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The beginning of the second half of my senior year in high school, I was walking into the auditorium. Today was going to be another career day program and a good time to take a nap. I was filing into a seat and couldn't believe my luck; I was going to sit next to the hottest girl in our class, Emily Pittman. Emily was not only pretty but had an outstanding figure. She was a majorette and had her own following. While at football practice, I would see some of my buddies also watching her practice with the band on an adjoining field. She didn't have much to do with us mere mortals. It was rumored she was dating some rich guy in college.
The head guidance counselor came to the microphone that was placed in the middle of the stage and announced, today we would be hearing from members of the armed forces. One by one they came on stage and were introduced; then took a seat behind her. The recruiters were from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. Then one at a time they stood before the microphone and gave us a brief history of their service, and what they had to offer if we enlisted.
I couldn't take my eyes off the Marine. He was wearing dress blues and he just shined. It was the first time I had ever seen a Marine in dress blues in person. I seem to remember heavenly music and a glow around his head. When it was his turn to speak, I was glued to his every word and movement. The Marines speech was different. He wasn't saying what the Marine Corps had to offer, he was asking what we could offer the Marines.
I felt someone tapping on my arm and looked over and Emily was talking to me, but I couldn't make out what she was saying. I snapped at her and said, "Be quiet." I was mesmerized; I would have followed him right out the door and into combat. After the program we stood up and started filing out. I asked Emily, "What did you ask me?" She didn't even turn around. That was the first and last time she ever spoke to me. My one and only chance with her and a Marine distracted me.
I can't recall how old I was when I decided I was going to be a Marine. From my earliest years I knew my father was a Marine in World War II. I recall growing up seeing a picture of him hanging on the wall. He was wearing dress blues with his arm around my mother. My parents were standing on the sidewalk in front of my grandmother's house, on Bauer Street in Hammond, Indiana.
I can also remember some reunions my father had when I was very young. His good friend Bo Bo was always in attendance. Bo Bo had served with him and made the Marine Corps a career. Bo Bo would visit us and it would be one big party. One of the stories I heard for years was when my father was wounded during the battle of Okinawa. He was being carried out on a stretcher and Bo Bo was at his side. Bo Bo had taken a Japanese pistol off a dead Jap and gave it to him and said, "Lou, (my father's nickname) I'm not going to make it, so this is yours." Bo Bo did make it and every time he visited us, he wanted the pistol back but my father would just laugh. I have that pistol now; it's in the original holster with a magazine that contains several rounds of ammunition.
My father had served under the infamous Marine Corps General Chesty Puller during the battles of Cape Gloucester and Peleliu. Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller spent thirty seven years in the Corps. Puller served with the First Marine Division during World War II, fought in Korea and also served in China, Nicaragua and Haiti. He remains the only Marine to earn the Navy Cross five times.
I recall a story of a 1st Marine Division reunion my parents attended in Chicago several years after the war. My mother was a very attractive woman and never shy. At the reunion she kept hearing about Chesty Puller and noted the respect mingled with fear that everyone had of him, including my father. My father pointed out the General and she would say; "Some Marines would approach his table and shake his hand but most just pointed toward him for their wives or dates to see their General Chesty."
There was plenty of drinking, laughing and dancing going on, so my mother said, "I told you father I'm going to go over and ask General Puller to dance, he is just sitting there, he needs to get up and enjoy himself. Before your father could say don't, I was on my way. I asked the General if he would dance with me and he said, 'Of course.' While we were dancing, I pointed to your father and said that's my husband, he served with you and has great respect for you. After the dance the General led me over and he shook your father's hand and told your father, 'Thank you for being with me.' Your father tells that story more than I do now."
My Grandfather Martin had served in the Army during World War II. He was wounded on Guadalcanal. When I was a child he used to show me a bump on his left forearm and would have me touch it. It was a piece of lead that had worked its way out of a muscle. When I was older I asked him why he didn't just have it cut out. He would say, "No, it's a reminder of how lucky I was." Lucky to get shot I thought? Now I know, lucky that it only hit him in the arm.
Growing up I had two older cousins who were Marines, Dick and David Sharpe. Dick served in Korea and survived the Chosin Reservoir. He was in the same Marine Corps Battalion my father had served in, one war later. David served several years later, during The Cold War, in between Korea and Vietnam.
