The M-14 rifle was loaded and hooked between my knees as I leaned against the outside wall of my first floor room in a semi-supine position. I wasn't really tired, I was excited and I was scared. The "Speedy" camera was wrapped up in my field jacket making a passable pillow. The little room off the main lobby of the Hotel Embajador was empty and safe even though random shots could be heard within yards of the window overlooking the cliff and the Caribbean Ocean. Rebel soldiers who had earlier in the day shot up the hotel as a machismo reaction to the civilians fleeing on the Marine helicopters at the nearby Polo Grounds were still in the area. Beads of sweat formed on my brow and I dozed, in the dark, throughout the night. Had I finished off the second bottle of El Presidente beer I would have slept soundly but I wanted to stay alert--people were actually being killed out there.
That morning had broken on the USS BOXER (LPH-4) much like any other on the aircraft carrier turned Landing Platform-Helicopter since we left Puerto Rican waters after Operation Quick Kick VII had ended. We were scheduled to head off to Panama for jungle training as part of a rather standard Second Marine Division "Caribbean Cruise". I was attached to Battalion Landing Team 3/6 (actually the 3rd Battalion (Reinforced) of the 6th Marine Regiment out of Camp Lejeune, N. C.). The Division Public Information Office was tasked to provide a Press Information Man (Military Occupational Specialty 4312) to each Caribbean and Mediterranean Cruise which generally consisted of a reinforced Marine battalion.
Because of the exercise that we had just participated in with elements of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, this BLT was even larger than normal and had been designated the 6th Marine Expeditionary Unit--Colonel George W. E. Daughtry (commander of the 6th Marines) was commander. A BLT would have been commanded by a lieutenant colonel.
Following the exercise and some small unit and marksmanship training at Camp Garcia on Vieques (where excitement was provided by squirting two-inch cockroaches with lighter fluid and setting them on fire), we had returned to our ships for the trip to Panama. April 24, 1965 a force of rebels, under the leadership of Colonel Camano, arrested the Dominican Republic's Army Chief of Staff and effectively overthrew the junta headed by Donald J. Reid Cabral. The Reid group was nominally in charge of the government but the rebels had taken over Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. On the 26th the American Ambassador asked for help in evacuating United States citizens and those of other friendly governments. Dazed, scared and confused civilians began boarding the BOXER from helicopters of HMM-264 (assigned from the Marine Corps Air Station at New River, N.C. as air support to the 6th MEU).
PFC N. B. Call, the other member of the Public Information Team for BLT 3/6, a photographer, began shooting and souping photos of the evacuees. He photographed them and I identified them and wrote photo captions to be shipped priority mail to the Division's media mailing list. That was about all that I could do because as a lance corporal--even though I was the senior Public Information Officer in the 6th MEU--I was not privy to the staff conferences and I didn't even have a secret clearance.
I was sent on this cruise because it was my turn. I had no idea what purpose the whole process served. I had been given no briefing on my responsibilities and I had no job description. My deployment kit consisted of a typewriter, five reams of paper, ten boxes of "carbon sets", pencils and about a half million Home Town News Release Forms.
The only thing I knew for sure is that my performance would be judged by the tear sheets that came in from Marine recruiters telling of local boys who were "deployed with BLT 3/6 in the Caribbean". I would entice as many Marines as I could into filling out the "Hometowners". I would then compile them (eliminating the ones with the obscenities and the ones where they had spelled their name wrong and the ones with no parents or unexplained multiple parents or one of the dozens of other disqualifying factors) and mail them to the Fleet Home Town News Center at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Illinois. I would spend hours correcting forms or checking disqualifiers since the FHTNC at GLNTC would report back to the Public Information Officer at the Second Marine Division (the PIO at 2MarDiv) on my percentage of "clean forms". Each shipment included a two paragraph report on what the names on the forms were up to: "participated in Operation Quick Kick VII a joint Army-Navy-Marine Corps exercise in the Caribbean designed to prepare. . .", I'm sure you have seen them. The Navy Petty Officers and Marine NCOs at FHTNC (this is where people in my MOS must be sent in lieu of the Brig at Portsmouth) would then "write" stories about each form and send them to a pre-determined mailing list. Marine Recruiters were then charged to clip any that ended up in a newspaper and they eventually made it back to the "submitting organization". And thus, my performance was judged!!!
