Fall from Grace

The true story of hOlder EGAow Sergeant Montgomery became a private

Bad noncommissioned officers are good for only one thing: they demonstrate to their juniors what not to do if they are ever promoted to corporal or sergeant.  I’ve suffered under a few bad NCOs, and about the only thing I could do about it, given the Uniform Code of Military Justice  (UCMJ), was to keep my mouth shut and resolve never to be like them.

I recall with not much fondness one of our sergeants, a guard section leader at the Marine Detachment.  Had George Baker not begun his cartoon strip titled Sad Sack during World War II, one might imagine that he modeled his character on Sergeant Montgomery, who truly was a sack — of something.

All of us snuffs could deal with Montgomery’s meanness; those of us who were unfortunate enough to end up in Montgomery’s section merely looked upon our assignment as just another bite from the cesspool sandwich of life.  But what irritated us most was not so much that he was dumber than a pile of rocks, but that the Detachment CO and guard officer thought Montgomery was an “ideal Marine.”  We were a squared away section, all right, but that had nothing to do with our section leader.  There were only two explanations for following Montgomery: the first was, as I mentioned earlier, that the UCMJ demanded it, and the second was idle curiosity.

In those days, it was difficult for a squared away corporal to achieve promotion to sergeant.  How Montgomery ever made corporal was the subject of several theories.  Our consensus was that even a blind squirrel can find a nut.

One Marine in our section was Private Mitchell — our most squared-away looking Marine.  The man’s appearance was impeccable.  He could have easily appeared on any Marine Corps recruiting poster.  He was film-star handsome, polite to everyone, personable, exuded genuine friendliness to almost everyone, and he was funnier than hell.  Well, I suppose I should say that Mitchell was polite to everyone except Montgomery, whom he hated with unbridled passion.

Mitchell had another enviable attribute: the most devious mind of anyone I have ever met.  For instance, realizing how important annual rifle re-qualification was to our CO (because he constantly reminded us of it), Mitchell intentionally went “unqualified” by a single point — for no other reason than to put Montgomery at odds with the CO.  Private Mitchell was an expert rifleman.  He also didn’t care what the CO thought of him.  He had no intention of remaining in the Corps past the end of his enlistment (and accumulated “bad time”).  You see, Mitchell was one of those Marines who refused to accept a promotion to Private First Class because he didn’t want the added responsibility.  In any case, the college-educated Private Mitchell didn’t need the paltry sum of money the Marine Corps paid him because his father owned several radio stations.

The Marine Detachment had two missions.  We provided armed security for our compound, and we performed honors and ceremonies for a stream of visiting dignitaries.  We had several uniform combinations, from dress blue trousers and khaki shirts to modified dress blues, which is to say our dress blue blouses with white trousers.  We were always changing from one uniform into another.  When falling out for honors ceremonies, we carried M-1 Rifles with 18-inch chrome-plated bayonets.  We banged the butt of our rifles on the deck during close order drill performances as part of the manual of arms.  Except for our detachment armorer, everyone seemed to enjoy hearing the banging sound.

Early one morning, word came down that we would be performing an honor guard ceremony for the Vice President of the United States, who at the time was the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey.  We dressed in our dazzling uniforms, fell out for inspection, drew our weapons, and boarded a US Navy bus over to the Naval Air Station.  During the 30 or so minute ride, Montgomery offered one surly comment after another about how worthless we were; we were an embarrassment to the Marine Corps, to our Commanding Officer, to him personally, and of course, none of us would ever make it to corporal because he’d make damn sure that never happened.  Most of us accepted his abuse in silence.  Private Mitchell laughed.

Then there we were — standing in formation, two platoons organized according to height … the color guard placed in the center.  Sergeant Montgomery, because of his height, was the second or third man in the first rank.  Private Mitchell stood three men down the rank from Montgomery.

While standing at “order arms,” on the command, “fix-bayonets,” all honor guard members moved the muzzle of their rifle to the left front and re-grasped the barrel with their left hand.  They reached across their torso with their right hand to take hold of the bayonet handle and withdrew it from its scabbard.  With the point of the bayonet skyward, they attached the bayonet to the weapon, engaging the bayonet stud and then, grasping the handle, applied downward pressure until seating the bayonet on the bayonet stud.  The “click” sound signifies the locking of the bayonet to the bayonet stud.  Marines are taught to apply slight upward pressure on the bayonet to ensure the bayonet is properly seated and locked.  One distinctive click from the entire honor guard reflects the precision of movement.  It is a prideful sound.  Then, once the Marines “fixed” bayonets, they returned to the position of “order arms.”

