The first airplane ride of my life was leaving Portland International Airport bound for San Diego early in the morning on October 27, 1969. I don’t
remember much of that first day since it was all new surroundings and situations plus I was probably severely hungover. I think we were mostly just shuffled around prior to any official orientation. What I do remember though, was waking up the next morning in a strange place in the top bunk in a barracks for in-processing new recruits. We didn’t wake up to a gentle voice or pleasant clock alarm. A couple of Petty Officers were stomping around the barracks beating on garbage can lids with night sticks and yelling at the top of their lungs for us “fucking maggots” to get up, get dressed and be out on the grinder in 5 minutes. Yikes! I knew this was going to be a change, but you have no clue until you go through it.
The first few days are a blur as you’re assigned to a company, get the haircut, get your clothes fitted and issued as well as a bunch of other things with 40 other guys. Everyone was issued a stencil that had their last name and initials and service number. At each clothing station you were given instructions on exactly where to use your “stencil pencil” to apply your name on every single piece of clothing. You had one with white ink for dark clothing and one with black ink for lighter items. I can still smell the fumes from that ink. Even though a couple of years later the Navy switched to Social Security numbers for ID, my original service number is one of those numbers forever burned into my memory.
I was assigned to Camp Nimitz Company 699 under Company Commander Shipfitter Chief Petty Officer Melvin Douthit. With a couple of hashmarks on his sleeve, it was obvious he’s been around awhile. We were his first company so I think we got off fairly easy compared to those who were under the command of someone more “hardened” toward recruits. There was only one time that I had to face his “wrath”. One night I had the midwatch as a sentry on the patio. I had to patrol the area behind our barracks and march around a perimeter that was to protect our laundry on the clothsline. Or maybe it was to keep thieves from walking off with the concrete tables we scrubbed our clothes on. I see a figure approaching out of the darkness. I give the “Halt, who goes there” and “Identify yourself” commands with no response. A petty officer with a chest full of ribbons and hashmarks on the left sleeve of his dress blues appears before me. “What is your name, worm?” (or maybe we were squirrels by then), “Seaman recruit Clevenger, sir”, I reply. “What’s that in your mouth?” he asks. “Gum, sir!”, I reply. Gulp. There went the wad of DoubleMint. “When I get back to Battalion Headquarters, you’ll be written up!”, he barked, then spun around and was gone. I didn’t know if I was to face a keel hauling, flogging, walking the plank or the firing squad for my egregious act. Sheeesh.
The next day our RCPO tells me to see the Company Commander in his office at a certain time. I show up standing at attention at his doorway at the appointed time, scared of what sort of punishment I would meet. Most offices in boot camp had a plate on the wall with a fist picture on it located adjacent to the door trim. You were to knock 2 or 3 times on that plate and wait to be told to enter. I entered and Chief Douthit asked what the offense was, I told him and basically got a “See that it doesn’t happen again.” Whew! The military is pretty fussy about any distractions to a security watch whether it may be chewing gum, cigarettes or a beverage.
Punishments were common in boot camp for various reasons. Especially important early on is to convert your way of thinking from that of a normal citizen, free to do as you please, to a person able to follow an order and work with your shipmates as a team. To conform (and to survive) you have to follow direct orders. Your way of life has to be regimented to certain tasks and schedules with no tolerance for any deviation. There is also the issue of following a chain of command. There has to be respect given and respect earned. Everywhere you go you march as a group. Who ever saw sailors marching on a ship? Why does a sailor need infantry training? Why do you have to fold your clothing a certain way? There is a method to all this madness.
At some point almost everyone is made an example of in some humiliating way. You watch and learn from the mistakes of others and they learn from yours. After a while, the berating abates as the company is able to work together and achieve goals more efficiently as a whole. You don’t hear nearly as often how low of a piece of shit you are or where you exist on the food chain or evolution process. This is why sometimes the group is punished for the offense of one. I remember one time during an inspection by PO’s from battalion. They found a skid mark in a guys “clean” folded skivvies. The inspector that discovered it made him get a bucket of water, scrub them, then get a bucket of rinse water and then wring them out. He then wanted them to perfectly dry and fluffy, so he ordered them to be passed around the barracks and shook vigorously three times by everyone standing at attention at the foot of their bunks and passed on. Three times around the barracks and they were perfectly fluffy and dry.
