February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
A young man’s journey from Brooklyn to the world, from boyhood to the glimmerings of maturity, from peace to war
We sat over beer on rough-hewn cedar benches at a big old table in the shade of trees that only California grows, young men talking away the hot November afternoon, a November such as we rarely had in the East, all of us in proper uniform, the forest green, and we were pared lean and very fit by the hills and the forced marches and the heat, burned cordovan by the California sun.
It was my birthday, November 15, and tomorrow we were going to the war.
A dozen Marine officers, lieutenants like me, and about ninety master sergeants and gunnery sergeants and other NCOs, men of enormous dignity who made me uneasy when they saluted, had flown north at dawn from Camp Pendleton to the Navy airfield outside San Francisco to take a plane across the Pacific. We were replacements for men dead or wounded in Korea.
“Fresh meat,” one of the sergeants remarked pleasantly.
The division was short of sergeants and platoon leaders—young lieutenants—after the September and October fighting on the ridges. They were in a hurry to get us, and that’s why we were being flown over. The rest of the replacement draft, maybe two thousand officers and men, including most of our friends, would cross the Pacific in troopships. In the plane flying north to San Francisco I wrote to Sheila Collins, who was going to marry somebody else, wishing her well and telling her what a great girl she was and what fun we’d had. And meaning it. That letter accomplished, I mentioned to the man sitting alongside that today was my birthday, that I was twenty-three. He wished me well.
“You know,” he said then, “George Custer was a major general at twenty-three.”
That rather put me in my place. The other man sensed it and tried to make it up.
“Well, brevet general. Not permanent rank. He was really only a colonel, and after Appomattox they reduced him back.”
“I’d take colonel,” I said. “I’d take major.”
“Different kind of war. Promotion came quick.”
“He had another advantage over me, Custer,” I said.
“Yeah, I can’t ride a horse.”
At Moffett Field outside San Francisco they discovered something wrong with the plane that was to take us to Korea, and they were going to have to find another. That would take until tomorrow morning, so we were free until then. 6:00 A.M. That was luck: a day to kill in San Francisco. And on my birthday. Bob Phelps said we ought to drive down to PaIo Alto, where he’d played football the year before at Stanford.
“You’ve never seen such a place,” Phelps said.
Bob Doran and Lou Faust had friends to visit or errands to run, but Mack Allen and a few of us piled into a borrowed car with Phelps and drove down. He was right about Stanford. Even Mack said so, and he was a Virginian, and you know how they are, restraining enthusiasm, but you could see pleasure in Mack’s grin.
Stanford happened that week to be the top football team in the country in the wire polls, and when Phelps took us to practice, the coach, Chuck Taylor, whose photo was in Life magazine, came over to shake hands. He made a fuss over Phelps and the rest of us. Bob Mathias came over too, the big ail-American end who was the decathlon champion from the 1948 Olympics and who would, like us, be in the Marines in another year. Then all the others came over, seeing it was okay to break from practice, and we met most of them, including a couple of those unpronounceable Armenians who ran so well in the backfield, Hugasian and one other.
After watching the football for a while, we went back to the car and drove over under the trees to this beer garden where students went.
“There might be some girls coming by,” Phelps said, “you know, after class.”
There were no girls, but that was okay. When men of the Round Table set off seeking the Holy Grail, they always prayed the night away before an altar. I felt some of that about going to Korea, about joining the division. Besides, remembering New York Novembers, raw and cold and dank, I realized that after just six weeks in California Fd fallen in love. Not with a girl but with a state. And I suspected privately this was precisely what the 1950s were meant to be, maybe the best time there ever was in America.
By 1950 the Big War had been over for five years, and people again had cars and jobs, and all the soldiers were home and going to college on the GI Bill or apprenticing at their trades and buying those neat little seven-thousanddollar houses that Mr. Levitt was putting up spanking bright with carpeting and washers and dryers anywhere there was a bit of green lawn. The Germans and the Japanese were finished, and unless the Russians did something stupid, there would never again be a Big War, and in the meantime the United States would pretty much run the world.
That was how it had been in 1950. I was twenty-one that year and graduated from college and got my first job as a professional writer, doing advertising copy for Macy’s, my specialty being household appliances and unpainted furniture and area rugs.
“Our last day,” Mack Allen said abruptly, interrupting silence, which was odd because Mack talked less than any of us. But it was what we all were thinking. I wished Taffy Sceva was there, but he’d been left behind at Pendleton to take the troopship. Taffy was a ginger-haired first lieutenant, big-shouldered, funny. He was married and might have pulled strings to stay home, but he was going too.
“The Marine Corps is always interrupting my Christmases,” he’d said one night over beers in the officers’ club, quite cheerful about it. “In 1942, American Samoa. In ’43, Bougainville. And 1944 was Guam. We thought that would be cake, but it wasn’t. In 1945, the good news, I was back in the States; the bad news, it was the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, Klamath Falls, Oregon. Now it’ll be Christmas in Korea.”
Taffy ran the fish cannery at Olympia, Washington, and Lou Faust’s wife had gone up there to sit out the war with Sceva’s wife. I wished that Taffy was here now, that we were going over together, that Fd have him to look to when I got there.
Lou was a big, rawboned guy who sold radio time. He had broken a man’s jaw with one punch when we were back at Quantico, and after that people edged around him with a degree of caution.
Mack Allen had been an enlisted man in the war too, fighting on Okinawa and then service up in North China, occupation duty, rounding up Japanese stragglers and shooting bandits, keeping the rail lines open and trying to keep the locals from starving. After that came the Virginia Military Institute and then the Harvard “B” School. Mack was an engineer and couldn’t wait to get to Korea and the division.
Phelps, like me, had never been in combat. We were the babies. But Phelps was a large, smooth young man, arrogant with strength and money. He was hardly a close friend, but I was glad we’d come down here with him to Stanford. You could see, with Coach Taylor and Mathias and the others, how Phelps carried himself, fond of his own opinion. Though he said little now.
“Brady,” someone called, “share that pitcher a little, will you, like a good fellow?”
But it was nearly empty, and the girl brought another one, and as she walked away, flat-backed and with hips moving gracefully under a cotton dirndl skirt, we remarked on her look, the tan legs and honeyed hair. November 15, with winter coming, yet the sun was hot even under the trees, dappled by leaves, condensation beading our pitcher.
“A few days from now, a week …,” Mack said.
We all could finish the thought. This would be the second winter of the war, and we all knew what had happened in November exactly a year before, when the Chinese came in and nearly destroyed the division up at Koto-ri and the Chosin Reservoir. As replacement officers we’d read the reports. I remembered what Colonel Litzenberg had written back, warning us: “… men came down to the sick bay suffering from what appeared to be shock. Some of them would come in crying; some were extremely nervous; and the doctors said it was simply the sudden shock of the terrific cold.”
Another officer lectured us at Quantico in Virginia, saying his Marines came off the line “just like zombies … a sort of paralysis … that sets in in extreme cold.”
