Long Island Surfaces Memories of the Old Corps

Or an old Marine’s perspective on Low Rent properties

A while back my wife and I traveled to Long Island to visit a friend. Knowing the high cost of hotel rooms on Long Island I went on line to one of the travel/hotel bargain websites and looked around for a good deal. I finally settled on an Econo Lodge reasonably close to our friend and booked it. The place wasn’t up to the standards you usually find in hotels and motels around the country these days, and that is being charitable. The rooms were dirty and somewhat run down, and my wife had a royal fit over the condition of the place. After looking around the motel a bit I determined that asking to change rooms wouldn’t improve the situation, so we stayed where we were. As I looked at the room my mind drifted back to my active duty days in the Marines and to some of the edifices we lived and worked in. One phrase came immediately to mind…low rent. After having occupied these low rent properties as an old Marine, it is little wonder that places such as this Econo Lodge do not really bother me as much as they do my bride. But she shared some pretty humble abodes with me during our days in the Corps.

My active duty days spanned most of the ‘60s, all of the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. When my career as a Marine started a good number of the buildings that we occupied were left overs from World War II. The Marine Corps will squeeze every ounce of usage out of all material things. To quote Major Al Bevilacqua’s story of humble Marine edifices from his great book of Marine humor, "The Way it Was"… "Contrary to what a lot of Marines suspect, Semper Fidelis is not a Latin term meaning ‘Waste not, want not’ ". When I started as a Leatherneck, every Marine Corps Base could in large part be classified as "low rent".

The Basic School at Quantico where all new Second Lieutenants are trained has been at Camp Barrett since the late 1950s. When I attended TBS in 1963 the modern Bachelor Officers Quarters was in O’Bannon Hall, which included the mess hall and a bar called The Hawkins Room, or "The Hawk" as it was referred to. However the rest of TBS was housed in Quonset Huts and Butler Buildings of WWII vintage. The Camp Barrett Post Exchange was in an old Butler building. I challenge you to find a PX anywhere in the Corps in a similar facility today. Now most of these old buildings are gone, having been replaced with newer facilities, and even O’Bannon Hall is being demolished and replaced, but to my eyes something of the Old Corps has been taken away. There was a certain "charm" to these places.

My first duty station after TBS was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where I served as a platoon leader with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division. Although the barracks and headquarters at CLNC were built of brick, there were plenty of Quonset huts and Butler buildings still standing. And the trailer parks at mainside and near Camp Geiger where married junior enlisted Marines lived were horrible. The housing available in Jacksonville, outside the gates of the base was, in general, equally humble, although there was nicer housing if you were more senior and could afford it. I served at Lejeune again in the early 1970s as a company commander in 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, and things hadn’t improved that much. My bride and I lived in some pretty humble dwellings in Jacksonville during that tour. However during a visit in the mid 1980s after I had retired from the Corps, new barracks had been erected and some of the old stuff had been torn down, and Jacksonville was starting to look more current and up to date.

One of my favorite places of the Old Corps, however, was the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, CA in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was activated during the Korean War to train Marines how to fight in mountainous terrain and in cold weather, and was perfectly suited for that purpose. The base camp of the place was "Low Rent" personified in the early 1960s when I was fortunate enough to attend two month long Mountain Leadership courses while assigned to 3/6. I joined the battalion just after it had returned from a deployment and had transferred a large portion of the unit to other duty stations. Before we started the workup for the next deployment the following year a lot of newly assigned officers and NCOs were able to attend a number of schools. I was lucky to draw the winter Mountain Leadership course in March 1964, and then the summer course that July. Thus I spent two months at MCMWTC and got to know it quite well. Virtually all the buildings were either Quonset Huts or Butler buildings. The few exceptions were the mess hall and base headquarters. A picture survives of my winter course classmates (those who survived the extremely physically challenging course) which personify the place. We are standing in front of the Quonset hut we lived in, and several General Purpose Medium tents are visible in the background. Note the smoke coming out of the chimney from the space heater inside the hut. The head and showers were located in an adjacent hut and whenever the toilets were flushed, anyone taking a shower would be scalded. We quickly learned to give a warning before flushing so as not to incapacitate our showering classmates.

