Sniper School

In the spring of 1967 my Commanding Officer, Capt. Flowers and I were summoned to the Chief of Staff at Headquarters.  Captain Flowers and I had competed in the Division matches at Camp Pendleton. We were tasked with preparing the rifle range for a small group of Marines to practice with new weapons and equipment. They would need a 1000 yard target.

The exact location for the target pit was located, and within a week the target carriage was in place. We tested it with my modified M-1 Garand. This was the same rifle I had used to win the 600 yard match. The 1000 yard range proved to be more difficult because of the wind conditions. A few knots of wind would blow the bullet off course. I knew how to read wind by using a spotting scope (heat waves rise, creating a mirage), but it is more pronounced at a longer distance. Finally I was able to get my sights calibrated and could consistently hit the bulls eye.

When our guests arrived they were introduced to their new weapon, the Winchester model 70. The rifles had been “match conditioned” and came with an 8X scope. The six Marines (all sergeants) were from Force Recon and all had served in Vietnam. An “RTE” (rifle team equipment) armorer from Quantico Virginia accompanied them. He would make any necessary adjustments to the rifles. This was an impressive bunch, and I felt as though I would not have much to offer in the training.

The first day was spent zeroing the sights at 200 yards. All had notebooks, and they recorded everything. There were only three weapons because Snipers operated in two-man teams, one being the shooter and the other being the spotter. Each team had an M-49 20X spotting scope with a tripod. The teams would take turns shooting and spotting. They were doing great until the afternoon session. The wind would always pick up in the afternoon, and the technique of reading the wind became a factor. It was obvious they lacked the knowledge of reading the wind with a spotter scope.

I made a suggestion to one of the spotters about how to adjust the spotting scope to read the wind, and he condescendingly dismissed me. The idea of some air wing corporal giving them advice was rejected. Force Recon Marines were arrogant (for good reason), and they did not want any assistance. Recon was the Marine Corps equivalent to Navy Seals or Army Green Berets. They were really good and knew it.

Captain Flowers told me, “go get your weapon,” and when I returned he ordered the snipers off the line to observe. I was given ten rounds, took a wind reading and set my sights. I fired five rounds (checking the wind between each shot); all were in the black. Then I noticed an up-tick in the wind and readjusted my sights. One of the snipers said, “Why is he changing the sights?” Captain Flowers bellowed, “QUIET!” I fired the final rounds, and all were in the black.

As I got up the questions flowed. I was now able to teach them how to read the heat mirage through the spotter scope. The key was de-focusing the spotting scope to the mid point down range. After learning to calibrate the spotting scopes they began hitting the target consistently. Meanwhile the RTE armorer wanted a training session on the spotting scope and reading wind. He scribbled notes to take back to Quantico.

By the end of the week they were all confident with their new weapons and skills. It was clear they were anxious for the next assignment . . . Vietnam.

Next edition: Farewell BBQ

Farewell BBQ


By summers end in 1967 we had trained three more groups of snipers.  I had been promoted to sergeant in April, and the extra stripe helped my credibility with the Force Recon Marines.  They were a salty bunch.

Our First Sergeant was retiring and three of our marksmanship coaches’ enlistments were up so we planned a party.  It was a Friday afternoon, and we arranged the party in the Pitts (impact area).  The menu included hamburgers, hot dogs, various pot luck dishes and of course beer.  Captain Flowers gave a good speech and praised us for all our hard work.  Then he announced his transfer to Quantico.  I was a little downcast.  He and his wife had attended our wedding, and we had formed a bond through all the matches and training.  I had gone from PFC to Sergeant under his command.  He had earned a Silver Star in Vietnam as a Platoon Leader, and I looked up to him and his leadership style.  I would miss him.

Sergeant Del Rio played a 12-string guitar and he started strumming and singing “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers.  We all sang the chorus, substituting “Captain” for Counting.  It was hilarious.

Captain Flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all

Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty one

Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo

Now don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do

Sudden realization . . . I had served 28 of my 40 months in the Marines on the El Toro rifle range.  With the First Sergeants retirement, I would have the longest tenure on the range.  I was promoted to “NCO in charge” of the pistol range.

Next edition:  A ghost from the past.


