Marine Corps Daze by William Barrons is a hilarious account of a young man who enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on the day after his 17th Birthday of 1943 because his birthday was on a Sunday. He faced the hardships and glory of the War in the Pacific armed only with a manual typewriter and an incredible eye for details. His memoire of World War Two and the days after will jog your memory of locations such as San Diego, Pearl Harbor, the Marshall Islands and Chicago.
In October of 2015 at the age of 89, Bill Barrons deployed with 80 veterans one last time to Washington, DC with Honor Flight, a national organization that flies World War II and Korean veterans back to our nation’s capital to visit the memorials that they fought so hard for. In honor of that experience Bill and his publisher, iCrewDigitalPublishing.com are donating all of the proceeds of Marine Corps Daze to the San Diego and Columbus Honor Flight Organizations. In addition, iCrewDigitalPublishing.com will provide copies of Bill’s book to any Veteran’s organization for the cost of printing and shipping so that they might use them for the purpose of fund-raising.
Chapter One of Marine Corps Daze by William Barrons
O N E
On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, “the date which shall live in infamy,” I walked the awfully long ten miles to and from the ten cent movie show matinee in Frankfort, Michigan, around Betzie Bay from our village of Elberta. They were showing the Academy Award Winning movie about the Great War of 1914-1918 which starred very popular Gary Cooper as Sergeant York.
For me at the tender age of fifteen, it was helpful in also understanding that the Second World War which had been raging in Europe by then for over two years.
The general idea of the movie was that Alvin York had got himself just terribly serious about born-again religion and when the U. S. of A. entered the war he insisted he “warn’t gonna be a shootin’ no Germans, no way, an’ that’s that.”
But in 1917 they drafted Tennessee Alvin’s hillbilly butt anyhow and in basic training on the firing range they discovered that he was a fantastic crack shot. After all, he had for years been shooting wary wild turkeys practically in one eye or the other, with ease.
But he assured his commanding officer that no way was he “a-goin’ to be a-shootin’ them enemy sojers ‘cause he was agin that sorta thing, bein’ a God-fearin’ man an’ sich.”
His Commanding Officer was no dummy and knew the value of accurate rifle fire so he talked ol’ Alvin into giving it a go and he went right over there to France. Not only did he shoot a whole lot more than his share of Germans but he captured a very large passel of hundreds of the enemy all by himself! Naturally, they gave him all sorts of rewards befitting such a plain homespun hero, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I was pondering all this on the five mile walk home to our tiny farm up on a hill and thinking dreamily about the beautiful actress Joan Leslie who ended up marrying Gary Cooper, a.k.a. Sergeant Alvin York.
My Dad met me as I came in our yard with the absolutely stunning news that those dirty, sneaky, yellow-bellied Japanese had sent airplanes to bomb our fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii! Unbelievably, they had actually sunk some of our warships and killed real red-blooded Americans!
Nothing the Japanese could have done would have urged Americans more to get in that war and put aside all that “Isolationist” nonsense once and for all.
Poor me, here I was unable to get into the fight, as of course I wanted to. It seemed every other young fellow in America was going in. You had to be at least seventeen years old to get in the Navy or the Marines and eighteen to join the Army. I wouldn’t be seventeen until fourteen months later and surely the war would be gloriously won and all over by then.
My Dad was very familiar with current events and he assured me “those stupid Japanese would be whipped to a fare-thee-well within six months.”
Slightly older friends of mine would be covered with beautiful Medals of Honor all over them while I stayed at home chopping down trees and cutting them up for firewood every day. There would be no glory for too-young Billy Boy.
You can bet I listened avidly to the news on the radio every night after that. Gabriel Heater and Lowell Thomas were our favorite radio newscasters. Also, we got LIFE magazine every week which always was full of war pictures and stories. There were newsreels from around the world with every movie show. War teaches geography as nothing else does.
Heroes were being made every day. Most that I heard of were rough, tough Marines such as Sergeant John Basilone who machine-gunned about a million Japanese on an island called Guadalcanal down there in the South Pacific Ocean; that was in 1942. Marine Captain Joe Foss was there on Guadalcanal too; he flew an F4F Wildcat fighter plane and shot down twenty-six Japanese planes. Both of them got the Medal of Honor, of course.
