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Duty Stations, Part I.
While I was in the Marine Corps, the first time, I didn’t really change duty stations very often. This was 1968 to 1971. I think we were paid $79/month when I first enlisted and that didn’t leave a lot of options for living off post or even owning a car, so I spent my first two years living in the barracks wherever I was stationed. The first year and a half was mainly at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at San Diego, with a side trip to the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Pendleton, actually at Camp San Onofre. I lived in ‘Quonset Huts’ during this whole period. At Camp San Onofre, we had stoves in the Quonset Huts, but, just like San Diego, they were difficult to clean well enough for an inspection, so they were never lit. Believe me, it does get cold in California in November/December. I spent several nights sleeping under my issue overcoat because we were only issued one blanket there.
A lot of people have been through experiences like my first night as a Marine recruit so I won’t go into that.
After training, and a year of school, I was assigned to MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, South Carolina. At that time I had only been living in the US for 5 years and really hadn’t traveled much. South Carolina was a revelation. I have to admit that I don’t remember anything about the process I went through before I was assigned to my unit, which I believe was a MACS or Marine Air Control Squadron. MACS’s were used to provide direction for close air support that the Marine Corps provided for ground troops with their own organic air assets. I was one of five Marines from my class assigned to the unit. I guess I didn’t do well in the initial interviews because I was one of two that were FAPed out the next day. FAP is the Fleet Augmentation Program which is basically used to hide the fact that the Marine Corps has difficulty convincing Congress that it has a short logistics tail.
The Marine Corps has to maintain some ‘static’ establishments in the US that provide support for combat units, while they are ‘in-country’, but maintain or operate equipment that is not mobile. These people are often referred to as Station or Post personnel. They have clearly defined jobs and responsibilities, but the equipment that they use or maintain cannot be transported to combat areas because it just isn’t designed for that. Large fixed RADAR installations, for instance.
Anyway, I spent about a year living in the barracks at MCAS Beaufort. It was an interesting way to meet people and have new experiences, for sure. I’ve mentioned several people that lived there in my ‘Strange People’ articles. We occupied four man cubicles in a three story barracks that didn’t have air-conditioning. Now that I am not in the service, I think that air-conditioned barracks are a bad idea. It is kind of like letting an infantryman ride in an armored personnel carrier . . . I did that too, and I didn’t want to get out either.
During this time, though, I was also sent off to schools, twice. The first course was a real revelation because it was at NAS (Naval Air Station) LeMoore, California. (Another trip to California. Keep in mind that Marines have a job related tendency to hang out on the coasts of countries that they are assigned to.) Since NAS LeMoore was a Naval installation, the differences between the barracks life I was used to, and this place, were extreme. Since I was a Marine, I was given a cubicle to myself, in the same type of barracks I had been living in at MCAS Beaufort, but it had a curtain over the cubicle opening, only two beds, but four wall lockers. After my first day at school I received a note that said that, although this was an enlisted barracks, I was not required to make my bed before I left. The barracks staff was supposed to do that. After several notes, I finally left my bed undone one day, and it was all fixed up when I got back, but not to my standards, so I ignored the notes after that.
I was there by myself, without transportation, so I can’t imagine that I ever went out into town to eat. I didn’t starve to death, so the Navy Mess Hall must have been nourishing but un-memorable. I also don’t remember suffering much from the ‘new guy’ syndrome there except when we all introduced each other at the first class. This was a class on repairing cryptography gear and was given inside a vault, inside a building. I was sitting in the last row in the classroom. Each of the other students, some Marines, would stand up and say that they had been to ‘A’ school at some place, and ‘B’ school somewhere else. (Mostly Memphis, Tennessee) When it was my turn, I had to say that I didn’t know what an ‘A’ school was, or a ‘B’ school, but I had been through the Comm-Elect Schools Battalion Air Radio Repair Course at MCRD San Diego. I got a lot of funny looks and the instructor pulled me out until my credentials had been thoroughly checked, but they eventually let me back in an I remember it as a very interesting course, although it was all card-swapping. Years later I found out that the piece of gear I was being trained on was compromised by the famous Walker family at about the same time.
My second trip to school was to a place I would become familiar with many years later. I was sent to AN/ARC-51 school at MCAS New River, North Carolina. New River is the local helicopter base for Camp LeJeune where most of the really nasty amphibious creatures hang out. Oddly enough, one of my classmates had been with me at Air Radio Repair Course in San Diego, but he made the cut and had stayed with the MACS. I hadn’t seen him for a while and was amazed at the change in his views about the Vietnam War. He had gone from hawk to dove. I had started off as a hawk, and was still pushing it. More fool me. Oddly enough, I now live in the city he was from, but have never made any effort to see if he lives here.
