I Join the Marines and Survive Pusan, Korea, Atomic Testing, and Flight School
Santa Barbara was too much fun, and I was too young, and all the WW2 guys were back. They were serious students and pushed the curve. It was my first real serious exposure to drinking. So I sort of drank my way through the first year and a half. I was more interested in sports and a serious romance with a young woman to I became engaged. We were to end the relationship in September 1952 do mostly due to my immaturity. I think it was probably a blessing in disguise though. When I look back on these years I think, “My God.” My grades just plummeted and I was the perennial pledge, because you had to have a C average and I didn’t have a C average. I left Santa Barbara the 18th of January in ’51; I had voluntered for three years with the Marine Corps and departed for boot camp. That was a whole other experience that will stick in anybody’s memory that’s had the experience. At Santa Barbara I was just essentially barely making it in school, and in fact leaving one half step ahead of them kicking me out. Though I got a nice letter from them because I had gone in the service saying they’d welcome me back. Well, they did years later, but that first semester I was on academic probation. But that was years later.
Just before you got out of boot camp they’d give you your MOS—that’s your Military Occupational Specialty number—and I ended being an infantryman. The number of the MOS was something like 0311 or something like that. The saying was when you got that number was oh-three-oh-shit. And that’s what I had.
I was sent to Camp Pendleton, with my fresh PFC stripe and the first thing I get—which probably saved my life—was two months of mess duty. In those days, the lower grades did the mess duty. They didn’t hire civilians as they do today you just did it. And so after the two months I then started in my infantry training at Tent Camp 2, Camp Pendleton as a BAR man, which is a Browning Automatic Rifle. The nice thing about the BAR is you had automatic fire, but you were also the one who attracted the most fire back. Well, we shipped out in September of ’51, and I was a part of the twelfth replacement draft. We arrived in Pusan which you could smell a half day out. It was something. I ended up in a big replacement depot, fully expecting to be assigned to a line company as a BAR man. How it turned out, I don’t know, but I ended up in a place called Service Battalion. And Service Battalion had all the different support services for the division. It was the first Marine division. Thus, I didn’t end up on Line Company. Had I arrived two months earlier, I would have gone through Operation Ripper probably as a BAR man and you and I wouldn’t be talking to each other. Because Marines took about 80% casualty during that lethal time.
Anyhow, I’m now initially assigned to a fuel platoon. We’re just moving around drums of gas. And then after that for some reason or another I get assigned to this outfit called the platoon that mends tents and does all sorts of repair stuff. At that time I received an MOS as leather and textile repairman, which was a real break since I went over there PFC and I came back a Sergeant because the MOS in need of personnel.
At some point, probably around February of ’52, I’m now assigned to graves registration Platoon. It was all part of the service battalion. My job was essentially the clerk-typiest, but my job as clerk was when they brought the dead to us I had to go through their belongings and make sure that nothing went home that showed violence. You know, blood stains or damaged personal property . So that was my job over half a year.
Well, yeah, but not as tough as being in a battalion aid station with people screaming and yelling. These guys at least were dead. But we would go up to the aid stations to pick up the body and guys were getting their first triage treatment before being sent back to the hospital ship. And it was… well, it was a job. So in September… oh. I guess one thing that was sort of interesting.
One time we—I guess this would have been in October or November, probably November of ’51—we went out on a patrol. These weren’t patrols going out ahead of the lines, but patrols making sure there weren’t guerilla operations or something like that. And so we went out with this squad, and a guy name of John Haislip who later became a judge in Alabama, he and I went up this draw, and there was this bunker. So we come in from each side, and jump in the bunker, and there’s nothing there. I found an officer’s epaulet or something like that. We then did something stupid and started walking out in front of the bunker back down toward the trail we used to come up there. At one point I looked down at my feet and I see every now and then a dish like impressions. And I said, “Oh shit, John. Stop. We’re in the middle of a minefield.” So we stepped where there weren’t any depressions. (Laughs.) A season had gone by and where they’d buried them the dirt had settled. So we walked through that without incident. Just the luck of the Irish.
