Making of a Marine
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on 3 December 1942 at Marion, Alabama. At the time I was a freshman at Marion
Military Institute. My parents and brother Edward had urged
me to stay in college as long as possible in order to qualify for
a commission in some technical branch of the U.S. Army.
But, prompted by a deep feeling of uneasiness that the war
might end before I could get overseas into combat, I wanted
to enlist in the Marine Corps as soon as possible. Ed, a
Citadel graduate and a second lieutenant in the army, suggested
life would be more beautiful for me as an officer.
Mother and Father were mildly distraught at the thought of
me in the Marines as an enlisted man–that is, “cannon fodder.”
So when a Marine recruiting team came to Marion Institute,
I compromised and signed up for one of the Corps’ new
officer training programs. It was called V-12.
The recruiting sergeant wore dress blue trousers, a khaki
shirt, necktie, and white barracks hat. His shoes had a shine
the likes of which I’d never seen. He asked me lots of questions
and filled out numerous official papers. When he asked,
“Any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features?” I described
an inch-long scar on my right knee. I asked why such
a question. He replied, “So they can identify you on some Pacific
beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.” This was
my introduction to the stark realism that characterized the
Marine Corps I later came to know.
The college year ended the last week of May 1943. I had
the month of June at home in Mobile before I had to report 1
July for duty at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
I enjoyed the train trip from Mobile to Atlanta because the
train had a steam engine. The smoke smelled good, and the
whistle added a plaintive note reminiscent of an unhurried
life. The porters were impressed and most solicitous when I
told them, with no little pride, that I was on my way to becoming
a Marine. My official Marine Corps meal ticket got me a
large, delicious shrimp salad in the dining car and the admiring
glances of the steward in attendance.
On my arrival in Atlanta, a taxi deposited me at Georgia
Tech, where the 180-man Marine detachment lived in Harrison
Dormitory. Recruits were scheduled to attend classes
year round (in my case, about two years), graduate, and then
go to the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, for officers’
A Marine regular, Capt. Donald Payzant, was in charge.
He had served with the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.
Seeming to glory in his duty and his job as our commander,
he loved the Corps and was salty and full of swagger. Looking
back, I realize now that he had survived the meat grinder
of combat and was simply glad to be in one piece with the
good fortune of being stationed at a peaceful college campus.
Life at Georgia Tech was easy and comfortable. In short,
we didn’t know there was a war going on. Most of the college
courses were dull and uninspiring. Many of the professors
openly resented our presence. It was all but impossible to
concentrate on academics. Most of us felt we had joined the
Marines to fight, but here we were college boys again. The
situation was more than many of us could stand. At the end of
the first semester, ninety of us–half of the detachment–
flunked out of school so we could go into the Corps as enlisted
When the navy officer in charge of academic affairs called
me in to question me about my poor academic performance, I
told him I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps to sit out the war in
college. He was sympathetic to the point of being fatherly
and said he would feel the same way if he were in my place.
Captain Payzant gave the ninety of us a pep talk in front of
the dormitory the morning we were to board the train for boot
camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.
He told us we were the best men and the best Marines in
the detachment. He said he admired our spirit for wanting to
get into the war. I think he was sincere.
After the pep talk, buses took us to the railway station. We
sang and cheered the whole way. We were on our way to war
at last. If we had only known what lay ahead of us!
Approximately two and a half years later, I came back
through the Atlanta railway station on my way home. Shortly
after I stepped off the car for a stroll, a young army infantryman
walked up to me and shook hands. He said he had noticed
my 1st Marine Division patch and the campaign ribbons
on my chest and wondered if I had fought at Peleliu. When I
said I had, he told me he just wanted to express his undying
admiration for men of the 1st Marine Division.
He had fought with the 81st Infantry Division (Wildcats),
which had come in to help us at Peleliu.* He was a machine
gunner, had been hit by Japanese fire on Bloody Nose Ridge,
and was abandoned by his army comrades. He knew he
would either die of his wounds or be cut up by the Japanese
when darkness fell. Risking their lives, some Marines had
moved in and carried him to safety. The soldier said he was so
impressed by the bravery, efficiency, and esprit of the
Marines he saw on Peleliu that he swore to thank every veteran
of the 1st Marine Division he ever ran across.
