Leaving For Korea

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All through that summer of 1950 and into the autumn and winter, the Marine Corps simply exploded, expanding to twice its size in a few months. Not even Truman’s well-publicized distaste for the Marines and their penchant for self-promotion could inhibit the buildup. What the Marine brigade had done to stop the North Koreans along the Naktong River and around Pusan, how the Marine division had swarmed over the sea walls of Inchon, made the Corps virtually criticismproof. What the Corps wanted, the Corps would get. And what it wanted now were thousands of officers to command the recruits being pumped out of the boot camps of Parris Island and San Diego. Not all these newly mobilized officers would be virgins, freshly minted kid lieutenants like Doug Bradlee and me. Many were hard men from the Pacific battles with the Japanese, officers back for their second war in just five years. Some of these men came reluctantly to Quantico.

But others welcomed the call back.

I met Taffy Sceva as soon as I got back to Quantico. Taffy had done a lot of fighting in the big war and now was out of college with an agriculture degree, working for the Olympia Canning Company up in Washington State. His wife, Barbara, was about to have their first child, and he was ordered to report into the Basic School the same day I got there.

Mack was about as ferocious as a man could be about wanting to get into combat. I mouthed such sentiments too but deep down didn’t mean them.

At Quantico their son was born, Taffy and I competed for shortstop on the battalion softball team (I won), and to get out of the Marine Corps Schools and to combat in Korea, Sceva stunned everyone by petitioning Col. Chesty Puller, under whom he’d served in the Big War, to arrange the transfer. Some men we knew pulled strings to avoid being sent to Korea; a few like Sceva pulled strings to go. I’m not sure his wife ever knew that, however. There are limits to what you tell a good woman who loves you.

Gunny Arzt and I often occupied a small but wellsited table in a Washington cocktail lounge from where we could observe both the entrance and the door of the ladies’ room. Arzt was big, tough, competent, ugly, hair slicked back and face punctuated by a cigar; I was eager, unsure just what to do or say next if a girl actually joined us, and awed by Arzt’s enormous self-assurance.

“Buford, patience is everything.”

It might take fifteen minutes. Two young women, government clerical workers by the look of them, would take a neighboring table. Arzt lifted his glass to them, smiling broadly without having to remove the cigar.

“Ladies, Buford here and I have traveled through several of the world’s capitals, and not until just now have we gazed upon …”

A drink would be sent over next. Eventually, sometimes, the women joined us.

Gunny Arzt was one of the new men, new to us, though not to the Corps. He had a dark brush cut, a pug nose, and an underslung chin, and he sold cars in Yakima, Washington; I believe he owned a dealership and was wealthy. Arzt may have been nearly thirty, and he took me up, patronizing me boisterously, addressing me as “Buford” and informing people how delighted he was to have me in the outfit, else he would be its ugliest man.

Gunny had money and I did not. But I had an old Buick that provided a bond between us. Arzt went often into Washington to get laid; I went along, doing the driving while he paid for the drinks, hoping desperately all the time that some of Gunny’s success with women might rub off on me. It never did.

I idolized Arzt.

“Sixty-five landings on hostile beaches,” Arzt would remark, “sixty-five.” There hadn’t been that many invasions during World War II anywhere in the world, and some laughed at Arzt and his loudly proclaimed “sixtyfive landings.” But Bradlee warned against this, so I never did, which was a good thing because one day during a course we took on reconnaissance patrols they showed a training film left over from World War II and how recon companies sent small teams of men, four or six of them, ashore on Japanese-held islands to snoop about for intelligence and then row back out to a waiting submarine.

In the film, easily recognizable despite a coating of lampblack and the erosion of a half-dozen years, was our own Gunny Arzt. We all broke into applause.

“So you really did make all those f_ _ _ _ _ _ landings!” men told Arzt after the film ended and the class broke.

“Course I did,” he said with non-chalance, “you could have asked Buford here.”

There were men in the class who didn’t make quite the impact of a Gunny Arzt or impose their personalities hut who gradually took form, growing distinct and recognizable from the mass. You cannot sleep with forty men in the same room for three or four months, shave and brush your teeth side by side each morning, share a group shower, and sit on adjoining toilet seats day after day without becoming aware of just who is who.

Dick Brennan was from Massachusetts, a tall, lean, handsome Irishman with crow’s wing hair and high cheekbones. The hair fell over one eye, and women found him something more than attractive, but Brennan was fiercely shy and private and didn’t reciprocate. He wanted to be a writer, maybe a Civil War historian, which sounded right because Dick lacked small talk and easy laughter. He’d been in the Big War and never spoke of it.