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The making of a marine.

Swept up by patriotic fever after Pearl Harbor, a Wisconsin boy joins the marines--and learns the meaning of Semper Fidelis on some of the Pacific's most savage battlegrounds.

IT WAS WITH GREAT ANTICIPATION that I sprang up the snowy steps of a Milwaukee building in January 1942 and went into the US Marine Corps Recruitment Center. Many enlistees were milling about. I was impressed by a huge sign in big blood-red letters that hung on a wall: Jap Hunting Licenses Issued Here. One big, raw-boned recruit pointed at the sign and sniggered, "Yeah, I sure the hell am gonna bag my quota!"

I had actually decided to join the Marines back in the temporary recruiting office in Racine, Wisconsin, my hometown, about 25 miles away. The day before departing for Milwaukee, I went with my anxious mother to a notary public office to sign a necessary paper. My mom was really reluctant about signing the document, saying something like, "Nickie, Nickie, why can't you just wait until the draft? You may not have to go for at least a couple of years. You got a nice job in the tractor factory that pays good. You've got a nice car, a little old, but nice. And you know a few girls. So, why, why don't you wait?" I'm sure she expected and dreaded the firm "No!" that I uttered. So with a deep sigh and tears glistening on her face, she slowly signed the paper, saying with anguish, "I just hope I'm not signing your death warrant."

On the tedious train journey to San Diego, we Marines were clustered in one car. And were we ever excited. The farthest I had ever been from home was Chicago, just 60 miles away. But time just didn't seem to move. We smoked and bantered and read tattered magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Reader's Digest. We slept curled up in our seats. Three days passed with agonizing slowness as the train's monotonous clickety-clack, clickety-clack lulled us.

I was half-asleep at early morning when somebody shouted, "Jeez, will you look at that!" I peered out the window and saw that we had pulled into the San Diego train station. We cheered and stretched and congratulated one another, saying silly things like, "Watch out, you damn Japs, we're on our way!"

As we leaped off the train with our suitcases, we were met by cheerful women in gray uniforms (Red Cross workers) who handed out--with big smiles--steaming coffee and delicious doughnuts. Then we went aboard buses, which transferred us to the Marine Corps recruit depot along the ocean.

The day sped by as we were given inoculations and Marine clothing and then, in assembly style, were quickly shorn of our long locks virtually down to the nub. We marched (well, straggled) to a mess hall, where we devoured oversized steaks, assorted vegetables, tons of cold milk, warm bread, and jiggly Jell-O. Then we were taken to temporary barracks, where we spent part of the night talking, despite being exhausted. When it was time for lights-out, I fell asleep just about the time my head met the pillow.

I was shocked out of deep slumber by a recorded bugle blaring out reveille. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was only 5 A.M. "Huh," I moaned and thought, "Are these f--ing" people crazy or what?" I turned over groggily and started to drift back to sleep. Then a beefy corporal, full of bile and bluster, burst into the room shouting, "OK, you gorgeous sleeping beauties, drop your c--ks and grab your socks! You have only 20 minutes to do your number one and/or number two and shave your ugly faces! So up and at 'em, let's go, chop-chop!" Sleepily I stumbled out of my lower bunk while the equally sleepy Marine above me jumped down and practically knocked me over.

After a hasty breakfast we learned, much to our chagrin, that we were moving from our comfortable barracks to tents. Each tent housed four Marines. We were told that the tents would be "home, sweet home" until we left boot camp eight weeks later.

Soon after leaving our tents we met our DIs (drill instructors). One, named Green, was tall, thin, and turned out to be taciturn and all business. The other DI, whose name escapes me--I'll just call him Black--was much shorter, muscular, and talkative. Before long we were out on the wide parade ground getting acquainted with the concrete, learning the hard fundamentals of being Marines.

