Monday, April 20,9:07a.m.
Five hundred and twenty-six Marines are packed into a dozen buses barreling toward the Salton Sea, where they will begin a five-day walk back to Camp Pendleton. The private sitting next to me in the lead bus is trying to describe the real Marine Corps. “All the Corps is, is an egotistical Army,” he explains as we both struggle to ignore the commotion behind us. “Ego is the essence of the Marine Corps, total ego . . . It’s the Boy Scouts without adult supervision.”
The catcalls and stifled giggles from the back of the bus have grabbed our attention. A young soldier, obviously fresh out of boot camp, moves painfully up the aisle, stepping over green packs and shoving aside M-16s. His grimacing face is pale, and he’s hunched over holding his belly with a forearm. The rest of the Marines toward the rear, most of whom have been asleep as the bus trundles through the desert, are either snickering or making snide comments: Please, Mr. Bill! Stop the bus, stop the bus! The soldier, oblivious to all but his own angst, stumbles toward the officers up front, who stare impassively at the cactus and canyons whizzing by. “Sir,” he calls lamely as little droplets of sweat bead up below his eyes and his black-rimmed, government-issue glasses start to fog. Call your congressman!
“Sir,” he insists, stepping on the butt of a grenade launcher. The officers try to ignore him and keep straight faces. Mr. Bill, Mr. Bill! I have a shitty request! “Please, sir.” Hang it out the window! My seatmate and I muffle laughs made cogent by this opportune demonstration of what the “real” Corps is like. The soldier’s skin is clammy and he can barely speak. “Sir, please.” Stop the roller coaster! He hunches over onto a field radio, its flexible black aerial bobbing and weaving in front of his glazed eyes. “Oh please, sir,” he whispers, his misery rising along with the laughter around him.
Suddenly the men are silent, and the soldier is looking up into the scowling face of Sergeant Major R.J. Spencer, the highest-ranking enlisted man in “three-five,” the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. The sergeant major is harsh, hard, not widely liked, and not understanding. “Whatsa matter?” he barks.
“I gotta take a shit, sir,” the soldier meekly replies.
The sergeant major rolls his eyes. “You remember when you was on the steps of the lodge back there and I told you twice to get on the bus?”
“Yes sir, but I was waiting to go to the head because the line — ”
“Don’t gimme no buts, you just get on back there and sit down and pinch it. You ain’t in recruit training no more, you in the Marine Corps.”
The sergeant major disregards the giggles as he hops back up to the front of the bus. The soldier stays crumpled down on top of the radio, watching the aerial whip back and forth. But Mr. Bill! The private next to me shakes his head at the sergeant major’s broad back. The chuckles are starting to melt into sympathy. A few minutes later the dark green bus, along with the other eleven in the caravan, stops at a desert gas station. The stricken soldier eases his way off amid cheers. He doesn’t acknowledge the applause that meets his return.
Monday, 10:09 a.m.
The buses have unloaded the battalion and departed for Camp Pendleton. On an empty lot beside the Salton Seaway, just a few hundred yards from the shore of the Salton Sea, the 526 infantrymen have formed into five companies. Lieutenant Colonel J.V. Sullivan, battalion commander, lines up his staff of about ten men, mostly officers, in two rows in front of the battalion.
A captain calls the ranks to attention and hands them over to the colonel. For a quivering moment, all is silent. Three-five, one of the most decorated battalions in the Marine Corps, stands between a shimmering dead lake and a distant wall of inscrutable chocolate-colored mountains, awaiting orders to embark on a mission that will take them one hundred miles on foot in five days. For what purpose? “We’re infantry," explained the colonel that morning before we left the base. “Our mobility has been our feet. When I took over the battalion [in August] I found that they were less than capable marchers. We’ve been training for this a long time, and now we’re going to show that we can move this battalion one hundred miles quickly, over varied terrain and weather conditions. And complete it in a combat status." The troops, of course, have their own interpretations. "For Brownie points for the colonel,” says one. "Because Sullivan's lost his marbles," explains another.
But nobody is talking now. The colonel is standing tall before his men, his rock jaw jabbing forward as he yells, “BU-TAL-YUN! A hundred-mile hike starts with the first step!” The red-and-gold guidon flags of the separate companies hang limp on their wooden poles. "Right company!" the colonel continues. "Form a column of twos!" He turns on his heels and, followed by his staff formation, marches the few steps to the asphalt road and heads west. Beside him marches the sergeant major, and behind them in twos walk a radioman and various liaison officers. They all carry light (fifteen to twenty pound) combat packs and have .45-caliber pistols strapped to their waists. Nobody carries any bullets.
Company by company the rest of the battalion moves out. Dressed in camouflaged uniforms and billed caps, carrying combat packs, war belts (which hold canteens, first-aid kits, and cartridge pouches), and rifles, the Marines file into a column that stretches for a half mile along the road. "It’s just mind over matter, man, just mind over matter,” mutters one soldier as he steps onto the asphalt. "Yeah," retorts a companion, "the colonel don’t mind and we don’t matter."
