I have been writing down some stories from my time in the Marine Corps. If you are interested in reading all of the stories I have written so far, you can check out the series link here.
In the series, I am currently writing about training I did while I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, but I got a little distracted by a couple of memories of my time in Stinger School, which was at Ft. Bliss, Texas. The first distraction was about some creative discipline we experienced one night and then while looking for some pictures of my time at Ft. Bliss, I came across some pictures that awakened another memory. This one is kind of funny.
I was 24 years old and fresh out of boot camp. I had lost over 50 pounds in the 5 months I was at boot camp so I only had one set of civilian clothes that fit me. Once Stinger school started and I met some of the guys, I found out that most everyone went to Juarez, Mexico on liberty. Ft. Bliss is in El Paso, Texas and Juarez was right across the border. We would take a taxi to the border and walk across the bridge into Mexico. Juarez had a number of dance clubs that we all liked to go to. Nobody wore their uniform on liberty so I knew I needed to go buy some clothes.
El Paso had a mall so I took a taxi to the mall and walked to a store that looked like it had some trendy clothes. I had no idea what kind of clothes to wear. My wardrobe before boot camp was jeans and a polo shirts, or jeans and t-shirts. I thought I needed something that was more fashionable, so when a girl walked up and asked me if I needed some help, I told her that I wanted an outfit that I could go out dancing in. I gave her freedom to pick it out my outfit.
This was 1986. Miami Vice was a very popular series on TV. The show set fashion trends and reflected fashion trends. Especially for guys. She picked out white pants and a white jacket, bright pink tropic collard shirt and a light pink fishnet tank top. All this with white loafers. It was very Sonny Crockett.
It was so far beyond my comfort level, but I figured if this cute girl thought it was cool, then maybe I should get used to it. So, I pretty much wore that outfit every time I went on liberty to Mexico. Those white pants and jacket made an appearance all over the world. Eventually I bought other shirts that would go with the white pants, but the white pants and jacket were the go-to liberty wear for years.
What’s the lesson here? Sometimes you have to let yourself be pushed outside of your comfort zone to grow.
I have been writing down some of my service stories for my daughters in the hopes that they can tell their kids about the time I was in the Marine Corps. If these also benefit others, all the better!
Currently, if you are keeping track in the series, I am talking about my time in Okinawa Japan. I spent two years there and deployed to many other places from there. As I was thinking about what to write about next, a memory of my time at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas came to me and I thought I’d share it because it provides a lesson.
I wrote previously that physical fitness was one of my struggles while in boot camp. I had no strength or endurance. Gradually, I increased my strength and endurance and scoring a first class on my Physical Fitness Test (PFT) was never an issue. But I never knew how far I could push it.
The Marine Corps plan for all recruits in recruit training is to break them down and then build them up. They make Marines from civilians. They break bad habits and replace them with discipline. They take soft civilians and make them hard Marines. It has worked over 200 years. It is in recruit training that you learn that you can do more than your mind thinks it can. Recruit training takes what you think you can do and stretches it until you are doing something you would never have imagined, or going longer than you thought possible, which brings me to this story.
One day during Stinger school at Fort Bliss, someone got out of hand after a night out. They ended up putting a huge man-sized hole in one of the walls in the barracks. The First Sergeant (1stSgt) learned of this and decided that the whole training battalion needed a little extra training. So, he woke up the whole barracks at 2 am and ordered us to line up outside in formation wearing PT clothes. After a very stern tongue-lashing from the First Sergeant, he told us that since some had, it seemed, too much energy, we’d go for a little run. It was in the middle of the night!!!!!!! So, off we ran; in formation. We ran all over Fort Bliss. If you’ve never run in formation, it is different than running on your own. You can’t set your own pace. You have to run in-step with everyone else or you will end up tripping yourself and most like the people in front or behind you. The pace is set by the person who was leading the formation. In this case, it was a very angry First Sergeant. We ran and ran, singing the whole time. At about 4am, we found our selves running in the area where the Army had their recruit training and the First Sergeant decided that we’d make sure that the recruits knew we were there. We ran up and down the streets where the recruit barracks were, singing at the top of our lungs. We saw the Army Drill Sergeants come out to see what all the noise was. It was kind of funny. As we turned back to where we came from, we encountered an obstacle course. 1st Sgt ordered us to run the obstacle course in the dark! After we finished the obstacle course, we kept running. We ran and we ran. I never thought we would finish. My whole body was numb. We ran until 6am. Once we finished running, we had our normal PT of calisthenics before we were dismissed to get ready for class. From our best calculations, we ran 13 or more miles, in formation. I had never ran that far.