While I didn't know what my bosses back at Camp Lejeune expected of me, I did have a nose for news and I knew that this was a big story--I also knew that I would not be writing it. PFC Call, who spent most of his time in the photo lab and who, by the way did not work for me, didn't even seem to know that we were involved in a big story--he just shot, souped and shipped the photos to me in whatever quantity I requested. (Public Information, like most staff functions has always had to fight for its prerogatives and its position in the pecking order. Rather recently the head PIO at Headquarters Marine Corps had won a "contest" with the personnel types and it was firmly established that PIO was a "special staff" position reporting DIRECTLY to the commander. Call worked for the G-3 (Training) and I actually worked for Colonel Daughtry--'though I had never really talked with him).
For the first day or so I was involved with the evacuation. I had arranged for PFC Call to go ashore to the dock area where he got a shot of Marines and civilians carrying suitcases--I had heard there had been some shooting and that some of the companies had gone inland to provide additional security to the American Embassy. I was--to say the least--disappointed.
Eventually the evacuees were transferred to the USS FORT SNELLING (LSD-30), USS RALEIGH (LPD-1) or the USS WOOD COUNTY (LST-1178) and the Boxer took on a more war-like posture. Platoons of troops were herded on deck, into helicopters and off to a landing zone to do what they were trained to do. About that moment I realized that this was not a drill. These young men were going in harms way to do the job that the American people had hired them to do. I also began to realize that the action was ashore. I tried to get on a number of helicopters with the troops but was sent away by the loaders. Each chopper was "maxed out" with fully loaded Marines and their associated equipment--I would put them "over gross" and, by implication, cause them to crash into the sea. The loaders on the deck force were sailors and I wondered if I would have better luck if they were Marines like me (there was an undocumented historical report--read rumor--that when the LPHs were first added to the fleet there was an attempt to man them entirely with Marines but that failed because Marines just didn't make good bilge rats). And besides, none of the lieutenants or NCOs wanted to be responsible for a "feather merchant" tagging along with their unit. I really couldn't blame them.
For another day I wandered around the ship trying to find some purpose to my being there. The rumors kept mounting of action ashore, of an American Embassy under siege and of casualties (you know--like--dead Marines).
I checked with the deck crew and learned that I had to be on a manifest to get on an airplane so I went to the S-3 where the manifests were being made up and learned that I was not a high enough priority. They just didn't need a 4312 ashore at this moment. But I disagreed and tried to tell them that I was exactly what was needed at that time--no one listened to the arguments and protestations of a lance corporal. So I went to my boss and was given three minutes--I failed to convince him. But he did promise to take me ashore when things calmed down, since I was a member of his "special staff". Sleep would not be easy to come by as I had finally figured out what I was expected to do--I was expected to become a "Combat Correspondent".
Early in World War II, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was sold on the idea of Combat Correspondents who would flow freely in and around the combat zones. They were civilian newspaper reporters and photographers and Hollywood motion picture photographers and they were charged to chronicle the actions of the United States Marines. It worked so well that the Corps was often charged with hucksterism and those Combat Correspondents became icons in the Public Information business. It had also worked in Korea and another group of Combat Correspondents was born. Now, if I could just get on a helicopter, I was about to become the first real Combat Correspondent since Korea. I decided that I would tackle the colonel in the morning and make an appeal that just had to win.
The 1MC, the ship's primary communication network, barked, "Now hear this, reveille, reveille, reveille, all hands on deck, commence flight operations". I jumped out of the rack, ran to the head, showered, shaved and dressed in my best utility uniform. I then went to the photo lab where I talked PFC Call out of a three by five Speedgraphic camera and six 12-exposure photo packs. Then, back to my bunk where I unlocked my M-14. While I was sitting there trying to figure out how I was going to get bullets for my rifle the colonel's executive officer looked my way and yelled, "Private Knight, the old man wants to see you." In my Marine Corps career those words were never the prelude to anything pleasant. Now what the hell had I done?
"Look at this," said Colonel Daughtery, his Clark Gable mustache twitching and his eyes burning into my left ear. It was a copy of the Navy Times and one of Call's photos was on page one. "Thank you sir, I'm certain that PFC Call. . . ". He stopped me in mid sentence and continued, "Not the photo, read what it says," he continued on without waiting for me to finish reading, "my name is on the front page of Navy Times, and it's also on photos inside and I am even in some of the pictures inside." I was beginning to suspect that there was more to this than just an ego trip. "Can you spare a few minutes for some coffee corporal?" In shock I finally saluted and said, "Sir, yes sir!"
