Of Mountains, Wild Onions and Porcupines

The Lieutenant goes to Mountain Operations School

Recently I broke out the lawn mower for the first time this spring. I was happily mowing away when I ran into some wild onions that had sprouted up near the back of my property. As I cut them down their aroma wafted into my nostrils and I was taken back to yesteryear and the time when I was compelled to try to live on wild onions and when I ate a porcupine. But we need a little background before we explore these epicurean delights.

When I reported in to Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in late January 1964 fresh out of The Basic School at Quantico, the unit had recently returned from a Caribbean deployment. As was the usual practice in 2nd Marine Division at the time, battalions returning from cruises to the Caribbean or Mediterranean were almost immediately decimated by large numbers of transfers and expirations of enlistments. Thus when I and several other Basic School classmates joined 3/6 and were assigned as platoon leaders, our new units were seriously under strength. On top of the transfers a number of those Marines remaining in the battalion were assigned to Temporary Additional Duty (TAD) to places like the rifle range, Marine Corps Base, and various and sundry other locations in and around Camp Lejeune. Our platoons were practically non-existent.

As a result of this situation most of the new lieutenants were able to attend a number of schools. In my case this included a month at the Fleet Marine Force Atlantic Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical School at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, a subsidiary base within the Camp Lejeune complex, and two courses at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickel Meadows, near Bridgeport, California. Thus from March until July 1964 I was almost a full time student interspersed with short visits to 3/6 to visit my short handed platoon which was being ably led by my platoon sergeant.

The MCMWTC was established during the Korean War to train Marines to operate in the mountainous terrain of that country and to endure the extreme cold of Korea’s winters as was experienced by the 1st Marine Division during the Chosin Reservoir campaign. It is located in the High Sierra Mountains of northern California about ninety miles south of Reno, Nevada. In the 1960s MCMWTC offered unit cold weather and mountain operations training to battalions and several other courses of instruction including Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, and a month long Mountain Leadership Course.

I was fortunate to be able to attend both the winter and summer Mountain Leadership courses. During the winter this course emphasized military skiing, and in the summer, military rock climbing. Both courses were physically demanding in the extreme and included both classroom and field training, with the majority of time being spent in the field. I went to the last winter course of 1964 during March of that year, and attended the summer course in July. Because of the physical demands of both courses most classes lost around half of their original enrollments to injury and drops on request or termination by members of the staff. Classes usually started with around 30 students. As you can see in the picture, only 15 Marines made it through my winter course. As you can also see we were quite a motley crew. No two uniforms alike with the possible exception of the two Marines centered in the front row. That’s me third from the left, back row. Students were junior officers and NCOs, usually Sergeants through Captains.

Graduation Picture of Last Winter Mountain Leadership Class of 1964

The staff of the Mountain Leadership course referred to us as "Flat Landers" because we were all from Camp Lejeune which is on the Atlantic coast with hardly any elevation much above sea level. The MCMWTC base camp is at around 6,500 feet and the areas we trained and operated in were higher, in some cases by several thousand feet. It thus took several weeks to become acclimatized to the high altitudes. This just made the course more physically grueling for us Flat Landers.

We flew from Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina to Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada in C-130 Hercules aircraft. From Fallon we immediately boarded buses for the 120 plus mile trip to MCMWTC. Upon arrival after dark we were herded into a Quonset hut class room and told to wait. Several minutes later men dressed as Chinese Communist soldiers armed with Soviet PPSh-41 submachine guns burst into the room and "captured" us. We were loaded into 6 X 6 trucks and driven around in the dark for about 20-30 minutes and then delivered to a Prisoner of War compound. We spent the night as POWs and were maltreated, stripped of our uniforms except for skivvies and boots without laces, interrogated, threatened and almost froze. After the sun rose we were "released", given back our clothes and marched to the base camp, which was just over the hill. This exercise was to give us a taste of POW life with the Chinese Communists and was part of our SERE training. The actual SERE students would spend around three days in the compound.

After our POW experience Mountain Leadership School began in earnest. The first week was pretty much classroom work after a post-reveille PT session and breakfast in the base camp mess hall. Classes included Code of Conduct for POWs, survival skills, operations in mountainous terrain, military skiing, first aid and evacuation in mountainous terrain, and other applicable subjects.

The next two weeks were mostly in the field learning the techniques of military skiing. Having been raised on the high plains of Kansas and never having had a pair of skis on in my life, this was quite a challenge. Lesser so for those who had skied before. Our equipment wasn’t state of the art to begin with, and there was no chair lift to take us back to the top after coming down the slopes. We had to climb back up either using the herringbone technique of side stepping back up the slope. This was done as much for physical conditioning as anything. As we mastered the basic techniques, we began to wear rucksacks and carry rifles as we skied. After several weeks of training the staff brought out a gasoline engine driven device that would haul us back up the slope using a rope loop. The engine was placed at the top of the slope, a large pulley at the bottom, and the rope looped around both devices. It was crude but effective.

The last week was devoted mostly to a tactical field problem in the mountainous training areas with the school staff acting as aggressors. After the field exercise we returned to base camp, turned in our gear, cleaned up, gathered at the club for a few cold beers and turned in for the night before graduation the next morning and the return trip to NAS Fallon for transportation home.