And these were Marines, the best men MacArthur had that first winter.
Phelps spoke on it for the first time. “Today’s the fifteenth. Last November twelfth Colonel Davis reported it was sixteen below zero Fahrenheit, and with wind.”
The waitress came back then, asking if we wanted another. “My, my, my,” Mack Allen said in admiration, his soft Virginia voice paying courtly tribute.
“Just the check.” Phelps said. “It’s time to go.”
He meant to leave PaIo Alto. But he meant something more than that, and we all knew it.
At six tomorrow morning, if they had found a plane, we would be going to the war, to fight the Chinese and the cold and to lead men into combat. The others seemed ready; I wondered about myself. Suddenly I remembered a story from Freddie Grosse, who lived next door, the art director of a tobacco trade journal and a man who’d fought in World War I, so long ago.
“We were very cocky, and they marched us up into the trenches at night, all very secret, no one was to know. And in the morning, when we looked out over the trenches and through the barbed wire, there was a sign out there, hand-painted, and in perfect English. It was the Germans, welcoming us to the war, and getting our regiment and battalion exactly right, and I thought, ‘Oh—oh, we may be in trouble here …’”
Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where Mr. Grosse still lived and where I was born and my family was, seemed a long way off, in time and distance.
Funny, Korea, some six thousand miles away, seemed closer.
Phelps had tossed some money on the tray, and now he said, “Come on, it’s time.”
We drove slowly through the vast, lovely college campus in the autumn afternoon, toward the highway north, passing pretty girls and young men carrying books and tennis rackets, past touch football games and track men in sweats loping around an oval, past cyclists and parked convertibles, all the delicious accessories of peacetime America. Then, as Stanford fell behind and we rolled onto the PaIo Alto entrance to the highway, Phelps’s borrowed car leaped powerfully ahead, surging and speeding up.
Hurrying us toward war.
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.”
“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.
I said that was quite a coincidence, that I’d gone to St. Mark’s grammar school. I didn’t realize his St. Mark’s was something quite different, and that while there Bradlee had been the captain of the hockey team and a star on the football team and that now he played varsity tackle for Harvard. I learned that after a while.
Quantico, with its single main street easing its way down to the Potomac, which along here was a big, slow Southern river, was boring, a two-bit garrison town, the dusty street to the river flanked by tailoring shops and the like, where Marines went to have their uniforms cleaned and pressed and customtailored, the shirts cut skintight. Regulars, the enlisted men, seemed to spend much of their lives at such things and shining their shoes. The real fun of the garrison took place off base, at Dumfries and Triangle, wide spots in the road along the Shirley Highway, where there were bars and fierce women and fistfights. Such places belonged to the “shifty-eyed” enlisted men and were tacitly off-limits to us, officer candidates. As our trucks rolled through on the way to field problems, we saw the small, blonde redneck girls in their tight jeans sashaying through Dumfries and Triangle, and I wished I wasn’t going to be an officer.
Under Captain Finlayson, who gave off the distinct impression he would rather be up in that cool blue sky flying fighter planes than running a bunch of college kids around in the Virginia heat, we were chivvied about by two drill instructors, both corporals. One of the DIs was weasel-smooth, roundfaced, smiling, and currying favor. Oh, he ordered us around and snapped at us sometimes, but he was intelligent enough to realize that in a couple of years, when we had been beatified as lieutenants, he would still be an enlisted man. The other DI was a moron, plump and tightly sewn into his khakis, given to an assiduous scratching of his behind while not actually in formation and standing at attention. When we made sport of him, he reacted angrily. “You peepul [we were always being addressed as “you peepul”], if you be half so f_ _ _ _ _ _ shop as me, you be pretty f_ _ _ _ _ _ shop.”
“Shop” was “sharp,” and his ultimate adjective of praise. And when he was not chewing us out or scratching, the corporal spent many hours polishing his shoes.
“When you see a Marine what got shop shoes,” he would say, “you know he’s one shop Marine, every which way. It’s the shoes what does it.”
If you drew him out, he softened and would go on for twenty or thirty minutes on the best techniques for rendering your shoes truly “shop.” I never got very good at it, but shoe shining was quite a fetish with many enlisted Marines and even some of us. Bradlee, for one, the Harvard man, became splendid at shining shoes and on occasion was praised for being “shop.”
Each week they issued chits on us: military bearing, discipline, targetry, neatness, physical condition, and so on. Assisted by our two DIs, Captain Finlayson marked up the chits.
After the first few weeks of sheer terror, awe, and self-doubt, we began to become capable once more of critical judgments. After all, we weren’t seventeen-year-old recruits off the farm; we were nineteen- and twenty-year-old college men, reasonably mature and in some instances even sophisticated. Although we continued to obey the shouted orders of our DIs (you really had no choice), we permitted contempt to show through. The moron never really got it; the slick one, the politician, did, and curried favor even more. As for Captain Finlayson, what was he, after all, but a flier, an “airdale,” while we were training to be rifle platoon leaders, infantry officers. Even in those first weeks as Marines we were already staking out claims to higher rungs in one of the most rigidly structured and ferocious caste systems in the world.
But the Marine Corps was touching and changing me in other ways. I was the product of Irish Catholic schools and of the working-class community of Sheepshead Bay and in part a reflection of friends like Joe Torpey, who became a baseball player and was married at home plate in a minor-league stadium just before the double-header, and like “Beaner” Toomey, whose dream it was to run a bar and grill. I suppose there were more provincial men in the Platoon Leaders program, but I was about as narrowly focused as you could get without being stupid. Now, in the barracks of a military base in a Virginia summer, as I was talking, talking, talking, and, more to the point, occasionally listening, a dormant imagination woke, curious, to look about and take notes. A boy from a small Catholic school was now, suddenly and unexpectedly, living with men from Princeton and the University of Texas and Stanford and Amherst and Yale and Michigan and USC.
A cowboy from Texas, Bobby Ray Something, taught me how to buy and wear jeans, how they had to look and to fit and to fade, distressed and slim. Chuck Brodhead, who played in the University of Michigan marching band (which may have had more members than the entire student body of smaller colleges), taught us all the Michigan fight song, “The Champions,” and drilled us in it over and over. A kid from La Jolla told me about surfing and the sun-bleached rituals of the California beaches and the small coast towns I must promise to visit one day. Bradlee spoke lyrically and without self-consciousness of Harvard Yard and what it meant, those football rallies before the Yale game. And Dick Bowers, who was a Yalie and played tailback, talked of western Pennsylvania, where he had grown up in coalmining towns and where, he assured us solemnly, the football had been harder and meaner and tougher than anything ever experienced in the Ivy League. And Southern boys formed us into ad hoc glee clubs and taught us close harmony, singing late into the Virginia evening the songs of the Old South.
“In the evening / By the moonlight / You can hear the banjos ringin’ …”
Someone else, or several someones, taught me occasionally to shut up. Maybe that was the best lesson of all. That, and how to order a bourbon with branch water or to savor a cool glass of beer on a hot day.