I guess another memorable thing was on Christmas we went back into our rear area where the USO was having a big show and Danny Kay showed up, and that was sort of neat. And let’s see. Well, then November ’52 we left to go back home. Aboard ship the rumor went around that we were going to turn back because the Chinese had started up a minor push, but the guys in our unit who’d gone up on the lines and some got killed, but it didn’t amount to anything.
And so we went back to the States, and after going on leave I was assigned with the third Marine division Graves Registration Platoon at Camp Pendleton I then received orders to go back to the special screening course. I had, when I was in Korea, had applied for a commission. There was a program for enlisted people who met certain qualifications to go back to the screening course at Quantico.
And so I go back there and it was—if boot camp was difficult - this one month we went through this screening course—I mean boot camp looked like Sunday school. They really threw it at us. The cadre were all highly decorated company grade officers, and they really put us through the paces. We even got Rorschach exams , and, you know, just, at the end of this they knew the participants better than they knew themselves. A lot of stress stuff: giving problems to which there were no solutions. They’d give you a length of rope but the rope wasn’t long enough. They were just observing how people handle stress. One day an announcement goes out and they call out some names. Mine was among them. About 45% of the guys, and we were told “Get out of here. We don’t want to see you for two hours.” When we returned we never saw the other guys again. Two days later or so in the local theater some general addresses us and we are made officers and gentlemen and given our gold bars. After that we were sent to platoon leader school, still at Quantico, with a whole different cadre out in the boonies. So there we are. We’re in this one group of people—we were all with the exception of maybe just a few people— all then former enlisted people who are now officers.
The Marine who had the bunk right next to me, was Archie Van Winkle. He had received the Medal of Honor. He had been with Dog Company 7th Marines at the Chosin Resivour in late December 1950 And so there were a lot of seasoned guys there, you know. We went through, I don’t know, five or six months of basic officer infantry training. I was thinking, “Man, I don’t want to go back in that kind of stuff." I had my fill of that.
So I went in for flight training, and after the exams , got assigned to go to Pensacola with some of my buddies. At one point in our physical the doctor asked me to flex my toes Which I did, and he says, “Oh, you have an arch” and he passes me on… Because in those days, you couldn’t even have flat feet.
I’d been in the infantry and I could have been marked unqualified because I didn’t have an arch. Just crazy stuff. So I went to Pensacola, and go through preflight. Just because of timing the guys I’d gone through platoon leader school and who were assigned to flight training end up going through preflight with the 1953 graduating class from Annapolis. And, you know, I have what, two years of college, and these guys in those days are all graduate engineers. Oh my God, how am I going to compete with this?
Well, my buddy Charlie Northfield, he had been an engineering major at, I don’t know, University of Michigan or something like that helped me get through the math stuff and got I made it through preflight. From then on it was just a matter of flying and learning how to fly various birds. We started off with the SNJ, which is what was called the Texan trainer. While at Pensacola we learned aerobatics, formation flying, and some basic instruments. Our primary training ended at Baron Field near Foley, Alabama where we had gunnery and carrier qualifications. We used USS Monterey. That was the one that President Ford served on. Next, it was on to Corpus Christi, Texas where we went to advanced instrument training. After that out to some outlying fields where we now move into the advanced flying. In those days it was the Hellcat, the F6F Hellcat, which was very famous in the Pacific. It was the plane that defeated the zero. We were flying these fighters for a while and learning more gunnery, dog fighting, night flying cross county flight, etc.,
I was in what we called the VA jet program, which was V is for fixed wing A is for attack. So I was in the jet attack syllabus. In those days jets were just entering into the picture, and so I started flying what the Navy called the TV-2. The Air Force called it the T-33. It was a trainer, a tandem. That was my first experience flying without a prop in front of me. But there was only about thirty or forty hours of that. I got my wings in September of ’54, and was assigned to VM-3 squadron at El Toro in Santa Ana, California. I ended up there flying a Douglas Sky Raider. It was the largest single engine prop attack plane was ever created. There were four blades—and from tip to tip was like thirteen feet. That gives you an idea of size, and it had 2800 horsepower...it was a great plane to fly.
