Roy Cafferty had received his draft notice and he decided to join
the Marine Corps as an officer candidate, instead of going into
the infantry as an enlisted man. Early Wednesday morning Roy took
the subway to the Whitehall Street induction center. He presented
his papers at the Marine desk and was immediately plunged into
the system. He was directed to a large locker room where he was
given a small, green canvas bag and told to strip to his
underwear, put his clothes in the locker, and put his wallet and
personals in the bag. Then he underwent a physical examination.
By this time the center was bedlam. Army, Navy, Air Force and
Marine recruits were being processed in separate groups, but in
full view of each other. One army recruit wasn't wearing
underwear and his feeble efforts to conceal his anatomy drew
ribald comments. At six feet and 190 pounds, Roy was bigger than
most of the kids and it felt like a high school locker room, but
run with a lot more authority. This thought allowed him to begin
a mindset that he hoped would see him through whatever was to
They were hurried to get undressed, hurried to report to the
correct examination room, hurried to get on line and then they
waited. And waited. Roy remembered one of the Cafferty cousins
once saying that the unwritten motto of the military was
hurry up and wait. The air conditioning was pouring out
icicle blasts on their near naked bodies, but the recruitment
staff were fully dressed, so they were comfortable. After
standing there and freezing for 45 minutes, Roy went and turned
the AC down. A few minutes later a staffer turned it up again.
Roy turned it down again and took off the plastic knob, so it
couldn't be adjusted. The staffer tried to turn it up again, but
walked off cursing when it wouldn't turn. The waiting men were
getting restless when diversion arrived. A very young Army 2nd
lieutenant led a group of draftees to a nearby table and read
from a standard form. "It is against military rules to possess
illegal weapons, drugs, alcohol, contraband or other forbidden
objects." A not overly intelligent voice asked: "What's
contraband?" "Anything you got, dummy," the ubiquitous wise-guy
cracked. The dummy turned out to be a very large man who
took offense. He looked around. "Who said that?" But the wise-guy
discreetly caught lockjaw, so nothing happened.
The entertainment seemed to be over, until the lieutenant
ordered: "Put all forbidden objects on the table." With crash,
thump, thud and plop, a shower of weapons and drugs landed on the
table. Pistols, sawed-off shotguns, knives, bags of marijuana,
glassine envelopes of white powder, bottles of cheap booze, and
the ever popular juicer's choice, Thunderbird, grew in piles that
stupefied the lieutenant. He wasn't a city boy and obviously had
never imagined anything like this donation from tough, urban kids
who took weapons for granted. "Is there anything else?" he
managed to stutter. No one moved for a moment, then a thin, wiry
black man said: "Sheeit," stepped forward and dropped a
submachine gun on the table with a loud clank. "I thought we was
gonna fight gooks? I don't see why I can't bring me some
protection?" He stepped back into line and the lieutenant said
reassuringly: "Don't worry. The Army will give you a weapon." The
man was not consoled. "Sheeit. It won't be as good as mine." A
black man in the Marine group yelled: "Don't worry, brother. The
Army will give you a spear." Everyone roared with laughter. As
the draftees moved out, they heard the disgruntled voice of the
man who gave up his weapon: "A spear? Sheeit."
The doctor arrived an hour and fifteen minutes late without
apology. He was short and skinny, with large glasses perched on
his face. He looked like a tropical fish, with bulgy eyes and
mouth popping open and shut. Roy nicknamed him Doctor Gorami. His
dirty white coat and unwashed hands hardly inspired confidence in
the youngsters who were being detached from the world. His
assistant was an obese, aquatic counterpart who looked like a
grouper. He lisped: "Thtep forward for height and weight." The
line started moving. After they were weighed and measured, each
man stopped at Dr. Gorami for a rapid exam; eyes, ears, throat
and ice cold stethoscope on chest. Then his voice of goblins past
croaked, "Turn. Drop your drawers. Bend over." Dr. Gorami did a
quick hernia check, then stamped accepted or rejected on a form.
A large, coarse, fleshy recruit two places ahead of Roy obeyed
the doctor and bent over. Just as the doctor bent down, the
recruit let off a tremendous fart in the doctor's face that
almost blew him over. The stink was close to lethal. Everyone but
the doctor cracked up with laughter. Dr. Gorami glared at the
vulgar, cackling brutes, but said nothing. Instead, he handled
the meat more harshly and approached dangerous posteriors with
A gunnery sergeant gave Roy a lunch chit and directions to the
Army and Air Force cafeteria several blocks away, along with a
dozen other Marine recruits. He selected one of the recruits to
take charge of the group. Roy was noticing that the Marines
seemed to have a lot of gunnery sergeants. He told them to have
lunch and report back in an hour. The place was packed when they
got there. When they finally got their trays of what was supposed
to be creamed chicken and some sort of unidentifiable green
vegetable, Roy wasn't hungry, so he ducked out and went for a
walk. He was in lower Manhattan, so he wandered around Wall
Street, where the business suited drones flooded the canyoned
streets at lunch time, briefly escaping the hives of profit. Roy
felt like he just dropped in from another planet and although
well prepared by his travel agent, still found earth alien. He
strolled through narrow streets, staring like a tourist and
finally took Beaver Street back to the Whitehall military meat
processing plant, without seeing a single beaver.
He got back a few minutes late and the gunnery sergeant was
impatiently waiting. "You're late." Roy apologized. "Sorry,
gunny, the streets were jammed and I got lost." "Where are your
men?" he demanded. Roy looked at him in surprise. "I wasn't in
charge, gunny." "You are the officer candidate. You're supposed
to be responsible." "Sorry, gunny. I didn't know it started yet,"
Roy said sincerely. "Learn to be ready. Now come with me." He led
them to a large room with tiny cubicles and assigned them to
seats. They were given batteries of tests: comprehension,
language skills, mechanical skills, science and electronics,
personality evaluations and general knowledge. When they
finished, they were sent to another room where a psychiatrist
asked a series of questions designed to identify loonies, mad
dogs, morons, degenerates and illegal immigrants from Alistair
IV. The detector of deviance salivated slightly when he asked the
sex questions and showed moderate disappointment when they
revealed no perversions. Then they were sent to another room
where they were given the oath of allegiance by a well decorated,
picture book Marine captain. Roy had never sworn such a mighty
oath before and he was suitably impressed with the solemnity of
The captain took Roy aside and informed him that he would be
taking a flight to Quantico, Virginia, where he would wait until
his class was formed for training. "How long will I have to wait
for the class, sir?" Roy asked. "Are you impatient, son?" "No,
sir. Just curious." "The next class will probably start September
15th. "That's ten days from now, sir. Can I go to Washington D.C.
until then?" Roy asked hopefully. The captain grinned wolfishly.
"From now on you go where we tell you, until death or discharge
do us part." Roy said: "Yes, sir." "Gunnery sergeant Torville
will escort you to La Guardia Airport, where you'll be put on the
next available flight to Quantico." "When will that be, sir?" Roy
asked. "Tonight or tomorrow morning. You ask a lot of questions.
Do you have a problem with authority?" "No, sir. I just like to
know what's going on." The captain smiled and suddenly looked
much younger. "So do I. But you better learn when to keep your
mouth shut." "Yes, sir. I've heard that advice before." "I bet
you have." "I don't want to put gunny Torville to any trouble,"
Roy said. "I can take a taxi to the airport." "It's no trouble.
Gunny Torville goes home that way and he'll make sure that you
Gunnery sergeant Torville didn't say much to Roy during the drive
to the airport. It was just before rush hour and traffic was
still light, so they made good time leaving Manhattan. Since
arriving at Whitehall Street that morning, Roy had become less
animated. Now he was feeling the loss of an inner joy that he had
always taken for granted. He watched the sterile, urban scenery
as they sped towards La Guardia and resolved to get through the
coming trials and regain his good spirits. When they pulled up at
the airport, Roy turned to Torville and said: "You don't say
much, do you, gunny?" Torville looked at him, measuringly. "When
you've been deep in the shit, you don't feel much like talking."
"Was it bad in Vietnam?" Roy asked sympathetically. Torville's
eyes were like dusty stones. "Yeah. I did two tours. The second
was a real shit burner. It'll be worse by the time you get
Roy had been listening to him carefully and asked: "Why, gunny?"
Torville answered somberly: "Everyone knows the war is winding
down and the missions reflect that. We're taking more and more
defensive postures. The snuffies have too much time on their
hands and they're goofing off, smoking dope and complaining more
and more." "What's a snuffie?" Roy asked. "The lowest enlisted
ranks; private or P.F.C. But don't get me wrong. It's not as bad
as the Army, where they started fragging officers." "What's
fragging?" Roy asked. "Jesus H. Christ. Don't you know anything?"