It’s been about 34 years since that happened and to this day, when I think that something is too hard or that I can’t endure something anymore, I remember back to that run and I think that before that run, if you had asked me if I could run 13 miles, I would have called you crazy. I never would have even attempted that length of a run. But – now I look back at that and I can say that I made it. I ran that distance and it didn’t kill me.
That also helped me when I was in Okinawa. Every Friday, we were given a challenge. Run the 6 mile Habu trail around the base in less than an hour so we could get liberty for the weekend. It was a challenging trail, winding around the base, up and down hills, but I always finished under an hour. You didn’t want to let your platoon down.
So – when things get tough and you don’t think you can push through, remember a time in your life where you accomplished something your mind told you you couldn’t do, but you did anyway, and then push forward.
In these last few posts, I am talking about the training I was able to do while I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan! In the last post, I talked about training in the Philippines. This post will talk about training we did in South Korea.
We’ve Got Team Spirit!
Sometime around March of 1989, my unit participated in Team Spirit which was a joint/combined exercise designed to evaluate and improve the interoperability of the ROK (Republic of Korea) and U.S. forces (thanks Google). In-country forces were augmented for training purposes by U.S. Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units from outside the ROK. It was always something we looked forward to because it was one of the longest times we would be deployed to the field to train. We also looked forward to liberty in Korea. While this was a large training operation that took place all over Korea, the majority of our time was spent around Pohang, which is on the coast, southeast of Seoul.
While life in the field is pretty monotonous, there were a few memories that I have of my time there that I will share here.
We flew from Okinawa to South Korea in a C-130 cargo plane. C-130’s were our usual mode of transportation from Okinawa to where-ever we were going to train. Most times, we rode in the regular C-130, but a few times, we rode in KC-130’s which were equipped with a removable 3600 gallon stainless steel fuel tank that would be used as extra fuel when required or also to refuel helicopters. It is a sight to be able to watch refueling operations out the back of an open aircraft.
I am not positive where we initially flew, but it had to be close to Pohang. We staged our gear for further transport to our main camp. I can’t remember what I did, but somehow, I got in trouble before we left and so I was the designated gear-guard, while everyone else got to explore the base. My platoon was selected to go to train with the Army at a base north of Seoul called Camp Stanley. We were supposed to have a helicopter take us up north to Camp Stanley (의정부시) but our transportation didn’t come, so we did what Marines always do. We adapted to our situation. We changed into civilian clothes and then carried our sea bags with the rest of our clothes to the civilian bus station and purchased tickets to Seoul. It was quite a ride. I’m sure the Korean citizens on that bus with us thought we were crazy.
Once we arrived in Seoul, we walked to a hotel and I believe we took every room they had available. I don’t remember much of that night. I remember that we arrived late and there wasn’t time to get food. I believe we each had an MRE to eat that night. I do remember we got a little time in Seoul to get food. We went to the Kentucky Fried Chicken place because that is all we knew.
The rooms were small and not very well lit, but it didn’t matter because as cold as it was outside, inside the rooms were toasty. They had heated floors and everyone walked around without shoes. I remember they had one small bathroom at the end of the hall that we all had to share. The next morning, the hotel gave us each a towel that had the name of the hotel embroidered on it. I still have the towel in the original paper bag they gave us.
Our platoon commander was the same Lieutenant that I had the previous run-in with. (Now that I think about it, that might be why I was put on guard duty) He was able to procure two civilian vans and we loaded ourselves and all of our gear into and on top of the vans and we drove up to Camp Stanley to do some AAAAArmy training! They had a Moving Target Simulator (MTS) there that we could use to practice aircraft tracking. It also enabled us to train with our Army counterparts. Since the base was close to the DMZ with North Korea, we studied the aircraft that North Korea flew. I believe we spent at least a week there. Every night, we got liberty so we were able to explore the local drinking establishments while we were there. It also enabled us to taste the local food. I had never had Korean food before so that was an experience!