A Ghost From the Past

El Toro Pistol Range
MCAS El Toro Pistol Range

The pistol range was about a half mile from the range office.  Sometimes I would check-in and walk to work rather than drive my car on the gravel road.  One afternoon I was alone, and a military sedan drove up.  A Master Gunnery Sergeant got out of the car and and approached me.  I immediately recognized him . . . A ghost from the past.  Bradbury was my recruiter in San Jose.   He was wearing a distinguished marksman pistol badge (rare) and asked me for a tour of the facility.  I showed him around, hoping he wouldn’t remember me.

I had been disrespectful to him on my first visit to the recruiting office.  He asked me if I was interested in joining the Marines and I answered sarcastically, “Yeah I could use a vacation.”  In the process of getting my initial contact information, he commented that he was a PFC on Red Beach, Okinawa the day I was born.  I remember looking at the ribbons on his chest and shrugging.  The old guy never flinched; he was good at his job and played me well.  I was off to boot camp in just a few days.

Marine Corps history classes were held twice a week in boot camp.  Vintage black and white footage of various battles with narration were shown.  One day we were watching the Red Beach landing on Okinawa, and I became so flushed with embarrassment that I started sweating.  My drill instructor noticed and took me outside for fresh air.  He thought I was queasy about the dead Marines being washed up in the surf.  After confiding on how poorly I had treated my recruiter, he said I should go back and make it right.  I did go back, but Bradbury had been transferred.  I explained to the new recruiter what I had done and he laughed, “Happens all the time.”

Bradbury did remember me.  When the tour of the pistol range was over, he smiled and asked, “How has the vacation been?”  I was mortified and tried to explain . . . he just waved me off.  Then came the surprise, “I’m the new First Sergeant of the range detachment.  I want you to introduce me to everyone.”  We drove to the range office and started the introductions.  Lieutenant Tarry (our executive officer) managed to take his feet off the desk before I introduced Bradbury as our new First Sergeant.  I’d never seen the Lieutenant stand at attention.  It was refreshing.

Soon after, Bradbury initiated familiarization (FAM) firing on the pistol range.  Staff grade officers would fire different weapons, the new M-16, M-60 machine gun, etc.  It was an effective way for them to experience firing the weapons used by the troops they would later lead.  He personally oversaw the program and was backed by the Chief of Staff.  Bradbury entrusted me with the demonstration of each weapon.  It was no dog and pony show . . . live fire from different positions with pop-up targets.  After the demo, the officers would get their turn to fire.  Finally, PFC Acardo (range armorer) would end the session with a quick breakdown of the weapon, then he would clean it, put it back together and present it for inspection.  It was good stuff and gave us a feeling of accomplishment.

Next edition:  Charlie

M-60 machine gun
FAM firing the M-60 machine gun



Charlie Henkleman

Charlie was the best man in our wedding.  He and I first met in 1965.  We were stewards in the officers Mess, and we hit it off from the beginning.  Charlie was easy to be with and had a good sense of humor.  He was there the night in Laguna Beach when Jenny and I met.

Charlies career took a turn when he was interviewed and accepted as Major General Frank Tharin’s personal steward.  He worked in the Generals office along with the Chief of Staff, Adjutant, and the Aide-de-camp.  It was a big deal, and he was very humble about his work.

General Tharin was a war hero.  He earned a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals and a Purple Heart.  He had a big role in the sinking of a Japanese Cruiser and downed several fighter planes in the 17 day fight for Wake Island.  The tiny Atoll fell on December 23, 1941.  He was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Hokkaido, Japan, until the war ended four years later.  After the war he returned to active duty and graduated from the National War College.  He was always a pilot.

One night Charlie called to give me a heads up . . . General Tharin was coming to the range to FAM-fire the new M-16 the next day.  I had never met the General but knew of him through Charlie.

On Friday the staff officers arrived for the FAM-fire and listened to Bradbury describe the characteristics of the M-16 (muzzle velocity, effective firing range, rate of fire, etc.).  After my demo the officers took their places on the line, and I managed to be the Generals coach.  After firing a couple rounds he asked me if it would empty the full 20 round magazine on automatic.  I answered, “Yes Sir, but short bursts are more effective.”  He smiled, “Same as firing from a fighter plane.”  He emptied the magazine in three short bursts, and I offered him another.  He declined and looked at my name tag and said, You must be Charlie’s friend,” and I answered, “Yes Sir.”  He offered, “Charlie’s a good Marine.” and walked off the line.

