September 30th, 1967… Field Med School
Now, Field Medical Services School sounds simple enough, however… Firstly, our Company Sergeant was a Marine by the name of Sgt Rock. This guy was a lifer, been in quite a while, and yet only a Sergeant? Me thinks he may have been busted a time or two. He was only about 5’6” tall as I remember, but this turkey had a 6-foot stride, I swear.
During the course of our “nature hikes”, which to us were forced marches, this character would set a pace that even hardened Marines would have had difficulty keeping up with. The jerk loaded his pack with empty milk cartons, I swear, while we Squids carried full gear! These little 5-10 mile long excursions were not easy for a bunch of “fresh off of the nice clean ward, laid back Squids”! There were always a couple of guys we almost had to carry to finish the marches. One was a chunky, pale skinned kid from Minnesota. But finish them we did … Corpsman can be damn stubborn!
We had classes on the Prick, or rather PRC radios, classes on battle injuries, classes on tropical diseases, classes on Vietnamese language, and a visit to Vietnam Village. That particular class dealt with the various booby traps the Viet Cong used. (I never saw a Viet Cong that I know of while in the Nam, only NVA regulars.) Punji pits, tripwires, and so forth … they actually did a presentable job of recreating the Village.
Then there was the unforgettable horror of the Gas Chamber! We had been through some little gas chamber in boot camp ... modestly disconcerting, but not bad. However … the Marines are incredibly more into reality. We formed up in a line with our gas masks on, and were instructed that we would enter the room, filing to the outside walls of the interior, and upon instruction would remove our masks, place them in the carrying pouch on our thighs, snap it, and when all had completed this little trick, and on the instructor’s cue, we were to put them back on blowing the residual gas from the masks and march quietly and orderly out of the building. All this being done with eyes closed and breath held !
Now for someone who can hold his breath for seemingly an hour, this would be a piece of cake; unfortunately, I was not so endowed. After an eternity, of breath holding, and wondering who the dufus was that couldn’t seem to get his mask stowed in his pouch, and hearing some coughing and gagging beginning, I tried the little trick of opening one eye just a tiny a crack, just enough to peer around (as if I could see without my glasses on anyway). BIG MISTAKE SQUIDO!
Instantly, there was a searing fire in that eye, resulting a reflex action of opening the other one wide! This compounded my original error, causing me to open my mouth, exhaling … and as they finally allowed us to begin to run out of there, breathing became a necessity. SECOND MISTAKE! MASK NOT CLEARED! Now that fire in the eye? That was nothing compared to what instantly hit my lungs! Apparently, they had experienced this before (big surprise) and had a single hydrant there for washing out eyes. Only a few could crowd around it at a time. The rest of us spent the time hacking up our lungs, and drooling like mad dogs, eyes ablaze! (And I believe uttering a few non-complimentary phrases concerning our sadistic antagonizers!)
After four weeks or so of this happiness, I now have an MOS of 8400/8404, FMF Corpsman. Hmm… (hey recruiter guy, this is not what I signed up for …8400 was enough numbers for me!) But also the honor, and it was indeed an honor, of being called “Doc” by the Marines began a lifelong existence.
I didn’t realize the significance of this at the time, of course, but in the ensuing years, it became a badge of honor and humility. I began to sense the respect given to Corpsmen by the Marines, and that admiration and respect has multiplied over the years, and is as true still today.
I received orders to proceed to H&S Co. 3/8 2nd Marine Division, still in Camp LeJeune, (or Camp Swampy as we affectionately referred to it) on November 3rd, 1967. I was with that unit 2 weeks or less and then was sent (I’m certain I volunteered) to H&S 2/10 at another part of the base. Lo and behold! The Artillery!
Much nicer quarters, and I worked in the Company sickbay, and I also took over the Medical Supply duties, which mostly consisted of insuring that all supplies in the Mount-Out boxes was up to date and complete. Pretty much skate, until we mounted aboard those big gray Navy boats and headed to Vieques for a shoot with our 105 howitzers.
It was exciting loading on the trucks and going to the ships. I mean, wow, I was actually going to go on the ocean with my Navy! Incidentally this must have been winter or very, very early springtime, and as we put out to sea; bingo … smack dab into a hurricane! Or at least it seemed like one. The ocean swells were higher than the ships deck … indeed some troughs were deeper than the ship!
I was on the LSD15 USS Shadwell (or Shudder-Well as I called it). It’s one of those ships with the gates in the back which they can run landing craft in and out of.
The Navy in it’s infinite wisdom, houses the Marines in the troop quarters on an LSD, which just happens to be somewhere below the bottom of the ship. The facilities were of course 1st Class. Yeah right! Body sized wire baskets, or at least almost body sized, strung among poles, with about 18” side to side, and 18” vertical, clearance. We had full gear with us, and realistically no place to put it.
Bilge water was constantly sloshing under the deck below you. Ventilation was virtually non-existent, and the air stale and foul. Claustrophobia haven! This is bad enough, but when it is added to the wonderful effect of the heaving and rolling of a ship in foul weather, the experience is not in the least bit exquisite.
The cooks had it easy on that trip. Little food was consumed after the first day, by many of us, due to most hands spending the time “feeding the fishes”, taking Dramamine and having a complexion that coordinated quite well with the green utility uniforms. A few of the armada were sent back to port, as memory serves, losing cranes etc. in the weather. We made it to Vieques finally, a desolate area, greeted by our Segundo a Nada sign, (Second to None) for the 2nd Bn 10th Marines. Vieques is no Shangri La for sure, dusty, dry, hot, and I do not remember seeing a building of any kind, with the exception of a small white concrete block edifice.
