Happy Birthday to the United States Marine Corps

The following is an excerpt from Hanging the Artificial Sun:

Sardinia was a jagged, smoky mountain rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea like a big purple iceberg. We were due to hit a beach on the southern end of the island at dawn so they had sounded reveille at zero dark thirty. Throughout history, this has always been the official waking time for invading Marines. And this effectively pissed us off, which was what they wanted. We packed our gear and prepared to load the trucks and guns onto the waiting LCU’s. It was time to go to work.

The seagulls took flight as our LCU came to rest in the soft sand of the shoreline. This time Corporal Ski was riding shotgun in the cab with me and Byrd Dog was in the back. The water was not very deep and no one got wet. But this would change shortly. That night it rained on us harder than anything I had ever seen. Of all of the operations we conducted while on the Austin, Sardinia was to be the worst and the wettest.

We went about the business of laying the battery about fifty yards in from the beach. Lieutenant “Bum Scoop” was on the aiming circle barking out deflections to each of the gunners operating the sights on the Pigs. As our gunner, a dark green Marine from Philly named Monroe, adjusted the dials and bubbles I was acutely aware of how I missed our Niner-eights. We had brought the Pigs on the Austin trip and none of us knew why. But I thought that it was a fitting tribute to the old guns since they were obviously back in the same territory where they had fired their first shots over forty years before.

The carriage on our Pig was stamped 1943 indicating that it had rolled out of the Rock Island arsenal during World War II. It had probably been used to fire shots at either the Imperial Japanese or the Nazis, and if it were the latter it was entirely possible that our Pig had sat on the same beach some forty or so years earlier.

We fired HE fire missions all day while the storm clouds gathered above us. As soon as the sun dropped off the horizon the torrential downpour began and lasted all night long.

Byrd Dog started bitching about the rain as soon as it started and that made it the perfect time for me to finally give him his “nickel or blued” speech. Every Boot Marine gets that speech sooner or later. Byrd Dog knew that this was just one of the many Field Ops he had in front of him and that many more would follow, just as many more floats would follow. I was lucky because this was my last six-month float. Knowing that made the rain a little less aggravating but it didn’t work that way for the Dog. He was pissed off.

“Goddamn fucking rain. What kind of fucking shit is this? Cocksucking motherfucker…,” Byrd Dog said as he stood in the downpour, thoroughly soaked down to his government skivvy drawers.

“What’s the matter, Byrd Dog? Your recruiter didn’t tell you about this part?”

“Fuck him.”

“Was it blued or nickel-plated?” I said to Byrd Dog as I stood beside the ammo in the pouring rain. He was only a few feet away and I could barely see him through the heavy sheets of rain. I was being an asshole which was the primary job of any senior Lance Corporal. I had done my share of bitching so I really had no business calling the kettle black.

“Fuck you, Angus. You asshole…”

I repeated my challenge. “Was it blued or nickel-plated?”

Devil Dog Dewitt stepped up beside me with a fuze wrench in his hand while the rain poured down the front of his Kevlar helmet, fogging his catch me fuck me eyeglasses. He then joined in the assault on our younger brother. He had heard this all before.

“Was it blued or nickel plated?” Dewitt said as he wiped his catch me’s with his finger in an attempt to be able to see.

“What the hell are you two assholes talking about? Blued or nickel plated… What the fuck!”

“The gun the recruiter held to your head to make you join this mother fucker. Was it blued or nickel-plated?” As I said this, a bolt of lightening up the Sardinian sky followed by a crack of thunder that was louder than a howitzer.

Dewitt was thoroughly enjoying tormenting the Byrd Dog. “He didn’t hold a gun to your head, did he? You went to him, didn’t you? You asked to be in this mother fucker, so shut the fuck up!” Dewitt then removed his catch me fuck me’s and wiped the lens in one more futile attempt to clear the lenses.

Before Byrd Dog could reply, a fire mission came across the wire. The rain had reached Noah’s Ark proportions but we were forced to ignore it. We knew that real combat would never wait on the rain to stop. That was the primary reason we spent so much time in the field living in bad conditions. It really was good training.

“FIRE MISSION!”

“Battery seven rounds!”

“Charge five white bag!”

“Shell, HE!”

“Fuze, mechanical time super quick!”

“Time on the fuze, three four point four!”

“Deflection, two four zero four!”

“Quadrant, three four niner!”

Ski was yelling at us to move our asses as Captain Lofton issued the firing orders over the wire. We all took our positions as the rain beat down on us.

