2: Boot Camp
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We finally boarded the buses and headed for the base. It was dark by then so we didn’t get to see much of San Diego. The ride took about 30 minutes. When we got to the base the buses turned into the facility between two beautiful stucco guard shacks with red, terra cotta roof tiles. A minute or so later we pulled up in front of a beautiful, Spanish-style building. There was a sign on the front that read:
Welcome aboard. You are now men of the United States Navy.
The tradition of the service demands your utmost effort. Give
it cheerfully and willingly.
For some reason the sign reminded me of the German slogan that was posted over the main gate at one of the Nazi concentration camps. That slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frie”, was German for “Work will make you free.” I was no idiot. Any place that had to put up a sign to make you feel comfortable was probably going to do its best to make you feel otherwise.
As we exited the buses there were a number of sailors on-hand yelling out instructions. We were told to answer ‘aye’ when our names were called, and as our names were called the sailor calling out our names also called out a number. There were numbered formations painted on the concrete. Each formation was numbered from 1 to 60. There were 6 rows in each formation, and each row was 10 numbers deep. They began filling up one formation at a time, and we were ordered to run and stand in the formation they were building on the number that was called out with our name.
We didn’t know it at the time but we were being formed into companies. Fabian and Snow and I wound up in the same formation. The other two guys from Georgia wound up somewhere else.
A whole mess of the Texas bunch were in our group; most of the Mississippi crowd were, too. Out of the corner of my eye, at the rear of our formation, I saw a handful of oriental guys. I remember wondering where-the-hell they came from. There were a number of blacks in our group as well.
After all the companies were formed up, a group of rather ominous looking men came and stood in front of all the assembled groups. They were all wearing black uniforms with gold braid and insignias everywhere. Then, as if instructed to do so by some inaudible voice, they all stepped forward at once. Each of them then went and stood in front of a company; one man in black with gold everywhere standing in front of each company.
Our man in black was one tough cookie. His name was C.F. Taylor and he wore these plain-looking, black-rimmed glasses. And he had this deep, scratchy, irritating voice:
“All right, ladies, listen up. My name is Boiler Repair Senior Chief Taylor and I’m your Company Commander. You girls are in Company 748 and for the next nine weeks I’ll be yo’ mama, yo’ daddy, yo’ best friend and yo’ worst nightmare. Anybody think I’m lyin’?”
Nobody said anything.
“I SAID, ANYBODY THINK I’M LYIN?”
Ahhhh. We were supposed to answer him. In unison, and done quite well for a first-time try, we all yelled:
“Good. Now I hope you’ve all had supper ‘cause the Navy ain’t gon’ feed you nothin’ tonight. What we are gon’ do is march yo’ little fannies over to bedding issue and get you a pillow, a pillow case, two sheets and a blanket. Then, we gon’ march yo’ little fannies over to receiving barracks, and there, you gon’ make up yo’ beds, say yo’ prayers and be good little girls and go to sleep.
Some idiot from Texas yelled, “Aw, man. I’m hungry. Can’t we get somethin’ to eat tonight?”
Chief Taylor didn’t get angry. He just got a little more matter-of-fact.
“I said, I hope you’ve all had supper ‘cause the Navy ain’t gon’ feed you tonight. What we are gon’ do is march yo’ little fannies over to bedding issue and get you a pillow, a pillow case, two sheets and a blanket. Then, we gon’ march yo’ little fannies over to receiving barracks, and there, you gon’ make up yo’ beds, say yo’ prayers and be good little girls and go to sleep. Any more questions?”
There were none. And just like Chief Taylor said, we marched over to bedding issue and each of us got a pillow, a pillow case, two sheets and a blanket. Then, we marched over to an empty barracks building, went inside, picked out a bunk, made that bunk ready for sleeping, went to the bathroom, returned to our bunks and turned in for the night. After the lights were turned off, someone yelled out:
“Does anybody know what time it is?”
“It’s only 9 o’clock..”
Someone else chimed in:
“Hell, it’s too damn early to go to sleep!”
I heard the sound of covers being turned back and feet hitting the floor. Then I heard that deep, scratchy, irritating voice again:
“I’d get back in that bunk if I was you, little girl.”
I heard the scurry of feet, the sound of someone getting in bed, the sound of covers being pulled up and a head hitting a pillow.
I didn’t go to sleep right away. I couldn’t. My senses, the wiring in my brain, my whole system, everything was on overload. But for some, sleep came quickly. In no time at all I heard the sound of 20 or 30 guys snoring.
I don’t remember going to sleep, but a bugle blast hit me like a thunderbolt when it sound-ed the following morning. My senses were still messed up. Something wasn’t right. There was a bugle blowing, and I knew what that meant; it was time to get up. But it was still dark outside. In fact, it looked just like it had looked when we first got in bed.
“Jesus Christ,” someone yelled, “it’s only 5:30! What kind of chickenshit outfit is this?”
“It’s MY chickenshit outfit!” It was Chief Taylor, and he was in rare form.
“All right ladies, everybody up! You’ve got fifteen minutes to shit, shower and shave. I want you dressed and outside standing in formation at quarter-to-six! Now move it!”
Then, in a slow, deliberate Texas drawl, a retort:
“We can’t all use the bathroom in just fifteen minutes!”
“Whorehouses’ got bathrooms, Navy’s got heads! Now turn to!”
Chief Taylor had a way with words.
We surprised even ourselves. We had all done our thing in the bathroom, put our sweaty, stinking civilian clothes back on, and lined up in formation outside the barracks in less than 15 minutes. There weren’t any numbers to stand on this time, but remarkably, we all wound up in the same place in formation that we’d been in the night before.
In the dark, chief Taylor gave us a very basic lesson in marching in formation:
“Girls, you are lined up in six rows. Each row is called a squad. For the time bein’ these ugly ladies up front here are yo’ squad leaders.
“Now we’re gon’ march over to the chow hall for breakfast. You’ll step off with your left foot first. Do your best not to step on the little girl’s feet in front of you. And do your best not to run into the little girl in front of you. We’re gonna have to make a few turns to get there, and you don’t know how to do that yet, so just do your best and maybe we’ll get somethin’ to eat before they shut the damn place down. FORWARD, MARCH!”
At first we were all over the place, and all over each other. But after we’d gone a couple of hundred yards we really weren’t doing that bad. We even negotiated the turns with a semblance of military bearing. Chief Taylor managed to get us to the chow hall building and he called us to a halt just behind another new company that had gotten there just before us. After we halted we could hear the footsteps of another company coming up from behind. When they halted we could hear another company coming up behind them. The companies, in the order in which they had arrived at the chow hall, were being allowed to enter one squad at a time.
We were a motley looking bunch. We all still had our hair and we still had on our civilian clothes. There were a few real sailors eating breakfast in the chow hall and they looked us over real good. Some were smiling. I’m sure they were trying to picture us with the bald heads we’d have by the end of the day.
The choice of food was amazing. I’d always heard that the Navy ate well and if this was any indication, the stories I’d heard were true. They had scrambled eggs, fried eggs, poached eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, hash browns, pancakes, fruit, chipped beef, toast, biscuits, oatmeal, every kind of cereal ever made and, in general, anything and everything one could ever want for breakfast As I made my way down the serving line the guy behind me whispered something in my ear. I couldn’t hear what he’d said at first, so I half-turned around and ask him to repeat it. He whispered again:
“Don’t drink the milk. They put saltpeter in it. If you do, you won’t be able to get a hard-on for months.”
Now I don’t know if they really do that or not, but I love milk. Breakfast isn’t breakfast without milk. And what was I gonna do with a hard-on anyway? I loaded my plate down with a little bit of everything. Then, I made my way to the beverage counter. The recruit that had told me not to drink the milk was standing there, too. He was pouring himself a cup of coffee. I filled up two glasses with milk and put them both on my tray. What-the-heck, I didn’t want to have to get up for a refill later. He just looked at me real funny. As I started to walk away he whispered to me again:
“Didn’t you hear what I said, man? You ain’t gon’ be able to get a hard-on!”
“I don’t need one,” I said. His jaw dropped and he stared at me intently.
Fabian and Snow were already eating so I went and sat down at their table. They were drinking milk, too. The recruit who wouldn’t drink milk sat at a table nearby. I told Fabain and Snow what he’d said. They both laughed. I told them where he was sitting and that he was staring at us. Snow said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” It was practical joke time.
When we were sure the guy was looking, Snow counted to three and we all turned and waved. It was a limp-wristed wave. The guy’s eyes got real big and his face got real huffy. Then he leaned over and started whispering to the guys he was sitting with. A moment later, they turned as a group and stared at us with strange looks on their faces. Snow counted to three and we waved again; another limp-wrister. They were all in our company, and they avoided us like the plague the whole time we were in boot camp. I’m pretty sure that if we hadn’t been UDT/SEAL candidates they’d have given us a hard time physically.
Our first full day was a busy one. First thing after breakfast chief Taylor taught us the rudiments of marching. In less than an hour we not only knew how to step off together, we knew how to make a left turn, a right turn, and we could even accomplish a fair ‘about face’. Then, he marched us to a big supply building where we got our uniforms.
Uniform issue was one bad experience. We went through a line inside a big, cavernous building. As we entered, a sailor handed each of us a seabag. Then, a mob of other sailors started throwing clothing at us. Nobody ever asked us what size we wore, they just seemed to know by looking at us.
First, we got dungaree pants and dungaree shirts. Then we got our white hats, some socks, and these boots they called boondockers. Next we got tennis shoes, boxer shorts and white T-shirts. They were kind of flimsy. Then we got towels and wash cloths. We even got a pair of swim trunks. The little skinny guys got these ugly-ass, skin-tight, blue-knit boys. The rest of us got these not-as-ugly-ass, not-skin-tight, beige things. I was glad I wasn’t skinny. At some point in the process we got our whites and blues. Then we got a dress kerchief, dress shoes, a watch cap, a blue baseball cap, a web belt, a blue jacket, a book called ‘The Blue Jacket’s Manual’, a blue-knit sweater, a raincoat, and, ah yes, a pea coat. That was the one piece of clothing they made us all try on, and the first one I tried fit perfectly.
Uniform issue was a long, drawn-out process. I was glad when it was over. At least I thought it was over. The next thing I know we we’re all forming up outside and unpacking our seabags one article at a time. The Navy wanted to make sure we d gotten all the things it had just given us, so we had to take the stuff out on cue, hold it up in the air for some inspector to look at, and after about an hour of this redundancy, when he was satisfied that we had everything, we re-packed our seabags, hoisted them onto our shoulders and marched off to another building for stenciling.
Someone had prepared each of us a stencil board with our last names in several sizes on it. Once we entered the building we were handed our stencils. We were then directed to these tables, six men to a table, and ordered to empty our seabags onto them. Then, in a process that took almost as long as uniform issue itself, we had to stencil everything but our dress uniforms and shoes.