I took mental notes, began to absorb a smattering of social graces, to wonder, at least vaguely, about one day becoming a gentleman. I wasn’t as methodical about it as James Gatz-becoming-Gatsby, but there was a little of that in it too.
“Brooks Brothers is the place,” I was told. “No, J. Press.” “Chipp cuts a better shoulder.” “Give me Fenn-Feinstein.”
I listened. And bought my first blue oxford cloth button-down shirt.
Maybe they learned something as well, all those Yalies and Texans and Harvards. I took Doug Bradlee home with me one weekend to Brooklyn. My brother was away, and Doug slept in his bed, and in the morning my mother gave him breakfast in the kitchen, as she did with all of us (the dining-room table was for dinner!), and I got him a date that Saturday evening with a girl who worked at the phone company, and on Sunday he went to mass with us at the Catholic church even though he was Episcopalian or something, and I showed him the Sheepshead Bay waterfront and he loved that, knowing New England and the lobster boats, and when we took the train back that late afternoon out of Penn Station, Bradlee said that was one of the best weekends he could remember. Ever.
Doug was always polite, but I don’t think he lied.
The Korean War began on a Sunday, June 25. It wasn’t really clear for a day or two that we would become involved. Then it became very clear.
By a fluke the American delegation was able to ram through a veto-proof resolution calling for United Nations forces to stop the North Koreans. The Soviets were boycotting the session, or they could have killed the resolution on the spot. Within a few days the first American soldiers were in action and MacArthur had been named commander of U.N. forces.
By mid-July the first letters had gone out from the Marine Corps. Get ready to be called up for active duty, we were told. But don’t quit your job yet, remain in school, stay put until further word. Get in shape and read your mail.
In 1950 Life magazine was what we had instead of television, and it was Life that brought us the war.
The newspapers were there, certainly, with Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune and Drew Middleton of The New York Times and wire-service men reporting almost from the very first. But no one could match Life with those big pages and slick paper and great photographs, especially ones by a man named David Douglas Duncan who had been a Marine during the big war and was now with the Marines in Korea.
The South Korean army, which was called ROKs for “Republic of Korea,” fell apart almost instantly, the way you expected such armies to behave, but the first Americans into the fighting weren’t much better. They were soldiers rushed over from Japan, garrison troops fat and slack from years of occupation duty. They weren’t precisely Caesar’s Tenth Legion, and they were up against a tough little peasant army with lots of mortars and very good artillery. Nevertheless some of them fought, and quite a few of them died, and the thing was a disaster. One of the divisional generals, a man named William Dean, actually ended up fighting as a rifleman when his regiments and battalions disintegrated around him, and he was captured by the North Koreans trying to defend a roadblock like some private dog soldier. Miss Higgins wrote about General Dean, and people clucked and said, “Oh, what a shame, what a gallant man.” Later, Marines I talked to said he should have been court-martialed for getting himself and his outfit into such a sorry state.
After a few weeks what was left of the South Koreans and the dribs and drabs MacArthur was sending over had been compressed into a small quadrant of southeastern South Korea up against the sea, behind a river called the Naktong and based on a big port town called Pusan. Pusan was important because our ships could get in there with reinforcements and armor and supplies. If we lost Pusan, the war was over. In Washington some people were starting to talk quietly about withdrawal, remembering Dunkirk.
I was following the fight from Sheepshead Bay and on the subway going to work at Macy’s, reading the papers. Unlike most people on the subway, I had more than a rooting interest. The first Marine units went into combat in August in what was being called the Pusan Perimeter. And Duncan’s photos started appearing every week in Life . The country looked rugged; the Marines looked drained, exhausted; the rice paddies in between the mountains looked hot and wet and perfectly lousy places to die. The photos scared me.
By now the North Koreans had run out of steam and been knocked back from the Naktong, and in September MacArthur pulled out the Marines and ran them around the left flank and landed at Inchon, a brilliant stroke that threatened to cut off the North Koreans from their base.
Then, in October, the war apparently won, MacArthur did a bizarre thing. He split his army and went north, with winter coming and warnings that so too would come the Chinese.
They did, a half-million of them, it was said; they routed the Americans, and MacArthur seemed to panic and started calling out for air strikes north of the Yalu River and, maybe—the newspapers were unclear—for the atomic bomb. The first heavy snow fell in North Korea, and the mercury dropped below zero.
Then my orders arrived. I was to report to Quantico, Virginia, to the Third Special Basic Class (SBC) at the Marine Corps Schools, on January 3,1951. Charges for transportation would be honored. The orders came to my house on Nineteenth Street in Sheepshead Bay, the house where I’d lived for so long, with my mother and my brother, Tom, with Grandma until she died, with Uncle Tom and Aunt Mary, where I’d once lived in the basement when my dad was still there, and where he put up the electric trains every Christmas. Was that how death came calling? In a routinely delivered letter to a little row house in Brooklyn?
My last day of work for Macy’s was the Friday before Christmas. A couple of copywriters took me out to lunch, and afterward we wandered Fifth Avenue, admiring the store windows at Saks and Lord & Taylor and the decorations of Rockefeller Center.
That night there was a college alumni dance, the first since I’d graduated in June and maybe the last I’d ever attend. I took Sheila Collins and wore my new uniform. It was a bit premature since I wasn’t going on active duty until January 3, but it saved me the rental of a tuxedo, and I thought it looked pretty good, and anyway, who was going to complain? The dance was in one of the big New York hotels and a smashing affair, a final chance to see some good friends. Sheila was as ever the liveliest, the funniest, the best girl at the table. Sometime after midnight the dance came to its conclusion, winding down and ending, as all dances did then, always with the same last song: “Good night, sweetheart / Till we meet tomorrow? Good night, sweetheart / Parting’s such a sorrow. …”
And with that corny and rather lovely assumption that we dancers, boys and girls half in love, would now part until tomorrow, would go home to separate beds, the dance ended.
The Marines, again pushed back to the coast, got out of Hungnam on Christmas Eve, the rear guard wading out to the landing barges from the beach through the low surf, and as soon as they were off, four hundred tons of frozen dynamite and hundreds of thousand-pound bombs detonated, destroying the waterfront. Offshore three rocket vessels, seven destroyers, and three cruisers pumped shells into the city. The Chinese would not find much there to comfort them. Between October 26 and mid-December the Marine division lost 604 killed in action, 114 dead of wounds, 192 missing, 3,500 wounded, and another 7,300 nonbattle casualties, mostly frostbite and frozen limbs, many of whom returned after treatment to resume fighting. The division originally numbered about 15,000 men.
Some of this was in the papers, but for security reasons, not all. You didn’t need the statistics when you looked at Duncan’s pictures in Life magazine, the men with icicles hanging from their noses and their hollow, haunted eyes. It turned raw over Christmas and during Christmas week, and I imagined I felt cold more deeply than I ever had before. Nerves. I’d just turned twentytwo in November and felt much younger, wondering if I’d ever see another birthday, another Christmas,
At times like this you focus very narrowly and precisely on yourself.