Monday, 10:45 a.m.
The green column is drawn out along a gray ribbon of road folded into chalk tan foothills. Ahead lie brown mountains and bubbling silver clouds, rising up with the heat into a gaping blue canopy. The pain hasn’t set in yet, and spirits are high. Waves of yells ripple along the column as cars drive by, the volume of the outcry shifting up or down depending on the sex of the vehicle’s occupants. “Hey, Henry,” says a soldier in Weapons Company, at the head of the column, “you know the three stages of ugly?”
“Well, the first stage is when you have to put a bag over her head so you can dick her.”
“Yeah. The second stage is when you have to put a bag over both her head and your head, in case hers falls off. You listenin’, Henry?”
“And the third stage is when you wake up in the morning with your arm around her, and you look over there and see how ugly she is that you don’t want to move your arm and chance waking her up, so you chew your arm off at the shoulder and split!”
The troops trudge along, joking, kicking rocks and squashed lizards, some never opening their mouths, but all passing the time somehow. A soldier in Weapons Company falls out to walk beside the column and lead them in song:
- The prettiest girl/The prettiest girl!
- I ever saw/I ever saw!
- Was sippin' bourbon/was sippin' bourbon! Through a straw/Through a straw!
- I walked right up/I walked right up!
- I sat right down/l sat right down!
- I ordered up/I ordered up!
- Another round/Another round!
- I picked her up/I picked her up!
- I laid her down/l laid her down!
- Her long blond hair/Her long blond hair! Fell all around/Fell all around!
- And now I have/And now I have!
- A mother-in-law/A mother-in-law!
- And thirteen kids/And thirteen kids!
- Who call me pa/Who call me pa!
- The moral of/The moral of!
- The story is/The story is!
- Instead of bourbon/Instead of bourbon! Stick to beer/Stick to beer!
Monday, 11:10 a.m.
The column has turned onto a dirt road to the left, and the colonel has halted it for the first break of the journey. Packs are dropped, green plastic canteens are opened, cigarettes lit, boots pulled off. “Man,” says Tito, a lance corporal, “I got eighteen motherfuckin’ days left in the Marine Corps and I’m out here humpin’ a hundred miles.”
“Shit,” replies a buddy, “that ain’t nothin*. Johnson’s had his discharge physical and he’s out here humpin’. Don’t that beat shit?”
Some of the troops sprawl out asleep, others trade gripes, and a few read books and magazines, science fiction and low riders. The colonel is up front brushing his boots.
Monday, 12:30 p.m.
The battalion has fallen out for lunch on a plateau a couple of miles from the San Diego County line. Behind us is the dark blue basin of the Salton Sink; before us, the jagged brown mountains falling like a crumpled curtain onto the desert floor. The support crew has hauled in six chemical toilets, a “water buffalo” trailer holding 400 gallons of highly chlorinated water, and a truckload of C-rations. The five companies separate, and everybody chooses a little box of C-rations: spaghetti and meatballs, beans and franks, beans and meatballs, ham slices, pork slices, ham and eggs, beef and potatoes. The canned main dishes are accompanied by smaller cans of applesauce, fruit salad, crackers, jams, peanut butter, cinnamon rolls, and a small package containing matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, and a plastic spoon. A disposable can opener, called a John Wayne, is handed to each man along with packages of ice-blue heat tablets, to warm the food. The stem-faced sergeant major shows me how to make a stove by punching holes in the empty cracker can with the John Wayne, placing the heat tabs inside it, then bending it into an ellipse so that my round can of pork slices rests atop it. The heat tabs ignite with one match and bum without a flame, leaving no residue. As lunch warms, the regimental surgeon. Navy Lieutenant Commander Joe Calderon, M.D., walks over to have a word with the colonel.
“The private on the bus?” he says, referring to the one who stopped the whole caravan so he could use the bathroom.
“Yeah,” says the colonel, working on his feet.
“We had to send him back. He was passing blood.”
“Okay, good. Anybody else fall out?”
“No. Nobody yet.”
Chewing my tepid pork slices, I ask the colonel about the chemical toilets, the rumors of cold beer waiting at the bivouac points, and the portable showers awaiting the battalion Wednesday night. “And the troops are even talking about some kind of bar they’ll be visiting. I thought Marines were supposed to rough it.”
“Nooooo,” the colonel says knowingly, pouring foot powder between his toes. “You don’t need practice being miserable. That’s no help at all.”
Monday, 2:00 p.m.
Misery is not in short supply. The column has been led onto a sand road to the left, and as it climbs and drops along the hot hills of the Borrego Badlands, there is little chatter among the troops. “What time is it?” somebody in Kilo Company asks.
“Fourteen hundred!” another voice chortles.
“Two o’butt-fuckin’ clock!” the time giver retorts.