After stenciling, we re-packed our seabags and formed up outside. On chief Taylor’s order we shouldered our seabags and marched back to the barracks we’d stayed in the night before. There we changed into a pair of our new dungarees, put on Navy socks and our new boondocker boots, put on the green web belt, donned our blue baseball caps and our new blue jackets, and grabbed anything civilian that we had with us and headed off to the mail room. We were about to mail home everything that wasn’t Navy issue.
While we were at the post office, we were each ordered to fill out a mailgram. Each mailgram said the same thing. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something to the effect that we were all proud members of the United States Navy and that we’d arrived in San Diego without incident. We had to sign the mailgrams and address them to our next of kin.
The Recruit Training Center in San Diego was divided into two sections, an older area with barracks buildings that looked as though they had been built during World War II, and a new area with barracks that couldn’t have been more than one or two years old. These two areas were separated by a canal and there was a narrow, one-lane bridge that connected the old side to the new. The main components of Recruit Training Command (RTC), including offices, the Post Exchange, uniform issue, classroom buildings, medical and dental facilities, etc., were located on the old side. The only elements on the new side were the newer barrack buildings, a chow hall, and a concrete area just large enough for companies to form up on while they waited in formation to enter the chow hall.
The old side had a concrete area, too. It was a large concrete parade ground called the grinder. Adjacent to the grinder was an outdoor boxing arena with bleachers on all four sides. Friday night boxing matches (Smokers) and Sunday morning worship services were held at this arena. Only the Navy, and maybe the Marines, would build a facility where people would try to kill each other on Friday night and worship God on Sunday.
After sending our civvies and other personal items home, we marched back over to the receiving barracks. We were sent back inside, one squad at a time, to retrieve our seabags. Once we had formed back up outside, chief Taylor marched us across the bridge to one of the new barrack buildings that would be our home for the next four weeks.
Now I never understood the Navy’s reasoning on this. We were new recruits, and we were being berthed in a new barrack on the new side of the base for our first four weeks of training. Then, as chief Taylor explained it, we would receive the honor of being allowed to be berthed in one of those old, beat up, World War II barracks on the old side of the base for the final five weeks. Only the Navy would consider that a step up; an honor.
The long march from the old side to the new was a killer. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have been a problem, but our seabags seemed to weigh a thousand pounds each by the time we got where we were going.
The barracks building we were assigned to was spacious. I knew it would be a big adjustment learning how to live in one big room with sixty-plus other people, but the one good thing about being in the new facility first was that it would make that adjustment easier. Maybe that’s why they did it.
There were sixteen new barracks buildings. Each was shaped like an H. The long sides of each H were berthing areas. The cross piece of each H contained company offices. Each building was two stories high, so each long side of an H housed two companies, one upstairs and one on the ground floor. Luckily, we got assigned to the ground floor; there would be no stairs for us to climb at the end of a hard day of training.
The main floor area had bunk beds that ran down both sides of the room. The head of each bunk pointed toward an inside wall with the foot portion pointed toward the center. Down the center of the room ran a series of picnic-style tables. At the far end of the room, in both directions, there was a weapons rack. We had not been issued our rifles yet, so the weapons racks were empty.
There was a small office area for chief Taylor in our main barracks area and spacious ‘head’ facilities with adequate showers, toilets, sinks, mirrors and urinals. The facility, as a whole, was much nicer than the receiving unit we’d been in the night before.
We were in the Navy, but none of us felt like it. We still had our hair, and even though we had our uniforms and all looked the same in that regard, we felt different because we looked different. We didn’t look like most of the other companies we’d seen marching across the grinder. They all looked the same; they all looked like sailors. We looked like a bunch of convicts!
In the few short hours we’d known chief Taylor he’d really come across as a pretty nice guy. Sure, he called us ‘ladies’ and rambled off a barrage of foul, dirty, sailor language every now and then. But all-in-all, he’d been down-right pleasant. That all changed when we checked into the barracks.
Looking back on it later I realized that he had not had time to be himself, to be the monster he really was, that first morning. There had been so much to do: breakfast, uniform issue, uniform check, stenciling, sending our civvies home, filling out and mailing the mail-grams, checking out of receiving barracks, checking into our permanent barracks, and somehow we’d managed to sneak in a noon meal at the chow hall, too. Now it was time to get down to business.
The first thing chief Taylor did, when he had us alone in the barracks, was to dress us down real good. He told us everything that would be expected of us in the next nine weeks, and everything the Navy would teach us in that nine week period as well.
Chief Taylor’s expectations were high. He let us know real quick that he would settle for nothing short of an honor company come graduation. We didn’t know what an honor company was, but we were under no illusions; chief Taylor would collectively tear us to pieces if we weren’t putting out 100% at all times.
As for what the Navy expected us to learn, he held nothing back there either. We would learn how to work together. We would learn how to work as a team. We would learn what the mission of the Navy was. We would learn how to keep ourselves, our barracks, our uniforms and our lockers clean and spotless at all times. We would learn what a watchbill was, and we’d learn how to stand watch. We would learn Navy doctrine. We would learn Navy ranks and insignia. We would learn the principals of rope handling and knot-tying. We would learn how to handle and care for a rifle. We’d learn how to fire one, too. We would learn the basics of shipboard firefighting. We would learn the basics of shipboard damage control. We’d learn how to use a gas mask, too. And to make sure we knew how to use it, the Navy was going to GAS US! In a GAS CHAMBER! Only the Navy, and maybe the Marines.
After dressing us down, chief Taylor assigned us our bunks and taught us all the proper way to make up a bed. We learned what a ‘hospital fold’ was on a sheet and a blanket. We learned the proper way to put a blanket on a bed; taut, where you could bounce a quarter off the son-of-a-gun some three to four feet in the air.
All of our clothing was brand new, and accordingly, chief Taylor told us to be on the lookout for inspection tags as we prepared to put them in our lockers.
Now everyone knows what an inspection tag is. The company that makes the clothing pays someone to inspect it (whatever it is) to make sure that there are no flaws or defects. If the clothing passes inspection, the inspector places a tag with his-or-her I.D. number on it somewhere in the clothing. If the garment has a pocket, the tag might go in the pocket. If there isn’t a pocket, the tag might be placed in a fold or a crease. I’ll say this, the com-panies that make clothing for the Navy have some over-zealous inspectors. There were inspection tags everywhere.
Chief Taylor had us take one piece of clothing at a time and hold it up in the air. Then, he showed us how to check it thoroughly for inspection tags. Once he was convinced that we were convinced that there were no tags in that particular garment, he would show us how to fold it (to rather exact dimensions) and place it in our lockers. We did this over and over again with every piece of clothing. Finally, late in the afternoon, we had everything stowed in our lockers.
There were two small drawers in each locker. Aside from the clothing, which we had just stowed in the open sections of our lockers, everything else we owned would be stowed in these two drawers. Chief Taylor went through a very detailed explanation of where to put what in each drawer. Our shaving kit had to be placed in a particular place, our wallet in another. Everything had its place. Then, out of nowhere, chief Taylor asked THE QUESTION:
“How many of you guys smoke?”
At least a third of the company raised their hands.
“Well, ladies. You get to keep two packs of cigarettes; that’s all, and you’ll stow ‘em here.”
With those words he went to the locker of one of the smokers and showed us where to place our two packs of cigarettes.
“If you’re carrying more than two packs, the rest go in the shit can.”
Now I was a smoker. It was a dirty habit I’d picked up when I was a sophomore in high school. Like all the smokers in the company I’d come prepared for the long haul. I’d reported to boot camp with a full carton of Winstons. I’d had to do some pretty creative stowing to keep that carton from being sent home when we mailed our civvies earlier in the day. I had packs of Winstons in both socks, in my pants pockets, in my shirt pockets; I had them everywhere. Some of the other guys had done the same thing.
Chief Taylor looked at his watch and yelled, “You’ve got 5 minutes to get your lockers in shape and form up outside!” Then, he walked outside the barracks and waited for us to form up. I didn’t know it at the time but he was giving us smokers a chance to make arrangements. As soon as he left the quarters I began looking for guys who didn’t smoke. When I’d find one, I’d hand him two packs of Winstons and a dollar bill.
“Here’s a buck, stow these for me, will ya’?”
In no time at all I’d found a home for every pack of cigarettes I’d brought with me. Once outside, as I took my place in formation, I kind of got an inkling of what chief Taylor had just done. He was standing off to the side, by himself, smoking a cigarette. He was a mean old son-of-a-bitch, but he had a good side, too. He knew what was going on inside; no doubt about it.
Once we’d all formed up, chief Taylor called us to attention and yelled, “Forward, march!” We had no idea where we were going. Wherever it was it was on the old side because almost as soon as we’d started we were marching over the bridge. Once on the old side he called for a left turn and we turned left. Then he called for a right turn and we turned right. Up one street, turn, then down another; where-in-the-heck were we going? Then we saw it; the sign. He called us to a halt in front of the barber shop. One squad at a time we entered. Five men would queue up beside one barber chair. One at a time the butchers did their work. They skinned us. They skinned us good!
During that first day together we’d already started bonding. We were starting to learn each others’ names; we were starting to associate names with faces. But after the haircuts we had to start all over again. Nobody looked the same. Nobody looked anything like they’d looked just a few minutes before. We didn’t recognize each other now, but we looked and felt like sailors; we didn’t feel like convicts anymore.
On the way back to our barracks chief Taylor marched us over to the chow hall and we ate supper. It had been a long day and our appetites were incredible. Now, nobody in the chow hall stared at us. We looked just like they did now; nobody paid any attention to us at all.
After chow, chief Taylor marched us around the small chow hall grinder on the new side. We practiced left turns and right turns, how to do an ‘About Face’ and an occasional ‘To The Rear, March’. We weren’t great, but we were getting there.
I guess we all thought Day One would be over when we got back to the barracks, that we’d have some time to ourselves. But that wasn’t the case. When we got back it was time to learn how to wash clothes; and to hang them on the clothesline just outside the barracks.
There were scrub boards, brushes, and two large metal trash cans in our ‘head’ in the barracks. Chief Taylor instructed us to take off our clothes and take a shower. Then, he taught us how to wash clothes.
There was a specific method to this madness. After we’d taken a shower, we put on a new set of skivvies (underwear) and began the clothes washing routine. We were taught how to make up one trash can with soapy water and the other with fresh, clean water. We were taught to soak our dirty clothes in the soapy water, scrub them with the scrub brushes on the scrub boards, and then soak them in the clean water. We washed and rinsed our white hats first, while the water was still relatively clean, then our underwear, then our dungarees. We washed our socks last. After all the washing and rinsing was done, we put on a new set of dungarees, the ones we’d be wearing the next day, and made ourselves presentable for going outside.
