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No Love for Drill Instructors - Chris Sarno Memoir

Most recruits in Marine Corps boot camp had no love for their drill instructors, except perhaps that they would love to kill them. There were senior DI’s and junior DI’s, and they held the rank of private first class to staff sergeant. "Staff Sergeant Slater was our senior DI, but we hardly saw him," recalled Sarno. "I mostly saw him when the platoon was designated to perform for an officer, which wasn’t too frequent. He was pretty good. I can’t remember him ever abusing or cursing anybody out, but we towed the mark when he was drilling us. We wanted to look sharp for him. But Corporal Payson…. We could be the sharpest platoon, and he’d still treat us like scum. Our platoon’s 24/7 regime lay in the hands of the junior DI’s, and it was a shark tank for them to surface for notice of just how unmerciful they could be. Pfc. Gaunts was one of our junior DI’s. He looked like the movie actor Sidney Greenstreet, and when he chewed us out we didn’t take it to heart like we did with Payson."

Every drill instructor had certain criteria for training their recruits, but each DI had his own method of instruction, some more unconventional than others. There was corporal punishment, and Platoon 288 recruits received some punches to the face or an occasional backhander, especially from one in particular. "Payson was an SOB of a DI", Sarno recalled. "One day 288 went for dental exams," recalled Sarno. One boot had two teeth pulled and came out of the dentist’s office with gauze and puffy cheeks. When he entered the vestibule where the rest of the platoon was waiting, he dared to address Corporal Payson without permission. "Payson’s eyes narrowed," recalled Sarno, "and he let go with a backhander to that boot’s jaw that knocked him prone. ‘Who the fuck gave you permission to speak to the DI?’, Payson yelled."

Payson’s method of instruction included repeated attempts (most of which were successful) to publicly humiliate the young boots. Sarno remembered that there was a big tall recruit named Brown. "He was good," he said. "I can never remember him having a problem mastering whatever they were teaching us. He was quiet and confident. Payson goaded Brown every single morning like clockwork. This is how he started the morning: He got right in his face. And Payson was little. Brown was six foot, but Payson as a little shit. He’d go to Brown right off the bat. He got right up under his jaw and said, ‘Brown, is that your name?’ And he’d say, ‘yes sir.’ Payson would then say, ‘Brown, what’s the color of shit?’ ‘Brown, Sir.’ Payson would reply, ‘Then you’re a piece of shit, aren’t you Brown?’ He would reply, ‘Yes, Sir.’ Every morning Payson was at it. He would go to that one guy. And, of course, it got old to us. We knew what he was going to do and it didn’t have an affect on us—at least not in the beginning. We felt bad for Brown because he was doing everything that a boot should be doing. But Brown never reacted. He took the call-down. Payson was that mean."

But Payson’s occasional use of corporal punishment to help mold raw recruits into new Marines was nothing compared to the instruction methods of Parris Island’s infamous "Locker Box Jones." Sarno sympathized with the boots in that martinet of a DI’s platoon. "There was another platoon that camped with us," he recalled. "Their DI was famous. His name was Locker Box Jones. He was a mean son-of-a-bitch who punched out guys in his platoon. He even took rifles that weren’t properly set up. He’d take the rifle and throw it like a baseball bat right into the sand. He would just heave it like a javelin. He was known to demand that his recruits break out their heavy gauged wooden locker box and drill with them instead of a rifle. That’s how he got the name ‘Locker Box Jones’." A boot’s locker box was a small wooden trunk about 30"x18", and a little over a foot deep. It held personal items, toiletries, stationery booklet, Marines Guide Book, all items of clothing (including dungarees and dress shoes with shining gear), etc. It probably weighed about 35-40 pounds when full. "The day I saw Jones drill his boots with the locker boxes," Sarno said, "the recruits couldn’t hold them too long and they spilled their company street with the contents. Locker Box Jones was a tyrant—loud and abusive--and Hell on the island for years. Payson was only a pimple on Locker Box Jones’ ass. Our DI’s put the fear in us, there was no question about it, but Jones was a lot more miserable to his boots than my set of DI’s."