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.
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.
Mack Allen’s square name was Maurice J. Allen and he was a Lynchburg, Virginia, man, about five feet nine, tough, strong, compact, with jug ears and a wide smile. Whether it was V.M.I, or having been an enlisted man in the wartime Marine Corps, Mack was, though quietly, about as ferocious as a man could be about wanting to get into combat, and soon, as a rifleplatoon leader. I mouthed such sentiments too but deep down didn’t mean them and hoped to be assigned to something cushy. And safe. Mack meant what he said. Leading men into combat was sort of a religious cause for Mack. Back in 1095 when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade to liberate Jerusalem, the men who joined up must have been a lot like Mack Allen, though without the Southern accent.
Lou Faust, the rangy, rawboned, married guy in the radio business, had sandy hair and slightly bowed legs. He’d been a Marine before too. Lou was amiable as hell, never boasted or said very much at all, and always wore a wide, easy grin. Then one morning there was this big inspection of barracks laid on, and when we were all through sweeping and swabbing our platoon area and had fallen in outside in the company street waiting for the colonel to come through and look things over, and each platoon had left one man to stay behind a bit, to be sure no one came through and tracked up the newly scrubbed deck, Faust was one of the men assigned. A Marine from another platoon, late for the formation, started to cut through Faust’s platoon area on his way out, trying to save a few seconds. He was as tall as Lou and heftier, but Lou told him, “Go around, pal, this area’s secured.”
“Bullshit!” the guy said, and started to push his way past.
Faust hit him just the once, breaking his jaw.
After that no one messed with Lou, and the guy with the broken jaw came back a few days later and told Lou that he was right to do what he did, that he shouldn’t have tried to cut through. At Quantico you took things like newly swabbed barracks floors pretty seriously in that year.
Jim Callan had straw-colored hair and a Western twang and squinting eyes slit against the New Mexico sun. His family had a ranch and raised horses, and naturally his nickname was Wild Horse. Wild Horse said the big problem they had in New Mexico was drought and he hoped to save sufficient money over the next year or so in Korea that he could help his dad get some irrigation in there. If he could put together a few dollars, taking care not to spend anything in Korea (what would there be to spend it on, he reasoned), the ranch could make it. If they got water. How long had the drought been on, I inquired, very much the city boy. How many months?
Jim looked at me. “Nineteen years,” he said.
So saving money in the Marine Corps was a priority for Callan. But then Wild Horse fell upon evil days, and in a way it was my fault.
I’d finished reading the B. Traven novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre .
“Wild Horse, you’ve got to read this. It’s a great story. It’s set in Mexico, down near where you live.”
Callan took the book, promising to get back to me with an informed critique. Then he was caught reading it during a terminally boring lecture on military courtesy or something and called up to the platform, where the book was seized and thrown away and he was given a bad chit.
Callan apologized, but I said it couldn’t be helped.
A month later, when our class graduated and we got our assignments, Callan was one of the first men hustled out of there and sent to the division. I always wondered if it was that bad chit he got for reading B. Traven in class.
That winter in Virginia had been very cold. “Getting us ready for the Yalu,” men said, a humorless joke. Now, in April, it would come to an end. And with the spring came our assignments. The twelve to thirteen weeks of the Basic School were ending. Some men would go to the division; others to Camp Lejeune and perhaps to the Mediterranean, some more to artillery school or communications or supply. Still others would stay here at Quantico to teach or to ramrod a new class through Basic School. I was one of those.
There were brief good-byes. The men ticketed for Korea wanted to get away swiftly, to enjoy their three weeks of leave before reporting to Camp Pendleton in California. The rest of us got a weekend off. When we got back on Monday, there would be a private room in the bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ). That would be a treat.
On Monday the BOQ wasn’t quite ready. Nor had I been assigned to a new platoon. I wandered around, no schedule, no one to order me about, no formation into which I fitted, no friends. The squad bay where I’d spent the past three months was empty, the day hot. I sat on the side of my cot, then I lay down and fell asleep. An irate major woke me.
“Are you ill?”
“No, sir.” I was standing at attention.
“Then what the hell are you doing sleeping in an empty barracks on a workday?”
I made my explanations.
“All right, then get the hell out of here and walk around and at least look useful. Nothing worse than a damned young officer looking slack.”
I wandered about the main base until my BOQ room was emptied out and policed up so I could move in. I missed Bradlee and Callan and the others already.
Quantico echoed, empty and lorn.
It wouldn’t stand vacant long, not with new classes coming into the Basic School every month or so now and more men coming back from Korea to help instruct them. The emptiness was only in those of us left behind.
The Marine Corps was eminently sensible about some matters. No man was to be left in Korea a day beyond what was necessary; there was no testing yardstick of machismo or brute endurance. As soon as there was a qualified replacement for an officer or an enlisted man, he could be rotated home. There was no training as valuable as combat, and since Korea was the only shooting war now available, the Corps had no intention of wasting it. Officers and men were shunted in and out as quickly as possible to learn, or perfect, their trade and then to come home to teach it to others. This was good news to those of us who expected shortly to be heading west. There were to be no marathons as during the last war, when a man might spend thirty-six or forty months in the Pacific with no hope of home until war’s end or a bad wound.
So as Mack Allen and Sceva and Faust and others like us took over fresh platoons of new second lieutenants and started to take them through their paces, other men, returning veterans of the fighting in Korea, joined our ranks in the “faculty” of the Basic School. Such men were physically fit, of course. The broken men were parceled out to what is now St. Alban’s Hospital in New York City and to other hospitals around the country. The men who came to work alongside us, whom I regarded with considerable awe, had come through whole. They looked whole, and they acted that way too except late on certain nights at the bar of Waller Hall, when their eyes seemed empty and you might draw certain conclusions.
One of those early May weekends, when Mack was in Richmond or somewhere, I drove up to Washington, as Gunny Arzt and I had so often done, and, having found no mischief, drove back alone and Baptist-proper through the warm afternoon of northern Virginia toward the BOQ and an early dinner.
Then, on that quiet, seeking, restless, empty Sunday I saw the sign. MANASSAS 12 MILES , it said.
I swung the wheel. How grand it would have been to have had Mack Allen with me, a man who knew about Manassas, born in Virginia, educated there, a man whose people had fought at Manassas, or, as we called it, Bull Run.
My people hadn’t fought there. Mack knew Manassas; I’d just read about it.
