No Promise of a Rose Garden

Since the Marine Corps’ earliest years, it has been the duty of senior noncommissioned officers to drill, drill, inspect, and drill again the young men who profess a desire to become a United States Marine. In the days of sail, the arts and sciences of Marine Corps training included instruction about history and traditions, discipline, marksmanship, sword drill, close order drill, physical fitness training, the care and cleaning of uniforms, equipment, and small arms, service at sea, and the fundamentals of naval artillery. There was then, in the olden days, as there is now, much to learn about serving as a Marine — but there is not much time to learn it. So, recruit training is as relentless as it is rigorous. Only the best-qualified recruit is allowed to graduate into that sea of faces we sometimes call the ranks of a Marine Brigade.

To young recruits, seasoned NCOs represent the “old Corps.” Of course, the expression “old corps” is somewhat of an old saw — and to some Marines, “old corps” was last year.  Marine NCOs are men who possess corporate knowledge of how the Marine Corps works — the often complex workings of the operating forces on land and at sea.  The process of training recruits has changed over the years, of course, but the well-established tradition does continue. In time, some of these young recruits will become Drill Instructors themselves.[1] Of course, for that to happen, a Marine has to have the stuffing to remain in the Corps long enough to become a seasoned NCO. Not everyone has staying power — and the mission becomes even more, demanding with seniority. The Marine Corps has never been an organization for lightweights.

In the days before recruit depots, most recruit training occurred at designated Navy Yards in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or at the Marine Barracks on Eighth & I Streets — just down the street from the Washington Navy Yard. Back then, all training was localized. The quality of the training received had everything to do with the quality of the NCO trainer, and even though the Marine Corps demanded formal training for recruits since around 1804, there was no money for textbooks or other written materials.  Additionally, since Congress placed a ceiling on enlisted strength levels and made no allowance for drill instructors, trainers had to come from locally available personnel. 

Marine Corps staffing levels were such that the Corps could ill-afford to squander what they had available for their assigned mission. The Marine Corps has never had “an abundance” of NCOs suitable for service as drill instructors. But before 1900, recruit training fell upon the shoulders of NCOs assigned D.I. duty. For the most part.

In 1860, the United States began to prepare for a war between the states. Everyone knew that war was likely. Some people even looked forward to war. Washington politicians had tried diplomacy since 1820 and failed — maybe it was simply time to “get on with it.”

These preparations included recruiting additional men for service in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. In July, youngsters began streaming into the Washington Navy Yard for recruit training in Washington. But in mid-July, the Army needed men to confront rebels forming at Manassas — so, trained or not, Marine NCOs at the Navy Yard mustered their recruits and marched them off to join the picnic.

The First Battle of Manassas was no picnic — even though several members of Congress packed picnic lunches and escorted their wives to watch the fun.

Those young Marines did have initiative, but they were of little use in the fight beyond carrying ammunition to support Army artillery units. In 1861, Marines were trained for service at sea, not on land. In 1861, amphibious warfare doctrine was still sixty years into the future.

In 1911, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle standardized recruit training for all Marines, coast-to-coast: drill, physical exercise, hand-to-hand combat, and intensive marksmanship training. Biddle established four recruit training depots: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Puget Sound, and Mare Island. The depots at Philadelphia and Puget Sound were closed. Four years later, in 1915, the Norfolk training depot was moved to its present location, Parris Island, South Carolina.

As the United States began moving toward its involvement in the European war, the number of recruits-in-training at any one time surged from 835 to 13,286. After “boot camp,” Marines went to Quantico, Virginia, for their pre-deployment (unit) training. There to greet them, undoubtedly, were the NCOs — most of whom had served in combat during U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America. Once in France, Marine units underwent additional “land warfare” training.

Boot Camp is where the Marine Corps makes Marines — and has been for the past 111 years. The people who make these Marines are called Drill Instructors (DIs). When most civilians think of the Marines (which probably isn’t often), they probably think of a recruiting poster, such as the one on the right. DIs are the stuff of legends — among the most professional leaders in the Marine Corps. The primary candidate for Drill Instructor School are sergeants and staff sergeants. Anyone eligible to serve as a drill instructor can be directed to appear before a Drill Instructor Screening Board — but not every NCO can become a DI. The Screening Board only selects the most qualified NCO to attend Drill Instructor School. Why? Because it is the solemn duty of the DI to transition undisciplined civilians into United States Marines — there’s no room for error.

What makes these Marines among the best in the Corps? They have to be exceptional in their regular MOS, they have to meet height/weight criteria, they have to look sharp in their uniforms, they have to be among the Corps’ top sharpshooters, and they have to achieve a near-perfect physical fitness score. If they’re married Marines, they have to have a stable family life and be financially secure. To become a DI, they must be even-tempered, judicious, and informed decision-makers. There are no “crazies” walking around under DI covers. Marine DIs might appear unhinged to the recruit standing in front of them, but that DI anger is all part of a carefully cultivated act — an act they learn at DI School.