By January, 1943, the war was still raging and I had made the decision to join the Marines and told my Dad. He said he understood for during the Great War he had waited too long to go in, figuring that awful war would last years longer.
But Americans won that war quickly and many of Dad’s friends came back covered in laurels and tales of wild adventures over there in France. So he always regretted not going into the fight and therefore understood my need to do so in the current, even larger war.
I dropped out of High School, mid-11th grade, to join up. My darling Mother accompanied me as we choo-chooed on the Ann Arbor Railroad down there to Detroit City. Being seventeen, I had to have a parent sign for me. I was disappointed though in that the Marine’s recruiting office was closed on Sunday, February 1st, 1943, my seventeenth birthday; I’d have to wait another entire day to sign up!
You don’t just sign up, I found out. You have to be examined by a Doctor to make certain you’re fit to fight. Well, he looked me over really well and said my six foot two height and two hundred pounds of solid young man looked like okay material. But I’d have to have a couple of teeth fixed and that would take a few days.
Also, the Doctor looked for “identifying marks” and saw my left thumb had the tip chopped off when I was eight years old, playing with my Dad’s ever-so-sharp carpenter’s hatchet. The remaining thumbnail was badly mangled.
The Doctor said it was a very good thing for identifying me if I got struck by an exploding Japanese or Nazi shell – or maybe a very large bomb. My badly messed up thumb would probably be the only part remaining that they could positively know who I was; you know, to notify my Mom and Dad that I’d been blasted to teeny tiny pieces!
Of course the Doc was having a little fun with me. But I knew everyone in the Services constantly wore two “dog tags” around their necks. The tags were metal with all the identifying information punched into them. They were practically indestructible and no “identifying marks” were in fact necessary.
In a few days I was back with tooth cavities filled and I held my hand up high to be sworn into the United States Marine Corps. I was assigned serial number 531960.
Next came the astounding news that I’d have to wait to be called to active duty! So many had joined the Marines they actually had to hold off accepting men for training! The Army and the Navy were begging for men while the Marines couldn’t accept all those who wanted to fight. I had to wait a whole four months until June to choo-choo out three thousand miles to San Diego, California, for so-called “boot camp.” That was one very, very long train ride.
Many other newly enlisted men also got off the train at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad station there. We were met by bellowing bullies ordering us onto big flat-bed trucks for the ride to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
Getting on that truck and arriving at the base was an extremely shocking experience because of being screamed at constantly with every other word being the foulest I’d ever heard. No joke: I could never have imagined I would have addressed to me, to my face, such ugly, dirty, filthy words – and all the time.
As I’m certain others did, I said to myself when finally allowed to get in bed that first “Boot Camp” night, “Dear Mother, what have I done, joining such an insane outfit?”
As an example of how all-pervasive the cussing was, a friend of mine named Bradley went home “on furlough” after Boot Camp to visit his very religious Preacher-father and family. They had a huge welcome-home-hero-son dinner for him. During it he called out, “Pass the f—king butter, Mom!” That dining room must have been silent a long time after.
We all had the rank of, and were called “Privates”. Everyone soon found out Privates were the very least private persons on earth. Heavens, what with exams and wide-open bathrooms, even us Privates’ privates weren’t private!
The next morning we were introduced to a Corporal Lassiter, a “Devil’s Instrument” masquerading as a “Drill Instructor”, our “D.I.”
He was a small, unpleasant fellow wearing a khaki uniform that was heavily starched stiff and skin-tight to show he was somewhat muscular.
Lassiter commanded a little awe right away for he had a 1st Marine Division patch on his shoulder. He had supposedly battled the Japanese on Guadalcanal, such fighting being in the news all the time. But I noticed he wasn’t displaying any Medals of Honor ribbons on his chest.
Through the next eight weeks, Devil’s Instrument Lassiter eagerly demonstrated his profoundly insolent contempt for the mere unworthies in his charge.
Extreme emphasis was placed on “close order drill” – Hup! Toop! Treep! just endlessly, hour after hour. Riot faze! Laff faze! Ah-boot faze! For-hard Harch! Hup! Toop! Treep! Laff! Riot! Laff! After a while one had to wonder what planet the Devil’s Instrument was from. He certainly spoke a different language from that we had learned in our Earth-bound schools.
