Canoe Rides on Parris Island

 

Bob turned seventeen in Mobile, Alabama on New Year’s Eve 1941. He was alone sitting in a bar when a Marine Corps recruiter befriended him. He seemed a fatherly figure when Bob most needed one. He told Bob a lot about the Marine Corps — the more they drank the better it all sounded. That recruiter told Bob that Parris Island featured southern belles, real Scarlet O’Hara types, and canoe rides almost every night along the beautiful coastal islands of South Carolina. He described palm trees swaying gently in ocean breezes. Bob was slightly under the height requirements for the Marines, being just under five-foot four, but he was tough and toughened by his recent experiences in Chicago. He had worked since he was four or five years old at hard labor, chopping wood, working in the fields. He was all muscle. Most of his life had been hard, and his flesh reflected that conditioning. If I hit someone, hed go right down. You know, if a drunk was looking for a fight in a bar, hed always pick the smallest guy, usually me, and hed get the surprise of his life. Id pick the guy up and buy him a drink. The recruiter could certainly see all the necessary attributes in Bob, and these were the boys who joined the Marines. They were street kids, tougher than most and usually loners, misfits in some way, needing something more than their mundane lives could offer. They had little to lose, or so they thought.

l***

Every Marine always remembers his recruit training. January 1, 1942, I was on a recruit train headed for Parris Island, South Carolina. When we pulled in the depot, I had my feet up on the seat next to me, and the Drill Instructor got on and said, "Put your feet down." I sat up straight as I could, and he said to us, "From now on forget about your church. I am your Jesus Christ." And God-dammit, he was. He told me, "Dont ever say you are a Marine until you leave boot camp." I dont remember too much else. We were hustled here, hustled there.

The first thing they did was march everyone over to the barbershop. The barbers asked us how we wanted our hair cut and proceeded to shave it all off. Then the recruits went on to the supply depot where I was handed a pile of clothes, blankets, and supplies. The only item they fit me for was shoes. Everything else was an approximation. We were assigned a bunk and told not to sit on it. We were shown how to make it up right.

Next, we went to the mess hall to eat. We were making jokes and laughing it up, discussing our new haircuts. That was the last time we laughed on that stinking island. Just for the record, there were no canoes like the recruiter in Mobile had promised me. After chow, we were taken back to the barracks while taps was played. The lights then went out. It seemed like minutes when reveille sounded.

The next morning the sergeant came in and said, "Off and on. Off your ass and on your feet." He told us to assemble outside in five minutes, shaved and all. After breakfast and morning calisthenics, we were ready to drop again. At that point the DI informed us again that we would not be called Marines until we completed boot camp. Next we started to learn to march in cadence, cadence meaning everyone putting the same foot down at the same time.

He would be hollering ‘Hup, toop, tree, four,’ and when he saw someone out of step, he would come up behind him and jab him in the butt with a small knife. The man would then have to pull down his pants and bend over. The DI carried a bottle of Iodine in his top pocket, which he slapped on the cut. That hurt worse than the jab. If the drill instructor called your name and you didnt answer him "Sir," he would punch you.

We stopped marching long enough to receive the first of many shots. They hurt like hell. Wed get a huge lump on our arm. Thered be big guys there six foot tall. Theyd pass out — especially after the tetanus shots — three of them — youd get a lump on your arm, and you could hardly raise your arm. The Goddamn Sergeant would get us out there with our rifles, up and down, up and down — Holy Christ — some guys six foot tall — they couldnt take it. They taught us to absorb pain and not recognize pain. We never knew what we were being injected with except for hatred and anger. We learned to hate that DI pretty early. Hate was a good thing then. It didnt take long for the indoctrination to set in. They changed you period. You were no longer human. You were a killing machine.

On the third day, we were issued 1903 Springfield rifles covered with grease called Cosmoline that had protected them since World War I. We were taken to a trough with some chemicals in it, and we had to wash the rifles until they shined. After the metal was all cleaned, including the bore, and all polished, we started rubbing the stocks with linseed oil for about five hours. Our hands were red and blistered as we rubbed and rubbed. When we finished, the stocks looked like fine finished furniture. They started out like a board you would buy at a lumber company. We were then told to memorize the rifle serial number right along with our service serial number. I still remember my service serial number — 333340.

