of recruit training sort of meld into one big platoon-sized mass with few high points. I do recall that I was a boot just a little over a year after Gunnery Sergeant McCune lost four of his recruits in the PI swamps while on an unauthorized night training exercise. The recruits panicked and didn't follow orders but the drill instructor was Court Martialed and demoted and field training in boot camp was downgraded to an over-night bivouac at Elliot's Beach. The field training was moved to Camp Geiger, which is adjacent to the New River Marine Corps Air Station and across the bay from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Sergeant Johnson summed it up rather susinctly, "It takes 13 weeks to make a Marine out of you, we make you a soldier in four weeks". I never doubted it.
Another outcome of the McCune incident was that Drill Instructors were counseled to stop abusing recruits, profanity was to be avoided, summary physical punishment would get a drill instructor a severe reprimand. Given this, Sergeant Johnson had us form a tight circle around him inside our squad bay as the two junior drill instructors watched the entrances for one of the many newly assigned lieutenants whose job it was to catch a drill instructor treating a recruit badly. Sergeant Johnson calmly explained all of the new rules and then announced that such rules make the training of real Marines impossible--but he gave us a choice. If we wished them to, our drill instructors will train us by the rules but none of us would really be Marines when we graduated--we would be marines. Conversely, they would ignore the rules within the confines of the squad bay and make real Marines, out of us. If we chose the second option we had to swear solemnly never to violate the "code of silence". I felt like a player in a comic opera as we all shouted, "Make us Marines!" I fully expected John Wayne, Chesty Puller and the Marine Corps Band to sneak into our midst and congratulate us for holding to a centuries old tradition of God, Country, Motherhood and Physical abuse of recruits. Our drill instructors were true to their word and I was one of the people most aware of that painful fact by the end of 13 weeks.
Discipline was meted out at the whim of the Drill Instructor and you felt that they got some sort of perverse pleasure out of seeing us in pain. "Extended Port" was a regular favorite. At the position of attention we would bring our 9 pound M-14 rifles to port arms and then fully extend our arms. It took only a few minutes for the strongest of us to feel the agony in our out-stretched arms. It was particularly difficult for me given my state of physical non-conditioning. (On my initial strength test I was able to barely make the minimum of one pull-up but at the final strength test I did post a 100% improvement). Other forms of punishment included watching TV. To watch Channel 2 we would position our chin in our hands and our elbows on the linoleum floor and our toes holding our bodies off the ground. Channel 6 involved "sitting" a few inches off our bunks supported by our locked arms. There were others but they were all similar in design and effect.
Our only break from the incessant glare of our drill instructors was on Sunday mornings when we got the chance to attend worship services. At that time each battalion had its own chapel, ours was in a Butler-type building at the far end of our small drill field or grinder. We learned quickly that we could go to Sunday services and sit down for a few hours away from the glaring eyes of our drill instructors, or we could stand at attention at the end of our racks for those two hours--as we did whenever there was no training event scheduled. We almost all went to chapel. I found a second benefit to attending services, I could send the bulletin home to my grandmother who never understood why I wanted to join the "Army" in the first place--but if it led to my attending church, she was happy about it. Later that day we had "free time" to wash our clothes by hand on the concrete wash racks and hang them using the "tie-ties" (small pieces of string with metal clamps at each end to keep them from un-raveling) we had purchased in our PX issue. Washing machines and clothes pins were things to dream about. Our utility uniforms didn't see starch until we were almost ready to out-post--until then we looked much like human olive drab wash cloths (very similar to how we felt about ourselves).
About a week into our training the M-14 rifles became our closest companions. Soon after they were issued I found myself having trouble sleeping. My bunkie--a 6' 3" gorilla with the personality of a gnome--was a friend sort but also someone to be feared. Minutes after hitting the racks I was on the top bunk I would feel the bed moving back and forth at a rate which is well known by any American male who has reached puberty. After a week of this I summoned my courage and peered over the side of the mattress to see my bunkie methodically jerking his hand up and down rubbing linseed oil into the wooden stock of his rifle. With a sigh of relief I learned to enjoy being rocked to sleep and I smiled whenever an inspector complimented him on the shine of his rifle stock. (See Note 2)
South Carolina winters are warmer than Pennsylvania winters but the effect of damp cold air is absolutely numbing. Sergeant Johnson, frost-bit in Korea's Chosen march would show up for January morning formations with thermal underwear, woolen undershirt, poplin sweater, battle jacket (the Army called them Ike jackets but General Eisenhower has never been popular with Marines), scarf and field jacket along with two pairs of gloves. He must have served as the model for Bill Cosby's Rudy in the cartoons two decades later. I think the cold might have killed me had it not been for his stoic presence.
