Storm Warning

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The saying has it, “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine,” and in my case it’s all too true, even though it’s been nearly thirty years since those brief three I spent on active duty with the 2d Marines.

In what history will regard as peacetime just before the war in Vietnam, I served with a few men who became lifetime friends and many others who earned my deepest professional respect and admiration.

Far from the least of these latter was a young corporal. He was a Rifle Squad Leader in H Company, 2d Battalion, 2d Marines (“Horrible Hog” of “Two-Two”) of which I was the executive officer for about six months in 1963.

During those six months I had the chance to observe this corporal at close quarters. He was a recruiting-poster . Marine, tall, broad-shouldered, blond, and, like most of us then (sigh!), very fit. Buy beyond appearance, his performance was truly outstanding. He had qualified every year as a Sharpshooter with the M-14 rifle. He led his thirteen-man squad by example, joining them in all the dirty work.

He was demanding in a quiet, efficient way, the sort of Squad Leader who, after spending Monday through Thursday training in Camp Lejeune’s distant fields, forests, and marshes and then hiking fifteen miles back to the barracks, would remain in the squad bay with his men well into the evening, cleaning and squaring away gear and weapons until everything was absolutely shipshape. Then he’d fall his men in for a formal squad rifle inspection, a highly unusual event in any company.

Both his rank and the fact that he was married were extremely uncommon for a first-enlistment Marine. It was plain he loved the Marine life, and he made it clear that he intended to make the Corps his career. Other squad leaders and even platoon sergeants noted his performance, appearance and his quiet, intelligent demeanor and quickly strove to improve their own to avoid suffering by comparison. Because of all this, Horrible Hog was a very good company in which to work.

In August 1963 I transferred to H&S (Headquarters and Service) Company of Two-Two and joined the operations staff as battalion training officer—a nice, indoor job with very little heavy lifting or camping out in the rain. I began to lose contact with most of the noncoms from Horrible Hog.

In the fall the annual training cycle wound down and there was time to get caught up on courts-martial. There were three kinds, the commonest being the Special Court Martial, a panel of about five company-grade officers who heard the evidence, rendered a judgment, and passed a sentence, typically a reduction in rank and/or forfeiture of pay and benefits for a month or so, and sometimes confinement either to quarters or in the brig.

All the company-grade officers in Two-Two were assigned to one or another of the Special Court Martial panels, known as “boards,” and cases were assigned to boards that did not contain the accused’s supervisors. It was, then, a complete coincidence that in November 1963 the Special Court Martial Board of which I was a member was assigned to hear the charges being brought against the same young corporal from H Company whom I had so admired. The charges themselves were as unusual and unexpected as the identity of the accused. The typical Special Court Martial heard charges of Unauthorized Absence (what other services call AWOL) over and over with boring familiarity, once in a while theft or brawling, but almost always UA, usually by a lovesick twenty-year-old who’d just had to visit sweet Lucille in Pittsburgh.

But the corporal was charged with some highly unusual offenses our board had never heard brought before: possession of two rounds of 7.62-mm rifle ammunition, possession of a weapon, to wit “a small caliber pistol,” ten counts of “lending money for profit,” and orally threatening to kill a fellow Marine. These charges might seem serious enough to a person unfamiliar with the Marine Corps environment of 1963, but to those of us on the board they were baffling.

The charge of possession of 7.62-mm ammunition (the standard Marine issue for the M-14 rifle) was truly bizarre. In Camp Lejeune, rifle ammunition was as common as pine straw. I doubt if there was a footlocker tray on the base that didn’t contain a few rounds. Ammunition and shell casings were used as paperweights and doorstops.

“Possession of a weapon” was almost equally surreal. We all possessed weapons: M-14 rifles, M-60 machine guns, rocket launchers, mortars, pistols, flame throwers, grenades, knives and bayonets, not to mention the nearby tanks, artillery, and fighter aircraft. A “small caliber pistol” was simply no big deal.

“Lending money for profit.” Young enlisted Marines in 1963 and, I suspect, in any year since the Corps was founded in 1775, were chronically short of cash. Their pay was ridiculously low and, even though their food, housing, and uniforms were provided by a grateful nation, they did have incidental expenses such as weekly haircuts, shoe-shine gear, brass polish, civilian clothes and the like, and beer and a pizza once in a while. Even the most naive among us knew that such Marines sometimes borrowed money from their fellows who, in turn, would be unlikely to lend if they couldn’t profit from the transaction.

Gambling in the service was, of course, unheard of.

Threatening to kill a person might sound daunting to a civilian, but in the course of the usual dialogue between 1963 Marine noncoms and the privates and PFCs under their command, it was probably a milder threat and was never taken literally.

The corporal pleaded guilty to all counts except the last, explaining to the court that all he had threatened to do to the party of the second part was “kick his teeth out.” The court went into closed session and the members scratched their collective head and wondered aloud what we could never have asked in open court: What in the world was going on? We concluded that this heretofore picture Marine had somehow managed to seriously alienate either his 1st sergeant or company commander, who had then decided to teach him a lesson.

We had no choice. We found him guilty of all counts except the last and sentenced him to be reduced to private and thirty days’ restriction. This was as mild a sentence as our board ever handed down and was received stoically by the defendant.

Life resumed at Two-Two and very shortly thereafter, my two-year cycle with the battalion being over, I lost touch with it and never did learn the story behind the corporal’s (now private’s) court-martial. When I was released from active duty six months later, at the end of my three-year commitment, I learned that the former corporal had decided not to pursue a career in the Marines and was asking to be released early so he could enroll at the University of Texas. This request was later granted.

I should mention that except when addressing or talking about one’s peers, first names were rarely used by Marines of that time. So it was that in August of 1966 when a lone rifleman went to the twenty-seventh-floor observation tower at the University of Texas and shot dead thirteen passersby, wounding thirty-one others before being himself shot dead by a police team, despite the fact that it was reported sensationally in the news media (which revealed he had also shot dead his young wife and his mother before going to the tower), the name Charles Whitman didn’t strike a responsive chord in me.

We concluded that this heretofore model Marine had somehow seriously alienated his commander.

Then the following week’s Time magazine was delivered and I glanced at the cover and saw a familiar, handsome face. My first reaction was, “What’s Corporal Whitman doing on Time ’s cover?” Then I realized in a rush of horror that Corporal Whitman and Charles Whitman were the same person and that the mayhem in far-off Austin had been caused by a person I knew very well. I still get a shiver when I think of seeing that magazine cover for the first time.

The autopsy of the former Cpl. Charles Whitman, USMC, an architectural engineering student at the University of Texas, revealed a “pecan-size” brain tumor that had evidently caused his aberrant behavior. One doesn’t know whether to feel worse about the young man who had once shown such brilliant promise and whose life had ended so tragically, or about his poor anonymous victims.