2 Boot Camp and Beyond

On March 3, 1942, I left home and reported to the recruiting office in Salem, along with a number of other young men from around the state. We were fed at a local restaurant and transported to Portland where we were housed overnight. I was still not officially a Marine until the following day when I was sworn in. I was 17 years old. Later that day we were placed on a train headed for the Marine Corps Base at San Diego, California. This base served the western half of the United States.

We arrived on the 6th and started indoctrination procedures. We were issued uniforms, a rifle, bayonet, gas mask, pith helmet, and other equipment. The rifle was a 1903 bolt action Springfield. While this was a very reliable rifle, it did show how obsolete most of the Marine Corps equipment was. We also received haircuts, which consisted of removing all the hair with electric clippers. We stood in lines to receive one shot after another for diseases I had never heard of. The shots didn't hurt near as much, however, as the one trip we were allowed to the post exchange (PX). We were not permitted to buy candy or anything good, but were simply supplied a list of required items, such as a bucket, scrub brush, and soap for washing our clothes. We had no money, but were informed the cost of the items would be deducted from our first month's salary. The cost came to almost $15. As our pay was only $21 a month this represented a sizable investment. I was convinced it was going to be quite a sacrifice to become a hero.

On March 16th, I was assigned to the 287th platoon and our training commenced. There were 60 of us in the platoon, which was commanded by W.W. Westmoreland, a career Marine with the imposing rank of corporal.

All of us recruits, or boots as we were commonly called, were housed in Quonset huts during basic training, which was known as boot camp. A Quonset hut was a round-roofed, prefabricated, metal structure which provided living quarters for about 30 men in double-decked bunks. There were a large number of these huts on the base.

The drill instructors made boot camp as rough on us as they could, but I expected that and didn't really mind, even when we were roused out of bed in the middle of the night, told to fall out with our newly purchased buckets, and then required to run across the sand to the bay about a mile away. Upon reaching the bay we dipped up a bucket of water and ran back to the base. The buckets were then checked to be sure they were still nearly full. Those who passed the inspection were then told to dump the water on the ground and go back to bed. Those who failed got to run back to the bay again.

Figure 2. 287th Platoon at Boot Camp. March, 1942. Len is in the second row from the top, fifth from the left.

The drill instructors did use some unique, though highly effective, methods of instruction. In the thinking of the Marine Corps, every man was considered to be first and foremost a rifleman, and the training reflected this. We were very precisely instructed that this weapon was to be called a rifle and not a gun, as the latter was a term used to describe an artillery piece. The proper use of this nomenclature was dramatically demonstrated to us in a lesson that I never forgot. One evening a recruit from another platoon opened the door to our hut and stepped inside, holding his rifle in one hand and his penis in the other. First presenting one, then the other, he loudly recited the following poem:

This is my rifle and this is my gun,
This is for shooting and this is for fun.
He then went on to the next hut, as he had to repeat his performance to everyone in the entire recruit depot! As I watched this humiliated individual, I promised myself that I would never make that mistake. This object lesson was apparently repeated often enough that every recruit was exposed to it as he went through boot camp, as in the following four years I never heard any Marine repeat that error.

Boot camp consisted of four weeks at the base, mostly practicing close order drill, attending lectures, training with the bayonet, and being taught military courtesy and discipline. We then went to the rifle range for two more weeks which was a lot more fun. We had to qualify with the rifle in the offhand position, the kneeling position, the sitting position, and the prone position. Later, I would wonder why, as I never saw anyone use even one of those positions in combat. All of our practice firing was done at long range, and we would soon be fighting in the jungle where visibility was usually only a few feet. We also practiced with the .45 caliber colt automatic pistol, model 19llAl.

We still were not allowed to go to the PX except for the one mandatory trip, but life was a bit better at the range. On Sunday we had a light schedule and a civilian was allowed in camp to sell newspapers and cough drops. We immediately bought both, and luxuriated lying on our bunks reading the funnies and eating cough drops for candy.

Upon completion of duties at the rifle range, we returned to the base where all of the platoons that had been undergoing training marched in our first parade, inspection, and review. It was now April 29th, I had been in the Marine Corps for almost two months, and it may be hard to believe, but when we passed in review I saw the first officer I had seen since joining!

The following day we anxiously awaited receiving our assignments as recruit training was now completed. We were then informed that our entire platoon was assigned to mess duty at the rifle range for the next month. This was very demoralizing as everyone was anticipating going to a combat unit. Although menial and boring, the month passed rather quickly. At least we were no longer boots so we could go to the PX, the movies, and on liberty in San Diego. San Diego was so full of servicemen that liberty was not very special except for one incident. Hundreds of service personnel; Army, Navy, and Marine, were milling around the bus depot preparing to go back to their camps when a very young, obviously newly commissioned, second lieutenant walked by. Everyone saluted him, of course, except for one Marine who didn't notice him as he passed by. The lieutenant immediately called him back, read him off, and told him he would have to salute him twenty-five times to make up for the omission. This the private did, while the lieutenant stood there glowering at him. Quite a crowd gathered around to watch, obviously hostile to the lieutenant's response to an unintentional error. After the private completed the required number of salutes, the lieutenant turned to go, but a salty gunnery sergeant with hash marks all the way up his sleeve reminded him he had to return the salutes. The lieutenant then saluted the private twenty-five times while the mood of the crowd improved immensely!

Figure 3. Len not long after the completion of Marine Boot Camp.