The slanting sun pounds hot on the backs of dusty necks trellised with rivulets of sweat. The column moves up grades and down washes in a cloud of dust, crawling like a thousand-footed caterpillar searching for food in a decimated garden. When the column turns sharply and doubles back upon itself, the different companies yell to each other in lowering, guttural yelps and growls. “Who’s humpin?” screams a soldier. A deafening roar comprising the hollered company names — Weapons, H & S (Headquarters and Service), India, Kilo, Lima — echoes back through the hot gullies. There is hostility in the sound, the hostility of pent-up pain.
Monday, 3:56 p.m.
As the column tramps haggardly around another of the countless bends, the wonderful pastel latrines appear as if in a mirage. Suddenly we're amidst a sprinkling of trucks and Jeeps and a few green tents, and the improbable strains of Willie Nelson’s song “On The Road Again” twang out from a tape player set up in the mess tent.
- On the road again,
Just can’t wait to get on the road again,
- The life I love is makin’ music with my friends.
- And I can't wait to get on the road again. . .
The companies fan out separately into the fingers of dry washes that empty onto the dirt road. The faded-Levi blue of the Salton Sea is still visible to the east, and the scrub-freckled tan mountains are up close now to the north and west. The colonel says we’ve walked thirteen miles today, the shortest hike of the journey; some of the troops swear that we took a wrong turn and walked at least sixteen or seventeen miles.
The colonel and sergeant major stow their gear in the tent set up for them beside the road. All around them, the twinkling of entrenching tools against tent stakes rises with the canyon breeze. Dinner, which is being cooked at the base camp near Warner Springs, is late in arriving, and after camp has been made and faces have been shaved (using helmets for water bowls), there’s nothing much to do but wait. The colonel gathers his officers and staff NCOs together on the side of a hill for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation meeting as the sun falls behind the mountains. “I don’t think knocking these guys’ dicks stiff at office hours is the solution,” he says at one point. “It’s gonna take counseling at the platoon level. . . .” As soon as it’s dark, the sweet aroma of marijuana smoke floats down the ravines.
By the time chow arrives, along with a truckload of Budweiser, it’s nearly eight o’clock. The portable generator, providing light to the mess tent, breaks down just as the chow line forms, and the turkey a la king, mashed potatoes, green beans, com, salad, white bread, and milk are served by flashlight. So is the beer, which is rationed so that each man gets no more than two cans, supposedly. A lesson was learned the month before while a group of Marines were on cold-weather training near Big Bear. After plenty of beer one night, two companies got into a bloody brawl which required sutures for several participants. I didn’t need to ask why the bullets were left at Camp Pendleton.
Tuesday, 4:30 a.m.
- On the road again,
- Like a band of gypsies we go down the
- We're the best of friends
- Insisting that the world keep turning our
- And our way is on the road again. . .
Willie Nelson does the honors for reveille, and within thirty minutes camp is broken and three-five is ready for chow. Alas, it is late again, so those who can't wait for a promised brunch eat C-rations for breakfast. The canned ham and eggs aren’t necessarily any more appealing for breakfast than the canned spaghetti and meatballs. In the gathering light a soldier stands in line to fill his canteens at the camouflaged water buffalo. He wets a green handkerchief and ties it around his head after his canteens are filled. It is already very warm. “This is fucked, man,” he laments to no one in particular as he limps back toward his outfit. It seems to be the universal sentiment, with eighty-seven miles to go, even though today the battalion is slated for a triumphant march through the town of Borrego Springs (population: 1179). “It’ll be good for morale,’’ the colonel explains just before he leads his men back to the dirt road and the first few dusty switchbacks of the day’s twenty-two mile hump.
Tuesday, 10:40 a.m.
After walking about ten miles on soft sand, the battalion ravenously devours the green scrambled eggs and S.O.S. (shit on a shingle, a sputum of gravy and hamburger) as it sits under a stark line of dirty oak trees beside a dry creek bed. Also slapped on every plate is a slice of ham, a spoonful of hash browns, two slices of white bread, and an apple or orange. “Just like your momma cooks, eh?” comments Gunnery Sergeant Jack Homer of Kilo Company.
“If my momma cooked like this,” answers a grunt, “I’d beat her ass.”
“Where we s’posed to dump this shit?” asks a soldier who’s just cleaned his paper plate and plastic fork.
“Over in the body bag,” says his buddy, pointing to a long black plastic bag hanging on a tree.
“Nah, that’s no body bag, man,” says another Marine. "Body bags got zippers in ’em. I seen one one time.”
Tuesday, 2:00 p.m.
The temperature is pushing the high nineties, and the rumor mill has it that businesses are closing down in Borrego Springs so that everybody can watch the Marines march through. Just past the Borrego Airport, about a half mile east of town, the battalion falls out north of the road. While a color guard breaks out the American and Marine Corps flags from the back of a van, each company is briefed about marching tight (thus far, they haven’t been required to march in step), looking squared away, and impressing the desert folk. Marching songs are allowed, but only clean ones. When the blisters are all moleskinned and the fresh socks are placed into the newly powdered boots, the battalion returns to S-22, the road to Borrego Springs. Each company is segmented into four platoons. Everybody marches in step, with rifles shouldered, and each company has an NCO beside it calling cadence or leading it in song. It’s wonderfully exciting to the 400 Borrego Elementary School students who’ve been looking forward to this moment for weeks, and they all come bursting out of the school next to the road when the Marines come into view. They even bring out a color guard with a Marine Corps flag. “Wow!” squeals a little girl at the thunder of jack boots hitting pavement. “It’s the Marines! There’s millions and trillions of Marines!” The school band, consisting of a dozen tiny musicians, breaks into “Arch of Triumph” as the colonel and his staff march by, just behind a flashing Highway Patrol car escort. The colonel salutes the color guard and the children are nearly apoplectic with joy.