Our little talk was rather cryptic. Daugherty was commander of the 6th Marines, the most famous regiment in the division. The 6th Marines, along with the 5th Marines and the 10th Machine Gun Company were cited by the French government in The World War and awarded the Forregeirre (a mostly green, with red and gold flecks, rope worn around the left shoulder--most of us called it the Pogey-Bait Rope and that was usually just before the fight started in the slop chute--which is what we called the enlisted club). Commanding the 6th Marines was generally an honor for a colonel but I sensed that Daugherty felt he was nearing the end of his career and that only a miracle could get his name on the next promotion list to brigadier general. This action and mentions in Navy Times would certainly not hurt. He asked me if I could get him more press in the Times and I agreed that I could but that I had to do it from the shore where the fighting was going on. I needed a quick, unclassified briefing and a look at the "battlefield". My promise was simply that I would use his name as often as possible in my dispatches. He offered his helicopter (one of the new UH-1Es called a Huey, which would become famous later in Vietnam) and his pilot, a major, for the day. I accepted, we shook hands and I went out to meet my pilot.
I got him some extra press and things seemed to have worked out well but he never did get his star. I have always wondered about that.
Flying over the city it was easy to pick out the Polo Grounds and the Hotel Embajador right next to it. Further inland and to the east was the American Embassy and a few blocks further the Presidential Palace. South and east of the embassy was the University where some action had taken place just that day. We then flew east, across the Ozama River to the airport at San Isidro where we landed to find out what was going on.
An Air Force photographer (a master sergeant I believe), carrying the first "medium format" camera I had ever seen was standing on the tarmac waiting for a ride back to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico where the Air Force was operating out of. He told me that he had been there for the landing of the 82nd Airborne Division and that they were mad as hell. They had been told that they would be making a combat jump and while they were in the air the order was changed so they landed at San Isidro like everyone else. They had walked west over the Duarte Bridge to link up with Marines manning what was then called the "line of communication" with the airport on one end and the Embajador on the other end.
Like a scene from a comic opera I looked across the field which was tangled with aircraft of every description moving in every direction while hundreds of soldiers, Marines and airmen, all in olive drab field uniforms, swarmed around trying to avoid both props and prop wash. In the middle of all of this was a lone Marine warrant officer in freshly starched khaki and mirror-like corfam shoes. Strapped to a duty belt were two pistols, their pearl handles gleaming in the mid-morning sun. He seemed attracted to the cameras and as he drew closer I recognized one of my bosses, Warrant Officer Fred Tucker, Assistant Public Information Officer for the Second Marine Division.
"Checking up on your trooper, Gunner?" I yelled as he came within ear-shot. Gunner is a term of respect accorded to warrant officers--on the other end of that respect continuum is the term lipstick lieutenant (Marine warrant officers wear gold or silver bars with stripes of red indicating the level of their warrant). To me, Fred Tucker was a gunner. I had never met Lieutenant General Louis B. "Chesty" Puller but his heroics (5 Navy Crosses) and his reputation as a warrior were then legend in the Corps. In boot camp we would end the day in our bunks with the lights out and before we were allowed to sleep we had to chant, in unison, "Good night General Puller wherever you are". I had always sort of thought of Fred Tucker as a "Chesty" Puller in training. But his outfit was truly out of place in this environment.
"Good to see you Knight, got the lay of the land yet?", Tucker queried.
"Yes sir, just took a flight over the town and I'm getting ready to head back to the embassy, want a ride." He seemed genuinely impressed with my helicopter and my pilot but he turned down the offer. "I want to see the battleground from the trooper's point of view, I'll catch a ride with the Army," he announced, "but look for me at the embassy in a couple of hours.
Fred Tucker epitomized the Marine word "Comshaw". It means getting what you need and want whether the Corps thinks you should have it or not. I saw Tucker at work soon after I got myself transferred from the Second Marine Division Chorus to the PIO (another story for another time). Major John J. O'Brien (one superior ass hole) was the Division PIO and one day he was arranging coverage of the division parade. It was to be the first time in a decade that the entire division would be on parade at the same time and he wanted to get a photograph of that gigantic formation. The two officers shared an office in the converted projection booth of the 8th Marines gym so he expressed his concern to the warrant officer (I was standing at the major's desk to get chewed out for screwing up again). Tucker said, "What you need, sir, is one of those'cherry picker' trucks." The major agreed and then told him to arrange it. As I was being "counseled" the gunner was on the phone and eventually spoke to the major, "Sir, there are only two of those trucks on the east coast, one is at Quantico but the other is here." "Handle it Mister Tucker", the major responded . A moment later Mr. Tucker interrupted again asking, "Sir, did you want that assigned to the office temporarily or permanently." The major was so taken aback that he forgot what he had me there for and dismissed me. Such was Fred Tucker's mystique.
