15 December 2008


We went to the rifle and pistol ranges and qualified with the M-14 rifle and the .45 caliber pistol. We also fired the shotgun for familiarization, because many Lieutenants in-country elected to carry a shotgun. A platoon commander ought not be shooting, because if he is, he is not commanding his platoon. If he has to shoot, he should not be concerned about firing a long-range weapon when his troops might be in front of him. Additionally, if he must shoot, it will probably be in a quick-fire situation.

The bullet of a rifle in the hands of a trained Marine has someone’s name on it. Fifteen double-aught buck from a 12 gauge shotgun are addressed “To whom it may concern.” That's a handy distinction in an emergency.

Rifle qualification was not hard. The course was 50 rounds as follows:

200 yards: 10 rounds slow fire in the off-hand (standing) position.
10 rounds rapid fire (two five-round magazines) standing to sitting in 50 seconds

300 yards: 5 rounds kneeling
5 rounds sitting
10 rounds rapid fire (two five round magazines) standing to prone in 60 seconds

500 yards: 10 rounds slow fire in the prone position.

Slow fire allowed 10 minutes at each of the three firing lines. The 200 and 300 slow fire targets were, I think, 8-inch bulls-eyes and the rapid fire was a head and shoulders silhouette. The 500 yard slow-fire target was a ten-inch bull.

To qualify as a Marksman, you had to accumulate at least 190 points. Sharpshooter was 210 points and Expert was 230 points. A bulls-eye was 5 points per round.

Failing to qualify was a very serious matter indeed. Accurate aimed killing rifle fire has long been a hallmark of the Marine. Marines were originally detailed as snipers in the fighting tops of sailing ships, assigned to kill the officers on the enemy’s quarterdeck. At the Battle of Belleau Woods in WWI, the Germans were stunned by the losses they began to incur at 500 to 1000 yards. They had had some experience with British snipers, but to experience thousands of shooters who could hit at those distances was distressing to say the very least. They assumed that the Americans had created a special sniper regiment. When captured survivors learned that such accuracy was the norm in the Marine Corps (and the regular Army units of the day), they were stunned!

I qualified as a Sharpshooter and started a string of possibles (50 for 50 at the 500 yard line) that I maintained throughout my career. While the ability to hit at any range is important, I have always thought that the ability to “reach out and touch someone” from a third of a mile or more away is a skill that anyone who does not want to be a victim ought to have.

This was also the last time I ever qualified as a Sharpshooter. The crossed rifles of the Expert badge look so much better!

The .45 caliber pistol was another story. I cannot recall the details of the course other than that there were two strings of fire at 15 and 25 yards, one slow fire and one rapid fire at each.

My problem was that the pistols we were using were so old that it was hard to tell if inaccuracy was due to the pistol or the nut behind the pistol. I finally qualified as a Marksman when the Chief Range Officer, a Warrant Officer Gunner (and Distinguished Rifle and Distinguished Pistol shooter) discovered that the rear sight on my pistol was loose. He made that discovery on Qual Day and fixed it by banging away on the rear sight with a brass hammer until he could drill the bull with the pistol. My shooting that day increased by 109 points.

When I returned from Vietnam, I purchased my own M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol and took it to a friend who was an armorer at the Base pistol range at Camp Lejeune. He made sure that it was good and tight and that it met the standards of the Marine Corps. Thereafter, I consistently qualified as an Expert.

I still have a .45. The 9 mm pistols do not have the punch or knockdown power of the lovely, but hard to handle, Colt. What is interesting is that the Marine Corps is re-issuing the .45 to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for that very reason.

Having gotten the introductory and administrative work out of the way, in week 9, we really got busy for the last 8 weeks. We were in the field constantly, five and a half to six days a week, practicing squad, platoon, and company tactics, patrolling, ambushes and counter-ambushes, calling for and adjusting supporting arms, and spending time on the grenade, machine gun and mortar ranges. We also ran a number of cordon and search exercises in the mock-up of a Vietnamese village.

We paid particular attention to scouting and patrolling, recognizing that that was an integral part of the life of a rifle platoon in Vietnam.

One morning, we had a Law of War class taught by our Military Law Instructor. He was a judge advocate (military lawyer), who also happened to be a recipient of the Navy Cross, the second highest decoration for heroism in the Naval Service. We knew that in his first six months in country he was a rifle platoon commander, before becoming a prosecutor in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate of the 3d Marine Division.

The tenor of the instruction can best be summed up as follows: “If it don’t need killing, don’t kill it!” That is still a pretty succinct statement of the international Law of War.

That night, he happened to be our Assistant Instructor in an ambush problem. We set in the ambush and shortly thereafter, five Marines from Schools Demonstration Troops (who played the role of the enemy) entered the killing zone and we triggered the ambush.

After all of the enemy were seen to be “down,” the patrol leader for that problem sent out the search teams, per SOP. The patrol leader happened to be an attorney in civilian life.

The search team quickly reported, “Four pine boxes and one WIA. [Pause for effect] [Bang] Make that five pine boxes!”

I was radio operator for the problem. My classmate turned to me and said, “That’s a war crime!”

Our instructor—the guy who taught law of war that morning—put his hand on the arm of his colleague at the bar and whispered, “This morning, we were in a classroom back in the world [slang for the USA]. Tonight we are in an ambush in Indian Country. It’s all a matter of perspective, Lieutenant! See the difference?”

Yup! Lesson learned.

In all, in 17 weeks, we had about 1400 hours of instruction, not counting the physical training and administrative time (inspections, counseling, etc.). That is close to the classroom hours one spends in 4 years as an undergraduate.

And we made friendships that last for a lifetime.

