Land of the Big PX
I came back to the Land of the Big PX in August 1954. The Marine Corps always tried to transfer people during the summer months, so there'd be less disruption of their children's schooling. I was stationed at Courthouse Bay, Camp Lejeune in the 2nd AmTrac Battalion. I worked in my secondary MOS (0141, administration), in the "A" Company office as unit diary clerk.
This was before computers, so we had to type everything, with no errors. Every working day, a diary was required. You were allowed a maximum of five errors per month. For two consecutive months, we had zero errors, which the unit had never had before. There were over 300 men in the company, including about 120 on three temporary assignments (med cruise, Caribbean, etc.), so it was no easy job keeping up with them.
Our first son was born in October l955. He was like the rest of my kids: born bald-headed and it wasn't long before he became the center of attention. In late 1955 I went to Fort McClellan, Alabama, to attend the Army's Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare Training School. I graduated with an MOS of 5711 — Atomic, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Specialist. I went back to my unit, still working in my secondary MOS of administration.
In April 1957 we went to Vieques Island (Puerto Rico) for a landing training operation. We left Morehead City, NC on a Sunday and boarded an LSD. On Monday the CO of the Fort Bragg Military Hospital sent me a telegram, via the Red Cross. It sat on some chair-warming REMF's desk in the Red Cross until 0900 Wednesday before it was forwarded to me.
On Wednesday the duty clerk said the CO wanted to see me. On his desk was a telegram (sent Monday afternoon) stating that my son was in the Fort Bragg Army Hospital with chicken-pox encephalitis — and recovery was doubtful. We were at sea and couldn't do anything until we heard more. We made the landing on Vieques on Friday morning. At 0130 on Saturday, the chaplain found me. He had another telegram. This one said my son had died Wednesday morning.
The cable was sent at that time but the same SOB in the Red Cross sat on it until Friday afternoon before he released it. They got me out Saturday morning to San Juan but I had to wait until Sunday at 0900 for a flight to Homestead NAS in Florida. There I had to wait until 0900 Monday to get a flight to Cherry Point, NC. The pilot came back and asked me if I wanted to get off at New River Air Facility, but I told him I'd go on in to Cherry Point. Then he came back and told me that the Marines had laid a two-place jet trainer on to fly me to Pope AFB at Fort Bragg. But when we got to Cherry Point, one of my mother- in-law's sisters was waiting for me with a car, so I thanked them and released the plane. The funeral service had been held on Saturday, but they delayed actually burying my son for me and we held another graveside service and buried him. This tragedy just about finished me.
Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Spain
In August we went on a Med cruise. We were only supposed to be gone for two months, so we took only enough clothes and other supplies for that duration. But the Lebanon situation worsened and we made a landing on the beach there in a show of force, then made another on the Turkish coast. We came home after the situation stabilized.
It was December and we were miserable because we were on a brand new LSD that had just come off a two-week shakedown cruise when we went aboard. It was the first air-conditioned ship I was on, and I think it was also new for the sailors because no one knew how to turn off the air conditioning. The North Atlantic gets cold enough without having the ship's air artificially cooled. We stuffed pillows in the ductwork to keep the cold air out. Our utilities were worn out and our rears were shiny. We were glad to get back as we were perfect examples of the old cliché about "raggedy-ass Marines."
We hit several spots in the Mediterranean. Our first port of call was Catania, Sicily, right at the foot of Mt. Etna. Luckily there were no volcanic eruptions while we were there. They had a living calendar in front of the town's city hall. In shrubbery were the day, date, month and year. They changed the day and date every night so it would be right the next day.
Our next stop was Taranto, Italy, inside the instep of Italy's boot. I thought I'd get me an Italian pizza in the land where I'd thought they'd been invented. It was about eight inches across, about an inch thick and had about an inch and half of sauce right in the middle with a little provolone cheese — and that was it.
Our next liberty was Korfu, Greece. The Greeks are the laziest people in the Mediterranean. No one hurried and no one seemed to be doing any work.
Our last stop on the way out via the Straits of Gibraltar was Alicante, Spain. Of all the places we visited, I liked it best. I learned a truth about visiting other nations: Get away from where most American tourists go and be very friendly. The people will show you the best time of your life. We had three days and two nights before we left, so I got the cab driver to take me out in the suburbs to a small bodeca (hotel). I got a room for two nights for 25 pesetas. The rate of exchange was 42 pesetas to a dollar so the two nights cost me about 60 cents for a clean, airy room with a bath.
I went downstairs to the small cabaret attached to the hotel and ordered a liter of wine. It cost me four pesetas (10 cents). There were 8~10 men sitting around drinking wine. I told the bartender to give them all a drink. It cost me the equivalent of 80 cents to set up the bar, after which it became very friendly there. The bartender set out cheese and black bread. I had a couple of Roosevelt dimes and the bartender sold me a bottle-opener, corkscrew, and knife combination for one of the dimes. When my two nights were over I said goodbye to half the village and took a taxi back down town. We had to be aboard ship by 1600 and it was only 1100, so I went into the biggest hotel in downtown Alicante and had a steak dinner. I had a huge steak, salad, french fries, and a bottle of wine. The bill was 37 pesetas (about 70 cents).
