In his latest “Dear Grandson,” Stan Gerding describes his FMSS (Field Medical Service School) Training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
I had a couple of days home and then off to the airport to fly to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
We had to fly into a little town called New Bern and then be bused to the base. The interesting thing about this airport was the fact that it was no bigger than a gas station. Well, we got to the base and checked in to the OOD’s office, which is Officer of the Day. We were sent to our barracks. And this was no Navy barracks, because the floor was cement and I thought to myself, I am glad I brought my shower shoes. A cement floor can be very cold.
The OOD told us that we could not go anywhere that night except for the chow hall for dinner. We all went to the chow hall and had dinner; it sure wasn’t like anything like we were used to, because Navy chow is much better than Marine Corps chow. We ate, then we went back to the barracks and sat around shooting the bull (talking), while a few of the guys played cards. We were told taps (lights out) went down at 2200 hours (10:00 p.m.) and reveille (wake up) goes at 0500 (5:00 a.m.).
The next morning at exactly 0500 the trumpet started blowing reveille. We got up and went to the chow hall for breakfast. We were standing in line and I noticed on the chalkboard at the front door of the chow hall was written “SOS” (shit on a shingle, or creamed chip beef on toast). This is one of my favorites and every time the chow hall would have it, I would get it. Yummy.
When I got to the serving line, I kept looking for the SOS but couldn’t find it, so I asked, “Where is the SOS?”
The Marine behind the counter serving the food pointed to this ground beef in a tomato sauce and said, “SOS.”
I said, “I’ll have some.”
He put a big glob of this stuff on a piece of toast. I wasn’t about to argue with this Marine that it wasn’t the SOS I was used too. I tried it and it tasted like lousy sloppy joes on burnt toast. So, to say the least, I didn’t eat breakfast that morning.
We went back to the barracks and met our CC. Or, in Marine Corps terms, our Drill Sergeant. We were standing around the bunks, shooting the bull, when we heard this caterwauling coming from the front door and here walks in this little Marine with three stripes on his collar devices (Sergeant) hollering and hooting away. I swear he was probably five feet, two inches tall, in his early thirties, bald-headed, and saying things that none of us understood.
He told us to “fall in” outside in ranks, so we went outside and got in some sort of order. When he came outside, he bellowed for us to “get at attention.” Now, you would think it was this easy … NOT. You see, in the Navy, the guy in charge says, “A-ten-shun,” which is “attention” and you go to attention. In the Marine Corps, the guy in charge says, “AArrgh-hooo,” the same sound you make when you clear your throat. As a matter of fact, we all looked at each other and said, “I think he just cleared his throat.”
After a few more disgusting sounds and throat clearings, we figured out that he wanted us at attention. He turned as red as a beet because he was perturbed at us for not understanding his orders. I thought of Gomer Pyle when he first heard Sergeant Carter speak. I know all of us were thinking, If he calls cadence like he is clearing his throat, we are in a heap of trouble, we’ll be marching in fifteen different directions.
Now, we were supposed to march over to the classroom for orientation and we were wondering how this was going to take place.
In the Navy, “forward march” means let’s go, and then the cadence caller says “left, right, left, right.” In the Marine Corps, they say, “Foowardd hoooout, herg, hedoe,” I’m guessing.
I will give you an overview of some cadence for the Navy: “forward march” means let’s go, the cadence caller says either “left, right, left, right” depending on which foot you are on, or “1, 2, 3, 4” and then repeat “1, 2, 3, 4.” The Marine Corps says, “Foowardd hoooout, herg, hedoe,” I’m guessing. I can go on and on, but the bottom line is that we had a hard time understanding his commands. We looked like a bunch of idiots marching down the street. We were laughed at by anybody who saw us marching. After a few days, we were looking pretty good; I guess we were starting to understand him, I think.
The medical training was excellent with heavy emphasis on combat injuries to include sucking chest wounds, bullet wounds with arterial bleeds, leg and arm breaks with splinting techniques, eye injuries, and many more. One day we visited a mock Vietnam village made to look like a real one, along with booby traps like the ones over in the ’Nam. And then a day at the firing range where many of the Marines joked about our (lack of) expertise in shooting weapons. We weren’t good, and I think I was on the top of that list.
We also had to go to the gas chamber again, but this turned out to be a different type, I will explain. We would be taken into this room with a dirt floor and the Marine instructor would light the tear gas off directly in the middle of the floor and instruct us to remove our gas mask one at a time. Then we were to sing the first stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn and then you could leave the room. Now, we were in there in a group of ten guys and even though we had a mask on there still was seepage of the gas around the sides of the mask. Here we go again, the last man standing is all messed up and, guess who that was? Of course, me. I think that was the fastest the Marine Corps Hymn had ever been sung and out the door I went, coughing and hacking.
The last week of training was unique. The first three days the Marines prayed for rain because we went out in the woods for a three-day bivouac with weapons and wounds and basically war. We also watched a gun show put on by the Marines that were going through ITR (infantry training).
We were so happy when Thursday morning came because this was over and we were going to graduate. By the way, it rained all three nights. Thursday was a cleanup and free day because Friday was graduation day. We were about to graduate and receive our first rating as a Corpsman, 8404 Fleet Marine Force designate, which basically meant we could be sent to a Marine Combat Unit.
I had talked with two other guys that were from Ohio and were driving home after graduation and they wanted to know if I wanted to drive with them. They would swing by Northern Kentucky and drop me off and then they would continue to Ohio. I agreed to go with them.
Graduation day and we all graduated and went our separate ways. My best buddy through Corps School and FMSS was a guy named Bill Farmer from Detroit, he also had orders to Bethesda Naval Hospital and we said our goodbyes but that we would see each other at Bethesda.
The three of us guys drove off on our mission to head home in the one buddy’s car. He mapped out the trip and it included crossing a bridge over the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, into Gallipolis, Ohio, because the road on the Ohio side was a quicker route to Cincinnati.
We were about ten miles from the bridge when we agreed to stop for dinner. One of the guys recommended a restaurant he knew, because he had a few meals there before, so we stopped and ordered our meals. We then heard a fellow in the crowd ask the owner to turn up the news, which he did, and a special report was on stating that the Silver Bridge had crumbled into the Ohio River due to the weight of rush-hour traffic. Our hearts sank into our chests because that was the way we were going.
Thank God we stopped to eat because we might have been in the Ohio River that night. The date was December 15, 1967, and we found out later that 46 people were killed on the collapse of that bridge. We found an alternate route and it got us to my home about four hours later than the other route, but we surely didn’t care. My buddies stayed at my home that night and they made calls home to their parents to let them know they were okay and would be on their way the next day.
Luck was with us that night.
More later, Grandson.
Stan Gerding is the author of the book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.