The Few and the Proud: Marine Corps Drill Instructors in Their Own Words

The Few and the Proud: Marine Corps Drill Instructors in Their Own Words by Larry Smith. W.W. Norton, 2006, $26.95, 325 pages.


The Few and the Proud examines how Marines are made and the drill instructors mandated to make them. From callow civilian to disciplined Marine, the transformation is conducted under the demanding guidance of the drill instructor -- the emblematic DI at the heart of the Corps.


"Veterans tell what it takes to train Marines for Iraq today." -- Publishers Weekly

"A superb job of describing how the Corps creates a brand of warrior whose very mention puts the fear of God into their enemies...first-hand accounts from Marine drill sergeants, whose tales include everything from training recruits to the hell of combat." -- Military Book Club


Larry Smith, editor with Parade Magazine and the New York Times, is also the author of Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words.


The Few and the Proud made an impressive appearance at #31 on the extended New York Times bestseller list, and I meant to congratulate the touring author personally. But I left town before Larry Smith's appearance in La Jolla at D. G. Wills Books on Memorial Day Weekend, along with 2 of the 28 legendary Marines he profiles: "Iron Mike" Mervosh and Bill Paxton. Two nights earlier he had been at Barnes & Noble, with Sergeants Christine Henning and Rudy Rodriguez. I caught up with Larry many days later, at home in Connecticut. "Larry, Camp Pendleton is the base of the first Marine Division and plays a large role in your oral history of the Marine Corps' drill instructors. Pendleton's 125,000 acres were originally bought for $4 million -- quite a bargain -- and dedicated by FDR. But another president's footsteps are preserved there: Jack Kennedy's."

Larry says, "After JFK visited there in 1963, his footprints were cast in bronze, right where he'd stood outside Receiving, and some unsung genius got the idea of painting footprints next to them to show new recruits where to stand. However, Marines on both coasts lay claim to them. One side says Parris Island originated the idea, the other says San Diego. No one seems to know when they appeared exactly, or who came up with it. I talked to former drill sergeant Chuck Taliano at the museum on Parris Island and with Parker Jackson at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Museum in San Diego. The only consensus is that the paint was undoubtedly scrounged from road maintenance and is yellow by sheer coincidence. Anyway, the footprints became an icon. They've got doormats with yellow footprints, shirts, pins..." Larry laughs. "I've even got a tie with footprints all over it."

"So," I interrupt, "the operating principle for the DI is that, if you're going to break under stress, it should be in boot camp rather than in combat. You quote a drill instructor saying, 'The more we sweat in peacetime, the less we bleed in war.' The drill instructors of old were totally dedicated, working 100-hour weeks, 4 a.m. to midnight, forging future jarheads. The training was so fierce that civilian workers were forbidden to leave keys in the ignition lest a recruit jump in and bolt. And local police actually received a bounty on runaways: 50 dollars for every trainee brought back. How many weeks was boot camp? How rugged was rugged?"

"Boot camp varied over the years," says Larry. "At one point, during Vietnam, it got down to 8 weeks. Drill instructors were overextended and there really was not enough time. Today, it's 12 weeks, plus a week for 'forming,' which is going through Receiving, getting your head shaved, being inoculated, tested, and getting processed. It's tough. It's not uncommon for a kid to lose 40 pounds in 12 weeks. I talked to Jim Wheeler, a Marine in the 1950s, and he said he gained 30 pounds in 12 weeks. It's all the DIs. The drill instructors just explode at the recruits with energy and conviction, telling them what to do and about teamwork. They're introduced to hard work immediately, and they begin to acquire motivation. The recruits want to succeed; they want their drill instructor to approve of who they are and what they're doing. Motivation leads to self-discipline and that enables them to fit into the team."

"Ironically, for all of the emphasis on unit and team, they wind up creating these rugged individualists."

Larry agrees: "Yes, that's an interesting sideline to the whole thing. The primary function of a Marine is to locate, close with, and kill the enemy. That's their first job: becoming a trained killer. And the corollary is that they've gotta know how to stay alive. They have to learn instant obedience to orders. Yet, at the same time, they need to think for themselves. Every Marine is trained to take the job of the one immediately in front of him. This has been a key to the Marine's success in horrible places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa."

"It's interesting to me," I say, "that in teaching obedience, they also seem to instill in the Marines a shield against intimidation. It's even depicted in some films like Full Metal Jacket where you can sense the Marines are not at all daunted by their officers. But recruit training was very rough and tough, at times even dangerous."

"Yeah." Larry is momentarily thoughtful. "I've heard from Marines at all levels of harshness in training, although it's never been legal. The most notorious incident, of course, is the drowning of six recruits in Ribbon Creek on Parris Island, April 8, 1956."

"Which almost wiped out the Marines altogether," I remind him.

"It almost wrecked the Marine Corps, yes."

"But the Corps was saved by two Jewish lawyers from New York."

Larry laughs. "Yes, and that's a great story. The two Jewish lawyers from New York saved the drill instructor, and they were smart because they didn't attack the Marine Corps. They just said this was an unfortunate accident. This sort of training had gone on all the time, and it wasn't this guy's fault. It worked. Back then, DIs were court martialed all the time for maltreatment. They'd be docked pay and they'd go to the brig. Obviously, the Corps didn't publicize this, but it's happened all through the years. There are instructors who use control, and there are DIs...like R. L. Ermey, who was in Full Metal Jacket, who was a real Marine drill instructor himself. He said they were working with recruits non-stop and there were no officers supervising. They'd be finishing up with one platoon and they'd have to pick up a new one. They just didn't have time to work with these raw recruits. So, he said they'd read a kid the riot act and then -- whack -- give him a backhand to the solar plexus, which wasn't much, but even that wasn't legal."