Today, the two major recruit training depots (MCRDs) are located at Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California. There are DI Schools at each location. The coursework is tough, the physical training relentless, and there are uniform inspections every single day. There is no such thing as an un-squared away Marine Corps Drill Instructor. If an applicant is selected for DI School at PISC, his DI duty assignment will also be at PISC — that is, if they graduate. Not everyone does.

For that reason, DI candidates aren’t permitted to take their families with them to the MCRD until after they’ve graduated and received their first DI assignment. The work of a DI is relentlessly difficult, but so too is the life of a DI’s wife. Rocky marriages don’t last a single tour of DI duty.

DI duty is demanding. Whatever Marine Corps training demands of its recruits, it demands five times that of its drill instructors. If the recruits are awakened at 0500, the DIs are up at 0400. Recruits are put to bed at 2200, but their DI is up past midnight. Recruits may look ratty by the end of the day, but their DI always looks poster-perfect. They change into fresh uniforms three or four times a day.

Each recruit platoon has between 60-80 recruits. Because these recruits demand their DI’s full attention 24 hours a day (times forever), DIs work in teams of three or four — generally as follows:

  • Each platoon will have two or three Junior Drill Instructors (J.D.I.’s). These NCOs instruct in the training and discipline of troops; make sure that recruits are up on time, march to chow at the right time, march to medical and dental periods on time, march to training sessions on time, get showered, and hit the rack on time. J.D.I.’s also make sure their recruits write home to the folks regularly.
  • The Senior Drill Instructor (S.D.I.) is responsible for the platoon and the J.D.I.’s. The senior can be just as terrifying as the others but is also considered the “adult in the room.” If something goes wrong (no matter what) — it’s the SDI’s fault. It can be career-ending if something goes wrong (no matter what).

What most people don’t realize is that officer candidates have DIs too. They aren’t called DIs, but most have completed a successful tour of DI duty. At Navy and Marine Corps officer candidate schools, D.I.’s are called Sergeants Instructors.

NCOs have much to say about who may graduate and receive a Navy and Marine Corps commission.  This situation may seem strange — but one of an NCOs most important responsibilities is to help train, assist, and advise Navy and Marine Corps officers.  This relationship between officers and NCOs is a long-held tradition that lasts for an entire career.  Even general officers and admirals have senior enlisted advisors. Competent officers listen carefully to what their NCOs have to say. The not-so-bright officers will probably never make it past captain — which is not bad.

Marine Corps Drill Instructors take a solemn pledge:

“These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”

How Important is Boot Camp?

Twenty-four hundred Marines were killed or wounded on the first day of Operation Detachment. Historian J. A. Colon recently asked, “Was the Marine Corps’ success at Iwo Jima a matter of leadership, bravado, or fundamental training? What prompted the Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions to succeed in a ruthless battle lasting 36 excruciating days? In this study, Colon examined the efficiency of recruit training (boot camp), replacement training, and unit training as it related to the success of the Iwo Jima campaign, noting in that study that one-quarter of all Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during World War II were earned on Iwo Jima.

Colon deduced that boot camp training proved far more essential than pre-operation or replacement training, a conclusion reached not through historiographical studies but through the personal testimonies of the Marines who fought that dreadful battle. Where the pre-operational training was incomplete, lacking realism, and the SWAG of operational planners, Marines retained their knowledge of boot camp training from the start of the operation to its conclusion. Boot camp imbued Marines with their sense of duty, gave them confidence in their weapons, and brought them to the point where they could endure the physical and mental stresses of bloody combat. What allowed the Marines to succeed at Iwo Jima, indeed, every Pacific combat operation was their self-discipline, self-confidence, and the esprit de corps instilled in them by their Marine Corps Drill Instructor.

To clarify — talk to anyone who has successfully served in the Marine Corps, and they will assure you that their boot camp training has remained with them all the days of their lives since graduation.

Drill Instructors, Platoon 224 Company E, 2ndBn RTR MCRD PISC

Sergeant J. S. Schweingruber

Sergeant R. S. Winston

Sergeant S. M. Nikolopoulos

Corporal J. D. Baker

Except for (Sergeant Major) Nikolopoulos, it’s been 60 years since I’ve seen these men. They were my drill instructors. That’s how significant Marine Corps Recruit Training is.

Endnote:

[1] The only service of the U.S. Armed Forces to use the term “drill instructor” is the U.S. Marine Corps.  In both the Navy, and Marine Corps, Marine Corps Drill Instructors train officer candidates, while Recruit Division Commanders (R.D.C.’s) train Navy enlisted personnel.  Air Force recruits are trained by Military Training Instructors(M.T.I.s).  In the Army, they are called drill sergeants.

[2] The drill instructor appearing in this 1968 recruiting poster is Sergeant Charles Taliano, USMC (Deceased) (1945-2010).  He was a native of Cleveland, Ohio.  He left the Marine Corps in 1968 to work in the publishing industry.  He retired in 1999 and relocated to Beaufort, South Carolina in 2001.  There, he served as the manager of the MCRD PISC gift shop.  He was buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery.