Looking Back

By Paul Stillwell

Colonel Ripley's retelling of events in

the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

Earlier this year the recruit depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, invited Ripley to return to the place where he began his Marine service as an enlistee in June 1957. The memories click easily into place as he recalls that beginning. Newly graduated from high school, he began with a bus ride from his home in southwest Virginia to the recruiting station in Richmond. Along came a train known as the "Swamp Special" that was moving southward along the Atlantic seaboard to pick up young men for delivery to recruit training.

The last two cars of the train were for the new recruits only, and Ripley was dumbfounded when he got aboard. As he sat quietly in his seat, he observed that many of his new mates had created pandemonium. People were yelling, running around, and throwing things at each other. A thought flashed through his mind, "What in the hell have I gotten into here?" A vendor entered one car with a basket of sandwiches for sale. The rowdy soon-to-be-former-civilians assaulted the salesman, grabbed his wares, threw him out of the car, and filled the air with sandwiches.

One Marine staff sergeant was on board to keep order, but the situation was clearly beyond his control. Apparently he or someone else on the train communicated ahead to Yamassee, South Carolina, the whistle-stop town where the Swamp Special was headed. A welcoming committee of some 100 Marines was on hand to take charge and ended the party abruptly.

A ride in a school bus took Ripley and his new cohorts some 30 miles through a forest for arrival at Parris Island in the wee hours of the morning. There would be no sleep that night and seldom enough of it in the weeks to come. In the H shaped wood-frame barracks of that era, the heads contained too few sinks and mirrors for a platoon of more than 80 men. Morning shaving meant a crowded line of six or seven recruits bobbing back and forth in front of each mirror.

The training routine inculcated teamwork and discipline, but the learning was no easy task. The principal lesson soon became abundantly clear—do exactly what you're told and do it without question or murmur. Drilling took up large parts of the routine. There were lectures outside in the South Carolina sun and frequent inspections. One day, after he had dutifully washed his uniforms in a bucket, Ripley presented them to his drill instructor. The DI scooped one item of clothing out of the bucket with a swagger stick and pronounced it "too soapy." Ripley tried to explain that it wasn't, which resulted in his uniforms and bucket being hurled into a swamp so he could wash everything again.

Weeks passed as the recruits learned the precise rituals involved in handling and cleaning their M-1 rifles, marksmanship training, obstacle courses, and all the demands for learning the Marine Corps way. One recruit casually set his rifle down briefly to get something from his locker, and soon his mates rushed toward him to have him get hold of the rifle before he or they could be punished for his laxity. Another time the DI halted Ripley's platoon as a much more seasoned one marched by. Ripley figured it was a deliberate lesson—a demonstration of what can come from training. The experienced recruits strode by with a precision that was accented as dozens of heels hit the pavement in unison. The words and examples flowed into the increasingly capable recruits of Ripley's platoon as they grew in confidence to the point that they began to see themselves as salty.

All those memories—and more—abounded in Ripley's head as he went back to Parris Island this year. There he saw the culmination of training for a new group of recruits, this one from a computer and video-game generation far removed from his own. The final exam field exercise is now a demanding day-and-night ordeal that truly fits its name—"The Crucible." The young men and women go out for an intense period that involves sleep deprivation, short rations, and the repeated lesson that none of them can succeed alone; teamwork is essential.

Back where he had started, Ripley reviewed a parade in his honor, visited with impressive staff NCOs who had returned from tours of duty in Iraq, and watched as the most recent group of recruits finished up. They had come back from their crucible exhausted, hollow-eyed, and soaked from pouring out rivers of sweat. They changed into clean uniforms for their graduation. As they stood in ranks, in view of family and friends in the nearby bleachers, drill instructors passed among them, passing out cards that were attached to the eagle-globe-and-anchor emblem of the Corps. Now, finally, they could call themselves "Marines."

In that moment, Colonel Ripley observed a display of what he called "pure, raw emotion" as the youngsters realized what they had accomplished. For a Marine who had gone through the boot camp experience himself 50 years earlier, it was also a moment of emotion and pride.

 

Mr. Stillwell is a contributing editor to Naval History

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