The gun line sprang into action. You could hear the thump as the first rounds were rammed home. You could hear the gunners repeating the deflection and quadrant.

Byrd Dog was busy cutting the powder while trying to keep it dry under his poncho. Our Pig was sitting in the mud with its mouth open waiting to swallow the powder charge. Once Byrd Dog had a charge five ready he rushed it to the breech and crammed it in behind the round. Once it was in, Walsh waited for Byrd Dog to get his hand away from the breech. A Marine could lose his hand in the slamming breech of a Pig and Byrd Dog took no chances. I had warned him to put his free hand on the breech to keep it open while he inserted the powder. I told him that one fuck-up and he would have to learn how to jack off with his other hand since the breech on a Pig could pinch off a hand as easily as biting off the end of a cigar.

“I see the Monkey’s Ass!” yelled Byrd Dog as required. Then Walsh slammed the breech closed.

Once the breech was secure, Walsh inserted the primer. We were ready to fire.

“BATTERY, STAND BY!”

“FIRE!”

Walsh yanked hard on the lanyard. Pig lanyards had to be yanked not pulled evenly like the lanyard on a Niner-eight. Fire exploded at the end of the stubby tube as the Pig recoiled violently, driving both spades into the mud.

“TAKE THAT YOU FUCKING COMMIE BASTARDS!” yelled Devil Dog Dewitt at the imaginary Russians downrange of our position. He looked like a recruit on Parris Island, standing there soaking wet in the pouring rain wearing his fogged up government-issue catch me fuck me eyeglasses.

Walsh managed to catch the breech handle as the tube arrived at its rearmost point of recoil. Like I’ve said before, an experienced A-gunner on a Pig, or Number One Man on a Niner-eight, could do this because he knew just how much recoil would come from a certain powder charge and quadrant and could position his body to be ready to catch the breech handle. Even though the Pig had an extra latch that had to be tripped to get the breech handle down, Walsh knew what he was doing and had the breech open and ready for the next round before the tube returned to battery.

As the night wore on the rain kept coming down. I was trying to sleep under the truck since the canvas roof of the cab had more holes in it than a target at the rifle range. Byrd Dog climbed under the truck with me but it was no use. The rain was inescapable. I managed to fall asleep only to be awakened less than an hour later. A small river had formed, almost three feet across, and its chosen path coincided with the location of my sleeping bag. Byrd Dog was already awake and he suggested that we put on our ponchos and go sit on the log that was lying about twenty feet from the truck. We could fire up a heat tab, he insisted, and make some government coffee from the packets in our MRE’s. He suggested we use an empty fuze can to shield the heat tab from the rain.

The rest of the battery was sleeping, save for the firewatch on each gun. Many of the Marines had simply laid their bags out in the rain and made the best of it. Many had draped their ponchos over their bags in a futile attempt to keep out some of the rain. It was nothing new to any of us. Misery was our bedfellow.

I learned to appreciate the little things like the package of coffee that came in the MRE’s. I always saved it, because I knew there would come a time when that little package would combine with water to give me a new lease on life. That dismal night I spent in the Sardinian rain was just such a time.

Byrd Dog and I sat down on the log wearing our ponchos and using the lid of the fuze can we managed to prop it up to cover the heat tab. I was soaking wet down to my skivvy drawers. I didn’t ask but I was sure the Byrd Dog was to. He was busy trying to ignite the heat tab with a pack of soggy matches. They were also from an MRE and were designed to light in damp weather, not a monsoon. Finally one came to life but was extinguished instantly by the rain. I cupped my hands over the pack and told Byrd Dog to try again. He did, finally succeeding to light the small blue heat tab under the fuze can at our feet.

We filled our canteen cups, which were metallic cans shaped like our plastic canteens. They were designed to fit over the base of a canteen so that both would fit into the canteen pouches we carried clipped to our web belts. Not as worthless as a mess kit, the canteen cup was one of the things I always took to the field. My mess kit, on the other hand, never left my wall locker.

As we mixed our government coffee the rain started to come down even harder. Byrd Dog and I figured that soon the Pig and truck would just wash right into the sea and our troubles would be over. Fat chance we knew, but it made a good fantasy to sip our coffee by. A few minutes later we watched in awe as a heavy wind lifted the camo net right off of the gun and threw it into the mud. Putting it back over the gun and truck would be job one when the sun came up.