Corporal Lassiter carried a “swagger stick,” always. It looked to be a twenty-four-inch-long cut-off pool stick with a .50 caliber bullet on the pointy end and the brass cartridge for it on the other end. Lassiter was forever nastily hitting Recruits with it.
He was especially eager to whack the front of my “pith helmet” when he imagined I wore it at a too-rakish angle, as though he had put a carpenter’s level on it. Usually, when he struck, the screw holding the Marine Corps eagle-globe-and-anchor emblem on the front of the hat would cut into my forehead, drawing blood. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I never got a Purple Heart medal for that and I really should have, I figured, since I was wounded by the enemy.
Lassiter was most fond of whacking men in the legs when he saw they “were out of step”. My shins were just about as bruised as the other sixty-four men in our platoon.
Among the surprises was the remarkably great food we were fed; and always, all we could eat. Since I had been brought up poor during the Great Depression – as had most of my Platoon mates – I had come to value good food very much. We could drink all the fresh milk we wanted from ice cold pitchers of it all up and down the tables. I’d never had that privilege. We had ice cream and even pie ala mode for dinner every night! Amazing!
It seemed unbelievable to me that some of the guys actually complained about that truly good food, it being “fashionable” to imply they had always been fed far, far better at home. Baloney; none of them had ever had it so good in the food department.
One day our Recruit Platoon was assigned to sit in front of the Recruit Depot movie theater to listen to Very Big Movie Star Randolph Scott – playing the role of Marine Colonel Carlson – give us a speech about us supposedly joining the incredibly hard-nosed “Marine Raiders”. That was for the movie “Gung Ho!” The Raiders were the vague equivalent of “Commandos” but were disbanded after awhile since every and all Marines were supposed to be supremely good warriors.
The speech lasted only a few minutes during the movie but hard to believe as it may be, it took nearly the entire day to get that single scene on film correctly. The Virginian Randolph Scott was a good-looking and impressive actor but he had a terrible memory for his lines.
Sitting right next to me for that speech was Noah Berry, Jr., a friendly man to me and a fairly big star himself. Also in it was the nice guy J. Carol Naish, posing as a Marine Major and also the beautiful Martha Hyer – although we never saw her except in the movie itself.
It was interesting in that the actors who portrayed raw recruits such as ourselves, wore the very finest, tailored officer uniforms whereas we real Marines were dressed in the horse blanket green wool that wouldn’t hold a press for two minutes.
Over the years I’ve seen that movie several times and cannot find myself in it; I found Noah Berry, Jr. sure enough and although I sat next to him on his right, the other recruits and I are but a blur.
But that’s okay since it turned out to be the rawest and worst sort of propaganda, portraying the mission of a raid by Marine Raiders on the Jap’s Makin Island in the Gilbert’s chain, as wonderfully successful and heroic. The truth was, the raid was full of tragic blunders, end to end, with lots of casualties; all of whom were necessarily left behind, contrary to the heroic claims in the movie.
That truth may have had something to do with disbanding the Raiders, too.
Writing of that MCRD theater reminds me we were entertained there once by a magician named Blackstone. Among the amazing things Blackstone performed was hypnotizing about a dozen recruits up on the stage. While they were in that state, he handed them potatoes which he told them were solid gold nuggets! It was hilarious to see their reactions to that bit of nonsense and the other tricks he pulled.
At the end of the show Mr. Blackstone asked for a volunteer to come up from the audience and the magician picked out a likely young Marine. Then as he was talking to him on the stage and walking around him he’d hand the fellow his watch he’d just taken off his wrist! After a bit he’d hand him his necktie; then his belt; and finally, his undershorts! All of this right in front of our eyes.
Of course, hindsight tells you that of course the “man in the audience” was a plant and part of the act. But we were much too amazed and gullible to catch on at the time.
By and by we were trucked out to Camp Matthews, north of town on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific. We spent two weeks there on the rifle range, learning how to shoot a .30 caliber Garand M-l semi-automatic rifle. It had a twenty-four-inch barrel, weighed about ten pounds and had truly beautiful black walnut carved as its “stock”. That wood is too rare and precious to use in most guns any more.
