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Joining the Marine Corps - Chris Sarno Memoir

For Chris Sarno and so many other young men his age, the police action that had broken out in Korea earlier that summer was the furthest thing from his mind when it first erupted. "Besides," he said, "we had General MacArthur and the A-bomb. Who was to worry? I was deeply in love with Mary, and she was my world now." But the world as the young Massachusetts boy knew it was about to change dramatically. He might have been in love, but he was also 18 years old—draft age. When President Truman declared a national emergency (war), he also accelerated the drafting of all men in the age bracket of 18 to 25. War reports coming from Korea were really bad, Sarno recalled. "I refused to be drafted. I decided to volunteer for the Marine Corps."

At that time, there were no draftees in the Marine Corps. "There was no way I was going into the Army," Chris said. "I always considered the Marines as elite. And…they go to war. You want combat? The Marines will make sure they’ll find you combat. With a war going on, that’s what I asked for—FMF—Fleet Marine Force—going to Korea."

His girlfriend Mary was not happy with the news, so Chris tried to soften the blow of his imminent departure by spending his last $12.00 on a night lounging coat for Mary’s Christmas gift that year. Although Mary shed a few tears over the news that the man who had lavished his affection and gifts on her was about to depart for military duty, she quickly found a new boyfriend to replace the one who had left the Boston area to serve his country. "I asked a friend of mine to keep an eye out for Mary, as he was an usher at the Keith Memorial where Mary worked," Sarno said. "I wrote to her first, but Mary never wrote one letter to me while I was in boot camp. I heard later that my pal and Mary were a hot item. Because of her sudden change of heart, it took me a long time to trust a girl. I loved a new mistress instead—the United States Marine Corps."

Sarno’s decision to join the Marine Corps came out of the blue, he said. Two of his uncles had served in World War II—one in the Pacific and one in Europe, but both were Army veterans. "Being of that age of not knowing what I wanted to do," Sarno said, "going into the Armed Forces at that time was very exciting. It wasn’t patriotism totally. It was just adventure. I always wanted to be a pilot, but didn’t have the education for it. But when the time came to go to war, I all of the sudden decided it was the Marines. My mother screamed when she found out that I had signed the papers to enlist. She didn’t want me to get killed. But I was of age to enlist without a parent’s permission." The date was December 10, 1950. Although it was not his intention to cause emotional distress to his mother, Chris Sarno held firm to his decision to join. "It was my time, my war, and I was going," he said. "I wanted to go."

In order to go, however, he had to overcome some technical difficulties with regards to his health. On his mother’s Irish side of the family, there was a long history of diabetes. When he was taking the physical for entry into the Marine Corps, the doctor asked him about diabetes in the family. When the doctor found out that there was diabetes on the Shanahan side of Sarno’s family, it caused a glitch in Sarno’s enlistment efforts. "He didn’t reject me," Sarno said, "but the physician told me I had to go see a civilian doctor and bring medical proof back that I didn’t have diabetes." Even his family doctor tried to talk Chris out of going through with his plans to join the Marine Corps. "This was when the doctors used to come to the house," explained Chris. "They knew all the families in my ethnic Irish/Italian neighborhood. It was a very close-knit group of people in the neighborhood, and he knew my family very well. He didn’t try to coerce me, he just said that I should think it over because I was just a kid. But I said I was old enough. Whether I was a kid or not, I was going. There was a war going on and I was going to go into the Marines." The civilian doctor gave his determined young patient medical clearance, and on December 20, Chris Sarno was accepted into the Marine Corps.

The next day, he was taken down to South Station in Boston with the other of only two enlistees from the Boston area—Billy Evans from Amesbury, Massachusetts. Chris Sarno eventually went to Korea, but Billy went to Cooks and Baker School in the Corps, and never made it to Korea. "It was Christmas time," recalled Sarno, "but that was not on my mind at all. This would be the very first time in my young life that I would be on my very own. I was anxious, but wide-eyed and wondering about the unknown. Billy Evans and I were the only two leaving Boston for Yemasse, South Carolina, wherever the hell that was." Sarno had never ridden in a Pullman car before, and as the train arrived at Penn Station in New York, the youths from Boston found themselves gaping at the awesome New York City skyline.