Every World War II veteran I met was low key and humble.  The acronym PTSD hadn’t been coined, and now I wonder if they were silently feeling the effects of it.  I think the mentality at the time was to just suck it up.

Charlie got out of the Marines in 1968 and moved home to Idaho.  General Tharin retired in 1970 and lived in Laguna Beach until he passed away in 1990 at the age of 79.

Next editon:  A Thanksgiving to remember.

General Tharin
General Frank Tharin – FAM firing M-16

A Thanksgiving to Remember


Ed McCann – 1966

Everyone connected with food service in the Marines was working on Thanksgiving day.  It is the most important meal of the year, and every Mess Hall or Officers Mess would go all out to prepare the classic meal.

In 1965 I was off duty at the rifle range and free for four days of liberty.  All of the stewards were working except my friend Ed McCann.  He was a baker and had worked all night making dinner rolls and pumpkin pies.  Neither of us wanted to stay on base over Thanksgiving so we hitched a ride to Laguna Beach.

“Mac” (as we called him) was depressed because his girlfriend had dumped him.  They had been sweethearts in Jersey City and she found another boyfriend in his absence.  I witnessed him ripping the receiver out of the phone booth when he got the news.  It was really bad and ended with him getting very drunk and being restricted to the barracks for a week.

We arrived in Laguna in the afternoon on Thanksgiving, and the town was shut down.  Nothing was open, and there was little traffic.  We made it down to the boardwalk and sat around just watching the surf.  Mac was still depressed and finally he said, “I wonder if Goldies is open.”

Goldies was a lunch counter in the back of a drug store on Main Beach.  It was like a 10-seat Johnny Rockets with a black and white tiled floor.  It was open but empty, and Goldie was busy cooking for a crowd that would never show up.  She was old enough to be my mother and had frizzy golden hair and gold fillings in her teeth.  We didn’t have much money so we ordered coffee.  While we were sipping our coffees, Goldie was dishing up two big Thanksgiving platters.  She set us up and served the dinner.  We couldn’t pay, and she wouldn’t have accepted our money even if we could.  We thanked her and finished our plates, only to have the meal topped off with pumpkin pie.  It was a Thanksgiving to remember.

Mac announced that we would help her clean up and close the place.  She said, “No, no,” but Mac was insistent.  He took the inside, and I took the outside.  We scrubbed the floors and polished the stool bases.  The place was cleaner when we finished than it had been in a while.

Goldie had a radio, and the Beach Boys song “Help Me Rhonda” came on.  Mac took Goldie in his arms and started dancing with her from behind the counter.  The two of them danced through the song.  They were both good dancers, and it ended with them in a big embrace.  Goldie was blushing, and Mac was cured from the blues of losing his sweetheart.

We frequented Goldies for two years after that Thanksgiving.  It was the only place to have a sit-down meal in a bathing suit and bare feet.  I think she worked at least twelve hours a day (every day).  Jenny and I ate lunch there during the summer we met, sharing a burger, fries and a milkshake.  Goldie’s diner was within earshot of Eiler Larsen, “The Greeter” of Laguna Beach.  “Halloo-oo-oo!”

In 1968 the city of Laguna purchased 1000 feet of property on the Main Beach to make a new park, “Window to the Sea.”  The diner was closed in the process, and we never heard from Goldie again.

Next edition:  The Turkey Carcass

Eiller Larsen - Laguna Greeter

The Turkey Carcass

In Steward School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, we were introduced to cooking.  The “Demonstration Cooking” was done in a building divided into a galley and a dining room.  We learned to cook different meats, vegetables, sauces, etc.  The instructors varied, and each was an expert in his subject.

During Thanksgiving week our instructor was Master Gunnery Sergeant Washington.  He argued that the turkey should be roasted the day before Thanksgiving, cooled and then stripped of all the meat.  The meat would be refrigerated and brought up to temperature prior to serving.  Also he believed gravy was the most important part of the meal.  Turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were dull without being topped with the dark rich gravy.

