For me, Christmas day 1951 was not a Hallmark event. It was my first Christmas away from home and possibly my last ever. I spent it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean somewhere between California and Japan. The largest body of water that covers one-third of the earth was not happy. Gone was any semblance of its Latin name Mare Pacificum meaning "peaceful sea," coined by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
"Compared to what?" My question to Magellan would have been because the ocean tossed our troop ship, the USNS General Wm. Weigel about like a match stick, frequently, it seemed, almost standing it on one end or the other. The storm had started early Christmas Eve, and me and 4,000 other U.S. Marines headed for the Korean War were seasick.
Most of us became ill as soon as the ship moved out of San Diego harbor, a week before. I felt queasy when we got out of sight of land, but I hadn't yet "tossed my cookies." After the usual physical exercise, most of the day was spent in chow lines. When we finished one meal, we immediately stood in line for the next.
That also meant you weren't seasick. Those with the rank of private or private first class as I was became prime candidates for Navy sh*# details. This work guaranteed you would become sick.
Mine was chipping rusted paint in the forward head (restroom) where the bow of the ship came together, and I could see both of the rusted steel bulkheads. As if the stench from fouled toilets wasn't enough, I was handed a hammer and chisel and told to chip off rust from a bulkhead that kept weaving away from me and throwing me against it. (I don't think the recruiter mentioned a job like this when he spoke of the proud tradition of becoming a United States Marine.)
I lasted about an hour when the sergeant in charge noticed I had turned a pale green. He told me to go topside and get some air and not come back. Gladly, I thought. I tried to stay on deck in the fresh air and not look at the motion of the water, but there I risked being sprayed by anyone above me or up wind where puke seemed to form a yellow-green haze that could quickly cover you. I headed for my rack to lie down.
It was in a troop compartment in the hold four decks down near the bottom of the ship. Fortunately, I had the top rack. No one could throw up on me.
As sick as I was, I was determined to eat Christmas dinner that had been touted over the blaring intercom as exceptional. Just like home: ham and turkey with all the trimmings—stuffing and cranberry sauce—including ice cream and pumpkin pie. By the time I headed up for chow, the entire ship below the top deck reeked of vomit, and the decks were slick with it.
I got my beautiful dinner and went over and stood by one of the metal tables. Enlisted men of low rank ate from metal trays standing up. The ship tossed so much the tray would slide the entire length of the 20-foot long tables, if I didn't hold on to it. Metal gallon pitchers, holding milk, fruit punch or coffee zoomed back and forth with the eternal movement of the ship.
Although I felt I was turning green from the motion, I ate my Christmas dinner, telling myself seasickness was only psychological. Besides, I was a United States Marine. So I ate as much as I could, trying to enjoy it, but soon I felt nauseous, and decided I'd better go lie down. The way led through what seemed like rivers of puke before I got back to my rack. I tried to wipe the stink from my boots on a piece of newspaper before I climbed up to my rack. There, the ship seemed to be standing on its end in a terrible rocking, tossing motion.
Luckily for me and the Marines in the racks below, the American Red Cross had given each of us a Christmas gift box. Mine was donated by some lady in Long Beach, Calif. Just what a trained cold-blooded killer needed: a few stale, wormy brownies, a napkin, a pencil and pad, a Christmas card, a Sunday school book and a couple of embroidered doilies. I took out the pencil and paper and laughed just before I threw up in the box.
Anyway, Merry Christmas, everyone!
November 10 is the United States Marine Corps 232nd birthday. The Corps was authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775. November 11 is Veterans Day. Say prayers this week for all our armed forces and make sure we take care of them when they return from wars.
Korea, January 1952: What a bunch of haggard-looking old men, ages 18 to 26, we were, waiting by a railroad track in a snow storm. Most of us had that too long in combat stare from sunken emotionless eyes. The Marine Corps said we were going home. It had said that a month ago when our "tours of duty" were up.
Well, maybe this time it was true, yet we still carried our weapons and ammo. When a battle-scarred miniature train appeared heading south, we had hope. Bullet holes, probably made from strafing by our planes or theirs, perforated both sides all along the cars. Inside the passenger cars, some seats had been blown out along with the doors. There were jagged holes in the roofs were snow floated in. We boarded a few miles south of the Imjim River headed toward Seoul, Korea.
Most of us had seen more death and destruction in a year than we would see the rest of our lives, and we had survived! None of us would ever be the same. We would carry the horrors with us forever. Even though it was 15 degrees both outside and inside the passenger cars, some sullen faces actually smiled when the sun began to shine through the falling snow. No one cared about the cold, as long as the train kept moving south toward Ascom City near the port of Inchon where we were to board ship.
Ascom City was a barbed wire enclosure, consisting mostly of six-man tents aligned in typical military fashion. Each of us was assigned to one. But first we went through a delousing line where we were all sprayed like livestock with a white powder that was supposed to kill any vermin we had brought with us and then sent to nice hot showers to wash off all the other crud we carried. We exchanged our filthy dungarees for clean ones, and Marine Corps chickens*#* began immediately—saluting, marching to chow, guard duty and all the other military nonsense. The next day we had a formation where we stood at attention while some Army general spoke.
"Gen. George S. Patton said to his troops in 1943 that 'Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge.' Now all of you know the significance of that remark," the General said. "You have done your job, and you have done it well, and you have survived. Your efforts have made the world a better place by stopping the spread of communism. You—"
What BS that was! I cut him off about then. I was freezing. I should have worn my overcoat over my field jacket. Finally, he shut up.
But then a Marine colonel made a speech about how we had upheld the "glory of the United States Marine Corps." More bull.
Then a Navy chaplain gave us his. He held sort of a memorial service for "those who had not died in vain." What utter baloney this was! He continued: on how we "had made this a better world!"
For whom? Certainly not for the starving Korean peasants who did not survive the harsh winters because we and enemy forces destroyed their means. I thought about the civilians accidentally killed, and my friend blown to bits in what would have been surely my place. For most of us the whole tour had been in vain—especially the deaths. We just followed orders. None believed in or cared about what we were fighting for, just our survival. And I have some words for General Patton: "George, you were one insane son-of-a-you-know-what!"
Early the next morning, we boarded the same troop ship we came over on, the USNS Weigel, and headed for home. Strange, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but I would never want to do it again.
Happy birthday, Marines. Semper Fi! God bless our troops.
Up front let me say I'm old but still a U.S. Marine. Although I have a college degree in psychology, I don't know what happens to young men in 13 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp. All who survive are "born-again" as United States Marines forever. Training makes them "cold-blooded killers."
Even now, I get angry when some do-gooder picks on Marines for doing their horrific job of killing enemies of this country.
War is insanity. Survival is the only rule. Anyone who tries to kill you is your enemy. Children who greet you with live hand grenades are the enemy. If enemy fire comes from a civilian house, so be it.
A guided missile or bomber can hit a military target near a village and kill hundreds of innocent civilians because they happen to be nearby. The military calls this collateral damage and the news media loves to photograph the fiery explosion.
Yet if a squad of Marine infantry happens to kill a few civilians while eliminating the enemy, the news media, politicians and lawyers call it murder.
Marine squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and other members of his squad have been charged with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder while doing their jobs in the town of Haditha, Iraq, last year.
Scott Pelley, CBS News correspondent asked Wuterich on 60 Minutes, if he felt any remorse for what he had done. The Sgt. said he followed procedures learned in Marine infantry training. Pelley tried to put a guilt trip on the Sgt. who said he felt bad about the women and children but he would make the same tactical decision again.
Of course, Wuterich felt remorse and will for the rest of his life.THE KOREAN WAR VETERANS MEMORIAL- Washington D.C.
Let me tell you a story: It happened one rainy, miserable morning, in 1952 in North Korea. The Marine private was cold, scared and wet to the skin. Filthy water slushed in his mud-crusted boots as he crept down a deep-rutted street winding through the Korean village of grass-roofed shacks. Corporal Medina and the private were part of a reinforced squad, conducting a house-to-house search for enemy soldiers.
Medina covered the private as he barged in each shack waving a loaded M-I rifle and flashing a light across the sleeping occupants who were mostly women, children and old men. They were terrified. The private was embarrassed as he rousted them out into the mud and rain. Two other Marines searched them and their hut as Medina and the private made their way through muck to the next hovel.
Behind them, the villagers hovered together in the downpour for warmth. Because they could be mistaken for the enemy by both sides, their lives were cheap. Yesterday, it had been the Chinese and North Koreans meting out destruction as they ran for higher ground. Today it was U.S. Marines.
The enemy soldier came out of a hut 20 yards in front of them armed with a Chinese burp gun. He cut Medina down with a spray of .31-caliber bullets that made a terrible noise.