I flew with VMC3 for a little over a year. I suppose the most memorable time was when the powers that be asked for some volunteers to fly up to the atomic testing grounds in Nevada. They were going to blow off some atomic bombs. So I signed up with some other guys. After one canceled flight, we went up, myself and another guy, each in our own plane we flew up to Nevada. At that point we were picked up and vectored out to certain altitudes and headings. At some point they told us to put our plances on autopilot and to lower our daylight shields, cover our eyes and lower our heads. Now, this is just about an hour before sunrise. You know, it’s still that false dawn. Then they torched this atomic bomb, a 41 kiloton monster. It was the second largest atomic bomb ever blown up in the United States. The light, with your eyes covered and everything, it was like somebody turned on a flashlight in your face. As soon as I looked up, the stem of this mushroom was coming up beside me out aways—I can’t remember the distance—and the whole stem of this mushroom cloud was just glowing with this iridescent purple. This was the ultraviolet, which you don’t see in most of the shots screened in movies. And then the big donut dust cloud going across the desert floor. Quite a sight. Beautiful and oh, so deadly.
So we go back to El Toro, and we land and are given orders to taxi to a remote corner of the field. A crew comes out and start spraying it down with this degaussing stuff. A "cherry picker" comes alongside and, after you unstrap, just picks you out of the cockpit and moves you so you don’t touch the outside of the plane and lowers you down to the ground. Some guy from the Atomic Energy Commission , I guess justs walk up quietly, takes a dosimeter you’re wearing and just leaves. And, well, that was the end of that. Iit happens that on that same test, one of my friends from my Explorer post, who lives here in Auburn, was on the ground as a foot soldier in the trenches. Because in those days they were using live troops as guinea pigs. Those were interesting times.
I’m sure they tested our radiation levels but I never found out what it was. I just glow in the dark now and again, but other than that it’s, you know, okay. One thing in flight training with the F6, I took off one day and had an engine failure, and ended up with the plane going off the end of the runway and flipping over. And I’m underneath this thing. But, you know, you’re so well trained, by the time I flipped over, I’d turned off my fuel and turned off the mags and other switches, but I could hear this gas going drip, drip (sounds of gas leaking) and I was going, “Jeez, don’t burn.” A crash crew was there and they were out there foaming the plane. They eventually pulled me out of it and that was it that. That was sort of exciting.
So, let’s see. After that in October of ’55, I was sent back to Pensacola to learn how to fly helicopters. I went through helicopter training and when I finished that I came back and shortly after I was married to my first wife Joyce who I’d known ever since she was 12 years old and I was about sixteen. You know,our relationship up to that time had been an off and on kind of thing.
I don’t think I want to say too much about this. Joyce’s father was president of Kiwanis. When I was a kid and I got my Eagle Scout, he gave me my Eagle ring. But she and I had gone off and on together through my last two years of high school, and then I didn’t see her for a couple years, and somehow we got connected again through some mutual friends. And it just went sort of from there. After our wedding I received orders to go to Japan to fly with a HMR-162 a helicopter squad in Opama, and a few months later Joyce joins me there, which was sort of illegal for Marines. All of the other services could have dependents, but not the Marine Corps. But I got her over there and put her up in in a nice Japanese home. The Navy helped. The town we lived in was called Zushi, which was sort of equivalent to what we might say, was a kind of amusement beach town.
We were there about half a year and I was flying choppers and them coming home. It was pretty much like a job, you know. And I had gone over there as a first lieutenant and I got my railroad tracks just shortly before I came back. I had put in for discharge, thinking I would go back and work for Joyce’s dad, who was in real estate and insurance.