10 December 2008


In any man’s life there are other men who stand out as role models and, often, heroes. My Dad is one of my heroes, even 45 years after his death. So is my Grand-dad. Not a unique situation for men of my generation.

A third is Staff Sergeant Samuel Winston, USMC. Of course, we never used either his first or last names—he was “The Platoon Sergeant” and that was enough.

At 0530, we were rousted out of our racks, given 30 seconds to perform the three S’s (use the sanitary facility, shower and shave), dress our miserable bodies in our scummy civilian clothes and fall out into the “battalion street” to be marched to breakfast.

By 0620, we had learned that before every meal we were to give thanks (“Every day’s a holiday, every meal’s a banquet! Marine Corps!”), eaten (my first experience with stewed tomatoes, a little fat back, and okra as a breakfast dish—-I still love it when I can get it, especially with grits on the side), and marched (“gaggled”) back to the squad bay to collect our linen and turn it back in, field day (sweep and swab) the squad bay and head, and fall in for a bus ride to our new home away from home, Camp Upshur.

For anyone who has ever contemplated “the end of the earth,” cf, Acts 1:8, I can tell you that Camp Upshur is about two miles further down the road, next to the gates of Hell. It was a WWII-era camp located near the western boundary of MCB, Quantico, composed of tin Quonset hut barracks and steel “Butler” buildings used for offices, classrooms, supply warehouses, the armory, and the mess hall. There was an asphalt "parade deck," aka, "grinder", an obstacle course and a sand pit for some real fun.

Each platoon of 50 candidates was housed in its own Quonset hut squad bay. The four platoons in a company shared a "head" (bathroom) in a fifth, central Quonset Hut--15 commodes (no stalls or privacy barriers), a long, trough urinal, 15 sinks, and a large shower room with 11 shower heads ringing the bulkhead. Perfect for "Navy" showers!

There was also a wash rack located on the exterior of one end of the hut, and four coin-operated washers and dryers in a small room at the other end of the the hut.

We arrived at Camp Upshur at about 0700. We were herded into a large classroom for in-processing which entailed filling out numerous forms so that we could be paid, issued ID cards, issued individual copies of the “Candidate Regs”, a small pocket sized volume that we were to study at any time that we were doing nothing else, marched to sickbay for shots and a rudimentary physical, and marched back to the admin classroom where we were broken down into platoons. I was assigned to “4th Platoon, Golf Company, Upshur Training Battalion.”

At about 1000, we were then ordered to fall out into the street. And we met him.

If I were to see Staff Sergeant Winston walking down the street today, 42 years later, I believe I would recognize him from six blocks away. He had bearing with a capital “B.” He stood about 6’ 4” tall , and probably weighed about 175. He marched in that distinctive way of the Marine Drill Instructor wherever he went. His eyes penetrated.

And he was a black Marine.

This was 1966. America was just entering the throes of the civil rights movement on a national scale. The March on Washington had occurred less than two years before. Many of us, myself included, had never met a “negro.” And here he was. I will never forget his self-introduction.

“You people are late.” (Due to the national airline strike, which, we now came to realize, was solely our fault.) “You are wasting your time, which is bad. You are wasting the Marine Corps’ time, which is worse. And you are wasting my time, which is unforgiveable! You have put me 24 hours behind schedule. We are going to catch up!”

He turned us over to our Sergeant-Instructor, Sergeant Hicks, a skinny little red head. And now things got hectic!

We double-timed to supply to draw uniforms, equipment, and our "bucket issue.". We double-timed back to our squad bay to stow all that gear and finally change into our new uniforms in the allotted “two minutes.” We actually got nearly 20, but it did seem like only two.

We drew linen and blankets and made up our racks—three or four times until we got it somewhere within a mile or two of right. Then it was double-time to the barber shop for a haircut, high and tight. Then to the armory to draw our rifles and equipment, and back to the squad bay to lock our rifles in our lockers.

And to hear for the first time, a Winston-ism: “And woe be unto the candidate what leaves his weapon unsecured!”

Then it was time for Noon chow. The thermometer was at about 95, we were operating on two hours sleep in the past 30 hours, starting to feel the effects of our shots, and it was only Noon!

The rest of the day is a blur, but by 2130, we had caught up. We were lined up, in the squad bay, and learning the lingo, as the tin crackled and popped from the heat.

Doors were hatches, windows were portholes. The ceiling was the overhead and the floor the deck. Walls were bulkheads, stairs were ladders, and field equipment was collectively “782 gear.” Fifty-five gallon garbage cans were “GI cans,” mops were swabs, and sailors (other than our beloved Corpsmen, who are always and forever “Doc”) were swabbies, squids, or ducks. The purpose of the pockets on our utility shirts and trousers (the green field uniform) must have been top secret, because we sure as sunrise were never to put anything in them. Every button must always be buttoned because, "Some poor old Lady worked hard to sew that on and here you are, sand for brains, ignoring her! Now [rip] sew it back on and keep it buttoned." "Irish pennants" (loose strings, from the British naval slang in the days of wooden ships and iron men for loose or dangling ropes or lines) could drive The Platoon Sergeant and The Sergeant-Instructor into fits of apoplexy!

