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Marines are Tough (mostly)

By Marc Jennings

When Darlene and I were married in 1968, I stayed in Dayton the following school year. I had finished my sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati, but now needed to earn enough to finish school, plus support my new wife. I had been very lucky to get a production job at Frigidaire that summer and I figured that if I worked the summer and following school year I could save enough to finish my senior year back at UC. I transferred to Wright State for my junior year, while I worked at Frigidaire.

I was a full time student carrying 18 credit hours. I worked on the first shift assembling top-loading dishwashers at Frigidaire Plant #2 in Moraine. The first shift began at 6:18 AM, and the whistle blew ending the shift at 3:48 PM. I came home, showered, ate and went to the Wright State campus for evening classes. Around October of ’68 the production of top-loading dishwashers was suspended (sales of that product were not robust, although I bought one for Darlene and it was great).

Again, I was fortunate to be transferred to the front-loading dishwasher line rather than being laid off; but with little seniority, I went to second shift. I was able to get into daytime sessions of all my classes. Our daughter, Amy was born early in 1969 at Good Sam. Six weeks later, at her scheduled checkup, the doctor informed us that Darlene was to have another child later that year. Shortly before the beginning of the ’69-’70 school year, we packed up our belongings and moved to Cincinnati, where I would finish my Bachelor’s degree at UC. Our son, Matthew, was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, during Winter Quarter final exams.

As a result of a rather relaxed attitude toward scholarship my first two years, it took additional time to accumulate the credits required for graduation. However, I had the credits soon after the beginning of 1971. While waiting for June graduation, I inquired if the Cincinnati Board of Education might like to have my services as a substitute teacher. The Board said they would be delighted with such an arrangement, which was very lucky since my meager savings were all but exhausted, and part-time jobs didn’t help much.

They called me early every morning and told me what hell-hole inner city junior high or high school I was to report to that day. I went to them all, and it was nearly a combat situation. I was paid back 100 times for whatever disruptions and pranks I had ever pulled on substitute teachers as a student. But, for the first time ever, I was able to spend more time with my wife and young children, without the necessity of studying or writing papers. This was wonderful since everything I did was for them.

Into our world came greetings one day from draft board #90 in Dayton. They said I had some unfinished business in the form of military service. Despite my appeal that I now had a family to support, they insisted. I was invited to the Federal Building in downtown Cincinnati one morning very early for a draft physical. If it had not carried such serious consequences, it would have been hilarious. By this time, every warm body that was drafted was sent to Vietnam as soon as possible, from where you might or might not return alive. This prospect did not seem to be popular with most of my physical examination comrades. So the day-long examination, which was a pretty humiliating experience anyway, was chocked full of guys pretending to be unfit for service in one way or another. There were guys who would suddenly collapse for no apparent reason, guys who wouldn’t stop shaking, guys who hyperventilated, guys who pretended (I think) to be crazy, you name the affliction, somebody there had it. Before it was all over, I began to be a little concerned about the future of our country.

I already knew what the results of my physical would be—1A: fit for active duty. So I knew I had better come up with a Plan B, and fast. How my Plan B became entering the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidate School is another story all by itself, but that’s what I did.

After I took the oath to support and defend the Constitution, the Marine Corps gave me a very short, but specific set of instructions on reporting for training. The instructions told how transportation would be provided, what to bring, what to bring it in, what to leave behind, and what to wear. The instructions said I would be expected to pass a PFT (physical fitness test) at the time I reported in. The test included x-number of pull-ups, x-number of sit-ups in two minutes, and the ability to run three miles in so many minutes. It only took me a few minutes one afternoon to discover that three miles was a very, very long distance, and that I was hopelessly out of shape.

But I began working at it. I set up a three mile course from our apartment and I ran a little farther every day. The more I ran, the more my confidence grew. I might survive after all. I received orders that directed me to report for instruction, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, VA on 22 August, 1971. Meanwhile, I learned all I could about military training and how it was conducted. Along with my physical conditioning, I believed I was getting well prepared for what lay ahead.

A couple of weeks before I was scheduled to leave, I moved us back to Dayton, where Darlene’s parents would be closer if needed. We moved into a small apartment building just off Salem, across from K-Mart, not too far from the Salem Mall. Scott and Linda Kelso lived on one side of us and Linda’s sister and her husband lived on the other side. These arrangements were the best I could do to ensure Darlene and the kids were safe and cared for in my absence.

Finally, the day arrived. August 22, 1971. I had asked my father-in-law to take me to the airport because I couldn’t stand the thought of saying goodbye to Darlene and the kids there if they took me. Somehow, it seemed more bearable if we could say our goodbye’s at our home. Still, it was very difficult. We did not want to be apart and there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future. It was even difficult to leave my father-in-law at the airport. Lewis Glaze was a good man and I liked him. Before Darlene and I were married he asked me to promise to take care of Darlene. I promised that I would, and have done my best to honor that promise ever since. There were tears in both our eyes as I boarded my TWA flight to Washington National Airport.