Johnson was quiet with strong piercing eyes and a hair trigger temper. When angered he would mix metaphors and profanities into a tragic comedy of theatrical hyperbole. He would march up and down the foot lockers placed in front of our bunks just before lights out in the 30 minutes we had to shine shoes and brass, polish our rifle stocks, receive remedial instructions, clean the head (Navy for toilet), brush our teeth, shower and write home. The Corps listed it on the training schedule as "Free Time". At one point the diminutive drill instructor was so mad with the average sized Kentuckian across the bay from me--Adam Victor by name--that he jumped onto his foot locker, looked the offender straight in the eye and managed to offend Victor's mother, virtually all deity and common decency without taking a breath. Then grabbing two pillows he turned them into puffy cymbals and he tried to create a great crashing sound with Victor's head between them. I thought the man certifiable at the time yet, even today, I would follow him into Hell itself without question. Don't ever ask me why!
Nicolopolis was another case for study at a state institution. Not until years later as I watched the Evzones Guards in Athens, Greece did I fully understand Sergeant Nick. These men in tasseled caps, wooden, pointed and tassel tipped shoes, bright white lacy skirts and tights stood so straight as to be approaching a backward tip. They are also among the world's most feared fighters and Sergeant Nick was at one with them--in our ranks.
On our return from two weeks on the firing range Sergeant Nick had us fix bayonets, come to extended port and double timed us the two miles back to our squad bay. As we halted, ordered arms and did a left face he quickly put us at extended port again and then walked directly past me while degrading us as the worst shooting platoon he had ever had. At the moment he passed in front of me my mind commanded my arms to thrust, putting the bayonet directly into his back. The muscles in my arms wanted to obey but could not--thank God. I am certain that had I been physically capable I would have killed or seriously wounded one of my junior drill instructors. Today I have immeasurable respect for him and what he did for me. At the time he was a perfect enigma.
Just before Christmas we started getting packages from home. Cookies could be either shared with the platoon or eaten in a single sitting by the recipient. Most chose to share while others weren't given an option. Gum was pogey bait and consigned to the dumpster. But in my case, they had no idea what to do my mother who then worked at Warner-Lambert sent me a case of Certs breath mints. I have no idea why and she now denies ever sending it. I did have the most kissable breath in the platoon for a long time and the only one to get a kiss was my Kentucky friend who managed to put his emblems on backward for our first greens inspection. Sergeant Johnson kissed him right on the lips and pronounced him queer because "only a queer would wear his emblems with the anchors pointing out". I know I'll never forget that lesson.
As the Christmas goodies continued arriving we went into holiday schedule with only one drill instructor on duty at a time. Sergeant Nick was on duty the day the House Mouse--a college-educated, brown-nosing, Chicago boy--(See Note 3) got two fifths of whiskey in the mail. Nick marched him directly to the dumpster where the bottles were un-corked and the contents poured out. As he was being relieved the next morning we heard Corporal Frank in the DI house yell, "You ignorant sheep-fleecing son of a bitch, you actually dumped the whole damned bottle?" Followed by a plaintive, "Two?".
Corporal Frank was a heavy equipment operator who had eight years service and sergeant stripes when he got out of the Corps and lost a stripe on reenlisting. His mania was the head and he took a personal interest in the head cleaning detail. (Remember, we are talking Naval head, as in toilet) At some point there was a problem in the head and Frank yelled out, "Give me one member of the head detail, now." No one responded and without even appearing through the hatch (the Navy calls a door a hatch) he commanded, "Give me the whole expletive deleted head detail right now". They all responded and one by one they waited outside until a big hairy arm would reach out, clutch a shirt, lift the body six inches off the deckand pull it, like a rag doll, into the head. I have no idea what went on in there but people responded to his future calls.