"Jack Webb wanted to make a movie about the incident in which the six recruits died on Parris Island. Webb went on to make the movie The DI and had a real DI act in it. I believe the movie was made at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego."

"Actually, Camp Pendleton. Though they absolutely replicated Parris Island. The tragedy at Ribbon Creek was too close and too controversial, and the Corps would not endorse it. Then Webb got this germ of a plot from a play called The Murder of a Sand Flea, which is at the heart of the movie: the forbidden killing of a single sand flea that brings the DI down on the trainees."

"What punishments did you omit from the book?"

"Well," he pauses. "I listed some things that used to go on, like doing the manual of arms with footlockers, putting kids in dumpsters, or catching a recruit smoking illegally and making him smoke a whole pack of cigarettes at once with a bucket over his head and a blanket over the bucket. One Marine told me that in boot camp, in the '50s, two recruits tried to escape, got lost, and snuck back. The DIs turned the whole platoon out and said, 'These two are going to diminish the overall level of your unit. We're going to leave you here and we don't care what happens to them. We don't care if they end up in a hospital.' The platoon beat the daylights out of the pair. Both ended up getting out on a Section 8. So, there was this kind of rough justice that the DIs doled out."

"One of the toughest things I ever heard from a Marine was that they weren't allowed to defecate for a week."

"I don't know how you could prevent that," Larry says.

"You can't, but they were expected to."

"There's one example in the book where a DI makes a recruit eat his vomit after he's eaten too much and pukes. There are examples like that, but I frankly think it misses the point because the Marine Corps model is remarkably successful. Nobody ever forgets the name of his drill instructor. Many stay in touch. And the rules for DIs are much stricter now: no physical contact is permitted. The training is less harsh. For instance, the boots get to use Skin So Soft to protect against the bite of sand fleas. And the Corps has learned a lot about physical fitness, paralleling the fitness craze in the last 40 years. They take water breaks, and instead of running in combat boots and utilities ('utes'), they wear shorts and sneakers ('go-fasters'). If you're a DI berating a recruit, and you don't like what he's doing and you want to punish him, a card called an 'IT' tells you how many pushups you can make a guy do. And you can't go over that."

"Like a Miranda warning," I suggest.

"Yeah, except it applies to the drill instructor. Somehow, despite this, the Marines have managed to sustain their attitude, their demeanor, their temperament."

"Everyone seems to acknowledge the success of the training, but, on the down side, you can also create some characters like the Texas Tower Sniper and Lee Harvey Oswald."

Larry laughs. "Everyone likes to say there's no such thing as an ex-Marine... except for Lee Harvey Oswald."

"You quote Eleanor Roosevelt as follows: 'The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!' She was kidding, but then, during the Vietnam War, the standards really were lowered."

"Mmmm... The government was pouring such numbers into Vietnam that training was down to eight weeks, and they got a lot of really bottom-of-the-barrel recruits in the Marine Corps and all across the military. The military and recruiting were in disastrous shape. Some officers said that we couldn't continue to prosecute the war and that this was a big reason for the war ending. It wasn't just because of politics, but because our forces were no longer effective. A Marine installation in Vietnam, called LZ Ross, was actually overrun by these malcontents. And there was an extraordinary riot on a base in Okinawa. Huge efforts were made to keep this out of the press, and they mostly succeeded. Even the Marines could barely function with these guys in their ranks; a lot of them apparently were associated with gangs. And what they finally did was hold massive inspections throughout the Corps. Anybody who had a gang tattoo or something incriminating in his locker, they shipped him to San Diego and gave him an administrative discharge. That's when they came up with the ruling that you had to be a high school graduate. No more dregs of society."

"And now you have battalions of women at Parris Island."

"One battalion of women," Larry corrects. "It's the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion."

"In 1942, LeJeune was opened as a segregated training camp for African-American Marines. Nine years later, segregation in the service was ended by Truman, well ahead of the civilian world. When service was refused to a black in uniform in the town near Parris Island, sentries showed up. Instead of taking him away, they told the restaurant owner that if he didn't serve the black Marine, he wouldn't be serving 'any of us.' When a barber on base refused to cut the hair of black Marines, he was fired and the commanding officer personally apologized."

"Yes. All Marines bleed green, is the saying."

"The yellow footprints are identified with the Marines," I say, "but for me the icon of the Corps is definitely the DI."

"Yes, the mystique of the Marine Corps is really embodied in the drill instructor. These men are really special. All this hard-guy stuff they play with recruits is not to drive people out but to make them succeed. They're breaking recruits down to try to get them to submerge their identity in the group. There is no talking back. 'I,' 'me,' and 'my,' are forbidden words. They're expected to eat, sleep, and work as a team. The drill instructors will take a shapeless adolescent who's had a life of self-indulgence and not much in the way of prospects and in 12 weeks they turn that kid's life around. And they do it in a way that stays with that young man forever. It all happens through the drill instructor. They can't get sick, they stand out there at all hours, fit and immaculate, staring down these recruits, and the sand fleas are biting the shit out of the DIs and they're not even flinching. The kids see this and say, 'Wow, I want to be like that guy.'"

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