"I guess not, gunny," Roy said apologetically. "Fragging is when
they toss a grenade in an officer's tent." Roy couldn't believe
it. "Holy shit. You've got to be kidding?" "I kid you not. But
that's the Army. They'll draft anything. At least the Corps only
takes volunteers." "Do you think Marines would frag their
officers?" Roy asked. Torville looked annoyed. "I didn't say
that. Enough talk. It's time to see you on your way." "Do you
have any advice if I'm sent to Vietnam?" Roy asked. "Keep your
mouth shut, your ass down and pray you get a good gunnery
Torville gave him tickets, transportation vouchers and meal
chits, then turned him over to a ground attendant who agreed to
look after him. Torville wished him luck and departed before he
could even say good-bye. The pretty, vacuous blond automatically
posed for Roy but quickly lost interest when he didn't respond
enthusiastically. She took out a standard form and read in a
monotone: "You will be taking flight 52, a special military
flight to Quantico, Virginia. It is not a scheduled flight, so it
does not have a specific departure time. We estimate it will
depart sometime between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM. You are to remain in
the terminal at all times. You have been issued meal chits that
will be accepted by all restaurants in the terminal. Your name
will be added to the passenger manifest. Announcements will be
made over the public address system informing you of pertinent
information. Please do not hesitate to request assistance if you
experience any difficulties." She turned and walked away without
another word to him.
Roy sat down on a bench to wait. The airport was bustling and for
a while he watched fellow travelers rushing to make flights.
Almost everyone was in a hurry and few of them looked relaxed.
Roy vaguely remembered a 1968 survey that claimed that 65% of
Americans had never flown. Looking at the tense voyagers, Roy
could believe that. He realized that he could be there for twelve
hours and decided to buy a book, then get something to eat. Roy
bought a copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, then picked a
restaurant. The meal in the International Restaurant was bland,
but a lot better than the lunch slop at the Army cafeteria that
he had declined to eat.
He alternated reading and dozing for hours. When the announcement
came that his flight was boarding, he was stiff and creaky and it
took a few minutes to restore circulation to numb limbs. As he
waited to get on the plane, Roy said to himself: "From this
moment on I'm going to concentrate on doing whatever has to be
done to get along in the Corps." Once the plane took off the
flight didn't take long and they landed less than an hour later.
It was the middle of the night and he had no idea what to do
next. There was no greeting committee, no information officer, no
desk personnel, no one.
Several officers were getting into a van and Roy went to them and
asked a major: "Excuse me, sir. I'm an officer candidate assigned
to Quantico, but I have no way to get there. Can I hitch a ride
with you?" The major looked him over doubtfully. "Do you have
your orders?" "Yes, sir. Here, sir." Roy pulled all the papers
out of his pocket and thrust them at the major. He pushed them
back at Roy and said: "Maybe you're not a gook spy. Hop in. But
no conversation. We've got to catch up on our sleep." "Thank you,
sir." Roy piled into the van. The major instructed the driver, a
baby-faced lance corporal who looked so young that he should have
been operating a bicycle, rather than a motor vehicle: "Drop him
at the candidate's school. Drop us at bachelor officers quarters
and don't wake us until we get there." "Yes, sir."
They drove off and within moments the officers were snoring away
like loggers at harvest time. Roy didn't risk waking his
benefactor by talking, so he sat quietly as they rode through the
Virginia night. After forty minutes of high speed, reckless
driving that made Roy yearn for the Peace Corps, they slowed
momentarily and passed through a gate with a United States Marine
Corps sign. At least Roy concluded they were still in the known
universe. The van stopped in front of an administration building
and the driver gestured him out. Before Roy could ask any
questions the van shot off and he was on his own.
He walked into the mostly darkened building and found a fat, old
staff sergeant hunched over a desk. He was intently studying
girlie magazines. "Hi, sarge," Roy said, and he almost fell out
of his chair. "Jeez. You scared the shit out of me. Whatcha doin'
prowlin' aroun' here?" "I'm reporting for officers candidate
school," Roy answered. "Who do I see?" The sergeant yawned and
scratched. "Beats me, kid. You'll have to come back in the
mornin." "What do I do until then? Where do I sleep?" "I don't
know. I guess in the candidates' barracks. Barracks A is empty.
Three blocks to the right. Two in." He went back to his reading.
"Thanks, sarge." He turned to go and the sergeant called: "Hey,
kid." He held up two glossy magazines with abundant naked women.
"Do you see any difference between Playboy and Penthouse?" Roy
suppressed a smart ass remark and said: "No, sarge," and walked
out the door. The bewildered scholar's voice called after him:
"That's what I thought, too. Welcome to Quantico."
Roy found barracks A without much trouble. He went in and saw two
rows of empty bunks, without bedding. He tested the bed springs,
decided the floor was preferable, curled up like a tired dog and
went to sleep. Reveille yanked him awake at 0600 and after a
bathroom call he made his way to the mess hall. He watched for a
minute to see how it was done, picked up a tray and joined the
line. He was served bacon, scrambled eggs, toast and some sort of
viscous, gray stuff. "What's that?" Roy asked. The mess sergeant
looked surprised. "Them's grits, Goldilocks." Roy didn't
appreciate the laughter from his fellow Marines. "What's grits,
Sarge?" This drew an astonished look. "You never had grits, boy?"
"No, Sarge." "Well, you try 'em," and he slopped another portion
on the tray. The line was getting impatient behind them, so Roy
moved on, took a large mug of coffee and went to a table. Roy was
pleasantly surprised that the food wasn't toxic and even the
grits weren't bad. They reminded him of Irish porridge with some
kind of things in them. He didn't ask what those things might be.
After breakfast he went to the administration building and
reported to the duty officer. When he finally reached the
appropriate office, Captain Spatola, as his desk plaque read, was
not happy to see him. "I was sent here, sir," Roy said. "I can
see that. Well, just hang around until your class arrives on
September 15th." "I need clothes and bedding, sir." "I can't
issue a uniform yet, but tell the supply sergeant that I
authorized sweats and bedding. Now get out of here and don't let
me see you until Monday morning, September 16th, at 0700." "Thank
you, Captain Spatula." He corrected Roy's pronunciation. "It's
Spatola." "Yes, sir." He yelled to Roy's departing back: "And
don't leave the base." "Yes, sir."
For the next few days Roy roamed the base inspecting everything.
No one questioned what he was doing or where he was supposed to
be, though Roy got peculiar looks at his long blond hair. He got
up at reveille, went to breakfast, observed the training classes
in the field and got to know the supply sergeant, who reluctantly
issued him gear on the authority of Captain Spatola. In the late
morning he ran the confidence course, which became easier each
time he did it. He jogged five miles, then practiced karate in an
unused area on the drill field. By the third day other Marines
joined him while he was doing his karate forms. By the end of the
week as many as twenty-five men were going through the karate
forms at a medium pace, in unison, without talking. When they
finished, both enlisted men and officers bowed and left. After
lunch he would read for a while, run laps on the track, run the
confidence course at full speed and practice sparring. After
dinner, he went swimming at the officer's club, or to the movies,
or he just hung out at the PX, observing the various characters
stationed on the base. It was a very relaxing time and he used it
to get into top shape.
By the fourth day Roy felt like he had been at Quantico for weeks
and that he belonged there. He was of the system without being in
it yet. It was like going away to sado-masochist camp without
participating. They were practicing their karate forms when a
particularly well turned out gunnery sergeant stopped to watch. A
few minutes later he sauntered over, removed his shoes and
fluidly moved into synch with Roy. They finished the long,
graceful routine and the gunny shifted into a more advanced form
that Roy had seen, but not yet done. The gunny moved slowly so
Roy could follow him and led him through all the Brown belt
forms. When they completed the last movement Roy bowed to him in
appreciation. Then the gunny went through several black belt
forms with incredible grace and precision. They all stopped what
they were doing and watched. A captain who had been exercising in
the back of the group stepped forward and did the forms with the
gunny, but without his skill and ‚lan. They finished and the
captain bowed to the gunny. So did the rest of the group, then
they wandered off.
The gunny stood there looking at Roy. He hadn't broken a sweat.
Despite the heat, the humidity and the exercise, he looked cool
and crisp in his well-pressed fatigues. "Cafferty, Roy? "Yes,
gunny," he answered. "I am gunnery sergeant Wilkerson. I will be
your drill instructor when your class commences on September
16th." "Yes, gunny." He looked at the man who could make life an
anguish for ten weeks. He was tall, muscular and supremely
confident of his place in the firmament of the Marine Corps. He
had jet black hair and eyebrows, flashing blue eyes, prominent
cheekbones, a dagger for a nose, thin lips with a hint of smile
in the corners and a square, determined jaw. Roy thought he would
make a terrible enemy. "Usually, the ladies who show up early
just hang out, drink beer and catch up on their beauty sleep. You
have been working out. Keep it up." "Yes, gunny." "If you have
any problems, let me know, otherwise I'll see you officially on
Sunday, the 15th, at 1300, on the parade ground." "Yes, gunny."
He turned to leave and Roy called after him: "We'll be practicing
every day at 11:00 o'clock." He corrected Roy. "Eleven hundred."
"Yes, gunny. Eleven hundred. We'd be honored if you joined us."
Roy thought he saw a flicker of approval in those chilly eyes.
"We'll see." "Is there anything I can do to get ready for the
class?" "Keep exercising. Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut
and stay out of trouble." "Yes, gunny."