Having seen the pistol-packin' man in brown on to an Army truck I headed to my helicopter to learn that he had been summoned back to Boxer for an emergency but he had arranged a ride for me on a troop helicopter heading for the Hotel Embajador. He was one of the few majors I ever met who I would give you more than a nickel for. It seems to me that a lobotomy is requisite for promotion to major but that it grows back by the time they make lieutenant colonel. (The other opinion is that it is the gold in the insignia that makes them idiots as the same is generally true of second lieutenants who also wear gold rank insignia). On the way there we crossed over the rebel held territory and took some small arms fire--nothing serious.
On landing at the Polo Grounds I made my way into the bar to try to find where the press was hanging out. I had learned that almost nothing had gotten out from the press since the whole shootin' match began but I did run into the Latin American Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, an NBC talking head and the Leatherneck writer all at the bar lamenting the fact that they were about to run out of ice at the hotel since the ice plant was now in rebel hands. That was a serious concern as I was to learn a few days later that "El Presidente" tastes a lot better cold--although it was really a fine, full bodied brew.
The native manager of the hotel was a near basket case but I was able to impress upon him the importance of keeping the press happy--whatever it takes, and my need for a press center. He gave me two vacant offices just off the main lobby and treated me to a steak for lunch (the electric power was now off most of the time and the fresh foods were beginning to spoil--I guess he figured that if I am telling him of the importance of the press and I was to be sort of in charge of them that I must also be important--I didn't mind and the food was very good).
The driveway in front of the hotel runs for almost a half mile before running into the main highway and I had to get to the embassy. Since I didn't speak the language I couldn't figure out the bus routes and I couldn't negotiate for a taxi so I decided to walk to the road and catch a military vehicle. About half way out the drive I was overtaken by a cab and a native yelling at me in broken English, "Sar-hen-te, Sar-hen-te, stop for me por favor." He gave me his name (one of those Spanish John Smith's like Alehandro Jose Emborto Johnson sort of names) and explained that he was a stringer for the New York Times, that he had some dispatches to get out and would I help him. While telling him that I couldn't get my own copy out he said that he was going to break in to the R.C.A. communication building he needed someone to cover him and since I had a rifle I was a good candidate. For some reason I went with him and afterward he dropped me off two blocks from the embassy.
I was surprised by the embassy. I had expected a compound with high fences and security guards. What I found was a pension with an arboretum and a lot of Marines standing on a two-foot wall with rifles at the ready. Hundreds of others were milling around both on and off the grounds. I went inside and found a lobby which was lorded over by a Woman Marine gunnery sergeant--I learned that she was part of the embassy staff and for months after the expedition ended there was a lot of flack about a woman in a combat situation.
I'm really not sure why I went to the embassy, probably to find someone from the headquarters to report to and let them know that I was setting up a Press Center at the Embajador (where the media people were already congregating). I failed. No one seemed to be in charge and no one wanted to waste their time talking to a Marine lance corporal. Apparently the Headquarters Company leadership cadre was still back on board the BOXER. As I was leaving the compound I spotted a familiar figure among the sea of green. He was wearing Army fatigues, web belt, brand new boots and was sporting one of the new Mattel rifles being issued to the Army as an improvement over the M-14 that I was carrying. (the AR-16 was called a Mattel because it was being built, under contract to the Army, by a subsidiary of the Mattel Toy Company. It fired a lighter .223 cal. bullet that was supposed to be weighted so that it would tumble and hit an enemy with a ripping force--I never did understand how you could be accurate under those conditions).
The soldier in front of me was wearing second lieutenant's bars with a touch of red--Mr. Tucker, on his ride through the Army lines, managed to get himself fully outfitted, including a new rifle. "Hey, Corporal Knight, still got your helicopter?" he inquired as he headed toward me carrying his previous wardrobe in a brand new sea-bag (the Army called them duffel bags for some reason), and that included his pistols which I at first thought he had traded for the rifle. I answered, "No sir, I let the colonel use it for a while".
