The day I left for the coast I felt the strongest premonitions of loss. When I awoke, the sun was reflecting off the brick walls of the neighbors' houses behind us, but I had a hollow feeling inside that signified more than mere hunger. I dressed quickly, grabbed a double armful of uniforms, and scrambled downstairs to begin loading my car. I stopped on the way out to say good morning to Granny, my mother, and aunts. Betty and Nancy helped me load the car while Mom checked around to see if I had forgotten anything in packing. The bustling about helped subdue the hollow feeling a bit. I went upstairs once more, checked my room again, took a last, long look at it, then got washed up, packed my shaving kit and workout gear, and came back downstairs to have what would be my last breakfast at home for nearly two years.
Granny was waiting for me as usual in the kitchen. Her arms were folded. In the same tone as always, she asked, "What will you have, Jimmy?" I paused a second, to reassure her I was "making up my mind," then announced my usual large order. While I ate, Granny sat watching and attending to me in her special ways. I told her again that I would be heading for California, where I would be safe, and that I would write to her as often as I could. Since my letters home always bore either a California or a Fleet Post Office, California, address, she did not learn I was in Vietnam until the day Captain Lavin came to call.
After breakfast I kissed everyone good-bye and told them not to worry. I'd be home before they knew it. My pale blue Chevy II was loaded and filled with gas. I was ready to drive west, to take command of an infantry platoon, I hoped, to train them, and to take them into combat in Vietnam.
I had grown up in the closely knit neighborhood of South Philadelphia where much of Rocky and Rocky II were filmed. Growing up in this area alone constituted a great and lively education, valuable to me the rest of my life. As I pulled out from in front of our Wolf Street home, I turned around to wave good-bye to everyone, and then the hollow feeling came again--stronger this time--a feeling more palpable than that induced by a blow, one that stayed with me until I left the South Philadelphia neighborhood of my youth and got onto the Schuylkill Expressway, heading northwest toward Valley Forge.
The first thing one notices about Pendleton is its size. I had become accustomed to large bases, since neither Quantico nor Lejeune was small. Pendleton, however, covered an area roughly two hundred square miles, some twenty miles long by ten miles across. In addition to a mainside the size of a small town, the base had numerous training areas, and five camps, each of which housed several thousand Marines. On my first day aboard (Marine speech for "on-base"), I wound my car around the wide-swerving roads to the temporary officers' quarters a few miles into the hills. As on most days I was in southern California, the afternoon sun was bright and the sky clear, an atmosphere that induced in me a continual feeling of restless exhilaration. As I drove I observed the steeply rising hills with their autumn foliage, as if covered with sleek brown rugs. The TOQ at the time comprised a series of worn-out appearing wood barracks that looked almost as much like a ghost town as did some of those towns I drove through on my way across country. My first evening aboard I squared away my uniform, polishing shoes and brass until they glowed even in the dimly lit, dusty room where I stayed. The next day I arose as usual at first light, did PT outside the barracks, had a brisk road workout, snatched a hasty breakfast, put on my uniform, and drove to headquarters to report for duty.
The 1st Marine Division headquarters at the time was a large, austere, wood-frame building. I was greeted inside by an enlisted man who escorted me across the room to the desk of a slim, late-twentyish, dark-haired and crewcut warrant officer.
He rose, smiled, and said, "Good morning, Lieutenant. B. F. Beggs," as he extended his hand to shake. "Gunner" Beggs leafed through my officer qualification record (OQR) and noticed I had had a rifle platoon in the 2d Division, and had before that been assistant 81s--mortar--platoon commander there. He pointed to the spot in my folder and said, "See you've been with the 81s in 3/6." I nodded yes. Quick as a thrush he flipped through the table of organization file on his desk and placed his finger on the place where it said BLT 3/5 (Special Landing Force). "They need an 81s platoon commander in 3/5. Interested?" My smile was answer enough. "Outstanding," he said as he penciled my name with a question mark into the block on his TO chart that read, "81s, Battalion Landing Team 3/5." He gave me directions to Camp Margarita and advised me to report to the 3/5 headquarters there, to a Lieutenant Prince, the battalion adjutant. We stood up to shake hands before I walked out. My heart was thumping in anticipation. Before I was out of hearing distance, Beggs was on the phone to tell Prince that I was on the way.
Camp San Margarita was one of about five similarly constructed camps at Pendleton. Set a few miles into the hills, several miles from the main road that ran through the base, Margarita was then headquarters for the 5th Marine Regiment. At the time the Vietnam War started, the 5th Marines was the most highly decorated regiment in the Corps. It remains so today.
Margarita consisted primarily of several dozen Quonset huts with unpainted cinder-block walls and aluminum roofs. Each hut had two large squad bays, one on each side of a large "head," or bathroom area, and a small bachelor NCO quarters. Also at the camp were several warehouses, PT fields, parade decks, handball courts, administrative buildings, a chapel, a small library, a large mess hall, an NCO club, and a "slop-chute" or enlisted men's club. Behind the camp a rough, narrow road led to a steeply rising series of high shoulders of ground that the troops referred to as "goat-shit." The plateau was so high it was generally only traversed by several herds of goats.
As I entered the 3/5 headquarters a first lieutenant built like Gunner Beggs* and wearing airborne jump wings emerged from his office to shake my hand: "Lieutenant Kirschke? My name's Paul Prince. I'm the S/1. Welcome aboard!" He invited me into his office, drew us each a cup of coffee, and sat down to look through my file, pausing now and then to smile. After a few minutes he looked up and asked about my trip, my family situation, housing setup, and whether I would like to command the 81s. He seemed pleased by my response to the last question and told me he would recommend me for the position to the colonel.
