The Uncanny Wisdom of Marine First Sergeants

Posted 02 Nov 2011 in Sample Stories

Have you ever been in a position where, in a split second, you could have changed the entire history of the world?  I have. Once.

It had been a long voyage aboard the APA 227, USS Renville, a troop ship crossing the Pacific. Finally I was getting to my first permanent duty station. For the past nine months, other than much rigorous training and technical schooling, I had done nothing recreational except “police” the area. That term was new to me, so I assumed it had something to do with high-level security.  It actually meant picking up trash from perfectly manicured grounds.  I was learning, and I policed well.  I picked up cigarette butts, filters, paper and other litter found on the ground from Parris Island to the San Diego Naval Base, but more importantly, I always volunteered.  My attempts to impress my superiors did not go unnoticed, as I had just been promoted from private to private first class, and I was bucking to make corporal before I returned to the States. I was a loyal, hard-charging Marine, but still a bit naïve and unfamiliar with the old “salts” of the Corps and Navy – and their jargon.  Actually, as an eighteen-year-old high school dropout, I was a bit naïve, period.

We arrived at the Yokosuka Naval Base where hundreds of seasick Marines were divided into smaller groups destined for various posts, bases and stations within Japan. I was in a group of about forty men destined for the Marine Air Group-11 at the Naval Air Station, Atsugi. A sergeant, who looked not much older than I, was in charge of our bus. After about an hour, we entered the East Camp compound where the Marines at Atsugi lived. As the bus stopped near some Quonset huts, a sergeant emerged from one of the huts and talked briefly with the young sergeant on our bus.  We were required to get off the bus and fall in ranks for roll call. “Any you people have police experience?” The young sergeant asked.

Immediately my hand went up. “I do, sergeant,” I said.

“Go with him,” he barked, pointing to the other sergeant.  I grabbed by sea bag and followed him into the hut. Over the door was a sign that said MABS-11 GUARD. Next to the building was a larger sign that said MAJOR R. SPOONER, USMC, PROVOST MARSHAL, 1st MAW.

“Gunny, this guy has police experience,” the sergeant said to a technical sergeant or gunnery sergeant, as they were called. Without looking up or in any way indicating he saw me, he responded, “Get him bedded down and brief him.” I followed the sergeant to a hut with six double bunks and a stark row of  wall lockers along the rear of the room. Heads and showers were next door. I was assigned an empty bunk; I made it up, placed my sea-bag contents into a wall locker, and met our “houseboy,” a young Japanese male, and reported to the sergeant for briefing.  I was now a military policeman with Marine Air Base Squadron – 11, Marine Air Group – 11, First Marine Air Wing, Atsugi, Naval Air Station, Japan, and I was about to find out that “police” isn’t always a literal translation for litter control.

In the days ahead, I walked guard duty around ammunition bunkers, stood duty at the East Camp gate, walked the perimeter fence, stood guard for payroll officers and hauled prisoners to and from the brig. Once or twice, I got to go on town patrol in the town of Yamato, outside the gate. Several times, I was assigned as supernumerary of the watch. I liked that assignment because the supernumerary was a relief for any post, for many reasons, such as sickness, or whatever. That allowed me to learn the duties of almost all the posted assignments. Like I said, I was bucking for corporal. And being a military policeman wasn’t bad. Only when acting as a “chaser” was I nervous or edgy—well, maybe downright scared. Word was, if one got away from you, then you would be required to serve his sentence. Who were they usually?

It was fairly early in the day. Morning as a matter-of-fact. I was the supernumerary of the watch, sitting on a bench in front of the sergeant of the guard’s desk.  “Sergeant! Git in here,” the gunny bellowed. The sergeant entered his office. I could hear muffled voices and the sergeant reappeared. “Bates, grab a weapon and load it.” He picked up a telephone and said, “Give me a man over here. Now!” As I was loading a magazine into my 45 at the loading barrel, another Marine appeared. I think his name was Triplett or something like that.  He drew a weapon and magazines, and, like me, loaded at the loading barrel. “Okay, you two, get over to MACS-1 barracks and check in with the duty NCO. There’s a Marine in the barracks with a pistol. Watch yourselves. Get him and the weapon. Bring both to me. Go!” With loaded weapons, we ran toward the barracks. A sergeant met us at the entry door. “He’s sitting on his bunk. I think he put the pistol in his locker,” he said. He looked a bit anxious. We drew our weapons, chambered a round, and each of us placed it on safe. The sergeant followed us into the barracks.