The heads in the Third Battalion buildings contain a squad shower, drying room, about six stalls and four urinals. Head calls were only allowed on individual request--which was done only in case of a dire emergency--or in a group of 35 at a time. Usually you ended up standing in line at the urinals. On one occasion the 300 pound half gorilla named Edward C. "Brownie" Brown was standing behind me goosing me, trying to get me to yelp. Remember, at the time I was poster boy for the 98 pound weakling club. After a couple of jabs I just put everything I had into my elbow and struck him in the middle of his chest. He crumpled to the floor, breathing but in serious pain. Suddenly everyone decided they really didn't need to go after all and exited en mass. The hasty retreat piqued the curiosity of Corporal Frank, himself a woolly mastodon. (I started making my peace with my maker because I was surely to die that day.) Frank entered the head, looked at my scrawny body, looked at the mass of pumped and pained flesh on the floor, looked back at me, again at Brownie, shook his head and walked out. Nothing further was said. I am certain that my maker wanted me to feel close to death but was saving me for much greater pain to come.
Frank had an interesting sense of humor. After our first day of live fire on the rifle range he offered "group tighteners" to anyone who felt their shooting was not up to par that day (See Note 4) . About a dozen souls reported for the training and after they were all lined up in front of him he balled his fist and pounded it firmly into the upper chest of the recruit in front of him. The recruit collapsed and Frank stepped across to the next and then the next until all were administered. As they were recovering and staggering back to attention at the foot of their racks Frank announced, "Groups gonna be tighter tomorrow, aren't they?" The next day there were no takers when the offer was made again. Surprisingly I was not one of the "trainees" in the unofficial elective.
I'm not certain but I think that the drill instructors are required to find and develop a platoon screw-up someone for us to hate (other than our drill instructors). Ours was Jonathan G. Wallick short and fat (I think he joined us late from conditioning platoon), in the obstacle course competition I never did see him finish. We were told that Cpl. Frank stayed with him until he finished, some three hours after we marched back to our squad-bay. We were also told that he was responsible for our platoon loosing the drill competition and on the day we were to be inspected in our dress green uniforms he was sent on some kind of detail in utilities. He returned just in time to be included in our platoon photograph in utilities while the rest of us were in greens. I remember that some members of our platoon gave him a "blanket party" I slept through it. I've always wanted to meet up with him again to find out what kind of Marine he became. [A brief email response to this request informed me that he left the Marine Corps at the conclusion of his tour as a Sergeant of Marines--same as me. I really would like to hear from him again so I can tell him that I felt sorry for him in boot camp and am happy that he had a good tour.]
As we headed into Christmas, boot camp became even more of a surreal experience. Since almost everyone was on leave, two weeks of training was virtually eliminated. Anywhere else in the world that would be good news, but at this time in Marine boot camp, when a recruit was not in organized training he was standing at attention at the foot of his bunk reading and memorizing the eleven general orders (my dad, a World War II soldier, and I astounded each other recently when we both recited all eleven), the Marines Hymn (I can still sing three verses from memory), the Department of Defense wiring diagram and rank insignia or the nomenclature of the M-14 rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle or the 50mm Machine Gun. For two weeks that routine was broken only by breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as the infrequent drill sessions. But on Christmas eve we saw a movie at the base theater and then massed in front of depot headquarters to serenade the commanding general. It was a pleasant break and our singing made Nick and Frank feel generous so on the march back to the squad bay they left us quietly hum the Marine Corps Hymn. It was a rush second only to the "Dismissed Marines" command at graduation.
In the week before graduation I learned that I would be going either to embassy duty or sea duty both highly sought after special assignments. A letter told me that my mother, my sister and my grandparents would be coming down for graduation. There was almost no training and we were spending entire days again at attention at the foot of our racks. Only one drill instructor was on duty and it was not un-common for them to leave us alone in the squad bay for hours at a time. Sergeant Nick left by the front ladder (Navy for stairs), which we were never allowed to set foot upon, and 15 minutes later I was eyeing the column just to my right between me and the hatch my drill instructor had departed through. After much soul searching I decided that no one would be killed if I were to kneel behind that pillar. I did and my comrades were in awe of my courage. After about five minutes in that restful position, all the time watching the hatch (AKA door), I heard a muffled tap tap of metal cleats on linoleum. Looking back under my arm I saw a brightly polished pair of brogans approaching and then the biggest pain in the ass anyone has ever had. It lifted me off the ground and into the top rack on the other side of the squad bay. But the most lasting pain was finding out that I had earlier impressed Frank and he had recommended me for PFC. After that incident I was happy to graduate a private.
Look out world, here comes Marine Private Glenn B. Knight, 65 pounds of additional muscle, a gung ho attitude and a lot to learn.
Join me for my adventures in the only war that I took part in, the Dominican Republic in 1965.