After my combat training in San Diego and my week off at home, my first stop on the way to Vietnam was Okinawa to be processed. During my week stay there I stored my extra military uniforms (that I wouldn’t be needing in Vietnam), and I was issued new combat clothes, boots, rifle, poncho and liner, and backpack—everything I needed for Vietnam. That didn’t take more than 20 minutes or so. So why were we there for a whole week? Good question. Nobody questions things like that. We were just glad to get a few more days off. Okinawa was beautiful compared to where we were headed. And the food was good too.
When we left Okinawa I kind of expected to go right to my new unit, but we had one more stop to make—Da Nang, one of Vietnam’s major cities. We stopped there for I think it was two days. I wasn’t sure what was happening there, but I suppose we were waiting to be assigned to our new unit and to complete any final paperwork. When it was finally time to go, we all got separated into different groups, according to what our particular duty classification was, and where we were needed. My duty classification was listed as 0311, rifleman (better known as “grunt”); and my new address was: Co K, 3rd Bn, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. So, those of my group, just a few of us, were directed to get onto a large green helicopter. I remember looking out the helicopter window as we flew over the trees and rice patties. It didn’t take long at all before we arrived at our destination—hill 52. Vietnam is a small country and my unit was only about 15 miles southwest of Da Nang.
The first thing I remember upon landing, was all the dust that the helicopter was creating, and a few dirty-faced Marines that were there to greet us. Though it was late February, in Vietnam it was warm. Questions raced through my head. What had I gotten myself into? Where was I? Where was the enemy? We all needed some direction.
I hope to conclude this boot camp segment with this blog. Then I will begin writing about my tour in Vietnam.
About halfway through boot camp they (my drill instructors, I think) decided that I wasn’t motivated, so I was transferred to what was called “motivation platoon.” I don’t know why they decided that; maybe it was because I didn’t seem fearful enough of them. Like I said previously, I prayed a lot, especially while I stood at attention; and I was always committing everything to God. Maybe they sensed that I was too calm about everything. Anyway, motivation platoon only lasted about a week. We did things like, set up tents, and camped out, and watched movies about how great the Marine Corps was. Then they transferred me to another boot camp platoon—which seemed easier; and the drill instructors seemed nicer and didn’t swear as much. I remember that the top drill instructor said to me that he couldn’t figure out why I was transferred, because I was doing so well. He especially likes my high marks in the physical exercise tests, like pullups and pushups, etc. And so, anyway, I was feeling good about the whole thing. No doubt God had something to do with it.
After boot camp everybody got sent home for a week. I don’t know why, but I can’t remember any details about that week. It was a time to relax and get ready for more training (at ITR) and Vietnam.
ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) was located also at Camp Pendleton, but was separate from the boot camp area. It was a place with lots of hills and trees and underground bunkers, a perfect area to train for war. The instructors there were kinder, I mean they didn’t harass you as much. We were respected more—as marines. But the training was more intense. Oh, I remember trudging up and down those hills with back packs and rifles. In fact, everywhere we went we carried our rifles. And they would sternly let us know if we didn’t always have our rifles with us. That was part of the training: to know that we had to be always combat ready.
I really don’t remember anything in particular about ITR, except that it was very intense. I think I had my mind more on what was to come—Vietnam. And they would constantly talk about it, to prepare us for it. ITR wasn’t nearly as long-lasting as boot camp, though it seemed long. I think it lasted about six weeks, enough time to get us all geared up for our year long tour. But before Vietnam, they gave us another week off to say goodbye to friends and family.
If it wasn’t for the pictures I took, I wouldn’t remember this week. I guess it went by fast, and I probably had my mind on what was to come. I know that I saw my girl friend Joy a lot; and though I really felt that I loved her, it was a strained and awkward relationship, mainly because I knew she wasn’t a Christian. But I was going off to Vietnam, and somehow, I knew that that would provide me with a way of escape. That is, to get away from temptation.
I also slightly remember that during that week my mom, as well as my grandparents (on my mom’s side) were quite upset and fearful for me going to Vietnam. In fact, my grandpa had taken some legal steps to get me a humanitarian discharge. The whole thing was strange to me, because I really didn’t want it. It was all his idea, and maybe my mom’s too, and they pursued it kind of behind my back. As I remember it, there never was a time that I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I never was a person that would fight against going to war. I always figured that if your country called you to go, you should go; that it was part of God’s will. And, this may seem strange, but I really kind of wanted to go. There was something in me that was excited about it. I wanted to fight for my country, and I was ready.
There were some things in boot camp that weren’t on a daily basis. Here are eight of those events.
