11 December 2008

AN UPSHUR SUMMER

That PLC, Jr. summer (1966) occurred at one of those branches in history that each generation faces. The first veterans of combat in Vietnam were rotating home, but the Corps was still gearing up for the long haul. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Secretary of Defense, the aptly-named Robert Strange McNamara, had privately concluded that the war was unwinnable. He did not reveal that little tidbit of information until he wrote a book about his experience as SecDef in the 1990's.

About ten years ago, one of my Basic School classmates circulated a letter to the surviving members of our class, begging our forgiveness because “Last week, I was on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. I looked down the rail and there was Robert Strange McNamara, not ten feet away. And I did not throw that son-of-a-bitch overboard! Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

For those of us who lost Marines and classmates in 1968 and 1969, Marines who might not have died if RSMc had done the honorable thing, our fervent hope is that LBJ is saving McNamara a seat very close to the fire.

But I digress. At Camp Upshur in that summer of 1966, we were introduced to the Marine Corps in the same manner as had our fathers and brothers since at least 1917.

The summer was heavily laced with drill, physical training, and classes on basic military subjects. The leadership package was a real eye-opener to many of us, although those of us who had been patrol leaders and senior patrol leaders in Boy Scouts had some basic understanding of authority and responsibility. We were graded on everything from first aid, to Marine Corps history, to our ability to command a platoon on the drill field.

Our platoon commander was 1stLt John Rowe, who had just returned from Vietnam. One moment in the summer stands out for me. We were formed up outside the Company Headquarters. The Company Executive Officer (XO—second-in-command), another 1st Lieutenant, stuck his head out of the hatch and said “Hey, John. The Skipper needs to see you. He’s up at the Battalion CP (command post, i.e., headquarters) with the Old Man.”

Standing in the second rank, I remember thinking, “Oh, if only some day I am senior enough to call The Platoon Commander by his first name, to refer to The Company Commander as ‘Skipper,’ and that holy of holies, The Battalion Commander, as ‘The Old man,’ I will have arrived!”

There was one unique aspect of Marine Corps Officer Candidates School: the ability to DOR or “drop on request.” At any time, day or night, a candidate could speak to his platoon sergeant or the Duty NCO and, essentially, resign. The theory, a valid one in my estimation, is that if a man cannot handle the minimal stress of OCS and takes the step to formally “quit,” it is in the best interests of the Corps and those fine young Marines who could later be in his charge to get rid of the quitter right away. Such a request was acted upon nearly instantaneously and the request could not be withdrawn.

One afternoon, our last class of the day was bayonet drill. We were on the physical training field, rifles with fixed bayonets in place. Spread far enough apart that we could not accidently hurt the candidates around us, we were practicing the five basic offensive bayonet moves: slash, smash, vertical butt stroke, horizontal butt stroke, and jab.

The candidate next to me, a kid from New York City, was just going through the motions. It was late in a long day and I figured that he was tired.

The Platoon Sergeant spotted him and moved to position himself to the side of this character.

“Damn, candidate,” he growled. “This isn’t a dance in the high school gym. Thrust that bayonet like you mean it.”

“Oh, c’mon, Platoon sergeant,” my erstwhile classmate replied. “I could never stick that blade into another human being.”

My blood turned cold, and all of the other candidates adjacent to this clown froze, hoping that when the Platoon Sergeant exploded, he wouldn’t take us out, too.

Instead, he gently asked, “Do you really mean that, Son?”

“Yes, Platoon Sergeant, I guess I do.”

“All right, Candidate. You come with me.”

They walked off towards the barracks together.

We finished the drill about 20 minutes later and marched back to the squad bay to secure our rifles and get ready for evening chow. When we got there, our former companion’s locker was empty, his rack was stripped and the mattress rolled, and there was no evidence that he had ever existed.

I cannot think of a better demonstration for a group of potential officers that there is no room for a quitter on the battlefield, to see a serious lapse in character treated with compassion, but to also see that such a cancer must be quickly excised from the body.

The DOR’s name was never again spoken.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

That would make a good sermon illustration on the topic of church discipline! Decisive compassion, excising a cancer...I've really enjoyed your posts, even if it is about the USMC. (I'm an Army man! hehehe)