Now people in shorts and lumpy T-shirts are lining the road, waving, hollering encouragement, egging on the troops. About twenty residents of the Borrego Road Runner Club, a trailer park, give three hearty “Hip-hip, hoorays” as the staff formation passes, and the colonel, smiling broadly, salutes them too. When the column hits the traffic circle at the east end of town a wave of applause sweeps the fifty or sixty bystanders on the grass, and the colonel salutes them. Some wave back with American flags. “You can do it, guys!” yell the browned, dumpy spectators. Through the window of the local steak house a manual siren wails, and it mingles with the voices of the singing troops, the clapping hands, the thudding feet. It is a few moments of passing pride for everybody, and then the town is quiet once again, the residents safely inside their air-conditioned sanctuaries. The Marines have two more miles to go before they reach the bivouac site.
Just outside of town, the battalion is brought back into a route step. Several soldiers literally fainted from the heat during the march through Borrego, and a few are still falling out with heat prostration. Others have different problems. Private Blatton asks to drop out because of a bloody nose, a fairly common reaction to the heat. His platoon commander orders him to keep walking. “You don’t have to worry about his nose bleeding,” cracks a corporal walking behind Private Blatton, “just wait ’til his brains comes out.” “Shut the fuck up,” says Blatton. “Hey,” bristles the corporal, “you can't talk to a corporal in the Marine Corps like that.”
Blatton turns around and says, “Your momma gives the best head I know.” “Yeah?” retorts the corporal, “well your momma is the best bang I ever had.” Blatton puts up his fists and hits the corporal on the shoulder to try and knock off his glasses. (“I don’t like to hit a guy with glasses,” he explained later. “It cuts your knuckles.”) The platoon commander, a young lieutenant, steps between the two men and pushes Blatton, who snaps, “Yeah, I’ll kick your ass too, punk!”
“Marine,” says the lieutenant calmly, “you just put an end to your Marine Corps career.”
“Thank you, sir,” says Blatton, who was put into the support group that night and expects to draw three months with hard labor before he’s discharged.
Meanwhile, at the rear of the column. Doc Bennett and Doc Murillo (both Navy corpsmen) are attending to the last casualties of the march through town. About twenty Marines have had to be trucked up to the bivouac point, and even the sergeant major has fallen back with thigh cramps. He’s now helping the corpsmen try to cool down two soldiers laid out beside the road. They’re both semiconscious and writhing, and the highway patrolman has gotten into the fray by hauling out a five-gallon jug of water and dousing them. Doc Bennett pulls their boots and socks off, sending puffs of foot powder into the stifling afternoon air. Water is poured on their feet. They both vomit. Finally the Jeep ambulance arrives and the two Marines are lifted onto stretchers and sent to the bivouac site.
“You know what you’re supposed to do if you got a guy zapped with heat exhaustion and you don’t have any water to cool him down?” Doc Murillo asks Doc Bennett as they stroll along the road, out of sight of the rest of the battalion.
“You piss on him and rub it in,” Murillo says seriously. “No shit. It’s in the manual.”
Tuesday, 4:53 p.m.
“Hey, I really got off on that march through town,” says a grunt in Lima
Company as he massages his feet. “I didn’t see no guys anywhere, but I saw chicks everywhere!”
“S’cause you weren’t lookin’ for guys.”
“Hey, no shit, there weren’t no guys, but there were chicks everywhere.”
The campsite is right at the base of the mountains we’re to be trucked up tomorrow. To the west, a long, sloping, cactus-dotted flood plain empties out of Hellhole Canyon and meets the road, S-22. To the east, the fading desert melts into the Salton Sea which in turn dissolves into the horizon. As the sun turns everything burnt orange, a dune buggy drives by on the road, which borders the bivouac site. A collective uproar responds to the waves of the vehicle’s occupants.
“Hey, is that chow? That must be chow, man!” yells a soldier who doesn’t see the dune buggy.
“Nah, it’s bitches.”
“Oh. Same thing.”
Wednesday, 3:30 a.m.
The chipped moon is still high when Staff Sergeant Augustine Jones, the first platoon sergeant of Kilo Company, starts awakening his men. “Up in the mornin’ with the risin’ sun,” he sings, aping a favorite marching song, “gonna be some humpin’ motherfuckers ’fore the day is done! Come on, get up. Today’s the day we gonna get some. We gonna get plenty today.” (Get Some is the motto that is inscribed on the battalion’s insignia.)