Chief Taylor was a sly dog, he knew all the tricks, and he imparted his wisdom to the men of Company 748.
To keep our lockers as neat and orderly as possible we were going to utilize just two sets of dungarees for the first four weeks training. The next morning we’d put the ones we were wearing now back on, the ones we had just washed would be hanging on the clothesline just outside the barracks. Tonight, we’d wash the ones we were wearing and put on the ones hanging on the clothes line. We’d wear those same clothes the next day. Every day we’d rotate between those two sets of underwear, socks and dungarees. That way, we could leave our lockers neat, tidy and undisturbed, just as they were now, in case we ever had to stand a surprise inspection.
His plan was ingenious! Once he’d gotten our lockers stowed to Navy standards; every uniform folded just right and in its proper place in the locker, anything he could do to keep us from disturbing our lockers would mean they’d stay properly stowed for the duration of training. By utilizing just two sets of clothing we would never disturb anything in our lockers. EVER! The only exception would be our toilet articles when we’d shower and shave. But toilet articles were stowed in the drawers, and the drawer space wouldn’t be as critical during an inspection as the open, exposed clothing space.
When we’d first started learning how to wash clothes, chief Taylor had approached those who were having a problem and he’d corrected their mistakes with a particular joy and glee. I remember that the phrase ‘No, you idiot, do it like this’ got used a lot. Then, at some magical point, when some progress had been made, the chief yelled out:
“O.K., ladies, I need some help. Some of you squirrels don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground. If you know what you’re doin’, or if you think you know what you’re doin’, lend a hand to the ones that don’t!”
As soon as he’d said it, he backed away. He pulled a notepad and a pencil out of his jacket pocket and started taking notes. I remember wondering why he’d done that. What was so important about what was happening that he had to write it down? As I watched some of the smarter ones helping some of the slower ones, I saw chief Taylor approach the ones offering the help. He asked them their names. Once he had their names, he asked them where they were from. Then it hit me! He wasn’t just being nice. He was looking for leadership potential. He was looking for a recruit leader. He was looking for squad leaders.
If he was looking for leaders then I wanted to be one. I started helping people out immediately; whether they needed help or not.
The washing was all done and we were assembling outside at the clothesline. I was beginning to panic. I still hadn’t gotten chief Taylor’s attention. I’d been busting my butt to help the slow guys out, but chief Taylor hadn’t bothered to ask me my name.
Hanging clothes on a clothesline in boot camp is no easy task. There are no clothes pins in the Navy. All you have to work with are these tiny little lengths of rope. You take these little lengths of rope and tie your laundry to the line using a square knot at the appropriate hanging points.
A white hat has a loop at the top on the inside. That’s the clothesline hanging point for a white hat. The belt loops on the right and left sides of a pair of dungaree pants are hanging points. Dungaree shirts are a little different, you gather up a small area at the top of each shoulder; those are the hanging points for a dungaree shirt. There are similar hanging points on a skivvy shirt. There’s an all-together different set of hanging points for a pair of skivvies (boxer shorts).
Time was running out. If I was going to be a company leader I needed to get noticed fast. I kicked it into high gear. Most of the guys were really having a hard time with the square knot thing. I mastered that sucker as quick as I could and got my clothes on the line in a hurry. Then, I started helping everybody that even looked like they were having a problem. While I was helping this poor little oriental fellow, (who didn’t seem to understand a word I was saying), I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I turned around and it was chief Taylor.
“Good job, sailor. What’s your name?”
“Powers, sir. Bob Powers.”
“Where you from, Powers?”
“Georgia, sir. Columbus, Georgia.”
“What are you doin’ in California, son? Ain’t you ‘sposed to be in Orlando?”
“No sir. I got my choice of duty, sir. I chose San Diego.”
“You dumb sack-a-shit! You could’ve had east coast duty? West coast sailors go to Yankee Station! You dumb, stupid, crazy sack-a-shit!
What-the-hell was Yankee Station? Why did he think I was dumb? Did he really think I was an idiot? Was he impressed with my leadership ability or not? I was confused, but I kept on helping the others anyway. It took a long time, too. It was good and dark before we all had our clothes on the line. When we were done, chief Taylor yelled out:
“Good job, ladies, good job. Take a break ... and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”
There was a mad dash back into the barracks as guys rushed to get a pack of cigarettes. Pretty soon we were all back outside and enjoying the first relaxing moments we’d had all day. Chief Taylor relaxed a bit, too. He told us a few things that had slipped through the cracks during the day; like how it was all right for those of us who smoked to keep one pack of cigarettes stowed in a sock from now on. That way, we’d have our cigarettes with us if we were ever in a situation where smoking might be allowed. Then he told us about the watchbill.
The watchbill was posted on the bulletin board inside the barracks. He explained the watchbill to us and told us that the watches posted on the board didn’t take effect until taps was sounded that night. There were a number of watches that we’d be standing starting tomorrow, but that night he’d only posted people to stand fire watch inside and outside the barracks. He told us what the people standing fire watch were to do, which was basically to walk around and make sure no fires got started, and that no one was in the area that wasn’t supposed to be. Once he was satisfied that we understood the drill, he told us to take the rest of the evening off.
We all went looking for the people we’d befriended before; the ones we could no longer recognize after getting our hair cut. I found Fabian and Snow and we started comparing notes on what had happened during the day. Then, we started introducing ourselves to the others. At some point I realized that chief Taylor was gone.
All to soon the bugler sounded taps and it was time to hit the rack, I ran and checked the watchbill. I was relieved to see that my name wasn’t on it.
I needed no coaxing. I was bone-tired and couldn’t get in the rack quick enough. The ones that had the watch yelled and moaned for a while, but they’d get some sleep, the watches were only four hours long. In four hours time they’d go wake up their replacements and those guys would stand the watch for a four hour shift. As the ones on watch started walking the floor, the rest of us drifted off to a peaceful, well-earned sleep. If the previous morning was any indication, the next morning would come quickly, and I wanted all the sleep I could get.
When the bugle sounded reveille the next morning I had the same feeling I’d had on the morning of day one. It couldn’t possibly be time to get up. But it was. I had to drag myself out of the rack. I was bone-tired. I felt just like I’d felt back in high school the morning after the first day of football practice. Every muscle in my body ached, especially the legs. Humping those seabags from the old side to the new had done a number on my upper body as well. I wasn’t the only one dragging. We were a pitiful looking bunch as we began to form up outside.
Chief Taylor was nowhere in sight. That was strange. I was one of the first to fall in formation. The rest of the guys were slow. Very slow. At quarter-to-six there were only a handful of us lined up. Chief Taylor wasn’t there, but there was a sailor in blues that we’d never seen before standing by the steps just outside our barracks. I stared at him for a minute and watched curiously as he climbed the steps and opened the door to our barracks. He had a high-pitched, feminine-sounding voice, and there was just the hint of a Spanish accent:
“OK you guys, let’s get a move on. We got a lot to do today.”
Who-in-the-hell was he?
When he came back down the steps I noticed that he had two small stripes on his left upper arm. I knew what those stripes meant. He was a seaman apprentice, an E-2. Hell, I was seaman, an E-3! Whoever he was I out-ranked him. But there was something else about his uniform that looked a little strange. He had this ugly-ass, blue and white braid thing suspended from his left shoulder. All of a sudden chief Taylor walked up. He stopped. He looked at his watch. Then he hurried up the steps to the barracks door. He was not a happy camper.
“OK, you shit-bag, low-rent bitches. Get your asses in formation NOW!
In less than thirty seconds the entire company was out the door and lined up in formation. We got a royal, no-holds-barred ass-chewin’. He held nothing back, and I heard words during that chew-out that I’d never heard before; bad, foul-mouthed sailor words. Some of those words I’ve never heard since. Basically, he told us that if we ever pussy-footed around again he’d personally beat the hell out of all of us. After the chew-out he calmed down a bit and took a short pause. Then, he introduced his assistant. His last name was Vargas, but we were to call him ‘Mister Vargas’. His official title was adjutant.
Mister Vargas was just some wet-behind-the-ears seaman apprentice who’d just graduated from boot camp himself. He was waiting for his ‘A’ School class to start. He didn’t have anything else to do, so he’d been assigned to the Recruit Training Command to be an assistant to chief Taylor. I out-ranked this sucker, but I was going to have to call him Mister Vargas. Only in the Navy.
Before we moved out toward the chow hall, chief Taylor had Mister Vargas hand each of us a white piece of paper. It was still dark, and we couldn’t read what was typed on the paper, but chief Taylor explained that it was our 11 General Orders. We were to have them committed to memory by the end of the day. He further instructed us that it would be OK for us to keep that piece of paper stowed in our shirt pocket for the rest of the day and that we could take it out and refer to it during any free time we had.
Chief Taylor let Vargas march us over to the chow hall. He did a pretty good job, but it was obvious he’d never done it before. Chief Taylor had to go to a meeting so he left Vargas in charge. Once inside the chow hall, after I’d finished eating, I took the paper out of my pocket and read it over several times:
NAVY & MARINE CORPS GENERAL ORDERS
1. To take charge of this post and all government property in view
2. To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert, and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing.
3. To report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce.
4. To repeat all calls from the post more distant from the guard house than my own.
5. To quit my post only when properly relieved.
6. To receive, obey, and pass on to the sentry who relieves me all orders from the commanding officer, field officer of the day, officer of the day, and officers and petty officers of the guard only.
7. To talk to no one except in the line of duty.
8. To give the alarm in case of fire or disorder.
9. To call the corporal of the guard in any case not covered by instructions.
10. To salute all officers, and all colors and standards not cased.
11. To be especially watchful at night, and, during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority.
After chow, we formed back up outside. Chief Taylor was waiting. Then, out of nowhere, Vargas came out chewing on a biscuit. The chief jumped his butt big-time. He dressed him down right in front of the company. I don’t remember everything he said, but the chief tore him a new asshole. The chow hall was for eating; the grinder was for marching. The chief must have been having a bad day. That biscuit thing just plain got his dander up. He started lecturing us on discipline right there on the grinder. He went on and on about how the Navy, in 1968, wasn’t the same Navy he’d joined back in the 40's.
“You bastards ain’t got no discipline! You ain’t got no respect for authority!
“Hell, back when I was in boot camp our company commander used to beat our asses; he’d kick our tails whenever we screwed up. But now, hell, I can’t lay a hand on any of you! At least I ain’t supposed to.”
Then, out of nowhere, chief Taylor started walking past the men in squad 1. As he passed each recruit he’d whop him on the back of the head with his open palm. He laid into each of them with all the power he could put in the blow; and he kept talking the whole time:
“If this little love tap offends anybody then break ranks right now and go tell the commanding officer. Go tell him that you’ve got a mean ol’ company commander who’s hitting his recruits. Go ahead, I dare you. Go tell the ol’ man you’ve got a mean ol’ bastard for a company commander.”
