English: Corporal Eugene B. Sledge

Corporal Eugene B. Sledge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every few weeks, the platoon stood inspection.  This ordeal – like an exam – required much hard work.  Our DIs required us to buy extra gear for inspections.  We purchased a brand-new inspection towel and laundry bag and even a pair of combat boots.

These items remained in our wooden foot lockers for inspection day.  To the foot of the bunk we tied a laundry bag on the left and draped the new white towel over the right.  On inspection day, we substituted virgin laundry bag and towel for the issued items. The boots we spit-shone until they resembled patent leather and placed those under the bunk in their proper place. It took me many years to allow myself to wear my inspection boots.

Everything else in the foot locker underwent shining and polishing. We searched for small threads waving from uniforms – known as Irish pennants – and snipped them off with clippers. We folded clothing in what was known as the “school-approved” manner.

Around the 11th week (of 13) we stood a complete inspection, known as “junk on the bunk.”  Here we arranged every item of clothing and equipment in a prescribed pattern on the bunk before heading out to the parade ground for rifle inspection by an officer.

World War II rifle

U. S. Rifle, caliber 30, M-1

Rifles constituted the apex of all inspections.  The Marine Corps issued us the U.S. rifle, 7.62-mm., M-14.  This weapon had succeeded the famous .30-caliber M-1, which the Corps issued to the men going ashore at Guadalcanal.  (This weapon was the immortal Garand semi-automatic rifle, which everyone pronounced Ga-RAND.  A native of John C. Garand’s home town in Massachusetts told me recently the family was known as GA-rand.)

We field-stripped our weapons again and again in barracks, cleaning the dirt and oiling them against rust.  We learned to break them down and reassemble them in the dark.  I have tattooed my rifle number in my memory.

Boot camp rifle

U. S. Rifle, 7.62-mm. M-14

The phrase “Every Marine a rifleman” was not a slogan.  The rumor ran through the platoon that no recruit graduated from boot camp if he failed to qualify with the rifle.  In November the platoon was to spend three weeks at the rifle range.

At inspection, each man stood with rifle on the deck by his right foot in the position of Order Arms.  The forward end of the rifle butt was to rest in line with the front of his gleaming shoe.

When the inspecting officer reached him and executed a right face, the recruit grasped his rifle with thumb on the inboard side of the stock and fingers on the outboard side, extended and joined.  The recruit pulled the rifle up across his chest, took the upper stock with his left hand and trailed the right down to open the chamber – glancing down to make sure no round remained in the chamber.  Then the inspecting officer popped it out of the recruit’s hands and examined the weapon for cleanliness and condition.

While the officer did that, he asked questions.  For example,  “Who follows the President in the chain of command?” (The Secretary of Defense).  Or,  “What is the private’s first general order [for sentries]?” (To take charge of this post and all government property in view.) Then he handed the weapon back, noting any deficiencies to the drill instructor.

One legend — doubtless apocryphal — had it that the inspecting officer, a Marine captain, asked a private to identify equivalent ranks in the Navy.  We were supposed to have learned all this.

“Private,” the officer asked, “what is the equivalent rank in the Navy to captain in the Marine Corps?”

“Sir, sir, sir,” replied the private as he grasped for an answer:  “captain.”

A captain in the Marine Corps is an officer third grade , or O-3.  He commands a company.  A captain in the Navy is much more exalted, an O-6, just below an admiral.  He commands a ship.  The ranks were scarcely equivalent. Nonetheless, the inspecting officer did not place the private on report.  To the drill instructor he said:

“That’s not technically correct, but we’ll let it pass.”

I recall inspections at three weeks, then five weeks, seven weeks, and 11 weeks. Before the first inspection, we wore the rumpled utility uniforms we hand-washed at the concrete wash racks.  But for inspection,  the DIs instructed us to send one set of utilities to the laundry.  Thus we stood inspection dressed for the first time in starched and pressed utilities.

That was a moment of pride.  In starched utilities, we looked like we belonged in the Marine Corps.  That pride was exactly what we were supposed to feel..  From that point on we wore starched utilities.

Staff Sergeant Guinn, our senior drill instructor, had fought in Korea.  His utility shirt came from the old Corps: heavy herringbone twill with metal buttons and two grenade pockets.  These utilities had changed but little from the classic combat uniform of World War II.  Sgt.  Guinn’s shirt contained so much starch that when he wore it, the back billowed out in a semi-circle.  (I attended the opening of the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, on November 10, 2006.  There Marines were wearing the latest camouflage utilities  — without starch.  The Old Corps would not have approved.)

Collage of United States Marine Corps uniforms...

Collage of United States Marine Corps uniforms, made from combining individuals from plates I, IV, V, and XIV of the USMC uniform plates series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some cost-cutter did away with the herringbone material and metal buttons after Korea, but  I did acquire a herringbone utility shirt  in a surplus shop in San Diego.  I wear it to this day, on battlefield tours, properly starched.

(For some unaccountable reason, the Department of Defense junked the classic uniforms of World War II.  The dark-brown wool shirt and tan tie worn with a brown uniform coat and “officers’ pink” trousers disappeared from the Army by the Fifties.  In its stead, the Army adopted today’s green dress-uniform  sans belt, which causes soldiers to resemble bus drivers.   In the Sixties, Secretary of Defense McNamara even replaced heavy Marine utilities with flimsy Army fatigues.  I was issued those shapeless uniforms, but I traded up  after a year or two as men left the unit.

Recruits progressed through their uniforms.  I realized toward the end this was a deliberate policy of the Recruit Training Regiment.

The first week, we had marched out of step wearing yellow sweatshirts, new green trousers, dangling web belts, and high-top black tennis shoes with black socks.  We looked like new boys.

As we learned to march in step, our uniforms changed to all-green utilities with boots.  We trimmed our web belts to fit perfectly and polished the so-called quartermaster protection off the buckles.  Instead of trouser legs hanging down over our boots, the DIs showed us how to blouse them over our boot tops using green blousing garters.

Then the platoon rotated through the tailor shop, where the tailor fitted our olive-drab dress uniforms.  Brooks Brothers could not have paid more attention to the cut of the clothes than did the Marine tailors.

E. B. Sledge, the author of the classic book With the Old Breed from Peleliu to Okinawa, wrote about the issuance of dress uniforms

to the Marines on garrison duty in Peiping after World War II:

As cold weather descended in November, we were delighted to receive our winter-service greens.  Uniforms mean a great deal to Marines.  Our uniforms were uniquely Marine Corps.  We had no back pockets in either khaki or wool green trousers.  “Bulging pockets ain’t in keeping with a sharp squared away uniform,” was the way an old salty instructor at Camp Elliott [California] had explained the absence of hip pockets on Marine trousers.

China Marine, p. 33 (Univ. of Alabama 2002).  This perhaps explains the DI‘s rule that we were never to place our hands in our pockets while in uniform.  Nor were we to carry or use an umbrella.

Ultimately we stood inspection in the green dress uniform.  And as we neared graduation, all four  platoons of our series marched in the Friday afternoon parade at the Depot.

The Depot band (known as the “field music”) played Sousa marches at the Friday parade. But the band never played the Sousa march Semper Fidelis or the Marines’ Hymn for a recruit parade.  Only Marines had earned the right to march to those pieces.

Another rule remained constant through boot camp: recruits buttoned all buttons on trousers and shirt.  This meant you closed the top button of utility shirts.  Everyone who saw us knew we were recruits.

On the afternoon of graduation, December 12, 1963, we unbuttoned our shirts at the collar.  Granted our first and only base liberty —  four hours —  some of us passed Sergeant Guinn on the street.

“Good afternoon, Marines,” he said.

But the first few weeks, I was not convinced I would make that day.