There were other signs, confusing, and the spring sun sank behind low hills and old trees overhanging the road. I kept going, looking for Manassas, past signs and mile markers and across the narrow runs and through the crossroads hinting of towns somewhere off in the dusk. Perhaps there were historical markers, pointing toward the battlefield, but in the gloom I couldn’t see them, only the occasional lone barn or farmhouse, a white church steeple ghostly, rising, and what seemed to be big farms beyond split-rail fences, and lots of trees, sometimes organized in orchards, row on row, but mostly just stands of wood, thick and mysterious. McClellan had fought here, and Meade and Jeb Stuart and Lee and Hood. Here stood the Army of the Potomac, and toward it came the long gray lines of Southerners, Mack Allen’s people, the brigades of cavalry slouching in their saddles and the regiments of Carolinians and Georgians and Texans and the batteries of guns, rattling and lurching along these same roads. Along here just about every mile and at every crossroads they fought for four years, starting here at Manassas in 1861 and ending here, big set-piece battles and small, nasty skirmishes when a detachment of horse stumbled across a woodcutting party in the dark. I wondered if those men, those long-dead men whose wraiths still marched here in the deep Virginia night, felt about war as I did, drawn to it and fearing it at the same time.
Thoroughly lost, I gave up the search and cut back on the first side road toward the Shirley Highway and Quantico.
Letters and postcards began to arrive in Quantico from the West. From Camp Pendleton, from the embarkation ports of San Diego and San Francisco, from Pacific Ocean points en route, finally from Korea itself and the 1st Marine Division.
Bradlee’s letters were touched with eloquence, and I thought how pleased his Harvard tutors would have been.
“… Had a very interesting talk with Champion as the evening wore on. He’s the man who has three children, two purple hearts, and fought through almost the entire last war. He was a lieutenant on Iwo and Okinawa after coming up through the ranks. Very mild, quiet, slim guy who was a refrigerator repairman in Muskegon, Michigan. He was considering moving and I told him my liking for old timers in New England, the rather reduced but satisfactory scale of living of lobstermen. He likes to work with his hands too.”
This sure sounded like Doug. During Harvard summers he worked on a lobster boat, setting and lifting the big traps. Probably it was good training for another season of football, keeping him lean and tough. But for a man who lived in some comfort, if not luxury, on Pinckney Street in Boston’s Back Bay, the lot of the New England lobsterman had another, more subtle pull. Bradlee really did mean it when he talked of a “reduced but satisfactory” way of life. I’d seen his car with its wooden two-by-fours bridging the rusted-away parts of the floor.
That was Bradlee, of St. Mark’s and Harvard and effete Boston.
From Korea and the 1st Mar Div he wrote: “The country is very rugged, almost unbelievably so. We are dug in for the evening around the bottom of a ravine for a change. Stream about 100 yards away, babbling over stones, cold, clear. Washed myself and clothes and feel wonderful. Yesterday my platoon was sent up to seize a ridge. We really pushed hard and found the Chinks had stopped on a ridge 600 to 800 yards away. Small arms and machine gun fire came sporadically but we didn’t pay much attention and they gave up in disgust. Marines are far and away the best fighters in Korea but tired out. I’ve lost five men in the last three days through heat prostration and exhaustion. Platoon very good. Company commander is good and whole outfit and whole first Division very sharp.
“The spirit of the Corps never ceases to amaze me. Walking to our assembly area yesterday it rained all the way. Much singing, horseplay, laughter, even though pretty miserable actually. Spirits kept high and we were rewarded by a beautiful day when we arrived.
“Have impressions of Korean civilians, farmers, as they watch I Marines move on to their farms and set up camp. They can only look and hope for the best. No language bridge, so no talk exchanged, except extra rations usually find their way to them. Many houses burn because of ” thatched roofs. On ridges at night I can usually see two or three burning in valleys below. Usual procedure is to set up in a line around a bowl of terrain, each platoon tied in with one on each side. Fighting holes are on the front slope, sleeping holes on the reverse side.
“Amazing thing here is that there are mocking birds exactly the same as in Colorado.”
Now another letter came back. Dick Brennan had been hit on June 10, assaulting a Chinese hill. Someone said he’d been machine-gunned; someone else said it was a burp gun, a sort of submachine gun. Anyway, it stapled both his hands and one arm halfway up. That letter said Dick had been put up for a medal for pushing the assault after he was hit.
In his own letters to us from the naval hospital, Dick wrote us nothing about the war, only about the medical care and how fine it was though the food was tiresome. Brennan said he and another officer were writing a play; it wouldn’t be about the war but about the hospital.
“I think it could be a fine play,” he said.
And he never wrote anything about the fighting.
Bob Bjornsen was a forest ranger, about as tall and naturally impressive as the trees he tended in Nevada, up north near Reno. He’d been an enlisted man during the war and enjoyed talking about it, not loud and didactic as Gunny Arzt could be, but proud of his being a “mustang,” an officer promoted from the ranks. There’s one photo of Bjornsen with Mack Allen and me, Bjornsen half a head taller and at the shoulders half again as wide. While Mack and I stayed behind as platoon leaders in the 5th SBC, Bjornsen went early to Korea in a replacement draft, joining the 3d Battalion 1st Marines in May. Jim (“Wild Horse”) Callan and Doug Bradlee were with Bob Bjornsen and were both huge men. Wild Horse and Bjornsen too had something in common: Callan would go back to the ranch after the war, he said, and Bjornsen said he’d return to the forests. That was the work he did, and he loved it, the trees and the peace and quiet, and he was good at his work.
“We became buddies,” he said of Bradlee. “I’ve got pictures of Doug and me at Pearl Harbor, Guam, Japan, and in Korea. He, quiet, me, talkative, an old salt with a wife and daughter back home and Doug just a year out of college.”
All three men were assigned to the same battalion on the same day, May 20. “Doug was killed June third,” Bjornsen said, “and Callan on June tenth. I took over Callan’s heavy machine-gun platoon in a firefight on the day he was killed. Doug and I just hit it off together from Quantico days, and how well I remember trudging up the hill that day, thinking sixtysix percent of the three officers who came as replacements were already killed in action and we hadn’t been in Korea a month. Neither Doug nor Jim had been in combat before and were killed before they learned the ropes. By contrast I was a World War II enlisted combat Marine and knew how to survive and maneuver troops in a firefight.
“His father wrote me after Doug’s death and wanted the particulars. I wrote back that he was killed instantly, which was true, but left out the particulars.”
Back in Quantico that spring and summer we got too many reports like this back from men we knew about other men. I’d heard about Doug from his father. The wire arrived at Camp Barrett, where I was a platoon leader training other young officers. It read: “ WORD RECEIVED DOUG’S DEATH IN ACTION 3 JUNE NO FURTHER DETAILS .” It was signed “Malcolm Bradlee.”
In late July from Saunderstown, Rhode Island, Mr. Bradlee wrote me again.
“My dear Jim, I sent you that wire about Doug’s death because I sensed at once how close friends you two had become. This picture was taken just before he left home for San Francisco. Also, Mrs. Bradlee and I felt that you would like to have the enclosed reading at the memorial services. I sincerely hope that you will write me about your current news and that you will keep in touch with us in the future. Always sincerely, Malcolm Bradlee.”
