14 December 2008


The Basic School is a unique institution in the US military. Only the Marine Corps has a Basic School.

OCS is a screening program, designed to weed out those who are unqualified to lead Marines in battle, due either to a lack of physical or mental stamina or a lack of motivation.

Once a candidate is commissioned, whether from the 10 week OCS program or the 12 week PLC program, he or she is ordered to The Basic School (TBS) for a lengthy course of instruction designed to qualify the officer to lead Marines and to qualify him to serve as a rifle platoon commander no matter what his military occupational specialty. “Every Marine a rifleman” is not a hollow slogan in the Corps.

When my son, Molson, graduated from Air Force flight school, his class had a formal dinner. As I was talking to one of his instructors, another LtCol, he said, “We need that. If I ask you, ‘What are you?’ you’ll say ‘I’m a Marine.’ I’ll then ask ‘And what do you do in the Marine Corps?’ to which you’ll reply, ‘I’m an infantry officer.’”

“Now, if you ask one of these lieutenants ‘What are you?’ he will probably say, ‘I’m a pilot.’ If you ask ‘And who do you fly for?’ he’ll say ‘The Air Force.’ There is a critical difference in the mind sets evidenced by those answers.”

He is right. Marines are Marines first and always. TBS teaches lieutenants to be officers of Marines.

The peacetime course in the early 1960’s was about 26 weeks long. When the war broke out it was shortened to about 21 weeks. For my class, it was just over 17 weeks.

We were a 400 man class (BC 12-68) organized into two 200 man companies, N or November and O or Oscar.

I reported to TBS on Thursday, June 13, five days out of college. On Friday morning, we met our company commander, Major John Flynn.

“Welcome, gentlemen,” he started. “We are glad to see you. You are the first class we could organize to replace the Hue City dead. Look to your left. Now look to your right. Two of the three of you will not complete a tour in Vietnam.”

He was right, at least as far as the infantry officers were concerned.

Hue City was the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. The NVA occupied the ancient Citadel in the center of the city at the start of the Tet Offensive and held it for a couple of weeks, inflicting severe casualties on the 1st Marine Division before it was recaptured.

TBS was another blur. There was a real sense of urgency.

We started with three weeks of land navigation (map and compass), because you cannot train effectively unless you can read a map and locate yourself in the field.

The first 8 weeks or so were heavily academic: Personnel Administration, First Aid, Military Law, Operation and Functioning of the M-14 and M-16 rifles, the M-1911A1 .45cal. pistol, the M-79 40 mm grenade launcher, the M-60 7.62 mm and M-2 .50 cal. machine guns, the 60mm and 81 mm mortars, the flame thrower, the hand grenade, the Claymore anti-personnel mine and other tools of our chosen trade.

We learned about the AN-PRC 25 FM radio, wire communications, and how to use them to call for and adjust mortar and artillery fire and close air support. We spent more time on the bayonet and hand-to-hand combat training fields and we were all swim qualified.

We learned to plant mines, to clear mine fields, and to spot all sorts of booby traps. Little did we know…

We also held week-long leadership billets on which we were graded, stood countless inspections of our newly purchased uniforms (about $1,200 per officer, out of our own pockets) and our swords (another $400). We attended leadership panel and small group discussions, and met frequently with our staff platoon commander for critique and counseling.

It was on our first payday that a burning question was answered.

All through PLC, we had been told that we were lucky, because we had longevity. When we got paid the first time, I realized that I was getting $90.00 a month more than a classmate who had just graduated from The Great Severn River Small Boat and Barge Institute, also known as the United States Naval Academy. Nope, no longevity for them. Longevity is $90.00 per month.

We ran and ran and ran. We completed the timed and graded Physical Fitness Test (pushups, pull-ups, situps, squat thrusts, and a 600 yard shuttle run—in PT gear), the Physical Readiness Test (knotted rope climb, 18-inch step-ups, 25 meter casualty evacuation, 175 meter low crawl and advance by fire and maneuver, and three mile run, all in combat uniform, steel helmet, light marching pack, cartridge belt with two canteens, first aid kit, two magazines, bayonet, and M-14 rifle), timed hikes and timed runnings of the obstacle course and the confidence course. We rappelled from 60 foot towers, 90 foot cliffs, and from helicopters at 120 feet.

We quickly learned that we were in a new world.

In the regular training environment, such as that at Quantico, there was always a concern for safety. There were a series of flags that denoted the current “heat condition,” i.e., the heat/humidity index. A yellow flag required that unacclimatized troops knock off all strenuous work . A red flag required that all unacclimatized troops move in doors and commence training that was not physical in nature and that other troops knock off heavy exercise. A black flag required that all troops be moved indoors.

On the morning of our Physical Readiness Test, we were on the exercise field at 0500 and started the test as soon as we could see. At 0605, as we formed up and moved up to the road for the three mile run, some wag noticed that the black flag was already flying. (It was already 92 degrees with 96% humidity.)

Major Flynn heard him. “Gentlemen, they don’t fly those flags in country. It’s a mile and a half out and a mile and a half back. Good luck.”

I was running with Pat Oates, Larry North, Blackie Mohr, Tom Mahlum and a couple of others. It was well and truly miserable. At about two-miles, one of the other guys (I know who it was, but it is nobody else’s business—could have happened to any of us) started to suffer from heat stress. Still on the run, North and Oates began to remove his gear and pass it to the rest of us, while keeping our brother vertical. At two and a half miles, he fell for the first time. At two and three-quarters miles, he had stopped sweating and was brick red.

A Corpsman tried to pull him off the course, to no avail, so Doc ran with us and (contrary to regulations) carried some of our shipmate’s gear. That’s what makes our Docs the best in the world. (If I was on a major city street today and someone was seriously injured, I would start yelling “Corpsman up! Corpsman! Corpsman!” even as I moved to help. I will guaran-damn-tee it that if there is a former Corpsman in earshot, he’ll come dashing up, yelling, “Whatta we got, sir?)

We were all hurting—sopping wet,gasping, hardly able to talk to our shipmate to let him know the end was in sight. By now, all of our canteens were empty, having been poured on the heat casualty.

As we neared the finish line, our Staff Platoon Commander was running with us, shouting “Well done! Well done! But remember he and his rifle have to step over the finish line on his own!”

“Step” is a pretty broad term. We got him to the line, Oates holding one arm and North the other. I was steadying his rifle as it was slung over his shoulder. Tom Mahlum was holding his helmet. We all then let go, as he fell across the line into the waiting arms of two more Corpsmen.

As we policed up his weapon and gear, the Corpsmen immersed him in a kids’ swimming pool full to the brim with ice water.

We all finished the run in just under 24 minutes. He was back in the saddle by that afternoon, although he was on light duty until the next morning.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

No comments: