By mid-October I was facing the supreme test. The word was that you could not graduate from boot camp unless you qualified with the service rifle. I badly wanted out of boot camp. The thought of being set back terrified me.
Qualification meant shooting targets well enough to compile a score of 190 points out of a possible 250. Any recruit who failed to qualify, the scuttlebutt went, got his back painted with a large white X by the DIs. He then had to run around and around the entire platoon on the three-mile march back to the Recruit Depot with his rifle at high port, constantly shouting:
“I am a little shitbird, I am a little shitbird.”
I dreaded the rifle range. Never in my life had I hunted or owned a rifle. I had owned a BB gun for a while and had fired someone else’s .22 at tin cans. But Midland,
Texas, offered little game other than rabbits. And after I gave up cap pistols, shooting never interested me. Now I feared I was going to pay for my neglect of blood sports.
Our entire series of platoons travelled north by Depot bus to the rifle range at Camp Matthews, California, near La Jolla. This constituted our first outing among civilians in two months. All we could do was look out the windows.
We were among the final platoons to go through this base. Camp Matthews operated from 1917 to 1964 and trained more than a million Marine recruits in marksmanship. Then the Federal Government handed the base over to the University of California.
We were to spend three weeks at the rifle range. A friend of mine told me the other day that he had learned to fire a rifle at Camp Matthews in 1962. How long were you there? I asked. “Two days,” he said. He was in Navy boot camp at San Diego.
We lived in a large tent city with eight men to a tent. These were not pup tents. Each tent had a wooden floor, built a few feet off the ground. You could stand up inside.
Each man had a bunk around the perimeter. But the sides of the tent were rolled up so the tent lay open to the outside.
Southern California, a desert, can be cold in the winter, and the Marine Corps had issued us one blanket each. The DIs warned us not to sleep under our ponchos, which we carried as part of our equipment. Rain gear did not breathe, they said, so we could overheat in our sleep and catch pneumonia.
Some nights it got so cold we used ponchos anyway. And at least one member of the platoon caught pneumonia. No one announced these developments, but we realized his affliction in the combat tests in December.
Discipline was relaxed at the rifle range. I recall no pushups or squat thrusts and little screaming. Drill, classes, equipment issue all stopped in favor of rifle training. The DIs wanted us to qualify.
Sergeant Guinn did emerge from the duty tent one afternoon as we cleaned our rifles while sitting on our buckets in the company street. He kicked over the nearest
house-mouse and announced that they had killed some bastard in Vietnam and now there would be another war.
He must have been talking about the assassination of President Diem, which did indeed lead the United States straight into the Vietnam War. We never received news except for the opportunity to skip chapel and read the Sunday paper.
“I stayed in the Marine Corps after Korea because I thought there would be another war,” he said. No one doubted him.
The first Monday at the range, we marched to one of several covered bleachers for marksmanship instruction. Our Platoon Marksmanship Instructor was a Sergeant Garcia. Sgt. Garcia confessed that he had been a Marine draftee during the Korean War who stayed in.
After learning how to adjust the sights – including the mysterious Kentucky windage – we spent the first week snapping in. I have rarely seen this described. The idea is to learn how to work your body into a stable platform for shooting.
You first remove the lower end of the green web sling from the stock of the rifle. With it, you create a noose around the biceps of your left arm. Then you pull the noose tight. Then you contort your body so that your elbow rests on or close to the deck in front of your chest at about a 15-degree angle. Your left hand cradles the barrel of the rifle.
The sling fastens the muzzle of the rifle so taut it does not move. Voila, you have a stable firing platform – except it takes a week of pain to work your way into those positions.
We learned to shoot in three different positions – standing, sitting, and prone. For the standing position, of course, your elbow does not rest on the deck, so the sight moves around as you breathe.
For the sitting position, you sit cross-legged and rest your left arm as far down the inside your left thigh as possible. The DIs sat on the backs of the slow learners.
Lying prone offers the steadiest aim of all. Your legs are separated, ankles on the deck, and your body at a 45-degree angle to the rifle. On the other hand, you are the furthest away from the target when firing prone, 500 yards – five football fields.
When you snap in the first week, you also practice squeezing the trigger. To the Marine Corps, this was the secret of shooting .
If you pull the trigger quick, the way Hollywood shoots in the John Wayne movies, the force jerks the weapon slightly. That makes the rifle move, and your shot misses.
Sergeant Guinn worked one morning to teach me to squeeze. I couldn’t grasp the idea. After six or eight jerks of the trigger, he lost control at my stupidity, leaped to his feet, and kicked me in the back of the head. I bit the metal end of the rifle and felt flecks of tooth in my mouth.
“I think I broke a tooth, sir,” I said.
“You’ll live,” he said.