Dim shapes among the rocks begin to stir, and young voices call out. “Kerry, you be talkin’ in your sleep good last night.”
“Yeah, he talked ’til 3:30.”
“You guys better get out of that tent or I’m gonna come in there and get some.” Within thirty minutes, sleeping bags and sea bags are piled in mounds, ready to be loaded by the support group onto trucks and hauled to the next bivouac area. The air is still warm as Kilo and Lima companies stand in formation, their black rifle barrels glinting hard in the moonglow. The other three companies were transported by truck up the hill last night, sleeping at the intersection of S-22 and Highway 79, our destination. “That town yesterday motivate you. Marine?” Staff Sergeant Jones asks ironically as about fifteen of us squeeze onto the fenced bed of a noisy green truck.
“Yes sir,” the Marine replies, grinning. “All those old folks clappin’ and yellin’,” continues Jones, his shiny black, bony face laughing. “It was a long way from Oceanside. Yeah, it was almost Mayberry!”
“Yeah, but you couldn’t read their minds like I could,” says the Marine. “They was thinkin’, ‘I’m glad it’s y’all fightin’ the war, ’cause it sure ain’t gonna be me.’ ”
Wednesday, 5:05 a.m.
It’s only the middle of the week, today’s going to be the roughest hike, and the two companies have just been driven twenty noisy miles in the open air, which lost about twenty degrees in temperature between the desert foothills and the mountain pastures. The mood is low as the five companies are reunited. Five hundred men stand stiffly, puffing vapor, on an empty lot beside the intersection of S-22 and Highway 79. The ones who slept up here last night battled intense cold and blaring headlights; nobody’s in much of a mood to wait long for the green scrambled eggs rumbling toward them along the deserted highway.
Staff Sergeant Jones stands alone amid the grid of his platoon’s packs and rifles, which are laid out on the wet grass. Jones is twenty-seven, has nine years in the Corps, and carries himself with seriousness. He’s one of the half dozen men in Kilo Company with combat experience. 1 ask him how the battalion would fare under fire. “We get under attack,” he says, staring at the men clustered around the water buffalo, “we’d lose half these guys. A lot of ’em are weak-minded . . . I’ve never seen so many psychological problems in my life. I’m not staying in. I’ve seen a real attitude change in the Corps the last four years. I know I'm gonna get killed ’cause of one of these guys someday. We’ll get into an ambush or something, and they’ll be running, or else they'll drop down. And really, the only thing you can do in an ambush is move toward it. If you drop, they got you trapped; if you run, they probably set up booby traps.”
Soldiers interrupt with yells about food trucks coming into sight, and Jones turns around to see the trucks make a left onto S-22, and pass the battalion by. The grunts can’t believe it. They let out a collective growl, and within a minute the colonel pulls up in a van, learns that the food has missed its target, and furiously hops back in and orders the driver to chase down breakfast.
Jones chuckles and then continues. “These guys think it’s a game, getting up at two a.m. But one of these times we could find ourselves in El Salvador. I was at Camp Lejeune a few years ago. They got us up at two a.m. one morning, the next thing I know we’re in Cuba.”
A red Datsun sedan speeds by and the driver rolls down the window and thrusts his middle finger into the cold air. “Just like home,” somebody remarks.
Wednesday, 8:15 a.m.
The battalion has just walked through the hamlet of Warner Springs, and its spirits seem to have risen with the dawn. Desert lizards have been replaced by squirrels, cows, and horses. To the left glow the white domes of Mt. Palomar. The companies have spaced themselves at one-mile intervals. The increasing pain is staved by dark salves of humor. “My dogs are past cussing me out, man,” mutters a limping soldier to the Marine beside him in Kilo Company. “They ain’t even speaking to me anymore.”
“Yeah, da agony of da feet.”
The first platoon commander. Second Lieutenant Daniel Renaldi, figures it's time for a song: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two!” he rasps.
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two!” repeats the company.
- A Dago from Fortilles/ Dago from Fortilles!
- Was walking down the streets of Spain/ Was walking down the streets of Spain!
- Sellin' hot tamales/Sellin' hot tamales!
- He said the world was roundo/He said the world was roundo!
- He said it could be foundo/He said it could be foundo!
- That hypothetical masturbatin' sonofabitch Columbo/That hypothetical masturbatin’ sonofabitch Columbo!
- Well he walked right up to the queen of Spain/Well he walked right up to the queen of Spain!
- Sellin' ships and cargo/Sellin’ ships and cargo!
- He said I’ll be a sonofabitch/Hc said I’ll be a sonofabitch
- If I don't bring back Chicago/If I don’t bring back Chicago!
- He said the world was roundo/He said the world was roundo!
- He said it could he foundo/He said it could he foundo!
- That hypothetical masturbatin' sonofabitch Columbo/That hypothetical masturbatin' sonofabitch Columbo! . . .
Wednesday, 8:44 a.m.
It's starting to heat up. and Kilo Company is about to begin its ascent through the scrub oak mountains behind Warner Springs. The company has fallen out beside a dirt road heading east from the highway, and it's tending its feet and filling its canteens.
