The Colonel’s Boots

The primary source of Marine Corps recruiting is the pool of Americans, however slight their numbers may be, who are keenly interested in joining America’s elite combat force.  They come from every area of the United States, from the far northwest to the Florida keys, from upper Maine to San Diego, California’s border region.  Some of these men and women are tall, others are only marginally tall enough to meet the Corps’ minimum height standard.  Some candidates are thin, others need to lose a few pounds — and if they pass through the application process, if they are accepted for recruit training, lose pounds is what they will do.  Upon graduation from recruit training, they still may occupy a range in stature, from short to tall, slender to barrel-chested, but they are all hardened by a constant regimen of physical exercise.

When young Marines leave boot camp, they continue to undergo rigorous training at schools of infantry — because every Marine is a rifleman, and depending on their military occupational specialty, technical schools may follow infantry training.  Traditionally, technical schooling is more academic than physical, and so many Marines may experience for the first time as a Marine an environment somewhat less attentive to maintaining top physical condition.  They’ve been home on leave, filled themselves with burgers and milkshakes, maybe a bit too much beer … and they begin to lose their robust strength and appearance.  There’s no longer a drill instructor herding them around or mustering them for organized athletics.

There are essentially two types of Marine Corps units: the operating forces, and the supporting establishment.  Within the operating forces are infantry and aviation units that remain on call to respond to emergencies.  They are our nation’s first responders.  The supporting establishment includes Marines assigned as base or station-keepers, as staff personnel within various headquarters elements, as clerks at supply depots, mechanics at maintenance facilities, school instructors, and recruiters.  Supporting units focus their activities on making sure the operating establishment has what it needs to respond to emergencies.  Recruiters, for example, ensure a constant flow of candidates for recruit training.  That is their mission.  

In the past, the combat strength of the Marine Corps has increased or decreased according to the amount of money appropriated by Congress to maintain this elite force.  Following World War II, for example, Congress reduced the Marine Corps to about 35% of its wartime strength.  When the Korean War suddenly broke out in 1950, it was necessary for Marine Corps headquarters to empty out the supporting establishment in order to form a single combat division/air wing.  By this example, I hope to emphasize the importance that each Marine, no matter what his or her assignment, maintain optimum physical fitness because one never knows when a supply clerk at Barstow will suddenly find him or herself in an infantry battalion sent to resolve one of our national emergencies.

But given all we know about human behavior, people who are not serving at the tip of the spear tend to become complacent.  They develop a lifestyle that deprives them of adequate sleep, nutrition, mental acuity, and physical readiness.  The key to maintaining physical fitness within the supporting establishment is officers and noncommissioned officers who require their subordinates to work out on a regular basis — who lead their Marines by keeping themselves “squared away.”  This doesn’t always happen, however.  When the officers and NCO become overweight, slovenly in their appearance, and lackadaisical about combat readiness, the troops will follow them down that odious road.

This is what happened in one reserve division headquarters.  When the new Commanding General (CG) reported for duty, he found rotund, out-of-shape and lazy colonels, gunnery sergeants, and privates.  Everyone had time to stuff their faces with hamburgers and fries at lunch time, but few had time for a noon-hour workout.  To correct this situation, the general explicitly encouraged his senior staff to start working out several times a week.  Apparently, not one of these senior officers took the CG seriously. Their “flat refusal” to execute the will of the CG caused the CG to call a meeting with his headquarters commandant (HQCMDT), the headquarters battalion commander.

The question addressed was this: if this divisional command post was activated, what should the CG expect of his Marines?  The answer was that they should be proficient with their weapons. Tactically, they should be able to defend the headquarters element against an enemy attack. Fitness wise, they should be able to move on foot fifty miles within a 24-hour period.  Then, at the end of a 50-mile march, they should be ready to confront a determined enemy.

In other words, they should be physically ready to endure the exigencies of combat service.  Since the fat colonels and overweight NCOs had not made any effort to regain their physical readiness, the CG ordered the HQCMDT to devised a training plan to whip these pogues into shape.  They would fire their weapons for familiarization and efficiency, they would engage in field training, and they would begin a series of ever-lengthening forced marches, beginning with a timed three mile march, ending with a 50 mile forced march before the end of the year.  Everyone would participate, no matter what their rank or position within the division headquarters.

