By: John Oscarson
How long is ten weeks? If you moved into a new house this would be hardly enough time to unpack and settle and would not seem like a long time. The same could be said of starting a new job as you would still be settling in, getting acquainted with your coworkers and learning your new responsibilities. The completion of 10 weeks of Marine Corps Boot Camp was more like a long beginning than a conclusion. Something must have been successful in the training process as I no longer felt like a civilian. While I certainly missed my school, job and family, I had no illusions that I could go home and be the same person that I had been. I also knew that another four to five months of training awaited me and that I would most likely spend a year in Vietnam before I could ever return to my former life.
We had been told by our drill instructors that when we graduated we would finally be Marines. I certainly felt that I had passed a milestone, but I still did not feel like I had arrived. I knew that I had only completed a third of my training and that I still had ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) and Staging Battalion remaining before my deployment to Vietnam. ITR was my second destination because it had been designated as a result of my classification as a 0351. This MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) had been assigned to me at the conclusion of Boot Camp and was infantry with the specialty of flames (flame thrower), 106 recoilless rifle and rockets (3.5 rocket launcher), or what is more commonly referred to as bazookas. I was puzzled as to how I had been chosen for this training as I was offered OCS (Officer Candidate School) and was informed that I had scores which qualified me for all the schools that the Marines had available. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll just do my time and follow the path laid out for me.”
While I was one of the older guys in our platoon that did not mean that boot camp was easy. However, there were aspects where I had an easier time than some of my compatriots. I had already had considerable training and experience with many different weapons, both from my police training and as an avid hunter. My years at UPS in the sort and load operation had prepared me physically and my schooling had certainly prepared me for the written tests that we took at the end of boot camp which covered all aspects of training. While I excelled in all of these categories and got some of the best scores in our platoon, they never succeeded in convincing me that I should take a leadership role. It was the squad leaders who were promoted to PFC (private first class from base rank private) and I did not want this task as assistant to the DI (drill instructor).
I wrote my wife every day and I did not have a lot of happy thoughts to relay to her. I told her that I felt very detached from her and from everything else in my former life and she understood and forgave me. While she had grown up in the United States she had been born in Germany and came here at nine years of age. Her father had been in the German Army on the Russian front in WW11 and I think this gave my wife and her whole family the ability to understand what I was going through in a way that few understood.
Other than the letters that I wrote and received, I had no contact with the outside world. There was no television or radio and we were not given any access to newspapers or magazines. We could have no visitors and had no access to phone service. There were two small exceptions to this rule. On December 21, 1968 we were informed that Apollo 8 was launched with Frank Borman, James Lovell Jr, and William Anders aboard. We were informed that this was the first mission to send astronauts around the moon. We were also told when they successfully completed their mission on December 27, 1968. The other exception to the no contact rule came when I was granted the chance to make one phone call on Christmas. I called home to talk to my wife but missed her as she was at her parents’ house. I was not allowed to make another attempt to call her.
In spite of all the difficulties, somehow most of us in the platoon managed to finish the training. We were told that we could invite visitors to see our graduation ceremony and, of course, I informed my wife. She flew down, even though I informed her that I was not to be granted any leave and we would have no time alone together.
There were a number of ceremonies in which we marched around the parade grounds while visitors were permitted to watch from the side. There was an open area in the center of the base where visitors were permitted to park their cars at one end of the parade grounds which covered the whole center of our camp. My wife had taken a taxi from the hotel where she was staying. My wife and I talked and visited in a large area with tables and chairs that looked like a park area and was adjacent to the parking area.
All visitors, including my wife, were then invited to tour the small Quonset huts where we lived during our training. They were very Spartan and constructed of corrugated galvanized metal with a curved roof that came clear down to the ground - like an upside down half circle. They did not have any vertical walls except at each end. They were about 60 feet long and had rows of racks (cots) set up in bunk bed fashion with one above and one below to allow more recruits to be packed into each hut. The only separate room was a small office where the DI stayed. There were no bathrooms in these facilities and should we need one we had to go to an adjacent building. In the very center there was a stove which I believe was designed to burn some variety of oil. I was never sure exactly how it was to operate as they were never used. Even in San Diego it was pretty cold in December in the evenings. The only personal thing that we had in the room was a foot locker where we kept a very few personal things such as some envelopes and paper so that we could write home. Most of the space was consumed by all the uniforms and gear that we had been issued and this was inspected regularly for tidiness and uniformity. During the tour, our drill instructors were present and they were very cordial to all. My wife brought chocolate candies from Portland which she knew were my favorites as they were imported from Germany. They were filled with various liquors and I felt very decadent as I stood in the group and stuffed my face. I was not sure how they would react but I offered some to my drill instructors and I was pleasantly surprised when they thanked me and said that they were very good.
Finally, the official ceremonies concluded and we were to stay in our barracks and the visitors were to leave. Our drill instructor asked who was married and who had a wife that was visiting. I said that I did. Our drill instructor said that he would give me an hour to visit with my wife, alone, and he excused me from our hut but I was not to leave the camp. My wife and I walked around in the dark and talked and held hands. There was no where to go other than just walking around in the dark. We did not want to go around the parade grounds so we just walked between the various huts where all the Marines, like me, were in training. It was a wonderful respite but every time we turned around someone who was watching a building or guarding a station was staring at us and calling out, “Halt, who goes there?” Finally, the hour was up and I kissed my wife goodbye and returned to our barracks.
The next day I was talking to one of my friends in boot camp and it occurred to me that I had not seen him at all after the official ceremonies had ended. I said, “Dave, I did not see you at all in the picnic area or any of the other places that we congregated after the graduation ceremonies. Where were you?” I knew that he could not have left our camp.
Dave said, “Well you know that big parking lot where all the visitors parked their cars?”
I said, “Yeah, what about it?”
He said, “Well, I told my girl friend to borrow a pickup with a camper on the back that a friend of ours owns and she drove that over and parked in the lot. When the ceremony ended and everyone went to the picnic area, we went to the parking lot for an hour.”
Damn! I thought! Why was I so dumb!