My best friend was Lt Patrick P. Oates, a former enlisted Marine who was an old man of 28. My dear Patrick gave us all the benefit of the views of the enlisted Marine. As a former Sergeant, he had the leadership down cold. His roommate, Lieutenant Oliver Lawrence North, Jr. (yes, that North) was a Naval Academy graduate (Class of 1968) and a natural leader. They became two of my best friends.

Pat was Larry’s (for as Betsy North says, we were part of the “Larry” days, before Oliver North, Senior passed away) best man and I was one of the groomsmen at North’s wedding.

Pat and I sat side-by-side from St. Louis to Danang. Our families were very close, and we served together time and again until I retired in 1988.

Pat had served at Marine Barracks, Washington, DC, the "graduate school" of drill. He and I used to argue about drill issues. In 1977, when our Reserve battalion was at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, we staged a “Combat Review” for the Adjutant General of Mississippi. I was the parade Adjutant and Pat took command of Company H when its Reserve Company Commander went on emergency leave.

At one practice session, we were arguing over some arcane drill question. I said, “Well, let’s see what the Landing Party Manual says.”

Pat looked at me and said, “You brought the LPM with you?”

As luck would have it, it turned out that I was right. He laughed and said, “Well, if you die first, I’ll really have to study, because I don’t want you sitting up in the casket saying, ‘Damn it, Oates, you’re doing it wrong.’”

Years later, when he was Commanding Officer, Headquarters Battalion, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic/Headquarters Commandant, II Marine Amphibious Force, he would often be at Camp Lejeune for field exercises of II MAF. As CO, Headquarters Battalion (which was up in Norfolk), he also made it a part of his mission to visit officers and their family members if they were transferred from Naval Hospital, Camp Lejeune to Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, VA.

One afternoon, I heard my secretary say, “Why, Colonel Oates, it is soooo nice to see you.”

He strolled into my office and sat down with a sigh. He said that he had just learned that the wife of an officer from Second Marine Division whom he had visited in hospital had gone home to be with the Lord.

He was in the field in Camp Lejeune, but the viewing was going to be held that night in Jacksonville, the city just outside the gate. Then we got to the nub of his problem.

“Michael, my boy, you can color me an idiot. After all these years, you would think I would know how to pack. Well, I don’t. I’ve got a civilian shirt, tie, and a pair of khaki slacks, but I don’t have a blazer. Do you have one I can borrow?”

I was stunned into silence, and then I started to laugh so hard I almost fell out of my chair. I finally caught my breath.

“Oates,” I said. “I don’t know what hits me harder—that you actually have a shirt, tie and trousers with you in the field, or that you are beating yourself up because you didn’t take a blazer to the field!”

We ran out to my quarters and fixed him up in fine form.

Pat died, on his 52d birthday in June 1992, after completing his daily three mile run. His battalion commander called me to inform me, and I got to Norfolk the next morning. His wife, Rita, said, “I want to read something to you.” It was from Pat’s “To be opened…” letter that we all have.

“Well, old girl,” it started. “You got the bad news. Take 5 minutes to cry and then call Mike McCarty. He’ll take care of everything.” I consider that to be one of the greatest honors of my life, along with the honor of walking his middle daughter, Stephanie, down the aisle at her wedding.

We drove a poor young Captain at Headquarters, Marine Corps crazy that weekend, trying to track down Larry North. He was retired by then and in business. At the viewing in DC on Monday night, as we approached 2100, Rita resigned herself to not seeing the Norths.

As I stepped out of the viewing room to round people up for evening prayers, there was Betsy, whom I had not seen in 10 years.

“Hi, Mac.”

“Where is he, Bets?”

She just pointed, and there he was, signing in. He had been informed that morning in San Diego. He caught the first available flight to DC to come to the viewing, and then flew back to San Diego at midnight for a Tuesday breakfast meeting. Before he left, after all were gone and all but the night lights were turned off, he took me by the arm.

“C’mon. Let’s say ‘Good night’ to Pat, just one last time .”

And we did—it was just just the three of us. I hope that when it is my turn to “cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees,” when memory begins to dim, that that memory of that night will stay with me to the end.

Pat and Rita are waiting for us now, in a corner of Arlington National Cemetery, where Pat can keep an eye on the comings and goings at Disneyland East, aka, the Pentagon!

He has been gone for 16 years, and I sometimes still reach for the phone to call him when I see something that I know we would laugh over. I cannot wait until we are together again, with shipmates and our Marines at Marine Barracks, Heaven.

I have it on good authority that Heaven’s streets are guarded by United States Marines, much to the chagrin of the Army and the Navy, whose presence there is doubtful (except for our Corpsman, Surgeons and Chaplains who are really Marines, anyway—led by Father Capadano who was awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for gallantry while serving with 3/5. Last I heard, he is only a miracle or two away from sainthood in the Church. How many armed forces in the world can have a patron saint who was really one of us?)

Oliver L. North is a complex man. As do we all, he has flaws. Most of us have many more. But in all that counts, in matters of duty and honor and loyalty and friendship, there is none better. I am proud to call him my friend.

That friends, is the essence of being a shipmate. And that is the real value of TBS. We learned that there are men who would be our life-long friends and who would rather die than let us down. And we assumed that same privilege and obligation, willingly, just because that is what Marines do.

On November 13, 1968, we graduated from TBS. I was ordered to report to Commanding General, First Marine Division then located at Hill 327 in Danang for duty as an infantry officer, MOS 0302.

After North’s wedding the next afternoon, I headed home for 30 days leave. Six officers gave up their leave and left almost immediately, including Larry North and Jim Burke.

For another 138 infantry officers in our class, we had a report date to Travis AFB, California of 18 December, 1968, forty years ago this coming Thursday.

We were getting close.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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