Four staff sections serve large infantry formations – battalions, regiments, and divisions. A battalion in 1964 comprised about 1,200 men. Three battalions made up a regiment, and three regiments a division. Specialized units, such as tank battalions, anti-tank battalions, artillery regiments, reconnaissance units, and other elements, add to these units.
At the level of battalion and regiment, the table of organization labeled the intelligence section as “S-2″; at division it became “G-2.” The purpose of S-2 and G-2 was to inform the commanding officer what he should expect of the enemy.
My basic MOS (military occupation specialty) of 0200 qualified me for the Intelligence Section – one of these staff sections. But first I had to complete intelligence school.
The other sections consisted of S-1, administration (think paperwork), S-3, operations (think attack and defense), and S-4, logistics (think supply). The infantryman carried an MOS of 0311. That was probably the most common MOS in the Marine Corps.
Intelligence was a great assignment, in a good school, and at a wonderful location. I learned much in my weeks at the Naval Amphibious
Base (called the Phib Base). I sometimes wished I had shipped over – extended my enlistment – to use my skills in the regulars for a few years. But I turned 24 at Coronado and aimed for a post as a foreign correspondent.
The Phib Base was my only taste of ordinary life in the Marine Corps of the Sixties. The base proper was small, with streets named for the great amphibious campaigns of World War II, e.g., Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tulagi, and Bougainville.
Commissioning of the base had taken place in 1944, the year Dad became a gunnery officer in the Navy and our family had lived in the housing at Defense Village on Coronado Island. The war, which I now remembered only dimly, lay only 20 years in the past. But it was then at a greater distance than now separate me from the Sixties.
The barracks were new and commingled both Navy and Marines, as well as Army and foreign students. After the Quonset huts and double racks of the recruit depot and Camp San Onofre, the Phib Base was a luxury. Base housing assigned each man a cubicle with a single bunk, a small closet at the head, and a wooden five-foot partition along the side that separated the bunks.
The Navy even allowed the troops to play personal AM radios. What a cacophony there was in the morning. The Beatles burst in on me in Coronado for the first time. I can still remember the harmonies of “She loves me, yay, yay, yay.” Even more of a shock: there were no field days and no KP. After hours – quitting time was 1700 – the slop chute (or beer hall) and the gedunk (snack bar) both opened for beer and pogey bait (candy).
A web etymologist ascribes gedunk to the “gedunk Sundae” in a comic strip of the 1920s (http://stupidquestionarchives.blogspot.com/2008/03/gedunk.html). Another columnist explains the origin of pogey bait thus:
The Marines in China before WW II were issued candy (Baby Ruths, Tootsie Rolls, etc.) as part of their ration supplements. At the time, sugar and other assorted sweets were rare commodities in China and much in demand by the Chinese, so the troops found the candy useful for barter in town.
The Chinese word for prostitute, roughly translated, is “pogey.” Thus, Marines being Marines, candy became “Pogey Bait.”
The mess was Navy, no formation required. Navy food was always good, with steak and eggs on Sunday morning. A daily formation took place after morning chow with our young sergeant, after which we walked to class, almost like college.
Liberty went every weekend, no special dispensation required. We had wash-and-wear suits, and three or four of us set off one night for the Hotel del Coronado, the ancient luxury resort up the road. As we walked through the main gate in suits and ties, the Marine sentry saluted us, a bunch of privates.
Intelligence school itself ran like a cross between college and industrial training. The military placed great emphasis on teaching, so the instructors kept everyone awake and interested as they taught dozens of men in classes. The boring philosophy professor or abstruse mathematician from college would have found himself working in the motor pool. The Marine teachers ladled knowledge into us.
The officer who ran our detail in school was a Mustang – Marine Corps slang for an officer raised from the enlisted ranks. He was a middle-aged captain. He took salutes, but he was not a hard-ass.
