Memories of Marine Corps Boot Camp

Forty-eight years ago on July 31 I raised my right hand and took that oath:

“I, Timothy P. Forkes, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military, so help me God.”

We were in the basement of the military induction center in Downtown Milwaukee, WI. People joining the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

After cursory physicals, the medical staff there declared we were fit to join the military so we got into a few lines, raised our right hands and took the oath. We were then divided into five groups, one for each branch of the military, and away we went for our boot camp experiences.

For the recruits going to the United States Marine Corps that meant a plane ride to Chicago and then on to Southern California, San Diego to be exact, where we were bussed on to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. I was going to be a Hollywood Marine — if I graduated boot camp. Not everyone does. That’s what Parris Island trained Marines called those of us that went to boot camp in San Diego. I liked the title.

Because I was morbidly obese I went to the Fat Farm, aka the Physical Conditioning Platoon (PCP) There I — we — did physical fitness training for several hours a day, but not all at once. I was an hour three-to-four times each day. Our diets were rigorously controlled; for guys like me that meant no sweets of any kind, very few carbs and a lot of protein.

My weight went from 185 pounds to 138 in six weeks. I was in fit military appearance, i.e. I didn’t look fat, and then I scored high on the Physical Fitness Test — the all-important PFT. Every Marine has to pass this twice per year. The highest score a Marine can get is 300. Which means doing 20 pull-ups, 80 sit-ups in two minutes and then running three miles in 18 minutes or less.

If you run that in 21 minutes, you’re doing pretty good. If you can do 12-15 pull-ups you’re doing very good. If you can do 60 sit-ups you are doing good. The PFT I did to get out of the Fat Farm was 260. I could only do 12 pull-ups, but maxed out both the sit-ups and the three mile run. I was pretty damn proud of that. When I got to boot camp I couldn’t run two blocks, let alone three miles. After six weeks in the PCP I was keeping up with the best drill instructors and running faster than others.

Boot camp wasn’t over for me, I was just sent back into the regular recruit training. I should also mention I was in boot camp when Richard Nixon resigned as president and Gerald Ford was sworn in to office. One drill instructor brought us all to the front of the barracks and had us sit on the floor. He told us our chain-of-command had changed. Nixon was no longer president and Ford was the new Commander-in-Chief. No explanation as to why there was a change, just the news that things had changed.

One thing should be mentioned: We don’t get the title of “U.S. Marine” until we graduate boot camp. Until that moment we were officially recruits. We were in the Marine Corps, but we were not Marines. Of course the drill instructors had other, more colorful names for we recruits. If you saw Full Metal Jacket with R. Lee Ermey portraying GySgt Hartman you get the accurate picture.

While at PCP we went through much of the class work recruits went through in First Phase, so when we got back to regular training we were ahead of the guys who were just getting into MCRD.

Oh yeah. Three phases to recruit training.

We went through three senior drill instructors while I was in Platoon 2104.The first was a staff sergeant who was prone to drunkenness and got in trouble off base. The second was another staff sergeant who was … shall we say, too extreme … what happened was, we were physically training on a very hot day, when we were supposed to be at minimal physical activity and one of our fellow recruits collapsed and went into convulsions. The Drill Instructor tried to help the recruit and when the ailing individual did not respond the staff sergeant started pounding on the floor, screaming at the top of his lungs, “THEN DIE MOTHERFUCKER! DIE!.”

He screamed that a few times. Another drill instructors pulled the senior drill instructor off the man having convulsions and the other D.I. came in with the Navy corps men who would administer aid and take the recruit to Sick Bay (I assume) and eventually mustered out with a medical discharge. We got a new senior drill instructor shortly thereafter and he was … not quite as colorful as the previous two.

While we were in third phase we saw that screaming senior drill instructor working in the induction area of MCRD San Diego. That’s where brand new recruits went to first when getting off the bus. And yeah, we all had to step on those yellow foot prints and stand in line to get our heads shaved. Yes, we got our heads shaved.

In first phase we learned about our rifle, the M-16. We learned how to disassemble and the reassemble it blindfolded. We went to the training pool to assess our ability to swim. I was pretty good. We went to classes on administering first aid, carrying wounded marines, our Chain of Command and of course our 11 General Orders.