This is essentially what happened — except in the case of Sergeant Montgomery, whose bayonet was not properly seated.  As the Vice President was making his way toward the honor guard commander, our Commanding Officer, he executed an about-face and ordered “Present Arms.”  Every Marine was standing at the position of “order arms” (their rifles resting on the deck next to their right foot), their right hand grasping the forward edge of the barrel guard.  We smartly lifted our rifles off the deck to execute the movement, bringing it front and center of our body.  It is a two-count movement, snap and pop.  But then, at that very instant, Sergeant Montgomery’s bayonet went sailing through the air, struck Private Mitchell on his right cheek, and fell to the deck with a loud clatter.

Some people claim that our Lord doesn’t have a sense of humor.  I disagree.

Private Mitchell’s immediate reaction was magnificent.  He screamed out in feigned pain (there was some blood, but not much) in character with any Hollywood production of world war combat and then collapsed to the ground next to Montgomery’s bayonet.  I’m not sure how impressed the Vice President of the United States was with Mitchell’s performance, but I can say with certitude that we snuffs were damned impressed.  The CO was impressed, as well, but in another vein.

Navy corpsmen whisked Mitchell off to the dispensary (he had a band-aid wound).  Later in the day, after all the ranting and raving ceased (CO, XO, First Sergeant, and Guard Chief), Sergeant Montgomery visited the CO at nonjudicial punishment and became a corporal once more.  Mitchell could not have been more pleased with himself.  The event still makes me laugh when I think about it.  But even as a corporal, Montgomery outranked Mitchell —as everyone did— and Corporal Montgomery made it known to Mitchell that his life would be hell from that point on.

Over the next several weeks, Private Mitchell ended up with every “shit detail” Corporal Montgomery could think of.  Mitchell didn’t seem to mind; “shit details” are what privates do for a living.  It was about 40 or so days after the bayonet fiasco that a package arrived addressed to the Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment.  Opening the package, the First Sergeant found an assemblage of documents that appeared to suggest, indeed prove, that Corporal Montgomery was simultaneously married to two women.  It was an amazing revelation because Montgomery was an unlovely person.  A fact-finding investigation conducted by the executive officer determined that wife number two knew nothing about wife number one, living “back home” in Kentucky.  She was no doubt surprised to learn about wife number two, with whom Montgomery cohabitated locally.  The Commanding Officer referred Corporal Montgomery to a special court-martial.  The court found Montgomery “guilty as charged” (bigamy, making false official statements, defrauding the government) and reduced him to Private.  The court also sent Montgomery to the Camp Allen Brig for a few months.

Mitchell could not have been happier.  With Montgomery’s reduction to private, Mitchell outranked him.

My friend in the administrative section confided to me over a beer or two, or three, at the local slop-chute, that he thought the envelope’s handwriting resembled Mitchell’s.  He told me he compared the writing on the envelope with Mitchell’s service record book (SRB).  Now personally, I liked the idea that Mitchell was clever enough to uncover Montgomery’s perfidy. Still, I concluded that maybe my buddy in “admin” was full of … er, making up the story.  What did I know?  Nothing, actually — but we snuffs lived for rumor and innuendo.

At the Airport/In Transit

There aren’t enough military airplanes to accommodate every general officer (except in the Air Force), so most flag officers in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps rely on commercial aircraft to get where they need to go.  There is no preferential accommodation, though.  Whether serving as a one-star general or a three-star admiral, they all ride in normal class accommodations because the Government Accounting Office prohibits the pampering of senior military officers at the public’s expense.  Other military personnel uses commercial aircraft, too … only they usually end up paying for it out of their own pockets —such as people traveling home on authorized leave.

Both situations explain how a Marine Corps brigadier general ended up spending time at a commercial airport with an Air Force second lieutenant.  Normally, flag rank officers do not much enjoy talking to lieutenants.  This isn’t so much a matter of snobbishness as it is that general officers were lieutenants once, too, a long time ago, and no one wearing stars today wants to remember how screwed up they were back then.

The brigadier general was in uniform because he was flying officially, attending important meetings.  He was sitting by himself at a small table in a crowded waiting room at an aircraft hub, waiting for a connecting flight.  He was minding his own business, reading a newspaper, drinking a cup of coffee, and munching on a few snacks.