We had a great time there and it was a short course and a short ride home. (My experiences coming home to Beaufort from NAS LeMoore are covered elsewhere.) I think that the course was one week long, but it was pretty tough because the ARC-51 was the transistorized version of the ARC-27, and transistors were fairly new to the Marine Corps at the time. I remember that on Thursday night, before the final exam, my friend and I went out and bought a ridiculous quantity of beer and cheap wine and went to the local drive-in to consume it. Have you ever heard of the movie ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’? It is a cult classic, probably to this day, and spawned a whole genre of gross movies, but I had certainly never seen anything like it before.
The next morning, I woke up in the barracks with no idea how I had got there and was immediately irritated by one of MCAS New River’s oddities that may still be in place, and may have a very good reason. There were no overhead lights. Each cube had at least one desk lamp, but it is hard to clean a cube to inspection quality without a lot of light. Friday’s are, naturally, both exam days and inspection days. Even though we would be gone before the inspection results came in, we were Marines, and didn’t want to cause our brother Marines any discomfort from bad inspection results.
My BAC was still probably around 4.0, and we dealt with the problem, but we still had to take the test, which lasted at least four hours. I remember that my friend turned the oddest shade of green after about two hours and then spent at least half an hour in the bathroom. We were only allowed to go one at a time in order to keep from compromising the test, but that wasn’t a problem for me. Apparently I had completely emptied myself of all evil influences, and most of my bodily fluids, the night before. I only needed to go as far as the drinking fountain to renew my headache. Finally, it was over, and I got another lovely helicopter ride back to Beaufort, South Carolina. I enjoyed it so much that I asked the crew chief to ask the pilot if it was possible for them to let me off about half way down the runway, where the ‘Transmitter Site’ was located, and my car (1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Yes, white over aqua.) was parked.
A few years later, in 1974, I joined the Army. My first change of duty station was when I reported for duty. The process reminded me a little of when I had joined the Marine Corps before, but that is not what this is about. Those of us going in spent a night in a relatively inexpensive motel in Kansas City, Missouri, took the mental and physical test the next day, and I was transported to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri that night to start ‘Minuteman’ training. Minuteman training was strictly for prior service people who were assumed to know the rudiments of military life, discipline, drill, etc.
We arrived at Fort Leonard Wood at about 0200, or 2:00 AM if you prefer, and were supposed to receive our first Army meal immediately. We actually did, but no one had told the cooks that anyone would be there, so we got pieces of warm potatoes and some warm sausage. (Yes, I know that things are worse in a LOT of other places. I didn’t complain then either, although it did make an impression. My wife makes some wonderful sausage and potato dishes now.)
It was early November, and cold outside, although there was no snow yet. We were put initially out into WWII temporary barracks until our processing could be completed. I met Al Fella there, who I have mentioned elsewhere. Soon afterwards, we were moved into eight man rooms in a two or three story brick barracks. The rooms were separated into four-man areas by a partition that was about waist high. Al wound up with one of the two bunks nearest the window and did his famous routine of putting his girlfriend’s panties on as a cap to keep his shaven head from getting cold. In the morning, Al was the first one up because the cadre sergeant had banged on the door and the trash cans to get us awake. Al threw a boot (issued to us when we were in the WWII barracks) at him. The cadre left and none of them ever came back.
Our ‘Trainee’ Platoon Sergeant had been an E-7 Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps, and had served at least one tour as a Drill Instructor. We always looked good when we were in formation even though we came from all services including the Coast Guard. We spent our time getting used to wearing uniforms again, going to the rifle range (covered elsewhere) and in the lemming like pursuit of uniform items that had not been available when we had gone through our initial issue, while we were still in the WWII barracks.
This pursuit was an amazing process. On days when we didn’t have any training scheduled and the cadre didn’t want us around, they would form us up in groups of three, point successive groups at successive cardinal points of the compass, and tell us to try to find the clothing issue point to make up shortages. Wherever we went on that base we would see groups of three people, some of whom we recognized, usually pointing in three different directions. Since some cheerful civilian had decided that I should wear size 11 ½ boots instead of the size 9s that I wore at that time, I had an especial interest in finding the clothing issue point and was lucky enough to be able to volunteer to work there one day. I saw some amazing things there. The only one I will mention is a pair of size 15 dress shoes (male) with a pair of size 4 dress shoes (male) inside them. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out of there with any size 9 boots, which became a problem later.