The most important issue in making gravy was the stock.  After chopping all the onions and celery for the stuffing, the scraps were put into a stock pot with some bay leaves.  The turkey neck and giblets were also added to the simmering pot.  After the turkey was cooked and stripped of meat, the carcass, leg and wing bones were added to the stock.  It was allowed to simmer for hours.  We deglazed the roasting pans with the stock and strained it into containers.

On Thanksgiving we added stock to the stuffing (cooked separately) and also used some in reheating the turkey.  The deglazed liquid was enriched with the remaining stock and thickened into the best gravy I ever tasted.  Someone asked if chicken broth could be substituted, and Washington cried, “Blasphemy.”  The gravy did make the meal.

Jenny and I had house guests for dinner on our first Thanksgiving in 1967.  We cooked a small turkey but didn’t make our own stock.  The carcass was stripped of meat and put into the trash.  We took a lot of shortcuts, but it was a good Thanksgiving dinner for us.  We stayed up late playing Tripoley (a type of poker).  Finally we said goodnight to our guests who slept on our new Lazy Boy roll-out sofa.

Around 3:00 a.m. we heard a growl coming from the hall.  Something was being dragged along the carpet outside our room.  I turned on the light, and Gus (our Siamese cat) had retrieved the carcass from the trash and was going to stash it for a future snack.  We took the carcass from Gus, put it in the dumpster and tried to get back to sleep.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  The day before was my last day at the range detachment.  I took the remaining leave I had on the books and said goodbye to everyone.  Bradbury and I wished each other luck; it was likely we wouldn’t see each other again . . . he was retiring soon.  I asked him if he had any advice and he said, “Use your leadership skills.  Make things happen.”  He squeezed my shoulder, “you’ll be fine.”

Next edition:  I am the Walrus


I Am The Walrus

November 22, 1967, was the fourth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  For us, it was still fresh.  The black and white images played over in our heads . . . Camelot had been shattered.

Interestingly on that same day the BBC (unofficially) banned the Beatles song, “I am the Walrus.”  The lines “pornographic priestess” and “Let your knickers down” were too vulgar to be played on the air.

These were the times.  It seemed like everyone was on edge, and something was about to happen.  Of course life went on, and the government was telling us nightly about how the war was being won.  The majority of the country believed it . . . so we went to war knowing we were serving for the good of the country.

5825 Marines had died in Vietnam since 1962, and 3566 in 1967 alone.  I could not help thinking, “This is nuts.”  I was preoccupied with surviving this assignment and had no patriotic illusions of “God and Country” but the Corps . . . ?  I knew in the end I would never let my Marine brothers down.  We all depended on each other for survival.  My attitude hardened on this issue and I was committed to doing the best I could.  Everyone was conflicted.

I recommend Googling – I am the Walrus.  This nonsensical song, written by John Lennon, was a tongue in cheek effort to understand the complicated society we lived in.

Happy Thanksgiving

Next edition: Spilled Milk

Spilled Milk

On Thanksgiving weekend my family was invited to stay at the Laguna Beach house.  My mother had planned a weekend of activities for my two brothers and two sisters.  It would be a combo venue of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.  As it turned out both our families had visited Disneyland on Thanksgiving in 1955 (the year it opened).  Jenny and I had possibly ridden the same rides together as 10 year olds.

We had a good weekend visit and were working through the awkwardness of my family getting to know Jenny.  There was some tension because everyone was trying to make a good impression.

At Knott’s Berry Farm we had traditionally gone to the Chicken Dinner House which was always crowded.  The long wait was trying everyone’s patience.  Finally our name was called, and we were seated.

My youngest brother Dan was born blind, and restaurant outings could be a challenge.  It was an unfamiliar space, and any wrong move could cause a problem.  He was excited with the new experience and was having a good time.  The waitress brought the beverages, and his glass of milk was served.  Carefully Dan reached for the milk (he knew where it was) but tipped it with his thumb and over it went.  We never made a big deal when an accident like this happened.  We cleaned it up with little fanfare.  The waitress came over and helped with a new napkin, and Dan got a second glass of milk.  Again, the thumb tipped the glass over.  Spontaneously we all started to laugh, and Jenny joined in.  This was the icebreaker we needed, and the tension melted away.  The third glass of milk was a charm.  We enjoyed the meal, and everyone was more relaxed.  Spilled milk was nothing to us.