We traded the results of our reconnaissance and I asked if he would come to the Embajador and take over my fledgling press center. "No," he responded, "I'm going to have to stay under-ground for a day or so, the Assistant Division Commander back a Camp Lejeune had ordered me not to leave the camp. I sort of disobeyed orders." Tucker was a warrior, one of a breed that lives for war and he had not seen war in his career--there was no way he could miss what may be his only chance to do what he was bred to do. In explanation he said only, "It's not much of a war, but it's the only war we've got." There was no need to go further and the day was starting to get long.
I walked the few blocks to the Presidential Palace and then hopped a ride down the line of communication to where the 82nd Airborne had met the Marines earlier that day. In the area patrolled by the Marines they had selected front porches of the stucco houses as sort of command posts for their squad or fire team. They were mostly relaxed, here and there you could tell that the residents of the houses had washed the Marines' clothing and on other porches they were being fed by their native hosts. Infrequently a rebel sniper would take a pot shot in the direction of one of the squads and the squad leader would respond in kind, almost as a salute.
Entering the Army sector I found soldiers pressed against walls and peeking around corners, firing off half a clip of ammunition with each pull on the AR-16, now set on automatic. It was tense and, I thought, dangerous. There seemed to be no firing discipline among the airborne troopers. As I slid in and out of streets and allies I saw weapons and equipment laying everywhere--including a jeep with the motor running. There was absolutely no one in sight and I figured it was my duty to save the jeep from capture by the rebels (at least that is what I was planning to tell the first soldier who stopped me to reclaim the Army property). I wasn't stopped until I was well into the Marine area when a lieutenant flagged me down and asked for a ride to the embassy. His platoon had been in a fire fight at a nearby apartment building and battalion wanted to talk to him right away.
I dropped off the lieutenant and headed back to my offices at the Embajador. Parking my jeep in front of the hotel and fowling a rear wheel in a mass of chain I found in the back I headed in to the bar. The media people were back at the trough tired from a day of walking around town to find stories. The few taxies had all but vanished and rental cars were a foreign concept. Even the military vehicles were wary of picking up civilians. But they were glowing from the fact that they were able to get their dispatches out--some crazy Marine and a local stringer for the Times had broken in to the R.C.A. switch and the stringer was happily teletyping copy late into the day when some official showed up and tried to have the guy arrested (apparently his employer made a lot of noise and R.C.A. was forced to open up and serve their customers). I learned that the stringer later got a big bonus--the Marine went away with a memory and glorious anonymity.
When I announced at the bar that the 6th MEU Press Information Center was opening for business with one Marine Lance Corporal and one assigned jeep, there were cheers at the bar, cold El Presidente in front of me and endless transportation requests. Being broke and not wanting to push my luck with the manager I stumbled to the office and hand lettered a sign: "MARINE CORPS PRESS LIAISON OFFICE." I then laid down on the carpeted floor, wrapped my speedy in my jacket, tucked my rifle between my legs and had the best night's sleep in weeks--even the infrequent rifle shots off in the distance failed to wake me.
The next morning I found a typewriter and typed a dozen
"media accredidations". They went something like:
As I was leaving the hotel I handed one of the accredidations to the manager and told him that I needed a hundred of them that day. On my return they were stacked neatly on my new desk waiting to be issued. (About 75 were signed for legitimate media representatives--none of which have ever turned up anywhere--at least as far as I am aware).
My band of media reps were promised a ride to a drop off point and a description of the return route in late afternoon. If I passed them on the road I would stop and give them a ride. No other promises were made. I spent that first day driving around and shooting photos of Marines in action, of Marines relaxing on front porches and of Marines doing whatever Marines do in combat. I wrote identification captions and shipped them by helicopter to PFC N. B. Call on the Boxer. I also included stories to be shipped back to the PIO shop at Camp Lejeune. Some of the stories showed up in the Navy Times, Jacksonville Gazette, Camp Lejeune Globe and the Lititz Record Express (I had added my hometown newspaper to the media list and got front page play).
Just before sundown I went out to pick up my stragglers and found that none of them had been arrested (although one was questioned by a company commander when he was seen trying to steal a Marine jeep--I taught him that stealing from the Marines was not the proper thing to do). I also learned that my fleet had grown by three more Army jeeps (also saved from enemy capture and driven back by media representatives accredited to the 6th MEU on the strength of papers issued by "Public Information"). Fearing that I had created a monster I called a meeting of those accredited and suggested that four jeeps was enough to get anybody where they wanted to go and that we should not get greedy--after all, there was still this fighting and dying going on. The next day only one more Army jeep was added to my motor pool.