For the next two days Roy observed the officer's class that was
scheduled to graduate on Friday. He couldn't go into the class
rooms, but he watched all the physical activities. He concluded
that he was in better shape than almost all the candidates, so
his challenge in basic wouldn't be physical. Roy, tired of being
called Goldilocks, got a hair cut on Friday. He gave the barber
precise instructions to leave as much hair and sideburns as he
saw officers on the base wearing. The barber said jovially: "Yes,
sir," and proceeded to shave him bald with four long strokes and
two clean-up strokes, ignoring his feeble objections. The real
indignity was that he had to pay for the baldy. "I'm an officer
candidate," Roy protested. The barber said cheerfully: "You're
not on any list of mine, kid." "I suppose you expect a tip?" Roy
asked bitterly. "No thanks, kid," the barber replied. "I'll give
you one. Next time, join the Navy." He walked out to the laughter
of the barbers. Once he was in the hot summer sun he quickly
realized his bald head would get sunburned, so he went to the
supply sergeant and got a fatigue cap. He walked past the
graduation ceremony, but didn't stop to watch because they knew
it would be his turn soon enough.
He went to the base movie that night and saw Where Eagles
Dare, a World War II action film that didn't have much to do
with reality. When it ended and the lights came up, he saw
gunnery sergeant Wilkerson smiling disdainfully at the screen.
"How did you like the film, gunny?" Roy asked. "They must have
had fun playing war. I hope you don't think combat's anything
like that?" "No, gunny," Roy answered. "I watched the war on TV
for years. It was nothing like the movies." "The shit they show
on TV is nothing like the real thing." "My father was in the
Corps in Korea," Roy said. "My grandfather was killed on
Guadalcanal. I've heard their stories. What's it really like in
Vietnam?" Wilkerson looked very bleak. "Those Marines knew who
they were fighting. Now it's a crock of shit. But you'll find out
for yourself. Enough bullshit for one night. See you tomorrow."
Roy lay awake in his bunk that night and thought about what gunny
Wilkerson had said. He was thankful that he didn't have any
romantic illusions about going to war, but he was disturbed by
the gunny's bitter attitude. If that type of capable Marine was
negative about the war, he wondered what he was getting into.
Before he fell asleep he came to a few conclusions. One of them
was that for better or worse he was now a Marine officer
candidate and it was up to him to make the best of his situation,
no matter what. He made a mental note to find out what happened
if he failed officers candidate school. Did he get a chance to do
it over? Did he automatically become an enlisted man? Would he be
dishonorably discharged? Other worrisome questions started
popping into mind, but with a good effort he dismissed them. He
thought about how in the past he had always resisted authority
and resolved not to do it in the Marines.
Sunday morning he leisurely ate his last casual breakfast, jogged
lazily and went through his karate workout at half speed. Then he
reported to the parade ground to join his class. Roy had changed
in his ten days at Quantico. He may not have been in training,
but he had interacted with military personnel daily. He had begun
to think of himself as a Marine. Roy saw the long-haired,
frightened rabble slovenly hulking on the parade ground and they
looked like the impotent invasion of the counter-culture. It
never occurred to him that he looked just like them less than two
weeks ago. Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson appeared out of nowhere and
regarded the nervously milling herd contemptuously. Without
raising his voice he penetrated each bewildered crania. "You are
the sorriest looking lot of human droppings that I have ever had
the misfortune to see. Are you sure that you didn't miss the bus
that was supposed to take you to the Peace Corps?"
There was a long silence, then a foolish but sincere voice
quavered. "Oh, no, sarge. We're Marines." Without raising his
voice, Wilkerson thundered. "Who said that? Step forward." A
woeful looking specimen, who would have been happier at the
moment in his college newspaper office, shuffled out of the
protective comfort of the herd. Wilkerson looked him up and down
as if he were an exhibit in a hippie museum. "What is your name?"
"Fulton, sarge, like the inventor of the steamboat." "Stand at
attention." Fulton drew himself semi-erect, but obviously
hungered for the safety of the trees. "I am gunnery sergeant
Wilkerson, your senior drill instructor. You will call me sir at
all times. Do you understand?" This time the response was
energetic. "Yes, sir." "It is my responsibility to make sure that
you do not inflict any further damage on the Corps, besides what
your shameful presence has already caused. You pampered babies
should be home playing with action figures, not trying to be
Marine officers. It is against my better judgement, but I will do
my best to make officers out of the shoddiest material I have
ever seen. Form two lines in size places, short men in front."
Two staff sergeants appeared and observed the confusion. One of
them was the widest human that Roy had ever seen.
Wilkerson scornfully watched them struggle to form lines in the
most haphazard way imaginable. When they were finally sorted out,
a big, muscular sulker muttered: "He can't talk to us like that."
Roy ignored him and stared straight ahead, stone faced, but
others agreed with him. "Last man on the right. Step forward,"
Wilkerson called. Sulker looked at Roy, who didn't turn. He
pointed to himself questioningly and moved forward at Wilkerson's
nod. "What is your name?" "Phil Darmus." "Do you have a
complaint?" "Yes, sarge." Wilkerson corrected him. "Sir." "Yes,
sir. You shouldn't talk to officers like that." Many of the
candidates echoed their agreement. "You are not officers. But in
the Corps you can request to speak to higher authority, or you
can settle it with me," Wilkerson said softly. "Feel free to
express yourself physically, if you like."
Darmus didn't speak and started to turn away, then launched a
tremendous swing at Wilkerson, who seemed to flash through a
space warp. He grabbed Darmus' arm and spun him to the ground
using a leg movement that was too quick to follow. His fingers
squeezed Darmus' upper arm and made him yowl like a baby. "Any
more complaints?" "No, sir," he howled. Wilkerson released
Darmus' arm and sent him back to the line. Fulton still hadn't
moved. "Steamboat." "Yes, sir." "Join the other ladies." "Yes,
sir." He jumped into line like a bowling ball hitting the pins.
Wilkerson shook his head in disgust. "If the commandant wasn't
relying on me, I'd ship all of you back where you came from. You
wouldn't last one day against the Viet Cong."
Wilkerson made them run full speed to the barber shop. When they
arrived breathless, gasping for air, they were shorn bald.
Rubbing their naked pates after the quickest shaves they'd ever
get, they began to realize that this was serious business. From
that moment on they truly knew that they were in the Marine
Corps. They ran to the supply depot where they were issued
uniforms; olive drab field jackets, shirts and trousers, web
belts, brass buckles, soft hats called soft covers, black boots,
socks and underwear called skivvies. Then they were piled high
with bedding and field gear; canteens, mess gear, packs, webbed
gear, helmets, entrenching tools, M-14 rifles and buckets. Then
they ran to the barracks, carrying tons of stuff, where they
stowed everything in their lockers under the watchful eyes of
gunnery sergeant Wilkerson and the two staff sergeants.
After their equipment was stowed they went to the drill field and
started learning close order drill. Then they ran to lunch. There
was more drill in the afternoon and more running. After dinner
they ran back to the barracks, where the weary candidates
collapsed on their bunks. Thirty minutes later they were ordered
to fall in outside and they went on a six mile hike. It was pitch
black by the time they got back and the men were exhausted. They
stood at attention in their skivvies next to their bunks, until
Wilkerson said: "Mount," and they leaped into bed, lay down and
were asleep in seconds. Roy was in good shape, but it had been a
grueling day and he fell into a dreamless sleep until rude
After breakfast they went to the infirmary for physical
examinations. They stripped naked and hospital corpsmen examined
their penises in the traditional military ritual, short-arm inspection. Then they were treated to a rectal exam that
definitely expanded their horizons. They provided their torturers
with urine specimens and received in return ten injections from a
pistol-like pneumatic hypodermic. They got dressed and left the
Chicago stockyards, grateful that they weren't converted to raw
hamburger. Gunny Wilkerson was waiting outside. He looked at them
disdainfully. "Well, ladies. That takes care of your bodies for
the moment. Now if we can find them, it's time for your minds."
He led them at a run to an administration building where they
were given aptitude tests, followed by interviews that explored
their mental and emotional stability, as well as their attitudes
towards authority. It was a relief to get out and run to lunch.
After chow they learned the pleasures of polishing brass buckles
and spit-shining boots.
Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson never yelled or got angry, but
everyone jumped to obey his razor sharp commands. He demanded
that every candidate be in top physical condition, so they would
be able to lead the enlisted men. The stress was on leadership,
which was the most important part of their training. They were
taught that teamwork was the foundation of the Corps,
responsibility was the glue that bound it together and the
integrity of the officer was critical to the good functioning of
the Corps. Roy learned that the ability to move troops in an
organized fashion was vital, but control of the situation was
mandatory. There were classes in military subjects like
navigation, map reading, customs and practices, chain of command,
general orders and introduction to military life. What Roy found
fascinating was that they were being prepared for moral
leadership, not just leaping out of a landing craft and opening
fire. Roy was at least a year younger than the others, who had
mostly graduated from college in the spring. But with the
exception of one black candidate, Ben Johnson, an older man, he
was more mature than any of them.
Roy gave himself completely to the task at hand and lived in the
present, confined in a tiny society that he was determined to
master. They were constantly tested and challenged, which
toughened them mentally as well as physically. By the end of the
first week they were functioning as a unit and Wilkerson stopped
driving them and began to guide them. Their training was divided
into 25% physical, 25% moral and 50% leadership. They were told
over and over again that they were responsible for everyone else
and the idea began to sink in. They were being converted from I
to we. As they became more competent, the weeks went by faster
and faster. There was only one constant irritation, Phil Darmus,
the candidate who had confronted Wilkerson the first day. He kept
up a steady stream of whining and griping. He had appointed
himself the leader of a small insecure group from the south, the
largest regional contingent in the barracks. He was sly and never
bitched in front of authority, but he emitted a daily dose of
negatives that tainted some of his henchmen. He also picked on
Steamboat Fulton, until Roy politely requested that he
leave him alone.