The memorial service had been held not at Harvard but at St. Mark’s School chapel in Southborough, Massachusetts, on June 17, two weeks after he died. A Professor Finlay had presided, and Mr. Bradlee sent along his remarks and the readings.
No one mentioned in letters or at the service how Doug could have stayed behind at Quantico, could have played football this coming fall, and not gone over until 1952, when, as far as we all knew, the fighting might have ended. He was actually pretty sore about being called in and told of the football option. “I mean, why do they think we’re here? It’s sure not to play tackle against William and Mary or some Navy team from Norfolk.”
I guess Doug was fairly brisk with the morale and recreation officer who’d called him in, and his name popped right up on the very next replacement draft. “You don’t want to play football for the Marine Corps, son? Okay, then, go fight the Koreans.” A lot of officers who’d played in college or the pros took the option and stayed home to play football.
There was one other letter from Doug among the things his family sent us. This one didn’t sound as much like him as it did a more spiritual Bradlee than I knew: “As I once said, try not to be overtly upset by my present mission. I have felt during the last seven years or more that I might have been cut out for things away from the beach and the country club … not away from business into school teaching but really away. I didn’t figure on its being in this form, but this might be a good foundation.
“I look to the world of the spirit and the world of human relationships as the most important thing. No peace treaty, no international government is any good without the spirit underneath it. I look to the principles of a Christian life, not stopping at a ‘gentlemanly’ Christian life but working towards a saintly one.
“I hope some day to find and work toward God.”
There might have been services for Jim Callan out West. But no one wrote to us about them, and we just didn’t know.
I wondered why I didn’t cry about Doug and Wild Horse. I was the sort who cried at movies or to a rendition of “Danny Boy.”
Maybe it was because I would soon go where they had gone. In September Mack Allen and most of us wrapped up the 5th Special Basic Class and got our orders for Korea. Three weeks of leave, then a month or so in California at Camp Pendleton, then across the Pacific to the division. We’d get there late in November, we reckoned.
“Just in time for the first snow,” men said cheerfully.
It was a few days after Bobby Thomson had hit the home run to beat Branca and the Dodgers to get the Giants into the 1951 World Series that I flew to Los Angeles en route to Camp Pendleton. I went out a couple of days early to see California before I had to check in, and I got a room in an L.A. hotel a cabdriver from the airport assured me was clean and cheap. I knew nothing of Los Angeles, where it began or ended, and the hotel was in precisely the wrong place, downtown and dull, near City Hall and the Los Angeles Times building. Gray office blocks, business streets, no palm trees, men wearing business suits, no beach, very few suntans.
On the day I was to report in to Camp Pendleton I took the train south out of Union Station to Oceanside, past the oil rigs bobbing up and down at Long Beach, occasionally seeing the Pacific through the windows and off to the other side the big, dusty brown mountains and the small towns and crossroads and the highway that sped along beside the tracks with lots of cars going very fast, ragtops most of them, maybe headed for the beach.
I felt very young and very lonely.
That changed at Pendleton. You began to realize that when they talked of the Corps being family, there was something to it and not just chamber of commerce crap. We were in big wooden barracks, officers Fd known at Quantico and some others, and we all were in a replacement draft and were going to the war. Now there was a schedule; now there were dates and rosters and names and faces and sheaves of orders for “duty beyond the seas.”
I was no longer lonely. I was again part of something and not an outsider.
In September and October, while I was on leave and then in California, a lot of men died in the eastern mountains. The Marines were sent to attack and seize a series of high, stony ridgelines thrusting up out of the evergreens and the narrow valleys with their streams and marginal rice paddies. They were up against North Koreans who were dug in and well armed and knew what they were doing. This was the fighting that came to be called the “the meat grinder.”
I first heard about it at Pendleton.
The barracks were big and bare, barnlike structures on two floors with wooden staircases outside and steel bunks and lockers and bare-plumbing toilets and showers and naked light bulbs, nothing House & Garden would have covered. I liked Camp Pendleton. It had a raw feel you didn’t get back East at Quantico, which was more like a college campus.
I was always something of a nut about snow. When I was little, I’d vet the weather reports and watch the sky when it was low and gray and the air was cold enough and heavy. I thought I could sense snow coming, almost wish it here. I grew up to be a skier; I loved the cold and the mountains and the deep drifts. Then one day at Pendleton we were issued thermal boots and heavy gloves and piled into school buses with box lunches and driven eleven hours through the rain up Route 395 though Riverside and San Bernardino and past Barstow and through Bishop, where the rain began to change to snow, but most of us were asleep by then and didn’t know. And then past Mono Lake and into Alpine County, where the mountains ran ten, eleven thousand feet up, and then we were at Pickle Meadows, flush up against the Nevada line near Tahoe, the new cold-weather warfare training camp the Marines had set up. It was morning, bright with sun, and it was still October, but there were eighteen inches of fresh snow on the ground of the parking area when we piled off the bus.
The replacement draft ahead of us, who’d come up here the week before, was coming down now from the hillsides, moving slowly and looking shocked, some of them, others cursing steadily.
One of them said, “There’s three feet of this up there.”
Men in our draft turned to look at one another. Were we really going to spend five days up here running field problems? In three feet of snow?
It was cold in the sun at noon. I tried to imagine what it would be like at two in the morning, especially if it snowed again.
It didn’t snow again, as it turned out, and it never got really cold, nothing lower than fifteen or so, but we were there for five days running field problems day and night, humping our packs and our weapons up and down hillsides and ridgelines. The new thermal boots, vacuum-lined and designed to keep your feet warm well below zero, boots they hadn’t had that first winter in Korea, when so many men lost their feet, worked fine. The big problem was the altitude. Nothing I’d skied in New England was higher than four thousand feet. Here we ranged from nine to twelve thousand or so, and we covered miles every day, up and down, digging in and setting up the mortars and the machine guns, simulating a firefight, and then moving on to another position on another hill a thousand feet higher or lower, to do it all over again.
I thought I was going to die.
On the fourth night with the battalion dug into defensive positions, “aggressor troops,” Marines stationed up here to help work us out, men accustomed by now to the thin air and the altitude, launched a series of raids on our lines.
“They’ll be armed with squirt guns filled with red dye,” the war-games umpire warned us, “so tomorrow morning if you wake up with red dye on your puss, you’re dead.”
I was fast asleep in the down sleeping bag, exhausted from the climbing and the cramps that came with altitude sickness, when the “aggressors” came. One of them peeled back the hood of the sleeping bag.
“Peekaboo,” he said, ugly face split in a grin.
“F_ _ _ you,” I said, but not very energetically.
“Bang!” he said, “you’re dead,” and squirted me in the face. I wiped it off as best I could with a filthy handkerchief and fell back to sleep. I don’t think he knew I was an officer. I hoped not. Even through the fatigue and the pain I retained vestiges of pride.
