The blood was drying and so was the mud. We had done well. We were about to do worse.
It was one of my first two-week trainings with the Marines. We were in California and ‘Beach Assault’ was the name of the game. Everything we did revolved around breaching wire defenses or working on the water… How to attack from the water. Building defendable positions on a beach or how to attack them—and how to survive. It was during this time that my Fire Team outwitted a team of Combat Engineers.
Being relatively new to my unit, I had the tremendous honor of carrying the M249-SAW. This is one of those weapons that you either love or hate. Most Marines in my unit hated it and couldn’t wait for the time when they would get a new rank and billet so as to be able to pass that monster off to someone else. Anyone else. At this time in my military career, it was mine. All mine.
Honestly, at first, I was not happy about the whole thing. In boot camp, the SAW seemed magical. It was a wicked weapon. In infantry school: Same. It was like this for a couple of reasons, one of which was that you only carried it for short time spans in boot camp and infantry school. When you get it assigned to you, due to billet (your job), you carry it ALL THE TIME!
Now the SAW weighs about twice that of an M16. Not too bad. However, an M16 magazine only has 30 rounds per mag. Not much weight. The SAW drum (the name for a single SAW magazine) is 100 rounds. That’s more than three times the weight of an M16 magazine. And, that’s just one! You gotta have more than one! Like, lots of ‘em! The SAW eats bullets like nothing else. It’s both terrible and amazing. When you need bullets down range you just pull the trigger and you’re like, “Woohoo! YEAH!” When you need to use up ammo, because Command doesn’t want it coming back, you’re like, *pull trigger for a second* “I’m out! All gone here.” Great. But, when you need to play supporting fire, it’s always, “I NEED MORE AMMO! ALL I DID WAS PULL THE TRIGGER ONCE, I SWEAR!” It’s nuts.
As I was mentioning earlier… My unit was in California practicing our beach assaults. Lots of work went into this project. It was a two-week training and we were doing very well. The entirety of this training was going to culminate in a massive assault near the end of week two. It was going to be epic. Explosions. Bullets. Boats. Explosions. Water. Sand. Explosions. The beach. Explosions. Lots of yelling. Did I mention explosions? I think I did. Good stuff. Good times.
During the training for all this, we had access to a few of the wonderful LCM-8s, or Mike Boats, as their commonly called. You’ve seen ‘em before in old WWII movies. They’re the transport with the open tops, crammed with soldiers waiting to attack a beach. There’s always a nervous dude going, “We’re not gonna make it, Sarge.” Always.
See now, how they work is like this: The LCM-8 drives full speed toward the shore, rams into the sand, drops the ramp, and the troops deploy and take the beach. In reality, when the ramp drops, the first three rows of guys directly behind the ramp get shot to pieces and the remaining troops have to figure out how to climb over the dead bodies and attack the beach or risk joining the pile themselves. That thought really got our blood pumping. As Marines, we’re dysfunctional anyway. As reservists, we can be even more so. The instructors were all, “So those who load last, die first.” This was followed by some chuckles from the other instructors. We, on the other hand, were like, “YEAH!” “OORAH!” “FIRST ON THE BEACH!” “USE MY DEAD BODY AS A SHIELD!” “If I get hit by machine gun fire… like a LOT of machine gun fire… would I just stay standing until they stopped shooting me? Kinda like this?” The Marine who asked, stood up and wiggled about like a string puppet having a seizure, while he made machine gun noises. This last question had all the instructors, and some of the newer command officers, question their life choices and if that particular Marine should be allowed on the boats at all—or live ammunition.
That guy was Lance Corporal Baxter. Baxter was a little off. There was a time when a popular cat food commercial had a pet cat, on said commercial, named Baxter. This caused our Baxter to respond with a “meow” when spoken to. For example, roll call: “BAXTER!” Response: “Meow!” That’s not normal. Marines: Not normal. Reservists: Even more so.
The “USE MY DEAD BODY AS A SHIELD!” was Lance Corporal Peck. Peck was the kind of guy who made it out of boot camp with most of his personality intact. That is almost unheard of. The Marines do a great job of tearing you down and rebuilding you the way they want you. Thus the term: Jarhead. Once, while filling the role of radioman, for a company exercise, Peck would quietly send out a sentence over the air. At night. At random times. This sentence would only be heard by the other radiomen—as they had the headsets. And, because it is radio, nobody knew who was instigating it. The sentence was, “Kill your mother.”
Imagine sitting, out in The Field, in the dark, radio static quietly buzzing in one ear. Your commander sitting just a few feet from you. Suddenly, the crackle of a headset switch keying in, followed by the soft words, broken subtly by the technology it was carried over, “Kill your mother.” You’re unsure of what you heard. You don’t know who’s saying it. You don’t know why. You’re not even sure you heard it. But, you’re sure you heard it. Maybe…? Twenty minutes later, static-charged radio-crackled whispered tones, “Kill your mother.”
Four radiomen and one Captian almost lost their minds that night. Nobody knew who it was. Not even the Major who sat right next to Peck, all night, heard it from his lips. It was chalked up to radio interference, or something like that. By the way, one of those radiomen was severely reprimanded for breaking radio silence protocol that night because he got on to demand of whoever was saying “Kill your mother” to stop because it was seriously freaking him out. Funny, but, not funny.
“FIRST ON THE BEACH!” was Davis. Davis was a regular guy. He did have a warped sense of humor. Not twisted. Just warped. He’s a Marine—go figure. He and Peck were two mental peas in a warped pod.