The Air Force second lieutenant was also in uniform.  A recent graduate from the academy, he too was waiting for a connecting flight.  En route to the gate area, he stopped at a local news shop and picked a newspaper, a package of Oreo cookies, and a cup of coffee.  Carrying the purchased articles was difficult because he also had to carry his hat, his briefcase, and his raincoat.  The sooner he put all these things down on a tabletop, the better.  He rushed forward into the waiting area only to find the area packed with other travelers.  Well, except that there was this one fellow sitting alone at a table for two.  Perfect.

The lieutenant rushed over to the table (lieutenants are always rushing around) and hurriedly setting down his several hand-held articles said, “Mind if I sit here, soldier?”

The general unfolded his newspaper long enough to affix his deadliest stare upon the young lieutenant whose own eyes fixated upon the single star on the general’s collar.  Having seen all that he needed to see, and without saying a word, the general went back to reading his paper.  After a few seconds of painful silence, the lieutenant sat down in his chair and set about organizing his personal belongings, which took a few moments because in organizing his personal effects it was necessary that he stand and sit again a few more times.  The raincoat, for example, came off the top of the table and was hung neatly over the back of his chair.  He set his briefcase on the floor beside the chair.  He moved his hat to the side of the table, out of the way, and he laid his folded newspaper in front of him.

At that moment, the general again unfolded his newspaper, re-affixed his death ray stare, and reached over to help himself to an Oreo cookie.  Once the item was firmly grasped in the general’s hand, the newspaper came up again.  The only sound coming from behind the newspaper was that of an Oreo cookie being consumed.

The lieutenant was both aghast and perplexed.  Sure, rank has its privileges, he thought to himself, but there is such a thing as social grace, and here this … general fellow has helped himself to the lieutenant’s Oreo cookies.  Without asking.  Without so much as a damn “by-your-leave.”  Well, the lieutenant reasoned, those are my cookies; I paid for them, and I’ll darn sure eat them.  He then reached across the table, ruffled his fingers through the cookie container, extracted one, and began eating it.  Again, the newspaper unfolded, and the general’s stare returned once more.

Undaunted and refusing to be intimidated, general or no general, the lieutenant ate the cookie, took a few sips of coffee, and returned the general’s stare.  It wasn’t a disrespectful stare, just somewhat rebellious.  And it worked, too.  The general went back to reading his paper.  Life is full of small victories, or so the lieutenant thought.  It was exactly as his Dad told him years ago.

This sharing of cookies went on for a few more minutes until finally, in response to an announcement over the public address system, the general abruptly stood, retrieved his briefcase and hat, and walked off toward a boarding gate.  The package of Oreos, with one cookie remaining, sat on the table.

The lieutenant watched the general’s departure, shook his head, and thought to himself, “That is one very cheeky general.”  Having eaten the final cookie and with another sip of coffee, the lieutenant unfolded his newspaper.  There, inside the newspaper, the young lieutenant discovered his very own unmolested package of Oreo cookies.

Of Note:

  1. I was told this story years ago.  Whether it happened, I cannot say but it did bring a smile to my face, and I hope it does yours as well.

Service Rivalry — Always

Muscle Man 001There were three senior officers hiking in the wild of western Virginia when they unexpectedly came upon a raging river nearing its high water mark. They needed to get to the other side but were clueless about how to get the job done. The Air Force colonel lifted his arms and raising his eyes toward heaven loudly prayed: “God, give me the strength to cross this river! Amen.”

Suddenly the Air Force colonel had muscled arms and strong legs and was able to swim the river. It took him about an hour, however, and he almost drowned during the swim across.

Kayak Man 001The Army colonel then raised his arms and looking toward Heaven prayed: “God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river! Amen.” Suddenly a one-man survival raft appeared with an oar and the soldier used it to cross the river. It took him quite some time, however, and he almost capsized a couple of times.

USMC E3It was finally time for the Navy captain to cross the river. Having carefully observed all that had transpired on the bank of the raging river, he raised his arms into the air and prayed: “Please God, give me the strength, the tools, and the intelligence to cross this river! Amen.” Suddenly God transformed the Navy captain into a Marine Corps lance corporal, who promptly consulted his map, hiked upstream a few hundred yards, and walked across the bridge.

