Thursday, October 19, 2006

Letters from Bootcamp, Installment VII (Snapping In)

Rifle Qualification was THE best part of bootcamp. Why? Because for those two weeks they allowed us to mostly concentrate on shooting skills. The humiliation and capricious physical punishment was very nearly put on hold; not completely, but almost. It makes sense if you have ever seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket;” why push a bunch of untried privates to the emotional brink when for 5 days they are given LIVE rounds of anti-personnel ammunition? So, the best two weeks came after the worst week. I don’t know if it was by design, and if so, for what purpose, but so it was. What follows is a loooong letter, all together 7 pages on little sheets of USMC stationery. Have a read and I’ll comment at the end… see you there.


August 5, 1975 – Dear Family,

Now that I’ve survived mess duty, it looks like I’ll have to try and live through rifle qualification. We have 2 weeks of rifle training here at Pendleton on a huge dusty, sandy firing range. I believe it’s called Edson Range. The first week is called “snapping in week.” That’s what we’re in now. I was warned it was difficult, but the pain from the positions is excruciating, especially the kneeling position. Dad, what kind of marksmanship training did you have in bootcamp? Did you have to snap in to all these difficult positions? Next Monday we start firing “real” practice rounds, probably 70 or 80 rounds a day all week, then next Friday we have qualification day, where we fire 50 rounds all together in the various positions we were taught. We must score 183 points at least to go on with the platoon. Otherwise, we are set back 2 weeks to try it again; another failure and its 2 more weeks. After that, one more failure and the Marine Corps considers you untrainable and kicks you out. (I’ll finish this later).

August 8, 1975

Boy, have I been busy lately. They haven’t given us a single bit of free time I could write letters in except yesterday. Because I’m a house mouse I had to clean the duty hut. (Oops, I’ll finish later).

I had to stop for chow. Tomorrow is our last day of snapping in; after that, we start firing live rounds.

By the way, just because I have problems getting letters off, don’t let that deter you people from sending them to me. I can always find time to read them. All those people who asked for my address must have done it to be nice because I haven’t heard from any of them except for Jean Martin and Terry, and that was quite a while ago.

You know, there’s one thing I’ve noticed about bootcamp so far, the days seem to drag by while the weeks fly by.

I’ve written Grandma Haley twice so far and Grandma Spear once. The reason I wrote Grandma Haley one more is because I got one more letter from her. The way I work it is I write a letter to a person only after they’ve written me. It’s the only way I can do it with my limited time. That doesn’t apply to the family however.

What little tan I had on my legs and torso is pretty well gone. They like you to sweat a lot so they make you wear all kinds of heavy clothing. I yearn to be back there, running around in tennis shoes and shorts, jumping into the pool for a half-hour, running a few miles, coming back to the house for a gallon of lemonade and a few dozen cookies, and then burning it all off at the tennis courts. Someday soon maybe.

When is Pat and Lynn’s reception you spoke about? I can’t wait to get at that fresh corn, raspberries and strawberries, etc. from the garden and blueberries from Warblers. Save some for me!

It’s nice to hear Kevin is running. That “head radio” you bought sounds pretty cool. By the way, it’s about time you wrote me a letter Kev, like Gail has.

It doesn’t sound to me like the Clio Country Club won’t be worth the membership money you paid until I come back from the USMC in a few years. That’s an awful lot of money for golf. Do you think it’s worth it? (I’ll write more later)….

Aug 9, 1975

Mary Kay, Gail and Kevin really need to get into golf to make the money you paid for the membership to be worth it. Even then, you can’t golf all year round, what sorts of things does the club have going on during the winter? You’ll probably end up wasting money on the deal.

I have a feeling I’m going to have trouble qualifying on the rifle range this Friday. If I don’t qualify, it means being set back for a week or two. It’s just one more thing I’ve got to sweat through. If I don’t graduate with this platoon, I’ll graduate with another one I guess. What’s the difference? The sooner I get out of here the better. To qualify, you must shoot at least a 182 out of a possible 250. Sounds easy, but it’s not. For the past couple of days our platoon pulled butts for other platoons. That is, we pulled targets down and marked scores with little disks on the targets. I saw quite a few scores that were well below 182.

You asked about the kitchen help in the messhalls. Without the privates who are relieved every week by a new platoon of recruit privates that messhall would come to a complete halt. Every bit of the work, except supervisory and a little cooking, is done by privates.

Tell the people in my class who ask about me that I’m surviving by living through one day at a time. To be truthful, most of the time I’m pretty uncomfortable.