My family moved from Hammond, Indiana to Tampa, Florida in the winter of 1953. Growing up on West Louisiana Avenue, Junior Saladino lived down the street. Junior was probably four years older than I was when he joined the Corps. He came home once on leave and I got to see him in his uniform. I remember telling him, "I will be wearing that someday." He had always treated me as a little kid but the day I said that we became friends.
While in high school I had a girlfriend, Nancy and we are still friends today. One evening before a date during one of her step father's interrogations, I told him I was going to join the Marine Corps in February of my senior year and I would be going to boot camp the following summer. He didn't say anything; he got up, went over to a cabinet, brought out a record and put it on a turntable. The record was a 33 rpm Sounds of Marine Corps Boot Camp. Oscar smiled and said, "I was a Marine and was in the battle of Iwo Jima, ever hear of it?" I told him I knew about it. My father had been in the battles of Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa. He asked me if I had seen the movie The D.I. (drill instructor). I said, "Yes sir, Jack Webb played the D.I." I had just won him over. I attended his funeral a few years ago. Oscar would have liked the Marine Corps Honor Guard provided for him, they were sharp.
I had learned that the Marine Corps is the only branch of the U.S. Armed Forces that recruits people specifically to fight. The Marine Corps Hymn is all about combat. We fight our country's battles, first to fight for right and freedom; we have fought in every clime and place. I never had a second thought.
In February 1964 during my senior year in high school, I was ready to take the first step. I had known about joining the Corps early, what they called a delayed entry program. You could sign up one hundred and twenty days in advance. The benefit for the Marine Corps would be to get you before another service did, or before you changed your mind. There was one benefit for the prospective Marine and that was your enlistment clock would start. Not active duty, but for pay purposes and time in service. So with my parent's permission, I drove to downtown Tampa and sat down with a recruiter. As all recruiters are, he was squared away and all business. His name has long been forgotten and I never bothered to look him back up. I remember him saying, "Why do you want to join my Marine Corps and do you think you are man enough?" I suspect I answered the questions right because he handed me a test and said to follow him to a small office. He said "You have an hour to complete this; it's a basic IQ test." At the end of the hour, I found him back at his desk and handed him the test. He told me to go back into the small office and wait for a few minutes. He showed up with a big smile and said I did fine; then gave me the enlistment forms to take home for my parents to sign because I was still seventeen.
I returned a few days later and had completed most of the paperwork. I hadn't filled in the blank that had the number of years of the enlistment. I also wanted to discuss what job I could get. I already knew the obligation was for six years. You could do the first six months active then five and a half years in the reserves. I would go to boot camp and then be stationed at the Marine Corps Reserve Center in Tampa. They were an Amtrac Unit and are still there today. I could also sign up for three or four year's active duty and do the remainder of the six years as an inactive or active reserve, which I considered. I could also reenlist at the end of my first enlistment. I told the sergeant I wanted to sign up for three years. He picked up a file and said, "Reserves and three year enlistments are not available at this time, all we have is four years active." So I said, "Four years it is." Then I told him I would like to become an Embassy Marine. I didn't tell him this, but I had seen the posters of the Marines standing on the steps of embassy's wearing dress blues, in exotic places. That was for me. It was simple, all I wanted was to become a Marine, be issued dress blues and be assigned to an embassy. He said, "Well, there is no guarantee, that is a special school you can sign up for in boot camp but you are tall and probably will make it. I will make a note and your drill instructor can submit you in for it." He then said, "Every Marine is a basic rifleman first, then depending on your test scores and what is available you will be assigned an MOS (military occupational specialty) in boot camp." I said fine, but little did I know then what a risk that was. I was going in blind and could be assigned to any field and go anywhere.
He told me I would need to take a Thursday and Friday off from school within the next two weeks. I would be taking a bus ride to the Navy base in Jacksonville, Florida for testing and physicals. If I passed, I would be going to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, one week after I graduated from high school, which would be one hundred twenty days. The first week of June.
Having no fear yet of Marine Corps sergeants, I told him, "That won't work; I want the month of June off. I have a girlfriend in Northwest Indiana who I wanted to spend some time with. Let's make it the first part of July." He said, "We have a one hundred twenty day delayed program, not a one hundred fifty day delay program." So I picked up my paperwork and told him, I would be back in a month. The sergeant seeing a possible recruit getting away, told me to wait and he picked up the phone to call someone. He asked the person who he was talking to if we could make an exception and sign this guy Hoffman up today? He smiled, hung up the phone and said, "You're in." He looked at a schedule and said, "You will be reporting to Parris Island on July 9, 1964. Get those days off from school in a week or two and call me. I will have your Greyhound bus ticket for Jacksonville."