In the few free hours Roy had on the weekends, he went to the
base library to catch up on the news. He read about the
controversial Chicago 8 trial, which had become so unruly that
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had to be restrained, and Bobby
Seale was gagged and shackled. The radical group known as the
Weathermen carried out violent demonstrations trying to disrupt
the trial. But the Chicago police were brutally efficient and
arrested almost 300 of them and harshly maintained order. The
defendants were sentenced to five years, but they were released
on bail a week later by a higher court. The intense training
schedule made Roy forget injustice for the time being. Somehow,
the disassembly and assembly of the M-14 rifle seemed more
pertinent at the moment than the anti-war movement. A second
visit to the dispensary that resulted in four injections and
aching bodies helped keep things in perspective.
Roy had his first disagreement with members of his class about
Moratorium Day. In a massive anti-war protest, hundreds of
thousands of Americans across the country attended rallies, folk
concerts, seminars and teach-ins. During the day, opponents of
the moratorium displayed the American flag and drove their cars
with their headlights on. That evening, Coretta King led 45,000
demonstrators in a candlelight parade past the White House.
According to the media, President Nixon watched from behind
closed curtains. The next day, gunnery sergeant Wilkerson asked
the class if they would obey orders from a superior officer to
fire on the demonstrators. Most of the class shouted: "Yes, sir."
Roy was the only one who shouted: "No, sir." "Are you saying you
would disobey an order, R?" Wilkerson asked. Wilkerson called Roy
R. "Yes, sir." There were some boos that Wilkerson silenced with
a gesture. "Why?" "It's an illegal order, sir." "Are you a
lawyer, R?" "No, sir." "Then how do you know it's illegal?" "They
are citizens who are peacefully demonstrating and exercising
their constitutional rights, sir." "But aren't they opposing the
war?" "Yes, sir. They are expressing the will of the people."
Wilkerson looked at the group and asked: "How may of you disagree
with Cafferty?" All the hands went up, except Steamboat's, who
was a loyal Cafferty supporter and Ben Johnson, the stocky black
man who was slightly older than the rest of them and one of the
only two blacks in the class. Wilkerson asked: "What about you,
Johnson?" "Citizens have the right to demonstrate peacefully,
sir." "You were a cop, weren't you?" "Yes, sir." "Don't you want
to break their heads for disrupting things?" "No, sir. If we
don't allow protest, next thing you know we'll have Nazi Germany
all over again." "Does that bother you because you're black?"
"Yes, sir. It also bothers me because I'm an American." "Would
you refuse to fire on the enemy?" "No, sir. Once I knew who the
enemy was." "Are you saying you need a scorecard or something?"
"Yes, sir. You can't fire on someone just because you feel like
it." "Did you ever shoot someone, Johnson?" "Yes, sir." "In the
line of duty?" "Yes, sir." "Did you like that?" "No, sir." "Well
said, Johnson. As for the rest of you ladies, a Marine officer is
not a gangster or an executioner. He is a morally responsible
individual, accountable for the actions of his men and himself.
Never forget that."
Roy hung around with Johnson when time allowed. He had a similar
attitude, serious without being scared. He listened with interest
when Roy talked about current events, especially the anti-war
movement. He told Roy that he had been active in the civil rights
movement, which brought him into frequent conflict with his
superiors in the police department. "Detroit wanted its cops to
obey mindlessly, so I decided to take a vacation in the Corps."
Roy thought that was funny.
The weeks were speeding by and the class was beginning to
resemble a military product. Then a terrible event was reported
in the media that horrified America. It brought painfully home to
the officer candidates why the Corps was so vitally concerned
with moral leadership. A story in the newspapers claimed that on
March 16, 1968, while the villagers of My Lai were eating
breakfast, army lieutenant William Calley, Jr. and troops of C
company, 20th infantry, massacred over 100 men, women and
children. This was sickening news to a nation that expected
better of its soldiers.
The next day, there was a massive anti-war demonstration in
Washington, DC. Tens of thousands of protesters marched down
Pennsylvania Avenue and rallied at the Washington Monument.
Speakers included Senator McGovern, Coretta King and Dr. Spock.
The March Against Death began at 6:00 PM and went on for forty
hours. 46,000 people each carried a placard with the name of a
soldier killed in Vietnam, or a village destroyed by U.S. troops.
They marched past the White House and called out the names, then
they marched to the Capitol Building where they deposited the
placards in wooden coffins. They were responsible, middle class
citizens objecting to the war. Roy thought it was the most
meaningful demonstration ever mounted by the anti-war movement.
A week later Roy saw photos of the My Lai massacre that were
published in Life Magazine. They were nightmarish. Only a few
soldiers had refused to participate in the massacre. The rest
killed an estimated 400 people. Some were slaughtered in a ditch.
Others had their throats cut, tongues cut out and were scalped.
America was not used to this kind of butchery by her sons. The
army charged lieutenant Calley and staff sergeant Mitchell with
war crimes, but no higher-ups were charged. There were claims of
a cover up, but polls showed that most Americans simply didn't
believe the massacre really happened, while many others thought
there must have been extenuating circumstances. Gunnery sergeant
Wilkerson spent a lot of time discussing the moral issues of the
masssacre, related to the need for officers to behave responsibly
and control their men. With the sickening example of My Lai,
everyone got the message.
They were more than halfway through their course and Wilkerson no
longer drove them as much as he tried to build them. They no
longer raced frantically, but marched or jogged purposefully.
Those who couldn't hack it physically were long departed. The
morally unfit had been weeded out, or were on the verge of
leaving. Fully a third of the class was gone and the rest were
growing more confident daily. Roy had mastered the confidence
course, learned how to shoot and had become proficient in hand-to-hand combat. Roy took particular pleasure in thoroughly
pounding Darmus with Pugil sticks. Darmus was further humiliated
when Roy easily defeated him in bayonet drill. They had become
competent in guard duty movements and procedures and were
beginning to think like officers.
Johnson had moved into a bunk next to Roy and another officer
candidate, Vernon Parton, had attached himself to them. Parton
was tall, wiry thin, and as rugged as the hills of Tennessee
where he had been born. He had worked his way out of sharecropper
roots, overcome illiteracy and put himself through college with
the help of the Marine version of R.O.T.C. He was becoming an
officer in order to join another social class. When he sat with
Roy, Steamboat and Johnson in the mess hall, Phil Darmus and some
of his southern boys objected to his choice of a black dining
partner. That night in barracks they confronted Parton and Darmus
demanded: "You stay with your own kind." "I pick my own buddies,"
he coolly answered in his terse mountain twang. Darmus kept
goading them on and Roy was really getting furious because of his
hatred of bullies, which was a fervent passion. He put down
Crime and Punishment, which he had been reading with rapt
fascination, but only managing to finish one or two pages a
Roy walked up to Darmus and his henchmen. Steamboat and Johnson
followed him. "I'm trying to read, Doormouse, and you're
distracting me." "The name is Darmus and this is none of your
business, Cafferty." "Sure it is. You're a bigot and so are some
of your buddies. That doesn't belong here." "What are you going
to do about it?" Roy smiled pleasantly. "Ask you politely to walk
away, so I can go back to my book." "And if I don't?" "I left a
place mark so I won't lose my page, while I send you back to your
bunk." "I can handle this myself," Parton told Roy. "I know you
can," Roy answered. "They're just hot air, unless they can scare
someone. But I don't like bigots or bullying and I don't want
them in my barracks." Steamboat stepped forward. "Neither do I."
Johnson echoed him. "Most of the guys here object to bigotry,"
Roy said to Parton, "but they don't want to face a mob. If
Doormouse wants to face you or me alone, I don't mind, but I hate
cowardly mobs and they don't belong in the Corps." Darmus and his
cronies slunk back to their bunks and Darmus muttered: "I won't
forget this, Cafferty." "You know where to find me," Roy said
The next day Parton moved into the bunk next to Roy and from then
on the foursome went everywhere together. Darmus kept mumbling
some vague racial threats and gunnery sergeant Wilkerson called
him into his office for a serious talk. Instead of taking the
opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in tolerance, Darmus
bitterly complained about being publicly humiliated over a
nigger. When Wilkerson politely requested him not to use the N
word, Darmus accused him of betraying his race. Darmus was gone
that afternoon. It was obvious that race might be a major issue
in America, but the Corps wasn't going to let it disrupt the
green machine. Another visit to the infirmary added to
the lesson in tolerance. They were all told to volunteer to give
blood for Vietnam. One of the corpsmen who heard about the racial
incident said: "It won't matter what color you are if you need
blood in Vietnam. It's all red."
That night, just before lights out, Wilkerson came into the
barracks and after they snapped to attention, put them at ease.
"I understand there was an incident here last night." He looked
up and down the lines of men standing in front of their bunks,
staring over his head. He stopped, facing Roy. "Do you have
anything to say?" "No, sir." He fixed Roy with a steely glare.
