We’re doing a little something different here. We received a compelling submission that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It was an amazing story of a Marine who went through boot camp during Vietnam. Semper Fi.
August, 1971. I was off to another adventure. It had seemed like the bus was going to stop at every small town through Indiana. It took a few hours to get to Indy. I spent a little while waiting at the AFES station for a few others to show up. Then a Sergeant drove us to the airport. We boarded to big jet for San Diego.
The trip was going to take five hours. I had never been on a jet before. I had been on a plane though. Once when I was younger, my father took us all to a small airport in Ft. Wayne, called Smith Field. That day we got to fly for a penny for every pound we weighed. This flight was just like on the commercials on T.V. coffee, tea, or me. At least that was what I was thinking. The stewardesses were very pretty. I leaned the seat back a little and lit up a smoke. I tried to act cool, and tried to talk to the stewardesses.
I was day dreaming for a while. Remembering back to when I went to Mississippi. I had seen the convoys and had told myself that I too was going to be a soldier. I must have fallen off to sleep after a while. I dreamed of Darlene. I dreamed of taking her on a date and then going parking. Suddenly I heard the captain of the plane make an announcement that we would be landing soon; so much for the dream.
We all filed off the plane and were met by a couple of men in uniform. We grabbed our gear and were led to a plain gray bus. We were on our way to MCRD, which means Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. A lot of the fellows were joking around and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. We turned off the freeway and came to a gate with a Marine in dress blues pants and khaki shirt very neatly pressed, he had on white gloves came to attention and waved the bus through the gates. It was about three in the morning when the bus came to a stop on the base.
Suddenly there was a uniformed man running up on the bus and he was yelling at the top of his lungs. “Every one of you maggots off the bus!” Then another two uniforms joined him and started yelling at us to line up on the yellow foot prints. There were these yellow foot prints painted on the pavement and when you stood on them, your feet were angled so as you were at attention. The yelling did not stop. Actually it did not stop for ten weeks. That’s how long this hell that I volunteered for was to last.
They were coming up to each of us yelling to keep our eyes forward and not to look around, and to stand at attention without moving. Not to speak unless one of them was speaking to you. You would answer by yelling back, “Sir Yes Sir!” “Sir No Sir!” and it seemed that they could only hear you if you yelled at the loudest that you could. To tell you the truth I was scared to death. What had I done?
We stood there for a long time. We were waiting to get our haircuts. All the while we were waiting other buses were showing up with more recruits. We stood there so long that at least two men fainted. They were splashed with water and brought back around. All the while they were being yelled at that they were about to become the drill sergeants favorites.
When it became my turn to get my hair cut, and there were several of us getting it done at a time. The barbers made quick in shaving all of our hair off. Some of the other men looked like hippies and had been drafted, they were harassed the most. I was glad that I had shorter hair when I had arrived.
Some of the recruits were heavy set. That was an issue that would haunt them the whole time they would be in boot camp. I only weighed 122 pounds. I needed to put on some weight.
After we all had our haircuts we were taken to another large building. There we had been told to strip down and put all of our belongings into a box. If you had any weapons, like guns, knives, blades or any kind of drugs, those items you should throw into the trash can provided. If you had any of these things and you threw them away you would be off the hook. If you proceeded to put them in the box with your personal belongings then you would be under arrest. The trash can was filled with a lot of stuff.
We were given some socks, and sweat clothes. Then we were marched to where we were going to live during our time at MCRD. We marched past some buildings that looked like living quarters. I thought to myself, not bad. We however kept marching a ways until we came to some buildings called Quonset huts. This was going to be our homes for the next ten weeks.
We were assigned a hut and a bunk. We were told to get to sleep because in a little while we were going to be very busy with another full day. I had just fallen to sleep when all kinds of yelling started. It was one of the drill sergeants. He came in and kicked over a trash can, shaking all of the bunks and screaming to get dressed and get outside in formation.
In formation? What the hell was that? Well it didn’t take long to learn what they meant. Make four rows of equal lengths. Then you would stick out your right arm and touch the next man’s shoulder for spacing.
It must be to be a Marine was to be able to yell at the top of your lungs. That’s all we heard and the way we answered back. Yes sir! No sir!
The day was filled with a lot of running to one location to another. We got a duffel bag and then we received our dungarees, olive green, socks, olive green, blouses (little rubber bands to hold our trousers up over our boots), olive green, covers (hats) olive green, skivvies (under wear) white.
Then we would get medical shots. In both sides of the butt, in the arm both sides, and after each shot we had to do pushups. We received shots with needles, and with something new a gun at one point we got the gun shot into each arm at the same time. That was scary. We were assured that we would be immune to just about everything.
Then it was picture time. We all lined up and when it was our turn we had a Blues uniform placed on us. I said placed because it was just the front and top half of a uniform. This picture would be our graduation picture, if we lived that long.