The “Dago people”–as those of us bound for San Diego
were called–boarded a troop train in a big railroad terminal
in Atlanta. Everyone was in high spirits, as though we were
headed for a picnic instead of boot camp–and a war. The trip
across the country took several days and was uneventful but
interesting. Most of us had never been west, and we enjoyed
the scenery. The monotony of the trip was broken with card
games, playing jokes on each other, and waving, yelling, and
whistling at any and all women visible. We ate some meals in
dining cars on the train; but at certain places the train pulled
onto a siding, and we ate in the restaurant in the railroad terminal.
Nearly all of the rail traffic we passed was military. We saw
long trains composed almost entirely of flatcars loaded with
tanks, halftracks, artillery pieces, trucks, and other military
equipment. Many troop trains passed us going both ways.
Most of them carried army troops. This rail traffic impressed
on us the enormousness of the nation’s war effort.
*Together with the 1st Marine Division, the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division
comprised the III Amphibious Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Roy S.
Geiger, USMC. For the Palau operation, the 1st Marine Division assaulted
Peleliu on 15 September 1944 while the 81st Division took Angaur Island
and provided a regiment as corps reserve. The 81st Division relieved the 1st
Marine Division on Peleliu on 20 October and secured the island on 27 November.
We arrived in San Diego early one morning. Collecting our
gear, we fell into ranks outside our cars as a first sergeant
came along and told the NCOs on our train which buses to get
us aboard. This first sergeant looked old to us teenagers. Like
ourselves, he was dressed in a green wool Marine uniform,
but he had campaign ribbons on his chest. He also wore the
green French fourragère on his left shoulder. (Later, as a
member of the 5th Marine Regiment, I would wear the
braided cord around my left arm with pride.) But this man
sported, in addition, two single loops outside his arm. That
meant he had served with a regiment (either the 5th or 6th
Marines) that had received the award from France for distinguished
combat service in World War I.
The sergeant made a few brief remarks to us about the
tough training we faced. He seemed friendly and compassionate,
almost fatherly. His manner threw us into a false
sense of well-being and left us totally unprepared for the
shock that awaited us when we got off those buses.
“Fall out, and board your assigned buses!” ordered the first
“All right, you people. Get aboard them buses!” the NCOs
yelled. They seemed to have become more authoritarian as
we approached San Diego.
After a ride of only a few miles, the buses rolled to a stop in
the big Marine Corps Recruit Depot–boot camp. As I
looked anxiously out the window, I saw many platoons of recruits
marching along the streets. Each drill instructor (DI)
bellowed his highly individual cadence. The recruits looked
as rigid as sardines in a can. I grew nervous at seeing how
serious–or rather, scared–they seemed.
“All right, you people, off them damned buses!”
We scrambled out, lined up with men from the other buses,
and were counted off into groups of about sixty. Several
trucks rolled by carrying work parties of men still in boot
camp or who had finished recently. All looked at us with
knowing grins and jeered, “You’ll be sorreee.” This was the
standard, unofficial greeting extended to all recruits.
Shortly after we debused, a corporal walked over to my
group. He yelled, “Patoon, teehut. Right hace, forwart huah.
Double time, huah.”
He ran us up and down the streets for what seemed hours
and finally to a double line of huts that would house us for a
time. We were breathless. He didn’t even seem to be breathing
“Patoon halt, right hace!” He put his hands on his hips and
looked us over contemptuously. “You people are stupid,” he
bellowed. From then on he tried to prove it every moment of
every day. “My name is Corporal Doherty. I’m your drill instructor.
This is Platoon 984. If any of you idiots think you
don’t need to follow my orders, just step right out here and I’ll
beat your ass right now. Your soul may belong to Jesus, but
your ass belongs to the Marines. You people are recruits.
You’ re not Marines. You may not have what it takes to be
No one dared move, hardly even to breathe. We were all
humbled, because there was no doubt the DI meant exactly
what he said.
Corporal Doherty wasn’t a large man by any standard. He
stood about five feet ten inches, probably weighed around
160 pounds, and was muscular with a protruding chest and
flat stomach. He had thin lips, a ruddy complexion, and was
probably as Irish as his name. From his accent I judged him to
be a New Englander, maybe from Boston. His eyes were the
coldest, meanest green I ever saw. He glared at us like a wolf
whose first and foremost desire was to tear us limb from limb.