While in the Mediterranean we had an accident. While getting the vehicles ready to go ashore in Lebanon, a mechanic was working on the clutch of a jeep and a man was checking the trailer of a jeep just in front of him. The clutch failed and just as the jeep jumped forward, the guy raised his head. He was killed instantly. We had to write up the accident report to JAG (Judge Advocate General) and take statements from all witnesses.
I was administrative chief in the troop office and had two clerks beside myself to type up such statements. For one like this you do not correct the spelling, grammar or punctuation of what you are typing — it has to be verbatim. By working in shifts, we got it finished before we arrived at Corfu and sent it in. They bounced it back and we had to retype every statement before we got to Alicante. We had head-of-line privileges in the mess line so we could get through and get back to the troop office to continue working. There was a B'o'sun (boatswain) mate who was a real pill to sailors and Marines alike. He grabbed my arm in the chow line and growled, "Where the fuck you think you're going?"
I replied, "I'm going to chow — if you'll take your shitty hands off me."
"I'll kick your butt down the ladder," he replied.
"Boats," I said, "Now listen close. Take your filthy hands off me, and don't ever stop me or either of my clerks from going to the head of the chow line. If I hear one more incident where you've harassed them or me, I'll throw your fat ass over the side and three days later I'll whisper, "Man overboard!"
Then I brushed by him and went in to eat. The sailors in line were clapping as I walked to the head of the line. He was investigated a few days later, with the ship's executive officer and our skipper interviewing sailors and Marines who'd had run-ins with him. I heard a month or two later from one of the members of the crew that he'd been transferred as soon as the ship got back to Little Creek, VA, its home port.
In celebration, I bought my daughter a burro (a doll, not a real burro). She named it Burrito, and I also got her a flamenco-dancer doll, whose eye she immediately pushed out.
After we returned from the Mediterranean (and we thawed out), I got transferred to the ABC School (Atomic, Biological, Chemical) as an instructor. The school was located at Camp Geiger, and I really enjoyed teaching the troops about ABC defense. I gained much personal satisfaction thinking that what I taught them might one day save their lives. We had to run gas-chamber exercises for all of Camp Lejeune, and we ran a group of woman Marines through. I took their gunny aside and told her that if it was the wrong time of the month it might be uncomfortable for women as the gas tends to irritate sensitive skin. They all opted to go through the chamber, and it was easy to recognize those who were having their period — they were like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Some time during this tour of duty, an Eastern Airlines plane exploded over North Carolina and they asked for volunteers to help find the bodies and plane parts that were scattered over a 2 x 7-mile area. I was with another man and we found the body of a stewardess. It had been forced about six inches into the ground, yet it didn't look as if there was a mark on her. Later we heard that every bone in her body had been shattered.
I was living at Snead's Ferry (a small town, consisting of about 200 houses) located across the inter-coastal waterway from the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of New River. Our house was on a bluff about 30 feet high with a small beach about 30 feet wide and 100 feet long at the foot of the bluff. I cut steps in the bluff, with handrails, so we'd have access to the beach. I built a grill out of concrete blocks with a large, heavy mesh window screen for the grill part of it.
The river was almost a mile wide at this point, with a channel about 1,000 feet offshore for barges to go up the river to the town of Jacksonville. The rest of the river was only about five feet deep at high tide and two feet at low tide. Every stick and piece of brush in the river was covered with oysters, so at night we'd go out with a fishgig (a pronged instrument for spearing fish) and a strong light for "floundering." The flounder is a flat fish (top to bottom, not side to side) with eyes on its topside. They lay on the bottom at night and look just like someone had taken a stick and drawn a fish's outline on the bottom.
We'd have the school's instructors out for a beer bust and would either go out the night before for flounder or go the morning of the party for oysters. We'd build a good fire for a bed of coals and then steam oysters or fry fish. We had a corpsman that would always bring a couple of cans of 190-proof sickbay alcohol. We'd usually get a keg of beer and he'd go around when you weren't looking and pour some of the 190-proof into our beers. It never made me drunker because it didn't stay in me long enough. It would, however, make me deathly sick, yet he'd still do it.
One of our students killed a squirrel with a rock. He brought it to the corpsman and we kept it in the refrigerator-freezer, taking it out for each class, when they ran a practical exercise, as a sample of biological warfare. One day the corpsman was hungry while the students were out on their exercise and got the squirrel, built a fire and roasted it.
He used to go with another instructor, SSgt. Lescure, to a bar-restaurant outside the Camp Geiger gate for lunch. The corpsman would bring two plain bologna sandwiches and would beg lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, and ketchup to finish his sandwich, then order a glass of water. He had brass, as well as rhino-thick skin.
Son David was born while we were living at Snead's Ferry, and was about six months old when I again got orders for overseas duty. Marines on overseas orders to the Fleet Marine Force (all combat troops such as divisions, air wings, etc.) were on "unaccompanied" tours, which meant families couldn't accompany troops. We were having a shipping-out party for myself and another instructor when his wife loudly proclaimed that if the Army and Air Force let their dependents go with their husbands, she didn't see why the Marines couldn't as well. Her husband just about broke up the party when he told her, "Honey, you wouldn't take a bologna sandwich to a banquet."