In the last letter you sent, you said the weather was foggy there. It’s always foggy here. Sometimes the firing range comes to a complete halt because of it. Although, it still hasn’t rained here yet. It sure is weird the weather here; how’s the weather doing there? In the next letter you write, make sure give me a complete run-down on the garden. Man, I miss it.

Could you clip “Prince Valiant” out of the Sunday papers and send it to me? I know it sounds like a weird request (it is), but I have a hankering to find out what’s going on with the old boy.

I got a glance at a Sunday paper the other day and saw Billy Martin was kicked out of the Rangers and joined up with the Yankees as manager. What a shock that was.

Thanks for that last letter you sent Gail. I was sitting there during mail call feeling very dejected about not getting any mail and the DI was down to the last letter. You should have seen me jump up and yell when he called my name, “SIR, PRIVATE SPEAR, AYE AYE Sir!”

Could you send me a packet of Air Mail stamps? I’ll pay you back when I get home. I must owe you about $5 all ready. I did buy a pack here at the PX, but the DI dumped my footlocker all over the deck today for leaving it unlocked. I never saw those stamps again. They cost about $1.14 too, dang it!

As soon as you get this letter start praying that I qualify at the range. Maybe if I get enough people asking God for a hand I’ll make it. (…I’ll write more later).

August 10, 1975

I got that sandpaper, and it’s just the right kind too. My brass is pretty shiny now because of it. I used it to get the scratches out of the buckle and belt tip for a cleaner shine. Go ahead and send the rest of it.

Boy! John Roe sure is a troublemaker. He’s probably the rowdiest and most feisty of the guys in the platoon. So far he hasn’t gotten into any real fights yet, but he sure has come close. The squad leaders in charge of getting things done are always on him to do his job. He does his job alright, but it’s always his way. I don’t have any problems with him though.

So far we haven’t had any blanket parties yet. I heard another platoon in our series had one though. The DI of that platoon broke it up before the kid got killed.

I’ve only been punched by a DI twice so far, and only in the chest. Nowadays they have to watch themselves. All a private has to do is request to see the series commander, who is Capt. Rivers, and he will immediately can the drill instructor. That’s not the way it used to be, or so I’ve heard.

Well, by now the new fall shows should have been reviewed on TV. Do they look any good? Hey, that’s a silver lining, all I’m missing here are the summer repeats!

How about the Haley Reunion? Is it going to be in Frankenmuth again this year?

By now Mr. Dawson (cross-country coach) should have contacted you Kevin. Has he returned yet from his honeymoon? I’ll bet you guys never do go up north to Courtney’s cabin for pre-season training. He always waits till the last 3 weeks wasting the whole summer.

Have you been saving my letters? If you have, how many have I sent? If not, please start. I’ll be very interested to read what I’ve written when all this is over.

How are the Tigers doing? They’re in last place, right?

Hey Dad, have you made any plans for the ice rink this year? Maybe this winter you can make some adjustments and have more ice.

Our Preliminary Marksmanship Instructor (PMI) informed us yesterday that we won’t have any time this week to write letters. This one took me five days, from August 5th to the 10th. This letter is so long that it might take you a week to read it anyway.

Mary Kay, have you bought that record album yet? Seen any movies? I haven’t! How’s the job? Still have it? Any new Birch Run gossip?

That’s about it for now. Keep me informed people.

Love, Phil


Snapping in was mind-numbing. All the privates of our platoon spent hours every day for five days in a huge circle, practicing our aiming and trigger-pulling techniques. Another name for it is “dry-firing.” We dry-fired our rifles at tiny painted targets on a white 55 gallon metal drum in the middle of the big circle. The shooting positions were unbearable to do, mostly because we were forced to pull our shooting straps painfully tight.

The web strap, normally used for sling arms, for shooting purposes attaches to the forward clip near the end of the barrel while the other end forms an adjustable loop tightened around the shooter’s left bicep. The PMIs and DIs tightened this strap as short as they could so that it would still barely allow the rifle butt to literally “pop” into the pocket formed between the pectoral, shoulder and upper bicep muscles. Sometimes it would be so tight that it would take two people to get the rifle butt to pop in. I cannot tell you how much this hurt. The entirety of bootcamp was like this, once you thought they could not possibly find another way to torment, sure enough, they did.

Mark Colpean, a high school buddy going through training with me, at one point was in tears because his arm went dead, so tight was the strap and for so many hours. The poor guy’s arm hung limp, numb and useless at his side and he must have believed it was seriously damaged. At the time, I wasn’t so sure that it wasn’t. It took a long time to return to a semblance of normal.