1. The three-mile run. This was a regular exercise, but not daily; more like every other day. And we usually ran in full gear: boots and backpack. I didn’t mind this event or any of the other more physical events. I was in pretty good shape.
2. The twenty-mile run and walk. We only did this a couple of times during boot camp, and it was also in full gear. I think this exercise was planned especially for those who would be going to Vietnam (most of us). What a workout!
3. The rifle-range. I think I remember going to the rifle-range about once a week. It was basically an event to learn how to hold your rifle steady while shooting, and in different positions. We would shoot standing up, in the prone position, and sitting. We also did some shooting with the 45-caliber pistol. One thing I couldn’t understand is why we trained with an M14 rifle in boot camp and then were issued an M16 in Vietnam? It made no sense to me. And even though the M16 was lighter, I wish I had an M14 in Vietnam. I would have felt safer with it, because I think it was more accurate.
4. Weapons training. In addition to shooting the M14 and the 45, we would also learn how to throw grenades. That was scary to me, just knowing that you only had a few seconds to throw it after pulling the pin before it would explode. We were also introduced to a few other weapons like the M60 machine gun, the M72 LAW, a very nifty lightweight anti-tank weapon, and the M79 grenade launcher, which was my primary weapon in Vietnam. We all had our turns to shoot these weapons—kind of fun. We also watched demonstrations of other larger, more powerful weapons like tanks, cannons, mortars (an artillery weapon), and we even watched the fully- armed, black-hawk helicopter destroy things. A great show!
5. Self-defense and bayonet training. As for the self-defense training, I already knew quite a bit from high school wrestling. But the bayonet training we got I think was helpful—that is, it would have been if I had an opportunity to use it. Most of the close hand to hand combat was done earlier and during the Tet Offensive (from 1965-68). I didn’t get to Nam until 1970.
6. Guard duty. Guard duty in boot camp was on a rotating basis during the night, about a two-hour shift. I never liked it. I did the same thing in Vietnam every night. I didn’t like it there either.
7. Surprise cleaning duties. Every once in a while, our drill instructor would announce to the platoon that we had a project to do. I remember once when we washed a rather large concrete floor. We did it all by hand scrub brushes and white towels. I remember the instructor saying that it had to be clean enough to eat off of. And it was.
8. Punishments. We were harassed and yelled at constantly; that was part of the training. But punishments were different and less often. One time the entire platoon was punished, but I can’t remember what for. Anyway, we spent hours doing calisthenics in deep sand. Most of the time the punishment was on just one Marine. It was usually quite brutal and for the least offences. But then we were Marines and were expected to perform out duties well, and without complaining.
After boot camp processing, and all the preliminary instructions of the first day were completed, we finally settled into somewhat of a daily routine—except for events that we did less frequently, which I will cover in the next blog post. Here are six things that I remember doing on a daily basis for my three month long stay at boot camp.
Our regular morning routine. The first thing we did after getting up was to do our business, shower, and shave. Then we got dressed, made our bed (tight), and lined up outside for roll call and inspection. If we shaved properly (closely, without misses or blood), and if our boots were shined and clothes were fairly well pressed and clean, the drill instructor would usually pass us by, which was usually the case for me. But if any of those things were missed, he would let you know—very rudely. And also, it seemed to be always the case that the drill instructor would pick on someone just because he didn’t like the way they looked—or really, for any reason. Like for instance, if someone seemed to stand out because they were short or tall or a bit overweight, they had a good chance of being harassed, repeatedly.
Close order drill. This is probably the most impressive event that we did; and it was kind of fun. I’m sure most people have seen a marching band drill at the half-time of a football game. But when you see Marines in their dress blues and rifle, it is especially impressive. Most of the time we would drill without a rifle, in our regular uniform. At first, for me, it was hard keeping in step. But after a while, no problem. I especially liked hearing the drill instructor’s cadence call. Each instructor had his own unique style and sound.
Some might question the value of drilling because we didn’t ever do it on the battle field. Yet, when I think about it, I think it has more of a motivational value and something Marines (and all branches of service) do just to build in themselves the pride of being a Marine.
Calisthenics.I think each boot camp unit was I bit different, but generally we did the regular exercises beginning with stretches and jumping jacks, then pushups, setups, pullups, burpees, and some sprints. Toward the end of boot camp, we would be tested to see how many of each exercise we could do. I was always at the top, probably because of the sports I did in high school—wrestling and track.
Classes. There were alwaysone or two classes each day pertaining to a variety of subjects the Marines wanted you to learn. The ones I remember were on general hygiene, Marine Corps history, cleaning and handling of weapon, and map reading. They were usually at least an hour long. I didn’t mind having the time to sit and relax, but I didn’t care much for the learning part of it. It was too much like school. I don’t remember getting tested on any of the classes. I think that is something they should have done, to force us to listen and learn.
