PARRIS ISLAND, PLATOON 285
~The sum of the qualities of human understanding, intellect
and moral character that enables a person to inspire and
control a group of people successfully. MCM
The story of Platoon 285 can be written now. Thirty eight years have elapsed since the 75 recruits from the Orangeburg, South Carolina area signed up under a special program as a platoon for Marine Boot Camp at Parris Island. The story of Platoon 285 is not typical of Recruit Training at Parris Island now or in the past.
The inductees scheduled to become Platoon 285 arrived by buses on September 24, 1965 for eight weeks of recruit training. The escalation of the Vietnam War during the Summer of 65 had forced the Marine Corps to shorten Boot Camp from 12 to 8 weeks and to draft recruits. Most of the recruits in Platoon 285 had been facing the draft and instead volunteered as a special platoon. The new recruits were off-loaded at the Receiving Barracks where their orders were gathered and initial paperwork completed. The long haired, civilian attired, fresh recruits were marched to the Mess Hall for their first taste of Marine chow. If they arrived late in the day or during the night, their first night was spent in the Receiving Barracks.
The first day was spent getting issued health and comfort items, receiving their initial issue of utilities, shoes, skivvies, piss pot and socks and getting their first 'white sidewall' haircut. The recruits were assigned to a numbered platoon for the Recruit Battalion scheduled for the next Series of four platoons. Second Battalion was next in line with Platoons 284, 285, 286, and 287. K Company was next in line to receive the Series.
Drill Instructors assigned to the new recruit platoons were briefed by the Chaplain, Battalion S-3, the Series Officer and lastly briefed by me as Company Commander. Following the Ribbon Creek tragedy, an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] was the "Bible" for recruit training. Every step of individual recruit training from Receiving to Out-posting, was covered in detail in the SOP. All Depot personnel who had contact with recruits were required to take and pass a written test on the SOP. Unfortunately, some of the Drill Instructors were against the SOP and disregarded many of its restrictions and prohibitions. They were of the Old Corps bent that adopted the factory worker adage, "It takes a lot of pounding to make a good piece of steel." The DI's lost sight of the purpose of Boot Camp. Instead of turning out a Basic Marine, the DI's seemed determined to produce an NCO or a clone of themselves in the allotted time of eight weeks. The sudden influx of draftees contributed to DI deviation from the SOP. Using Physical Training [pushups, etc.] to punish recalcitrant recruits was too time consuming. Punching or slapping was a quick means of correcting a recruit.
When I took command of K Company, I had already held several leadership positions. When a Staff NCO was given an order you knew it would be carried out. You did not have to follow an NCO around to see if he performed a task as directed. For instance, as Aircraft Maintenance Officer in VMF[AW]451, I had 250 personnel of ranks from Private to Captain to maintain 20 highly sophisticated F8D Crusader jet aircraft. Every morning by 0500 enlisted personnel had to preflight Crusaders for the first launch of aircraft. A primary item was to empty his pockets, take a flashlight and crawl more than 15 feet down the jet intake and check for foreign objects, birds or whatever might be in the lowest intake area that could cause the engine to fail and the jet to crash. No supervisors watched them go down the intakes. The individual would sign off the plane as ready and the pilot accepted his word without crawling down the intake himself. On one such 0400 preflight inspection a large coin changer made of thousands of small parts was found out of sight 15 feet down the intake. A burglar had robbed the Hangar coke machine and tossed the coin mechanism down the intake. The flight line enlisted Marine saved an aircraft and probably a pilot's life. That is the kind of Marine blind obedience to orders I was accustomed to for eleven years. I was not maltreated as a recruit. I didn't expect recruits to be maltreated at PI. A Recruit Company Commander would expect his Drill Instructors to follow the policies and orders contained in the SOP or received during the Pick Up Brief. Some Drill Instructors disobeyed orders.
Platoon 285 was picked up at Recruit Receiving and herded to K Company. The new recruits began the hell of their first week of boot camp. Violations of the SOP apparently commenced immediately although the recruits in 285 were unaware of the limitations imposed on supervisory personnel in handling recruits. The many and varied violations occurred in the platoon squadbay out of sight of casual observers. Slapping was a common violation. However, the recruits of 285 underwent all manner of physical and verbal abuse during their first week.
The recruits knew each other from their association in forming a platoon prior to enlisting. Some were close friends and classmates from school. The recruits managed to get word out to their parents that they were being physically abused and maltreated. Lucius Mendel Rivers was the Democrat Senator who was contacted by worried parents. Senator Rivers was the Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and had always been a friend of the military. L. Mendel Rivers wasted no time in demanding answers from Depot Commanding General, Major General Masters.
My first inkling that all was not in accordance with regulations was when I was called at home on Saturday and advised that the three Drill Instructors from platoon 285 had been relieved and the recruits moved to a Depot permanent personnel barracks under safekeeping. I rushed to K Company and called for the Drill Instructors who were then restricted to the Depot. Top Henry and the 284 Series Officer joined me in questioning the DI's. The Drill Instructor's denied any knowledge of maltreatment and claimed total innocence of any irregularities. The DI's accused the recruits of lying. I requested that the DI's report to the Provost Marshal and voluntarily submit to a lie detector test to clear themselves. All three went to the PMO but upon sitting down at the machine, and being wired, they declined to continue with the testing. My faith in the DI's began to falter.
