This article is a continuation of Corporal Gray’s series, “Shouts & Numbers” – his story about his experiences joining the Marines during the 1950s, in the Korean War era. Follow along as Corporal Gray describes his first experience in the “mess hall” of the Marine Corp’s basic training facility – the Marine Corpts Recruit Depot of San Diego, California.
We were herded over to the mess hall for breakfast. Our Drill Instructors (there were three of them) said they were embarrassed to be seen with us. Once we got to the mess hall, we stood in line at attention, until it was our platoon’s turn to enter.
“Keep them eyes straight ahead! Don’t let me catch any of you shit birds eyeballing the area, this is not mating season!”
There was a sign over the mess hall door that read: “Take all you want, but eat all you take.”
Finally, one step at a time, we started inching our way into the mess hall. As we entered the door, we were ordered to whip off our utility covers, pop them against our right thigh, and stick them in our right-rear trouser pocket. We each took a metal tray, utensils and began sidestepping through the chow line. At least the food looked edible.
This Recruit had been a little worried about that. We were served scrambled eggs, bacon, link sausages, shit on a Shingle (SOS), french toast and milk. This was a typical Marine Corps breakfast.
Milking the Cow
Once we were served, we moved on to our tables where we put our trays down and stood at attention, until everyone was through the chow line.
Finally, the Drill Instructor yelled: “Ready, seats!”
At that point, all our butts were supposed to hit the bench-seats at the same time. This didn’t happen. So, it was back to standing at attention.
“Ready, seats!” Nope!
Back to attention…another Chinese Fire Drill. We did this while we waited for our eggs and bacon to get cold and our milk to get warm. Finally, we all plopped down at the same time and were told to eat.
One recruit at each table was given the job of keeping two milk pitchers full. While eating, he had to watch the levels of the pitchers and scream for permission to go “milk the cow” whenever one of the pitchers was getting low.
“Sir, Private Brown, Serial Number 1813520, requests permission to go milk the cow, sir!” Then, Brown had to jump up and run over to the cow (milk dispenser), stand in line, fill the pitcher back up and get back to the table before the other pitcher ran dry. The poor guy hardly had time to eat. It was a rotating job though, and eventually every Private got a chance to milk cows.
Learning to Fold Clothes – The Marine Way
Once breakfast was over, we had to show the Drill Instructor that we had indeed eaten everything that had been placed on our tray. We then wiped off any grease or crumbs remaining on our trays and gave them to the mess-men working in the scullery. Then we ran outside, studied the Guidebook For Marines (which we were required to keep on our person, at all times), until our platoon was formed-up. Then, we were marched back to our platoon area.
It seems like we spent most of that first day marking our clothing and learning how to fold everything and put it away in our footlockers. Everything had to be just so, or a Drill Instructor would dump it on the floor (deck) and kick it all over the squad bay.
We had each been issued a marking kit and the Drill Instructors showed us where each item of clothing was to be marked with our names. We were instructed to use the first two initials and our last name, only. The Drill Instructors’ said that they better not catch anybody putting “Mr.” in front of their name, either. Like we were going to do that.
One poor guy did, and the Drill Instructor slapped him about the head and shoulders. This recruit didn’t have a choice. His name was M. R. Brown, 1813520.
We marked our clothing, polished our boots, cut our belts down to fit, and dipped our belt buckles and belt tips in ammonia, to remove the protective lacquer (quartermaster), to get them down to bare brass. Then, we began polishing them with Brasso. All the while, our Drill Instructors were bellowing about how our time in their care was going to be spent.
No liberty, no TV, no radios, no newspapers, no magazines, no telephone calls, no soft drinks (or beer), no candy, no cigarettes, “unless the smoking lamp was lit.”
“And that’s not going to be very [expletive deleted] often, Maggots!” They picked on guys at random – “What’s your serial number, Numbnuts?” Or “What’s your seventh General Order, Maggot?”
We had been told before we got to boot camp to memorize our serial numbers and our eleven General Orders. This Recruit had, and most of the rest of the maggots had, but when a Drill Instructor is suddenly three inches from your nose bellowing out a question, you tend to get a little confused.
“Wrong, you [expletive deleted] piece of [expletive deleted]! Get down and give me twenty-five!”
Never Say “I”
We could only refer to ourselves in the 3rd person, never in the nominative tense; as in: “Sir, Private Gray, 1815360 can’t remember the 7th General Order, sir!”
If a recruit ever made the mistake of using the pronoun ‘I’, he found himself on his elbows and toes, moving in a circular pattern, shouting: “Sir, I am a private eye, looking for a clue, sir!” You could never use the pronoun “you” either, especially when making any reference to a Drill Instructor. If you did, you found yourself covered in spittle, from the foaming mouth of a screeching Drill Instructor, demanding to know why you thought you could refer to him as an ewe.
“Do you think that I’m a female sheep, that you can have your way with, s_it head? Get down and give me 25!”
One question that was frequently asked was, “Why did you join my Marine Corps, stupid?”
“Why…well…I dunno…the last thing I remember is being really, really drunk, and….” That answer would have resulted in your death sentence. No, the correct answer, shouted at the top of your lungs, was: “Sir, because Private Gray, 1815360 has always wanted to be a United States Marine, sir!”
Ask any former Marine what his serial number is and without thinking, he will rattle it off. It is something you will never forget. You can be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and forget your own name, but you will always remember your serial number: Mine will always be: 1815360.
By noon, we had our clothing pretty much squared away and were marched back to the mess hall for chow. It was the same routine as the breakfast drill. Stand at attention and inch our way forward, when our platoon’s time came. At the door, rip your cover off your head, pop it against your thigh, fold it up and stick it in your right-rear pocket. Grab a tray and side step through the serving line.
Take All You Want, But Eat All You Take
This Recruit remembers being hungry and wondering what we would have to eat. Mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, I think, some kind of meat that I thought might be chicken fried steak, bread. Dessert was a sheet cake of some kind, I think. It usually was, anyway. Then to the table and stand at attention until everyone was through the line.
“Ready, seats!” Nope! “On your feet, girls!”
“Ready, seats!” We did that while we waited for our chow to get cold again. Finally, the Drill Instructors went off to their tables to eat. We dug in, and this Recruit attacked the chicken fried steak. This Recruit forked a big bite into his mouth and … whoa! Wait a minute – it wasn’t chicken fried steak. It turned out to be fried liver. Liver! This Recruit can’t eat liver!
My stomach started heaving and I knew I was going to throw up. I stopped chewing and washed the bite down with milk. Barely got it down. Oh, man, this Recruit had gotten a big piece, too. This Recruit remembered the “Take all you want, but eat all you take” sign over the mess hall door.
Somehow, this Recruit had to get it down, and just the thought made his stomach heave. This Recruit cut off little pieces and buried them in mashed potatoes and peas and swallowed it without chewing and washed it down with milk.
I gagged and heaved and tears were in my eyes, but I finally got it all down. Man, I’ll never forget that!
After noon chow, we were marched over to sickbay for shots. We were ordered to walk down a line of U. S. Navy Medical Corps-men while they jabbed both arms with needles. After everyone was through, we did push-ups and double-timed (ran) back to our platoon area for some physical training (PT), to work the soreness out of our arms.
Lots more push-ups, sit-ups, knee-bends, squat-thrusts and the like. The Drill Instructors were big on running and physical exercise; I mean, really big on it. They were determined to turn our flabby civilian bodies into hard, calloused Marine ones.
All of our fattest bodies were dropped and sent to the fat-man’s and motivational platoons, where they were starved and exercised until they got down to an acceptable weight. We lost several guys that way.