A few hours later the scoring officers chewed us out for lack of nighttime security. “If those were Chinese up there, a lot of you would be dead this morning.” Just before noon the buses rolled up, and we climbed on board. I never thought I’d be happy leaving the mountains and the snow, but I was. I felt like Taffy Sceva; the Marine Corps kept taking me places I’d never seen.
Old salts around Pendleton, regulars, got their laughs out of us. Regular officers were that way too, talking endlessly about “the old Corps.” Whatever we were, however well we did, we weren’t “old Corps.” The talk was all of the Raider battalions that had been in the thick of the worst of the fighting in the Pacific. At the end of every story we’d all have another drink on that, and the major, or another of the salts, would shake his head and say: “They don’t make Marines anymore like the Raiders, not by a damn sight.”
We all were duly impressed. Or we were until four of us were driving up to Laguna Beach one Saturday noon.
Someone, I forget who, had a car, and we were barreling along the back roads of Pendleton, maybe going seventy down a deserted rural road heading for the Coast Highway and a weekend’s liberty at Laguna Beach, when a motorcycle with a Marine aboard it blasted past us on the left as if we were pausing to take the air.
“Wow!” someone said, hushed tribute.
I was in the front next to the driver, watching the motorcycle swiftly dwindling as it pulled away ahead of us, and then noticed the Marine seemed to be doing some sort of trick riding, wobbling his rear wheel.
“Look at that,” I said admiringly, “I sure wouldn’t be playing games the speed he’s going.”
“Listen, that’s not showing off. He’s thrown a bolt or something!”
Within a second or two the motorcycle had started to skid and then go over sideways, and almost instantly the cycle was on its side, the driver still astride the seat but half under his bike now as it skidded along, throwing up a shower of sparks as it went.
There was going to be nothing left of the Marine. He was still skidding, still sliding along the blacktop, a hundred yards, maybe two hundred from where he first went over. There wouldn’t be any flesh left on him when we got there, when he finally stopped. The sparks were still spraying out to both sides and behind him as bare metal scraped the road at speed.
Then he stopped. We pulled up alongside and jumped out. I turned away, as if looking for other traffic coming along, but the truth was I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to see a man’s body flayed raw and bleeding.
But when the bike was lifted off him, the Marine stirred, trying to get up. At least he was conscious.
“You okay? You okay? Anything broke?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Jest gimme a hand here.”
We got him to his feet now, all of us lending a hand, even me.
“The roll bar saved my leg,” he said.
So had a leather jacket and the thick wool uniform and the helmet. We talked to him for a while.
“I thought you were doing stunts back there,” I said, “wobbling your wheel.”
“Nah, threw a bolt. Wheel jest went. Weren’t nawthin’ I could do, just try to slow it and go over easy.”
Someone asked how fast he was going.
“Oh, not more’n a hunnert, maybe one-oh-five or -ten. She’ll move better than that on the straight.”
You could hear pride in his voice when he talked about the bike.
“You fellas want to drive me back a bit so I can look for that bolt, sirs?” he said, throwing in the “sirs” at the end.
“Maybe we ought to drop you at Main Base, at the sick bay.”
“Nah,” he said, “I’m okay. Sore is all.”
We found the bolt about half a mile back, and when we left him, the Marine had the bike back up and his sleeves rolled up and he was working on the rear axle where the bolt had come loose.
About halfway to Laguna someone said, and meaning it, “I don’t want to hear any more shit from these old-timers about the Raiders and how tough they were and how we ain’t. Understood?”
We all said, “Understood,” and meant that too.
Laguna Beach was our Riviera. It was thirty-five miles up the coast from Oceanside and the main gate to Pendleton, and it was where we went weekends, a small, sunny town on cliffs overlooking crescents of golden sand skirting the dark blue Pacific coves. We took rooms in cheap hotels and motels and boardinghouses along the coast strip, sleeping four or even six men to a room.
This was when I truly fell in love with California, on those weekends at Laguna Beach.
The highway comes up into Laguna from the south, rising slightly until, when you are in the town itself, you are maybe two hundred, three hundred feet high on cliffs that bulwark the narrow beaches. Down every side street and between the houses you could see the Pacific, dark and wonderful, slow and lazy, with kids out there surfing, local boys with sunbleached hair and baggy shorts on long, polished boards, measuring the big waves coming in, waves that came from Asia, more than six thousand miles away.
On Saturday they let us off at noon, and someone always had a car and we drove up the coast to Laguna Beach and checked into a beachfront hotel and got out of uniform and into shorts and sweatshirts and went down the rocky path to the sand to try to pick up girls and to swim and to play two-man Volleyball. We might have a beer or two, and there was a hole-inthe-wall restaurant called My Place where we got burgers. On the portable radios you could hear, the big football games back East or in the Midwest, and the announcer, Bill Stern maybe, would say it’s colder now and starting to snow and growing dark and …
And we were lounging there on beach blankets, chatting with pretty girls and working on our suntans, and the big rollers kept coming in, here and there dark with kelp and sometimes with the sleek, cannonball head of a seal, and it was only two o’clock in California, and the November sun was still high and night a long time off.
To an Easterner there was something almost magical about the time zones, the three-hour differences between here and home, something inexpressibly lovely about the dramatic fall of the sun into the late-afternoon ocean. There are magnificent beaches in the East, but nowhere on the Atlantic does the sun disappear into the ocean as it does in the Pacific.
It was of such things that we spoke with the girls we met, and not of Korea.
When we spoke of Doug Bradlee and Wild Horse Callan or others now dead or in the naval hospitals, men our age and until recently our shipmates, it was always in fun, the silly, inconsequential memories of days and nights at Quantico, not of death and war wounds. To dwell on losses was unhealthy. Nor was there guilt. They had gone to the division, and now our turn had come.
“Who’s this Wild Horse you’re always talking about?” a girl would say as we lay on an old blanket in the sun after a swim.
“A guy we know, a pal.”
“He sounds pretty funny.”
“Does he actually talk like that, a real cowboy?”
“Absolutely, a real old-fashioned cowboy.”
We spoke always in the present tense.
“Smear some more gook on my back, will you, honey? I’m getting burned.”
It was intimate but all pretty innocent, these weekend living conditions being what they were, so many men to a room, sharing beds, sleeping on couches or stretched out between two chairs, on the floor, occasionally on a blanket in the tub. There was a great deal of necking, little more serious, though certainly some of us tried. I was twenty-two and a virgin still and making regrettably little progress in becoming anything else. And for all the large talk, I don’t believe I was unique.
Before we left Pendleton for the division, I did two last things. One was to seek out a priest at a small parish in Oceanside and go to confession in his office in the rectory one evening (all those necking parties at Laguna!). The other was to buy a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson military and police special with a four-inch barrel and fifty rounds of ammunition.
Then, a few days before we were to go down to San Diego and board ship, new orders were cut. Mack Allen and I and a few others were to fly over.
Trying to sound enthusiastic, I said something about being lucky, that we were going to get there before it was over. We weren’t going to miss the war after all.