Down squad 1, whop, whop, whop; talking the whole time. Then, up squad 2, down squad 3, up squad 4, down squad 5, and finally, up squad 6, talking the whole time, slapping the whole time; talking and slapping as hard as he could:
“Go ahead, you little bastards, I dare you. Go tell the ol’ man you’ve got a son-of-a-bitch for a company commander!”
I was the last man in squad 6. I’d already flinched when he got to me and I expected it to hurt. But hurt didn’t describe it. IT HURT LIKE HELL!
Nobody broke ranks to go tell the commanding officer anything, and for the rest of our time in boot camp, whenever anybody screwed up, WHAM! He got the open palm on the back of the head.
The rest of week one is a blur. Chief Taylor was with us some, but Vargas was with us every minute of the day. There wasn’t much for him to do, however; except to march us from one location to another where the professionals at those locations would do whatever it was they needed to do to us.
Anyone who’s ever been in the military knows what ‘hurry up and wait’ means. You bust your ass to get somewhere, and to get there on time, and you end up waiting for an eternity after you get there before whatever it is you busted your ass to get there for gets done. Boot camp was just one ‘hurry up and wait’ after another.
We busted our butts to get to our medical exams and got there on time. But it was 45 minutes before the medical people started examining anyone in our company. We double-time marched from medical to dental for our dental exams. Same story. We got there on time, but this time we had to wait for over an hour before the first recruit in our company was seen.
I don’t know what I expected in the way of weather, but the weather in San Diego was weird. I didn’t expect the days to be that hot; and the nights to be that cold.
The daytime temperature was consistently in the upper 90's. When we stood in formation playing ‘hurry up and wait’ we were dying from the heat. But at night, hell, it got down-right cold. The temperature would drop from the high 90's to the low 40's in just a matter of hours. We were burning up in the daytime and freezing to death at night. To compound the problem there was a rule in the barracks that we had to leave our windows open at least six inches during the night. Supposedly, we were more likely to contract meningitis if we slept in a warm, enclosed, unventilated space. None of us caught meningitis, but many a morning I woke up to a chorus of chattering teeth; including my own.
After the palm slapping incident, chief Taylor marched us back to the barracks and made company leadership assignments. He started with the upper echelon positions.
Ernie Lewis was appointed Recruit Chief Petty Officer (RCPO). Ernie had had R.O.T.C. training in high school. Allen Jahner was named Company Yeoman (clerk). A little Hispanic guy named Jose Luna was assigned to carry the company flag. The official title of that position was Guidon Bearer. Then, chief Taylor read the names of the squad leaders:
“Squad 1, Thomas Foegelle. Squad 2, James McDay. Squad 3, Gary Creswell.”
Oh, no. Why hasn’t he called my name?
“Squad 4, Merle Davis. Squad 5, Robert Powers. Squad 6, Louis Irby.”
YES! I MADE IT!
The chief then reformed the company placing the new squad leaders at the head of each squad. The balance of the company was then assembled behind each squad leader according to height; the tallest in front with the shortest in the rear. After adjusting several people to get the balance just right, the chief handed each squad leader a small tablet and a pencil and had us write down the name and position number of each person in our squad. From now on, when we formed up as a company, we’d form up like we were now.
At some point on day two chief Taylor explained who the oriental guys were. They were Filipinos, from the Philippines, and they would one day serve as stewards, or mess attendants, for the gentlemen in the officer corps. Most of them could only understand and speak just enough English to get by.
The Navy began using Filipinos as mess stewards after the United States took over the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. They were so good at it that the admiralty petitioned congress to allow Filipinos to serve in our Navy. In recent years they had become eligible for military retirement benefits, too.
The chief went on to tell us that these guys would probably all do a full thirty-year enlistment. They’d all retire with 100% benefits and return home to the Philippines where they’d live out their lives in the lap of luxury. The per capita income in the Philippines back then was about $200 per year. When these guys retired, adjusting for inflation, they’d probably be yanking down over $2,000 a month. If they did thirty years they’d be in their early 50's when they retired. No doubt about it, they’d definitely have it made!
When we returned to the barracks at the end of the day, after the evening meal and just before we started doing our laundry, chief Taylor told us that the new, updated watchbill was in place. The RCPO and the yoeman both had specific watch duties according to their rank. I never knew what those duties were. The squad leaders pulled duty in an office in the cross-section of the H on the second floor. The rest of the company pulled duty walking fire watch inside and outside the barracks.
Saturday was pretty much a normal training day, and we weren’t in the barracks much on weekdays and Saturdays. Since we weren’t around much during the day the watchbill reflected that. But on Sundays, watches were posted for all daylight hours as well as those in the evening.
One afternoon, on either day three or four, we came back to the barracks early in the afternoon. That seemed a little odd, but none of us suspected anything. Chief Taylor told us to break formation and go inside and stand by our racks. When he came into the barracks about ten minutes later he had another chief with him. Vargas yelled, “Attention on deck”, and we all ‘snapped to’ smartly. It was a surprise inspection, and the visiting chief was there to inspect our bunks and lockers. He tore us a new asshole! Every time he’d find something wrong he’d start yelling. And when he’d start yelling, chief Taylor would start yelling. It was as though they were having a yelling contest. The inspecting chief would yell:
“What’s this shit? These shirts ain’t folded right!”
Then, he’d take the whole stack of shirts and yank them out of the locker. He’d stare at them in comic disbelief and then throw them on the floor. While he was yanking and throwing, chief Taylor was yelling and screaming. He was not a happy camper.
“You dumb sons-of-bitches! I showed you bastards how to fold them things ten or twenty times! What’s the matter with you people? You dumb-ass sons-a-bitches! DUMB!”
When inspection tags started showing up the shit really hit the fan.
“What-in-the-hell is this? Is this an inspection tag? Is that what I’m holdin’ in my hand, chief? Didn’t you tell your people about inspection tags?”
“You dumb, puke-ass, piss-ant bastards! You shit-for-brains, dumb-ass, lower than whale shit whores! Damn you people. Damn you all to hell!”
The inspection seemed to go on for hours, but it probably only lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes. When it was over we’d all been gigged for something; and every one of our lockers had been ransacked. It looked like an A-bomb had gone off in the barracks. We spent the rest of the afternoon checking for inspection tags and refolding and stowing our gear.
Chief Taylor told us later that what we’d just been through was a test inspection; that later on in the training cycle we’d have a real one. He said that the real one would be a lot tougher. After that we were constantly checking each other’s lockers. We wanted to make sure we’d be ready for that next inspection; the real one; the one that really counted. We were ready, but that ‘for real’ inspection never came.
Most of week one was dedicated to making us ready to be sailors. They issued us our gear. They gave us medical and dental exams. The gave us inoculations. They drown-proofed us. Then, they gave us all a general aptitude test to determine what jobs we’d best be qualified for. Those of us who had been guaranteed an ‘A’ School were tested to determine which school we’d best be suited for.
One morning during the first week of training chief Taylor had us put our bathing suits on under our dungaree pants. After breakfast, he marched us over to a huge building that housed an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The first thing I noticed when we entered the building was a platform that must have been twenty feet off the water. I had a sneaky, gut-wrenching feeling that that platform would play a role in whatever it was we were there to do.
The Navy drown-proofs every sailor that enters boot camp. There are two steps in the drown-proofing process. You have to execute a jump off a platform which replicates what it would be like if you ever had to abandon ship. And once in the pool, you have to be able to tread water for a pre-determined period of time.
We weren’t the only company present, there were five or six other companies, and there was a tension in the air that you could cut with a knife. Rightfully so. Some of the men taking part in the drill would no longer be in the Navy come sundown.
There were bleacher seats on one side of the pool. We gathered in company formation in one of the bleacher sections, took off our dungarees, and listened to an instructor tell us what we’d have to do when it was our turn to proceed.
The whole time the instructor was talking I kept having this horrible thought: Wouldn’t it be a hoot if I couldn’t do this; if I couldn’t tread water for the minimum required time? I’d come in the Navy on the UDT/SEAL program, I was supposed to be a qualified swimmer, but wouldn’t it be a hoot if I couldn’t do this?
Several companies preceded us, and there were a number of problems right off the bat. Some of the guys just couldn’t make the jump off the platform. They froze up; scared to death; they just couldn’t do it. There was a long pause while they worked to get one guy back down the ladder. One recruit was so scared he couldn’t even climb the ladder.
Once there were people in the pool, several managed to tread water for a time, but started swimming for the sides in a panic. Some of the instructors were trying to convince them to keep working at it, to keep trying, to keep treading water, but they couldn’t. And when they exited the pool they were hustled out of the area to another part of the building. I don’t think a single company that preceded us got through the drill without losing some-body.
When it was our turn we’d at least had the benefit of seeing what was expected of the others. It was a slow climb to the platform. They let three or four go up at a time and I was the last one in my group.
Once on the platform, staring down at the water, I would have sworn we were higher than twenty feet. There wasn’t much time to think about it, an instructor blew a whistle and we all went off together.
We’d been instructed to jump feet together, feet first, and cup one hand over our genitals to protect our privates from the impact with the water. No problem there. But when I hit the water I went clean to the bottom. That surprised me. When it seemed like it was taking forever for me to get back to the top, I opened my eyes to see how far I was from the surface. That was a big mistake. The water was super-saturated with chlorine. When I hit the surface my eyes were burning like crazy. I couldn’t see anything. There was so much chlorine in the water it literally blinded me. I started treading water and after about thirty seconds I knew I could make it. But I still couldn’t see very well. Everything inside and outside the pool was just a blur. It was a surreal effect; the edges of my vision were fuzzy-white and blurry; but I could see something akin to shapes in the middle. Mostly, it just hurt. My eyes were burning like crazy.
I began to wonder if the chlorine, and the inability to see, had been the reason the guys I’d watched earlier had given up so easily. Maybe they’d lost their courage when they couldn’t see what was happening; couldn’t see where they were; couldn’t see how far it was to the side of the pool.
Everyone in my group made it. In fact, everyone in the company made it. Drown-proofing was a mother, and we were damn glad when it was over.
Drown-proofing was an experience that none of us ever wanted to go through again. But it wasn’t the only boot camp experience that we felt that way about. The inoculation process was almost as bad.
Every Navy recruit had to be inoculated against the many diseases he might be exposed to in his travels around the world. In the old days, that meant five or six shots with conventional medical syringes. But in the ultra-modern Navy of 1968 those conventional syringes had been replaced by a rather ingenious delivery device. It was a gun capable of injecting multiple vaccines at one time in an explosive blast of compressed air.