Byrd Dog and I shared some brotherhood that night. Sitting there in the rain on the island of Sardinia, I found myself acutely aware that joining the Corps had been a good decision. I knew the hardship was turning me into the kind of man that I had joined the Corps to become in the first place. What few friends I had back home were warm and dry sleeping in their fraternity houses, or their parent’s basements, while I sat in the rain on a small island off the coast of Italy enjoying lukewarm coffee with a fellow Marine. I was growing up, well ahead of my counterparts back in the civilian world. I liked the thought of this. I wouldn’t have traded places with the frat boys for the world. If I had been given the choice at that moment to stay or go, my ass would have stayed right there on that log in the pouring rain with the Byrd Dog.

Byrd Dog turned to me that night and said some of the most prophetic words I had heard up to that point in my time as a Marine. Sitting in the rain he peered out from under his Kevlar pot and nailed the moment plain and simple.

“You know Angus, I think the best part about being in the Marine Corps is becoming an ex-Marine. You know why? Because I think looking back on this shit will be much better than living through it. That’s what I think.”

I immediately corrected the Byrd Dog’s train of thought. “There are no ex-Marines, Byrd Dog. Didn’t anyone tell you that? You will never leave the Corps and the Corps will never leave you. Even if you get out after your first enlistment, you will roll every minute of this shit through your head every day for the rest of your life. Even if we both get out after four years, we’ll just be Marines that don’t wear their uniforms anymore. That’s all. We won’t be ex-Marines. Like I said, there’s no such thing.”

“You’re probably right,” Byrd Dog said as he took a pull of his government coffee in the pouring rain.

“I know I’m right. It’s what makes us different. Like it or not, the title Marine lasts forever. So here’s to the Corps, Byrd Dog, and all the Marines that have gone before us.” I lifted my canteen cup in the air and Byrd Dog clanked it with his.

The rain finally let up around daybreak. Captain Lofton was as wet as any of us and tried to conceal himself as he boarded a chopper with the MAU Commander to fly back to the Austin. I had seen this before. Rick the Dick had done the very same thing at Lejeune, riding back to Mainside to change into dry Cammies and then returning to the field to bitch at us for looking so haggard and dirty.

Two Marines died in the Sardinian operation. They were Cobra pilots that crashed into the sea just offshore of our position. Both pilots were killed. Their bodies were found several days later after they finally floated to the surface. The Cobra was later retrieved by a salvage ship called in from Naples. Even in peacetime, being a Marine could get a man killed.

Once back on the Austin, we were told our next liberty port would be Catania, Sicily. We knew what that meant. Good food, good whiskey and good Sicilian whiskerbiscuit.

We were all pretty happy over the news of the upcoming stop in Sicily. All of us except one Marine on my gun named Capoca. He was an Italian-American from the Bronx who said he couldn’t go to the whorehouse with us because he had a girl back home. I tried to talk to sense into him to no avail.

“So tell me Capoca, what kind of girl is this back in the Bronx?”

“What kind? What the hell are you talking about?”

I sat down on the edge of Capoca’s bunk and patted his shoulder with my left hand. My voice took on a philosophical air as I prepared to enlighten him with some my wisdom.

“Capoca, my man, there are two types of women in this world. I mean all women can be divided into two groups.”

“Yeah? And what two groups would that be Angus, you fucking dickhead.” Capoca cracked a smile, sensing a joke was on the way.

“Two groups, my brother. Those that will kiss you after you eat their pussy and those that won’t. All women are either one or the other. It’s a fact.”

“You learned this from actual field testing, or did you just think it up while jacking off in the head?” Capoca said as he began to shuffle the deck of cards he was holding.

“I’ve experienced it firsthand.”

“Well, she falls into the first group.”

“Marry her then, those kinds are hard to find. Now deal those cards you WOP bastard.”

“Fuck you, you damn southern fried, grit eatin’ North Cackolacki whoremonger.”

Remember how I told you that we were not bound by the chains of political correctness and openly made fun of each other’s backgrounds? Case in point.

The desire to get married was Capoca’s problem. He wanted to settle down but the Corps had other plans for him. We were pirates, not domestic husbands. Like I’ve said before, if the Corps wanted us to have wives they would have marched us down to supply and issued them to us. Capoca was hoping there was a way he could get out early, but the Corps had a tendency to hold on to its Marines until their enlistment was up. Especially since we were in the middle of fighting the Cold War and the Commies were just over the horizon sharpening their bayonets and getting ready to light the fuzes on their nukes. His girl back home would just have to wait until we were finished defeating the Soviet Union.

As he started to deal the cards Capoca said, “So what two groups are men divided into, Angus? Impress me with more of your wisdom, you Jarhead motherfucker.”

“That’s easy,” I said as I picked up my cards. “Marines, and everybody else.”

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