You need to understand these men to understand why what happened.
The day of the big beach assault came. All of us were too excited. It was going to be spectacular. There we were: Weapons in hand. Tools ready. Massive floatation devices were strapped onto us that forced our heads forward and down so that we could only look at our boots. To look forward, we had to lean backward, and with all the gear we had on, that just shifted our center of gravity and we would fall over and look like an overturned turtle. They were for our safety, but ridiculous in appearance. We had rehearsed the attack plan a few times. Full rehearsal. In the water and everything—the whole shebang. We knew what to do. We were ready.
Now, when a Mike Boat hits the beach it can get stuck in. So, to prevent that from happening during a training exercise, we were to be deployed quite a distance from the shore. We had to swim for it. No worries. Marines are green amphibious monsters. We were in our element!
Load boats. Head out, into the Pacific. Turn boats around. Drop ramps. “MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!” “GO! GO! GO!” The commands were given. We attacked.
I hit the water and we had been told to keep our rifles above the ocean so as to help keep seawater out of them. Well, a seven-pound M16 is easy to do that with. A fifteen-pound SAW is not. If I lifted it out of the water, I tilted backwards and then ended up swimming back toward the boat. In the water it went—pulling me down with it. Saying that swimming to shore with all that gear on was difficult is an understatement, for certain. I could barely keep my eyes and nose above water level. Lucky for me, one of my boots hit a rocky outcropping and I was able to push off on it to gain some forward momentum.
Suddenly, another marine was bobbing along right next to me. Later we would talk about how he had found some spare wire stakes that he wanted to use to breach the defenses with. However, the weight of them dropped him to the bottom of the ocean, where he endeavored—holding his breath—to walk along until he would surface. Unfortunately, every Marine after him unwittingly used his helmet as a stepping stone and he almost drown, until he dropped the stakes and popped up next to me. I told him how sorry I was about how that happened to him but did not tell him about how I was probably the last one to step on him.
After the whole assault was over, our company was victorious! We were wet, bloody (some had serious cuts, like deep gashes requiring stitches—we go all out, every time), sand everywhere, exhausted, and more… But, we were victorious! Oorah, Marines. Time to march back to barracks.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure the decision to march us back to barracks was so that nobody would have to deal with washing out of any vehicles that would have had to transport our wet, dirty, bloody bodies back to barracks. By marching us through the base, we would be dry by the time we reached them. Then, the mud would be just sand and, could easily be swept up. How thoughtful.
So, there we were, in formation, albeit a different formation. All through the training, whenever our company moved, it was always in order: 1st Platoon, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Platoon, followed by 4th Platoon. Now, suddenly, out of nowhere, my platoon—2nd Platoon—was last. It now went something like: 3rd, 1st, 4th, 2nd. Odd… Our squads and Fire Teams were also out of order. It was organized disorder. Fine. We were headed back to clean weapons, bandage blood, shower, then eat chow. All good.
As the Company traveled through the base, we garnered some funny looks from the Marines we passed. We looked like the survivors of a battle straight out of a John Wayne movie. Then, from the back of our platoon, I hear the softest whispers of a familiar tune.
“Dun, dun, dun, dun da-dun, dun, da-dun…”
Really? Is that what I think it is?
“Dun, dun, dun, dun da-dun, dun, da-dun…”
Followed by some giggling.
“Dun, dun, dun, dun da-dun, dun, da-dun…”
Now there were two voices.
“DUN, dun, da-dun, dun, da-da-da, dun-dun, dun, da-da-da, dun-dun, dun, da-dun, dun, da-dun…”
It was the Star Wars Stormtrooper music. You know it. You all know it. Even if you haven’t watched Star Wars, you know it. It was Peck and Davis.
From the back of the formation, you could hear it. It was gaining support from some of the other Marines of 2nd Platoon. It was also getting louder.
Before long, the back half of 2nd Platoon was marching in time with the Imperial Stormtrooper March from the Star Wars franchise while the Company maneuvered through the base.
As a new Marine to the unit, I didn’t know how to take this. Not only were we now gaining a crowd—it was like the news of our mob had spread and Marines were stopping what they were doing to come out and watch the muddy wet mess that was Fox Company move—but, we also had theme music.
Our Platoon Seargent was trying to get us to stop Dun, Dun, Da-Dun-ing. “Baxter. Davis. Knock it off.”
“It wasn’t me Seargent.” Replied Baxter.
“It was me!” Peck cheerily volunteered.
“I don’t care.”
By now our whole platoon was into it. We weren’t loud—but, weren’t quiet either. The Marines stationed at that base were enjoying the scene. You could see them standing on the sidelines, elbowing each other, laughing quietly with each other. Some even cheered us on.
Eventually, our Commander came over and spoke at us as we marched along. He spoke just quietly enough to not be overheard by anyone but our platoon, yet firm enough that we got the message even if we didn’t understand the words he said. It went something like this, “Normally, I wouldn’t care. Personally, I think it’s funny. But, the Company and Battalion Commanders are just right up there.” He then pointed in their direction. “And, I don’t need to get a butt-chewing over this so, stow it.” It was one of the most calm, respectful, polite, and yet threat-filled compliments I have ever received. We all knew the Captian meant that he, personally, found the humor in what we were doing. We also knew that if he caught flack for it, we would get worse.
To this day, I cannot hear that music and not recall that Imperial March.