Sergeant Hernandez, was a short but very muscular, mean bastard. He was the lead Drill Instructor. He would stand in front of you and then get to his tip toes to look in your eyes and to yell in your ear. He could bark out orders with the best of them. Surely he was what they made movies of drill sergeants from.
Sergeant Tagalari was another short framed man. His deal was that he liked to get you to smile and then you would get caught by Hernandez and he would come over to you and grab your throat and choke the hell out of you all the while yelling, what are you smiling at? Of course you couldn’t answer because you were passing out. Then he would let go just before you did.
We were marched to the mess hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner if that is what you would call it. The best meal of the day was definitely breakfast. However you sure were hungry at the other meals, so you ate what you could. If they put it on your plate then you had better eat it all or face trouble.
The third day was more marching and running and yelling. Some of the fat fellows had some bad problems keeping up when we were running and some had problems just marching. They were picked on hard. They were told that if they couldn’t cut it then they would be sent off to the “Fat Farm”. If they couldn’t make it there then they would either be kicked out or worse, stay for another ten weeks. It seemed like every day for the next few days that one at a time they would be sent off to the “Fat Farm”.
I was lucky that I had run track in Jr. High school. I ran the mile and I was pretty good at it. I won several first places, once came in third in an all-city meet with a time of 5 minutes and 18 seconds. I loved it when we ran, there was less harassment. Except for those who would fall out, they would go through a lot of pain.
After about a week of intense training in marching and exercising it must have become my turn to be messed with. Tagalari would screw with me and the next thing would know Hernandez was on my case. I got choked a lot. I did a lot of pushups. Then one day I had the pleasure to learn what bend and mother’s were. This exercise was a squat thrust with a push up. They were very hard, but I caught on quickly.
In making up our platoon there had to be a leader that lead the way. He was called a guide on. This position was usually assigned to the largest man, usually the toughest. He would lead the way. He also excelled at drill that’s why he would be at the front. That position would lead to the first stripe that you would receive meritoriously upon graduation from boot camp.
I was one of the thinnest men in my platoon, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be the guide so I tried everything I could. This meant matching up with him in hand to hand combat training when we fought with pugil sticks. Once in the pugil circle he got the stick and I got the rubber hose. The hose represented a bayonet. I got my butt kicked. The drill instructors loved seeing me try. Always as a result of me losing I would get extra bends and mother’s to do.
One day Hernandez asked me why I kept trying and I said that I wanted to lead men. I wanted to be promoted when I graduated. He then told me of a job that I could have and that I would have a team of two other men to lead throughout boot camp. This position had a lot of responsibility. The name of the assignment was “House Mouse”; I was “King Rat”. This job was a job that made me and the other house mice look like kiss asses. I would have to run to the mess hall and get coffee, we would have to spit shine the drill instructor shoes and boots. We got real good at that.
A few weeks into training Hernandez came to me and said that he needed to send someone to the special infiltration course and I was it. He told me this training would be good for me, and that I would need it if I made it to Vietnam. This could save my life. So off I went to the other side of the base. When I arrived there were quite a few others. This new drill team seemed meaner and looked meaner. They yelled louder if that was possible. I was given a helmet and a dummy rifle made of heavy wood. This training consisted of a course with barbed wire and ditches filled with water and saw dust. We had to climb under the wire without hitting it.
Sometimes we were on our stomachs, and sometimes on our backs. The drill team walked along the course with us cussing and yelling and on several occasions put their boot on my head and pushed me under the water and all the while yelling “move faster”. After the course we were sent to this room we lined in a circle and were closed in there by ourselves. Suddenly, gas! It was tear gas. I remembered the smell from a protest that I was at back home at the park. We were all panicking and screaming to be let out. We were crying and choking. It seemed like we were left in there for a long time, it wasn’t but it felt like it. When the door opened we ran.
Outside the drill team was waiting for us, yelling for us to make a formation. We did. The next thing we did was a lot of P.T., that’s physical training, and a lot of it. We got a water break, enough to just wet the inside of your mouth. Then before I knew it we were filling two buckets with sand and lifting them out to our sides parallel to the ground. Crap they weighed a ton. More harassment followed as our arms started to give way. We were at this for quite a while. One man passed out, and I wanted to.
About the Author: Ed Heinkel signed up for the Marines in 1971 because his father hated Marines, as he was a sailor. He went to Boot Camp in San Diego (Hollywood Marine) and spent most of his time at Camp Lejeune. Ed trained at Norfolk, VA for Atomic Demolitions Munitions and caught a float in Okinawa, Japan. He rotated back a year later and was stationed with Forest Troops and traveled to Vieques, PR for the last 6 months. Ed was discharged honorably after four years, married his sweetheart, and has been together with her for over 38 years. He’s a salesman by trade, but writes whenever he gets a chance. His first booked was published in December, Climbing To The Top!