Mack, who had already attended one war, nodded slowly. “There’s no rush, Jim. They’re not goin’ to run out of Chinamen. They got plenty.”
That night some of us who’d been together right from the very first at Quantico got together for a last drink at the O Club.
“Bourbon and branch water,” I ordered.
Mack smiled in delight. “Well, well, well, so you finally learned what a gentleman drinks.”
Sceva and Faust were there, and Bob Phelps, the big football player from Stanford, and others.
“Hell, you guys flying over are the lucky ones. Do you know what sort of chicken shit they run in on you aboard ship? Inspections every hour on the hour, queuing up for food, for movies, for showers. You line up to get seasick .”
Some officers had been flown over earlier, late in 1950 and earlier in 1951, and one man knew the drill.
“You fly out of San Francisco …”
“No, they use Navy planes, the military equivalent of the DC-6. And you land at Hawaii and lots of other places on the way. So take along some swim shorts and suntan stuff. Maybe a sport shirt. And khakis …”
“Khakis? We’re going to Korea. It’s November, and there’s snow.”
“I tell you, Hawaii, Kwajalein, Guam. You’ll want khakis. It’s still the South Pacific.”
I was confused. “I thought you always flew the Great Circle route. Why wouldn’t we go north, via Alaska, the Aleutians, Japan?”
“Maybe they got MiGs up there, out of Siberia,” someone said. Gloom descended on choir practice. MiGs were Soviet fighter planes that the North Koreans and the Chinese flew, fast, competent, deadly. An old Navy DC-6 wouldn’t have a prayer with MiGs.
We talked late that night, making our good-byes without ever saying them. In a week, maybe ten days, some of us would be there in Korea, in the snow and the cold and the mountains, holding commands in the division. It was entirely possible, though not likely, one or more of us might be dead. The rest, the majority, ten days from now would be less than halfway across.
“It doesn’t matter which way we go,” said Taffy Sceva. “We’ll all be together again before Christmas.”
People began to drift away after that, emptying glasses and exchanging handshakes. It looked pretty casual. Let the doggies, the Army, have the drama. We were the professionals.
Outside the officers’ club I walked back to the barracks, enjoying the clear, starry sky, the familiar chill of Southern California when the sun went down, thinking about what Taffy said. Christmas. I hadn’t thought about Christmas. Hadn’t thought about my birthday, only two days away now. November 15, the day we were to fly out, or so the orders said, and the orders never lied, did they?
I wished I had said a proper goodbye to my mother. I hadn’t really. She hated the war so, and the Corps, I didn’t want to upset her, so I kept it relaxed, maybe too much so. Maybe we should have hugged and cried together. It’s hard to know what to do, what is right and proper, when you have never gone to war before, when it is your first time.
Two mornings later we flew up to San Francisco, and the plane wasn’t ready, and we had a day to waste, a birthday to enjoy, and Bob Phelps took us down to Stanford.
We drove north from Palo Alto toward San Francisco, Phelps at the wheel, in the fading November light, no one talking much, most of us thinking, I guess, about this being our last day in America. I know that was what I was thinking.
We’d taken a couple of double rooms at the Mark Hopkins, two double rooms for seven of us who hung together. It was cheaper that way, and we shared beds and flipped for the couch and saved money. We could have gone to a lesser hotel, but on your last night in San Francisco it somehow seemed right to be at the Mark. Only Phelps, who had some style (and money), complained about the room arrangements, remarking it wasn’t a very classy way to go to war and was probably against the hotel rules. By the time we had the sleeping arrangements sorted out and had gone upstairs to the cocktail lounge of the Top of the Mark, it was full night, and Faust and Doran had joined us, men leaving wives behind, children.
Out beyond the windows, as we lazed over drinks, the Pacific was dead black except for the lights here and there of fishing boats and coasters. Behind us the Golden Gate Bridge was a necklace slung delicately against the bosom of the dark.
“Nice,” someone said. And it was.
Mack and Phelps and I told them about PaIo Alto, about meeting the football team and having beers under the trees.
I don’t know really what the others felt. This was one of those times when we were shy, even among ourselves, men who’d lived together for most of a year suddenly fallen mute. I knew what I was thinking, blend of exultation and pride, fear and inadequacy.
We all had one more. Why not? You could pick out individual stars in the western sky, way out over the ocean. I took a sip of bourbon and shivered. That night in bed, before I slept, listening to the muted sounds of men in sleep, the snores and restless movement, I thought of Freddie Grosse, who lived next door and of the sign the Germans held up that long ago October in the Argonne Forest, said a brief prayer for Wild Horse and Doug. I wished I had a martial tradition on which to call, like Mack Allen or Taffy Sceva, a noble father or grandfather. All I had was an uncle dead on D-day, a man I can’t recall having ever seen, who went into the Army and might otherwise have gone to jail.
I was sure that like my father, I would play the fool, and I hoped only that I would not run away or get men killed out of cowardice or weakness, hoped I might accomplish things in which people who knew me might take a modest pride.
They’d found a new plane or repaired the old one. And we climbed on board in the half-light that next morning—all those senior NCOs and officers who’d been to war before, and kids like me who hadn’t. They handed us box lunches as we climbed up, sufficient to get us to Hawaii.
“Waikiki next stop!” someone exulted. Men laughed, and there was some tomfoolery and kidding around, what the Marines call “grabass.” Mostly, I suspected, it was nerves. Even for the older men.
The interior of the plane had been gutted of its airline seats, and in their place hung rows of stretchers, double-berthed, riveted or bolted to the overhead and to the bulkheads.
“Hey,” I said enthusiastically, “we can stretch out, take a nap.”
A gunnery sergeant looked at me. “Lieutenant, them’s stretchers for the wounded. They fly replacements over, and they use this same plane to fly the woundeds back.”
There were rust brown stains in the canvas of the stretchers.
I nodded and shut up.
It took a while to get everyone on board and then a longer time to get the engines started and before we rolled out onto the tarmac, so I wrote a letter to my dad, writing on notepaper in my lap. You know how it is in the service, they’re always after you, making work, keeping you busy, sending you this way and that, so you learn to read or think or write a letter whenever there’s time, no matter how brief. I wrote to him about these last days in California and how it was now time to go, but mostly about San Francisco and what a great town it was and a lot about Stanford and especially about going to practice and meeting their football team.
He’d enjoy that. He loved football and had never played it. And he’d always wanted to go to war and never had.
We were moving now, rolling slowly over the tarmac, bumping gently, the old plane vibrating slightly, rattling, the wood and canvas stretchers banging against the bulkheads, the motors revving slowly and then faster. I was on the right side, and in the east the sun was climbing but slowly. Then the plane was rolling faster, bumping more, and now very fast.
Now we were off the ground and rising and the sun coming up with us, clear of the horizon, as we banked once over the bay and then banked again so that the Golden Gate arced beneath us. Then California fell behind as we flew west toward Asia.