Early on in week one we were marched over to the medical facility and herded through a line to get shot. The guns went off with a muffled explosion and five or six injections were air-blasted into our arms at one time. Several of the big guys fainted; not while they were getting shot, but while they were watching the men in front of them get blasted. I didn’t faint, but I got a little weak in the knees. It actually didn’t hurt that much, but every blast generated some bleeding, and it was seeing all that blood that made you feel queasy.
The one injection we did get with a conventional syringe was a G.G. shot. G.G. stands for gammaglobulin. Gammaglobulin is something they give you to build up your immune system. Supposedly, it would reduce the chance of us coming down with a cold or the flu while we were in training. We got the G.G. shots in the upper buttocks. It didn’t hurt then, but it hurt later. For the next three days we could hardly walk, much less march.
On day three we were issued our weapons. Chief Taylor formed us up after noon chow and marched us over to the armory.
The M-14 Garrand and the Colt AR-15 (M-16) were the weapons of choice in the military at the time. But those weapons must have been in great demand. All they could spare for boot camp purposes were old Springfield rifles from World War I.
We entered the armory one squad at a time and gave our rank and service number to our yoeman, Jahner. It was his job to write that information down, and then write down the serial number of the weapon we were issued. From the very beginning I couldn’t understand why we needed a rifle. I mean, we weren’t infantry, we were Navy. We didn’t need a rifle. The Navy had a reason, however, and it didn’t take long to figure it out.
In 1968, the Navy had this rifle drill called the 16 Count Manual of Arms. It was nothing more than a tortuous upperbody workout designed to build up our arms and shoulders. Every company had to perform the 16 Count Manual in front of a reviewing officer at least once before graduation. So, we not only had to learn how to do it as a group, we had to do it as a group ‘in review’ as a requirement to graduate.
In boot camp in the ‘60s we wore our blue ball caps for the first four weeks of training. The fifth week of training was Service Week. During Service Week boot camp companies did chow hall duty, polished brass, swept the grinder and other menial jobs like that. Start-ing with Service Week, we were officially recognized as sailors, and we put away our dungarees and were finally allowed to wear our white uniforms and white hats.
We’d been washing our white hats from day one. Every night we’d wash a different hat. By the time we’d reached Service Week we’d washed each one four or five times. White hats don’t wear well new. They don’t form up well until they’ve been washed several times apiece. That’s probably the reason we weren’t allowed to wear them until Service Week.
The Navy’s General Classification Exams were exhausting. The tests would go on all morning and then we’d break for chow. When we’d come back from chow we’d be tested all afternoon. And they tested us for everything.
I made a perfect score on the sonar exam. The guy giving the test said that he’d never had anybody make a perfect score before. He thought my score was a fluke, so he asked his supervisor if he could test me again. He tested me again, and again, I made a perfect score. It caused quite a ruckus. At first they got all excited and told me I was perfect material for sonar school. Then, they looked at my induction information and found out I’d come in on the UDT/SEAL program. That kind of busted their bubble. Sonar was a submarine rate. They wouldn’t be authorized to rate me a sonarman if I remained selected for UDT/SEAL. They asked if I’d consider the submarine service. I said no. That was the end of that.
I did extremely well in the shop practice profiles, but did very poorly on the Foreign Language Aptitude Test. What-the-hell was that? Some of the rates I qualified for were Hospital Corpsman, Gunnersmate and Boson’s Mate.
Throughout the first four weeks of training, right up until Service Week, we were constantly being drilled on the Eleven General Orders. Usually it was Vargas that would demand a response, and he did most of his pestering while we were formed up in front of some base facility playing ‘hurry up and wait’. He’d walk up in front of you, come up out of nowhere, and say:
“OK, sailor, what’s your third general order?”
We’d spout out the answer, or try to anyway, while that dumb bastard stood there with a copy of the same handout chief Taylor had given us. He was just a month or two out of boot camp himself and he couldn’t remember the damn things. We all wanted to hog-tie his butt and beat him black-and-blue. He was a real jerk.
After chow on Friday evenings, during our first four weeks of training, we’d march over to the boxing arena to witness the Friday night fights. Each company was required to provide at least one participant. At first, chief Taylor asked for a volunteer. We weren’t a very brave bunch and he got absolutely nowhere when he went that route. Because he got no volunteers he had to just choose somebody. He chose Leonilo Enrile, one of the Filipinos.
“Come on, Enrile, I bet you’re a fighter. You little Filipino bastards are scrappy little devils, let’s see what you’re made of.”
Enrile couldn’t speak or understand English very well, but he knew what was about to happen, and he was scared to death.
Each bout lasted three rounds. The fighters were paired up as to size and weight. It was a hoot to watch. Most of the guys didn’t know anything about boxing. Few, if any, had ever boxed in their lives. Every now and then a company would put up a ringer, a guy who did have experience in the ring, but most of the bouts featured rank amateurs.
Enrile had never boxed before, but the guy he got paired up with looked like a Golden Gloves contender. You could tell by his moves in the ring that he definitely knew what he was doing.
When the fight started, Enrile was all over the place. He didn’t know how to box, but he was fast as greased lightning; the other guy couldn’t keep up with him. Round one went by and there couldn’t have been more than three or four punches thrown. Enrile was outright avoiding the guy. Round two was pretty much the same. But by the middle of round three Enrile was getting tired. Eventually, toward the end of the round, they got tied up in the center of the ring and the punches were fast and furious. Chief Taylor was right, Enrile didn’t know what he was doing, but he was game. He accounted for himself well. The fight was a draw, no winner, and we cheered like crazy when the decision was announced.
Beginning with week two we spent half of each day attending training classes. The Navy was trying to go high-tech, and our classroom instruction was accomplished without an on-site instructor. Each classroom had a TV set; the person on TV was our instructor.
I’m sure they eventually perfected the concept, but the use of a live, on-camera television instructor was down-right comical. In the First Aid class the instructor on the screen kept asking if we had any questions. We’d yell out “Yea!”, but the guy on the screen wouldn’t (and couldn’t) respond. He wasn’t even in the same building we were in! Only in the Navy, and maybe the Marines.
Chief Taylor loved that damn 16 Count Manual of Arms. Every chance he got he’d have us formed up outside doing the damn thing. And we’d do it over and over and over again. Our arms would feel like they were about to fall off. Our backs were aching something fierce. And the thirst. He’d work us for hours with only momentary breaks. We got thirsty in a hurry in that broiling San Diego sun, and for the longest time there would be no relief.
When we weren’t doing the Manual of Arms the chief had us busting our butts on the grinder. By the third week, hell, we had that marching thing down. We were damn good, and we knew it! We knew every move, every command, and we could execute each command with a snap and a dash that made us proud; cocky. We knew we were good; that we were substantially better than any other company in our training cycle. We even put a smile on chief Taylor’s face every now and then.
Some of the recruits in our company had a problem early on with which foot was which, and they were having a problem staying in step, too. Three of the guys having a problem were black, and one of the black recruits who wasn’t having a problem started working with them after-hours to help them get up to speed.
Which foot was which got solved almost immediately, but teaching them how to stay in step took a little longer.
It was early one evening; chief Taylor and Vargas had both left, and I was sitting on the stoop outside the barracks watching the remedial guys do their thing. Then I noticed that the line had grown longer. It used to just be four black guys. Now there were six black guys, three white guys and a Filipino. And there was something funky about the way they were marching.
The guy teaching the group had come up with an ingenious idea for teaching them how to stay in step. They would count to four, one count for each step, and then start the count all over again. And to help them stay in step, he’d taught them to lay their heels in hard every time they got to a one count.
That funky sound they made when they marched; that hard sound when they’d dig that left heel in; that heavy sound on one and the light sounds on two, three and four, hey, it became infectious. They looked so good doing it, too; and there was something about that sound; you wanted to be out there yourself; marching with them; making that sound. WHOP, two, three, four, WHOP, two, three, four. The next thing you know at least half the company is falling in. Ernie, the RCPO, he’s out there, too; leading us. It’s after hours, we’re on our on time, but we’re forming up and marching on the grinder. But this time we’re doing that funky little four count thing; digging in our heels on one.
At first we just marched around in front of our barracks. Guys from other companies would come out to watch. At one point they started cheering. It was the neatest thing. Then, Ernie wheeled us around and we took a tour of the entire chow hall grinder. By the time we’d made it all the way around, a loud, sustained cheer could be heard from men lined up in front of all the barracks. Man, were we proud!
The morning after we put on our show we formed up outside the barracks like we always did. Chief Taylor gave us an overview of the days activities. Then, it was off to the chow hall to eat breakfast. It was just such a natural thing to do, so we did it. As we marched toward the chow hall we started digging in our left heel on the one count. We didn’t make it far.
“Halt, halt, halt!”
There was a deafening silence. Then chief Taylor went ballistic:
“What-in-the-holy-friggin’-hell are you doin’?”
Nobody said anything.
“What’s that whop sound? What’s that whoppin’ sound I hear? Every step you take is supposed to sound the same! I don’t ever want to hear that whop sound again! Under-stand?”
We all responded, “Aye, aye, sir!” But the chief would hear that sound one more time before boot camp was over.
One day we were called to muster right after breakfast. We were divided into groups according to which state we were from. Then, we were taken to a large building where we filled out absentee ballots from our home states. 1968 was an election year, and we were all going to get to vote.
The three presidential candidates were Richard Nixon, Republican, Hubert Humphrey, Democrat and George Wallace, Independent. I didn’t know anything about Humphrey except that he had a strange accent. Wallace was from Alabama and was a racist. He’d stood on the front steps at the University of Alabama just a few years before and refused to allow blacks to be enrolled there. I didn’t care too much for that. Nixon had promised to end the war in Vietnam. Now that sounded like a good idea. I voted for Nixon.
There was a ship on the grounds of Recruit Training Command. It was a model of a Destroyer Escort and it was land-locked right in the middle of the base. It was called the U.S.S. Recruit, and it was a very practical training aid in teaching us what life would be like aboard ship.
Using the Recruit as a practice vessel, we learned how to toss lines and tie-up and untie a ship in port. We learned how to use a marlin spike. We learned how to tie knots. We learned how to rig a boson’s chair for highlining. We learned how to use shipboard sound-powered phones. We learned how to steer the ship. We learned how to plot a course. And we learned about life boats and how to deploy them in an emergency.
By the end of the third week we all knew each other by name. We didn’t all like each other, but we knew each other. The one big difference in being a civilian and being in the military is that you can choose whether or not to associate with someone if you’re a civilian. In the military, you have to associate with people you wouldn’t ordinarily have anything to do with at all. You have no choice in the matter what-so-ever.
Differences aside, we were a pretty diverse bunch. Besides the Filipinos and the Georgia crowd, me, Fabian and Snow, there was a group from Los Angeles, a group from Chicago, some guys from the north and northwest, and that rowdy-ass bunch from Texas. But the most colorful group were the guys from Mississippi.