The Commanding General approved the training plan.  He and the HQCMDT were about the only two officers in the division command post who were pleased with the plan.  The least happy individual, however, was the CG’s own chief of staff.  I’ll call him Colonel Gresham (not his real name).  Gresham was a veteran of 30-years service.  A former artillery officer who I had known since he was a first lieutenant, Colonel Gresham believed that his long service, high rank, and esteemed position within the division entitled him to privileges denied to everyone else.  The CG addressed this officer’s sense of entitlement by taking away his jeep.  He would have to “march” with everyone else —including the CG, who was a bona fide combat hero during the Vietnam War.

The CG may have addressed Gresham’s inflated sense of entitlement, but that didn’t curtail his constant complaining about having to march, or about his ‘worthless’ USMC issued field boots, or the blisters that formed on his feet.  For a senior officer and a veteran of three decades of Marine Corps service, Gresham behaved more like a rank snuffy malcontent.  In my view, his whining didn’t do much to inspire anyone, or motivate them to “get with” the CG’s program.  Everyone  had blisters on their feet, including the CG.

On the day preceding the scheduled 25-mile march (12 ½ miles out, 12 ½ miles back), Gresham called down to the sickbay and requested a corpsman report to him in his office.  “Doc” soon appeared as requested.  What Gresham wanted to know was how he might avoid getting foot blisters.  Petty Officer 2nd Class Jones (also not his real name) professionally advised powdering his feet, slipping on a pair of dress socks beneath his field socks (reducing friction of foot movement inside his boots).  He also emphasized changing his socks regularly en route since wet socks made the formation of blisters more likely.  Finally, Doc told Gresham that if he should begin to feel the burn of a developing blister, he could apply blister pads, available commercially at the local pharmacy.

That evening, Colonel Gresham purchased blister pads on his way home from work.  Not just one package, mind you — he purchased every package the pharmacy had in stock.  Sometime before muster the following morning, Gresham completely covered his feet, including his toes, with blister pads.  Not only that, he also wrapped his feet with surgical adhesive tape.  That should do it.

Of course, with all this additional material, along with two pairs of socks, his feet no longer fit inside his boots — so Gresham discarded the field socks.  Well, his feet were still too snug, so he discarded the dress socks, too.  But he did apply liberal doses of foot powder inside his boots.  Seemingly, with feet wrapped in blister pads and adhesive, his feet felt just right inside his boots.  The battalion stepped off promptly at 06:30.

For fourteen or so hours, the time it took to completed 25 miles, those marching closest to Colonel Gresham endured his constant bragging about how he had solved the blister problem.  One could almost hear the rolling of eyeballs through his constant gasconade.

The battalion completed its march at around 20:30 on Friday evening. After dismissal, most of the men went home to attend to their feet, as did Colonel Gresham.  Unhappily for Gresham, he wasn’t able to remove his boots.  The heat produced by his feet had melted the excessive adhesive material and essentially glued his feet to the inside of his boots.

Somewhere in America, there is an emergency room physician who is able to tell the story about the amazingly moronic Marine colonel whose boots had to be surgically removed.  Gresham didn’t return to work until the middle of the following week.

This is why Marines were not allowed to wear Army jump-boots.  It would be a crime having to cut them off the feet of senior officers who should never have made it past first lieutenant.  Gresham continued to resist physical fitness training until his retirement several months later; no one was sorry to see him go.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “The Colonel’s Boots”

  1. And why do I sense after reading this story, that the CO and 2IC of a certain MT Bn were the antithesis of the COS. From what I’ve heard, Mustang and his boss had every Marine in that MT Battalion fit, ready and able to fight as infantry, anywhere and anytime; yet still with the best maintained vehicles and equipment in the USMC.

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    1. Service with 7th Motors was one of my better tours of duty. It is now known as the 1st Transport Support Battalion. I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the battalion’s designation … the mission is the same. Thank you for dropping by Colonel. My best to you and yours …

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  2. I was leaving an NCO club on Camp Lejeune with friend and we saw a young marine standing guard nearby.
    I mentioned that I would find marine basic difficult. My friend mentioned that he was prior service army.
    We were both now USAF.
    He said that army basic was a breeze, but USAF basic “liked to kill me”.
    I said why? It’s almost exactly like boy scout summer camp (I had done that).
    He said “All that book learning! It was terrible!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had a lot of learning to do in boot camp; as a young “boot” I had no real idea how important it was, or would become. Time cures all ills, or so they say. Thanks for commenting, Ed.

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