A Marine, fully dressed in utility clothing with a uniform cap covering his face, was stretched out on his back on a bottom bunk. I pointed my weapon at him. “This the man?” I asked the sergeant.

“That’s him,” he replied.

“On your feet,” I said in a loud voice. He didn’t move. Triplett holstered his weapon, walked directly to the bunk, yanked the prone Marine out of bed by his jacket, and shoved him back against the wall lockers. The Marine, now hatless, just smiled. “Guns in the wall locker,” the sergeant said.

“You got bolt cutters?” I asked.

“I’ll get them,” he replied.

“Where’s the gun?” Triplett asked. The Marine just smiled. He was either stupid or had a screw loose. He definitely wasn’t intimidated by us.

We cut the lock off, and Triplett reached to the top shelf and removed a small derringer pistol. He then cuffed the Marine, and I holstered my weapon. We walked him back to the Guard House where the major was waiting with the gunny. The gunny told Triplett he could go back to the hut, and I sat on the bench. The Marine sat cuffed in a chair. About an hour later, I was relieved and went off duty.

The next morning, I reported for duty again as supernumerary. The sergeant was in the gunny’s office, and the door was closed. I could hear talking, sometimes rather loud.  Suddenly, the door opened and out came the Marine that Triplett and I had apprehended the day before, followed by the sergeant. “Bates, get yourself armed and chase this maggot down to his squadron,” the sergeant said. I responded, “Aye, Sergeant,” and I drew a 45 and two magazines loaded with five rounds of ammunition each from the gun locker.  Then, I went to the loading barrel, pointed the pistol at the sand inside it and let the slide go forward. I squeezed the trigger, and the hammer fell on the firing pin and the empty chamber. Then I readied my weapon with one magazine and placed the other magazine in a pouch on my belt.  We were to load a round in the chamber only if we felt threatened or if we were authorized to fire the weapon.  I told the man, “You’re my prisoner. Walk six paces in front of me to your squadron office. Stop when I tell you. Do not turn around to face me. Do not run from me. Do not talk to anyone. Do you understand?” He just looked at me and smiled. “Watch this turd,” the sergeant said to me.

“March forward,” I said. And off we were, from the Guard House at East Camp, through the barracks area, past the mess hall and over an earthen causeway toward the runway and hangar area on the Marine side of the air station. On each side of the long causeway were Japanese farmhouses and rice paddies. Off base.

Almost halfway across the causeway, the prisoner suddenly asked, “That gun loaded?”

“It’s loaded,” I said, “shut up and keep walking.”  He stopped abruptly. “You don’t have one in the chamber,” he said. I stopped and yelled at him, “Keep walking!” Some Marines were approaching us going toward East Camp. They apparently recognized that I was a chaser and crossed to the other side of the road. I wished I hadn’t yelled. I was nervous. He started to walk slowly. After the group of Marines had passed us, he said. “How many rounds you have?”  I responded. “Four in the magazine and one in the chamber.” I instantly wished I hadn’t lied to him. I was getting more and more nervous.  He was taunting me. “And if I start running, what are you going to do?” he taunted. “Then there’ll be three in the magazine and one in the chamber,” I responded, instantly regretting that I was talking with him. Then he feigned an attempt at running. I drew my pistol, chambered a round, and said, “Don’t do it.” I was a bit surprised at how calm I was. I had actually determined that I would shoot this guy if he gave me a legal reason to do so. He started laughing. I looked around. The Marines who had passed us were nowhere in sight. No one was on the causeway except us. Farmers in the rice paddies below were bent over minding their own business. I pointed my loaded pistol at him. “Your move,” I said in a surprisingly low voice. He looked at me. “Just joking,” he said. I pointed the pistol right at his chest. “I will kill you,” I said. He stopped smiling and walked on toward his squadron’s hangar. I was shaking and breathing hard. I still knew that I would shoot him if given a reason. Apparently, so did he. There were no further incidents.

We entered the MACS-1 hangar and walked to the first sergeant’s office. The first sergeant glared at the prisoner. I handed him the paperwork and asked him to sign for the prisoner. He did. I felt obligated to relate what had  happened along the way, but I did not feel that telling the first sergeant how nervous I was would have made for a better story or improved my standing. “Thanks, Marine. We’ll take it from here. Oh, by the way, you should have blown a hole in the back of his head. It would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.”  He handed me my signed receipt for Private Lee Harvey Oswald, USMC, and I departed his office.

Since 1963, when I learned who killed President John F. Kennedy, and to this day, I have never doubted the wisdom of Marine first sergeants.


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