William (Buddy) Rucker was from Jackson. Harold Delancy and Louis Irby were from Harrisville, and Marvin Adcock, a little, feisty, sawed-off thing, was from Yazoo City.
Rucker was cool. He was real quiet, the laid-back type. Everybody liked Buddy. Irby, on the other hand, was something of a braggart. Whenever anyone told a story Irby had to top it. Delancy was just a down-right nice fellow, country-as-hell, but a real likable sort. Adcock was country, too. One of the yankees paid him money once just to hear him talk.
Fabian and Snow and I found ourselves forcibly bound to Rucker and Irby, but it wasn’t because we wanted to be. They'd come in on the UDT/SEAL program, too.
The guys from Chicago were all black; and they were all street smart. I don’t know it to be a fact, but I’ve always had suspicions that some, if not all, were members, or former members, of Chicago area gangs.
There was Nathaniel Bates. He was quiet; he kept to himself, but he’d talk to you if you engaged him in conversation.
Joel Woolfolk was probably the most educated of the group. He was smart, but his intelligence was hidden under a street smart facade.
Alfred Lawrence definitely had street smarts, and if any of the them had ever been in a gang it was Alfred. But he was also a cut-up. He had an unusual sense of humor and he was prone to pull off a practical joke if given half the chance. But there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if you screwed with Alfred you were going to get hurt.
James McDay had probably been in a gang, too. And he was sharp; real sharp. He didn’t have the natural intelligence that Woolfolk had, but he had an obvious leadership quality about him. Chief Taylor had picked up on that, too. He’d made McDay a squad leader. But the fact that he was a squad leader didn’t mean anything to McDay. He was tough, and he didn’t take anything off anybody. Nobody messed with McDay. If you messed with James he’d take you on and everybody in the company knew it.
Boot camp was a rude awakening for the guys from Los Angeles. It was a cruel intro-duction to what the real world was like. Thomas Donahue was white; Gerald Goodwin and Randy Walker were black.
Racism was a national problem during the mid-to-late sixties. Most hotels, motels and restaurants in the country wouldn’t accommodate blacks. And almost everywhere you went there were three bathrooms; MEN, WOMEN and COLORED. But it wasn’t like that in California. Accordingly, it was a shock for Walker and Goodwin to be on the receiving end of the racial slurs and derogatory remarks that they received from some of the southerners. It shocked Donahue, too, but he was white, and it didn’t impact him the way it did the others.
There were twenty-three guys from Texas; they made up more than a third of the company. There was Richard Barbian from Abilene, Jimmie Genton from Palestine, James Calhoun from Cross Plains, Charles Flores from Fort Worth, Patrick Hammack from Garland, Gary Heath from Grand Prairie, Gary Kneisley from Austin, John Knotts from Gatesville, Gary Moeller from Yorktown, Gary Peters from Waco, Robert Prochazka from Corpus Christi, Raymond Schroeder from Floresville, William Smith from Whitsett, Travis Toland from Breckenridge, and Vernon Brown, Gary Creswell, Thomas Foegelle, Jose Luna, Robert Miller, Stephen Poe, Juan Serna, David Simpson and Daniel Tezel from San Antonio.
Some of them were the picture of what an ‘All-American Boy’ should be. But some work-ed overtime to see just how big an asshole they could be. More good guys than assholes, but enough assholes to make life miserable for the entire company on more than one occasion.
There were a number of guys from the north and northwest. Roger Anderson was from Michigan, North Dakota. LeRoy Buffington was from Ashby, Minnesota and Daniel Skalsky was from Ada. Kenneth Ehrmann and Steven Stelter were from Bismarck, North Dakota and Tommy McAtee was from Leonard Michael Gelinskey was from Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Michael Gwinner was from Milwaukee.
We had a couple of loner types who were from places nobody else was from. William Brown was from East Chicago, Indiana. Louie Cortez (Teddy Bear) was from Las Vegas. Murle Davis was from Oklahoma City and Henry Caldwell was from Palestine, Louisiana.
The Filipinos were a small but hearty bunch. They kept to themselves and didn’t have much to do with the rest of us. There was Emanuel Cruz, Reynaldo Delmundo, Emmanuel Delosreyes, Clarito Devera, Carlos Ejan, Antonio Elazegui, Leonilo Enrile, Bernardino Enriquez, Oscar Federico and Benjamin Feliciano.
Sometime in week four, just as we returned to the barracks after a hard afternoon on the grinder, there was a guy standing by the barracks steps dressed in a faded, olive-drab utility uniform like the Marines wear. But it was obvious that he wasn’t a marine. He had a Navy second class petty officer’s patch on his upper left arm.
My cousin, Lon, was a paratrooper, and I knew what his paratrooper wings looked like. This guy wore the same paratrooper insignia, and at the same place on his uniform that Lon wore it on his. His pants legs were bloused, too, revealing a pair of paratrooper jump boots. Then I saw the green frog on the patch on his right shoulder. That green frog could only mean one thing; this guy was UDT. He was a member of an Underwater Demolition Team. What in the hell was he doing here?
Chief Taylor left us in formation and walked over to the stranger. The frogman had a clipboard and he and chief Taylor looked at it intently as they talked. Toward the end of their conversation both of them started laughing. Then, chief Taylor walked back over to where we were and started calling out names:
“Rucker, Irby, Powers, Fabain and Snow, fall out!”
This guy’s visit obviously had something to do with the fact that we’d all come in on the UDT/SEAL program. But what?
“Ladies, I understand that the five of you want to be SEAL’s. Well, this gentleman here wants to know if you can swim or not, so he’s gon’ take you over to the field house pool and find out. Break ranks. Go inside and put your swim trunks on under your dungarees. Powers, you’re senior, so you’re in charge. When you get through at the pool I want you to double-time this bunch of whores back to the barracks. Understand?”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
We broke ranks and ran inside as fast as we could. We yanked off our dungaree pants, took off our skivvies, and put on our bathing suits. Then, we put our dungaree pants back on and hurried back outside.
The frogman had us form up single file. Then, he double-time marched us over to the field house. Double-time is really nothing more than a jog. The trick is, you’re jogging in for-mation, and ‘in step’.
When we got to the field house the frogman called us to a halt. Then, he did away with the military formality.
“You guys go inside and take off your dungarees. I’ll check with the pool manager and see if we can’t get you some towels to dry off with when you’re done.”
The five of us went inside and did as we were told. We were the only ones there. This was the same pool we’d been drown-proofed in. I started mentally getting myself ready for the chlorine. We all removed our dungarees and sat on the first row of bleachers at the near end of the pool. When the frogman returned he had towels, and he’d borrowed a stop watch from the pool manager, too. It was hanging on a thin cord around his neck.
“Gentlemen, I’m here to give you the BUDS B.Q. swim test. It’s the basic qualification swim that everyone applying for the BUDS program has to make.”
One of the others interrupted before he could continue.
“Ain’t there another pool we can take the test in? This one’s full of chlorine. Whoever runs this joint don’t know how much chlorine to use.”
The frog responded curtly:
“It’s saturated with chlorine for a reason. The main purpose for this facility is the drown-proofing drill, to make sure that all incoming recruits have what it takes to survive an abandon ship drill. The chlorine is a substitute for the salt water and fuel oil that you’ll have to deal with if you ever have to abandon ship for real. And believe it or not, it’s a poor substitute.”
There was another question from one of the others:
“Hey, man, I don’t know about these guys, but I had to make a qualification swim before they’d even let me in the program. You should have a record of that.”
“I don’t. But even if I did you’re gonna do this swim today, and I’m gonna record your time. You’ll either qualify or you won’t. OK, let’s do it. Let’s get lined up here on this end of the pool.”
We lined up, but we were not happy campers. We were bone-tired. None of us were men-tally prepared for what we were about to do.
“Now, here’s the drill. You have to do seven laps in under ten minutes, and you can use any stroke you want as long as it’s an underwater recovery stroke.”
We all asked the same question at the same time:
“What’s an underwater recovery stroke?”
The frogman smiled. “I thought you said you’d done this before.”
The one that had interrupted earlier spoke up again.
“I did a qualification swim, but they let us do any stroke we wanted.”
“And you did it freestyle, right?”
“That’s why you’re doing it again. The recruiters have been screwin’ this thing up. You have to use an underwater recovery stroke.”
“An underwater recovery stroke is any stroke that doesn’t require your hands or feet to break the water.”
Irby seemed comically confused.
“You mean we gotta dog-paddle?”
“Well, the dog-paddle IS an underwater recovery stroke, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“What WOULD you recommend?”
“I’d use the breast stroke. But again, you can use any stroke you want as long as your arms and legs don’t break the water.”
“Jeez, man! Can’t nobody do seven laps in ten minutes doing the breast stroke.”
“Trust me, it can be done. And it really isn’t that hard to do. Just pace yourself, get a rhythm, that’s all you have to do.”
Irby was thinking the same thing I was.
“What’s a lap? Is it all the way down and all the way back, or just one way one time?”
“Each length of the pool is a lap.”
I started doing the math and calculated that we’d have to do each lap in a minute and twenty seconds or so. That didn’t sound so bad. But how long would it take to do one lap doing the breast stroke?
I had decided before joining the Navy that I really didn’t want any part of the UDT/SEAL program. But I knew, because I’d let the recruiter talk me into coming in on the program, that getting an ‘A’ School would only be possible if I qualified. I still didn’t want to be a SEAL, but I DID want an ‘A’ School. I definitely had mixed emotions. What would happen if I couldn’t make the swim in an acceptable time? Would I still get assigned to an ‘A’ School?
The pool was wide enough that all of us could do the swim at one time. The frogman lined us up, grabbed the stop watch and yelled “Go!”
We all dove in. Right off the bat we were all doing five very bad versions of the breast stroke. We were so bad that the frogman turned his head toward the wall. He was mum-bling, but I heard what he said:
“Holy Mary, mother of God.”
We all knew how to swim, but the breast stroke isn’t something you do everyday, even if you’re a pretty good swimmer. I’d never done the breast stroke at all. There was a clock on the wall at one end of the pool. Every other lap I could check the time at the end. That way I could gauge what my time was. If I could stay close to 1:20 per lap I’d qualify.
I was really proud of myself at the end of three laps. I’d been able to check my time on two of them and I was in the 1:10 range. But I was wearing out fast. My arms felt like they were made of lead and I had four more laps to go.
At the end of four laps Snow was out in front of everybody. Rucker and Fabian and I were kind of bunched together in the middle and Irby was bringing up the rear.
At the end of five laps I’d fallen way behind. My last time was pushing two minutes. I was dragging. I was doing the breast stroke, but I was hardly moving in the water. I wasn’t going anywhere. There was no energy behind the strokes. I was screwed and I knew it.
