By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
As we continue commemorating the 99th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, June 1-26, 1918 – one of the great defining actions of the U.S. Marine Corps and the battle which earned for Marines the now-famous nom de guerre, “teufelhunden,” or “devil dog” – I’m reminded not only of the rich history and traditions of the Corps, but my own personal memories from my years as a Marine rifleman.
Not to sound mawkishly sentimental, but I was blessed to have served, years ago, as a rifle squad leader in the Corps’ most-decorated regiment, 5th Marines (which, by the way, cut its teeth at Belleau Wood). That’s not to suggest all of my memories of the Corps are grand and glorious, or even pleasant. They aren’t. I clearly remember the bad times. But I have far more fond memories of the good. And the following hyper-brief recollections were, are, and will always be some of the best for me personally.
Most Marines – primarily those who served in infantry units – may be able to relate. Others may see parallels. Outsiders may make no connection at all.
Granted, these 20 little recollections (yes, I could’ve come up with more) may not be politically correct. But they’re frank. They’re honest. They’re simple. They’re personally comforting. And they follow:
1. The dry, sweet smell of sage and the distant howling of coyotes at night while stationed at Camp Pendleton.
2. The wind, the salty sea-spray, the fluttering of the colors overhead, and the billions of stars seen at night in zero-light conditions as we sailed across any one of the world’s great oceans.
3. Singing Christmas songs in the Parris Island chapel on Christmas Eve.
4. Long, hot showers and crisp, clean sheets after spending weeks in the field with neither showers nor sheets.
5. The funny things that were said – and the hilarious things that happened – in the squad bays and berthing spaces that always had us all laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. Seriously, I’ve never laughed as hard and as often as I did in the barracks.
6. The friends whose faces I’ll never forget as long as I live; even though some I only knew for a short time. And if I saw them tomorrow (and some I have since seen), we’d take up right where we left off.
7. Those long, deep, always serious strategic-planning sessions about the women we desired; and the almost-as-long conversations about food, what particular dishes and how much we were going to eat when we next got liberty or leave. Those discussions, by the way, were almost always held in the field somewhere when we were not “tactical,” and usually sometime between midnight and 0-dark-thirty.
8. Being near some remote field on the far end of the earth, and hearing that marvelously unique sound of two or more medium or heavy-lift helos thundering in the distance as they approached to take us home.
9. Always coming away from the 500-yard line with high rifle scores.
10. Playing tackle football without pads and with few rules as one of the change-ups in our otherwise routine PT. Not sure if this was officially sanctioned or if it is still permitted (as it frequently resulted in some revenge exacting and a lot of unnecessary injuries), but it was fun in the Old Corps infantry units and shipboard Marine detachments when ashore.
11. The echo of a distant reveille bugle at sunrise even though we had already been awake and working for several hours. Reveille made me feel like the world was still somehow normal even if our routine was not.
12. The sound of taps at sunset which – regardless of where we were or what we were doing – sort of made me feel like everything was always going to be alright. Even the unsung lyrics reminded me, “All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.”
13. The mountains, especially the High Sierras [see behind me in the picture] and that particularly weird, windswept hilltop in Korea. The desert and all of its variables. The jungle. The piney woods and swampland. The ocean (once sailing through – at least skirting – a hurricane). The surf (thinking now of IBS training at Coronado). The beach. And always at night, the blessed stars that somehow temporarily transported me home.
14. Traveling all over the world. I could write 20 great memories about this alone.
15. Female sailors. The pretty ones.
16. Writing love letters to a girl back home, and even letters for my buddies to send to their girlfriends (I actually had an interesting little side business going).
17. Mainside during outprocessing.
18. Mail call anytime.
19. Midrats at sea.
20. Waking up every single morning – regardless of what the day might bring – and knowing we were part of a truly unique culture and 200-plus years of history and tradition. This mattered to all of us. Yes, even to the really hard-bitten, tough, angry guys with a bad attitude. They too were “teufelhunden.”
Maybe more so than the rest of us.
– Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. at uswriter.com.