Multi-Faceted Training - Chris Sarno Memoir
|Each day began for Platoon 288 at 5 o’clock in the morning. Sarno was awakened each morning by "heels, heels,
heels"—the sound of another platoon marching by the hut at 4:30 a.m. to be first at chow. The stomping of their
boots woke up the occupants of other huts on the street, too. A normal day didn’t start with push ups and jumping
jacks and other physical exercise like one sees in the movies. "We didn’t do a lot of physical training," recalled
Sarno. We never did those calisthenics that you see them do now. The Marines that you see today are hard body guys
right out of boot camp. Maybe it was on account of the Korean War that they skipped that when I was in boot camp,
but we had no hard physical training. We did calisthenics in the morning, but they were a snap. They were only
five minutes, but we were hardened just the same. We had good muscle form."
Besides the short daily physical training sessions, there was classroom instruction on subjects such as the history and traditions of the Marine Corps and personal hygiene, field days of cleaning, and close order drills. During the days and weeks that followed their arrival at Parris Island, the new boots underwent the gamut in training from before sunup to after sundown. There were occasional "unusual" tests, too. One cold winter’s night before their boot camp days were over, the platoon put on Navy blue, all wool bathing suits that were (as Sarno called them) "itchy as a bastard." The boots then double-timed to the swimming pool. "The DI’s were laughing," recalled Sarno. "They said, ‘All you clowns that can’t swim will drown tonight.’ I laughed to myself because I already knew how to swim. It was a big, heated pool, and the swim instructors had each one of us swim the length of the pool and back—50 yards. I dove in and did my swim up and back with no problem. When I got out, I observed the poor boots who couldn’t swim. Some refused to get in, but the instructors pushed them in at the deepest end, which was 15 feet deep. They sank fast, screaming like dying men. The instructors had long bamboo poles that they put into the water for the sinking boots to grab on to in order to surface. They remained in the water as the instructors made them be buoyant at best. I remember that one boot fought off getting in the water. They dragged his ass up to the highest platform over the deep end and threw him down into the water. He hit bottom and remained there. The instructors finally all dove in to rescue him." Those who knew how to swim were marched back to the barracks. Sarno said that much later the non-swimmers were dragged into the squad bay where they were "berated like shit-coolies." They went back to the pool the next night for swim classes. "We felt for them, but we didn’t dare say shit," Sarno said. There was deep comradeship among the boots, but those who showed deficiencies often got the cold shoulder from their fellow recruits. There was no room for weakness in Marine Corps boot camp.
Once the boots mastered close order drill and the manual of arms, their attention was turned to the rifle range. A month had passed since they had arrived at the front gate to Parris Island. There were only four more weeks of boot camp training left. The normal peacetime training time was 12 weeks, but with a war raging in Korea and replacements desperately needed there, the recruits were put through an accelerated training course. This part of the training—teaching boots to shoot with precision—was all important to the Marine Corps, which mandates "every man a rifleman." After boot camp was over, Chris Sarno was assigned to tanks, but nevertheless, he was trained to be a rifleman as every Marine was and still is trained. "All Marines are capable of being put into a rifle platoon and functioning as a rifleman, regardless of what you learned as your specialty," he said. "All the Marines have that in them and take great pride in knowing that, yeah, I’m basically a Marine rifleman and I can function as a grunt even though I’m trained as an artilleryman or a tanker or an amphibious guy. We’re all proud to be infantrymen. There’s no problem mentally saying, ‘what am I doing here?’. I guarantee that if you interview any Army guy and ask him if he’s been trained away from the infantry in the Army and suddenly he’s going to have a rifle in his hands, he will piss and moan and complain, ‘Hey, I’m not trained for this. I shouldn’t be here.’ And he will belabor that point. ‘Get me out of here. I didn’t join the Army to fight.’ But that is so totally foreign to the Marine training—of the mindset. A Marine won’t say that. They’ll accept that rifle and say, ‘Okay. What’s my duty within the squad?’ That’s the difference in Army and Marine training."
When it was time to go to the rifle range, the lives of the men in Platoon 288 altered. They were moved out of their metal Quonset huts and into spacious wooden barracks closer to the rifle range. Rather than being fractured apart in four or five huts, the entire platoon was together under one roof. There was better lighting and uniform racks on which to sleep. In the center of the squad bay was a long rifle rack. Meals were served at the boot mess hall, and Sarno said the chow was good.
Each morning the boots underwent thirty minutes of physical training, doing exercise with the M-1 rifle to build up the upper body. There would be no live rounds used in their first days of rifle range training, but it was deadly serious business for the recruits just the same. What they absorbed from their instructors would likely help save their lives should they go to combat in Korea.
At the rifle range, the boots were ordered to go up to staked places in the sand. There, they lined up in a skirmish line and for one week learned how to "snap in". Their concentration was on one thing only: They practiced sight alignment in offhand (standing), sitting, kneeling, and prone positions. On a stake in front of the boots were two other pieces of wood with the silhouette of a target. Initially, the boots were taught how to get the proper sight picture only. "They taught us how to get a bull’s eye," recalled Sarno. "We had to line up at 6 o’clock on the silhouette, have the circle part of the end of the barrel with the perpendicular stud coming up, hold our breath, let a little out, and squeeze the trigger. We did that religiously for seven days."