The locker near your bunk is not a huge storage area. You’re taught that there’s a place for everything and everything has it’s place. That’s how you can get your entire wardrobe in a seabag. By folding clothes a certain way you save space and may even save yourself some ironing. During some of these inspections, an outsider peeking in would catch some bizarre things going on. The inspectors would try to find any infraction that they dole out some sort of punishment for. One PO pulled a bandaid (new, in wrapper) from my dungaree shirt pocket. After being read the riot act and giving some sort of explanation, I was ordered to do laps around the barracks with that bandaid hanging from my mouth, chanting “I will never leave gear adrift” or something to that effect. This is inside the room around a long skinny table down the middle of the room called a centerboard, with all the bunks outboard. As I’m running around there are others doing similar things for their transgressions. Guys on the floor doing pushups or situps, or someone running around ahead of me waving their t-shirt over their head in a pattern. Another thing was to see guys “Running to Georgia” (more on that one later). One weird vision was that of somebody that must have had their bedding not made up properly. As you ran past his bunk all you saw was his legs flailing from under the mattress as they were face down on the steel springs. There were several of these and with everything else going on it was rather circus-like.
During one of these we had a guy in our company that got winded and hit the deck. As we’re running past serving out our particular sentence for some petty infraction, he’s down and a PO is kicking him around taunting him and trying to make him man up and join his shipmates. Somebody finally realizes that he’s maybe having an asthmatic event and demands someone produce a paper sack for him to breathe in. He gets hauled off to sick bay and we hear 3 days later that he’s out of the Navy. Our superiors rarely got really physical with us, but one time really stands out in my memory. It was during one of these inspections and I’m at attention at the end of my bunk. A PO is checking out the gear of a recruit directly across the room from me. The recruit must have given the inspector some shit, because he got pushed up against the lockers hard enough for the locker to tip backward and hit the bulkhead, just narrowly missing a window. These lockers were located between all bunks and were steel framed and sheet metal covered, about 6 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 16-18 inches deep. Upper half for one person, lower half for his bunk mate.
Another memorable punishment was “Running to Georgia”. This was usually given out for some infraction like a wrinkle in a pillow case or a corner fold that was off or loose bedding. If either the top or the bottom bunk was nailed you both paid for it. When told to “Run to Georgia”, one guy had to take the head of the bed and the other guy take the foot, lift both ends and run in place, with both facing the center of the room. I was involved in this twice, once at Camp Nimitz and again at the barracks on the advanced training side. Both times I was at the end of the bunk between the bunk itself and the wall facing the bunk. My bunkmate is at the other end facing toward the center of the room. So you’re running in place until you can see that the 2 or 3 inspectors in the room aren’t looking and you relax a bit, sort of running in place without lifting your feet much and the bunk resting on the tops of your thighs. That ruined your legs for a couple of days. As soon as someone of authority starts turning around or coming your way you would pick it back up and get back to running in place. Now on the primary side this was pure misery with the skinny angle-iron framed bunks and mattresses about 3 inches thick. When we had to do this on the advanced training side we had bunks framed with heavy steel tubing and mattresses closer to 6 inches thick. Pure hell!
When out on drills and marching we always carried a M1903 Springfield rifle. This model of firearm had been out of service for years but was still used by marching and drill teams. The thing was useless since the end of the barrel was welded shut. I don’t recall if the bolt action mechanism even worked. Sometimes out on drill we would stop and be ordered to do some sort of callisthenics. If we stopped and need to be punished for something we did an activity we called “Eye level high”. After halting, you hoped the drill instructor didn’t bark those 3 dreaded words. Everyone would have to hold their rifle straight out in front at eye level with arms straight. Ok, for a weapon that’s a little under 10 pounds, no big deal, right? Try it for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes. You find yourself arching your back trying to support that thing. Arms burning, legs cramping, no fun at all.
We looked forward to firearms training and fire fighting school because they were located off base and away from the NTC madness. Whee, a bus ride out into the real world. I think on the rifle range we used M16’s. I really don’t remember any pistol training, but it must have been there. When assigned to a ship, we carried the Colt 45 sidearm when standing a quarter deck watch in port as a Petty Officer of the Watch.