"Do you think I can't maintain order?" "No, sir." "Did someone
appoint you sheriff of this barracks?" "No, sir." He turned and
walked to the door. "Lights out, boys." He flicked the switch and
disappeared into the night. A falsetto voice pierced the
darkness: "It's about time. I'm tired of being a girl." The
bonding laughter helped heal some of the tension that lingered
from the racial incident. Before they went to sleep they argued
about the moon landing of Apollo 12. When the camera failed and
the picture was lost, rumors spread that NASA was staging the
Apollo flight in a movie studio. The barracks was evenly divided,
with the Cafferty mob asserting they were really on the moon and
the southern boys claiming that Conrad and Bean were somewhere in
Hollywood. Neither side could get the others to change their
minds. They slept soundly that night. In the morning Wilkerson
appointed Roy platoon leader.
It was two weeks until graduation and the boys were
beginning to think like Marines. They were indoors on a cold
November day, watching training films of combat footage of
Marines in Vietnam. Roy thought one of them was particularly
instructional. A Marine platoon came under fire from a tree line
on their flank. The Marines turned, got on line and charged
through the ambush, firing their weapons and throwing grenades.
The audience cheered as if they were at the movies, but booed
when Roy asked to see it again. Wilkerson brought up the
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that had just started between the
U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in Helsinki. They realized that he was
encouraging their intellectual development and listened
attentively. "SALT is the first formal meeting between the
superpowers to discuss ending the nuclear arms race. What will it
mean to the Marine Corps if they ban the bomb?" In his first
humorous moment in months, Roy answered: "They won't vaporize us
when we hit the beach." Everyone laughed. "True. But more
specifically, our ground role will be more important than ever.
That means that Marines will face new challenges and confront new
enemies. It will be up to us to deliver controlled violence."
A voice form the back of the room, taking advantage of the
discussion atmosphere, asked: "What about Vietnam, sir?" "What
about it?" "What's going to happen there?" He looked into the
distance stonily. "We are disengaging from the war, which will be
a painful job for the Corps, especially for the snuffies who will
not see a reason or purpose for being there. None of them want to
be the last ones to die in a lost war." They digested his harsh
words. Another voice asked: "Is it really lost?" "We're packing
up and pulling out," he said. "The politicians will try to
salvage a Korea from the mess, but Marvin the ARVN is not up to
the task. A lot of good Marines will die while they diddle around
in Paris, stuffing themselves on frogs legs and arguing about who
gets what. Young Marine officers will face difficult situations
as we untangle this mess. We'll continue this topic another time.
Now you will demonstrate how to deploy a platoon under fire. Lead
the boys out, R." "Yes, sir."
Roy had switched his karate workouts to the free hour after
dinner. After a few days his former workout companions joined
him, including Captain Randolph, their company commander.
Wilkerson joined them regularly and instructed the advanced
practitioners by example. Captain Randolph treated him very
respectfully. One day, after Wilkerson led Roy through a
particularly complicated form, he said: "Well done, R. You just
finished the brown belt qualification." Roy was pleased at the
accomplishment, but it didn't excite him the way it used to.
"Thanks, gunny. Do you think I'm ready to start black belt
level?" "Yes. But don't let it go to your head." "No, sir." "It's
none of my business, but can I ask you a personal question?"
"Sure, gunny. "You're an excellent officer candidate. You show
real leadership ability, but you don't seem to enjoy yourself."
Roy was surprised. "I didn't know that I was supposed to have
fun." "That's not quite what I meant. You take everything very
seriously, almost to excess." "Killing people is serious business
to me, gunny. Ordering people to do it is even more serious."
"You're right, but I sense that something is burdening you. Would
it help to talk about it?" "No thank you, gunny," Roy said
coldly. "All right, but the offer stands. Just remember, this
isn't the foreign legion." Roy genuinely laughed for the first
time in months at the irony. "Don't worry, gunny. I'm not Beau
With graduation one week away, Wilkerson concentrated on the
theme of moral leadership and responsibility. He informed the
platoon that President Nixon had issued a directive renouncing
the use of chemical and biological weapons by the U.S. Then he
asked them what that signified for the Marine Corps. Unlike the
earlier vagueness about nuclear weapons, the platoon was very
clear that although it would be ideal not to face chemical or
biological weapons, they should be prepared for all
eventualities. Wilkerson nodded approval. "How would you do
that?" "Training in recognition and protection is the only
practical way," Johnson answered. "What kind of training?" "I
don't know, sir." "Well, neither do I." This shocked the platoon,
who had come to rely on him as an oracle. He continued: "In the
future, Marines assaulting a hostile shore will have to be
prepared to face weapons that we're currently unfamiliar with."
"Then why worry about them now?" Stan asked in his grating way.
"Because some of you may lead troops into the mideast some day,
where the locals aren't able to defeat you frontally, so they
might use germ warfare to equalize the battlefield." "How do we
find out about this?" Roy asked. "Ask your instructors in basic
The morning of December 6th, graduation day, was cold and clear.
Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson inspected the barracks for the last
time and found them acceptable. He even answered Stan's question
when he asked his opinion about the draft announcement that
morning, establishing a lottery for men ages 19-26, who would be
inducted in the order of their birthdate. "I think a lottery is
an excellent idea. It means the rich kids hiding in college have
to do the same service as the poor white and black kids. Of
course it doesn't affect the Marines since we're a volunteer
force, but I'm all for it. Now enough chit-chat, men. We have
some business to attend to." They roared enthusiastically: "Yes,
sir." "Fall in outside." They assembled in front of the barracks
feeling tough and competent. Salty. This was what the training
was all about; becoming officers.
They marched snappily across the parade ground. Due to a spell of
freezing weather, the ceremony had been moved indoors to the base
auditorium. They marched into the hall in rigid order, adjusting
their tempo for indoors. The high ranking officers were seated on
the stage and the graduates marched up, one at a time, to receive
their commission from the base commander. Then they marched down
to the opposite aisle to await the end of the ceremony. When it
was his turn, Roy squared his shoulders and went up the steps.
The base commander handed Roy his commission. A jolt of pride
surged through him. "Thank you, sir." He snapped his first salute
as an officer, turned an about-face and left the stage feeling
ten feet tall.
When all the new officers were in the aisle, Steamboat yelled:
"Hip, hip, hooray," and they threw their covers in the air. They
exchanged their cadet pins for the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant
of the United States Marine Corps and gunnery sergeant Wilkerson
dismissed them for the last time. Most of the officers waved
good-bye to Wilkerson and rushed off to their families. Roy went
up to him and said: "Thank you, gunny. You're a great teacher.
I'll see you when I come back for basic." "I won't be here, R.
I'm going to the Nam for another tour." Roy digested this. "Maybe
we'll serve together there." "I hope it's over by then,
youngster. Good luck, sir." He saluted with the same dash and
precision that he did everything else and Roy returned it with
pride. "Thank you, gunny. The same to you."
Roy was confused about his next Marine requirement, but didn't
say anything until he had dinner with some of the officers. Roy
turned to Captain Randolph: "Can I ask you a question, sir?" "Of
course." "What do I do next, sir?" "Why, you eat your dinner."
Everyone laughed uproariously. "After that, sir. What do I do for
the Marine Corps?" "Didn't anyone tell you?" "No, sir." "Well,
you get two weeks leave, then you report back to Quantico for
Basic school." "Thank you, sir." Captain Randolph asked
curiously: "What would you have done if I didn't know?" "Joined
the Navy, sir," Roy said with a straight face. Captain Randolph
tossed a bread stick at him, accompanied by a chorus of boo's
from the rest of the table.
Quantico was blanketed with snow when Roy returned on December
15th. He quipped that it was good preparation for winter warfare
in Vietnam. They were assigned new quarters, two officers to a
large room, with their own bathroom. It was a vast improvement
from the barracks. Roy had made friends with the housing
assignment officer and arranged for Johnson and Parton to get the
room next door, but they spent most of their time in casa
Cafferty. They were listening to the radio, talking casually and
getting reacquainted, when President Nixon announced another
pullout of 50,000 U.S. troops by April, 1970. "Maybe it'll be
over before we get there," Roy said hopefully. "I hope not,"
Johnson quickly responded. This surprised the other three, who
had never heard him utter pro-war sentiments. "How come?" Parton
asked. Johnson looked tortured for a minute. "There are a lot of
people out there who hate blacks and want to keep us down. The
police in Chicago and Los Angeles declared war on the Black
Panthers, and in the last two weeks they've killed and arrested a
lot of them. I don't want to be there in Detroit when my
department goes after them. I don't believe in Black Power, but I
won't fire on my own people." They understood and respected that
and the bond between them deepened, since they all had reasons
not to go home.
Basic school started with a dynamic combination of classroom
instruction and field exercises. Leadership was the most highly
stressed quality, followed by responsibility, integrity and moral
values. If OCS introduced them to soldiering, it was immediately
apparent that the purpose of Basic was to teach inexperienced
officers how to function as rifle platoon commanders. This
required that they learn how all units worked, so they could
understand the structure of the Corps. Unlike OCS, this time
their instructors were primarily officers. Unlike the image of
World War II movies, where gung ho brawlers yelled 'There they
are, let's go get 'em,' many of the officers Roy met were
thinkers, as well as warriors. This did not surprise him, since
over the years he had met many Marines with brains. But it
shocked most of their platoon, who expected wild bayonet charges,
not rational proceedings.