Winter Mountain Leadership students-March 1964 (Yours truly back row, third from left)

I haven’t been back to MCMWTC since 1964 but have seen pictures of the place and all the old buildings are gone and have been replaced with modern barracks. I’m sure the students are much more comfortable than we were, but the "charm" of the old place is gone.

That summer several of us lieutenants from 3/6 were able to attend the 2nd MarDiv Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense School at Camp Geiger. The NBC school was housed in…you guessed it…Quonset huts.

In March 1965 I, along with a number of Lieutenants from 2nd MarDiv, was transferred to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina to serve as a Series Commander, a series consisting of four recruit platoons. The first Marine ground combat units landed in Vietnam at this time, and PISC was gearing up to train additional recruits needed to support the war effort. One of the three recruit training battalions were housed in new brick barracks, but my battalion, the 2nd, as well as the 1st Battalion, still occupied the old wood frame, two story barracks erected during World War II. In the picture you can see 3rd Battalion’s new brick edifices near the center top of the picture. The row of "H" shaped buildings in the center of the picture is 2nd Battalion. You can see a few of the 1st Battalion’s barracks at the right edge of the photo across the grinder (drill field).

Second Recruit Training Battalion

The wooden barracks were potential fire traps and would have gone up in flames in minutes. Thus one of the most important duties assigned to a recruit was that of Fire Watch. From taps to reveille every night there was an active Fire Watch in each squad bay to warn of fires and get everyone out of the building. There were fire escapes at each end of every second floor squad bay.

The Weapons Training Battalion also had the newer brick barracks so my series was able to live in them during the two weeks at the rifle range near the end of boot camp. The differences between the two types of barracks were stark and we were envious after returning to our old digs after the rifle range. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home…maybe.

Parris Island Wood Barracks

Camp Pendleton, California was established in 1942 on the west coast as a counterpart to the east coast’s Camp Lejeune (also established at the start of WWII). During my day most of the buildings on the base were of similar construction to the wooden barracks at Parris Island. The old DeLuz family housing area consisted of…you guessed it again…Quonset huts, and the area was replete with tarantulas and rattlesnakes. The huts had been configured so that families could survive in them, but creature comforts weren’t high on the priority list. As late as the late 1970s, early 1980s most of the old buildings were still standing and in use. During my last visit to the base before retiring from the Corps both the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division and I Marine Amphibious Force were housed in the white clapboard edifices built during WWII.

I won’t even attempt to describe the base and its environs at 29 Palms, California in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It is a great place for live fire and maneuver, which it is primarily used for, but I’ll leave its appearance to your imagination and mind’s eye. If Pendleton in sunny Southern California is low rent, you can imagine what 29 Stumps looked like.

Today if you visit Quantico you will see beautiful family housing for all ranks of married Marines. It is so far improved from what existed as housing during my time that it takes your breath away. All of the horrible trailer parks that housed young enlisted Marine families are gone. They tell me that this is true at all major Marine Corps bases. As late as the early 1970s there weren’t too many married Marines below the rank of Sergeant. Families weren’t high on the Corps’ priority list back then. The main emphasis was defeating the Japanese, then the North Koreans and Chinese, and then the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. But things have changed radically now. Taking care of Marine families has become a higher priority, and it shows when you visit bases today.

In addition virtually all of the old barracks, armories, maintenance building and headquarters have been replaced with better facilities. It is a modernized Corps today. I look back with some nostalgia at what we knew in the Old Corps. It really wasn’t just the low rent stuff we had, but the lifelong friends that we made and the times we had in those places that make such wonderful memories. Would I do it all again, low rent and all? You bet!

Semper Fi

Dirck Praeger sends