The interesting thing about life in the Marine Corps is that it consists of a series of rites of passage that begin on the day a prospective recruit signs his name to an enlistment contract and lasts until a Marine receives his discharge papers; a continual series of leaving one group or period in his life, and joining another. These rites of passage pertain to everyone who has ever worn the uniform of a United States Marine, irrespective of rank or position.
No one is called “Marine” until he or she earns that title. One earns the title by successfully completing “boot camp” or Officer’s Candidate School (OCS). There are two recruit training regiments (boot camps): Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California. Officers receive their rendition of recruit training at Quantico, Virginia.
Thus far, I have identified two distinct rites of passage: the migration from “scummy civilian” to recruit or candidate, and from recruit/candidate to United States Marine. The latter is most significant because any feather merchant can convince a recruiter that he or she has what it takes to become a Marine. Not everyone measures up. Separating the wheat from the chaff is what boot camp and OCS is all about. Graduation is a significant event because, having earned the title Marine, it stays with you beyond death —with one important caveat: a Marine must always keep faith with his or her fellow Marines. A Marine who is separated from the Corps by a less-than-honorable discharge is no longer entitled to be called Marine. Of those who keep the faith, who serve honorably, there are only two categories: live Marines, and dead Marines. Earning the title Marine, and keeping it, is a lifetime achievement.
The next rite of passage is the completion of infantry training. Every Marine, no matter what his or her occupational specialty, is first and foremost, a rifleman. This is a demand placed on everyone in the Corps, officer or enlisted, Commandant or private.
Marine pilots fly the world’s most sophisticated fighter/bomber aircraft, but they are first trained to serve as infantry unit leaders. Cooks, bakers, and candlestick makers, pilots, supply officers, or personnel officers … all are trained and ready to pick up a rifle and join the fray whenever called upon to do so. In my day, infantry training took place in Infantry Training Regiments (ITRs); one on the east coast, and one on the west coast. Today, these organizations are called Schools of Infantry. Basic infantry training for officers is conducted at the Officer’s Basic School, Quantico, Virginia.
Upon graduation from infantry training, Marines are normally granted “boot leave.” This usually consists of a period from fifteen to thirty day leave of absence. Not everyone wants to go home after initial training, but most do. When the leave period expires, Marines will either report to their next level or training (such as aircraft maintenance schools, armor school, supply school, etc.) or their first regular duty assignment. My first assignment was with the 8th Marines, part of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Life in the Regiment
The lineage of the Eighth Marine Regiment (8th Marines) begins in 1917. The regiment was deactivated following World War I, re-activated for service in the Banana Wars (1920-25), and re-activated again for service in World War II. The regiment has a proud history of combat service, which was carefully explained to me and a few other newly assigned Marines by Sergeant Major Mason, who at the time served as Battalion Sergeant Major, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
The 2nd Battalion (also 2/8) —nicknamed America’s Battalion— further assigned me to Company E (Echo Company). Having reported to the company First Sergeant, who gave me “the word,” I was sent to the 3rd Platoon. The platoon commander was Second Lieutenant Percy, who assigned me to Corporal Myers’ 3rd Squad. I ended up in the 3rd fire team.
My fire team leader was Lance Corporal Graham, a 12-year veteran of infantry service. At one time, Graham was a sergeant. Apparently, the Navy and Marine Corps frown on enlisted men making threats to the health and safety of their officers. As I understood the situation, the only reason Graham was still on active duty is because few Marines in the company knew more about platoon tactics than he did. That and the fact that he’d won the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts during the Korean War.
Lance Corporal Graham was not “friendly” to anyone in the fire team. He was strictly professional. He served as our leader, our mentor, and our teacher. He noted when we were deficient, corrected our mistakes, and assessed our proficiency under a myriad of circumstances and conditions. He brooked no insult to himself, any member of his fire team, our company, our battalion, our regiment, or our Corps.
Getting settled into the company routine was relatively simple. LCpl Graham assigned me to a rack, a wall locker, and a footlocker. As a very young private, I only had to do what I was told. Simple things, actually … in garrison it was essentially reveille at 0530, make up the rack, head call, don the uniform of the day, fall in, march to chow, morning police, company formation, get the word, execute the plan of the day, chow formation at noon, continue the plan of the day, evening formation and chow call, and then company area, on-base, or off-base liberty might be offered.
When we went to the field for training, we usually stepped off after morning chow on Monday mornings at around 0630 and remained in the field until sometime late in the afternoon on Friday. This meant that the weekends were spent squaring away our gear (clothing, equipment, cleaning our rifles, shining our boots) and getting ready for the following week’s training plan. Simple.
