By Jim Kuiken
After I got off active duty in January 1977, I transitioned over to the reserve component, and stayed in the Marines…but with a twist…
I was coming from 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, where I was a Recon Marine, and transitioning over to C Company, 4th Tank Battalion… Talk about a transition! Recon to Tanks? What the H#!! was I going to do in Tanks? I didn’t know anything about tanks!
And besides that, the unit I was coming from was “squared away”…everyone in shape, looking sharp and all “gung-ho”! All these guys were bigger, and way dirtier – wearing greasy coveralls, etc. What the heck had I done?
It didn’t take me long to see that Marines are Marines – Recon or Tankers – and were focused on being the best Marines they could be. The tankers were dirty because they were working on big, greasy tanks! If they weren’t greasy and sweaty…it was because they weren’t working…and boy, did those guys work! I quickly became close friends with my fellow Marines, and felt right at home – except, I still didn’t know anything about tanks!
Never fear, I knew about weapons, and as a Staff Sergeant, they put me in the armory as the Company Armorer working on M-16 rifles, .45 caliber pistols, M-240 co-axial machine guns (basically an M-60 7.62mm machine gun), the big, beautiful M-2 .50 cal. machine gun, and other miscellaneous weapons. I was in heaven!
After a couple of years I was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant…but as a Gunny, I had to leave the armory and became the Company Tank Leader (which is like a Company Gunny to most non-tank units). The only trouble was…once again…I didn’t know anything about tanks, except their weapons. And as the Company Tank Leader, I had to know about tanks!
Again, easy fix. They sent me to Tank School in Ft. Knox, which is run by the Army. Even though the Army was transition to their new M-1 tanks, the Marine Corps generally got the Army cast-offs, and we were moving from the M-48’s (from Korea and Vietnam days) over to the refurbished M-60A3’s that the Army was getting rid of…
Lots of interesting things happened with me (as a Marine Corps Gunny) on an Army base, but I’ll save those for future “Frontline Tales” episodes. This one is about what happened in the actual classroom training that I attended there at the school.
As the senior Marine in the class (there were several PFC’s through Corporals, a couple of Sergeants, and one Staff Sergeant in class with me…along with a whole passel of Army soldiers), I automatically took charge of the class – and especially the Marines. I made sure I sat in the back of the class so I could see if any of them were goofing off or starting to nod out. With the Army guys, the instructors would ask them to stand along the side wall if they started to fall asleep, but with the Marines… Well, let’s just say we had our own way of doing things.
I had a sock with sand in it, tucked up into a ball, and if I saw any Marine heads start to bob, I’d bounce it off the back of their head to get their attention (which always freaked the Army instructors out – but they didn’t say anything), then had them come stand in the back (and bring me my sock full of sand in case I needed it again).
When break time came along, if we had any that had been drifting off during that session, I’d take all the Marines out back (because if one fails, we all fail…so we all pay with the one) and do a bunch of push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or whatever I felt like doing during that break (and yes, as a Marine leader, I did them with my men), and after they really had their blood pumping and were all woken up, we’d head back in and see if they could make it through another of the scintillating classroom sessions without them bouncing their forehead off the table in front of them or getting whiplash from their heads snapping back as they lost consciousness.
After one of the non-sweat inducing breaks (i.e., none of the Marines had fallen asleep during the preceding class), we had been sitting out back on the grass enjoying the fresh air and some sun, when it was time to go in. The Staff Sergeant and I got up to head back to class with the rest of the Marines trailing behind, when I started to come around the corner of the building, saw an opportunity and jumped back, pushing the Staff Sergeant back behind me.
In order to get to the class from where we were, we had to come around the corner and walk along a long loading dock on the back side of a warehouse with multiple loading bays (doors), go around the other side, and go into the classroom attached to the other side of the warehouse.
What I had seen was an Army Major stepping out from one of the bays onto the loading dock – along with an Army Master Sergeant, probably to get some fresh air and a couple of minutes in the sun.
I lined all the Marines up and stood next to the corner, and at about 5 - 10 second intervals, sent them around the corner to walk down the dock, past the Major and back to class.
Of course, I first instructed them to make sure they gave a good, crisp Marine Corps salute and rendered a good, loud verbal greeting – “Good Afternoon Sir!” as they came within 6 paces of the Major.
For about the first 4 or 5 Marines, the Major stood there, and returned each salute and verbal greeting…but then he looked to his left and saw more coming, and stepped back into the loading bay under “cover”, and took his uniform hat off, so he didn’t have to salute. Each Marine continued to salute and greet him as they went by. “Good Afternoon Sir!” “Good Afternoon, Marine.” “Good Afternoon Sir!” “Good Afternoon, Marine.” Etc., etc.
After all 20+ Marines has passed, the Staff Sergeant and I came around the corner, in step, and marched past him, also rendering a good, crisp Marine Corps salute and greeted him. “Good Afternoon Sir!!!” He returned the greeting, and after we were more than 6 paces away, stepped back out, put his uniform cover back on his head, and said “Hey, Gunny!”
That should have been a red flag, because most of the Army guys just call everyone from E-5 up “Sergeant”, regardless of their actual rank. He knew the Marine Corps rank and protocol…
I stopped, turned, and said “Yes Sir?”
With a slight twinkle in his eye he said “Next time don’t space them so evenly…” He knew exactly what I had been doing.
With a smile, I said “Roger that Sir!”, turned, and went back to class…