The rifle’s clip held eight brass “cartridges” (a word that has no connection with carts-on-ridges; it’s just an English corruption of the French word “cartouche” which is the French corruption of the their own word “carta-rouge”, meaning red paper – which of course they never were, the original wrapping paper always being brown.)
The Canadian gunsmith John Garand, I suppose, figured eight shots were better than the five shots in the old bolt-action Springfield rifle (a copy of the German Mauser rifle) and “don’t you know, if you give those men guns with lots of ammo they’d just waste it.” You know, they might waste it by shooting up the enemy instead of digging around for more ammo while the enemy shoots up them.
Of course, I never had any such thoughts at the time, assuming then that the Army and Marines to be all-knowing, all wise and so forth in weaponry.
Each recruit was assigned his own personal weapon that he was supposedly to keep and fight with so long as he was in the Corps. “So you’d damn well best keep it clean, it’s your life, etc.”
A dandy feature that the genius gunsmith Garand put on the M-l was that clip which jumped up and flew out of the rifle when you’d shot off the eighth round. It would “PING!” loudly enough when ejected that everyone in the neighborhood would know it was okay to stick their heads up and shoot back at that pesky American who had just run his rifle dry.
A peculiar thing in Recruit Training was when the Devil’s Instrument would stop the Hup! Toop! Treep! Laff! Riot! Laff! and call out, “Smokin’ lamp’s lit!”
That’s an on-board-Navy-ship term meaning it’s okay to light up that slow-death poison wrapped in paper so’s you can breathe in lots of poison gas.
A few of us Boots hadn’t smoked cigarettes since it was fairly well known it could cause “shortness of breath”; not a good condition for those who loved playing football and such.
Interestingly, the D.I. considered it manly to breathe in poison gas so those few of us who thought it best not to do so, were assigned to “police the area” during the smoking time. Policing the area meant picking up and disposing of the cigarette butts the “manly ones” had thrown to the ground.
I quickly got the general idea as most others did and began puffing away at that poison. I did so for the next forty-six years, inhaling the gas from two thirds of a million of those poisonous weeds (I actually calculated it) before I was finally able to quit. I have the ruined heart, lungs and arteries to prove it.
Out of sixty-five men in our Platoon, I got the second highest shooting score. I remember well, it was 311 out of a possible 320 points, for an Expert Rifleman badge, on the two hundred, three hundred and five-hundred-yard rifle ranges. The fellow who beat the rest of the Platoon and me with his 317 score, was a Detroit kid who had never been out of his city and had never seen a gun before, let alone shoot one!
I had shot zillions of tin cans and at least as many sparrows and squirrels, so I had some experience and he had none at all. But also, he had no bad shooting habits to overcome. That Detroit youngster oddly obeyed Marine Corps instructions exactly; the cheat.
There were movie stars going through the San Diego Boot Camp, same as us nonentities; after all, Hollywood was merely a little way north up the road. Very big star Tyrone Power had gone through two weeks ahead of my Platoon, although I can’t recall seeing him there.
My Recruit Platoon was blessed with the presence of William Lundigan, an especially handsome hunk of blonde manhood and his star was rising then in Hollywood. On a weekend at the rifle range, Lundigan’s many beautiful lady friend actresses drove down from Hollywood in their snazzy convertibles to visit with him. Us ordinary Boots could only look on with our mouths agape at the wondrous glory of being a handsome movie star.
Also in my Platoon were two “body builders” from Paramount Studios in Hollywood who worked on the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to keep them in shape. Both were excellent examples of “built” bodies.
Upon returning to San Diego in 1972 I found there was a brand new Veteran’s Medical Center on the University of California-San Diego campus where the old Marine Corps firing ranges had been into the 1950’s. The VA doctors are all UCSD Medical School faculty, right next door. I’ve been a lucky, thankful patient off and on at the VA there ever since. They’ve saved my life there more than once.
We learned upon returning from the rifle range to the Recruit Depot that in our two week absence, a huge B-24 “Liberator” four-engine bomber, it’s capacious tanks filled with high octane aviation gasoline, hadn’t quite made it into the air when taking off over the Base. It crashed into the recruit’s mess hall at dinner time. Several hundred young Marines had been killed in the calamity.
That disastrous wartime news was never allowed in print, censorship very much in place then. Many years later I met a man who had been a newspaper boy who daily sold papers on the Recruit Depot at that time. He remembered the catastrophe clearly and wondered at the time why it wasn’t mentioned in the papers he peddled.
Those of us who drilled every day on that so-called parade ground – the “Grinder” – knew the danger as those huge bombers were taking off right over our heads, just barely, every day from the next-door Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft factory on the present-day Lindbergh Field. In fact, the name Consolidated-Vultee was eventually shortened to the more familiar Convair. We could see the patches in the fence at the end of their runway and the patches in the asphalt paving where planes crashed and where we Hup! Toop! Treeped! every day.
It was much later that I learned many of those giant aircraft were being ferried on their first flight, from the factory to Army Air Corps and Navy airfields, by women pilots with the barest minimum of the skills necessary to fly such planes.
On the last day of our Recruit Training, our day of grateful graduation, we were screamed out of our “sacks” when it was not yet light out. The Devil’s Instrument Lassiter said to dress up in our horse blanket green wool uniforms. Usually, we wore the standard light green gabardine jacket and trousers.
The day before I had been ordered to get a pretty red Private First Class chevron sewn onto my green coat sleeves and stripes sewn even on my shirts.
Somehow I was lucky enough to be among the percentage of those who would get five bucks more a month than the base pay of a mere Private who only got fifty a month.
When ready, we “formed up” outside our “quarters”. I, being among the tallest, was always posted in the front row, one slightly taller man to my left and twenty gradually shorter men – down to the shortest “feather merchants” – to my right.
Along with masses of new Marines in other graduating Platoons, we marched along the Parade Ground before the reviewing stand holding observing officers. We patiently “listened” to three or four speeches and then were given our orders to new stations.
We were actually given a choice after Recruit Training, whether to go into further training as Marine “Infantry” at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego, and be a “grunt” like the rightly admired Sergeant John Basilone … or, we could go into Marine Aviation as Captain Joe Foss did, at the Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, in the north of the city.
Unbelievable to me, a couple of guys in our Platoon asked to be “Sea-Going Bell Hops,” wanting Sea Duty. They’d become Admiral’s orderlies and such on battleships, maybe. I never understood those two rather “pretty” guys at all.
Among those who were trucked to the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar, in the north of San Diego, I was a very happy young fellow to “stow my gear” and get on a bus into town on my first Liberty in eight very long weeks!
I happen to be writing this more than sixty seven years after experiencing Devil’s Instrument Lassiter and I can still see the utter contempt on his snarling face and how he was universally hated by all in our Recruit Platoon. In all those eight weeks, I can’t recall that we ever heard a word of praise or encouragement from him; he gave us to know constantly, how very unworthy we were.
But remarkably, after we were away from Boot Camp and away from him, we were all amazed that we survived the ordeal and proud that we had had the toughest, meanest, most monstrous D.I. in the whole United States Marine Corps!
I opted for Aviation because I felt there just might be some way I could become a flyer, even if I was a high school drop-out half way through the eleventh grade. I wished to be much like ol’ Joe Foss and shoot down a hundred or two hundred Japanese planes and get myself several of those dandy Medals of Honor.
In testing me, they determined since I was a big, strong wood chopper Michigan farm boy of six-foot-two (with eyes of blue) and a high school drop-out, I’d be just right for Marine Corps Aviation Administration school. That is, I’d become a “Clerk”; or a “Chair-borne-Paragraph-Trooper” (sort of borrowing from the words for men who jumped out of airplanes to fight: “Airborne Paratroopers”, you see).
Some called us, doubtless out of great respect, “Office Pinkies.”
Sixteen weeks at that school, located on the Naval Training Center, San Diego, was a real struggle. We actually had typing drill as much as five hours a day! Five hours a day of repetitious drill, banging on a manual typewriter!