On the way home I realized he probably never called anyone, he was just faking it. What I didn't know at the time was this would become a pattern in the Marine Corps; a lot of things were not black and white. I also learned later, what he told me about having to sign up for four years and not picking a field, was not true.
The day came and I had to be at the bus station at 1 PM on a Thursday. I couldn't leave my 1952 Chevy parked downtown, even in those days it wouldn't have been there when I returned. That was one great little car, painted metallic blue, hub caps off, the rims painted black, fake thin white walls and new seat covers, it was even an automatic. I had a friend drop me off on his way to school. The four or five hour trip from Tampa to Jacksonville was uneventful. I looked around and saw about ten other guys my age carrying a brown envelope and figured we were all headed to the same place. I thought we were all future Marines but as it turned out we were from all branches of the service, going for testing and physicals.
Downtown Jacksonville, Florida in early 1964 was not a pretty place. It was run down, a lot worse than Tampa. When we arrived at the Jacksonville Greyhound bus station, we looked in our brown envelopes and pulled out a map to a hotel that was about three blocks away. It was getting dark and the street was full of bums begging for money. When we checked into the hotel, the desk clerk gave us two meal tickets; one for dinner tonight and one for breakfast in the hotel's restaurant. We were told there would be a Navy bus outside in the morning to take us to the base. We were to take all our gear, because we wouldn't be coming back.
I had made a quick friendship with a guy from St. Petersburg who was joining the Navy. He had been here before, but had failed some part of the exams and was given a second chance. He said he knew where to buy some whiskey. Being a future Marine, at a hotel, in the bad side of town, I thought, yep I'm in.
After some bland meal in the restaurant, several of us followed the guy to a liquor store around the corner. We each bought a pint of some type of booze and some cigars. The old man behind the counter couldn't have cared less that we were underage. Not feeling too safe walking around, we went back to the hotel and started drinking and smoking. I remember getting into an argument with a kid going into the Army. I told him, "I can understand someone wanting to go into the Air Force, you will be around airplanes. I can understand the Navy, ships and exotic ports. I can't understand joining the Army, if you want to be a fighter why not join the best, join the Marines, why be second string?" He didn't have an answer; I figured he just didn't have the balls.
We arrived at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville the next day. I was a little fuzzy due to a slight hangover. I went through a battery of physical tests and thought I did fine. We sat down for hours of written IQ type tests. The tests would be used to determine what job you would be assigned. When finishing one set of tests an instructor asked us who could type. I raised my hand and was taken into a room to take a typing exam. I had taken typing during the first half of my senior year, not to learn how to type but because it was an easy elective and full of girls. When all was done, we were given a ride back to the Greyhound bus station late that afternoon and we all fell fast asleep for the ride back to Tampa.
Easter weekend March 19, 1964 I doubled up in pain at home and told my mother something was wrong. My stomach really ached and I had a fever. I had never had pain like that before. She took my temperature and it was 105 degrees. My father was a Sergeant with the Tampa Police Department and my mother called the station to have him call home. She also called our family doctors, Doctors York, Wilson and Kelly. My father arrived home in a squad car about the same time Doctor Wilson arrived at our house. That was back in the days when doctors made house calls and fortunately the doctor only lived a few blocks away. At first he thought it must be an attack of appendicitis but Doctor Wilson didn't like the very high fever and my pain seemed to be everywhere by then. He told my parents to take me to Saint Joseph's Hospital, which was located just north of downtown at that time. My father's car was at the police station on Tampa Street, so he drove me and my mom in his squad car with red light and siren blaring.
The doctors couldn't determine what my problem was at first, I had progressively gotten worse. The fever wouldn't break, I was losing my vision, the pain had gone away but my whole body was getting numb. They then decided to call a priest should I need last rights. They even put an iron lung outside my room in case my lungs could no longer inflate air. Over the next couple of days scores of doctors were coming into my room to examine me. My entire body had gone numb, I'd completely lost my vision and totally blind for almost three days. Slowly I started to recover on my own. They determined that I had some type of neurological disease similar to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which was very rare at the time. Why I was recovering on my own without medication, they didn't have a clue.
Excerpted from And My Mother Danced With Chesty Puller by Bruce Hoffman Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Hoffman. Excerpted by permission.
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