During my first few weeks, LCpl Graham kept a close eye on me. He finally decided that I’d do. Graham was never snarky, or petty. He was direct. When he wanted me to do something, he expected me to do it to his satisfaction. In many ways, he was a continuation of the attention to detail given to young recruits by their drill instructor, without the ranting and raving. I was fortunate to serve under LCpl Graham. He taught me worthwhile things —things that have stayed with me all my life: the first duty of a Marine is to do his duty. A Marine on duty has no friends. Be honest with yourself, and others; never be afraid to admit you made a mistake, always do the right thing —because it’s the right thing to do. Pay attention to detail. Be confident. Take pride in self, your fellow Marines, and your unit. Take care of your fellow Marines and know that they’ll always watch out for you. Stuff like that.
Approaching my third weekend in the third herd, Graham informed the fire team that we would accompany him to the slop chute on Friday night. He didn’t ask if we wanted to go, he simply announced that we were going. LCpl Graham was the essence of a good Marine. Mimicking the Corps, there was a reason for everything he did. By the way, slop chute is another name for the Enlisted Men’s Club. Before we could go over to the slop chute, however, we had to “check out” on liberty.
Now, about “liberty.” Marines are not entitled to liberty; it is granted. Liberty simply means that a Marine has been authorized to leave his unit area. There is “base liberty,” which means that a Marine may leave the company area, but he or she must remain on base. Off base liberty should be self-explanatory, as with “weekend liberty.” 72-hour liberty is essentially a three-day pass with a limitation on the number of miles one may travel away from the base. Liberty is controlled by unit commanders; married personnel and senior NCOs were generally granted overnight liberty. Single men living in the barracks were generally required to return to their company areas at midnight. We called it Cinderella Liberty, but again, this would likely depend on a Marines rank and what day of the week. The thing to remember is that Marines are on duty 24-hours a day and unit commanders must be able to muster their men within a few hours.
For the purpose of this story, I will only speak of liberty privileges as they pertained to junior (single) enlisted men. Marines assigned to 2/8 were required to “sign out” and “sign in” with the company duty noncommissioned officer (Duty NCO). The Duty NCO would issue a liberty card (allowing that the first sergeant hadn’t pulled it for some reason). By signing out, Marines informed the Duty NCO in writing where they were going, such as to the base theater, into town, visiting a married Marine in his quarters, etc.
At the appointed time, the fire team reported to the Duty NCO. We presented our military ID cards and requested on base liberty. After passing the Duty NCO’s visual inspection of our uniforms and general appearance, we were permitted to “sign out” of the company area. “Be back by midnight,” he said. Marines failing to return to the company before midnight were “absent over liberty,” punishable within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Properly signed out, we hoofed it over to the area slop chute, which was about a mile down the road. The enlisted men’s club was less a club than it was a large warehouse furnished with wooden picnic tables and benches. The purpose of the crude furnishings was that they were too heavy to use against Marines from other regiments during a melee, which did occasionally happen. For all we knew, those wood tables and benches might have been the original furnishings of Tun Tavern in Philadelphia.
Entering the club, a long bar extended along the opposite side of the building where Marines could purchase either a mug of “3.2” beer for fifteen cents, or a pitcher of the same brew for twenty-five cents. Off to the side was a small galley where one could purchase a cheeseburger and fries. The place reeked of stale beer and greasy hamburgers. A jukebox just inside the main entry blared out the music of the day. Competing with the loud music was the clamor of hundreds of voices as Marines shouted to make themselves heard over the commotion. Thankfully, this was a time before rap.
There was very little ceremony in the operation of the slop chute. The bartenders and cooks were off duty Marines working part time to earn extra cash. No, if a Marine wanted to go to a classy bar, the slop chute wasn’t it. But, all things considered, the price was right.
The way it worked was that everyone in our small team bought a pitcher of beer. We took these to a table where there was a little room at one end —not for sitting down but for placing our beer on the table. No one sat down. Everyone shared the beer. The Marine who poured the last glass from the pitcher had to replace it. It was a Gung Ho thing. But given how little money we made back then it took a while to pour that last glass of beer. As a private, my monthly paycheck was $78.00 after taxes, hence the cheap prices for beer. I seem to recall that a greasy hamburger and fries cost around seventy-five cents.
Lance Corporal Graham offered me a few words of all-encompassing wisdom: I must never go to the slop chute by myself; always take a buddy along, he said. Better yet, take two. Strength in numbers, he said. Always purchase a pitcher of beer; more beer at less cost.