Snow finished first by a large margin, then Fabian, me and Rucker. Irby pulled up the rear. The frogman handed each of us a towel as we exited the pool. Then he motioned for us to sit in the bleachers.
“You guys are really somethin’. I’m surprised you even passed the drown-proofing drill.”
Rucker was still huffing and puffing, but he managed to ask a question.
“How’d we do? Did we pass?”
“Mr. Snow here got close. But no, none of you made it.”
Snow seemed shocked.
“What do mean close?
“You were forty seconds over.”
“Forty seconds! Geez, ain’t that close enough?”
“No. The minimum time is just that, it’s a minimum requirement. It ought to be higher. The guys who usually qualify with a minimum time have trouble making it through the program. No exceptions, it’s minimum time or under or you don’t qualify.”
There were a million questions going through my head. Was this it? Was I out of the program? Was the Navy going to renig on sending me to ‘A’ School? Were they just going to send me to the fleet when boot camp was over? It was a bad feeling. Rucker was having the same thoughts and he verbalized them.
“Does this mean we’re out of the program?”
“It should. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you guys a couple of weeks and come back and test you again. How ‘bout that?”
We all responded in the affirmative. He said he’d talk with chief Taylor about making arrangements for us to use the pool to practice in each night. He built up our hopes by telling us that he thought we all could make it if we perfected the breast stroke and built up our upper body strength. Then he left. I got the guys formed up outside and double-timed them back to the barracks.
In the weeks that followed we only went back to the pool once. I never went back after that because I could tell my time wasn’t improving. In fact, it was getting worse. I resigned myself to failure and wondered what my new fate in the Navy would be. Snow went back a few times but even he became discouraged. We all began to realize that we weren’t going to make it; and just how special the guys were who did.
Toward the end of our first four weeks we participated in an athletic competition against the other companies in our training cycle. Chief Taylor made a big deal out of it. The overall company winner would receive a special award at graduation, and chief Taylor wanted that award.
We competed in basketball, volleyball, a tug-of-war, and a number of other activities. I don’t remember much about the other events, but I’ll never forget the swimming competition.
Chief Taylor figured that with five UDT/SEAL recruits we’d certainly have a lock on the swimming events. We weren’t feeling very confident after the fiasco with our swim tests and we convinced him to let the others volunteer to participate. Our plan was only moderately successful. The five of us had to carry the weight in all but one of the swimming contests. There was a non-UDT volunteer for the four man freestyle, however. Enrile.
Enrile was a hoot. When it was his turn to swim his lap, he just closed his eyes and flailed his arms and set off in the general direction of the other end of the pool. But because he had his eyes closed he had no idea where he was going. Right off the bat he started veering into the lane to his left. By the time he got to the other end he had veered across four lanes and collided with three competing swimmers in the process. Needless to say, we were disqualified, and chief Taylor was royally pissed.
Overall, we finished second in the standings. We were only a few points out of first. Chief Taylor blamed the UDT bunch. He was convinced that if we’d done all the swimming we’d have won the event that Enrile screwed up. He was probably right. If we had won that event we’d probably have finished first in the overall.
Week five was service week, and service week was a bummer. At any given time in boot camp there are a lot of chores to be done. The Navy needs a lot of people to make any facility operational. They need servers in the chow hall; people to clean the heads; people to polish the brass; people to sweep and clean up the grounds; people to mow grass in the summer time. The list of jobs goes on-and-on. The Navy is very resourceful. Instead of assigning sailors to do those jobs full-time, they let the recruits do it, and every week the recruits who are in their fifth week in the cycle get the duty.
Some jobs weren’t bad. Cleaning the head sounds rough, but it really isn’t. You’re indoors, out of the sun, and once you get a head clean, keeping it clean isn’t too hard. Cleaning brass is much the same, but some of the jobs were awful.
Washing dishes in the chow hall, especially the pots and pans, has to be one of the worst. Needless to say, that’s the assignment I drew. To this day, whenever I see a stack of pots and pans, I stay clear of them. I washed enough that one week to last me a lifetime.
I had assumed that at some point we’d be allowed to go to the Post Exchange and buy things we needed; like toothpaste, razor blades, shaving cream, CIGARETTES.
We finally got a PX visit at the end of Service Week. By then, all of us smokers had run out of cigarettes. But at the PX we were only allowed to buy the regulation two packs. We went through in a single-file line. Chief Taylor supervised. One of the guys ahead of me, a smoker, slipped one of the non-smokers some money and asked him to buy some extra packs for him. But chief Taylor would have none of it. By that time he knew who smoked and who didn’t, and this guy didn’t. I already had a guy lined up to do the same thing. When he saw what happened, when he saw chief Taylor intervene and stop the sale, he tapped me on the shoulder and handed me my money back. Was this the same chief Taylor that had let us cheat stowing cigarettes before? Why was he being an asshole now?
At the beginning of service week we’d checked out of our barracks on the new side and taken up residence in one of those dilapidated bad boys on the old side. It was depressing.
Once we started the sixth week of training, Vargas was gone. Whenever we needed to go somewhere, and chief Taylor wasn’t there or had something else to do, then our RCPO would take charge and see that we got there. We didn’t need Vargas anymore, and that was a good feeling.
All of the advanced training elements happen during weeks six, seven and eight. We were taken to the rifle range where we got to fire an M-14 Garrand on the target range. While we were there we saw a live fire exercise in which the instructors demonstrated the use of the Thompson Submachine Gun, the Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.), and the Brown-ing 50-caliber Machine Gun. All I remember is that the sound was incredible, especially the B.A.R!
We went to Firefighting School, too. That was a weird experience. The Navy puts a lot of emphasis on shipboard firefighting. At sea, a sailor’s worst enemy is fire. Every crew member must know the basics about fighting a fire aboard ship. We were divided into groups and each group had to enter a burning compartment with a hose and put out a fire. We had to extinguish a burning, open tank fire as well.
There was this cinder-block building in boot camp. It had a single door and no windows. That was the torture chamber they used for gas mask instruction. To make sure we knew how to use a gas mask, they gave us instructions on putting them on and taking them off, then they put those instructions to the test.
After we had put on the masks, they led us into the chamber and closed the door. Then, they told us to wait for an order to take our masks off. While we were waiting for the order they started releasing CS gas into the room. CS gas is tear gas. The room filled up in a hurry; it looked like a fog on a damp, rainy morning. Some of the guys had bad-fitting masks and some of the gas leaked in. They began squirming and yelling to let the instruc-tors know. The instructors showed them how to tighten the straps and get a better fit. Finally, just to let us all know what it felt like without the masks, they gave us the order to take them off. It didn’t feel good. It seemed like we stood there for a minute or more, but I’m sure it was only twenty or thirty seconds, then they started letting us exit the building one at a time.
Early on in boot camp we had been told that our company, and the others in the same training cycle, would be the last to be authorized to go home on Christmas leave. We weren’t scheduled to graduate until January, but we’d be allowed to go home a week before Christmas and return the day after New Years. That was great news, and we were all looking forward to it.
In the last week of training before we went home on leave the frogman returned. Just like before we all double-timed it to the pool and did the swim one last time. Surprisingly, Snow was only a matter of seconds over, and the rest of us were within forty to fifty seconds of making it. The frogman didn’t say anything else, just that we didn’t make it. Then he left. I remember thinking that if we’d just had more time, that maybe if we’d done the pool thing like he’d suggested, that maybe we could have made it. I still don’t know why we did so much better that last time, but it was a hollow feeling. We all resigned ourselves to failure and wondered what jobs the Navy would assign us to now. The biggest fear was that we wouldn’t get an ‘A’ School, that we’d get sent straight to the fleet. It was a very hollow feeling.
Liberty is a Navy term for time off; time spent ashore either off-base or off-ship. Under normal circumstances recruits weren’t allowed to go on liberty until the last weekend of boot camp. Since we were going home on leave, we wouldn’t get our boot camp liberty until we returned.
I don’t remember much about Christmas leave. The one thing I do recall is that my civilian clothes didn’t fit anymore. My pants legs, which used to rest just at the top of my shoes, were somewhere up around my ankles. I had been 5' 11" tall when I joined the Navy. I got my mom to measure me and I was a shade over 6'. Hummm, maybe it was the milk!
While I’d been in boot camp, my cousin Lon had been in Ranger School at Fort Benning. He’d completed the training and had just left town a day or so before I got home. I was disappointed that I’d missed him.
I was really proud of Lon. Ranger School had been the last windmill; the last big fight. I never thought he’d reach all those goals he’d set for himself. But he had. Now, he was headed for Vietnam to qualify for the G.I. Bill.
I envied Lon. He thought through his options with a lot more finesse than I did. I hadn’t done too well thinking through any of mine.
At lunch one day I was talking with mom about Lon. We talked about all the goals he’d set, and how proud we were that he’d reached them. We were talking about Ranger School, the course he’d just completed, when she said something that caught me by sur-prise:
“Bless his heart. He just looked so dejected when it was over.”
“What do you mean, dejected?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure. He called me up on graduation day and asked me to come out and get him. Your dad and I drove out and picked him up. He didn’t even go to the graduation ceremony.”
“Oh, God. Don’t tell me he didn’t make it.”
“That’s part of the problem. I don’t think he really knows for sure.”
“When all the training was done, right before graduation, his name appeared on a list that said ‘Under Review For Qualification’.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, he completed the course. But according to Lon, you can complete the course and still not be qualified to wear the Ranger tab on your uniform.”
“Oh, man. If he didn’t qualify it’ll kill him.”
“I told him to wait and get a clarification, to find out what the results of the review would be. But he was sure he’d failed. He just kept saying, ‘Aunt Bernice, take me home. Just take me home.’ So, we brought him home.”
“And he’d already gotten two choices of duty.”
“One option was a chance to serve with a Ranger battalion, the other was for duty with the First Infantry Division.”
“Doesn’t that mean he made it? They wouldn’t give you a chance to serve with a Ranger battalion if you weren’t Ranger qualified, would they?”
“Lon said they could. He said you didn’t have to have the tab to be assigned to the Rangers. But he said his life would be miserable if he did that; if he went to Vietnam, to a Ranger battalion, and wasn’t authorized to wear the tab.”
I felt so sorry for Lon. Going through Ranger training and not getting the Ranger tab; that had to be demoralizing. And he’d wanted it so badly. Lon’s situation taught me a lesson: that any choice one made in the military had a price associated with it. Lon had just paid a price - a hefty one - and for all he knew he’d gotten nothing in return; nothing at all.
I’ll admit that I had been homesick when I was in boot camp. I’d looked forward to coming home. But things were different when I got there. My parents had moved into a new house and I felt like a stranger. When it was time to return to San Diego, I was ready. Home wasn’t home anymore. The Navy wasn’t home, either, but I was finally out of the nest. That was a good feeling.