After practicing over and over again on how to focus on their target, the boots moved to the firing line and butts area of the rifle range. (The butts were the target pulling area.) For many of the boots, this was the first time they would ever fire a rifle. "The targets were huge," recalled Sarno, "and I thought to myself, ‘How in the hell can you miss these?’ But this was the first time I ever fired a weapon in my life." What seemed simple in theory proved to be harder in practice.
Supervising the rifle range training were firing instructors whose only job in the Marine Corps was to teach boots how to qualify. "He didn’t want it on his record that he had a boot that didn’t qualify," said Sarno. Each instructor was assigned four or five recruits, and he worked with them day after day to make sure that those in his charge qualified and his record as an instructor was proficient. "I remember my instructor’s name," Sarno said. "His name was Holmes and he was okay. He was nothing like a DI. There was a big difference between rifle range personnel and DIs. Permanent personnel treated us relatively good. The DI’s had nothing to do with us during rifle range training. They brought us down in the morning that first week, and then they left us. We were then in the hands of the range firing people, which was nice. For once we weren’t under constant belittlement. But they did that so that we would be calm enough to qualify. The second week was the same thing. We fired live practice rounds. No DIs were bothering us during the day. But at night the DI’s said that everybody better qualify. That was the last thought on our mind as we went out the final day on the rifle range: to qualify." Rather than risk the wrath of their DI’s, the boots paid close attention to their firing instructors.
Learning to fire was not a free for all for the boots. Each was given full clips of eight rounds, and they were
closely supervised by range officers who were responsible for the safety of their inexperienced charges. "You
could only function on the command of the range officer," said Sarno. "He had a bull horn and would shout, ‘All
ready on the right. All ready on the left.’ We were allowed to take our time—we didn’t have to rush the eight
rounds off." But they were expected to be precise in their shooting because each boot had to "qualify" (get a
certain score) in order to graduate from Marine Corps boot camp. The man working the butts area would check the
target to see where the eight rounds hit the target. "At certain areas you got two points, three points, four
points, and five for the bull," recalled Sarno. "I don’t think I got a bull the first time, but I wasn’t all over
the target like some of the other guys."
Not every boot in Platoon 288 qualified, and woe to those who didn’t. "We had five boots who didn’t fire 190 or higher," recalled Sarno. "As the DI’s gathered us up after morning session firing for record…our two weeks were up on the rifle range…right away the DI’s wanted to know, ‘who the f—k didn’t qualify?’ He berated them something fierce, and made them march behind the rear platoon. The DI called them a ‘platoon of assholes’—‘shitbirds.’ When we went to noon chow that day, those who hadn’t qualified on the rifle range had their skivvies tied on as bibs, and one could see the white skivvies scattered here and there in the huge mess hall. We even ragged them in the barrack to a degree, but within a week it was a non-issue." Graduation was nearing. Boots who didn’t qualify on the rifle range were allowed to graduate with the rest of their boot camp buddies, but the fact that they didn’t qualify with the rifle was noted in their service record for viewing by the commanding officer at their assigned post-boot camp duty station.
Besides snapping in and firing on the rifle range, the recruits learned another important skill required of all Marine riflemen. They were taught how to break their M-1’s down to clean its intricate parts, and then how to re-assemble the weapon rapidly. "While learning and doing the manual of arms before," recalled Sarno, "We would field strip the M-1 just for practice. But out on the rifle range and at the cleaning racks, we loved the M-1 like a girl friend. It was our best pal in combat that M-1. We treasured it, and I never let mine hit the deck in all the four years that I handled it. I loved the M-1 and the unique noises that it gave out while we were in drill with it. The US Marine Silent Drill team uses M-1’s as they make a unique sound when snapped hard."
Sarno and the other boots may have qualified as riflemen, but ranking Marines on the base made sure that it didn’t swell their heads. During rifle range training, recruits spent the third week doing menial tasks in mess duty for all the rifle range coaches and other permanent personnel there. Boots on mess duty that week were awakened by the fire watch at 3 a.m. Once in the mess kitchen, they were at the beck and call of their new bosses—the cooks. "The meanest guys in the Marine Corps were its cooks," Sarno noted. "They never smiled, and we were just faceless bodies as they ruled their roost. You were told what to do and were expected to do it without further question. Those cooks were martinets." Sarno said that he didn’t mind the cooks because being assigned mess duty at the rifle range was far better than pulling mess duty at Main Side. "It was much easier and closer-knit doing mess on rifle range week than serving 1,000 boots at Main Side. After the morning chow was over and all nine tables were spit shine clean, we would line up the salt, pepper, tomato bottle, salad oil jars, silverware placings, two plates, one cup and one glass, and then three boots would stretch a long string across four tables. Each of the above items had to be in precise alignment. It was a perfect spectacle to walk in and savor a dining hall in order. Mess duty taught me for the rest of my life how important cleanliness is in food preparation." The rifle range mess hall had an ocean view, and Sarno said that, with the sun streaming through its large windows and hitting a gleaming deck, the pristine setting seemed somehow romantic.