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Welcome to Parris Island - Chris Sarno Memoir

The final leg of the journey to that "asylum on the island" as Chris Sarno called it, was a short bus ride to the main gate. "There were palm trees, and it was beautiful," he said. "They stopped the bus and pointed out things. You could see the ocean with running current right behind the main gate. They said, ‘Don’t get any ideas. Once you get on the island, if you don’t like our little home, don’t think you can swim across, because the current will sweep you out. And if the current doesn’t get you, the sharks will.’ That was our entrance to Parris Island."

Back in the 1500s, Parris Island had served as a British penal colony. By 1950, it had become one of only two Marine Corps boot camp training grounds in the United States. Upon Chris’s arrival there, he took quick note of his new environment as the troops were directed to their quarters. He saw scrub palm trees that were smaller than the palm trees found in Florida, long grassy plains just back of a side road, and a huge black-topped area known as "the grinder." There were rows of wooden barracks, but the fourth training battalion that Sarno had been assigned to was quartered in the last of about a half dozen Quonset huts located by the road to the rifle range. There were 89 recruits in Platoon Number 288. "We were all like sardines because there were so many in this Quonset hut, and we didn’t know one from another yet," recalled Sarno. They were warned that there would be no pogie bait (candy), no cigarettes (at least not for a while), no radios, and no newspapers during boot camp training. The new arrivals were now cut off from the outside world. They were to concentrate on learning what it took to be a Marine. The Marine Corps wanted no diversions while the boots went through the transformation from civilian to Marine.

The new boots were put in platoons by size, with the taller guys in the first platoon and the light weights ("feather merchants") in the second platoon. "I happened to be on the end—the very last rank of the feather merchants," recalled Sarno. "The DI said, ‘About face.’ Now I was the lead platoon." The platoon followed the drill instructor’s "forward march" command. "We marched the best we could," said Sarno. "It was pitch black and the DI’s were swearing at us. And then the DI said, ‘left flank.’ I was on the left—I didn’t know what the hell he was saying. He had a rebel voice, and I was just wandering around. He screamed at me to do the left flank, and I didn’t know what left flank meant. So I went to the left casually. He was all over me. I thought, ‘Why the hell did I join this outfit? This guy’s crazy.’" With their first sloppy march behind them and still in civilian clothes, the new recruits ate an evening meal.

After their first meal on Parris Island, they returned to the Quonset hut, and to their beds. Those "beds" were actually steel racks. On each of them were two thin, steel-coiled spring mattresses. Neither bedding in the form of blankets or sheets nor military clothes had yet been issued. "Ten o’clock came, taps were blown, and our dim light went out. We were laying on the mattress still wearing our clothes," Sarno said. "A few minutes later, we heard this scream, ‘Boot 288 outside!’ The fear of God was deep in all of us. The first guy to the wooden door was crushed as we fought like sailors about to drown to get topside." Once outside, the bewildered recruits stood at attention as best as they could. "Now there were three DI’s that we’d never seen before," recalled Sarno. "They were our DI’s, but not our senior DI’s. They were all junior DI’s, and they were the worst of the worst. They wanted to be THE DI. So they got us and they were in our face. They swore at us, calling us everything under the sun. Not touching us—just in our face. I wasn’t scared, but I was bewildered."

The platoon was ordered into the Quonset hut to bring one mattress out. "We went storming back inside," recalled Sarno, "crashing through that wooden opening like rats. Then the DI told us to ‘bring out that mattress.’ So outside we went with the mattress. But then he said, ‘You brought out the wrong mattress. You’re supposed to bring out the bottom mattress.’ So we went back in with the mattress. It was chaos drill, and we were doing it with rapidity. We were not just slowly getting in, we were killing that other guy trying to get through." Sarno said that falling recruits were simply stepped on in the rush to get out the door, and there were mattresses strewn everywhere. "Once everyone came out with a single mattress, the drill instructors demanded that we then go back in and bring out both mattresses instead of just one. That went on for about 30 minutes, and by then we were sweating like greased pigs. The DI got us back into that Quonset hut, and eventually he and the others left us alone so we could get some sleep. We were laying there, and I guess everybody else and I were wondering the same thing—what the hell have I gotten myself into? This place is nuts. But I didn’t want to go home. I was just totally bewildered. This was a whole new world for me, and I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen the next day."

Many of the new recruits had never been on the receiving end of such verbal tirades before, but Sarno said there weren’t any tears. "I can honestly say that I never heard a boot crying. Not one. I’m not saying that we were tough guys, but nobody cried. I will say this, however. A lot of the 89 started to have epileptic fits. We’d be doing something and the guy would just collapse in ranks. That was done by the DI’s purposely to weed out the medical weaklings. Even though you passed the first physical, the DI’s main objective was to pounce on the weaklings—find the weaklings and get on their case something fierce so they would quit and want to go home. They only wanted the mentally tough willing to go through the wall down the road—unhesitatingly." This weeding out process was ongoing throughout the entire two months of boot camp. One day a weakling was there. The next day the "weakest link" was gone. Chris Sarno’s platoon—No. 288--began with 89 boots and graduated with only 69 after the DI’s weeded out the medical weaklings and wannabes.


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