3 May 2011

 

Belonging

 

Anthony F. Milavic

Major, United States Marine Corps (Retired)

 

On 11 June 1953, I joined the 2nd 155mm Gun Battalion, USMCR, Miami, Florida and was issued Marine uniforms. Although the uniforms made me look like a Marine, the WWII and Korean War veterans in the unit said that “looking like” a Marine did not make a Marine.  Acceptance by that Band of Brothers that you were a Marine and belonged among them sprang from shared experiences--shared experiences that started at a place called, “Boot Camp.” On 29 September 1954, seven of us Reservists started the quest to belong: Charles A. “Tony” Owens; Lloyd T. Cunningham; Steven L. Armstrong; Paul Collis, Jr.; Herbert D. Wells; Jesse L. Thrash, III; and myself.   

 

Civilians entering Boot Camp at Parris Island, South Carolina are struck by a sense of apprehension. That was also the case for we seven as we sat in Receiving with the other members of Platoon 418 awaiting the arrival of our drill instructors. Suddenly, an NCO came into the room and shouted, ‘Where are those three sergeants?” Owens, Cunningham and I stood up. “Come with me. The battalion commander wants to see you!” he shouted again.

 

We all piled into a jeep and headed off to the Headquarters, 3rd Battalion where we were ushered into the office of Lt. Col. W.J. Heepe, the battalion commander.

 

‘What are you doing here?” he asked in standing up from his desk. “Sergeants don’t go through Boot Camp!”

 

We explained that we were promoted to sergeant in the Organized Reserves. Now on Active Duty, we felt we needed this experience in order to identify with and lead Marines who had been here and done this. There was a moment of silence as Lt. Col. Heepe stared at each of us with a look of disbelief. If we really meant that, he finally said, we had to sign statements to that effect. We did.

 

On arriving back at Receiving, the platoon was assembled outside the building with our drill instructors, S/Sgt J. A. Petronzio and Sgt. G. A. White, anxiously waiting our return. We leapt from the jeep and ran to join the formation and blend in with the other recruits.

 

In Marine-speak, it was “Form Day” for Platoon 418; but, for those who were there from all points east of the Mississippi and we seven, it was “shock and awe . . . and doubt day.” We didn’t know each other and, in short order, we didn’t even recognize ourselves: we were ordered to send our civilian cloths home; our hair was sheared to a uniform stubble; and, we were dressed in wrinkled ill-fitting uniforms. Our drill instructors said we were recruits not Marines; but, we were told to call ourselves privates and the drill instructors called us, “boots,” “skin heads,” etc. We were driven about in “herd formation”--A mass of bodies jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back with no space between individuals who tripped over each other in the process of lurching forward. Bystanders observed us with unrestrained laughter. Conversely, to our envious awe, other platoons passed by executing the Manual of Arms with crisp precision as their impacting heels echoed the cadence in unison. On the evening of that first day, we were each left with the question: “Do I really belong here?”   

 

The next morning, we were roused out before sunrise and herded down streets to the mess hall for breakfast. We had made the trip the day before, but the early morning darkness seemed to give this new world an even more inhospitable cast. Approaching the mess hall, this eerie scene was punctuated by the appearance of fog-shrouded platoons of ghost-like bodies forming up outside its entrance. 

 

Our drill instructors halted us at the back of the massed recruit platoons; then, they disappeared into them. We stood there, in the dark, feeling alone and ill at ease among all these indistinguishable recruits. Suddenly, from the area of the platoon nearest the mess hall door came a drill instructor’s command: “SHIT BIRD! SOUND OFF!”

 

A recruit responded:

 

                       I’m a Shit Bird big ‘n’ tall.

                       I won’t git outta here ‘til fall.

                       If yer a Shit Bird not quite so tall,

                       You might not git outta here at all!

              

As if one, the assembled recruits intoned, “WELCOME SHIT BIRDS!”

 

We finally belonged!