Free time. They called it free time, but it really wasn’t your own time. It was a period of time, about an hour or so, to do things like polish your boots and belt buckle, write a letter, clean your pistol and rifle, study class notes, and get mail at mail call. I would usually get a letter every day from mom or a girlfriend. But most of my mail was from a young girl (about 14 years old) that I didn’t know. She got my name and address from Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. It was a great ministry for her, and I really appreciated it and always looked forward to her cheerful letters and homemade cookies! Now that I think about it, I’m not sure when she started writing me. It was either in boot camp or maybe in my tour of Vietnam; and we continued to write each other all during my time in service.
To be honest, I didn’t like writing that much. But I figured that since I enjoyed getting mail, I had to keep writing people to get them to write me. I also considered that I should probably not talk too negatively or about myself or my situation too much, and to talk more about them—so that they would feel more compelled to like me and write back. I was desperate to get mail, to hear from a friendly person, so I did what I thought would work. I kept this writing practice up all through my service time.
Mess hall. We always had three meals a day and the food was good. Unfortunately, though you could get as much as you wanted, you didn’t have much time to eat it. Sometimes, I remember that after standing and waiting for a long time at attention to get fed, when we finally got our food on our metal tray and sat down to eat, the drill instructor would yell out something like, “Alright you pigs, you’ve had enough, get out, get out,” And we had to just leave our tray full of food and run out of the mess hall into formation. Why did he do that? I would like to tell you that it was for a good reason, but I really didn’t know why. It is my guess that he just wanted us not to get too comfortable. Boot camp was a place to train us, not to make us feel good or satisfied.
I had been thinking for a while about joining the Marines. Then one day I suddenly made the decision. My mom was the first one to get the news. “Mom,” I said, “I’m gonna enlist in the Marines.” I guess she knew I was serious, because I don’t remember that she was too opposed to it or tried to talk me out of it. I quickly got out the phone book to find where to go, and on that very day I talked mom into driving me down to the Marine Corps enlistment building, downtown Minneapolis, to get signed up. I was very excited.
I don’t remember exactly, but I don’t think it took very long. It’s my guess that they were eager to sign guys up during that time of war (1969), and the requirements were quite low. If you could walk and breath, you were in. Seriously, there were only two things I remember about the recruitment: the short physical exam, including shots, and all the paperwork.
The next day—or maybe it was a couple of days—I was off to boot camp at Camp Pendleton, in San Diego, California. I don’t remember the airplane ride or the bus ride to the base, but I do remember being instructed, loudly and rudely, to go and stand on the “yellow footprint.” So, all of us recruits very willingly fell in line. From that time on we did just what we were told. It was dark, maybe about midnight, and we stood there at attention on those yellow footprints. I dared not move, or even look around. I just waited for what I would be instructed to do next. Some guys, by the look on their faces, seemed afraid and almost shocked. As I remember, I don’t think I had that same emotion, but I was tense—and also very prayerful. I remember praying over and over again Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” I was trusting God that what I was going through, and whatever I was going to go through, would all work out for God’s good purpose. That was my firm belief. I had no worries about it.
Well, finally, after what seemed to be at least a couple hours of standing at attention on those footprints, we began to be processed. That is, we were marched over to a place where we were measured and given all the clothes and supplies we needed for boot camp. I didn’t mind the process, but I didn’t understand why many of the workers were so rude to us, calling us “maggots” and worse. It all seemed so unnecessary.
I don’t remember exactly all that went on that night, besides getting our gear, but I’m sure I was ready to retire. Eventually we did get put to bed. We were led into what was called Quonset huts and were given brief instructions that we were not to talk after lights went out. Suddenly, after only about ten minutes to undress, someone shouted, “lights out!” The lights went out, and it was quiet. No one dared to say a word.
Only about two hours later our drill instructor stormed in, turned on the lights, and started banging on the inside of an empty garbage can and yelling, “Get up you maggots! Get up!” We were told, in so many crude words, that we had only so many minutes to do our business, shower and shave, and get outside in formation for roll call.
That morning, while it was still dark, we were introduced to the first full day of boot camp. I’m not sure what all happened on that first day, but I imagine we were given more instructions; and haircuts were definitely in order. We had to look like Marines, so I think that happened first. It only took a few seconds to shave our heads with those big clippers. It was brutal! Then, I suppose, we were instructed on how to make our beds—with tight hospital corners, and also how to fold our clothes and pack our foot lockers. Those were the basics. Other instructions were given to us along the way. Soon we would be settled into a daily routine.