Training to be an officer in the Marine Corps is interesting and the epitome of diversity. All the differing backgrounds and bases of knowledge had to be molded so that every new lieutenant had a basic skill set to enable him (I say him because my company was an all-male company through training) to be an effective officer, and primarily effective as an Infantry Officer.
We took a road trip to Norfolk from Quantico, where we boarded the first of the new LHD class, the USS Wasp. We stayed aboard the Wasp while doing amphibious training out of Little Creek (on the other side of the peninsula from Norfolk). Conducting an amphibious assault is heavy physical labor and repelling an assault is every bit as taxing. Although we didn’t have live rounds, we had the next best thing, training pyrotechnics.
For our company, we assaulted the beachhead first. It would have been too expensive to actually launch out of an amphibious ship, so we boarded our amphibious assault vehicles on shore. I thanked the hard charging enlisted Marines for doing this for us and took a seat along the side. The AAV was a tight squeeze for us. The rear door whined against the diesel engine drone as it slowly closed. It was not very light on the inside now. And then the diesel fumes permeated the passenger compartment. The driver and vehicle commander were forward and higher than the troops. The commander leaned out of a cupola at the front of the passenger compartment. He ordered us forward, we guessed as we couldn’t hear a thing, and the big metal beast lumbered down a slope and into the water.
We knew we were in the water when we began to float, although I use that term loosely since it was more like the floating of a sunken boat that refused to sink entirely. The engine revved as the tracks drove us through the surf toward the open ocean. The AAV bobbed in erratic motions, being thrown by the waves, churned by the surf, and suffering under its own weight.
Then the puking began. I was forward, close to the engine and couldn’t hear a thing, but one doesn’t need to hear a man puking to know what has happened. The mix of diesel fumes and regurgitated ship food caused some sympathy pukers to discharge. As the vehicle cleared the last bit of surf and started a slow, lumbering turn back toward the beach, a chunky orange wave rolled back and forth across the deck of our AAV. I laughed. I’m sure it was a defensive mechanism because it really wasn’t funny at the time, only later. It was horrible. We didn’t wear camouflaged paint on our faces, but there was plenty of green. The enlisted crewmen appeared to be oblivious, but then again, they had fresh air on their side.
Do you ever wonder why Marines look so fired up when they are attacking a beach? You’ve seen videos, movies, and news reels. In all of them, the screaming Chosen Few hit the beach. They are screaming and they look angry because they can’t wait to get out of that damn landing craft. And this was the case in our mock landing. I was in the front of the AAV, which meant that I was one of the last ones off. The AAV drives onto the beach front first, the vehicle using its machine gun to help hold down enemy fire. The ramp drops out the back. The vehicle serving as a shield against enemy fire. So everyone runs off the AAV, along with the orange slime as the AAV was sitting with its nose pointed skyward on a sand dune. I ran down the ramp and straight toward the surf. I was carrying a little more weight than I wanted and wasn’t as mobile as I had thought I would be. I stopped myself and turned to run the other way, into the teeth of the enemy’s prepared defenses – Ooorah!
Okay, maybe this was not my forté. I caught up to my squad and we continued our assault. I was already out of breath. Not to be dissuaded, we watched as our enemy cowered behind their defenses. We threw grenades and fired our blank rounds. We yelled and ran and yelled some more. After a brief 15 minutes, we were finished. It goes without saying that while on training, one must adhere to one’s timetables. We were done in fifteen whether we were done or not.
We debriefed and then changed sides. We had about a half hour to survey the landscape and make our preparations to defend against the other half of our training company, some 100 new lieutenants would assault the beach in 7 or 8 AAVs, while the other 100 would defend the land against the invaders from the sea.
The M-16 wasn’t going to do it. So my Basic School roommate and I teamed up and took the SMAW – an impressive piece of modern technology that looks like a cut down bazooka, but actually throws a satchel charge up to 50 yards. We would move to a covered position right on the beach and try to throw a charge into the opening AAV.
And the SMAW had better pyrotechnics than what an M-16 blank could provide. We were given some training rounds for the SMAW. These were very similar to an M-80 and contained enough explosive for a quarter stick of dynamite.
Chris, who played Division I football in college, was not a small man. But he didn’t have a true love for blowing things up, so I took the lead in firing the SMAW. These things were notorious for not lighting off their training rounds. We tested ours and it was dead. As always, I was prepared. I pulled out a 9-volt battery. We disconnected the wires leading from the training charge to the SMAW, and I told Chris how to touch the wires to the battery in order to get the round to discharge. Nothing would leave the barrel of the SMAW except smoke and a big boom.
The AAV was coming ashore not far from our chosen position, but too far for a good shot. We hustled up the beach, behind a berm and some brush. Oops – a little too close. The AAV crawled onto the shore and kept coming. I thought it was going to run us over. I tried backing up, but Chris had fallen down in the soft sand right behind me. The AAV stopped as its nose loomed over us some ten feet away. In Marine parlance, we would call this danger close. If we were successful in lighting up the AAV, then for the price of two of us, we would get ourselves one vehicle and maybe 20 Marines – a good trade off.
I started yelling for Chris to fire as I took aim at the AAV’s soft underbelly. The ramp was dropping. Chris got back to one knee and touched the wires to the battery. After an earth shattering kaboom (Marvin the Martian would have been proud), we shook our heads. I was quite pleased. I looked back at Chris and he had a shocked look on his face. Then in a calm voice, he said, “Marty. I can’t feel my fingers.”
His fingers were still on his hand and there wasn’t any blood. The charge was gone and the battery was nowhere to be seen. I think the battery and wires were thrown from his hand so violently, it was like being slapped with a ruler. I thought of that later. For now, I only had one thing to say. “Chris. We gotta go!” We ran away from the invaders toward our prepared defenses. I think we probably didn’t make it as the hard chargers discharging from the puke-mobile had momentum and not surprisingly, looked quite angry and were screaming…
At the end of that day, we were a bit tired, but could have continued further if needed, but we can’t upset the logistics plan. We had to meet the buses – they had been pre-scheduled. Our five platoons showed up right on time as did the four buses. 40 men to a platoon and 40 people fit on each bus. Houston, we have a problem.
We were the third of five platoons, so Marine Corps logic would dictate that the fifth platoon would wait for the next bus. We, obligingly waited for our orders – and they came quickly and loudly. “What are you doing standing here? Get on the bus!” After four platoons piled on four buses and the 5th platoon milled about smartly outside, the Company XO jumped on our bus and let us know the plan, “What are you doing on the bus? Get off the bus!” So, we assumed that we would be waiting for the next bus.
When our Platoon Commander returned from a short mystery absence and saw us standing there, with a confused look, he reiterated his original plan. “What are you doing off the bus? Get back on the bus!” So we complied fully and re-boarded.
Only to be corrected about three minutes later by the XO, “What are you doing back on the bus? Get off the bus!” There are many lessons here. If you have a chain of command, follow it. Share your plan with the people who need to know it. If you are a second lieutenant, no one cares if you are set up to win – this is the Marine Corps where not everyone gets a trophy.