1: To take charge of this post and all government property in view.
2: To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing.
3: To report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce.
4: To repeat all calls from posts more distant from the guard house than my own.
5: To quit my post only when properly relieved.
6: To receive, obey and pass on to the sentry who relieves me all orders from the commanding officer, field officer of the day, officer of the day and officers and [NCOs] of the watch.
7: To talk to no one except in the line of duty.
8: To give the alarm in case of fire or disorder.
9: To call the [NCO] of the watch in any case not covered by instructions.
10: To salute all officers and all colors and standards not cased.
11: To be especially watchful at night, and during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority.

This photo is taken in boot camp as we prepare to graduate (provided by Tim Forkes)

We were drilled on them every day and tested. A recruit didn’t get out of First Phase unless he knew the 11 General Orders. If a recruit failed to get out of First Phase he was thrown back into a newly formed platoon and had to go through all the First Phase training again. That happened to a few recruits, but not me. Once I got out of the Fat Farm I was determined to finish the recruit training with 2104.

There was one misstep on my part: I inadvertently left my rifle unlocked. That’s nearly unforgivable in the Marine Corps. If you saw the movie Full Metal Jacket, then you have a fairly accurate depiction of Marine Corps boot camp at the time. In it Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by the incomparable R. Lee Ermey, has his recruit platoon recite the Marine Rifleman’s Creed. It may sound funny and over the top to you, but in the USMC that is some serious shit. So leaving my rifle unlocked was a serious infraction and I spent a full day in the Motivation Platoon. I forget what it was unofficially called, but basically we were sent there to do physical challenges in mud. A couple times we have to hold buckets of water in each hand, held with our arms spread wide. It was a brutal day.

Back in the platoon I made sure my foot locker and rifle were properly locked.

We went to Second Phase after about 28 days, a short bus ride to Camp Pendleton. As a platoon we did mess duty at the Rifle Range mess hall for our first week of the phase. Nothing odd happened, until one of the platoon members, a lad from the Lone Star State, was A) caught pissing off the loading dock and B) told everyone — including all three drill instructors — he had carnal knowledge with farm animals and that all true male Texans had carnal knowledge with farm animals.

The other Texans in the platoon were quite adamant that, as a rule, male Texans did not have sex with farm animals and that they would … educate … their fellow Texan about it once the lights were turned off for the evening. That was the end of Texans screwing cows.

After our week of mess duty we marched over to another rifle range barracks and commenced our live fire instruction with the M-16. We continued breaking down our rifles and putting them back together blindfolded, while we had classes in how to shoot from three different positions: standing, sitting and prone. Plus: hold the rifle this way, breathe slowly and just before pulling the trigger exhale evenly. Then pull.

After several days of training without live ammunition we began to shoot at the targets, from 200, 300 and 500 yards. On the two days of qualification we had to score at least 190, out of a possible 250, to qualify with the M-16 From 190-209 was the Marksman badge, 210-219 was Sharpshooter and 220-250 was considered Expert. I shot a 216 in boot camp. After that I always shot expert, with my highest ever score being 247. Someone suggested I should request going into Recon and the sniper/scouts. After serving to support the 4th Recon Battalion at MCB 29 Palms I decided that was way more work than I wanted.

Anyway, in second phase we got our rifle qualification in and then spent three weeks in infantry training, up and down the hills of Camp Pendleton, from one base to another, often force marching 10 or more miles to get from one location to another.

We were introduced to C-rats (C-Rations) and the packaged meals we were supplied with were dated between 1944-47, I kid you not. In every other box of C-Rats we were likely to find a “John Wayne,” basically a can opener specifically designed to open C-Rats cans.

Pictured is the John Wayne I got in a box of boot camp C-Rats, from November 1974. Well, I was in boot camp second phase in November 1974. The C-Rats were from 1947 I believe.

The author’s “John Wayne” (Tim Forkes)

We did a lot of obstacle course training in full uniforms and with our rifles. We did the gas chamber drill. We learn how to put on a gas mask properly and once we could do that we took it off in a room that was filled with tear gas. It isn’t the least bit dignified. Our eyes were spewing out tears as we had tendrils of snot coming out our noses. It was great. It made us feel that much more invincible.