Second Battalion Commander ordered me to provide four trustworthy Drill Instructors to take over Platoon 285 and remain housed with the platoon at the Depot barracks. Top Henry and the three Series officers helped me select what was supposed to be the most reliable DI team not already assigned to platoons. Within 24 hours they too were arrested for threatening the recruits. The recruits notified Depot authorities the substitute DI's had said if they testified against their original DI's that they would be harmed or killed.
Suddenly I had seven drill instructors facing General Courts Martial. The Depot instituted an Article 32 Investigation and immediately called me before the investigating Officer. A Colonel was seated behind a desk with a Judge Advocate General lawyer on his right and all manner of legal documents before them. For the first time in my life I was read my rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and signed the Article 31 that I understood everything I said could be used against me. It was a very scary moment. The Colonel said I should answer his questions. Rather than refuse, I told the Colonel, "I know that I have everything to lose by answering your questions; especially without a lawyer present. But, because I have nothing to hide in this matter and I have commanded my company in accordance with all orders and directives, I will answer all your questions."
The Colonel commenced rapid firing questions about the SOP. "When is reveille? When is mail call? How many cigarettes must a recruit be allowed to smoke each day? How many pushups can a first week recruit be given? What is the limit on jumping jacks for a recruit in his third week. What flag indicates no PT for recruits? " The questions kept coming and I answered them all except these, "Why were you derelict in the performance of your duty to insure the health and welfare of the recruits under your cognizance? Why did you fail to supervise your Drill Instructors?" That humiliating, degrading line of questions transformed a trusting, inspiring leader into a serious and distrustful supervisor. The adage that when an officer is promoted to major they remove his brains and put in concrete, is not far from fact. I was scheduled for major in six months and already my brain was permanently altered by discovering that at least a dozen of my drill instructors were disloyal, abusive violators of the UCMJ.
Once again, the Depot came to me to provide a Drill Instructor team to take the recruits of platoon 285. I selected the best men from my experience and observations in K Company. My senior lieutenant, Burl Terrill was 284 Series Commander, Staff Sergeant H.J. Riley was Series Gunny, Staff Sergeant R.W. Bozarth was the Senior Drill Instructor, and the Junior DI's were Sergeants C.H. DeCoster and K.L. Buell. The responsible Marines all did an outstanding job putting the platoon through the eight weeks of training in spite of the turbulence of the first two weeks. The recruits were the outstanding platoon in their Series of four platoons.
A General Courts Martial was scheduled and a special courtroom was prepared. There were hundreds of reporters, peaceniks and several family members who were eager to sit through the trial. The Depot reduced the seating to 20 people with scheduled witnesses having priority. The angry reporters could only stand outside and complain. I was called to testify in the trials of the seven DI's but not personally charged with any violations. All Drill Instructors were found guilty and given lenient sentences but their careers were ruined.
As a hard-nosed supervisor of recruit training I discovered several weak positions in the chain of command and in tell-tale supervisory branches. The Chaplains were tied at the top of the list of detractors to the welfare of recruits. They were not advising any officers up the chain of command when a recruit reported to them that he was being beaten or abused. The complaining recruit was usually scolded for not trying harder and then the Chappie notified the Senior Drill Instructor about the complaining recruit. The recruit really got some harsh treatment afterward. The Chaplains were so proud of the DI's, their duties and their positions of authority that the Chaplain tried to assist them in their progress with each recruit. The Company Officers needed to know immediately when a recruit said he was slapped or otherwise maltreated so the Senior Drill Instructor could be questioned by the Company Commander or an investigation commenced.
Right up there with the Chaplain in unsatisfactory performance was the medical department. The Medical Doctors and Corpsmen protected the Drill Instructors by not informing the Company Officers when a recruit had injuries or marks indicating possible abuse. As an example, at a Regimental Commander's monthly staff meeting, the Senior Quack [Medical Officer] gave a warning to the attendees, "If the incidents of ruptured eardrums does not decrease substantially, I will start providing the Recruit Training Regiment Commander with the names and platoon numbers of those recruits suffering ruptured eardrums." Such a statement infuriated me! I wanted to know of every case of ruptured ear drums among my recruits. Slapping was the usual cause of burst eardrums. Several cases in one platoon would point to a "Thumper" in the DI team. The medical personnel were under the same impression as the Chaplains--that clergy, medical and dental were primarily to provide support and even protection to the DI's in their training of recruits.
My supervision caused the "Mouth" to descend on me severely. It was only a matter of time until I was moved to Weapons Training Battalion--far enough away from early stage recruits to stop my notice of bruises on the neck, arms and face of recruits or violations of the SOP. Of course, I encountered the maltreatment at the ranges as well. Incidents were more isolated there since the recruits were in the later phases of training and the open ranges offered observers good visibility.
The Marine Corps survived many such minor crises and will continue to prevail.
Back to Back We Face the Past.