When it was time to return to our main base, we had a CH-53 pick us up to takes us back. On the flight back, the crew of the CH-53 told us that they had to stop in Seoul to pick up some spare parts for another helo that had mechanical issues. As we were flying over Seoul, the pilot flew over some of the stadiums from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I took some pictures of the stadiums looking out the back of the helo to the stadiums but I can’t find those pictures. It was a site to see! Eventually, we made it back to our main camp near Pohang. There we were assigned hard-back tents with oil heaters because it was cold. We were still waiting for our large gear locker to be delivered so I had to stand guard duty in regular boots. It was cold and raining and my feet got mild frostbite. Standing in the cold rain without any winter clothes was tough. I never want to be that cold again!
One of the coolest things I was able to do is go to the Mountain Warfare School. My unit (LAAD) could be attached to any other type of unit (infantry, heavy weapons, recon, artillery, etc) to provide air defense for that unit. Our main weapon is the Stinger Missile and we shoot that from the ground, so wherever we need to go to complete that mission, we must be able to get there. The two day school was challenging and fun. We spent the first day learning different rappelling techniques, then we actually perform them the afternoon of the first day and all day on the second. First on a 300 foot cliff and then Australian rappel (face first) off a 120 foot rope bridge. We ended the training with a 750-foot slide for life (twice!).
I don’t remember any more specifics about the training that we did, but I do have random memories of that Team Spirit:
The oil heaters in the tents would get real hot if you didn’t watch them closely. I’m surprised none of our tents burnt down. I remember waking up one night and the oil heater and exhaust pipe was glowing bright orange because it was so hot.
I developed some sort of boil or something on my back. I went to sickbay and they had to do surgery on it in a field hospital (tent) they set up. The resulting hole in my back was so deep that they couldn’t close it so twice a day, our corpsman had to change my dressings and pack the wound. It never healed right and even after 31 years, still have a large bump from that wound.
On liberty we usually just went to restaurants and bars. One thing I discovered was after dark, vendors would set up little huts on the side of the streets and would cover them with a tarp. You could go into the little hut and eat raw fish and drink saki pretty cheap. They had a portable kerosene heater in them so it was one place you could get warmed up, both inside and out!
The helo that picked us up at Camp Stanley to take us back to Pohang, crashed into the sea the very next day, killing a squad of Marines it was carrying. Training accidents happen and I feel fortunate that I wasn’t on that helo that day. My platoon got liberty about a week later and I remember calling my parents from a pay phone in Korea to tell them that I was OK and that I wasn’t involved in that crash.
Showers were few and far between. If we got liberty, the first place we went in town was to the bath houses. For a few won, you could go into these public showers (spas?) that had hot showers and hot and cold pools. You would first take a hot shower and then get into the cold pool for a while, then into the hot pool. It was an experience, but let me tell you – a hot shower felt great! If we were in the field for an extended amount of time, we would get to go to the shower tent. We usually had it scheduled by platoon. It was a tent with pallet floors and numerous shower heads running down the middle. It was divided in two. The first part had benches where you dressed and the other part was the showers. There was no heat! The way it worked is that you would go get undressed and then go into the shower area with your soap. Once everyone was in, they would start the water pump and cold water would start spraying out of the shower heads. You’d get wet, lather up and rinse all in about 2 minutes because that’s all the water you got. When the water was shut off, you went into the dry area to change. It was miserable but getting clean, even if it was freezing, felt great.
If you got in trouble in camp, you were usually assigned the burn barrel duty. Burn barrel latrines were wooden latrines with seats and holes over 55 gallon barrels cut in half. The barrels were primed with about 3 inches of diesel fuel. Once the barrels would get to 1/2 to 1/3 full, you would pull out the full barrel and replace it with a new one. Dragging out the full barrel was terrible. It sloshed all over you, no matter how careful you would be. You would then take the full barrel and add more diesel and gasoline unto it until the contents are covered and then you would light it on fire. You would then stir it until it burned to ashes. Once the contents of the barrels were burned, you would empty the contents out into a pit. It was a very messy duty and nobody wanted to be assigned that duty. When my platoon was assigned that duty, we took turns unless someone got into trouble, then they would automatically be assigned the duty. I only had to do this twice in the months we were in Korea, but that was enough. When you got done, you had fuel and crap all over you. If it wasn’t your day to get a shower, you had to live with the smell for days – as well as the other guys in the tent.