I couldn’t type a word when I began that school yet typed ninety six words a minute in a fifteen minute test – error free – at the end! That was pounding on the old manual typewriters, not even electrified. The top student, who had much previous experience, typed one hundred twenty words a minute! Mind you, that on a manual typewriter, error free!
There was administration schooling including a great lot of Marine Corp history and every sort of report forms beyond counting. And there was plenty of the physical stuff – including of course that Hup! Toop! Treep! Laff! Riot! Laff! thing every day. Classes were held after evening chow also, five times a week.
Every Saturday morning there were tests and a tough inspection in the afternoon. Usually, we had “liberty” Saturday night and Sunday for those who passed inspection. I remember this very well for I had a date for a Saturday night but the Major thought the creases in my horse blanket green wool trousers weren’t sharp enough so I was denied liberty!
After Boot Camp I had met a very nice, pretty San Diego girl at a USO dance. She asked me my age and I said, “You first.”
She said she was nineteen and therefore I couldn’t admit to being a child of seventeen and said I was twenty! She accepted that and got to liking me and we dated just about every weekend. Gosh, she was a really great and graceful dancer. In fact, she and her younger sister entertained troops at USO shows with fantastic acrobatic acts.
I gave her to think she was my girl but I had got started with her telling that awful lie about my age and never did correct it.
Having forgotten that I told her my birth date, doggone it, on February first, when I went to pick her up at her lovely Kensington neighborhood house, she and her mother and sister had baked a birthday cake for me, complete with twenty-one blazing candles! It was awfully embarrassing but I didn’t have the courage to confess I turned but eighteen that day.
That sweet gal and I went by streetcar then to dance at the Pacific Ballroom downtown, at Pacific Highway and Ash Streets. The wonderful crooner Bob Crosby and his Bobcats orchestra were there and to my surprise, because such a big star was performing, the tickets were fifty cents more for each of us. So I had to shell out the 1888 silver dollar I had been keeping in my pocket as a good luck charm! It was a penalty much deserved for my lying. I have to wonder what that coin would be worth today; I’ll bet it’s worth rather more than two times fifty cents.
Bob Crosby often filled in for his brother Bing on Bing’s weekly radio show, so we knew he was absolutely terrific. You could see he was a bit tipsy that night on the stage – he nearly fell off – but even so, he sang beautifully as my gal and dead broke me danced the night away.
I barely had the three total nickels necessary to take her home on the streetcar and then to return by streetcar to base.
We always saw military aircraft flying over us in San Diego in those days. The North Island Naval Air Station had many Naval Aviators and student flyers. By the time I got to San Diego, “North Island” was no longer an island. Originally Coronado was separated from North Island by a shallow channel called the Spanish Bight. When the United States Navy got there in 1944, they filled in the channel and North Island became one with Coronado.
North Island then also housed Rockwell Field where Army Air Corps pilots trained, mostly in extremely fast, twin engine P-38 “Lightning” pursuit airplanes. These were said to be quite hard to handle.
We often saw the two-engine flying boats called PBY Catalinas taking off and landing on San Diego bay. When taking flight, they usually flew rather close over our school building on the Naval Training Center.
One day we looked out in horror to see one of those flying boat Catalinas taking off from the bay but not gaining altitude! Sure enough, it looked as though that Catalina was going to come right through the window into our class room! No kidding! But at the last second, it rose up and missed us.
Then we saw the reason. One of those Army Air Corps very fast P-38s was spinning out of control, on fire, right behind the PBY! It also barely missed our school but we heard it crash with a terrific blast! On the opposite side of Rosecrans Street, it hit with great luck in an area between three houses, not harming any of them.
The pilot, we heard, had been practicing “dog fighting” with other P-38s when another struck him and down he went. We heard he hadn’t bailed out and had died with his plane.
We Aviation Administration School graduates were all supposed to become First Sergeants and Sergeants Major in time.
I was lucky again, one of those getting a second chevron on my arm as a Corporal upon graduating in January, 1944, with a good score. I was still not quite eighteen years old at the time.
We graduates went back to the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar for further assignment and continued battle tactics training in the muddy or dusty “boondocks” while there.
Right after I had turned an ancient age eighteen on February first, 1944, a bunch of us from that class were to go to duty overseas. Ah! Action at last!