“You done put your shoe on without that sock. Kerry Staff Sergeant Jones points out. sitting with his men on a bed of vibrant grass speckled with lavender flowers.
"I thought I forgot something." Kerry says, chagrined, prompting laughs.
“Mars to Kerry. Mars to Kerry, come in Kerry!"
“Doc." chuckles Jones, “break out some remembrance pills for Kerry here."
In a couple of minutes the company is formed up on the dirt road, ready to move, but one man is still waiting for Doc Bennett to minister to his blisters.
“Take care of it next break!" hollers Gunnery Sergeant Horner, who's eager to get walking.
“I'm waitin’ for the doc — “
“I said take care of it next break, let's go!"
“How bad is it?” asks Doc Bennett, a Navy corpsman, as he finishes with another pair of feet.
“It's bad, man," says the soldier, displaying raw red craters on his heels.
“Take care of it next break, let's move!" screams the gunny, losing patience.
“It'll just take a minute." says Bennett.
“The colonel doesn't want to wait, take care of it next break!"
The soldier disgustedly yanks his socks on over his open blisters. “You see the bullshit we go through, man?" asks a trooper in line on the road. “And for what? So we can say we humped a hundred miles? Critical, man. critical."
Wednesday, 11:25 a.m.
- And on that day three ships set sail/ And on that day three ships set sail!
- They all were triple deckers/They all were triple deckers!
- The queen she waved her handkerchief//The queen she waved her handkerchief!
- Columbo waved his pecker/Columbo waved his pecker!
- He said the world was roundo/He said the world was roundo!
- He said it could be foundo/He said it could he foundo! . . .
The company arrives at Indian Flats campground about 11:30. Lunch is flown in aboard a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. The meal consists of mashed potatoes, spinach, creamed com. salad, bread, and huge burnt chunks of what must be ground beef, but no one seems able to make a positive identification. “Shit.” says a disheartened soldier, sitting beside a small stream beneath a greening oak. "they make us walk all day and expect us to eat this shit?"
"Gimme a cigarette, man," requests a buddy who's finished eating.
“You bastard! You bum!” yelps the first Marine. “You and Valdez and Martinez — none of you ever have any fuckin' cigarettes.”
Channel 8 reporter Jim Gordon has arrived in a station wagon and is busy talking to Marines while his cameraman films blistery feet. “I bet you five bucks they didn't take a picture of the chow." says the soldier beside the stream under the tree. "It'd break the fucking camera."
Gordon, smiling comically, is finishing up an interview with the colonel. The chow line is in the background. "I asked a Marine how far he marched so far." says Gordon, "and what do you think he answered?" He points the microphone at the colonel's mouth.
"Well." the colonel deadpans, "it's about forty-eight miles."
"You know what he said?" Gordon prompts, trving hard to contain himself.
"He said. ‘Too far.’ Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. . .
The colonel grins.
Wednesday, 4:13 p.m.
- Well, they sailed for days and weeks and weeks/Well, they sailed for days and weeks and weeks!
- Across the hroad Atlantic/Across the broad Atlantic!
- If not for the aid of a horse's ass/If not for the aid of a horse's ass!
- The crew would've all gone frantic/The crew would've all gone frantic!
- He said the world was roundo/He said the world was roundo!
- He said it could be foundo/He said it could be foundo! . . .
The endless steep switchbacks have taken their toll: thirty men have fallen out of the battalion and been transported by truck to the evening’s bivouac site. When a truckload of the lame passes Kilo Company on the road, a chorus of "broke-dicks!". "candy-asses!", and "fakers!" mingles with the black exhaust. There is pride in communal pain; nobody wants to be left behind. Private pain is something else again.
"Know what we get out of this?" remarks a soldier stumbling over the manzanita roots in the road. "We get a fuckin' T-shirt that says we did it and a day off”
"What about the pride?" I ask.
"Well, I hope other people's proud of us. 'cause when I'm humpin' up that hill, about to die. I don't call that pride. I call that stupidity."
- They say that in the Marine Corps, the chow is mighty fine/They say that in the Marine Corps, the chow is mighty fine!
- A biscuit rolled off a table, and killed a pal of mine/ A biscuit rolled off a table, and killed a pal of mine!
- UA I want to no/UA I want to go!
- But they won't let me go/But they won't let me go!
- Ho-oh - oh-oh-oh-oh -oh-oh -ohm,
- They say that in the Marine Corps, the women are mighty fine/They say that in the Marine Corps, the women are mighty fine!
- They look like Phyllis Diller, and walk like Frankenstein/They look like Phyllis Diller and walk like Frankenstein!
- UA I want to go/UA I want to go!
- But they won't let me go/But they won't let me go! . . .
Wednesday, 6:00 p.m.
For the last two hours Kilo Company has been hearing that the bivouac point is just a mile and a half farther, a rumor the troops gladly swallow, only to have it upchucked again like a cud thirty minutes later. Just a mile and a half farther. . . . By the time they reach the Navy SERE School base, which has been the site of the field kitchen all along, and will be their campsite tonight, the Marines of Kilo Company are exhausted and angry. “That’s how they get you to fight,” explains one trooper after collapsing onto his pack at the spot where he’ll bed down. “They get you so pissed off by making you do this kind of shit that you want to go out and rip a tree in half. Then they let you loose on the enemy.”