The general attitude among drill instructors was always to keep the men a little unhappy — the idea was to push them beyond their endurance without totally breaking them down. There was quite a lot of physical abuse in the old days. Your fate as a recruit really depended on the temperament of your drill instructor. Some were clearly sadistic and some were just trying to do the job that needed to be done. This practice of physically abusing the recruits was by no means universal in the Marine Corps — even back then many NCOs felt strongly that it was totally unnecessary — yet they needed to get these recruits under their spell and quickly. Their survival would depend on it. During wartime recruit training was cut back from twelve weeks to only eight weeks — not a lot of time to prepare a man for the greatest challenge of his life. The training was always tough, and it had to be. The recruits continually needed to be stripped of any human qualities not absolutely necessary for survival in combat. Those days and weeks were a constant process of dehumanizing activities; however, the brainwashing followed a well-designed plan. The recruits needed to follow every order without question or hesitation, no matter what they were being told to do. Bob remembers well scrubbing the floor in his quarters with a toothbrush during those first few days on the island. Eventually they all took turns doing this.

We were marched every day for weeks until we were ready for taps and lights out — only to be woken up at one, two, or three in the morning and marched again. We never got liberty while in training. We werent allowed to make phone calls or even write letters. I guess this was necessary for a complete brainwash, from human to war machine, and later on, to remove all feelings except a terrible anger.

Every day the DI would make us raise and lower our rifles over our heads for hours. Some of my fellow boots would pass out. If someone forgot to shave, the DI would call for a double-edged razor, first rub it on cement, and then dry shave his face. He looked like a cat scratched the hell out of his face. We even slept with our rifles. We had to stack our rifles up in a series of 3 or 4 and the man that caused the rifles to fall would have to sleep with them in his bunk.

We also had to do things like guard the laundry or run up and down the company street yelling, "I am a gooney bird" while flapping our arms like wings. We learned we were expendable but our equipment was not. We needed to endure any hardship or pain and fight on.

I got the biggest surprise of my life one night when my platoon was called out around ten oclock. We thought we were going on another drill. All the drill instructor said was "Pack up everything." We packed up all our gear, and he said, "These are the trucks youll be taking. So long, youre through with boot camp." He didnt even tell us where we were going on the trucks. The DI actually hugged each one of us and said goodbye. That was the first time that bastard had showed any emotion whatsoever. I guess he knew what he had done, but I wondered about that hug for the longest time. I guess Ill never know. Im sure he realized he had changed us. It was very strange.

***

There was no graduation ceremony or recognition of any kind other than the DI’s sendoff. They left in the middle of the night to guard against the possibility of spies disclosing information about troop movements. Bob was elated to be leaving. He was now a Marine headed for Tent City, near New River, North Carolina, now known as Camp Lejune.

When they got to Tent City, the streets were filled with mud, the sky overcast, and the winds icy. This winter weather seemed incongruous since they had arrived at New River to further their training for fighting in jungles. Bob was assigned to the First Marine Division, H Company, 2nd Battalion, First Marine Regiment, called H-2-1. It was a machine gun company. I learned how to take a machinegun apart and put it back together blindfolded. I learned every part. They were WWI vintage Browning 1916 water cooled, firing about two hundred fifty rounds per minute.

The First Marine Division was formed in February 1941 from what was then the First Brigade and parts of the 5th and 7th Marine regiments. Throughout the 1930’s the Marines had pioneered and honed techniques in amphibious warfare culminating with training exercises in 1940-41 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and later, from the summer of 1941 through the summer of 1942, in New River, North Carolina at the newly formed Tent City. The Marine Corps had purchased over 100,000 acres of wetlands around New River for this continued training.

According to Bob, the training exercises were always strange, designed to put everyone off balance. One night they sent us out with maps and a compass with directions to set up our guns. At command we started scissor firing, and we could hear farm animals, chickens, cows, and horses. The target that night was the barn of a farmer who had refused to sell his land to the government for this camp. This happened more than once, and each time the next morning that particular farmer would be asking, "Where do I sign?"