My next duty station was Fort Knox, Kentucky, which my wife and I recently spent a few lovely days visiting. Once again, I don’t remember the in-processing very well, if at all. Suddenly I was just there, being trained as an M60 tank crewman. There were several other re-treads in the unit that I knew from Minuteman. Because of this, and the rank that they had received for coming back in from the cold, two of my contemporaries were assigned to be the trainee platoon sergeant and the trainee platoon guide. In the Army, at that time, the two jobs were considerably more responsible than they might sound. I was just a slug at the time, I think.
I will never forget the trainee platoon sergeant or guide. Kind of like Mutt and Jeff , the platoon sergeant was Sergeant Melvin B. McWhorter, a small afro-american from one of the large cities in the US. He had been a US Army Special Forces ‘B’ team commander in Vietnam. The platoon guide, whose name I can’t remember, was a very large afro-american who had also been in Special Forces ‘in the Nam’.
One day they just disappeared, apparently to some other line of duty. I will never forget Sgt. McWhorter’s favorite exhortation, though, and I use it myself as often as possible. He would tell us our mission and then say, “Let’s get it did!” That may not be elegant, but it leaves no question in anyone’s mind what the priorities are.
Finally, I appeared at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1975, Once again I don’t remember in-processing, but I was assigned to ‘B’ Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry. Initially we lived in a nice barracks near the end of the main drag farthest from the main gate. I ended up in a room with at least one other person and four built-in wall lockers, but the other person had three of them full and had a hard time clearing the fourth one for me.
The ‘harassment’ started immediately. My platoon commander was a VMI graduate and didn’t think very highly of Marines, even ex-Marines. He soon realized that I had potential and made sure that I was promoted often and we became as friendly as the difference in rank allowed.
We moved into one of the first set of so-called ‘super-hooches’ along the main drag after a while, and had some interesting times there. I made several excursions from the unit in the next 18 months.
The first was to North Fort Hood, a different world, for Primary NCO training. I was really upset to be going because it was November again, and even Texas can be cold in the winter. At the time I was an Acting Sergeant, had a car and a girlfriend, and didn’t feel like essentially ‘going to the bush’ for more than a month as an infantryman. Yes, I was spoiled. In preparation for the trip, we were told that there was a Post Exchange at North Fort that would be open at least a few hours during each week, so we didn’t need to take anything special. Well, I smoke cigarettes, and I don’t like to run out, so I took 10 cartons with me. Sure enough, not only did we not get transportation back to the main post on weekends, as promised, the PX doesn’t open during the winter. At the first wall locker inspection the inspecting officer asked me why I had 9 ½ cartons of cigarettes in my wall locker, and I told him it was because I don’t trust anyone unless I’ve known them for a while, that includes recommended ‘bring-alongs’ for a school. He said, “I think you will do well here.” And I did.
The second trip was to Fort Hunter Liggett, California as an Experimentation Soldier. What an experience that was. I flew out to California and had my first experience of being spit on by civilians and especially Hare Krishnas. I was still a Sergeant, although that would change before I got back to Fort Hood, and was accompanied by a Staff Sergeant whose last name happened to be ‘Rape’. Needless to say, he didn’t wear a name tag.
Fort Hunter Ligget was a paradise. We had to process through Fort Ord, and that was very much like any other Army base, (Lots of white-washed rocks) but I was only there for a few hours before I was on the bus to Fort Hunter Liggett. As it turned out, the orders should have been changed so that I would get there 45 days later, but this was after BNCOC and I really didn’t want to help rebuild that poor dead M60A1 that was the result of my group’s belief that tanks can still cross razor wire.
The bus dropped me off at headquarters and I was informed that I could eat anywhere I wanted to, including the Officer’s club and the Staff NCO club, but I would be living in another WWII era accommodation. Imagine a building with walls made of half screen and half wood in the mountains of California, during autumn. Then imagine that the kerosene tank that was supposed to fuel the heater had a huge leak so that the downhill corner of the hootch was always at least three inches deep in fuel. Would you light that stove? We tried to get the base services people to stop filling the fuel tank, but they ignored us.
I had a great time there and basically took 45 days off from the Army, with pay, to enjoy the wonders of the California area near Monterey. Highway 1 was wonderful. The local park was wonderful. Monterey had better seafood, in my opinion, than Marseilles, France and I doubt that the sea otters from Monterey Bay ( they were not on the menu) could survive near Marseilles. The sea otters swim to the bottom and pick up a shellfish, and a stone to crack it against. I saw one that came up with a clam and a Coke bottle. They scull around on their backs while they bang the shellfish on the stone. This one banged the clam on the Coke bottle for quite a while before it went back down and got a real stone. What does that say about America? I don’t know.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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