Preferential Treatment

Naval Aviation 001Marines are nothing if not competitive. This explains why, after 30 years service, you can count the number of your friends on one hand. Marines also make an important distinction between acquaintances, and friends. So there is a lot of back and forth between Marine officers with different MOS specialties. There is nowhere this animosity is more pronounced than within the aviation community —an age-old spectacle between helicopter and fixed-wing pilots. To fighter pilots, helicopter pilots are “rotor heads,” suggesting individuals with limited aeronautical skill. This is not true, of course, but it does represent the best of fixed-wing creativity.

Now imagine two Marine Corps airfields located in near proximity to one another, and you get a lot of caustic commentary between fixed wing and rotor wing pilots.

Flying military aircraft is a dangerous business. If everything is working okay on your aircraft, consider yourself temporarily fortunate —and realize that something is about to break that will have a profound impact on the remainder of your day. No place is this more acute than when flying helicopters, which according to physicists, are incapable of sustained flight.

One year, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing experienced a rash of aircraft accidents. This is always a concern to everyone in the Marine Corps aviation community because in matters involving aircraft mishaps, there are no “minor incidents.” In response to this sudden upsurge of misadventures, the Commanding General called a meeting at the base theater for all air group and squadron commanding officers, all safety officers, and all of their assistants.

Fighter Pilot 001Lieutenant Colonel Mike Gehring was one of these squadron commanders, a man who had a reputation for fearlessness when dealing with senior officers. For most of the marathon ass chewing, Colonel Gehring sat quietly in his seat and absorbed the general’s wrath. But the general’s rage seemed unending so that after a period of time, his audience —all of whom were subordinate officers— were themselves growing angry … the general’s important message losing its effectiveness. There were audible groans and one could hear the complaining voices from the captive officers —which is never a good sign. The general finally concluded his rebuke by saying, “Now, is there anyone out there who doesn’t understand what I said, or has any questions?”

No Commanding General expects to receive any questions after such a dressing down, and as expected, silence reigned throughout the theater for several long seconds. It was then that Colonel Gehring raised his hand.

Seeing the hand go up, the general said, “State your name and your question.” Gehring stood up and said, “Lieutenant Colonel Mike Gehring, sir … I’m sick of all the preferential treatment the helicopter pilots are getting around here. I think something should be done about this.”

One could have heard a pin drop on the carpeted floor; the general and senior officers were stunned. The general finally looked down from his podium on the theater stage and demanded, “What in the hell are you talking about?”

Colonel Gehring continued, “General, you may not have noticed this, but believe me when I tell you that the rest of us have noticed it. Anywhere we go on base, every premier parking spot is reserved for helicopter pilots. I’m talking about the officer’s club, the Base Exchange, the Base Dispensary … why, even at Wing headquarters. The best, closest parking spot is always reserved for helo drivers. Enough is enough. Sir, I know you’ve seen them … they are clearly marked with a sign that reads “Handicapped.”

Total silence followed for five full seconds —and then total pandemonium. Fighter pilots cheered, helicopter pilots jeered, unflattering catcalls erupted, and the general left the stage and exited the theater.

Now try to imagine what the officer’s club was like during Friday afternoon happy hour.

Hat tip: Major P. W. Chapman, USMC (Retired), PLayboy 37

Danger —Marines at Work


Last week, I wrote briefly about the 1st Parachute Battalion during World War II.  One of the Marines assigned to this now legendary battalion was cited for bravery, as follows:

FULLER“The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Robert Green Fuller, Private First Class, U. S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving with the FIRST Parachute Battalion, FIRST Marine Division, during the assault on enemy Japanese forces at Gavutu, Solomon Islands, on 7 August 1942. When the progress of his unit was retarded by heavy opposition, Private First Class Fuller displayed courageous disregard for his imminent danger by attacking a heavily fortified gun emplacement from which the deadly fire was emanating. Charging forward against the withering blasts of hostile weapons, he unhesitatingly engaged the enemy in perilous hand-to-hand combat and killed all eight of the Japanese, thereby annihilating a strong and hazardous obstacle. His daring aggressiveness and valiant devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Robert G. Fuller served in the Marine Corps for a total of five years, and while information about this hard-fighting Marine is limited, I suspect that he may have been part of the initial training and organization of the Parachute Battalions.  I was able to learn that his home of record was Newburyport, Massachusetts. His publisher indicated that he is responsible for several short stories … but more than this about his subsequent life or professional accomplishments is a mystery to me.