The last week of training was full of activity. We were trying to get in as much time on the grinder as possible so we’d look good when we ‘passed in review’ for graduation. But there were a lot of other things to get out of the way, too. We all wondered how we’d done; were we going to be an honor company or not? And we were all on pins and needles awaiting our orders.
One day, just after lunch, chief Taylor called all the UDT candidates together. He’d received a written order directing the five of us to report to the base psychiatrist’s office. We were all confused. If we had washed out of the program, why did UDT want us to see a shrink?
I was placed in charge of the group and handed a map. The route to the shrink’s office had been marked with an ink pen and I was ordered to double-time the guys over and double-time them back when we were done.
I got lost somewhere along the route, took a wrong turn or something, so we were a few minutes late getting there. Upon arrival, I left the guys in formation and went inside to let the shrink know we were there. He came outside with five sets of service records. He read the names off each record to verify that we were all there. He then called us inside one at a time.
I was the last one called. I had watched each man go inside and none had come back out. When it was my turn, I entered the building, was escorted to the psychiatrist’s office, stepped inside, and stood at attention until he directed me to take a seat.
At first, he asked me a series of very dumb, mundane questions. It was a reiteration of the general tests we’d all taken upon entering the service. Was I a homosexual? Had I ever dressed in women’s clothing? There were a lot of questions like that. I answered ‘no’ to all of them. Then he hit me with an off-the-wall question that took me by surprise. He wanted to know if I’d ever killed an animal. I had to think about it, and that caused a strange look to come over his face. Finally, I had to answer ‘yes’. His eyes got really big and he immediately asked for specifics.
I don’t remember how old I was, but one summer when I was a child, maybe 12 or 13 years of age, Lon and I had gotten our hands on some firecrackers. At first, we just exploded them individually. Then, we’d explode them in clusters to make a bigger bang. Then we began to experiment by placing clusters in cardboard toilet paper tubes going for an even bigger blast. All at once, Lon saw a frog. We chased it and caught it. Then, wham, we both got the same idea at the same time. Both sets of light bulbs went on at the same time. What would happen if we put a firecracker in the frog’s mouth, lit the fuse and let it explode? We just had to know, so we did it.
It wasn’t pretty. It blew the frog’s lower jaw completely away from the upper jaw. I told the psychiatrist all about it and he was writing furiously the whole time. Then he asked if that had been my only experience at murder. He kept writing furiously when I told him about my hunting expeditions; killing blue jays with my BB gun that same summer. Sometime later, convinced that I’d emptied my soul on the subject of animal homicide, he asked if I’d ever killed a human. I assured him that I hadn’t and he moved on to some other stock questions.
He wanted to know if I had any recurring dreams. He wanted to know if I had nightmares, and if so, did any of them repeat. In other words, if I had nightmares, did I have the same ones over and over again. My answer to both questions was ‘no’.
Then, he told me that he was going to give me a scenario. In the scenario he said that he was going to describe a circumstance in detail, a realistic circumstance, and then ask me to answer a single question when he was through. He emphasized that it would be important for me to answer the question without hesitation. He kept saying that part over and over again, that when he asked me the question, after explaining the scenario, I was not to think about it, I was to answer immediately with the first response that came to mind. Once he was convinced that I understood the procedure he began explaining the scenario.
In the scenario I was a Navy SEAL. I was out on patrol by myself, there was no one else with me. My mission was to blow up an enemy bridge. I was to plant my explosives on the bridge supports, run the ignition wires to a location a safe distance away and blow up the bridge at exactly 1200 hours (12 noon). He went on to say that my mission, to blow up the bridge, was just a small part of a larger operation that would also commence at noon. That operation involved naval gunfire from ships at sea and an assault by marine forces on a number of enemy positions that were in close proximity to the bridge. I listened intently focusing in on key words that reminded me of things I’d been taught in recent classroom training. Specifically, I honed in on his use of the word ‘mission’.
Whenever you are given a mission in the Navy that mission comes first. In the Navy, everything is subordinate to the mission. The mission, whatever it is, must be accomplished no matter what. I tried to think ahead as he was talking. If his question - at the end - had anything to do with accomplishing the mission, then the answer would be whatever it had to be to make accomplishing the mission a success. This was going to be a piece of cake.
Suddenly, the scenario threw me a curve. At five minutes before noon, as I’m looking at the bridge, a nun and five children walk into view and start crossing the bridge from the far side. At two minutes before noon the nun and the children stop in the center of the bridge and, leaning against the side rail, take a few minutes to enjoy the view. At one minute before noon they are still in the center of the bridge, still enjoying the view.
The question came in a quick, deep-voiced, guttural flurry:
“Seaman Powers, it’s twelve noon. The nun and the children are still on the bridge. Do you blow the bridge or do you wait? Answer now!”
I didn’t even hesitate:
“Blow it, sir! I’d blow it all-to-hell!”
He stared at me with a disgusting look for what seemed like ten or twelve seconds. Then, he started scribbling something on the tablet he was holding. As he handed me the paper he made a comment:
“You people are sick! You’re all sick! Here ... sign this right above your name.”
I read the paper before I signed it.
I find UDT/SEAL applicant, Robert J. Powers, Jr, to be
psychologically qualified to participate in the UDT/SEAL
training program at Coronado, California.
The shrink had signed the document and there was a place for me to witness his signature and acknowledge that I was, indeed, the party that had taken the test.
An enlisted man, an assistant to the shrink, was waiting for me outside the office and he directed me to the room where the other guys were waiting. I formed them up outside and we marched back to the barracks. While we marched we all compared notes. It was taboo to talk and march at the same time, but this was too important. We’d all been found qualified. And we’d all had a different scenario. But we were all confused.
Before we’d gone home for Christmas leave we’d taken the swim test for the last time. And we’d failed it. We’d all been convinced that we’d washed out of the program. Now, we’d been found to be psychologically qualified to be in the program. What did that mean? Were we still in? Had we washed out? Were we still going to ‘A’ School? Were we going to the fleet? We didn’t know the answers, and there was nobody to ask. There was nobody anywhere who could answer our questions. We finally concluded that we wouldn’t know until we got our orders. Surely we’d know something then.
Later that night, while the other guys talked about drag racing and girls they’d done the dirty deed with back in high school, the UDT bunch spent the last hour before taps sharing our scenarios. They were strange! Really strange! Really, really strange!
On the last weekend before graduation we got our first liberty in San Diego. We all dressed up in our dress blues and took a bus downtown.
It was Sunday, January 12, 1969, and it was cold. I walked the streets for a time looking for something to do. I contemplated going to a movie, but I couldn’t find one that I liked.
Late in the afternoon I began to notice something very strange. There wasn’t a soul on the street. The only time I would see anybody would be when a bus would pull up and a bunch of sailors would get off. And every group of sailors would pass me, walking very fast, and turn down the same street several blocks to the north. I decided to follow the next group. I was a little disappointed when I found out they were going to the USO. But it was cold out, and warm inside, so I followed them in.
Inside the USO there were several rooms that had television sets and each room was crowded with sailors and Marines. They were all watching TV. I remember thinking that something good must be on. I had made up my mind to leave and was heading for the door. Then, I heard the TV announcer say something that stopped me. In an instant I knew why there was nobody walking the streets. In an instant I knew why every sailor and marine in San Diego had flocked to the USO. They were there to watch Superbowl III! I went from room to room until I finally found a seat.
Superbowl III was a classic, the New York Jets vs the Baltimore Colts. Joe Willie Namath vs Johnny Unitas. Joe Willie had guaranteed a Jets victory. The AFC had never beaten the NFC. Everyone thought it would be impossible for the Jets to win. But they did. It was a fun afternoon. It was a good first liberty in the Navy.
We spent most of the time the day before graduation marching on the grinder. We looked sharp, and chief Taylor was smiling. He knew how good we were and he was proud. Every week during the last four weeks of training a company from each advanced cycle would be awarded a pennant if they had been judged the best at marching for that week. We had received all but one of those pennants.
When we returned to the barracks at the end of the day chief Taylor had a surprise for us. Our orders had come down; and graduation honors had been announced. First things first. I grabbed my orders when my name was called and jumped for joy when I read them. I got an ‘A’ School. I was going to Gunnersmate School in Great Lakes, Illinois. Fabian and Rucker and Irby got the same orders - Gunnersmate School. Snow got Yeoman School.
Then we got the word on honors.
Ernie Lewis, our Recruit Chief Petty Officer, had been recognized as the best RCPO in the cycle. He’d also been selected to receive the American Spirit Honor Medal. That alone would have rated us as an honor company. But we’d also won the Academic Award. In other words, we’d scored the highest as a group on all the academic tests we’d been given in our classroom studies. To top it all off, Allen Jahner, our yeoman, had been selected as Academic Honorman. That meant he’d scored higher than any other recruit in the cycle on his exams. The chief was pleased. In fact, he was downright beside himself. We were a damn good company and he knew it. We’d done him proud, and that made us proud.
On graduation day we packed our seabags and left them by our bunks. We took all our bedding, bundled it up and marched over to receiving barracks to turn it in. Then, we formed up on the grinder and got ready to march in review.
Chief Taylor took his seat in the reviewing stands. We were on our own during the review; Ernie was in charge. As we stepped off, you could tell that each one of us wanted to do our best. We were sharp; spirited, and things were going well. Then, all of a sudden, some of the guys began to get out of step. They were in the middle of the pack, and those of us up front could hear the guys in the very back exhorting them to get back in step with the rest of us.
I think it started up front, with the squad leaders. Nobody said anything, but each of us, each of the squad leaders, we began to dig in our heels on the one count. Slowly but surely you could hear the sound of every man in the company doing the same thing. By the time we made the final turn and approached the reviewing platform we were doing it; we were all hard and heavy on the one count. It definitely solved the problem of staying in step, just like it had when we’d done it earlier in training. There was one little problem, however. It wasn’t regulation to march that way.
As we passed the reviewing stand and rendered a salute to the CO and XO of Recruit Training Command, they didn’t seem to notice. But my eye caught chief Taylor. He’d noticed; and he was livid. His face was flushed and there was no doubt about it; he was not a happy camper.
After marching in review, and the formalities that came after that, each company that had won awards were presented those awards by the CO and XO of RTC. We were presented our academic award, and Ernie and Jahner received their individual awards.
Thank God the ceremony ran long. Chief Taylor didn’t have time to chew us out because we all had buses to catch. Those buses would take us to the airport to catch flights to our next duty stations. Rucker, Fabian, and Irby and I managed to say good-bye to Snow. We all wished each other well, then the four of us boarded a bus and were off to Lindbergh field. It was Wednesday, January 15, 1969. The boot camp experience was over. Now we’d find out what life was like in the real Navy.
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