That same evening a real motor pool sergeant found me at the bar and made me an offer. If I would like, he would take my jeeps overnight and re-paint them in Marine olive drab (which was distinctly different from Army olive drab) complete with yellow Marine Corps numbers and unit identification reading "PIO". The cost was one case of El Presidente per jeep. I went to the bartender and signed for 10 cases of beer (I assume someone eventually got the bill but I ended up with jeeps that could not be traced and which looked very official).
It was past midnight when I finished my business at the bar and headed back to the office where I found a Navy ensign and a Marine first lieutenant waiting for me. The sober part of me realized that I had been caught but it was a good feeling that they had to send two officers to arrest me. I said nothing to them and as I began to unlock the door to the office they both stood up and handed me copies of their orders. They had been assigned to the Department of Defense Joint Information Bureau with duty at the Hotel Embajador.
The ensign took over my motor pool and levied Headquarters Company for some drivers. The lieutenant took me back to the bar--which was by now closed--and de-briefed me. As he was about to finish up some of the media people joined us with bottles of beer in tubs filled with ice. The lieutenant and I learned that these people had just come from a meeting with rebel commander Col. Camanio whose troops controlled the ice house. In return for a promise to simply consider the rebel side of all issues, the colonel promised ice and other favors for the newspaper people. There was never any slanting of stories requested, whether stories were ever slanted is an issue on which I am not qualified to judge.
By the time I woke up the next morning, three more officers had reported in, including a colonel--direct from the Pentagon. Over the next two days I was effectively replaced by two colonels, three lieutenant colonels, five majors and assorted company grades from all services (all that to replace just one Marine lance corporal--my drill instructor would say the ratio is about right).
That afternoon I was wandering about the hotel trying to avoid the growing staff of officers when the lieutenant who de-briefed me caught up to me and said, "The colonel wants to see you." There was that phrase again, the one that never preceded something good.
I was shown a message from The White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson was not happy with what he was seeing in the press and wanted pictures showing Marines and Soldiers helping out civilians and doing good deeds. The colonel was directed to get those pictures to the White House immediately. I volunteered to go out and shoot them with my "speedy" but the colonel told me that he already sent the JIB photographer to shoot 35mm film and that he would be back with the un-processed film soon. The colonel was impressed with what the lieutenant had told him about me and said he wanted me to make sure it got delivered to the White House. I was to hand it only to someone who gave me a special code word (I have no idea what that word was but I did remember it long enough to complete my mission). The colonel signed a short sheet of paper which named me as a White House Special Courier.
The lieutenant and I traded weapons. He was happy to have an M-14 with him when escorting media around the "international safety zone" and a .45 cal. pistol was a better weapon for a courier. A helicopter took me and my film to San Isidro Airport where I hopped an Air Force plane dead-heading to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. At Ramey I immediately started running up and down the tarmac trying to find a plane heading to Washington, D.C. or Andrews AFB, Maryland. I was run down by an Air Police truck who took me to a fighter plane on the far side of the field preparing to take off. The pilot gave me the code word and said that he would personally hand the package to the President within four hours--he didn't even know the contents and he assumed that I didn't know either.
The Air Policeman took me to the chow hall and then to the gymnasium which was serving as a 150-man dormitory. I fell asleep on a cot after I had showered and shaved (and put on the same grungy uniform I had been wearing for a week). The loaded pistol was tucked under my pillow and no one else took a cot closer than 10 feet from me. I was the first person any of them had ever seen fresh from a combat zone--and they all thought I was a psycho.
No Marine is ever prepared for breakfast at an Air Force base. China plates (not metal trays), civilian type tables and chairs (not 12-man tables and benches), a choice of entree and even "eggs cooked to order". The only uncomfortable thing was that everyone was staring at my loaded pistol hanging from my web belt.
After breakfast, on my way to the flight line, I passed the American Forces Radio and Television Service television station. It was staffed by people in the Air Force equivalent of my MOS and I was treated as an honored guest. I will never forget watching the Air Force sergeant deliver the morning news from behind a desk while wearing a white shirt and purple necktie under his Air Force blouse (I was told that since the image was black and white, the white and purple looked better). But what really shocked me was the fact that the announcer was wearing shorts since his legs were not visible on TV.