The Marines took pride in leavening the officer corps with outstanding sergeants. Colonel Wesley Fox, for example, went through Parris Island. He rose from rifleman serving in the 5th Marines in the Korean War to platoon sergeant and then drill instructor. He became a second lieutenant in 1966 and served as a company commander in Vietnam. He received the Medal of Honor for heroism in repelling the enemy from his company front after the mortal wounding of his executive officer and the loss of all his company officers. He continued to serve until the mandatory retirement age of 62, when he retired.
In four weeks of training, we studied the order of battle (i.e., structure) of a mythical army of aggressors.
The aggressors organized their troops into motorized rifle divisions. I later discovered that was the structure of the Soviet army. We had studied the Russian order of battle under another name.
We also studied beaches. The instructor told us the Navy and Marine Corps had mapped every beach in the world – even in the Arctic Sea – overwhich Marines could land. Beach characteristics vary greatly. The tide at Inchon, South Korea, where the 1st Marine Division carried out the famous landing that routed the North Korean army in 1950, rises and falls by 30 feet a day.
“Thirty-foot tides, five-knot currents, the 35-mile-long Flying Fish channel with few navigational aids, extensive mud flats, possibility of mines. And the Marines would have to land by climbing up sea walls.”
Capt. R. Schelling, The Sitting Ducks of Inchon, U.S.S. DeHaven Sailors Association (www.ussdehaven.org/six_sitting_ducks.htm).
We spent much time learning to interpret aerial photographs. Long before satellites, horizontal pictures of ground installations and troops yielded crucial information – when you learned to read the pictures.
We perfected our map reading, studying maps of – among other places – South Vietnam. This took place well before the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. But the maps were in French. I recall the map labeled “Tourane,” a port city. By 1965, we knew the place as Da Nang.
We learned to write the intelligence annex to an operation order. The commanding officer issued the so-called Op Order before an attack. When you write the attachment, you learn to write the order, which became my career in the reserves in Houston. Dad made my military career when he showed me how to teach myself touch typing.
We did go into the field — in our case, the beach. We crossed the highway over to the Silver Strand on the Pacific side of Coronado for amphibious exercises. We shared the beach with a class of SEAL trainees from the Navy. We had seen them around the base, but here they were jogging through the sand to begin their final 72-hour burst to graduation. Us lucky Marines moved down to learn about night landings from an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel), the original Higgins boat, which we called the Poppa boat. There were larger boats, but this was the workhorse of the amphibious landing.
The school ferried us out to an Iwo-Jima-class amphibious-assault ship offshore, where we strapped on life preservers and learned how to climb down the rope riggings into the boats, which bob around in the ocean. Then the Navy coxswain took us in for a night landing. He promised to land us dry on the beach. All I could think about was the injunction to step off the ramp with the outboard foot so as not to trip. In the event, we waded ashore through the cold Pacific. We took our objective and shivered in the night air.
School ended in March. On one of our last Sundays, a student from the British Commonwealth chose the afternoon to practise his bagpipes in the large head (bathroom) on the ground floor of a barracks building. I had hummed parts of The Messiah to myself while cleaning the DIs lounge at MCRD San Diego when boot camp was ending. The pipes were another send-off.
There was a test. On passing, I qualified as a “beach intelligence analyst (ground).” With all my new skills and knowledge, the Government returned me by jet aircraft to my reserve unit, Headquarters & Service Co., 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines on March 20, 1964.
In fact, I had become what the Marine infantryman called a Remington Raider. My job was to carry a (Remington) typewriter into combat.
As our little group of reservists moved through Houston’s (pre-Hobby) airport, seabags on shoulders, I saw another newspaper headline: Houston Press to close. Houston’s third newspaper, circulation 90,000, the afternoon competitor to the Houston Chronicle, had ceased business in its scenic 1928 building at Rusk and Chartres.
I had gone to boot camp as a Chronicle reporter, but I had happy memories of The Press, my first newspaper, and its staff. I had made many friends and written lots of forgettable copy at The Press during the summers of 1961 and ‘62. Homecoming turned bittersweet. That was soon to change.