They plunged into the management and handling of a small unit,
the basic rifle platoon. This was their introduction week, so
nothing was explored in great detail, but Roy was astonished to
discover the tremendous destructive potential of forty-five men.
The rifles themselves were capable of a devastating rate of fire.
Then there were machine guns, grenades, rockets, all carried by
the platoon. Just a phone call away were mortars, artillery,
helicopter gunships and attack aircraft. This firepower put the
west side hoods in his old neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen into
perspective. They were just falling into the rhythm of a very
efficient system that didn't want its officers to fight World War
II in Vietnam, when they were told they would get holiday leave
from December 23rd, to January 2nd.
Roy decided to stay at the base for the holidays and he read and
caught up on his sleep. Quantico felt like home, or at least a
home away from home, now that they were starting their second
year there. They immediately applied themselves to meeting the
high standards that the Marine Corps demanded of newly
commissioned officers. They were required to develop professional
knowledge, espirit-de-corps and leadership. The goal was to
prepare them for the duties, responsibilities and war fighting
skills of a rifle platoon commander. The new lieutenants began
with basic skills and they progressed through a variety of
military subjects that included: fire team, squad and platoon
tactics; fire and maneuver skills; weapons familiarity;
artillery; jungle warfare; short patrols; how to set listening
posts; how to make ambushes. They spent hundreds of hours
learning how to handle a platoon in war conditions.
Roy lost himself in the long days and nights of training. It was
painfully obvious that the Marine Corps was vitally concerned
with the ability of the officers who they entrusted with the
lives of Marines. Many officers, including Stan, didn't measure
up and left the course. Roy never inquired what happened to them.
He was so immersed in the ongoing demand to strive for
outstanding leadership, that he didn't have time to brood about
the occurrences that sent him to the Marine Corps. He became
gung ho, gave his best daily and was even beginning to
feel salty. The little free time he had after evening
chow, he spent on karate workouts. The group that joined him
varied from day to day, but they all exercised strenuously,
frequently led by Captain Randolph, the black belt who had worked
out with them in OCS. Roy was approaching the skills for the
Roy concentrated all his energies on his immediate goal without
reservation, which was to become a highly competent officer. He
didn't follow current events carefully and as the weeks went by,
he didn't notice when North Vietnam declared that the captured
American pilots were not prisoners of war, but war criminals. In
early March he wasn't particularly interested when a huge
explosion demolished a building in Greenwich Village, killing
three people. It turned out to be a Weathermen bomb factory, but
at the moment radical politics seemed very remote to Roy. He
still admired the dedication of Cesar Chavez, whose struggle
against the abuses of the grape growers led to the grape pickers
signing a labor contract on April 1st. Chavez was an individual
struggling against oppression and he could appreciate that. But
this didn't touch Roy personally, since he was completely
occupied with learning how to maneuver a platoon when it came
under enemy fire in an ambush.
The one news event that Roy did react to, out of homage to Father
Brennan, his family priest who had died the year before, was on
April 7th, when a Massachusetts grand jury failed to indict Ted
Kennedy in the death of Mary Jo Kopechine. Kennedy's lawyer
submitted affidavits and medical reports that indicated that
Teddy had suffered a concussion when his car hit the water. He
was not closely cross-examined about the incident, because the
judge stated it would be inappropriate in an inquest. The judge
concluded that there was probable cause to believe the senator
was driving negligently, which might have contributed to Mary
Jo's death. But the case was legally closed and Teddy was not
held accountable. Roy stormed up and down the room until Johnson
asked: "Why does it bother you so much? He's just another rich
guy buying his way out of trouble." "My family priest detested
the Kennedys. Before he died he predicted that Teddy would do
something stupid and destroy himself. Well, he seems to have
oozed out of this one, and I'm sure he'll buy re-election." "You
know what they say," Johnson said. "You can't fight city hall."
Roy's old spirit blazed. "You've got to fight city hall, or
they'll sell out the poor and the needy."
What did become a hot topic to everyone was President Nixon's
announcement on April 30th, of a major offensive into Cambodia.
He explained that the six to eight week incursion would
drive the communists out of Cambodia and assure the continued
success of Vietnamization. Anti-war groups accused the president
of widening the war in Southeast Asia and called for
demonstrations. A wave of protests swept campuses across the
country and students demanded a diplomatic solution to the war,
not another military escalation. On May 4th, when students
gathered at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen
ordered them to disperse. The students taunted the Guardsmen and
threw rocks at them. The Guardsmen tossed tear gas canisters.
When the students threw them back they opened fire, killing four
students and wounding nine. The next day, a dramatic photo of an
anguished girl kneeling over the bloody body of one of the
wounded students, outraged students across the country. Hundreds
of colleges and universities were closed, or went on strike.
Major Bromley asked his tactics class if there was any
justification for the Guardsmen opening fire on the students.
Most of the class tried to find reasons to support the incident.
"Absolutely not, sir," Roy asserted. His adamant posture provoked
some howls of disagreement and name calling. Major Bromley
established order, then said: "Explain, R." "They were unarmed
students, sir. The Guardsmen obviously panicked. They never
should have fired on unarmed demonstrators." "You seem very sure
of this, R," Bromley commented. "Yes, sir. I've been a
demonstrator. I know first hand how unthreatening they are." "Do
you think the Guardsmen should face criminal charges?" Bromley
asked. "Possibly their officer, sir." "Why the officer?" "He was
supposed to be in command, sir." There were loud protests from
some of the class and one voice yelled: "Why blame the officer?
The troops were threatened and they responded." Roy lost his
temper. "Bullshit. They were facing college kids who were mostly
talk. If the officer kept his men under control no one would have
been shot. I think it's a fucking disgrace for American soldiers
to fire on American students on an American college campus."
"Take it easy, R," Bromley cautioned. "Sorry, sir, but this
really pisses me off."
Roy began the concluding sequence of Basic Officers Course, an
amphibious war exercise. It may not have been the real thing, but
it exposed them to many of the problems they would confront when
landing on a hostile shore, facing enemy fire. They both did well
and their training officers gave them high efficiency ratings.
They returned to Quantico feeling salty, on the same day that
U.S. forces withdrew from Cambodia. There was a formal graduation
ceremony similiar to OCS, but this time they wore full dress
uniforms and they looked like picture-book Marines. They were
given a certificate, congratulations for completing the course
successfully and assignments to Vietnam following a two week
After visiting his family for what seemed like a very brief time,
Roy said goodbye and took a taxi to Kennedy Airport, where he met
Johnson in time to catch their flight to California. When they
landed they took ground transportation to Camp Pendleton for
three weeks of training in jungle warfare. They went on short
patrols, practiced setting ambushes and listening posts and added
to their warfighting skills. Then they started their trip that
would take them halfway around the world to Vietnam.
The flight made stops at Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa, then landed at
Danang, South Vietnam. As soon as the plane door opened they
smelled a horrible stench. A disembarking Marine yelled: "What's
that stink?" One of the flight crew said: "It's shit that they're
burning from the latrines. Welcome to Vietnam." They gathered on
the tarmac and the hot, tropical sun beat down on them, making
sweat pour off them as they waited in the humid air. A line of
troops returning home slowly filed onto the plane. They didn't
even glance at the newcomers in clean uniforms and clean bodies.
The veterans looked like tattered scarecrows who managed to
survive the tornado, but lost most of their straw. Roy followed
his group to an administration building for assignment to his
A refugee from the China Sea pirates in an unrecognizable uniform
without any visible sign of rank, yelled: "Cafferty, Roy."
"Here." "Come with me." He took Roy's paperwork from the staff
sergeant, turned and walked away. Roy grabbed his seabag and
hurried after the only link to his assignment. He was nowhere in
sight. Roy wandered helplessly for a few minutes, until he heard
a voice yell: "Cafferty." His man was leaning out of a battered
helicopter, gesturing angrily, but it had U.S.M.C. stenciled on
the side, so at least Roy could assume he was still in the Marine
The pilot mumbled something incomprehensible into his mike, then
took off without checking to see if Roy was strapped in. The
sound of the rotor was so loud that the pilot couldn't hear him.
When Roy tried mouthing, "Where are we going?" in exaggerated
movement, the pilot shook his head and ignored him. The only
thing that Roy could tell was that they were going north. He
hoped he wasn't being abducted to North Vietnam. After an hour
they slowed, then circled a rocky, grassless hill, with green
smoke rising from the top. As they got closer, Roy saw a landing
site on a hill top fire base. They landed and the pilot motioned
Roy to get out. Roy asked where they were, but the pilot
shrugged, pointed to his ear and gestured to the door. Roy
grabbed his gear and got out. The helicopter took off and left
Roy without the faintest idea of where he was, or what he was
supposed to do.