He gave me the impression that the only reason he didn’t do
so was that the Marine Corps wanted to use us for cannon
fodder to absorb Japanese bullets and shrapnel so genuine
Marines could be spared to capture Japanese positions.
That Corporal Doherty was tough and hard as nails none of
us ever doubted. Most Marines recall how loudly their DIs
yelled at them, but Doherty didn’t yell very loudly. Instead he
shouted in an icy, menacing manner that sent cold chills
through us. We believed that if he didn’t scare us to death, the
Japs couldn’t kill us. He was always immaculate, and his uniform
fitted him as if the finest tailor had made it for him. His
posture was erect, and his bearing reflected military precision.
The public pictures a DI wearing sergeant stripes. Doherty
commanded our respect and put such fear into us that he
couldn’t have been more effective if he had had the six stripes
of a first sergeant instead of the two of a corporal. One fact
emerged immediately with stark clarity: this man would be
the master of our fates in the weeks to come.
Doherty rarely drilled us on the main parade ground, but
marched or double-timed us to an area near the beach of San
Diego Bay. There the deep, soft sand made walking exhausting,
just what he wanted. For hours on end, for days on end,
we drilled back and forth across the soft sand. My legs ached
terribly for the first few days, as did those of everyone else in
the platoon. I found that when I concentrated on a fold of the
collar or cap of the man in front of me or tried to count the
ships in the bay, my muscles didn’t ache as badly. To drop out
of ranks because of tired legs was unthinkable. The standard
remedy for such shirking was to “double-time in place to get
the legs in shape”–before being humiliated and berated in
front of the whole platoon by the DI. I preferred the pain to
Before heading back to the hut area at the end of each drill
session, Doherty would halt us, ask a man for his rifle, and
tell us he would demonstrate the proper technique for holding
the rifle while creeping and crawling. First, though, he would
place the butt of the rifle on the sand, release the weapon, and
let it drop, saying that anyone who did that would have a
miserable day of it. With so many men in the platoon, it was
uncanny how often he asked to use my rifle in this demonstration. Then, after demonstrating how to cradle the rifle, he ordered
us to creep and crawl. Naturally, the men in front
kicked sand onto the rifle of the one behind him. With this
and several other techniques, the DI made it necessary for us
to clean our rifles several times each day. But we learned
quickly and well an old Marine Corps truism, “The rifle is a
Marine’s best friend.” We always treated it as just that.
During the first few days, Doherty once asked one of the
recruits a question about his rifle. In answering, the hapless
recruit referred to his rifle as “my gun.” The DI muttered
some instructions to him, and the recruit blushed. He began
trotting up and down in front of the huts holding his rifle in
one hand and his penis in the other, chanting, “This is my rifle,”
as he held up his M1, “and this is my gun,” as he moved
his other arm. “This is for Japs,” he again held aloft his M1;
“and this is for fun,” he held up his other arm. Needless to say,
none of us ever again used the word “gun” unless referring to
a shotgun, mortar, artillery piece, or naval gun.
A typical day in boot camp began with reveille at 0400
hours. We tumbled out of our sacks in the chilly dark and hurried
through shaves, dressing, and chow. The grueling day
ended with taps at 2200. At any time between taps and
reveille, however, the DI might break us out for rifle inspection,
close-order drill, or for a run around the parade ground
or over the sand by the bay. This seemingly cruel and senseless
harassment stood me in good stead later when I found
that war allowed sleep to no man, particularly the infantryman.
Combat guaranteed sleep of the permanent type only.
We moved to two or three different hut areas during the
first few weeks, each time on a moment’s notice. The order
was “Platoon 984, fall out on the double with rifles, full individual
equipment, and seabags with all gear properly stowed,
and prepare to move out in ten minutes.” A mad scramble
would follow as men gathered up and packed their equipment.
Each man had one or two close buddies who pitched in
to help each other don packs and hoist heavy seabags onto
sagging shoulders. Several men from each hut would stay behind
to clean up the huts and surrounding area as the other
men of the platoon struggled under their heavy loads to the
new hut area.
Upon arrival at the new area, the platoon halted, received
hut assignments, fell out, and stowed gear. Just as we got into
the huts we would get orders to fall in for drill with rifles,
cartridge belts, and bayonets. The sense of urgency and
hurry never abated. Our DI was ingenious in finding ways to
One of the hut areas we were in was across a high fence
from an aircraft factory where big B-24 Liberator bombers
were made. There was an airstrip, too, and the big fourengine
planes came and went low over the tops of the huts.
