Sometimes it’s like being a jackass in a hailstorm,
you just have to stand there and take it.
In 1943 while recovering from wounds received on Guadalcanal, my father served as the Provost Marshall for the United States Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island, SC. During the course of his tenure as Provost Marshall, Dad noticed that one young recruit kept showing up in his brig for insubordination and trying to swim through the marshes surrounding Parris Island in order to get to the mainland. Dad figured that something had to be eating at this young boy to make him so uncooperative while his country was at war. Dad also figured that if this young boy kept trying to swim off the island, he was more likely to drown than to reach the mainland. At first, the young boy refused to talk about his troubles on the grounds that Dad wouldn’t believe him and even if he did he wouldn’t do anything about it. Dad eventually convinced the young boy to tell him his problems and said he would help if he could.
The young boy said that he was from Jacksonville, FL and claimed that while he was big for his age, he was only sixteen years old. He said that because he was having problems with his parents, they had put him on a train to go spend some time with his grandparents, who lived in Fayetteville, NC. As it turns out, this particular train went directly through and stopped at Yemassee, SC, which was the train station for Parris Island. Also boarding the train in Jacksonville were a group of six young men who had enlisted in the Marines. The recruiting sergeant selected one man out of this group of six, (usually the one with the lowest service number) placed him in charge, and gave him all sorts of dire warning about what would happen to him if he did not safely deliver the other five recruits to Yemassee.
The sixteen-year-old boy who later came to while away so much time in my father’s brig, spent the entire train trip from Jacksonville to Yemassee listening to these Marine recruits talk about how great the Marines were and how tough basic training on Parris Island was going to be. So once the train stopped at Yemassee, which was twenty miles from Parris Island, the sixteen-year-old boy got off the train to look around. While he was vainly searching for Parris Island, the Marine Drill Instructors were busy making a memorable first impression on the group of recruits that also got off the train. Unfortunately, one of the young recruits got cold feet about joining the Marines and left the train in Brunswick, Ga. When a Marine Drill Instructor discovered there were only five men where there was supposed to be six, he started in on the young man who had been placed in charge and demanded to know where the sixth man was. After experiencing first hand the wrath of an aroused Drill Instructor, this young man surely believed now, if not before, all the stories he had been told in Jacksonville about what would happen to him if he lost anyone. In a panic, the lead recruit pointed to the sixteen-year-old boy and said that he was the sixth man.
If you have never been in basic training, you probably don’t realize the futility of trying to have a rational conversation with a drill sergeant. Drill sergeants simply aren’t interested in any conversation that involves the recruit saying anything other than yes or no. Needless to say, the Drill Instructors at Yemassee did not take the protestations of the sixteen-year-old boy seriously. They snapped him up, shaved his head, and he was in boot camp. Whatever fanciful visions had been conjured up for the boy on the train from Jacksonville, they were quickly dispelled in the hard cold light of Parris Island. That boy wanted nothing more than to get away from Parris Island anyway he could. Hence, his frequent visits to my father’s brig.
After hearing the boy’s story, Dad decided that it would be prudent to check it out. Sure enough, the boy was telling the truth. He was sixteen and he hadn’t joined the Marines. It later turned out his parents never raised a fuss despite the boy’s frantic letters to home because they assumed he had lied about his age and had run off and actually joined the Marines under an assumed name. Upon ascertaining the truth, my father informed the camp commander, Major General Fellows, of the mistake. General Fellows told my father that he really couldn’t keep the boy locked up any more. But because he was a minor, Dad was responsible for keeping the boy out of trouble and free from harm until his father arrived. So Dad moved the boy out of his cell and into a room adjoining the warden’s quarters. Next, Dad sent a telegram to the boy’s father that stated:
YOUR SON DID NOT REPEAT DID NOT JOIN USMC STOP PLEASE COME AND TAKE CUSTODY AT GOVERNMENT EXPENSE
Unfortunately, in 1943 the quality of telegraphers had declined from when that form of communication had been the preeminent mode. By the time the telegraph reached the boy’s father it read:
YOUR SON DEAD REPEAT DEAD STOP PLEASE COME
AND TAKE CUSTODY AT GOVERNMENT EXPENSE
At two o’clock in the morning two days later, my father was awakened by a call from a sentry with a message that the boy’s father, his uncle, and an undertaker were at the main gate with a hearse to pick up the boy’s body.
This news fully awakened Dad. Quickly determining that the telegram had been garbled, Dad instructed the sentry to treat the father as if “he was the President of the United States.” Dad immediately drove to the main gate and was confronted by the boy’s father who said, “Mr. Marine, what happened to my son?” Dad replied that he had exceedingly good news and told the father that his son was alive and well. Dad then escorted the group to a guest cottage normally reserved for visiting VIP’s. Dad also arranged for the son to be immediately reunited with his father.
First thing the next morning, Dad called General Fellows, explained the garbled telegraph, and asked if he would be available later that morning to speak a few soothing words to the boy and his father. General Fellows immediately assented. Dad then went to the guest cottage and escorted the boy, his father, his uncle, and the undertaker to the Officer’s Club for breakfast. During breakfast, Dad explained that he had arranged for them to meet the commanding general of the camp. Upon getting a blank stare from the father and uncle, Dad then explained that a general was an important person, giving George Washington and Robert E. Lee as examples of important generals. This satisfied all.
Upon having the group ushered in to meet him, General Fellows was masterful. His appeasing tones would have put a Congressional inquiry at ease. However, General Fellows had left my father in the position of attention that he had assumed upon entering the office. Finally, the boy’s father said, “Who’s to blame?” At this point, General Fellows turned toward my father with eyes aflame and gave Dad the worst tongue lashing that he ever received in his entire life. Gone were the soothing words of a moment before, replaced by profanity so strong that it nearly peeled the paint off the walls. When finished, the camp commander ordered my father to give the group a military escort off Parris Island with a tone of voice that clearly implied my father had better not mess that up. It took all his military discipline, but Dad held his tongue and left without saying a word. However, on his way back from the main gate, he got madder and madder. He was going to file a complaint with the inspector general, he was going to resign his commission, he was going to write his congressman, he was going to . . .. But before he acted any of these impulses, he decided to pay a call on General Fellows. When he entered the general’s outer office and before he could say a word, the general’s aide interjected, “Go on in, he’s waiting for you.”
As soon as he entered the General Fellow’s office, the general immediately stood up, put up both hands--palms facing outward, and said, “Now calm down Zach, and listen to me first before you say anything.” The general then revealed that he knew what Dad’s role in this unfortunate escapade had been. He thought that Dad’s prompt and thorough actions had defused a nasty situation that could have been a real black eye for the Marines. The general stated that the boy and his father were mad as wet hens and were in a position to generate a lot of bad publicity for the Marines. The general declared that he couldn’t let that happen while there was a war going on. The general asserted that he guessed that the boy and his father just wanted to see somebody get chewed out and they didn’t much care who it was. The general then proclaimed that Dad had the unfortunate luck of being both handy and someone the boy and his father would recognize. The general then decreed that Dad had to take that butt-chewing for the good of the Corps, but assured him that this incident only reflected well on his professional competence.
When telling this story, Dad says that he is not completely certain that the young boy didn’t lie about his age, join the Marines under an assumed name, and then decided he didn’t want to be a Marine after he met the Drill Instructors on Parris Island.