AS THE LONG DAYS FLOWED ALONG, we recruits slowly learned precise parade-ground marching. I found myself enjoying the almost hypnotic snap of the DI's strong voice when he barked commands such as, "F-o-r-w-a-r-d march! Oblique left, oblique right, to-the-rear march, right turn, left turn, and halt!"

Recreation came in the form of outdoor movies on base. But the ones we attended were mostly war films that were blatantly propagandistic. We would boo and stamp our feet whenever the sneering, hated Japanese appeared on screen. And occasionally when a romantic film would be screened, we would also hiss and boo--because who the hell wanted mushy-gushy, kissy-face B-movie plots? We demanded war films with plenty of action.

On the rifle range we were introduced to what the crusty gunnery officers emphatically described as "our best and only friend," the '03 Springfield rifle. It was used in the First World War and was considered most reliable, with its smooth bolt action and its magazine containing five cartridges.

I discovered on the very first day on the firing range that my eyesight wasn't quite 20-20. I did fine at target practice of 100 to 150 yards, but beyond that my accuracy fell dramatically. (I recalled the utterly bored navy corpsman back at the Milwaukee recruiting station. He hurriedly tested our eyesight by having us read a big black chart. "That's great, that's just great," he kept repeating as we rushed through the procedure.) But I did manage to squeak out a Marksman award with the Springfield. Despite knowing that sniper school was not for me, I was still confident I could pop a Japanese soldier at 150 yards.

My results at the range involving the famed Colt .45-caliber pistol were rather amusing. The instructor, a small, wiry corporal perhaps in his mid-20s, was obviously the nervous type. He puffed continuously on a cigarette while constantly pacing. He led me up to the firing line and said, "Now look, kid, the key to accurate shooting is simple. Just stay calm. You'll do terrific and make me proud and improve my record."

My turn came and I stepped up with confidence, but the jumpy non-com now seemed more nervous as he instructed me on the proper firing stance. He whispered in his cigarette-scarred voice, "Now keep cool. Relax like a sleeping baby in its crib and don't get nervous." I was doing fine at the various distances and he said nervously, "Say, man, you are doing just great, just great. If you keep this up you'll get the top award of Expert."

But during the final phase of shooting, the corporal kept whispering in my ear, "Now careful. Don't get nervous. Keep it up. Take it easy and remain calm. Just don't get nervous." Well, of course I became nervous and barely missed making Expert. However, I did receive a Sharpshooter award, the next highest rank. While I was departing the range, the corporal sidled up and, as he was drawing furiously on yet another cigarette, said sympathetically, "It's really too bad, kid, that you got nervous."

Finally the long-anticipated graduation day arrived, and we had a photo taken of the platoon with drill instructors Green and Black standing in mock sternness among us. Then Green declared in a triumphant voice, "Now listen up! You've lost your girlish laughter and your baby fat. You are now officially Marines!" We cheered and hollered when we were informed that we would be blended into the soon-to-be famous 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Gilbert, some 15 miles away. We had been magically transformed from a gaggle of smart-ass know-it-alls into lean, mean, tough, spunky Marines. And the Marine motto, Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful), now seemed seared into our very souls.

At Camp Gilbert we underwent prolonged tough training such as descending simulated cargo nets with full gear, practicing on the bayonet range, squirming under live machine-gun fire aimed just above our helmeted heads, and sweating profusely on forced marches of 20 miles. Then the scuttlebutt became intense that we would soon leave for the Pacific. Finally came the official announcement, and our regiment, the 2nd Marine Regiment (part of the 2nd Marine Division), went aboard vessels in San Diego harbor that were accompanied by a large array of warships. Our troop ship, along with several others, left very early one July morning in 1942.

Several of us stood quietly at the stern of our ship, bewitched by the colorful fluorescent waves churned up by giant propellers. We watched as the varied lights of San Diego slowly began to fade. I pondered, as I'm sure others did, what adventures and misadventures lay ahead on that cool, fateful morning.
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Title Annotation:ONE MARINE'S WAR: Part One
Author:Cariello, Nick
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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