Once one belly-landed, going through the fence near our
huts. No one was hurt, but several of us ran down to see the
crash. When we got back to our area, Corporal Doherty delivered
one of his finest orations on the subject of recruits never
leaving their assigned area without the permission of their
DI. We were all impressed, particularly with the tremendous
number of push-ups and other exercises we performed instead
of going to noon chow.
During close-order drill, the short men had the toughest
time staying in step. Every platoon had its “feather
merchants”–short men struggling along with giant strides at
the tail end of the formation. At five feet nine inches, I was
about two-thirds of the way back from the front guide of Platoon
984. One day while returning from the bayonet course, I
got out of step and couldn’t pick up the cadence. Corporal
Doherty marched along beside me. In his icy tone, he said,
“Boy, if you don’t get in step and stay in step, I’m gonna kick
you so hard in the behind that they’re gonna have to take both
of us to sick bay. It’ll take a major operation to get my foot
outa your ass.” With those inspiring words ringing in my ears,
I picked up the cadence and never ever lost it again.
The weather became quite chilly, particularly at night. I
had to cover up with blankets and overcoat. Many of us slept
in dungaree trousers and sweat shirts in addition to our
Skivvies. When reveille sounded well before daylight, we
only had to pull on our boondockers [field shoes] before
falling in for roll call.
Each morning after roll call, we ran in the foggy darkness
to a large asphalt parade ground for rifle calisthenics. Atop a
wooden platform, a muscular physical training instructor led
several platoons in a long series of tiring exercises. A publicaddress
system played a scratchy recording of “Three O’-
Clock in the Morning.” We were supposed to keep time with
the music. The monotony was broken only by frequent whispered
curses and insults directed at our enthusiastic instructor,
and by the too frequent appearance of various DIs who
stalked the extended ranks making sure all hands exercised
vigorously. Not only did the exercises harden our bodies, but
our hearing became superkeen from listening for the DIs as
we skipped a beat or two for a moment of rest in the inky
At the time, we didn’t realize or appreciate the fact that the
discipline we were learning in responding to orders under
stress often would mean the difference later in combat–
between success or failure, even living or dying. The ear
training also proved to be an unscheduled dividend when
Japanese infiltrators slipped around at night.
Shortly we received word that we were going to move out
to the rifle range. We greeted the announcement enthusiastically.
Rumor had it that we would receive the traditional
broad-brimmed campaign hats. But the supply ran out when
our turn came. We felt envious and cheated every time we
saw those salty-looking “Smokey Bear” hats on the range.
Early on the first morning at the rifle range, we began what
was probably the most thorough and the most effective rifle
marksmanship training given to any troops of any nation during
World War II. We were divided into two-man teams the
first week for dry firing, or “snapping-in.” We concentrated
on proper sight setting, trigger squeeze, calling of shots, use
of the leather sling as a shooting aid, and other fundamentals.
It soon became obvious why we all received thick pads to
be sewn onto the elbows and right shoulders of our dungaree
jackets: during this snapping-in, each man and his buddy
practiced together, one in the proper position (standing,
kneeling, sitting, or prone) and squeezing the trigger, and the
other pushing back the rifle bolt lever with the heel of his
hand, padded by an empty cloth bandolier wrapped around
the palm. This procedure cocked the rifle and simulated recoil.
The DIs and rifle coaches checked every man continuously.
Everything had to be just so. Our arms became sore
from being contorted into various positions and having the
leather sling straining our joints and biting into our muscles.
Most of us had problems perfecting the sitting position
(which I never saw used in combat). But the coach helped
everyone the way he did me–simply by plopping his weight
on my shoulders until I was able to “assume the correct position.”
Those familiar with firearms quickly forgot what they
knew and learned the Marine Corps’way.
Second only to accuracy was safety. Its principles were
pounded into us mercilessly. “Keep the piece pointed toward
the target. Never point a rifle at anything you don’t intend to
shoot. Check your rifle each time you pick it up to be sure it
isn’t loaded. Many accidents have occurred with ‘unloaded’
We went onto the firing line and received live ammunition
the next week. At first, the sound of rifles firing was disconcerting.
But not for long. Our snapping-in had been so thorough,
we went through our paces automatically. We fired at
round black bull’s-eye targets from 100, 300, and 500 yards.