During the weekend after the second week of training we were offered a ride on a Marine Corps bus to Reno for liberty. I originally wasn’t going to go, but was finally talked into it by Lieutenant George Ross of 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. That weekend of debauchery was the start of a life long friendship with George. He was later transferred from 2nd Recon to 3/6 where we served as platoon leaders together, although in different companies. George applied for and was accepted for flight school, and his going away party was another milestone that will go down in the history of Marine Corps liberty. In any case, Reno and George’s departure from 3/6 are not pertinent to this story, but are both deserving of their own tales. In the above picture George is in the front row, third from the right. But I digress.

So we returned to Camp Lejeune in early April 1964 to our depleted platoons. In May I attended the FMF LANT NBC School, and then in July was able to fill a quota for the summer version of Mountain Leadership School. I retraced my steps to Cherry Point, Fallon, the long bus ride and arrival at MCMWTC. The curriculum for the summer course was much the same as for winter, except the skiing was replaced with military rock climbing. The physical aspect was just as tough. After morning PT and breakfast, we donned our rucksacks filled with climbing ropes, pitons, snap links, mallets, C-Rations, water and all the other stuff we needed for training that day and ran uphill for a mile or so to the climbing area. These morning runs, along with other exhausting exercises, were instrumental in weeding out a number of students. Thus the casualty rate was similar to the winter course’s. We wore helmet liners as protection from falling rocks during climbing, and if you were caught without the headgear during a climb, you owed the rest of the class a case of beer.

After mastering the basics of rock climbing we conducted a night time raid that required us to scale a cliff and rappel back down in the dark after the attack. We practiced medical evacuation of casualties up and down cliffs and other evolutions pertinent to mountain operations.

At the end of the second week there was the obligatory trip to Reno for more fun and games, and then came the last week and the field exercise. This evolution was a bit more complicated and memorable than the one at the end of the winter course. The scenario went something like this. We were being sent to the Balkans to track down and destroy a Communist guerrilla band (the mountain ops staff) in the mountains as they violated the border of the country. We were presented with a mission briefing before departure to our objective area by, among others, the U.S. Ambassador to the country portrayed by Major Tony Deptula, the Executive Officer of MCMWTC. He was dressed in a civilian suit but still looked like a Marine field grade officer in civilian clothes. Tony had been a platoon leader during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.

After the briefing we were loaded into two 6 X 6 trucks and told we would be issued rations upon our arrival at our patrol base. We travelled quite a distance, I can’t remember exactly how far after all these years, but ended up close to Yosemite National Park. At one point during the exercise we were able to look into the park from the top of a mountain ridge line.

As we rounded the last bend before arriving at the base camp we came upon a 6 X 6 partially in the ditch. Two Marines lying in the road, smoke grenades burning, and empty C-Ration boxes strewn around. Our "native guide" from the MCMWTC staff told us, "Looks like our ration convoy was ambushed and all the rations stolen by the guerrillas. You guys will have to live off the land until we can resupply you." Thus our SERE training was going to be put to the test.

We were formed into fire teams of four Marines with each group working to live off the land for however long this evolution was going to last…possibly for the entire field problem. We set deadfall snares, fished with the mosquito nets that fit over our headgear, and searched for edible vegetation. In the case of my fire team every effort to subdue fish and game failed and we lived on wild onion soup for about two days, there being plenty of wild onions in the vicinity.

On the second night we built a fire and were sitting around it sipping on our onion soup, our stomachs growling and moaning in hunger, when a large porcupine wandered into our campsite. We looked at each other, and then without a word, went after the rodent and dispatched him with the biggest tree branches we could find. Then with flashing K-Bars we skinned him, and after pulling quills out of our hands, had him roasting on a quickly fashioned spit over the fire. He was delicious…tasted like chicken, and our hunger was assuaged.

As we sat around the fire picking our teeth with porcupine quills, our guide informed us that a small band of guerrillas carrying rations would pass a designated set of grid coordinates later that night, and that maybe if we organized and sprung an ambush we might get some of our C-Rations back. We quickly established the ambush, and sure enough, the guerrillas showed up on schedule and our ambush was a success.

We distributed the rations and prepared to move out in the morning on our mission. Local porcupines breathed a sigh of relief as our column departed the area. Over the next three of four days we traversed some of the most beautiful country America has to offer. We climbed high into the Sierra Nevadas in pursuit of our prey, applying the mountaineering lessons we had been taught during previous weeks. At one point we gazed down upon Yosemite National Park from a high ridgeline. As I recall we had a few skirmishes with the guerrillas, and finally returned to our drop off point where we boarded six-bys for the trip back to MCMWTC.

Then we repeated the graduation routine from the March course and headed back to NAS Fallon for the return flight to Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune the next morning. We went into town that night and hit a few bars. They all had blackjack tables and we partook. We found that it was easier to win in Fallon than in Reno. The secret was that our dealer was a Navy Chief’s wife who took pity on us poor Flat Lander Marines who had been cleaned out in Reno. She had seen many Leathernecks pass through on their way to MCMWTC and gave us whatever break she could.

We returned to the NAS transient quarters and were standing along the runway the next morning when the Hercules with "UNITED STATES MARINES" emblazoned on the fuselage fired up its engines. We boarded and headed home. As I look back on my career as an officer of Marines, the two months that I spent at the Mountain Warfare Training Center were some of the most memorable.

Semper Fi,

   Dirck Praeger sends