My first experience with the Marine Corps Birthday Ball was in 1965 at El Toro Marine base. My steward friends were always getting job offers to serve at various functions. Sometimes they would need extra help and asked me to fill in. Most of our jobs were with Crist Catering Service in Laguna Beach. We all had steward uniforms (white formal jackets, gold buttons and black dress pants). I had kept my military issued formal wear and put it to good use.
On November 10, 1965, we were contracted by the Staff NCO Club as servers for the banquet style dinner. It was like a very fancy Prom, except the alcohol was free flowing. The men wore formal Dress Blues with rows of medals; girlfriends and wives were dressed in glittery evening gowns. There was dancing, speeches, photography and a lot of drinking. When the big cake was cut with a sword, we served the dessert to each table (from the right, with the right), and there were no blunders on my part this time. After the plates were cleared, there were many toasts to those lost in war, and grown men were crying. I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat. Honestly, it was a wrenching experience.
The loss of brothers in battle is life changing. There are no words to lessen the grief. Most of these Marines were WWII and Korean War veterans. There was no “Thank you for your service” in those days, the phrase hadn’t even been coined . . . it was just assumed.
Veterans Day is usually celebrated the day after the Marine Corps birthday, and hangover or not, Marines honored the memories of the fallen. Superficial “thank you for your service” statements are politely accepted, but I can say that some of us (Vietnam veterans) try to avoid the spectacle of it. It isn’t that we don’t appreciate the sentiment, it’s just a feeling of too little too late. I believe it is just another form of political correctness.
Next edition: Augustus
After the trauma of receiving orders to Vietnam on Halloween, we went on with our daily lives. Jenny worked for a Title company, and I continued with my duties on the rifle range.
Occasionally we would have a week with no shooters at the range, and we would do maintenance duties. I used these opportunities to refurbish and construct new targets. They were 6′ X 6′ wood frames with cloth stretched over them, and a paper target was glued to the cloth. We stored them in target sheds. The sheds were good places for varmints (squirrels, mice and snakes) to hide, and we were always on the lookout when working around or in them.
One day I was in a shed and heard a barely audible hum and froze. It was an animal sound, and I didn’t want to disturb it. Finally I narrowed it down to a small wooden crate (old ammo box) and peeked into it. There was a Siamese cat with big blue eyes staring at me, and the noise was his steady purr. I started to pick him up but realized he was skin and bones and was too weak to escape. Apparently the cat had been in a fight and found this place to hide and recover from his wounds. No one on the range wanted to deal with him, and some were suggesting we put him out of his misery. I decided to take him home. How he got there and how he had survived would remain a mystery.
Jenny was surprised and happy with the cat. He was a good patient and recovered quickly. He was playful and liked to sit on the T.V., facing the wall, with his tail hanging down in front of the screen. I don’t remember why, but we named him Augustus. “Gus” became Jenny’s companion while I was in Vietnam and would keep her busy by running away from time to time. She always managed to retrieve him, or he would somehow find his way back home.
We kept Gus as a member of our family until he died of old age just before Thanksgiving in 1982. We have good memories of him.
Next edition: Sniper School
In the spring of 1967 my Commanding Officer, Capt. Flowers and I were summoned to Headquarters and report to the Chief of Staff. Captain Flowers and I had competed in the 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 and to observe. I was given 10 rounds and took a wind reading and set my sights. I fired five rounds (checking the wind between each shot) and 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 bull’s eye.
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
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.
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