As for me, when the instructors weren’t looking, I loosened the strap to reduce the agony. I figured it was stupid to make it so tight that the pain interfered with the concentration required to get good sight-picture, breath control, and steady trigger squeeze. To this day, I’m not convinced that the folks in charge of basic training were the best and brightest. Inflicting pain and degradation on young men with the thought that you are toughening them up was a mistaken notion. In my case, by disobeying orders and using my own common sense I was able to improve my shooting technique.

Reading this old letter I realize that I had a bad case of "the denials." I still had not come to grips with the fact that I was NEVER going home again. I continued to write about my dreams of resuming my life where I had left off as a kid, but that was not going to happen. I was homesick and unhappy with where I found myself. I thirsted for news from home to reconnect me to my old world, which seemed light-years away. All I wanted was to get through it and go home in four years; little did I know that part of my life was over forever…

Bootcamp Letters by Installment: 1 2 3 4 5 6


Ed said...

I certainly enjoyed that letter more than the mess duty ones. Not as painful to read.

If I had to choose a part of military training that I would like to do, it would be rifle training and maybe survival skills. But I would never do very well at the shooting because I'm right handed and left eye dominant. it takes me an extra second to force my left eye closed which means I only hit the slowest pheasants.

Amadeo said...

"Could you clip “Prince Valiant” out of the Sunday papers and send it to me? I know it sounds like a weird request (it is), but I have a hankering to find out what’s going on with the old boy."

I'd have you know that we also had Prince Val in the Sunday comics (in color) in the PI. And I, too, followed his exploits, getting married to Aleta, and having son, Arn.

Did you get to see the movie version, with Bob Wagner in "bangs", and Janet Leigh as Aleta?

Amadeo said...


"I still had not come to grips with the fact that I was NEVER going home again."

Though I couldn't hazard a guess why you said it, still this statement struck close to home.

As earlier mentioned, my 3 sons all joined the Marines, and had bootcamp in Pendleton. Though granting that all started with the Reserves, I assume they all went thru the same training as the regulars.

Two of them went straight back home after training, except for one. This one decided to continue his service in Las Vegas and we couldn't fathom why.

After a while, we sent him a ticket with his girlfriend back to the Bay Area and that started his move back closer to us.

Now, all 3 live close to us and are all in law enforcement.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Ed, rifle qual was mostly tedious and extremely painful, but it was immensely satisfying. The rifle training we learned on Edson Range was target oriented, not combat. We learned the markedly different combat shooting at ITS; truthfully, every marine dreams of that moment when he can take take his piece, take a moment to get a good sight picture on an enemy, take a breath, release it, hold it, squeeze it off and watch him fall. ALL Marines are riflemen first and THAT is what those two weeks teaches. And yes, even the lefties and those with other idiosyncracies learn to shoot and to become as deadly as possible with their weapon. For the marines it has always been so.

Amadeo, you REALLY date yourself my man! chuckle... Of course I saw Robert Wagner as the prince, but it sounds like you saw it when it was released... pulling your leg man! ... Awesome! You put three marines / policemen into the world. If you never did anything else, you kicked ass big time Amadeo!

Your comment is soooo Filipino though; the one about you NOT UNDERSTANDING why your son chose to stay on out in LV... Obviously, he was feeling the urge to break out and do it on his own, a very AMERICAN impulse. It makes absolute sense to me! After living here these four years past though, I understand where you are coming from with your comment.

As far as me realizing I was NEVER going home, I was being somewhat figurative. Of course I went home again, but it was never going to be the same; how could it be? I had changed; I wasn't a kid anymore, and I had yet to realize that, but it didn't take long for that reality to hit me full force in the nose.

Amadeo said...

"I had changed; I wasn't a kid anymore.."

This part we realized immediately after they came back from Pendleton - both physically and mentally. Quite a quick transformation.

While I had expected this somewhat, the wife was totally taken aback. Her kids were now adults!

Thus, you are right coming back home was never going to be the same.

Girlie said...

That letter gave me a clearer picture of training. Boy, was I tired after reading it to to the dry firing.

I was only two when this was happening. Probably, the only thing pressing for me was the next candy I'm not going to get if I don't eat my veggies.

SeƱor Enrique said...

Wish I had done what my brother did -- join the US military service and later on the US postal service. Not even 65 and he's drawing two pensions from both and having a fun time in San Diego.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Shoshana, Yeah, you and Ed Abbey both have the same problem with my "novellas." Sorry about that. Rifle qual is but a small part of Marine training, but it is some of the most important because it instills a crucial mindset.

Senor E, Good for your brother... so, he's a comrade of mine! I'm not even 50 and I'm drawing disability and my pension. I did 27 and my body called it quits. He's 65? You got a brudah that old Senor? Dang dude, so you're a half generation ahead of me. You're living in the Phils too, so you must also be retired, yes?