Upon finishing our month on mess duty we again returned to the base for assignment. We were sent to all different units and I never did see any of the platoon members again. My best friend during this time was a man from Portland, which was rather surprising as he was 28 years old and I had just turned 18 while in boot camp. We were hoping to be stationed together but he was informed he was too old for the Fleet Marine Force and that he would be assigned to a defense battalion guarding supply dumps in the California desert. I was sent to K Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, stationed at Camp Elliott, north of San Diego. I reported for duty June 3, 1942. I was the only new recruit in the company, the rest of the men having been in the Corps for several months. With the exception of one corporal, all of the non-coms (non-commissioned officers) in the company were old salts, having served in China and most of them in Nicaragua.

The Second Marines were considered fully trained and ready for combat (except for me, whose training had mostly been in marching and washing dishes). They were expecting to be shipped out, and during my first week with them we did absolutely nothing except to run the bayonet course one time, which took about fifteen minutes. On June 10th, we went aboard the U.S.S. President Adams in San Diego Harbor. This was a President class attack transport capable of carrying 1550 troops.

Every company was supposed to have a specialty, and K Company was designated the rubber boat company. Our ship went off the California coast and we practiced dropping rubber boats over the side, climbing down cargo nets onto the boats, then paddling ashore. As we neared the beach we would go over the side and drag the boat out of the water onto the sand. The surf was fairly high and the boats often turned over on their way in so we had the additional experience of trying to right them. Because we knew we would be in the water a lot, we left all equipment aboard ship and just wore our undershorts. We spent the whole day doing this. The water was warm and I had an absolutely great time. In the course of this, however, I received probably the worst sunburn I have ever experienced. Our bunks aboard ship were stacked four high which meant the only position for sleeping was flat on one's back. For me this meant the next two nights were pure misery.

The word came to load the ships for embarkation. We spent a week loading supplies at Camp Elliott and elsewhere, then trucking them to the dock and stowing them aboard. Then came a change of orders which was to unload the ships and return to Camp Elliott. For three days we did this, and with the ships partially unloaded, another change of orders came to reload, as we were leaving immediately. We had one day to return all the material we had carried ashore during the last three days.

Because of military secrecy we had not been told our destination or why the sudden change. Speculation was that we were intended to re-enforce our Garrison on Midway. But then the battle of Midway occurred and as this was a decisive American victory we were no longer needed there. I don't know if this was true or not, but the urgency of our latest orders showed that we were definitely needed somewhere.

On July lst, we left. The Adams was accompanied by two other former cushy ocean liners, the Presidents Hayes and Jackson, plus the Crescent City, another troop carrier, and the Alhena, an attack cargo ship. Our entire regiment plus reinforcements were aboard. We were escorted by a few destroyers.

We zigzagged across the Pacific Ocean until arriving at Tongatabu, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, on July 18th. We anchored in the harbor for a week and I had my first chance to go ashore on a South Sea Island. There wasn't much to do, but it was fun to leave the confines of the ship, ogle the women (who were all dressed in shapeless mother hubbards), walk to the Royal Palace, and stuff ourselves on fresh coconuts, a new experience for most of us. Unfortunately, all those who participated in the latter had an absolutely unbelievable experience with diarrhea!

Figure 4. The Royal Palace at Nuku'alofa, Tonga. Built in 1867.

It was about this time that I had my first experience with prickly heat. Our quarters aboard the President Adams were extremely crowded. The bunks were stacked four high with a narrow passageway just large enough to squeeze through every second row of bunks. This was enough to give one claustrophobia, but at least it was bearable when we first left the States. As we neared the equator, however, the heat became almost unbearable.

Fresh air vents mounted topside diverted some air down a couple of decks to where my quarters were located, but the volume of air was terribly inadequate. The air was not pumped, but had a horn-shaped intake on deck that scooped the air in if the ship was underway. When anchored, unless a breeze was blowing, no air found its way below deck. To further compound the problem, one intake was piped all over the quarters into a myriad of smaller vents. One could barely detect a flow of air from the vent located nearest to my bunk.

The constant heat, coupled with a very high humidity and our tightly-woven, long-sleeved dungaree uniform, guaranteed perspiration on a 24-hour basis. This formed a rash over a good portion of our bodies that itched incessantly.

Scratching only irritated the situation more. Relief could be found by taking a shower, but only at a high price. As long as the stream of water was hitting the area covered by the rash it felt wonderful. The problem was that our showers consisted only of salty seawater, and when the shower was vacated, the intensity of the itching doubled! This was always a problem aboard transports in the tropics, but fortunately it would clear up a few days after leaving the ship.

On July 25th, we left Tonga, and three days later arrived in Suva, Fiji. Here we met up with the First Marine Division, a force three times larger than ours. Ships seemed to stretch to the horizon and included many destroyers and a few cruisers. We practiced making amphibious landings but didn't actually go ashore, returning instead to the transports.

On August lst, we left Fiji and finally learned our destination was to be the Solomon Islands.

Many years later Joyce and I returned to the Kingdom of Tonga and I enjoyed showing her around Tongatabu. This delightful little country, the only island group in the entire Pacific never claimed by a foreign power, has changed little over the years. Few tourists visit there, and it is not a stopover for travelers bound elsewhere. I showed Joyce the modest wood-frame Royal Palace, which still looked exactly as I remembered it. We also had an enjoyable visit with Sergeant Major Faleone Vai of the Royal Palace Guards, and we communicated with each other after our return home.

Figure 5. Len with Sergeant Major Faleone Vai (left), and other Palace Guardsmen. Royal Palace, Tonga, 1988.

We have also twice visited Fiji, and on both occasions we had the opportunity to tour this country and see what I had missed on my first trip there.

Last Modified: 03/01/2022
One Man's View by Leonard E. Skinner (2001)