Parris Island After Hours Checks
-Or, who was that apparition in dress blues?
It’s time for another tale from yesteryear about duty at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. I was assigned there as a Series Commander along with a tidal wave of lieutenants from the 2nd Marine Division in March of 1965, the month that the Marines landed at DaNang. This was the start of the build up for the Vietnam War. Almost all of the officers from 2nd MarDiv served at PISC for a year, and then we headed for Vietnam ourselves, being replaced by those returning from the war.
The row of barracks near the center of the picture was 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, and my company’s three barracks are at the top of the row, angling off to the left near the trees. MOFAK’s barracks are the three next to mine, and are near the green patch of what passed for grass at Parris Island. The rest of the picture shows the new 3rd Battalion brick barracks beyond the trees and the drill field, or “The Grinder” as we lovingly called it at PISC. Note the nice evenly spaced trees planted at the edges of The Grinder. And you thought the Marines didn't care about aesthetics.
Second Recruit Training Battalion and the Grinders
The position of Series Commander was created as a result of the tragic 1956 incident in which a drill instructor marched his platoon of recruits into Ribbon Creek on Parris Island one night and drowned six of them. After this incident many recruit training regulations were tightened up considerably, and an officer, usually a 1st Lieutenant, was assigned to supervise the drill instructors of four recruit platoons. These four platoons were designated a Series and trained together during their entire stay at boot camp. Each platoon had around 80 recruits with one Senior and two Junior drill instructors. The Series Commander had minimal responsibility for training the recruits…that was, is and always will be the DI’s job. That is one of the secrets to our success as Marines. My job was to ensure that the DIs followed the regulations.
One of the Series Commander’s duties was to conduct "after hours checks" of your barracks, which meant showing up unannounced after normal working hours. The idea was to discourage DIs from breaking the regulations in their treatment of recruits knowing that an officer could pop in at any time of the day or night and on weekends. As I recall we were required to make 2 or 3 after hours checks every week.
MCRD Main Gate and the Causeway leading to the Island-1965
Anyway, the training of recruits proceeded as usual as time passed during my year on the Island. During that winter a friend, Joe Morra, who was assigned as a Range Officer at the MCRD Weapons Training Battalion, was to be married and asked me to be his best man. We were Naval Academy classmates, were in the same platoon at The Basic School at Quantico, and were platoon leaders in adjacent regiments in 2nd MarDiv at Camp Lejeune. Along with me, he was one of the wave of lieutenants who arrived on the Island the previous spring.
Joe and his wife Susan were married in January or February of 1966 at the MCRD chapel with the reception following at the MCRD Officer’s Club. The ceremony was a formal military wedding with Dress Blues, the arch of swords, and all the other bells and whistles associated with such an affair. Being young lieutenants we celebrated Joe’s and Susan’s marriage with gusto, and when I left the club that evening I had somewhat of a load on. It was probably around 2330 or so when I departed and decided that since I was there and it was after hours, I would pull a quick after hours check on my way home. There was nothing that said the recruits had to be awake for one of these checks.
So I pulled into the parking lot in front of my company barracks, and resplendent in my Dress Blues and with a slight starboard list from our reveling at the reception, proceeded to the barracks building housing my Series. I checked each platoon, and each was dark with both recruits asleep in the squad bays and duty DIs asleep in the DI shacks. The only sounds were an occasional snore and some minor tossing and turning.
The lights remained on in the heads all night, and I decided to take a quick leak in the last platoon’s head before departing. The heads in a recruit barracks are austere, with a long line of crappers along one bulkhead and a long line of urinals along the opposite wall. No stalls. Privacy does not exist in a Parris Island recruit barracks or anywhere else.
I stepped into the head and to my surprise there was a sleepy recruit sitting on the first pot inside the hatch. To his surprise, there stood a tall apparition in Dress Blues in the middle of the night. The recruit, now fully awake, recognized the apparition as his Series Commander and immediately popped to attention, shouting "Attention on deck!" What a mess! Let’s just say that he had not finished what he came into the head to do when I arrived on the scene. The noise woke up several recruits and the duty DI and they came running into the head.
The Series Commander in Dress Blues (Sober this time)
Picture the scene in your mind’s eye. A recruit standing at attention in front of a crapper with his skivvies around his ankles and a deposit on the deck behind him; several groggy recruits standing at attention inside the head door; the Series Commander in Dress Blues about two sheets to the wind standing there, and the duty DI dressed only in his skivvies taking in the whole scene. I don’t remember all the specifics of the aftermath of this, but I do recall that the DI handled it without waking up any more of his platoon, and without causing me any embarrassment beyond my due for literally scaring the shit out of one of his men. I excused myself, slinked out of the barracks and into the night and nothing was ever again mentioned about the incident. But I’ll bet the story made the rounds at the NCO Club over a beer or two between off duty drill instructors. "You know that Lieutenant Praeger over in India Company? He’s my Series Commander. Well, the other night when I had duty I was awakened by a ruckus in the barracks a couple hours after taps. I ran into the head and the lieutenant was standing there in Dress Blues about half in the bag giving one of my recruits a short-arms inspection. What the hell he was doing in blues I have no idea, but…" And that’s how these sea stories get started.
And now you know more about what happens in the Marine Corps after the sun goes down.
Dirck Praeger sends
(Sad postscript-About a week after I wrote this story Susan Morra, the bride in the above tale, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. She leaves behind her husband Joe (LtCol, USMC (Ret)), three daughters, and three grandchildren.)