There was a feeling of sympathy from my family regarding my orders to Vietnam.  It was as if they were saying we’re sorry for your bad luck.  I didn’t want to walk around with my head hanging down over this issue.  My reaction to this was . . . duty calls.  I had made a commitment when I joined the Marines and would honor the pledge I took.  There would be no pity party on my behalf and no crying over spilt milk.

Next edition:  La Paz

La Paz

On Sunday morning my family got on the road early.  The return drive to the Bay Area would take all day.  We said our goodbyes and spent some time waiting for Jenny’s parents to arrive at the Beach house.  Jenny’s Dad was an Episcopal priest and Rector of St. Mark’s Church in Glendale (where we were married).  Occasionally her family would go to Laguna after the final service on Sunday.

We decided to take a walk down to the Gazebo overlook where we had kissed on that first night.  The world famous Victor Hugo Inn fronted the gardens along Heisler Park where guests waited for their reservations (the restaurant is now Las Brisas).  From the overlook was an iconic view of the main beach, lifeguard station, Laguna Hotel and Catalina visible on the horizon.  It remains as “our special place.”

Later in the afternoon Jenny’s parents arrived and invited us to dinner at La Paz (a small local restaurant on the edge of town).  La Paz specialized in authentic Mexican food.  Their signature items were the bleu cheese salad dressing and salsa (the recipes were a well-kept secret).  We usually ordered the Sanborn De Luxe, a pork stuffed cheese enchilada topped with a green chile sauce and garnished with sour cream.  It came with a rolled chicken taco and guacamole on top.  The dinner included Tostaditas, Salsa, Tossed Green Salad, Fried Beans and Rice.

There were only two waiters, and we always requested Louis.  He knew us by name and what we would order.  It was an intimate restaurant, although casual, and we would often recognize other guests as regulars.  We had dinner there on our honeymoon, and Louis was excited to hear of our marriage.

After dinner we returned to our apartment in Tustin .  We made plans for the remaining days until the December 20th report date to Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton.

Next edition:  Dr. Zhivago

Dr. Zhivago

Jenny and I had been wanting to see the movie Dr. Zhivago.  It was a long movie (over three hours) and was now playing at a local Tustin theater.  We went to a late afternoon showing, and it was dark by intermission.  The complicated love story was set during the Russian revolution.  We enjoyed the music and the beautiful scenes of the  Russian countryside (actually filmed in Spain).

After the film we went to the “Snack Shop” in the city of Orange for dinner.  They served great burgers and fries, and we had pie for dessert.  The Snack Shop was unusual in that it would sell a whole pie and then serve individual slices to sit-down guests before boxing it to take home.

Interestingly the founders of the Snack Shop were former Marines from El Toro.  John and Audry McIntosh met in the Marines and were married in 1948.  After leaving the military they purchased a restaurant in Corona Del Mar that had been damaged by a kitchen fire (it is now Ruby’s Diner).  They bought the place for $3,000 and the first Snack Shop became so popular that a second was opened in 1950.  By 1960 there were eleven in the chain.  Thinking beyond coffee shops, they opened Reuben’s Steak House in Newport Beach.  This was the start of “Far West Services” that grew to become a large restaurant conglomerate.  It included Coco’s, Moonraker’s, The Plankhouse, Baxter Street, Rueben E. Lee, and more.

The thought of working in or managing a restaurant had never crossed my mind.  Ironically, I would spend twenty years of my restaurant career working for Far West Services and it’s components (Reuben’s, Coco’s and Carrows).

Back in our apartment we had a long discussion about the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of the Soviets and the creation of the USSR.  I knew little of this history.  Jenny was a political science major and had a good understanding of the differences between socialism and communism.  It was an enlightening conversation, especially before heading off to war in Southeast Asia.  I silently wondered which system would be better for the Vietnamese people.

Next edition:  Jenny’s Last Day of Work