Now about the idea of throwing tables and benches: Marines are very competitive. Everyone thinks that theirs is the best regiment, battalion, or company in the Marine Corps. Within the 8th Marines, for example, its three battalions were constantly at odds, as were the infantry companies within the 2nd Battalion. “E” Company was on the second floor of our barracks, with “F” Company on the first floor. We hated those bastards from Fox Company because they were always getting us in trouble with our skipper. Some of these arcane feelings came out at the slop chute.
Now, the fact is that there is a correlation between beer consumption and emotional sensitivity. The more beer one consumes, the more sensitive he or she becomes, particularly in such matters of unit pride and how Marines react to insults offered to their units or uniforms.
On this night, when several Marines shouldered their way into the slop chute wearing pogey ropes, indicating their assignment to the 6th Marines, someone had to say something about it. The French Fourragère (pogey rope) was awarded to the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments during World War I. Mostly, the 2nd Marines and 8th Marines were pissed off because they didn’t have one, but that’s beside the point. After someone made a caustic remark about the pogey rope, satisfaction was demanded and achieved by one fellow from the 6th Marines pushing in the face of whoever made the remark. It was probably one of those lightweights from the 2nd Marines.
It was exactly this sort of thing that prompted the Marine Corps to furnish the slop chute with picnic tables and benches and why the beer pitchers were made from plastic rather than glass. And it was exactly this sort of thing that prompted LCpl Graham to insist that no one from his fire team go to the slop chute without a buddy —someone to watch your back. If there wasn’t a troublemaker from the 2nd Marines or the 6th Marines, there was a loudmouth from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8) or 3rd Battalion (3/8), who everyone in the 2nd Battalion (2/8) knew were fairies. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Echo Company Marines had to put up with those low lives from Fox Company, Golf Company, and the weapons weenies.
One night, the Marines from Echo Company felt honor bound to bring to the attention of those worms from Fox Company, who shared our barracks, the fact that one of their critters had left a filthy swab (not to be confused with a Bosuns Mate) on the ladder well leading to the Echo Company area on the second deck —one that wasn’t discovered until Captain Wildpret, the Company E commander conducted his weekly post-field day inspection. The Marines of Echo Company caught hell about that and spent the entire Saturday conducting a massive field day of the entire company area. Twice in two days was a bit much and now it was up to Echo Company Marines to make things right —and the place to do that, apparently decided impromptu, was the slop chute after everyone had time to get emotionally sensitive.
The way I remember this, is that a few Marines from the 1st Platoon began complaining loudly about Fox Company’s transgressions. A couple of Marines from Fox Company’s weapons platoon responded in equally aggressive language and deportment. It might have ended peacefully had Fox Company Marines simply apologized with a promise not to do it again. But no, that’s not how Fox Company responded. It was more on the order of a couple of intemperate opinions about our mothers. It was a good enough fracas to call in the base military police, who promptly closed the Slop Chute. Of course, no one could remember who threw the first punch, but it was probably one of those losers from Fox Company when a Marine from Echo Company wasn’t looking. With the closure of the club there was nowhere to go except back to the barracks. It was getting late anyway.
In those days, there were so many wrongs to right, and so little time. God forbid that a soldier or deck ape should wander into the slop chute. No airman in his right mind would even consider patronizing that dark, dank, smelly place —unless he enjoyed mixing it up with swamp critters.
If there was any underlying reason for having a slop chute, besides having a place where Marines could relax and enjoy a good greasy burger, it was probably to contain the violence of combat trained, emotionally sensitive Marines with high testosterone levels and eight or ten pitchers of beer to their credit.
Back in those days, there were such things as “career privates.” These were men who never seemed to make it past the rank of private first class. Some of these guys had eight years of service with half of that spent in the brig. I remember a PFC named Dinotelli, who at one time was a Master Sergeant with 18 years Marine Corps service. Before being busted down in rank, he used to run the 2/8 mess hall. He was caught helping himself to food stores to fill his own refrigerator. Dinotelli mostly drank by himself and everyone left him alone because according to the word, he’d received a Bronze Star in the Korean War from killing a bunch of communists. Obviously, PFC Dinotelli was no one to mess around with.
Graham was eventually promoted back to Corporal and took over the 3rd Squad when Corporal Myers was transferred. In a few more years, Graham would be promoted to Gunnery Sergeant. He was killed in the Vietnam War.
 Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of the Continental Marines. It’s true … the Marine Corps was started in a bar.
 One exception to this was our Navy Corpsmen. In those days, Navy corpsmen attached to the Fleet Marine Forces wore modified Marine Corps uniforms. We loved our corpsmen; no one dared to mess with the “doc.”