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!
This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you want to start from the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.
Welcome To Okinawa, Japan
After I finished Stinger school, I received some well-deserved leave before I headed to Okinawa Japan. It was nice to get home, but honestly, I was really excited to go to Japan. Seeing the world was one of the main reasons I joined the Marine Corps and I was just about to get my first taste of life outside of the USA. Before I could go to Japan, I had to report to San Onofre, California which was on Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the US. It was a short stay before we were loaded on a big 747 for our flight to Okinawa. I don’t remember much of the trip to Japan. It was a chartered jet just for military so I believe we flew directly to Okinawa. Eventually we landed in Okinawa and we were processed to our units.
My First Unit
My unit was 1st Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion. Before I got there, it was just a Battery, but the Marine Corps decided that Low Altitude Air Defense was important enough to make it a full Battalion, which is one of the reasons I suspect that my contract was changed – they needed bodies to fill a quota. For us, that meant two full firing Batteries (Alpha and Bravo) and a Headquarters & Support Battery. For the Firing Battery, the most basic unit was the Team that consisted of a Team Leader and an Assistant Gunner. The A-Gunner would drive the vehicle and fire the missile. The Team Leader would evaluate targets and make engagement decisions and fire another missile if needed. There were 5 teams in a Section and at least 3 Sections in a Platoon commanded by a Lieutenant. Each Battery, usually commanded by a Captain had at least 2 platoons.
My first duty was that of an Team Leader, since I was older and graduated top in my class. As luck would have it, the Platoon I was assigned to was also assigned on-call duty. This meant that if something happened in our part of the world that required Air Defense, our unit would be the first to deploy. We would practice loading and unloading our vehicles over and over until we could get the call and be loaded and on the road within an hour. Nobody really liked being on-call because that meant your liberty (free-time) was limited and you couldn’t drink more than two beers per day. And…that phone call could come at any time.
The Phone Call and the New Lieutenant
One night, the phone call came. We rushed out of our barracks with our prepacked battle load and headed for our trucks. Once we picked up our trucks, we had to head to the bunker to pick up the missiles, chow and other equipment for our trucks, and then head to the armory for our weapons. All this had to be done in an hour. My A-Gunner and I were the first to our vehicle and we headed to the bunker. When we got to the bunker, our new Platoon Leader, a fresh-out-of-school Second Lieutenant was at the bunker to oversee the truck loading. (Second Lieutenants were called Butter-Bars because the single bar indicating their rank was gold in color. Most butter-bars didn’t get respect from enlisted men until they picked up rank) This was his assigned spot during our practices so this is where I met him that night. We started grabbing our truck’s supply and other trucks were starting to line up. The Lieutenant was getting overwhelmed and and could not make a decision to save himself. I don’t naturally gravitate to a leadership position. I’m confident in my decisions, but I don’t like to lead people (they are too much trouble). The one thing I can’t stand is incompetent leaders. When I am faced with an incompetent leader, I step in an assume the leadership position. This is what happened here.
I saw that the butter-bar was in over his head and that the whole mission was being affected. I stepped up to the Lieutenant and told him (maybe a little too forcibly) that he needed to sit down over in a corner away from us and I would take care of the load-out. He turned and stood off to the side while we completed the load-out. I was a Lance Corporal (E-3) at the time and had no business talking to a Lieutenant like that, but to me, the mission came first and we were in trouble of missing our one-hour deadline. We got our vehicles loaded and headed to Kadina Air Force Base where we loaded our vehicles onto transport planes and took off. Once we were in the air, we were informed that it was just a test and we turned around and landed, unloaded and went back to our base to unload our trucks and go back to our barracks just in time for reveille.
Later that morning, I was called into the Lieutenant’s office. I had a feeling that I was going to get an ear-full. Once the door was closed, the Lieutenant told me that as an enlisted man, I was not supposed to talk to an officer in the manner I did. Not only had I disrespected his rank, I had done it in front of other troops. I apologized and told him that I was thinking of our hour limit and I knew how the trucks were supposed to be loaded. He told me that he appreciated it and also told me that without me taking charge like that, that we would have missed our deadline. As it turned out, he was praised by our Battalion Commander for successful rapid first deployment. So, the story ended better than I thought it would. Over the course of the two years I was in Okinawa, we came to respect each other. We were the same age and had a lot of common experiences. Over the course of those two years, he would recommended me for meritorious promotion and personal awards. I believe that I picked up Corporal (E4) because of his recommendation. When his platoon was selected to deploy to the Persian Gulf in 1988 to escort ships into and out of the Persian Gulf, he asked that I be assigned to his platoon. I’ll cover that deployment in a later post. I wish I had kept up with him. I’m sure we would be great friends now.
There are a lot more stories from Okinawa so stay tuned for the next part!
Yesterday was the Marine Corps 234th Birthday. As our custom, I called my bro’ Paul and wished him a Happy Birthday. We hadn’t talked for about a year but it was as if we were still onboard the USS Raleigh in the middle of the Persian Gulf talking about our dreams, goals and our wives. We didn’t know each other very well before that deployment but by the end of the deployment, we became brothers. It’s been about 16 years since I’ve seen him. When we talk, we speak about how fun it would be to get back together. Another year passes and we do it all over again. Our kids grow older, our hair gets grayer (or in Paul’s case – becomes non-existent). But one day a year, we are back on that ship. Laying on the deck staring up into the vast theater of stars provided by God, talking about life and solidifying our bond as brothers.
It is with this fond memory that I wish all who served a Happy Veterans Day. The bond we share is deep and only fully understood by those who have served. God Bless those who are standing in harms way today – forming the bonds that will last them for the rest of their lives.