The tents were erected, howitzers were set in place, and training began. Now, Marines always treat their Doc’s well, even those among us who hadn’t seen diddly yet. They allowed me to pull charges, set fuses, and even pull the lanyard to fire those guns! What a trip! Oddly, the guns were of WWII vintage, the trucks from the Korean era, and the crews were replete with Nam Vets. This exercise was completed in a few short days, and off we went, back to the sea in ships. The weather on the return trip was great, but these boats still did their share of tossing and turning. I stayed up in the sick bay for the most part, which beat the heck out of that hellhole below. And I wanted to see how sick call went onboard a ship.
We stopped for a liberty call in St. Thomas, St. Croix. A beautiful little island, and I was enthralled with the perfectly clear water, the 75 cent cans of cokes (this was 1967 remember), the rum and cokes, and the steel bands.
Then it was off to the sea in ships again, returning to LeJeune.
I had taken the exam for E-5, HM2, during my time at LeJeune, and made the first increment for advancement. Amazingly, in barely over two years I was zooming up the ladder, and was going to be the same rank as a Sergeant already!
While at 2/10, I developed an ingrown hair on my tailbone, which developed into a pilonidal cyst; and so we had a class on my ass at H&S sickbay to remove it. Sitting down, or laying on my back were difficult for a while, but eventually the relief that little surgery provided was appreciated, though I do have this strange souvenir of a dimple there yet to this day!
Benson, Beale and myself had a little handy moneymaker we used in our leisure time. We three corpsmen would sit in the rec area playing poker, trolling for a Marine. Never disappointed, one would always come in, and want to join. Of course we would let him, but he did not realize that he not only did he face three other players, he faced a Team! We always split the winnings three ways, and some of these fools came back over and over thinking they would win their money back. Wrong… jarhead!
May 28th, 1968… Heading westerly
Then it rolls around to the 30th of April 1968, and I depart LeJeune for 5th Hospital Company in Camp Pendleton California. I took 30 days leave, and arrived in Pendleton on the 28th of May as a Hospitalman 2nd Class, (having made it on May 16th while on leave) 2 years and 3 months into my 4-year hitch.
Now, California is in the direction of Vietnam, from LeJeune, but I’m well into my service time, so if I stay here at least 9 months, I will be too short to do a tour in the Nam…. Fingers crossed!
By this time my Monthly pay has skyrocketed from the 63 bucks a month in boot camp as an E-1, clear up to nearly 200 a month! Wow!
5th Hospital Company was a two story WWII vintage structure, typically sheathed in either wood siding (or was it asbestos shingles?), with open barracks on the lower west half, with an NCO quarters room on the extreme west end of the open barracks. I shared the NCO quarters with 3 other Corpsmen. The eastern half was the sickbay, X-ray, and offices. It seems there were more quarters and a TV room upstairs.
I was assigned as Training Petty Officer, and eventually had to handle both Marines and Corpsmen. This was normally allocated to an E-6 Marine, and an E-6 Hospitalman, so I was actually in over my head, but it was a welcome challenge.
I stood duty about every 7-10 days at sick call. There was the wiremen’s school, pole climbers, below us down the hill, and we would regularly get patients in with slivers in the damndest of places!
Eventually, Larry Stanifer, Daniel Callahan, Leslie Schwartz, and myself rented a two-bedroom apartment, with twin beds in each bedroom, off base in Carlsbad. Talk about living high on the hog! (Amazing how these names come back to me). Larry had a VW, beige in color, nearly new, and that was our transportation. It made a trip or two up to Loma Linda, where my Cousin lived and worked. I fell for her roommate, and spent a few weekends there, and Gina spent a few down in Carlsbad.
Life was great! I remember I bought an old Honda 250cc motorcycle will at Pendleton, and did some riding in the hills, with the Tri-City Motorcycle Club. A Rebel without a cause. Laid it down under the rear of a ’64 Chevy that cut me off on the main drag between Oceanside and Carlsbad. No damage to the Chevy, and minimal to myself fortunately.
We had an IG inspection during our time there, and had to march in some parade on base. They were trying to take us Squids, put us in with the Marines, and practice formation marching. Needless to say, the sergeant who was calling cadence had Marine Corps marbles in his mouth, and we couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. I suggested we form a Platoon with us Corpsmen, and so… they put me in charge. We formed up, called our own cadence, and we marched splendidly! But of course we could enunciate the drill calls understandably, thus all hands knew exactly what to do. None of that HAAAAR RAHHHAAA HOOOH, RABLA HARR, etc. Amazing what a little elocution can do.
I also stood watch in the X-ray dept., and picked up barely enough knowledge to be able to shoot them. I had my right wrist x-rayed while there, but nothing abnormal showed that we could see. (Years later I would have surgery to relieve the stress on it, apparently my carpal lunate had been injured and died, and was being absorbed, letting the other wrist bones float. Keinboch’s, I believe is what the anomaly is called.)
Getting late in 1968, no orders, and by Christmas, I am relaxing. Only 13 months left in my service time, and a tour in Nam is 13 months… I have made it!
Well, well, surprise, surprise Gomer, the Navy is not through playing with your little head yet!
December 26th I am notified I will be going to the 3rd Marine Division, and guess what Hospitalman, it just happens to be in VIETNAM! EEEEEEYAAAAH!
Oh shift levers, how can this be? By my calendar, by taking leave, travel time, etc., I can only do 11 months max … now who the hell is the genius that came up with this idea? Sending shortimers to Vietnam? Keeeeriste! Where the hell is that #$%&* Recruiter, the two faced lying SOB!