The flight, my first ever, lifted off and I was filled with many strong emotions, the strongest of which was a longing to be back home with my family. In the succeeding years I have flown to Washington too many times to count and these flights always seemed to be bumpy. This first one was no exception. But after a little over an hour we touched down on the very short runway at National Airport.

I arrived at between 10:30 and 11:00 AM. Transportation was to be at the airport to take us to Quantico at 4:00 PM. So I had some time to kill. I carried with me a small bag that looked like the old fashioned Doctor’s bag. This is what the Marine Corps instructions said to bring and I had to look through a number of stores in Cincinnati to find one. In it were basically just toiletries, with not room for much else.

I walked around the terminal a bit and then had lunch. The place looked well worn, and the food was nothing to write home about. After lunch, I noticed there were a few other guys sitting around with bags like mine. In another hour or so, you could see them all around. We began to approach one another and ask if they were waiting for the bus to Quantico. Soon we had a pretty good sized group. But we didn’t have much to talk about and no one seemed to be in the mood for any lively conversation. I guess you could say we were a pretty subdued group. They were probably, like me, wishing they were back home.

I felt gradually more tense as the time approached to leave for the base. And pretty much right at 4:00 PM an announcement echoed through the terminal for “personnel reporting to Marine Corps OCS please move to the main terminal entrance”. If this happened today, many people would applaud, smile, wish us good luck and “thanks for serving”. But at that time there were only stares and silence. We moved to the main entrance and out the door to several buses.

Guiding us were actual Marines and we scrutinized them carefully. Were these the brutish D.I.’s that would soon be training us? They actually seemed very professional, courteous, and otherwise non-threatening. We gave our name to these Marines who directed each of us to a particular bus where we waited quietly for everyone to get on board. Soon the doors closed, the engines started and the buses pulled away from the terminal and out to Interstate 95 South.

I guess the ride to Quantico was 30 to 40 minutes long. In the bus I was on it was pretty quiet, kind of like the cell of a condemned man on the day of his execution. What can you say? The buses exited off 95, and not too far from the exit was the guard post at the main entrance to the base. The MP on duty waved us onto the base.

The Marine Corps Base at Quantico is actually quite small as military installations go. At the entrance is a shabby little town named Triangle. And inside the base itself is the equally small town of Quantico. I suppose there is a demarcation where MCB Quantico stops and Quantico, Virginia starts, but if so it exists on paper only. For all intents and purposes the town belongs to the Marine Corps. At the end of the one main street in Quantico is the Potomac River. But at this point it looks like a lake. It must be well over a mile wide.

Our buses drove slowly through the base. There were Korean War era buildings and housing all along our route, but they were very well maintained and obviously well cared for. (A few months later when Darlene and the kids had moved into our quarters on base—2920A Thomaston Park—MP’s dropped by the day she moved in to give us a written warning that “You will rake the leaves at your quarters within 24 hours. Rakes are available at central supply”) We turned right and came to a built up area. On the right were a number of buildings including a large auditorium and a PX. On the left was the little town of Quantico. Our buses quickly went through this area and continued on until we began to see hangars, taxiways and other signs of aircraft operations on the left. Always visible on the left was the wide Potomac so we were moving south.

Beyond the airstrip, the road curved to the left so that we were even closer to the river. It felt humid. The buildings became more sparse and nondescript. There was a different look to this area—penal colony, might describe its appearance. We went a little further until the road took a sharp right turn, crossed railroad tracks and came upon an immense blacktopped area upon which were standing a number of people. The buses came to a stop. This was it. The doors opened. Marines in drill instructor “campaign hats” stepped on board. There was no welcoming greeting. In loud, commanding tones we were told: “When I say move you will get off the bus and take a position outside on the yellow footprints where you will stand at attention. MOVE!”

I thought I was prepared. I thought I was in shape. I thought I was ready for whatever the Marine Corps could throw at me. Oh, I was so wrong.

In fact, my fellow candidates and me (that’s what we were now for the next 13 weeks, candidates) were the lowest of the low. We knew less than nothing. We could do nothing right. We were a waste of the Marine Corps’ time and money. We were stupid and clumsy, idiots and morons, ladies. In short, we were maggots.

Beginning when we stepped on those yellow footprints, and continuing on for weeks, we never had a moment to relax, to think. Never. At all times of the day and night there was a Marine instructor telling us what to do and how to do it and then telling us how we screwed it up, “numb-nuts!” They screamed in our ears from a distance of 2 inches as we stood at attention. We were hit, shoved, pushed, pulled, knocked down and poked. A metal trashcan was rolled down the aisle of our squad bay (barracks) every morning at 4:30 AM accompanied by someone screaming Get up! Get up! Get up! Get up, you maggots! If they could learn anything personal about any of us, they used it to ridicule us. Nothing was off limits. We had two minutes to shower and shave. When the day was over we stood at attention by our racks (beds, bunk) until the command was given to “Mount”, at which time we leaped into our bunks. “Sleep”, was the next command given, and after a few days, we followed it to the letter.