"There we picked up ten more enlistees and went on to Philly where another eleven enlistees boarded," Sarno recalled. "We had two regular Marine NCOs in charge, and they treated us like civilians—nice chatter, but they watched us like hawks to make sure that no one went AWOL. We all blended in, bullshitting and sizing each kid up. It was a good bunch, and there were no incidents. Sleeping was great, listening to that ubiquitous clickity-clack of the steel to the rail." When the NCOs awoke the youthful travelers under their charge the next day, Sarno said the scenery had changed to one with tall willowy pine trees with moss hanging from the branches. Using government-issued dining chits, he and the others ate lunch, supper, and now breakfast, served by burly black waiters, in the Pullman dining car. "I had a full order of ham and eggs in Carolina, just like that Al Jolson song," he said. Then, just after lunch, the train stopped. A tiny rusty sign marked their departure point from the Pullman—Yemasse, SC. "I didn’t realize this was our destination," recalled Sarno. "I was in the last car, which was the Club Car, standing there looking out at this poverty-looking whistle stop. I was alone, realizing that it was December, but the weather was real warm with a scrub palm here and there."

One of Chris Sarno’s long-term memories of the Yemasse train station was the sight of a little black child about ten years old, standing between two sets of tracks and looking up at Sarno on the train. "Hey, Yankee man," the child said. "Gimmie a dime, will ya?" Sarno only had a few coins remaining in his pocket. "I remember saying, ‘Get lost,’ he admitted. From now on, the recruit from Boston had bigger things to think about than loose change in his pocket. For now, another Marine sergeant took charge of the fresh batch of raw recruits. "This was a Southern Marine," recalled Sarno. "He looked ugly like a Ukrainian thug. He treated us like shit. Not that we were afraid of him, but he just treated us like we were clowns." Calling his charges "cheap-shit civilians", he herded the recruits into a World War II-style wooden barrack where the boys spent the night. "It was a one-story wooden shack with about 40 racks and a concrete shower room that smelled like creosote," Sarno said. "The supper meal we had was in a ‘Greasy Spoon’ with a white cook/owner and flies all over the interior of the restaurant." He said the menu choice for what was to be their last chit meal while traveling to Parris Island was limited to chunks of chuck beef with gravy over a bed of white Carolina rice.

The barrack was one of about seven little shacks with rusted corrugated aluminum roofs. Sarno recalled that there were some blacks shuffling along, and whites shouting orders on what they were to do. The railroad tracks ran right through the center of the rusted shacks. "Now I realized that this was the piss-poor rural south," he said. "I knew nothing about the South except that they lost the Civil War. I didn’t care about the South. My family never traveled that way. I showered, and we slept with a fire watch post in the barracks."

The next morning, with no breakfast under their belt, the 25 recruits boarded old-fashioned green buses with US Marine Corps markings. Nearing the last leg of their trip, the recruits saw lush palm trees. "I thought to myself how great it was to be seeing these tropical plants for the first time in my life," Sarno said. "I was like a lamb going to the slaughter." When the bus trip came to an end at Port Royal, South Carolina, the recruits had a shocking introduction to their first drill instructor—a Marine dressed in greens and looking sharp. Sarno said, "He walked to the back of the bus silently, turned around, and started yelling, ‘Get the fuck off my bus. All I want to see is assholes and elbows. Get the fuck off my bus on the double! When he started cursing us on the bus, that’s the first time I felt fear. We all bolted for the narrow doorway. It was panic as everyone tried to get out the door at the same time. The doorway was backing us up, and that Marine lunatic was screaming racial slurs like we were shit. We all stumbled out like drunks, and there more DI’s were waiting, screaming profanities I had never heard before. When that first SOB of a DI got onboard the bus, the world of my boyhood exploded out of my young life. Forever!! That’s what I recall vividly. I was in Hell, but within two months I was cloned into a devil-dog that will never give up its grip on me until I die." While the frightened boys made a run for the door, practically crawling over each other to get out, the DI stood at the back of the bus laughing at them. "But we weren’t paying attention to him," recalled Sarno, "we were trying to get the hell out of that bus as fast as we could."

Sarno explained that this initiation into the world of the United States Marine Corps was the beginning of a process in which recruits were shaped to withstand "being ranked upon and not reacting." He said that it had an overall bearing on the bigger picture of being a Marine. "But being civilians," he admitted, "we were just frozen with fear."


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