Marines - Spring of 1950

It was the spring of 1950. John Wietrzykowski my Pledge Son, and I were sitting on a bench on the Northwestern campus in Evanston. It was a warm, balm day.

We were talking about the upcoming summer. There were few jobs available for the summer work I always did. John felt the same way. As we commiserated about the upcoming summer a Marine Major walked across the lawn a few yards away from us.

I remembered seeing a poster of some kind about a Marine program that took 6 weeks of the summer. I told John and we got up and ran after that major.

We got to him and addressed him as “Sir” and asked if there was such a summer program. Indeed there was such a program and it was called the PLC program.

PLC meant Platoon Leader’s Class. It sounded just great. For 2 summers in a row all we had to do was to join the program and when we graduated we would be made 2nd.Lt’s. in the Marine Corps Reserve. Better yet we would be paid as Corporals the first summer and Buck Sergeants the second summer. The money was good and the idea of being a Marine Officer was exciting.

Just 5 years earlier the 2nd World War ended and in that war the Marines were national heroes. That meant a lot to me. I had followed the war closely as my father was stationed in the Pacific. I had read, Guadalcanal Diary and whatever I could read about the Marines. It all sounded great.

I signed the papers, got my physical and when that Sophomore year ended I was sent papers ordering me to Quantico, Virginia for the first 6 weeks of PLC training.

I got on a train in Chicago. It was filled with guys from colleges to the west such as Iowa. They were rowdy and it seemed all of them were beefy and big. The train was a coal locomotive and the cars were old and had no air conditioning. The only air came from windows that had to be opened. But, often the air that blew in was filled with smoke and small cinders from the locomotive up ahead. The seats were hard and did not recline. There wasn’t a dining car on the train but occasionally a vendor would walk the aisle selling sandwiches and soft drinks.

The train was agonizingly slow. It stopped often at small towns to take on other young men. It also pulled off on side tracks to sit and puff as other trains passed.

The heat was intense. I sweated and stank. The rowdy guys were subdued by the heat and the slow pace.

The train ride went on and on. Night came and in a semi nightmare of quasi sleep and sore points from trying to sleep on the hard seats another very hot and humid day arrived. I could see the countryside change. The Midwest gave way to eastern trees. Somewhere we went through the Appalachians, probably at night.

Late in the afternoon, either the second or third day (I cannot exactly remember it was all miserable) we finally pulled into a blazing hot station and we were told we had arrived at Quantico, Virginia.

I vividly remember getting off that train. The train exit was dark and the outside sun was blindingly white. The train was hot. More heat came from the doorway in front of me. Other guys were crowded ahead of me and were moving slowly. I heard yelling. I shuffled forward. Finally I entered that light and the sun pounded down on my head.

I was stunned as someone grabbed my shirtfront and shoved me into a line. Marines, Sergeants in Campaign hats, were shouting and shoving us and getting us lined up.

What was this? What the hell was going on? Who were these men?

We were ordered to attention and we stood rigidly in the sun. Sweat poured down my face and my clothes were ringing wet. We were marched into a stifling large Quonset hut. More lines formed.

We found our alphabetical place in designated lines. Our civilian clothing was taken and we were the issued Marine clothing. There were mounds of it.

Our alphabetical group went into a Quonset hut that was filled with double decked iron bunks with thin hard mattresses on simple taught springs. This was to be our platoon space.

We got a foot locker. More lines were formed and more gear was signed out to us. The DI’s shouted at us. Some guys began to complain. A DI heard at least one and he called us all to attention next to our bunks. He told us “loud and clear” that we all could quit, anytime, any place. “In fact we want you to quit.” He called us, “You People.”

The first 3 days were a blur. We were kept up late at night, managing our gear, shining shoes, polishing our small brass PLC insignia and cleaning and cleaning. It was called, “Field Day” and that meant we had to scrub the decks and sweep and get every speck of dirt gone.

Inspection followed inspection. It seemed we always failed. Someone was rumpled. The bunk was not right. Something was always wrong.

We did calisthenics including pushups and sit ups on the hard graveled cement.

We were issued our M1 Rifles, canteens, bayonets and backpacks. I got to know some of the other guys. They were from other colleges. A group of about 5 of them, all Jewish, talked together and they all disappeared. They had quit.

Rifle inspection was done several times a day. Cleaning the weapon and other gear was regular.

We were up before dawn and often not in bed until the early morning. There were no laundry facilities. Instead we had to use the head, the small basins to wash our clothing and then starch our shirts and use the iron provided in the head.

Our uniforms were sacred. They had to be exact and perfectly “squared away.” That means creases and alignment of belt buckles, insignia, spit shined shoes, covers, ties and ourselves, face, posture and attitude.

I was dazed, confused, perplexed, stressed and did not have a moment to think about anything other than keeping “Squared Away.”

The Day I Joined the Corps

One day, about 10 days after I got off that train I was running up a hill along with a mob of PLC guys. The day was extremely hot. The sun was blasting roasting my head inside my helmet. The road up the hill was dirt and dust rose up to my knees and collected on my face embedded in the sweat. We were in full gear with packs, rifles, canteens, helmets and other stuff strapped to us. It was in the afternoon and the whole day had been filled with runs, obstacle course runs, drills and DI’s swearing at us.

As I ran, leaning forward to compensate for the slope of the hill, a Marine Lieutenant ran alongside our group. He did not have a weapon or a pack or helmet.

He kept yelling at us: “Quit. Quit. Go ahead you can quit.”

In my peripheral vision I saw several guys fall into the dust. I heard someone say: “Yeah. I quit.”

As that Lieutenant yelled I had a change happen. I said to myself. “Quit. Are you kidding? I’ll never quit.” It was at that exact moment I really joined the Corps. From that moment on to this day when I am 76, I became a Marine. I am still a Marine.

That was, is, a spiritual change. I know it can be explained by studies that look at total institutions such as the book, Asylums. But, that does not fully examine the inner transformation. Perhaps it is a biologically programmed response, a joining of the tribe. Whatever it is the change is profound. I am not at all sure that this happens to others. I know that all Marines are not members. Some I have met are just scum. But, most I have met are members of that inner cult that is embodied by the saying: “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.”

There was a story going around about Chesty Puller. He was going to make a speech to a large audience of marines.

He walked out. Stood quietly and the said in a loud voice: “Marines!”

That was the whole speech and the audience went wild. They knew what he meant.

When I finished that first 6 weeks of PLC I loved the Corps. I enjoyed every moment of what we did, the drill, the stress, the sweat, the uniform, and especially that Marine insignia. The Eagle, Globe and Anchor dazzled me. That symbol was my symbol.

Marine Medals

The second PLC summer session started and I found it to be even better than the first period the previous summer. In this one we fired machine guns, blew up things with various explosives and as usual worked hard day and night.

The heat was fierce as usual in Virginia. Rifle range, field exercises, night marches, sweat, taking exams in an over of a gigantic Quonset hut, falling asleep anywhere, washing our clothes in tiny sinks in the dead at night with inspection after inspection. I was a Marine and The Corps was being driven into my Soul.

We were surrounded by WWI Marines who were still on active duty. One Sergeant in the next Platoon had been a prisoner of the Japs. They had crucified him and cut out his nipples. He was rescued. He was not ashamed to show his scars.

One late afternoon with the heat of the day disappearing with the sun a Master Sergeant we had never met before casually walked over to our Quonset hut. Someone whispered: “Hey, he is the guy who got the Medal of Honor.”

He was a middle sized man in crisp summer dress. His face was in shadow. His skin was deeply tanned. He had started to speak softly to a group of us. I was at the back edge but could hear him fairly clearly. He was visiting our area because one of us was the son of a Marine who had been killed in WWII.

He was squatting down, speaking softly, and answering a question from someone about his medals. I am not able to recall his exact words. He began by talking about medals.

He said: “You see Medals are about what you have done. They really talk about the past. That is their danger. Some guys think they mean what you are or what you will do.”

He paused and with a stick made a diagram in the dust. “Take the Purple Heart- Great Medal- Started by George Washington, himself. It means you have been wounded.” He seemed to scribble in the sand-like dust. “Some guys get that medal and they think they are always wounded. That is the mistake. A medal is the past. That may be a great reminder but it is always what was, not what is now or what you are.”

He put the stick down and said: “But, there is one, just one that I know about that tells you who you are and also keeps telling you who you should be.”

He smiled and said: “Any of you tell me what medal that is?”

A couple of guys said: “The Medal of Honor.” Others said: “The Navy Cross.”

He shook his head and said: “Well, maybe you know I got both of those but that isn’t what I am talking about. This is a Medal that has been worn by millions of men, and yes, some women. It tells you who you are and if you pay attention to what it says it tells you what you should be.”

We were all puzzled. He waited a while. The silence was intense.

“It is actually a beautiful medal. On the top is an Eagle. Below that is the hemisphere and down below is a fouled anchor. Yep, it is the one all of us are wearing. It is the symbol of The United States Marines.”

“It tells you that you are a Marine and that means you are honorable. Remember that phrase from the marine’s keep our honor clean.”

“It means you belong to a great body of Marines living and passed on into heaven. You will always be a Marine. Once, always.”

He stood and ran his thumb over his Marine Corps Symbol and said: “Well, that’s enough for now. God Bless you boys and God Bless my Beloved Marine Corps.”


Teresa and I were talking about religion the other day when she said: “You know no religion I know of has what the Marines have. It really is a religion.”

I agree with her. The marines also know this. In the second stanza of The Marine’s Hymn (please note hymn) there are closing lines which go. “If the Army or the Navy ever look on heaven’s scene, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.”

To add to this concept the Marines do not have Chaplains or Doctors. Both are provided by the Navy. Thus, neither body nor Soul are needed. How could they be? Marines are Transcendent in and of themselves.

Today, in 2007, Marines are still sacrificing their own lives for their fellow Marines. When in battle, either in a shooting war, or in the many trials of life, they respond to a higher cause. They may not be understood by those who watch from the outside.

Once a Marine, Always a Marine.

Final Parade PLC

The second 6 weeks of the PLC program was finished. The next step was our graduation where we would be commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United Sates Marine Corps Reserve.

That “Reserve” didn’t mean much to me. The Korean War was in full swing and I knew I would be immediately placed on active duty and sent back to Quantico for 6 months of Basic Infantry Training. I ended up in the 15th Special Basic Course (SBC) a year later.

I was surprised to learn that there would be a final parade and a “Pass in Review.” It was an acknowledgement that we are survived the total of 12 weeks of misery.

We assembled and we marched, did our “Eyes Right”, and as we marched down the field I noticed a lone figure, a Marine, standing at attention looking at us.

I didn’t recognize him. The word passed between us. It was an enlisted Sergeant who had been accepted into our final 6 weeks. If he passed he would have been eligible to go to OCS.

He had not passed. The exams we took every week in those oven Quonset halls were his downfall.

He now was looking at us. He was not ashamed. He was watching his future officer corps.

I have always felt he was one of the bravest Marines I knew.