Leaving For Korea

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I was in that car because of the Cold War that had started a few years earlier. When the damned Russians began raising hell and blockading Berlin while the Commies in China were chasing old Chiang around and one country after another in Eastern Europe and Asia and Africa and even some in Eatin America were caving in—and all this just a couple of years after V-J Day—it really began to look as if we might have to fight all over again, this time out against the Russians, this time with nuclear weapons. So President Truman proposed that we revive the draft, and Congress went along, and the day you turned eighteen you had to go down to your local Selective Service board, which was usually your local layabouts and political hacks and middle-aged men who sneered a lot and ordered you around. Eike everybody else, I registered for the draft. Then, early in my sophomore year, my friend Gene Martin came back with a terrific suntan and stories about an officer-candidate program the Marine Corps had established called the Platoon Eeaders Class. If you spent two summers training down at the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia, then on the day you graduated from college, you received a reserve commission as a second lieutenant in the Marines.

I didn’t want to be drafted, I rather liked the idea of being an officer, and the Marines had an undeniable cachet. A bunch of us signed up.

I left for Quantico and the Marine Corps on a summer’s Sunday morning in 1948. My father took the bus with me to New Jersey, where I caught the train south. He was very excited. All his life he’d fantasized about going to war; now his eldest son would play out the dream.

At the railroad station he shook my hand. “If you run short of money …”

“I won’t. They’re paying us the rate of corporals.”

“That’s fine, just fine,” he said. I assume he was broke, and the promise was as well meant, and as empty, as most of his.

I got a window seat and read the paper and watched the country rolling past. I’d never been to Washington and there was an hour’s stopover at Union Station, where I transferred to another train, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, for the forty miles into Virginia to the Marine Corps base. There were other young men in the car, crew-cut and tanned, wearing khaki pants and sport shirts or sweaters. There were a couple of Marines, as young as we but looking bored and condescending. It was dusk before we pulled into Quantico, not stopping at a station but on a siding, where we jumped down onto the right of way with our bags.

“All right, you peepul …”

The Southern voice cracked through the night. It was neither friendly nor encouraging.

I’d expected the south to be hot and muggy, and it was. The few men from the train who wore suits or sports jackets now got down to shirtsleeves along with the rest of us, while uniformed men in khaki, sleeves buttoned to the wrist and neckties snugly tied, barked, and chivvied us into a primitive formation and marched us through the rail yards and across a grassy field onto a street that ran between red-brick buildings that looked like college dorms. There was little traffic, only a couple of men on the sidewalks. Few Marines returned early on Sunday evening from a weekend.

The corporals and sergeants fell us in by alphabet. I met the man who had the next cot, a redhead with a broken nose and flat grin.

“Doug Bradlee,” he said. The voice suggested Boston. He was maybe six-four and with shoulders. Jesus, I hoped they weren’t all this big.

That first night none of us got into those cots before two in the morning. We were fallen out and issued clothing, bedding, helmets, boots, shoes, socks, underwear, mattresses, blankets, mess kits, canteens, cartridge belts, bayonets. Before we slept, the clothing all had to be stenciled, a sloppy, inky job. By midnight I was ready to quit and go home. And I wasn’t alone.

They had us up by five the next morning. “Come on, come on, come on, you peepul. …”

We were fed and then marched off for a physical exam and shots. By midmorning we’d been issued rifles left over from the war, packed since 1945 in Cosmoline, a Vaseline-like grease. They marched us out into an alleyway behind the barracks.

“Wear your boots and skivvies,” the sergeant said.

For the next three or four hours we squatted, cleaning the rifles as our arms swelled from the vaccinations and the sun beat down. I’d never had a rifle in my hands before and didn’t know where to start. When I asked a corporal, he grabbed my arm. “You see that there fella.”

“Yes.”

“He seems to know a leetle bit. You watch him. Do what he does.”

The sergeants and corporals were DIs, drill instructors. Terrible people. Our officer was a Captain Finlayson, slender, blond, an aviator. He didn’t come near us. Sunburned, exhausted, both arms throbbing, a low-grade fever working at me, I fell into bed that evening very nearly ready to cry. Most of us seemed to feel that way. At five they got us up again.

It wasn’t like that at Parris Island, old salts assured us—Parris Island, where enlisted men went through boot camp. This was soft, this was plush compared with Parris Island.

That first time when I met Bradlee I asked the usual dumb question, what school he went to.

“St. Mark’s,” he said.