Portable showers have been trucked in, and everybody is entitled to five minutes under a petering stream of lukewarm water. Not too many men are moving very fast as they limp painfully toward the showers in their rumpled skivvies. Their richly colored, fresh tattoos betray their age: the average Marine here is twenty years old. As night descends, quickening the tempo of entrenching tools and the beat of the soul music coming from dozens of PX-purchased radios, the Marines dig in. Most are asleep early, some are drinking beer, and a few are smoking “daffy” in the bushes. Each man pays for his own beer, the price depending on whether the shipment was bought in local liquor stores, was partly donated, or was bought wholesale somewhere. Those who buy marijuana pay the price of the captive customer: Colombian goes for thirty dollars a quarter-ounce out here, almost double the going rate at Camp Pendleton.
Thursday, 7:17 a.m.
- Hey-oh diddly bop/Hey-oh diddly bop!
- I wish I was back on the block/I wish I was back on the block!
- With that bottle in my hand/With that bottle in my hand!
- Lord I want to be a drinkin' man/Lord I want to be a drinkin' man!
- Am I right or wrong?/You’re right!
- Are we weak or strong?/We’re strong!
- Sound off/One-two!
- Sound off/Three-four!
- Break it on down now/One-two-three-four-one-two, three-four! . .
“Ahhh, love that pain,” says a Marine in Weapons Company as he limps along toward Temecula on the shoulder of Highway 79. “That’s what I came in the Marine Corps for — all that pain.”
“Pain is the essence of life, man,” comments a companion. “But this ain’t so bad. I been walkin’ since I was two, and I’m gettin’ paid for it now.”
They’re getting paid to walk just over twenty-five miles today, all but the last mile or so on the hard tack beside the highway — a much more punishing surface to walk on than uneven dirt and rocks. Eventually, each pebble lying on the asphalt takes on its own dastardly mission of boring into the bottom of your sore feet. The only way to beat it is to forget about it. Some carry books to read while they walk, others carry transistor radios, most carry on incessant, almost mindless chatter, and everybody sings. “When I was in ITS [Infantry Training School] they used to call us turds,” says a trooper. “You know what that means?”
“Troops Under Rigid Discipline.”
- Hey-oh diddly bop/Hey-oh diddlv bop!
- I wish I was back on the block/I wish I was back on the block!
- With that baggie in my hand/With that baggie in my hand!
- Lord I want to be a smokin' man/Lord I want to be a smokin’ man!
- Am I right or wrong?/ You’re right!
- Are we weak or strong?/We’re strong!
- Sound off/One-two!
- Sound off/Three-four!
- Break it on down
Thursday, 11:55 a.m.
The battalion has trekked fifteen miles today and has a little over ten to go. It’s broken down into companies hugging what shade can be found on a natty campground beside Highway 79. Doc Ketchum hunches over a grunt in Weapons Company whose feet are pocked with bulbous blisters. He pulls out a hypodermic needle and prepares to insert it into a giant blister to withdraw the fluid. “Wait! Wait, Ketchum! Don’t do it yet!” calls Dr. Calderon as he sprints toward the corpsman.
“ ’Cause I’m saying so. And no more questions.”
“Okay, sir.” Ketchum shrugs and wipes the sweat from his brow.
“ ’Cause I want to get it on TV,” the doctor explains, a little sheepishly. A reporter and photographer for Channel 39 have come out to do their story on the hundred-mile hike, and the doctor has promised them some action footage. The photographer walks over with the camera and draws a bead on the Marine’s blister. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, Ketchum,” says the doctor. “Okay,” seethes Ketchum. The needle slides into the milky skin and the clear fluid tumbles out into the plunger.
Thursday, 3:15 p.m.
“Yeah, I’d take these guys into battle, no qualms,” says Master Sergeant Snyder, the top-ranking enlisted man in Weapons Company. We’re walking down a long, winding hill and we’re just behind the rest of the company. “Sure, they’re a different kind of people than they used to be, and you got your two echelons in the Corps now, almost like a generation gap, but it’s not the men I’d worry about in a combat situation, it’s the politics. I just don’t think the politicians would let us do it right.
“I been thinking about El Salvador, and I personally hope they don’t send us down there. It’d be the same as over in ’Nam. The only way you’d know if they weren’t your enemy would be if they weren’t shooting at you. Now take Afghanistan. If they wanted to send us there, that’s someplace where we could do some good. Now this is just my personal opinion, but if they wanted us to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan we could do it, we’d know how to do it, and 1 wouldn't have any hesitations about it. But still, the political situation, the economic situation, it affects us more than the actual make-up of the Corps . . .