What I know for certain is that Mr. Fuller wrote a book entitled, Danger! Marines at Work originally published in 1957. It is the fictional story about the Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion that takes place when the battalion, having lost half of its strength, was withdrawn to New Caledonia for rest, retraining, and refitting.  Some of the characters in the story are recognizable to me based on what I know about certain World War II Marines.  For example, I believe that the character General Burgermeister is modeled on General William H. Rupertus (now deceased).  The shenanigans are the sorts of things Marines do whenever they lack constant supervision.  The comedy is similar to McHale’s Navy —but this is about Marines.

The new Battalion Commanding Officer arrives from Headquarters Marine Corps, where he’s been languishing for the past ten years.  The major perceives that for some reason, his Commanding General is not very happy to have him on board.  Following a very disappointing “first meeting” with the general, Major Barrow is driven to his new command, which has been placed in garrison at T0ntouta; there won’t be a change of command ceremony because the previous commanding officer went over the hill.

Here’s a snippet of what transpires during his first week in command:

Major Barrow’s spirits picked up considerably as he wandered through the tent rows a few days later. The wonderfully clean streets and the neatness of the men’s pyramidals again indicated to him that his troopers were Marines, and, under proper leadership, could be reclaimed—disciplined—into a compliant military organization. He had made some headway in this awesome task but was increasingly aware that the actual depth of his paratrooper’s conniving’s was still not known to him. Japanese houseboys!

Glancing into the pyramidals, he noted the perfectly made bunks and the orderliness of the men’s gear. The top blankets on the cots were taut as drumheads, the shoes properly placed together and the rifles neatly racked. But halfway down one company street he paused, noticing that the bunks were unmade in the rest of the tents to the end of the line. In one pyramidal he saw a pair of slim legs walking around a bunk. The legs belonged to a girl. She was tucking in blankets and when finished, moved on to the next unmade bed. She winked at him.

“Who are you,” Barrow demanded, “and what are you doing in this area?”

“I’m Marie,” the black-haired, bright-eyed girl answered with a smile. “I’m the new maid.”

“Maid?” Barrow looked down at the girl, blushing as he found himself staring at the bold, up-thrust lines of her lovely figure. “How long have the men had a maid?”

“I don’t know.” Her dazzling smile almost blinded the major. “A girl friend of mine once worked for them for four months. She had to leave because she is indisposed. She is going to have a …”

“Ahem,” Major Barrow interrupted. “You’ll have to leave this camp immediately. We can’t have a girl among all these men.”

“Now where could there be a better place for a girl to be than among men.” Marine giggled, bending over to tuck in the blanket on a bunk, accenting the lovely roundness of her hips as Barrow tried to look away. “And such handsome men!”

“Regardless,” Barrow said, loosing his collar, “I want you to leave this place. I don’t want any women around here.”

“How long have you been in the Marine Corps?” The girl again showed the major the whiteness of her teeth in a gay smile. “You don’t talk like any Marine I ever met.”

“I’ll arrange for your transportation right away,” Barrow said determinedly. “You must leave this camp.”

“Well, I shall not leave this camp,” the girl said firmly. “I have a contract.”

Barrow escorted the maid back to the command section. Captain Nugent looked up from his desk in the adjutant’s office as Barrow entered with the lady.

“Hello, Marie,” Nugent greeted her.

It is definitely a laugh-out-loud book. You can find it online at Amazon.


Struggling for Promotion

Young MarineA young lance corporal had taken all of the available courses specific to his military specialty in order to eventually win a promotion to corporal.  And he had taken all of the general knowledge classes available to Marines of his grade—and yet, in spite of all this work, he could not pass the test for promotion to corporal.

The young man went to see Gunnery Sergeant Jones, his NCOIC, who advised, “What you need is a freaking brain transplant.”  Knowing that the gunny was always right —about everything— the young Marine promptly made an appointment with a neurosurgeon in the small town just outside of the base.

After listening to the young Marine’s tale of woe, the doctor told him, “I agree with your gunnery sergeant.  You do need a brain transplant —and, you’re in luck.  We offer carpenters’ brains for about $500, and if you want to spend a little extra, you can get an electrician’s brain for right at $1,000.  On the other hand, if you want a first class brain, you can get a doctor’s brain for about $10,000, or you can have the brain of a member of congress for $50,000.”

“Wow,” said the young leatherneck.  “But I don’t understand why a congressman’s brain is so expensive!”

“Well son,” said the surgeon, “do you have any idea how many politicians we have to go through to find a brain that works?”