We were introduced to "BRASSO" and told that were were to shine our brass at least daily, until it "Gleams like a diamond in a goat's ass." An enchanting word picture, eh?

And our rifles. We memorized "The Creed of the Marine Rifleman," written by MajGen William Rupertus during WWII:

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is MINE. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My rifle without me is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.

I must fire my rifle true.

I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will...

My rifle and myself know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our bursts, nor the smoke we make. We know it is the hits that count. We will hit...

My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its sights, and its barrel.

I will ever guard it against the ravages of weather and damage. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will...

Before God I swear this creed.

My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until there is no enemy, but PEACE.

Each rifle had a name; after 42 years, I still recall that mine was named “U.S. Rifle,caliber 7.62 mm, M-14, serial number 2399451.”

That night, a candidate dropped his rifle. The rifle must have been very sad, because it got a special privilege—-it slept in the candidate’s bunk while he slept on the deck. By morning, they were once again best friends.

And it was always "my rifle" or "my weapon" or "my piece," never a "gun." To help the miscreant who called a rifle a "gun," there was a little ditty. The entire presentation resembled a skit from summer camp. The poor soul held his 10 pound rifle in his right hand at the balance of the piece, arm fully extended straight above his head. In his left, he held an appropriate, centrally located piece of his anatomy. He then recited at the top of his lungs, "This my rifle. [Pumping rifle.] This is my gun. [Waving anatomy.] This is for killing. [Pump rifle.] This is for fun. [Back to anatomy.]"

The Marine Corps Manual must prescribe twenty repetitions of the ditty, because just one never seemed to satisfy The Platoon Sergeant and he had the Marine Corps Manual and the Landing Party Manual memorized cold!

The Platoon Sergeant, the Sergeant Instructor, and any other officer or enlisted Marines were always addressed in the third person. (If one slipped and addressed The Platoon Sergeant as “you,” the response was invariably, “You? Ewe? A ewe is a female sheep, sand for brains. Do you see any wool growing around my [a particular orifice common to the human body]?” The lesson was then reinforced in some manner well-calculated to foster memory. Remember how you learned that stoves are hot and not to be touched—evolutionary instinct is based on pain!)

Finally, at 2200, it was Taps and lights out, but not before our evening prayer. “God bless, The Platoon Sergeant, God bless The Sergeant-Instructor, God bless The Platoon Commander, and God bless the Marine Corps. And God bless Chesty Puller.”

We then sang, for the first time in my Marine Corps career, The Hymn.
After lights out, I heard the candidate in the rack below me and the one in the next top bunk talking. They were fraternity brothers, two of 25 members of the platoon from Auburn University in Alabama.

“I don’t care,” said one. “Ain’t no [unversal adjective] n----- gonna tell me what to do!”

I remember thinking, Oh, my. Yes he will and you will obey, ‘cause if you don’t, they are never gonna find your grave out here in the piney woods.

That conversation was a relic of times that were, gladly, changing.

And here is why Samuel Winston, Staff Sergeant (and later Gunnery Sergeant) of Marines, is one of my heroes. Six weeks later, when we graduated and were declared to be the battalion honor platoon, those southern gentlemen from Auburn were the first ones in line to shake his hand and, in their soft southern drawls, thank him.

An American hero, indeed.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.


Rev Kim said...

Mac, this is wonderful. You had me laughing out loud - in my office, all alone with tears rolling down my eyes at the "ditty." Love the image of the rifle sleeping in bed.

Seriously, this is great stuff and thank you for sharing it. I'm looking forward to each installment.

Any thoughts to publishing these?

Thanks also for your "all hat and no cattle" comment on my blog. Love it and I will use it!

Mac said...

Thanks, Kim. For right now, I just want to get these memories, some pleasant, some painful, down on paper.

My older boys have heard some of them, Horse Girl and Bionicle Boy, have not.

BTW, the next Candidate who dropped his rifle switched places with the rifle for awhile. The rifle got to sleep in the bunk, the Candidate was properly "secured" in a wall locker!

Those things do not happen in today's Corps, especially with the advent of the internet. Too many people would not be able to understand that boot camp and OCS are not a holiday. They are meant to prepare people for the most demanding experience one can have--the unforgiving experience of combat.

When the "Ribbon Creek" incident at Parris Island hit the front pages and Huntley-Brinkley before you were born, Life magazine went ballistic and published a pictorial esssay entitled "See Parris And Die."

As part of the "expose", it was revealed that from time to time, a DI might strike a recruit.

My Mom was aghast. She said to my Dad, "You never hit any of your men, did you?"

Dad looked her right in the eye and said, "Well, I sure never hit one that didn't need it!"