“Take the Dragon Platoon here,” he points up to his men, referring to the platoon that fires Dragon antitank rockets from the shoulder. “There’s fifty-six guys in the platoon, and most of ’em have never fired a real Dragon round, or even a practice round. The rounds cost $5000 apiece, and the practice rounds cost more, so we can’t fire’em very much. It’s just a shame . . .”
Thursday, 6:00 p.m.
Arriving a few steps ahead of the rest of the battalion at Woodchuck Campground, about ten miles up the road from Temecula, the colonel and his staff, footsore but stoic, position themselves on a little rise so they can view the separate companies rounding the last bend. The colonel grins broadly and claps and given the number-one sign as his men tramp into camp, and they greet his welcome with banshee yells and whoops. There is a curious mix of anger and pride in their young, flushed faces as they complete the week’s longest march. They’ll be finished tomorrow. Even the sergeant major is smiling and clapping, forgetting for the moment that it was one of these men that deliberately torched his medical records a few weeks back.
The colonel immediately calls a meeting in his tent of all his company commanders. Still unbeknownst to the troops is the presence of a small tourist village within 200 yards of the bivouac site. The mock Western main street consists of a saloon, a restaurant, a general store, an electronic game arcade, and a few gift shops. It is called Woodchuckle, and caters mostly to the campers who stay at the adjoining campground. Its proprietors have been looking forward to this huge off-season bonanza of Marines for weeks. “Sir,” cautions a company commander, “we’re asking for trouble if we put these Marines down there tonight.”
“I really believe that if we treat ’em like adults, make ’em act like adults, we won’t have problems down there. I’m not going to make if off-limits. We’ll post staff sergeants in certain places and set curfew at ten o’clock.”
“What about weapons?”
“Have ’em take their weapons with them.”
Thursday, 7:40 p.m.
- On the rood again
- Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The fifty or sixty rifle-toting Marines jammed into the smoky saloon shout their approval when the country combo on the bandstand takes a whack at the hump’s theme song. And even though the pitchers of beer flow freely, the rowdiness is held to stomping and yelling. Several company commanders and higher-ranking enlisted men are in the bar, as is the colonel, so the troops are on their best behavior. Across the street at the restaurant, Marines are wolfing down chili burgers and coffee; down the street they’re plugging quarters into electronic games called Tailgunner, Sea Wolf, GORF, and Asteroids Deluxe. The recorded sound effects of eerie explosions, disintegrations, and rocket thrusts from the games float into the saloon through the windows. “Just one more day of this horseshit,’’ exults a Marine as he pours me another beer. “I got forty-five days left in the Corps and you know where I gotta go next week? To the rifle range. And I’ve qualified with the rifle the last three years. Critical, man. And you know what else? They just sent me to Jeep driving school last month. I ain’t even got enough time left to drive around the base! Don’t that make a whole lotta sense?”
Actually, the whole battalion goes to the rifle range next week. “It’s a come-as-you-are war,” the colonel had explained earlier in the evening. “The name of the game is readiness. We’re infantry, and on this march we’ve proved that we can move, we can communicate, and we can shoot — er, next week we’ll prove that we can shoot.”
Standing at the bar with a line of other Marines holding M-16s and waiting for pitchers, a grunt tells me, “This ain’t shit, man. Back on the farm I’ve gotten up at 3 a.m., worked all day shuckin’ hay ’til midnight, got beaucoup hemorrhoids, and compared to that, this ain’t shit.” The morale is visibly lifting.
- The life I love is making music with my friends.
- And I can’t wait to get on the road again . . .
Friday, 2:45 p.m.
The Marine band that led the battalion in from the Fallbrook gate has made it all the way to the parade grounds on Camp Pendleton. A crowd of about 500 people — Marines, wives, children — is applauding and screaming as the band passes behind the white grandstands, the battalion following in step to the beating drums. The band bends sharply around at the far end of the parade grounds and brings three-five up toward the regimental commander waiting on the grass. The Channel 39 helicopter is circling overhead, the band is playing the Marine Corps Hymn, and the troops are marching in clipped, squared columns. When the colonel struts past the regimental commander, he snaps his head to the right and jerks his hand up to his cap in an aggressive salute, his jaw locked, his eyes burning with pride. The crowd has been whipped to a frenzy by the publicity all week, and now here they are, all 500 of the troops in the grungy flesh, stern-faced, prideful, and mad.
But as soon as they’re past the parade grounds the battalion’s elation erupts, and the four miles to camp are celebrated with whoops and howls and laughter. The guidon bearers run their flags in endless circles around the battalion as it marches, a drum corps up front marking time. And though none of them would have ever walked a hundred miles in a week without being coerced, now that they’ve done it they’re the baddest grunts on the base. “I only got two words to say to you!” barks the colonel when the battalion is formed up at headquarters. “Three-five!”
“THREE-FIVE!” 522 men repeat in a thunderous tribute to their unit, to themselves.
“Get some!” screams the colonel.
“GET SOME!” echoes the battalion, repeating its famous motto.
The colonel dismisses them with a ninety-six-hour pass. The men will have to supply their own T-shirts to be emblazoned with commemoration of the march. The colonel will supply the decals.