Roy looked around and saw the hilltop was ringed by layers of
concertina wire. On one side there was an artillery position
manned by South Vietnamese soldiers. The other side was a run-down area, with half empty sandbags lining dugouts and bunkers. A
tall man in faded greens walked towards him. When he got closer,
Roy could see the faded stripes of a gunnery sergeant. A wave of
relief surged through Roy, as another of the endless supply of
Marine gunnys drew closer. But a gunny never looked so good
before. "I'm gunnery sergeant Ellis. We heard that a new LT was
coming. Follow me. I'll show you your bunker." He turned and
walked away without helping Roy with his gear, so Roy picked up
his seabag and followed. The bunker was filthy and it stank. The
gunny stared at him, waiting for whines or complaints. Roy stuck
out his hand. "I'm Roy Cafferty." The gunny slowly took his hand
and looked at him curiously. "Cliff Ellis. Are you related to Dan
Cafferty?" "He's my uncle." "We served together in Korea. I knew
your dad." Roy felt a lump in his throat. "I didn't. He never
came back." "I know. That must have been rough on you and your
mom." "We survived." Ellis smiled and said in a friendly tone,
"Let's get you squared away. When there's time, I'll tell you
about your dad." "I'd like that, gunny."
Ellis walked to the entrance and started calling out some
incomprehensible names. "Step out here LT, while some of the men
clean out your bunker." "Sure, gunny. How long have you been
without a lieutenant?" "About four months." "Why so long?" "It's
been pretty quiet around here and we're in the middle of nowhere,
so nobody gave a shit." Two slow moving Marines, one black, one
white, in tattered, ratty remnants of uniforms sauntered up. "Yo,
gunny. What's up?" the black Marine asked. "This is Lieutenant
Cafferty. Our new platoon commander." "How ya doin, man?" the
black Marine said. "How's it hangin'?" the white Marine said. Roy
didn't want to exercise discipline until he knew what was going
on, so he just nodded pleasantly and looked them over. They were
awfully young and they looked more like hobos than any Marines he
had seen so far. They were also studying him, trying to figure
out if he was going to disrupt the status quo. "Martin, sweep out
the LT's bunker. Clarke, mop it with disinfectant," Ellis said.
They slouched off without acknowledging. A large Marine walked
up, wearing a slightly better uniform than Martin and Clarke.
"You called me, gunny?" "LT, this is your radio man,
Buff. Short for water buffalo." "Hey, LT. Welcome to
heaven." He stuck out an enormous hand that almost engulfed Roy's
large hand, but he didn't try any dumb macho stuff. "Thanks,
Buff. We'll get acquainted later."
While Roy was talking to Buff, Martin and Clarke came back with
broom and mop and started cleaning the bunker. "Let's go outside
and talk 'til they're finished," Ellis said. He led the way to an
unmanned machine gun position. "What's the immediate situation
here, gunny?" Roy asked. Ellis offered him a cigarette, which he
declined. "Do you smoke dope, LT?" "No, gunny." Ellis nodded
approvingly. "We share the hill with an ARVN artillery company.
Captain Tran is their c.o. You'll meet him later. He's a real
slippery dude and he keeps his men ready for parade. He looks
down on us because of our unmilitary ways." Ellis paused and
looked at Roy for comment. "Go on, gunny." "If we're ever
attacked his men will skedaddle, but they know how to make the
big guns go bang, so we get along." "Anything more about them?"
"Not much. You'll get to know them. Oh, yeah. Tran speaks
English." "That'll make things easier. Do any of our men speak
Vietnamese?" "No." Roy made a note to get a phrase book and
kicked himself mentally for not thinking of it sooner.
It was late afternoon and the hot sun was beating down fiercely.
The men hulked in their burrows like prairie dogs, just popping
up to be sure they weren't under attack. "Tell me about the squad
leaders, gunny." "They're pretty good. I made a few changes when
Lieutenant Trasker was medevac'd out. You can move them back, if
you like." "Let things ride as they are for now. Are any of them
a problem?" "Kelso's real short and he's getting edgy, so I put
him on heavy weapons. All the others lead patrols." "Do they
resent Kelso?" "Nah. They envy him." "What about the men?"
"They're a good bunch. Some of them are getting a little weird,
but they're okay." "Any drug use?" "No hard stuff. Some of them
try to smoke pot when they're off duty, but I keep the squad
leaders on them. Things are a little loose here, LT. We're a long
way from spit and polish, but they're good kids."
Roy digested the information and reminded himself to keep eyes
and ears open, and mouth shut. "Any advice, gunny?" "Meet your
squad leaders before you meet the men. I'll set up the squad
meetings one at a time. You don't want to assemble all the men in
the open." "Snipers?" "Not often. But I don't want to tempt
fate." "I'll buy that. What about the enemy?" "Which ones?" Roy
wasn't sure if Ellis was kidding, or sending a message, so he
said: "The VC." "This is a quiet area. There's a ville nearby
that's probably responsible for the ambushes and booby traps that
we get caught in once or twice a week, but they don't use heavy
stuff like machine guns or mortars." "What about casualties?"
"We've been averaging one killed and three or four wounded a
month. That's down from when Lieutenant Trasker was here. That's
about it. Any orders, LT?" "No, gunny. I want to get my bearings
before I start telling you what to do. For the time being, we'll
operate as things are. Let's go see if my bunker's ready so I can
stow my gear." They walked towards the bunker and Ellis said
approvingly: "You know, you look like your old man, only bigger."
Roy felt that he had found a friend. "You should see Dan's son,
Tommy. He's as big as Buff." "No kidding? I'd like to meet him
Roy met everybody and listened a lot, but said little and made no
waves. For the first week he inspected the position and went on
daily patrols. The only order he issued was for the sergeants to
have their men take better care of their weapons and maintain a
weekly inspection schedule. He set a series of goals for himself
that included a daily karate workout and he invited the platoon
to join him at a spot selected by Ellis, where they were
sheltered from sniper fire. Only Buff and one squad leader joined
him the first day, but after gunny Ellis participated, one or two
more men gave it a try each day. Roy was astonished at their low
level of skill. Some of the ARVNs drifted over to watch and this
led to Roy's second meeting with Captain Tran. The first meeting
had been very formal. Captain Tran demanded full military
courtesy for his rank and Roy willingly gave it to him. Roy
ignored his sneers and snide remarks about the slovenliness of
Roy's men. "I hope now that you are here, Lieutenant Cafferty,
you will do something about the appearance of your men. They set
a bad example to my troops." Roy managed to keep his big mouth
shut and just said: "We'll see what we can do, sir, once I've had
a chance to acclimate."
Captain Tran appeared at the karate session with some of his men
and a sturdy, well-built sergeant. "If you have no objections,
Lieutenant Cafferty, some of my men would like to join you."
"Glad to have them, Captain Tran." "I myself do not know karate,
but sergeant Minh is a devotee. Perhaps you and he would give us
an exhibition?" Roy sensed that it wasn't a simple attempt to be
sporting. "These are training sessions, but if he's skilled, he
can teach when I'm not available." Tran was not satisfied and
tried to maneuver Roy into a match. "Surely a demonstration of
skills would inspire the men." Roy ignored the invitation. "I
have other priorities, Captain." "Are you afraid that sergeant
Minh will beat you?" Roy stared at Tran coolly, letting him know
that he understood the game and wasn't playing. "When one of my
sergeants is ready, Captain Tran, we'll arrange a match with
protective gear. Until then, this is just a training class."
Captain Tran left disappointed and sergeant Minh joined the
class. Minh didn't show all his skills, but neither did Roy. Minh
was probably a black belt and Roy thought he could handle him if
he had to. He made a mental note not to ever get into a physical
confrontation with Minh. To help insure this, he appointed Minh
an instructor and left him with the class, while he went about
Roy and Ellis quickly became friends. Roy only made small changes
at first, after reviewing them with Ellis. He learned his radio
procedures, said nothing about uniforms, but had the sand bags
filled and the concertina wire repaired and extended. There were
some grumbles from the snuffies, but the sergeants kept an eye on
them. The first big change Roy made was in the patrol schedule.
It had been going out the same time, on the same route daily. Roy
and Ellis worked out an irregular timetable, with different
routes and the patrols always taking a different direction once
they left the wire. This meant harder work for the patrol and
there was some real bitching from some of the short-timers. Roy
called the entire platoon together one morning and explained: "I
know you're used to a certain way of doing things. The changes
I'm making are to insure that we take fewer casualties,
especially among the short-timers." Roy thought this was
particularly clever of him, because they were the group most
likely to be a problem.
The men mulled over the idea and Roy waited patiently. "Are you
tellin' us you're lookin' out for us?" a skeptical voice asked.
"Name?" "Hooch." He was a dark skinned black man with an afro.
"That's part of my job and it's important to me, because I want
you to look out for my ass." They all laughed and the ice was
broken. Another man said without any challenge: "It's been real
quiet here, LT. Do you really think we have to change the
patrols?" "Name?" "Chigger." He was a tall, skinny white boy with
an afro. "In the last four months we've taken three killed and
eleven wounded, two serious. That's one third of the platoon.
That means the odds are that one out of three of you will be
wounded, and three out of forty-five will be killed in the next
four months. I'd like to save some of those lives." "You're not
shittin' us, are ya?" Hooch asked. "I've been out on patrol with
you. You're noisy and you stink. It's bad enough that the VC hear
you and smell you a mile away. They don't have to know in advance
where you're going."
Roy turned to gunny Ellis while he waited for his statement to
sink in. Chigger asked in a hurt voice: "What do you mean we
stink?" Roy had hoped someone would ask that, otherwise Ellis was
ready. "You eat just before you go out on patrol, so the food
smell is on you. You're already sweaty and that gets stronger.