Somehow, instinctively and without even aiming, the private brought his rifle up and fired. He saw a tiny hole appear on the enemy's temple, just above the nose before his body spun into a lifeless heap face down in the mud.
Medina, wounded, crawled for cover behind another hut. Immediately, they were joined by other Marines and a Navy Corpsman who bandaged Medina's wounds. A young lieutenant who looked sick after seeing the dead man patted the private on the back saying, "Good shooting. Stay with Medina till we secure the village."
"Yes, sir," the private said, knowing it was a lucky shot. What troubled him was if he felt anything, he felt good. Had he really been transformed into a cold-blooded killer?
Now other Marines cleared the hut from where the dead soldier had come. There was an elderly man and woman and a young woman with an infant in her arms. When they saw the body in the street they grieved in such a way the private had never heard before.
A Korean interpreter said the private's lone bullet had killed the soldier and gone through the door of the hut, killing his two-year-old son asleep on the floor. God!
The private, like Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, will never forget that day.
Tomorrow is November 10, the United States Marine Corps Birthday. Marines are being killed almost every day in this stupid war with Iraq the President started and Congress approved. Come to think of it, if our country is not attacked, all wars are stupid. Yet it has always been thus: Politicians send Marines to kill people for "God, mother and apple pie." Now we can add oil to that list. Almost 3,000 of our young men and women and hundreds of thousands of civilians have died because of this political blunder.
However, it was another political mistake—the Korean War—that gave me an excuse to join the Marine Corps. Although I hated it immediately, it was the best thing I ever did at the time. All Marines say that. For me, it was a love-hate relationship. Three years, including a war, was enough.
"Over and above competence, resolution, and courage, which are expected of every Marine in battle, it is particularly expected that no wounded or dead Marine will ever be left on the field or unattended, regardless of the cost of bringing him in."
Yet how many organizations will ask for volunteers to pick up a dead or wounded member with a good chance of getting killed? Every Marine volunteers. That is brotherhood, brother. I have a son who is a Marine. I recommend Marine Corps enlistment for every young man.
However, not all can make it. If they did, it wouldn't be the Marine Corps. Drill Instructors weed those out. Physically, many can't take the training. Mentally, many crack up. These are not wanted in the Marine Corps. As a current bumper sticker says, "We promise you sleep deprivation, mental torment, and muscles so sore you'll puke. But we don't want to sugar coat it."
Drill Instructors are, well, god-like. Mine were Old Testament gods and poets of profanity. "Fall the *@#X in you @#*&Xbirds!" the sergeant yelled. I heard more curse words the first five minutes in boot camp than I had heard in my entire life. Due to my religious and parental upbringing, I expected God to strike the DIs down, so I sorta took my time, breaking the first Great Marine Corps Commandment: Thou shalt obey an order immediately.
A few other commandments were:
Thou shalt not break a Marine Corps regulation—unless you can get away with it. If you are caught, you might wish God instead of a DI metes out the punishment.
Thou shalt not steal except—from other branches of service who are always over-supplied, while Marines are not. The rule is: Don't get caught.
Thou shalt not lose any equipment or clothing issued to you.
At the rifle range in boot camp, a recruit lost his *#@$cutter (cap) which was a crime against Marine Corps humanity. After knocking the recruit to the ground, the DI had this solution, "Stealing is not tolerated in the Marine Corps. You get caught stealing and you go to the brig. But if I was you, @#*&Xbird, I'd go into a head in another platoon area, find a man with my head size, sitting on a throne. Then I'd grab his cap and run like hell." The recruit wore a cap at the next formation.
The Marine Corps shalt decide what is fair. I was told to pick up cigarette butts. Since I didn't smoke, I mentioned to the sergeant I didn't think I should have to pick up butts. I got to do 50 pushups, plus pickup cigarette butts frequently.
There shalt be no such thing as "women's work." Some were shocked to find their hands in not one but 20 commodes in one day. A clean one might come in handy if the DI decided to push your face in it. All washing and ironing of uniforms was the Marine's responsibility, along with spit-polishing dress shoes.
Thou shalt not walk on the grass. Grass can be sand, mud, swamp or even grass. If you walk on it, you might have to rake or landscape the whole area.
Thou shalt not drop your rifle. If you do, you had better faint, otherwise, you might soon be dead.
Thou shalt and will do the difficult immediately. The impossible might take a little longer.
Happy Birthday Marines! Semper Fi!