Paul told me a few things about himself, the Pendleton area, Colonel Bronars, the battalion, and its general mission. Then he asked leading questions about my background, the answers to many of which he probably already knew from having looked through my OQR. I told him I was from Philadelphia, where I had gone to college, that I had been commissioned through the Platoon Leader Course program in June 1964, and that I had gone to the 2d Division after Basic School. I mentioned our Caribbean cruise, and he asked me a bit about my experience in the Dominican Republic. I think we also talked briefly about rock climbing school. Someone mentioned the NATO cruise I had made, and we spoke briefly about Europe.
In a few minutes the colonel buzzed to say he was free to see me. Paul took my officer's qualification record into the CO's office and came back shortly to say the colonel would like to see me. Like Lieutenant Prince, Col. Edward J. Bronars had graduated from the Naval Academy, where he had been a superior athlete. At the time I joined the battalion, Bronars was about thirty-eight years old and a newly promoted lieutenant colonel. He was one of the first Marines to serve as an adviser with the Vietnamese at the outset of our involvement in that country in the early 1960s, and had served there with distinction. When I first met him, Ed Bronars, now recently deceased, had penetrating blue eyes, gray hair turning white at the temples, a fullback's shoulders, and large powerful-looking hands. He also had a gentle, deliberate manner of speaking that we junior officers came to refer to as "the ho-hum style."
He expressed right away his desire to have a solid 81 platoon in 3/5 and said I could have command of the 81s if I wanted. I responded enthusiastically, and he said he would do whatever he could to help me build the kind of platoon we needed.
A famous general once said one can judge the effectiveness of a military leader by the feeling one has upon leaving a conference with him. From my experience in the Corps, I would say that observation is generally correct. By the time I left the 3/5 command post (CP) that day, I knew Colonel Bronars belonged to the stallion-class of men. He showed those traits in everything he did, and nothing I saw of him afterward altered my first impression of him.
As I stepped out to the bright sunshine that day, I was determined to mold the best 81 platoon in the Marine Corps. I set out right away to plan to do so.
Most of the rest of that first week aboard I was occupied by getting "processed" into the battalion. To my recollection the only really significant occurrence, subsequent to meeting the colonel that week, was one that proved timely and important.
On my way out of the division disbursing office I came face to face with Staff Sgt. J. E. Murray, who had been my platoon sergeant in M Company, 3d Battalion, 6th Marines and had served with me closely for nine months in the 2d Division. He and I had developed what both of us considered an outstanding professional relationship. Murray was the kind of solid and reliable staff NCO the Marine Corps breeds in abundance. A heavy-set, slightly evil-looking man of about thirty-two, with his bearish aspect and tough thoughtfulness concerning the troops, it was impossible for me not to like him.
Sergeant Murray was on his way overseas within the next week or two to serve as a replacement in one of the battalions already deployed in Vietnam. I hope he returned safely, but I would not be surprised to learn that he did not.
After we had brought each other hastily up to date on what we had done since we had last met in September, we shook hands and I began to take my leave, but Murray paused and came back. Bending slightly toward me with a furrowed brow, he said in low, earnest tones: "Watch out for those troops, Lieutenant. Remember to take good care of those troops." The words went directly to me. Until I had seen Murray, all my friends and well-wishers, both at home on leave and while I was on station in the Corps, had told me to watch out for myself, to be careful--"Don't get your crazy ass killed" as one officer colleague put it. Until then I had given little thought to the more important subject of how I could best serve the men who would be under my command. Murray's words, therefore, came at just the right time; since they had come from a staff NCO whom I admired and respected, I heeded them as best I could.
As the days passed I grew increasingly absorbed in working with my platoon. One of my first jobs was to select personnel. Almost as soon as I reported aboard we began receiving a steady stream of new Marines into the battalion. Of these men, I was pretty much able to choose the ones I wanted for my platoon.
At the battalion aid station I also established an instantly good rapport with Dr. James Thornton, one of the two battalion surgeons who would sail with us. Jim came from Pittsburgh but now lives not far away from us in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he is a gastroenterologist. He responded to my request for "a tough corpsman who can really hump" with a smile and the words: "We've got just the man for you." He turned to a second-class seaman* nearby and said, "Send Joey Jardina to 81s, will you?"
The TO strength for an 81 platoon at the time was approximately ninety men and two officers. Before we had gotten far into our training cycle, however, we received over 150 men. From that group we were able to select the ones we would take into combat with us.
Of the men assigned to our platoon in training, we of course looked through the service record books for items such as high GCTs (roughly equivalent to the standard IQ), meritorious promotions, high performance marks from previous duty stations, letters of recommendation, and strong educational backgrounds (few, however, possessed much beyond high school; many had less). I also always welcomed into platoons I commanded in both California and Vietnam men who had either military or civilian records of disciplinary offenses.
The latter is not a practice I would necessarily recommend to every officer; but I seemed successful in doing so, and none of those Marines ever performed in less than outstanding ways under our command. By precept and example I let each of them know that they were welcome in our platoon, and that each man in our unit would be treated fairly (which meant "fairly sternly"). Without exception, each of the men with criminal records, usually 10 to 15 percent of the active strength of the platoons I commanded in the field, responded with pride in belonging to an outfit that frankly aimed to be the best.
* Gunner is a traditional term used by Marines to indicate a warrant officer.
* Marine medical personnel are corpsmen furnished by the Navy.
Excerpted from Not Going Home Alone by James J. Kirschke. Copyright © 2001 by James J. Kirschke. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.