Most of you smoke and you can smell tobacco a mile away in the
jungle." There were anguished yells. "You want us to stop
smokin'?" "Right now all I'm going to do is vary the time and
direction of our patrols. Once we see that it helps cut down
casualties, those of you who want to improve your survival
chances, arrange with gunny Ellis to see me." Ellis gave him an
approving paternal look and Roy thought about how young his
platoon was. Gunny Ellis was in his forties, one staff sergeant
was twenty-five. The rest were eighteen or nineteen. Roy was
beginning to feel like an old man at the age of twenty-one.
The unpredictability of the patrol pattern must have helped,
because they only took one casualty the rest of the month and it
was superficial. The rumor began to spread through the platoon
that Roy was lucky and some of the men came to see him to discuss
survival. They stopped eating before going out on patrols and
they washed off sweat and body odors with a damp cloth. Roy
stressed silence and careful movement in the jungle, so they
wouldn't broadcast their presence. More and more of the men
adopted the new habits, especially the short-timers who wanted to
get home in one piece. Captain Tran declined Roy's invitation to
make joint patrols and kept requesting: "You must smarten up your
men, so they look like soldiers." Roy's standard answer was:
"I'll get to it as soon as I can, sir." His men may have looked
like derelicts, but they were performing their duties better. He
wasn't going to rock the boat over a shave and a haircut.
Roy and gunny Ellis had become good friends. They didn't have
much free time, but the little there was they spent together.
Ellis told him about his father one night, when they were sitting
on top of his bunker after a heavy rain. The sky had cleared and
the moon was bright and huge, radiating an Asiatic serenity that
seeped into both of them. Thousands of stars winked mysteriously
from so far away that the light he saw started towards this
bright moment of rendezvous, ages before an Athenian grunt on the
plain of Marathon, awaiting the Persians, looked up at the stars
and felt insignificant. Roy wondered if there were worlds in
distant galaxies where the laws of fang and claw were unknown.
Could there be civilizations not subject to the harsh rigors of
mother nature? He turned to Ellis. "Cliff?" "Yeah?" "Do you see
that big star?" He pointed to a large star that might have been
Aldabaran. Cliff followed his direction. "Yeah." "Right now, on a
planet circling that star, alien grunts are sitting on a hill
just like us, hoping they won't get attacked and wondering if
there's a war going on in another star system."
Ellis looked at him fondly. "You're not like your father, that's
for sure." "Tell me about him, Cliff." "When I first met him we
were both fresh out of boot camp. They rushed a lot of us to
Korea to stop the advance of the North Koreans, who had rolled
over the army boys. We were cocky kids who grew up believing that
gooks couldn't fight, except Japs and they weren't gooks. We
drove the gooks back to the original border, then MacArthur
ordered us to keep going. We swept through all resistance and got
to the Yalu. We took casualties, but we were winning and that was
a good feeling. Your dad was always cheerful and ready to help a
buddy. Your uncle Dan was quieter, less outgoing, but a real good
guy also. Then winter hit us and we didn't have cold weather
gear. We were freezing our asses off, but MacArthur kept telling
us we'd be home for Christmas, so we did our best to deal with
Ellis paused, with a remote expression on his face, as if
recalling the painful past was still disturbing. "We only found
out later that the Chinese had warned MacArthur not to approach
the Yalu. We were feeling like winners, ready to go home as heros
to a victory parade and show our medals to the World War II vets.
Then the Chinese attacked. They swarmed down at us, bugles
blowing like out of another age, and they could fight. They
suffered tremendous losses, but they kept coming. They took
everything we threw at them and just kept coming. They reached
our lines and we fought hand to hand and we drove them back, but
we lost more and more guys. Finally the brass ordered us to pull
back and we fought our way through the mountains. It was twenty
below zero and guys was dying of frostbite, as well as wounds,
but we took all our wounded and our dead with us. They attacked
us three, four times a night and in one of those attacks they
over ran part of the column. When we drove them off some of the
guys was missing. One of them was your father."
Roy had heard this story from his uncle Dan, but it still hurt
deep inside, hearing about the suffering of those men sent to
fight thousands of miles from home, without really understanding
why. "Cliff?" "Yeah?" "Could Dad have surrendered?" "No way,
kid." "I always wanted to ask Dan, but I didn't want to find out.
How can you be sure?" "We didn't take prisoners. We didn't have
the manpower to take them out. And we assumed we'd be tortured
and shot if we surrendered. When they over ran us, they shot or
clubbed us. When they retreated they must have dragged off the
guys who were unconscious, but not seriously wounded. Believe me,
there wasn't time to surrender. Anyone who put up his hands got
cut down." "Then you think he might have survived?" "Yeah.
Maybe." "Could he still be alive?" "I don't know, kid. A lot of
guys didn't come back who weren't accounted for. Maybe they died.
Maybe they're slaves working in the rice fields. Who knows." "My
mom volunteers for the MIA organization. She refuses to give up
on him." "She sounds tough. I'd like to meet her someday."
September went by without casualties and the entire platoon
adopted Roy's preparations. It seemed stranger and stranger to
Roy that he was fighting a war in Asia, almost twenty years after
his father fought a war in Asia. He prayed that if he ever had
children they wouldn't have to fight a war in Asia. He also made
a personal vow not to be taken prisoner, no matter what. Two of
the short timers rotated out and their replacements, an
overweight white kid named Teffel and a skinny black kid named
Jones, were poor substitutes. They were whining when they jumped
out of the helicopter that brought them in, and they didn't stop
whining until gunny Ellis ordered them to "Shut the fuck up."
Teffel pouted silently, but Jones complained to some of the
brothers. "The white racist gunny mutha fucka is
discriminatin' on me." He got the shock of his young life, when
Hooch, speaking for the brothers, told him:
"You keep your fuckin mouth shut and obey orders, or we'll waste
your useless black ass in the bush." Jones and Teffel sulked when
they were together, but kept quiet when they were around everyone
else. Roy made a mental note to separate them, when he got the
time to deal with it.
No one in the platoon wanted to take Jones and Teffel on their
first patrol. Hooch summed it up: "Them
cherries is gonna get someone's ass wasted." So Roy took
them out with Chigger's squad. They kept talking to each other
and had to be told to shut up over and over. Finally Chigger told
them: "The next time either of you talk, I'm gonna waste both you
turds." He clicked the safety of his M-16 on and off
threateningly and they got the message. The squad passed a
canteen on the side of the trail with a red star on it. Each man
pointed it out to the man behind him and they made a wide circle
around it, automatically assuming it was booby trapped. When
Jones saw it, he pointed it out to Teffel. They both rushed to it
and grabbed it. Roy noticed them out of the corner of his eye and
started to yell: "No." But before he could get the word out a
tremendous explosion lifted him up and threw him backwards. He
felt fiery slivers rip through his legs. Then he slammed into a
tree so hard that he was instantly knocked unconscious.
Roy woke up three days later in the hospital in Danang, with no
idea how he got there. For the next few weeks he drifted in and
out of consciousness and his voice wouldn't work, so he couldn't
ask the corpsmen anything. He had just awakened one night, when
he looked up and Hooch was standing next to the bed.
"Hooch. Is that you?" Roy croaked. "Yeah, LT. I'm on my way back
to the world and gunny Ellis asked me to bring your gear. It's in
your seabag next to the bed." "What happened to me?" "Do you
remember the patrol?" Roy thought he did. "Yeah." "Well, them
assholes Jones and Teffel picked up a booby trap and the blast
knocked you into a tree. You got a branch stuck in your ass, but
your helmet saved your life when your head hit the tree. Because
of that, a lot of the guys started wearing their helmets again."
Roy managed to say: "I'm glad. What about Jones and Teffel?"
"Both them dumb mothafuckas bought it. I gotta split, man. If
you're ever in Chicago, look me up." Later Roy thought it was a
dream, until he reached down and felt his seabag next to the bed.
When Roy was finally able to ask questions, the doctor assured
him that he hadn't lost any vital parts and he probably wouldn't
suffer any permanent injuries. He was sent to a naval hospital in
Japan, where they patched his ass and removed the shrapnel from
his legs. Then he left the strains of Vietnam behind and went
back to the world on a long flight to California. He spent two
weeks in a naval hospital in San Diego for assessment and they
decided to send him for rehabilitation to the Veteran's Hospital
in New York City. His brief participation in what he knew was a
grotesque war was definitely over. On the long flight back to New
York, where his torturous journey started, what seemed ages ago,
he couldn't help wondering how he would fit in to a world that
now felt as alien as the jungles of Vietnam.
by Gary Beck
... who is a professional writer, translator, playwright, and
poet. His recent fiction has appeared in 3AM
Magazine, EWG Presents, Nuvein
Magazine, Vincent Brothers Review,
The Journal, Short Stories
Bimonthly, Bibliophilos, and the
Dogwood Journal. Excerpts from his recent novel
of the '60s, Dark Strains, have appeared in Nuvein
Magazine, Fullosia Press,
L'Intrigue Magazine, and Babel
Magazine. His poetry has appeared in dozens of literary
magazines. His plays and translations of Molière,
Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced
Off-Broadway. He is a writer/director of award-winning
social issue video documentaries.