We went to 2 different fire fighting schools as part of the advanced training. They really drill into your head the importance of knowing fire fighting and damage control aboard ship. It’s not like you have a dedicated division of fire fighters you can just call up in case a fire breaks out. You’re on your own tiny metal island and just possibly out of sight of land. We were sent to a place outside of San Diego that had several scenarios set up. We learned about the different hoses used and what was material was used to fight a fire of wood and paper or one composed of petroleum products, electronics/electrical and so on. These were divided up into Class A, Class B, Class C fires, etc. We smelled all sorts of burning stuff that day. One exercise involved a compartment fire. It was a small cinder block building with a shipboard type hatch. One of the instructors went in through the maze and torched off a barrel full of dirty rags, oil, fuel or whatever it was in there, creating a thick acrid smoke. He exits the hatch and tells us there’s a fire that needs to be extinguished, man the hoses and get on it. I was about the third man back on a hose, I don’t remember if it was the main or the protective misty spray applicator or maybe it was a foam applicator. I look back toward the hatch as he’s closing it down on our 1.5” hose leaving a sliver of daylight visible through the smoke. He bellows in through the crack “Anybody coming through this hatch before the fire is out is gonna get their ass kicked!” Ok, that’s enough incentive for me! So the whole time as we advanced in the darkness to find the fire I remembered to keep low, sometimes with my nose and cheek rubbing on the dirty concrete deck in there. No kidding, you really can get cleaner air down low in a smoky, fiery situation! We extinguished the fire and nobody in our group had to exit to breathe and get a beat down. Whew.
Another training session we went to was a fire fighting training facility located on the 32nd St. Naval Base in San Diego. They first took us to a room and showed us some training movies. The first one showed WWII sailors jumping off a ship into sea water with burning fuel on the surface. The second movie included footage from the USS Forrestal disaster that happened 2 years prior. It was on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin conducting combat missions into North Viet Nam during Operation Rolling Thunder. In that one a missile was discharged from a jet caused by an errant electrical surge. It shot across deck into another jet on the port quarter. That triggered other ordinance to go off in addition to burning fuel creating a huge fire. We saw a 30 year old LCDR named John McCain exiting and jumping clear of his A4 Skyhawk when surrounded by flames. The flight deck became Hell on earth. It was pretty obvious the Navy intended on using this as a lesson, a very costly one. One of the exercises at this school was to fight an engine room fire where you had to advance on open deck grates and you had smoke, fire and heat coming at you from below, the sides and the front. Another one was to carry a load of fire fighting equipment up several flights of stairs in an enclosed concrete tower. When at the top, you waited until they got a smoky fire lit somewhere below. On the order (and ONLY when told to) you donned your OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus), and proceeded down the dark smoke blackened stairway in an orderly fashion until you reached the bottom. Many of us had to fiddle around with our masks on the way down because after a few breaths, you knew whether it was or wasn’t sealed on your face correctly.
Speaking of masks, every recruit gets to go through the gas chamber. I’d almost swear that this is where the navy sends all the defective masks. We go in about a dozen to a group and an instructor messes with your head a bit after starting the gas pellet. You’re then ordered to don your masks. It sort of helped a little bit and then you were told to remove it and recite something to the instructors satisfaction before you could exit. I think I recited the Eleventh General Order correctly on the second try. Oh yeah, and when we first went in, the instructor said something to the effect of “I better not see any of you fucking squirrels puking on my deck!” So in your mind is the choice; in my shirt pocket? Nope, had a large breakfast. Down the inside front of my shirt? In my hat? I think all vomit was contained until we exited. Outside the exit hatch there was stuff spewing everywhere. I didn’t puke but teared up badly and felt like coughing my toenails up. It was horrible, but another one of those things you check off and say, “Glad I’m done with that and hope to never experience it again.”
Overall the bootcamp experience for me was mostly positive, in that it changed me in ways that effects how I live to this day. There is a reason for all that you have to do there and it becomes more apparent as the rest of your navy time goes on as well as the rest of your life. I went through it at a time when I needed some direction, regimented living, learning some respect for authority as well as just doing the right thing. It’s not the best 4 months of your life but you WILL come out a better man for it!