When we were in the base camp, there was a large chow tent. Those were the only hot meals we got outside of liberty in town. Otherwise, we existed on MRE’s while in the field.
Team Spirit was a pretty long training exercise. I think we were there for about 3 months. The longest deployment I had was in 1988. I deployed as part of MAGTF 3-88 to the Persian Gulf. That lasted about 9 months and will be the subject of the next few stories. Stay tuned!
I spent two years stationed in Okinawa. Of those two years, I also got to visit South Korea, mainland Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and the Persian Gulf. It was the adventure I signed up for! As I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t been out of the country and one of the reasons I wanted to be stationed overseas is to see the world, and I did! Each country has a story, so we’ll start with the Philippines.
The Philippines – The Time I Hit an F-111 and Watched an F-4 Crash
At least once per year (and more if we were lucky), we got to go to the Philippines and train with the Air Force at Clark Air Base. It usually coincided with a training exercise called Cope Thunder. Once we landed at Clark, we would drive our vehicles to Camp O’Donnell, which was closer to Crow Valley where we would be training. If we weren’t training, we usually got liberty in Angeles City.
The training was fun and about as real as we could hope for. We would set up our positions around Crow Valley, which was the gunnery range, and practice tracking aircraft as they would fly through the valley. As the jets flew through the valley, they would drop dummy bombs and/or strafe targets with their guns. One position I was in was at the beginning of range. The jets would fly over our position firing at target just in front of us. It was a very surreal feeling listening to live rounds flying over our heads and hitting targets a few hundred yards down range. We had our training missiles with live seeker-heads so we could track them, lock on and practice firing the missile (nothing would actually fire). Sometimes we would have these styrofoam missiles, called Smokey Sams, that we would launch at aircraft to provide the pilots with a visual of a surface-to-air missile.
One day, my partner and I were manning a site with Smokey Sams. While one of us tracked the aircraft with out Stinger missile, the other would shoot the Smokey Sam at the aircraft so they could practice their evasive maneuvers to get away from an anti-air missile. We saw an Australian F-111 bomber flying low through the valley and disappear behind our position, only to pop up and fly real close to our position. I fired the Smokey Sam and it flew up and hit the nose of the aircraft! That had never happened before and we weren’t supposed to be aiming right at the aircraft, but I guess I timed it just right and the aircraft was low enough. The next day, we were visited by the pilot. He wanted to see how we were able to actually hit him. We explained that actually hitting him was a mistake, but after about 5 minutes of instruction on the Stinger missile, he was able to see how easy it was to track and lock onto an aircraft, especially one as large and slow as an F-111.
Another day, my team was at another location further in the valley. We were watching aircraft drop their bombs and then they would fire flares as anti-air missile decoys. On this one particular day, an F-4 was coming through the valley and all of a sudden, we saw a bright flash out of the back-end and it started falling out of the sky. It was coming toward us and we had no idea what to do. My partner was on the radio and he was yelling, “An F-4 is crashing, an F-4 is crashing!”, all while running. We saw the pilot eject and then the jet went up and then crashed into the valley. It was an awesome site! While searching for a picture of Crow Valley, I found a link to a video of an F4 crashing in Crow Valley. The date on the video is around the time I was there so it could possibly be the one I saw. The funniest part of that day was that after the crash, an Air Force helicopter landed at our position and an Air Force officer got out and started running toward our position. He yelled, “Come on Marines! Follow me!” and proceeded to run toward the crash site. We just laughed as we followed him because it sounded so funny coming from an Air Force officer. He tasked us to guard the crash until other Air Force units could get there.
One interesting aspect of our training at Cope Thunder. The times that we were there, there were Communist Guerillas training in the area and they were known to kidnap Americans for ransom. They would also steal equipment and sell it back to the military. Every time we went out to train, we were issued our weapons and live ammo. Once we were back on base at Camp O’Donnell, we had to check our weapons into the base armory because the Air Force didn’t trust the crazy Marines to have live weapons in their barracks. The funny part is that we still had valuable equipment in our barracks, so our guards had to walk their post with an axe handle instead of a weapon!
Cope Thunder was a long training exercise and we would spend days in the field and then we would get a few days liberty in Angeles City, where Clark Air Base was. Most of my unit never made it on base. There were a lot of bars in Angeles City and one called the DMZ was owned by a Vietnam-era Marine. It was our home base. Most of us didn’t leave that bar except to sleep.