Other platoons worked the “butts.”* When the range officer
ordered, “Ready on the right, ready on the left, all ready on
the firing line, commence firing,” I felt as though the rifle was
part of me and vice versa. My concentration was complete.
Discipline was ever present, but the harassment that had
been our daily diet gave way to deadly serious, businesslike
instruction in marksmanship. Punishment for infractions of
the rules came swiftly and severely, however. One man next
to me turned around slightly to speak to a buddy after “cease
firing” was given; the action caused his rifle muzzle to angle away from the targets. The sharp-eyed captain in charge of the range rushed up from behind and booted the man in the rear so hard that he fell flat on his face. The captain then
jerked him up off the deck and bawled him out loudly and thoroughly. We got his message.
*“Butts” refers to the impact area on a rifle range. It consists of the targets
mounted on a vertical track system above a sheltered dugout, usually made
of concrete, in which other shooters operate, mark, and score the targets for
those on the firing line.
Platoon 984 took its turn in the butts. As we sat safely in
the dugouts and waited for each series of firing to be completed,
I had somber thoughts about the crack and snap of
bullets passing overhead.
Qualification day dawned clearly and brightly. We were apprehensive,
having been told that anyone who didn’t shoot
high enough to qualify as “marksman” wouldn’t go overseas.
When the final scores were totaled, I was disappointed. I fell
short of “expert rifleman” by only two points. However, I
proudly wore the Maltese Cross—shaped sharpshooter’s
badge. And I didn’t neglect to point out to my Yankee buddies
that most of the high shooters in our platoon were Southern
Feeling like old salts, we returned to the recruit depot for
the final phases of recruit training. The DIs didn’t treat us as
veterans, though; harassment picked up quickly to its previous
By the end of eight grueling weeks, it had become apparent
that Corporal Doherty and the other DIs had done their
jobs well. We were hard physically, had developed endurance,
and had learned our lessons. Perhaps more important,
we were tough mentally. One of our assistant drill
instructors even allowed himself to mumble that we might
become Marines after all.
Finally, late in the afternoon of 24 December 1943, we fell
in without rifles and cartridge belts. Dressed in service
greens, each man received three bronze Marine Corps globeand-
anchor emblems, which we put into our pockets. We
marched to an amphitheater where we sat with several other
This was our graduation from boot camp. A short, affablelooking
major standing on the stage said, “Men, you have
successfully completed your recruit training and are now
United States Marines. Put on your Marine Corps emblems
and wear them with pride. You have a great and proud tradition
to uphold. You are members of the world’s finest fighting
outfit, so be worthy of it.” We took out our emblems and put
one on each lapel of our green wool coats and one on the left
side of the overseas caps. The major told several dirty jokes.
Everyone laughed and whistled. Then he said, “Good luck,
men.” That was the first time we had been addressed as men
during our entire time in boot camp.
Before dawn the next day, Platoon 984 assembled in front
of the huts for the last time. We shouldered our seabags, slung
our rifles, and struggled down to a warehouse where a line of
trucks was parked. Corporal Doherty told us that each man
was to report to the designated truck as his name and destination
was called out. The few men selected to train as specialists
(radar technicians, aircraft mechanics, etc.) were to turn
in their rifles, bayonets, and cartridge belts.
As the men moved out of ranks, there were quiet remarks
of, “So long, see you, take it easy.” We knew that many
friendships were ending right there. Doherty called out, “Eugene
B. Sledge, 534559, full individual equipment and M1 rifle,
infantry, Camp Elliott.”
Most of us were designated for infantry, and we went to
Camp Elliott or to Camp Pendleton.* As we helped each
other aboard the trucks, it never occurred to us why so many
were being assigned to infantry. We were destined to take the
places of the ever mounting numbers of casualties in the rifle
or line companies in the Pacific. We were fated to fight the
war first hand. We were cannon fodder.
After all assignments had been made, the trucks rolled out,
and I looked at Doherty watching us leave. I disliked him, but
I respected him. He had made us Marines, and I wondered
what he thought as we rolled by.
*Camp Elliott was a small installation located on the northern outskirts of
San Diego. It has been used rarely since World War II. Thirty-five miles north
of San Diego lies Camp Joseph H. Pendleton. Home today of the 1st Marine
Division, it is the Marine Corps’ major west coast amphibious base.
From the Trade Paperback edition.