This training certainly changed every concept I ever had of what it means to be tough. I saw huge, hulking men and hardened combat veterans collapsed in agony. I knew what it was like to be willing to do almost anything to make the pain stop. I participated in training events so grueling that every single part of your body hurt so bad it was unendurable, yet it would go on for five or six hours; and after which a fellow candidate would find his leg fractured in seven different places.

Like combat itself, no one who has never experienced this can fully understand what it is like. It is torture, physical and mental. It is calculated cruelty. It is a search for the weak who must be eliminated. It is real and it is serious. It’s not over at the end of the day, or the end of the week. It changes you. Its purpose is to strip away everything about you, as an individual, and when this is done, to put you back together little by little as a military device that will not hesitate to follow orders, to function in the insanity of combat, to order other men to their possible deaths.

After several weeks of Marine Corps training I was a human wretch. I had lost my bearings, my ability to put things in perspective; I could no longer tell what was important to me except surviving one more hour. It was at this point one Saturday morning our company was called into formation. We were told that we would be permitted to make a phone call of one minute duration. This was astounding information. We could make a call. Long suppressed thoughts of home and family and loneliness began to seep into my mind.

Our company, “C”, consisted of about 250 men. The street in front of our barracks was our company street. We were put in a single file line in the middle of our company street. At the end of the street was our mess hall. By the front door of the mess hall was a pay phone on a metal stand. It was at this phone that the members of our company would make their calls. Soon the first man in line was escorted up to the phone to make his call as a guard stood by.

The rest of us stood there in line. No talking was permitted. We were in our heavy cotton utility uniforms, starched as stiff as a board, heavy wool socks, heavy boots. It was very hot and the sun beat down on us unmercifully. There were probably 180 men in front of me when we started. I saw men walking back from the phone. Most were shaken. The eyes of many were red. I waited. Thoughts jumbled through my mind. What would I say? What could I say? I waited. Sweat had soaked through all my clothes. I was confused. I waited in the street in the heat. Then it was my turn.

I walked up to that phone that I had stared at for hours. It had a rotary dial and I dialed the right number. The sound of ringing, and Darlene picked up the phone and said hello. At that moment emotions burst forth within me in an explosion of feelings. I lost it and broke down in tears. I’m not talking about sniffling and wiping a tear from your eye; I cried like a baby, sobbing. When I could get a word out I begged Darlene to find a way to get me out of here. I did not stop to consider the effect receiving such an unexpected and upsetting call would have on Darlene. I was her husband, the father of her children and she was depending on me. It just shows how screwed up I was at that moment.

That was the low point for me. I could get no worse short of putting the muzzle of my M-14 in my mouth and pulling the trigger. And, the phone call home was part of the program; the Marine Corps program to eliminate the civilian Marc Jennings and replace him with Second Lieutenant M. S. Jennings, USMCR. Darlene wrote to me and encouraged me. She told me what the kids were doing. We still have the letters and she read them to me not long ago. She supported me when I desperately needed it. She told my father how bad I had gotten and he too, provided support and encouragement that were crucial in enabling me to endure and overcome.

In the weeks that followed, ever so slightly at first, the program eased up. We didn’t notice at the time, but we were left with a few more minutes each day unsupervised. We were still stupid and clumsy and ladies, but we were no longer maggots. Some of the torture was replaced with instruction. We were given opportunities to exercise leadership and solve problems under stress. All things military were, by then, second nature, and they are with me today.

In the second week of November, 1971, Darlene flew to Washington and traveled to Quantico for my graduation and commissioning ceremony. We stayed the weekend at the Marriott at Crystal City. That was a sweet reunion. Many of those who had started with me on 22 August did not make it. Some failed after the end of the 13th week. But those of us who made it were about to be Marine Officers, an accomplishment that I will always be most proud of.

I had eight more months of difficult and challenging training to complete before I was sent to the “real” Marine Corps to see if I would measure up to the men who went before me in noble service to our country. When it was all over I was hard as nails. I could do just about anything, and so could the Marines I led. There was not an enemy on earth that could stand up to us. We would fight until victorious or perish in the effort. We were tough.

But I did not become tough before I saw how weak I was. I would never have become tough without the support and faithful love of my family and my wife. Tucked away in a spare bedroom of our house is a framed certificate presented to Darlene soon before I graduated from The Basic School, the six month infantry training course that all Marine Officers go through. The certificate proclaims her as a Marine Wife. And no one more richly deserves such a high honor, for without her the United States of America would have had one less tough Marine.