At base operations I was to learn that it was easier getting out of the Dominican Republic than it would be getting in. No one was sure of my priority and until that could be sorted out I would just have to wait--check back in mid-afternoon. To kill time I walked out on to the ramp and spotted a two-engine plane with Civil Air Patrol markings and two officers doing a pre-flight check. As a "retired" CAP cadet staff sergeant I approached the two and struck up a conversation during which I asked the range of the plane and if it could make it to the Dominican Republic. They allowed that it could and on seeing my "White House Special Courier" orders decided to fly me there in the CAP plane--after all, I was still a member of CAP.
I have no idea how close they came to getting the clearance and becoming the first CAP plane in a combat zone since the Coastal Patrol days of World War II. (CAP pilots would fly their single-engine, two-seat aircraft out over the Atlantic Ocean looking for enemy submarines. Eventually they carried 5 pound bombs and are credited with actually sinking two German U-boats.) All I know is that permission was denied and I ended up on another Air Force plane headed back to the island of Hispaniola.
The lieutenant met me at the airport on my return and we exchanged weapons. He thanked me for my service and then told me that I had to report to the Marine headquarters at the Hotel Hispaniola. It seems that I have been carried as missing in action for about four days. My first sergeant was hopping mad but the lieutenant did what he could to calm things down. The bottom line was that my freelancing days were over--the Corps wanted me back so they could chew my ass out.
The Hotel Hispaniola was down the hill from the Embajador and closer in to the center of the city. It was white and imposing but smaller than the Embajador and in more of an urban setting. As I approached the Marine headquarters I noticed that most of the uniforms were at least clean, if not pressed, that sleeves were rolled down and buttoned and that everyone's utility jacket was buttoned up to the neck. I passed a captain and got chewed out for my slovenly, unkempt and un-professional appearance. For the last five days I was more concerned with dodging bullets and doing my job and I was feeling quite good about it. The culture shock of a spit and polish headquarters unit was almost more than I could bear.
The first sergeant threatened to throw me in the brig for being AWOL but he said that Col. Daughtery and some bird colonel from the Pentagon had vouched for me and he was going to turn me over to the officer in charge of the PIO shop, a lipstick lieutenant from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point -- a God damned wing wiper. This was not going to get any easier. I was assigned to a room on the third or fourth floor facing north with a balcony overlooking a courtyard turned bivouac area. The grunts were in their tents and shelter-half lean-tos protecting the precious paper pushers from, well--actually, from-------what?
My roommate was Theo Anthony "Tony" Dorris a gangling six plus footer from Jackson, Tennessee. We were a lot like mirror images, about the same height and weight, same MOS, same rank, the only thing that really separated us was Tony's Tennessee drawl. We would go on to become lifetime friends, I would follow him to Parris Island where he would serve as the best man at my wedding and, as a wedding present, take the orders to Vietnam so that I wouldn't have to go. (I cursed him every night--"If anything happens to him on this tour it will be my fault and I will have to live with that the rest of my life. If he gets killed I'll dig him up and strangle him." or words to that effect. I didn't have to strangle him and he is now a successful investment banker in Memphis.)
The rooms were stifling hot and the only way to cool them off was to keep the doors open on both sides of the hallway to allow a breeze to pass between rooms. Tony said that the on the first day in the hotel doors would slam shut and everyone would hit the deck. This irritated the headquarters commandant, Lieutenant Colonel William "Wild Bill" Gately--reported to be one of only six active duty Marines who Chesty Puller called "a real Marine". Tony handed me a mimeographed copy of a headquarters memo which said, "Any Marine who can't control his door can't control his weapon (and) any Marine who allows his door to slam shut will face severe reprimand." Gately was also the man who issued the sleeves rolled down and buttons buttoned order that made the grunts snigger as a headquarters weenie walked by. I was beginning to doubt the Chesty Puller mystique if he could pick out this ass hole for personal commendation.
Maintaining the idiot image was the report on the arrival of the headquarters weenies. They flew down in an Air Force constellation--the one with the tricycle landing gear that caused the tail to stay up in the air, about 15 feet off the ground. As their airplane came to a stop on the tarmac the passenger door opened and a utility clad figure with a .45 cal. pistol in a shoulder harness and a Thompson machine gun held tight to his chest stood in the center of the door and jumped the 15 feet to the ground just before the stairs were rolled into place so that everyone else could disembark like real people. Gately was livid that no one had jumped out with him, rather they all waited for the stairs like a bunch of women.
Tony had just finished catching up when the lipstick lieutenant showed up to "welcome" me to the shop and tell me that Tony and I would be teaming up to do--you guessed it--hometowners.
