The Great Artichoke Caper

If you touch one you go to jail

During BLT 3/8’s three week stay in the hills around Navplion, Greece after our amphibious landing there in the early winter of 1971, the command group of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines committed a heinous crime against humanity. But before I provide the details of this notorious act I must first give you the lay of the land in and around our beachhead at Navplion.

Our landing area, and the area we trained in after the amphibious exercise was completed, is located in the mountainous Peloponnese peninsula southwest of Athens. The mountains rise up almost immediately beyond the landing beaches with several valleys between them with tributaries running into the sea. In the valley that contained our BLT perimeter, between our position and the sea, there were a good number of artichoke fields. The plants were ripe with artichokes…almost ready for picking. Being a farm boy and remembering that our crops and gardens produced only in the summers, I was a little puzzled as to why the artichokes were ripe in the winter, but I guess that’s how some agriculture goes in the Med.

During briefings received aboard ship before the landing we were told that the artichoke crops around Navplion were a big part of the local economy and were not to be disturbed during our assault and training ashore. It seemed that this was mentioned at every subsequent staff meeting during our stay. There were threats of dire consequences if a Marine was seen to so much as touch an artichoke. Company commanders dutifully passed this word down their chains of command with the accompanying threats of mayhem if violations were discovered.

We had been ashore a couple of weeks going through various training evolutions, some of which were explained in previous stories. India Company was returning to the perimeter from the beach area late one afternoon on a glum, overcast day. We were in company column, column of platoons, marching up the road past the artichoke fields. Myself, the First Sergeant and company and battalion radio operators were at the head of the column. The Executive Officer and Company Gunnery Sergeant brought up the rear…standard formation for moving a rifle company administratively down the road. It was almost dark. The XO claimed that his bootlace had come untied. He asked the Gunny to wait with him while he retied the lace. And then, horror of horrors, he sliced off an artichoke with his K-Bar knife and tossed it to the Gunny, who promptly put it in his field jacket pocket! They both quickly rejoined the moving column. I didn’t know anything about this evolution that those two had planned ahead of time.

We returned to the company area, stowed gear, cleaned weapons, and marched the company to evening chow. There was an evening staff meeting with the BLT commander, Lieutenant Colonel W. H. “Duff” Rice, and company commanders returned to their areas. The battalion Field Music, Corporal Nixon, blew tattoo and taps on his bugle (yes, 3/8 had a Field Music. LtCol Rice was a traditionalist and found a Marine who could play the trumpet and hired him as Field Music). 3/8 responded to the traditional bugle calls when we were in the field during this Med deployment.

Each company and the battalion headquarters had the Command Post Tent, M-1945 in their table of equipment. This 10’ X 20’ tent served as both office and sleeping quarters for the battalion and company commanders. During the day the tent was used as the company office. It contained a field desk and camp stools and small file boxes needed ashore. Most of the company admin documentation remained aboard ship when we landed during deployments since we would return to the ship eventually. At night the tent became sleeping quarters. The desk and other office equipment was moved to the end of the tent and sleeping bags and air mattresses were unrolled.

Normally the battalion commander and battalion executive officer shared a CP tent as quarters. The company commanders had various arrangements, but India Company’s CP tent housed the Skipper, XO, First Sergeant and Company Gunny. This may seem a little crowded, but there really was sufficient room for sleeping. The XO and myself occupied the main part of the tent. There was a vestibule between the entrance and the forward peak of the tent’s roof that was closed off from the main part of the tent. In the picture below you can see that the vestibule, facing toward you, is quite roomy, and provided plenty of room for the First Sergeant and Gunny to sleep.

CP Tent

As soon as taps had gone and the Gunny had checked the area to make sure everyone was bedded down, he entered the main part of the tent. Myself, Mike Brock, the XO, and First Sergeant Ernest Bradford, were already there going over last minute business and getting ready to hit the sack. At this point Gunnery Sergeant Dick Duenow ceremoniously removed the artichoke from his field jacket pocket. My eyes bugged out in horror as I looked at the infernal artichoke. “Where in the hell did that come from?”, I asked. The Gunny and XO told me how they had planned and executed the operation that resulted in the contraband vegetable being in the India Company CP tent. “What in the hell are we going to do with it?” The XO said, “We’re going to eat it.” With that the Gunny produced a tin of butter that he had acquired from his buddy Gunny Perry, the battalion Mess Sergeant.

Each company has in its table of equipment a small Coleman camp stove that has been adapted for military usage. It comes in an aluminum tube about a foot long and about five inches in diameter. The tube is pulled apart and the stove resides inside. The ends of the tube serve as containers for boiling water or cooking. The Gunny broke out the stove, pumped it up, lit it, filled one container with water, and placed it on the stove to boil. When the water was ready he dropped the artichoke in and boiled it until it was ready. He then placed the butter in the other container and melted it, adding some garlic to the mix. By the time the butter was melted the artichoke had cooled enough so we could start eating. I had never eaten an artichoke before so had to be instructed on how to pull off the leaves, dip them in butter, and scrape the meat off each leaf with my front teeth. It was delicious. I fell in love with artichokes at that moment.

As we were consuming the artichoke I asked, “What are we going to do if the Colonel drops in and catches us eating a forbidden artichoke?” Ernest Bradford replied, “We offer him a bite.” That was one of the great things about the First Sergeant. He was never afraid to be honest and straight forward with me when he disagreed with how I was handling some aspect of India Company. His artichoke answer was right on the money. I may have tried to bullshit Duff Rice instead of offering him a bite. The bite would have been exactly the right thing to do. Rice was that kind of battalion commander. He was my favorite battalion commander during my entire career in the Corps just as Ernest was my favorite First Sergeant. I remain in touch with both of them to this day.

After we finished our little feast, the Gunny picked up his entrenching tool, went outside, and buried the stem and leaves of the artichoke to destroy any evidence of our heinous crime.

So now you know what a bunch of unrepentant criminals the command group of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines was. It may have been a crime, but it started a life long love of artichokes for old India Six.

Semper Fi

Dirck Praeger sends