Sarno admitted that during his first few days and weeks in boot camp, he was frightened of the DI’s. However, his bewilderment at the verbal tirades eventually gave way to understanding why they were doing it. "I realized that they were trying to break us down mentally," he said. "I was going to resist them. I was going to yes them to death. Whatever you say. The more I yes’d them, sooner or later they had to move on to somebody else. I wasn’t going to say no."

After the initial shock of those first days in boot camp, recruits started to be conditioned to the verbal tirades from their drill instructors. "About three weeks into boot, the in-your-face ass-chewings rolled off of us like water on a duck in a rainstorm. Silently we were going to show Payson that he couldn’t break us down. Of course, that was Payson’s victory right then—boots who silently hated his guts, but wouldn’t give in to irrational conduct unless it was in order to kick his friggin’ head in, with pleasure." Payson even made mail call an ordeal for the boots. Sarno said that every two or three days the mail could come. Payson would stand between two platoons, call out the name of the man receiving the mail, and then throw the letter in the other direction. "Then if a guy got four letters," recalled Sarno, "instead of giving him the four, Payson would throw the letters one at a time on the floor and then make the guy run around the platoon and pick each one up off the floor. That’s just the way that Payson was."

Payson was hated by the recruits who were under his charge, but his demand for obedience got results. The majority of the boots in Platoon 288 survived his punches and his verbal tirades. Some recruits, however, did not fare so well at Parris Island, and Payson used this fact to his best advantage. He taunted those who thought they could survive boot camp by setting examples of those who had failed to survive it. One cold morning as Payson marched his troops to the grinder, he stopped the platoon. "There were two guys standing on the curb in light blue overcoats," recalled Sarno. Payson told his men to ‘right face.’ "We were facing these two guys, but we didn’t know who they were. Payson said, ‘See these two assholes? They couldn’t make it. They’re sending them home to their mommies and daddies in blue overcoats. Baby blue. They’re babies. They couldn’t make it. They want to go home.’ And Payson told the boots in Platoon 288, ‘Every one of you are going to get a blue coat.’ I can remember saying to myself, ‘F--- you, Payson. I’m making it, even if I have to go over you. You aren’t sending me home in a blue coat.’ And I’ll bet a lot of other guys were thinking the same thing. We were determined. But that’s the way it was in the Marine Corps. They wanted you to have that reaction—‘you aren’t driving me out. I’ll drive over you.’ They wanted that, because it was all leading up to combat training. You’re going to get that enemy. Even if you’re surrounded, you’re going to get that enemy again and again until you’re wiped out. You’re going to do your duty. All these little things were geared for combat. We didn’t know it at the time, but our DI’s did. I’ll always remember those two kids in the blue coats." As for the boys in blue, they just stood there like statues as Payson ridiculed them. Apparently they were afraid to move, for fear they would be thrown into the brig. "They didn’t move an inch," recalled Sarno. "We sort of looked down on them. We’re going to make it. You guys aren’t good enough. That was our reaction. Early Marine attitude. I’m better than you." The boys in the blue coats were left behind that day as Payson marched his determined boots onward to the grinder.

The grinder that the new recruits saw as they first entered Parris Island became a very familiar place to every Marine and Marine recruit on the island. "There would be massive platoons out there maneuvering and doing the same basic close order drill," recalled Sarno. "Close order drill was not just marching or learning to march. It was done with foresight. It taught you instant discipline to react to a command. Right flank, left flank." It was a monotonous routine, and many recruits, including Chris Sarno, wondered, "Why do this? It’s boring." In hindsight, Sarno finally came to understand the answer to his own question. "The way the Marine Corps looked at it," he explained, "it taught you inner discipline to obey a command instantly without question. And we didn’t question—we just did it."


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