When we got back to MCRD San Diego for our third and final phase of recruit training our drill instructors noted we had become very salty recruits. In third phase we were allowed to “blouse” our pants legs, so we looked quite professional. We learned fancy close order drill moves that probably looked cool from a distance, but gave us the sense that we were absolutely superior. If America was going to send us somewhere to kill others, we were damn right ready willing and able.

We also learned hand-to-hand combat, including how to strangle someone and cut a throat properly. Once we recruits had that knowledge we knew the top of our chain of command had given us the green light to kill, the high sign to be superior — Marine Corps Supremacy.

For me, I stood there on that day, watching other Marine recruits practice cutting a throat and came to this realization: “There is no God because if such a being existed it would not allow us humans to have such knowledge — or eagerness — of and for this ultimately very personal way of killing another human being. God wouldn’t let us have this knowledge or a reason to use it.”

Another lie: “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.”

This is going off on a tangent, but organized religion that convinces people to put their faith in an invisible being that lives in a cloud, in a dimension that is far, far away; that convinces us killing others in the name of this god is right and good, is a grift of the most horrific order.

So there it was, Marine Corps  boot camp becoming the one last piece of evidence that the god I was taught to believe in was a lie. But as a seven year old I began to have my doubts about a God that contradicts itself from one book of the Bible to the other. That creates an earthly son and then offers him up to be executed — that all sounded fishy so it was no surprise boot camp put an end to my religious beliefs.  I did, however, go to Sunday Morning Catholic Mass. It was a chance to be away from the platoon for about 70 minutes each week.

If there is a lasting effect and impression Marine Corps boot camp left on me is that it pushed over the edge into becoming an atheist.

Like I wrote earlier the drill instructors said we had become salty recruits. I liked to be a wise ass, which in hindsight was a stupid thing. Drill instructors have heinous ways of punishing recruits, the worst being the D.I. of the moment making the other recruits in the platoon pay for my smart mouth.

One wise ass stunt I pulled was I had my sister Elaine send money off to the company that made Libby’s canned food and have one of their cute little dolls that sang, “If it’s Libby’s Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s on the table, table, table …” sent to one of the drill instructors. It arrived to our platoon while we were in third phase, long after I had forgotten I sent for it. The drill instructor, whose name shall remain anonymous, knew exactly who had played this joke on him because my sister’s last name was the same as mine. Not only did I have to perform punitive physical training, that D.I. and another took me into our squad bay’s “whisky locker” and proceeded to deliver upon my body a serious “thump session.” It left a startling bruise on my chest, one my mother noticed when I got home on leave after boot camp. She was not happy.

The author, about a year after boot camp (Tim Forkes)

Getting into the Fleet Marine Force, the FMF, takes all the saltiness out of new Marines fresh out of MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) school and boot camp. We were still engaged in Vietnam, although at that time our troops were in a speedy exit from that lost cause.

What a sick and gut wrenching moment when we watched our fellow Marines lower the flag over the U.S. Embassy in Saigon for the last time. It’s now called Ho Chi Minh City.

There is a Ho Chi Minh hiking trail in the Torrey Pines section of La Jolla, I kid you not. But the cliffs are unstable so hike it at your own risk.

The U.S. Marine Corps has left an indelible mark on my mind and emotions. I don’t believe anyone joins the Marine Corp for God and Country, at least not as a primary reason. Mine was to prove I could do it and be one of the few and proud. My reasons were purely for personal aggrandizement, but as we all later learned we cannot accomplish much of anything alone. We have to put our faith in the fellow Marines around us, esprit de corps  We became a part of something that was greater than our individual selves.

Many Americans are under the misguided idea that America was built by visionary individuals. It was not. A visionary might have had a dream, but it usually took hundreds, if not thousands of others to put in the labor to make it happen. “Team work” was a philosophy I learned in the USMC so it is with great disappointment I see it so denigrated in civilian life. But that’s my burden.

My intention was to have this finished and posted by July 31, the anniversary of the day I raised my right hand and took the oath. As we can see it got a bit more involved than expected. So, Semper Fi to my USMC buddies. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”