Life at the Hotel Hispaniola turned quickly into garrison duty. We worked days (long days to be sure, but unmistakably a routine work schedule). Gone was the contact with the working press and the pressures of deadlines. When Tony and I were not going from Marine to Marine begging them to fill out a hometowner form we would find stories to write and submit to a typist. My "speedy" had been turned back in and I had to request photography from the photo lab. It was just like being back at Lejeune except that we had this crazy door-slam monitor running through the halls and every now and then the nighttime calm would be interrupted by a fire fight off in the distance.
Rumor had it that Fred Tucker and an NCO he had picked up as a working partner were so bored with the mundane schedule that they would slip out of the building at night and drive to the Army area, where they were still tense and would shoot at ghosts. They would fire a few bursts from their automatic weapons into the air and flee as the Army "returned" fire and the rebel forces did the same. I couldn't understand why Tucker had not been manacled and placed on a plane to stand tall in front of the Assistant Division Commander--but then he had that ability to skirt disaster.
The political and military situations developed into a holding type of duty as negotiations went on to normalize the uprising. My life got to be boring. I knew that there were some good stories still being written but I was neither writing them nor was I involved with the reporters and photographers that were making names for themselves. I was a hometowner expert condemned to walking through the Marine held areas coercing cocky combat veterans into filling out a stupid form.
On one such excursion Tony and I walked into the area of India Company which was on the line of communication living with the families along that main street. We mingled with local citizens and we walked around the armored personnel carrier that was forming a checkpoint along the line. The second lieutenant who was commanding one of the platoons maneuvered us up against a concrete wall where all of his men were filling out hometowners for us. It was a good thing too since it was almost 5 p.m., time to head back to the hotel, and we were behind in our quota for the day (for some reason filling out one of our forms was not a priority for troops on the line).
As Tony and I gathered in the sheaf of forms and did a "field check" of them to eliminate the obviously bad ones, the troops sort of slowly disappeared until the two of us were standing alone at the end of a road, up against a six foot concrete wall. At the other end of the street was a radio tower located well within the rebel held territory. At exactly 5 p.m. we both felt instantly alone and "pow" something slammed into the concrete behind us. That was followed by the sound of a large weapon and we realized that we had both survived a rifle shot.
I bounded up and over the wall. Tony had run a half block down the street, turned and was waiting for me on the other side when I landed. India Company had apparently struck up a sort of friendship with a rebel marksman who would climb the tower and fire one round each day at 5 p.m. They had come to realize that he was a good marksman and that he always fired to avoid hitting anyone. We had been their sacrificial lambs and the roar of laughter from the nearby troops was a worthy way to end the day. They helped us to pick up our forms and even added to the take for the day--it only took a month or so for us to appreciate their humor.
After a day of work on the front lines we would return to the hotel for food in the hotel restaurant, a couple of hours in and around the pool and a relaxing evening sitting on our balcony writing letters home, watching the infantry troops heating up their c-rations and listening to the cacophony of the army contingent shooting at ghosts on the other side of town.
Life was tense but it was also relaxing and, at times, boring. After nearly a month I was experiencing headaches and my vision was quickly becoming worse. I couldn't read because of all of the "floaters" that had developed, from the dryness and from the pain that was either from my eyes or was a major headache. The corpsmen at sick call couldn't diagnose it. The doctors were stumped, but they were concerned. Within a matter of hours I was packed, transported to the airport and on my way to the states.
The plane landed at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina which is next to Fort Bragg, the home of the 82nd Airborne, which was deployed to the Dominican Republic. It was about 10 p.m. and we were the last load to arrive for the night. U. S. Customs agents went through our baggage and all was well until they opened my sea bag and found three 20 round clips for my M-14, all fully loaded. An alert was sounded, pistols were drawn, we were ordered to hit the deck and truck loads of Air Policemen came out of thin air.
The captain took my bullets, gave me a receipt and then realized that the Greyhound Bus Company would probably not let me on a bus with an M-14 rifle. He arranged a staff car and had me delivered to the U. S. Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune, N. C.
My problem was diagnosed as "acute choreoretinitis" a disease of the eye that would eventually make me blind in one eye. I had apparently picked it up in the Canary Islands that previous summer when my ship stopped there on the way back from a division exercise in southern Spain.
The operation in the Dominican Republic lasted another month or so and eventually the Organization of American States got involved and some Brizilian general took command. I was glad to be "home" even if it was a ward in a Navy Hospital. I had my little war and it would turn out to be my last.