Sometimes wed go out for weeks at a time on maneuvers called bivouacs. We slept in tents, two men to a tent. We were right on the ground. All we had was a blanket. We were too young to know hot or cold.

Theyd go so far as to put ten cases of beer on a hill, and wait until midnight. Then theyd say that the platoon that gets up there and gets the beer, gets to keep it — well, we would use anything to get there — clubs, fists, belts, buckles, rocks — we all fought each other to reach the top. Christ, the next day at sick bay, thered be lines of Marines with bandages all over.

Bob remembers the nights well. He loved this stuff. There were many such contests. It didn’t seem to matter how brutal they were. Yet, this training was by no means haphazard. These Marines had to learn to survive anything the enemy could throw at them.

Fights among different squads were common — all aggression was encouraged. There was an old circus tent the Corps had procured under which 7500 Marines could sit and enjoy various athletic contests as well as homemade variety shows and other forms of entertainment. These men had their own unique improvisations — their favorite weapon was a belt wrapped around a hand with an exposed buckle acting like a brass knuckle. Many of them would get cut up pretty badly, but they’d laugh about it the next day. The training was always tough, from the grunts right up to the pilots — even during flight training in the WWII era, for example, the Marine Corps lost twice as many pilots in training than they did in combat.

Tent City was extremely hot and humid in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. They were living essentially in swampland, with each tent heated by a crude kerosene stove. "If the stoves did not set tents afire — and they often did — they would at some time or other cover everything, including the sleeping men, with sooty smoke." (1) At night the tents were lit with only one dim light bulb, which frequently dimmed off and on with the fluctuations of a local power grid supplying electricity to the base. The floors of the tents were laid over wooden platforms with gaping holes in them — the men often stuffed whatever they could find though those holes for insulation. (2) The story of the First Marines in those days was one of doing without or making do until the needed supplies arrived, if they ever did. They would learn that lesson well

***

When we got our first liberty, we were told the legal age of consent in North Carolina was twelve — it was posted in the barracks. At that time we got $17.00 a month salary, but it went a long way. Beer cost five cents, a whore cost fifty cents, and if you got to the whorehouse late, the madam would let you stay with the girl all night, eliminating the fifty-cent cost of a hotel room. For a buck and a half you could have a really good time.

There were too many bar fights to remember, usually a bunch of drunken Marines going at it. I used to drink with a Marine buddy named Pado. He would drink about eighteen to twenty glasses of beer at a nickel a glass. All of a sudden hed throw the glass down on the floor and look around. Hed say to any number of rednecks in the vicinity, "What are you looking at?" Those locals didnt like us anyway, and usually a fight would start — about fifteen of them to about two of us. I always said to myself Im never leaving with Pado again, and the next weekend, hed say, "Lets go" and Id go with him again. Our Battalion Commander, Bill Chalfont — we called him "Billy 1-2-3" — proudly said "Thats my men" when told of any really destructive event. If anyone had a complaint, the Captain would ask, "Whats their names?" He couldnt put anyone on report without names.

***

The emphasis during training in the spring of 1942 was on amphibious landings. Except for the cold weather, the swamps around New River were actually perfect training grounds for later jungle warfare. Bob remembers many days of drilling, practicing landings. From the transport ships they’d climb down cargo nets into small landing craft called Higgins boats. Each boat held about forty Marines and was made of steel with four-foot high sides. The top was completely open. They even needed to do this in the dark, not an easy thing with the seas rolling.

As you climbed down, you could hear the Higgins boats banging against the side of the transport ship. When the bang sounded close enough, youd just let go and hope to land in the boat. Some who went down too far got their legs smashed in between the transport ship and the Higgins boat. The lucky ones would make it to the beach, establishing the beachhead. Wed stay put for days in the same clothes with the jiggers eating us alive. When we were trained to endure anything, we got the word we were shipping out.

 

(1) McMillan, George. The Old Breed. Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1949, page 9.
(2) McMillan, 9.

   
 

Home | About the Author | Download the Book | Photo Gallery | News Articles
Radio Interview | Excerpts | Veteran Interviews | Guestbook | Links | E-mail

Copyright 2014, Marc David Bonagura. All Rights Reserved.

 

Website design by Lorraine Mazza