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Tent Camp #1 - Chris Sarno Memoir

The Marines went on their way, too. They were issued their gear for the march to Tent Camp 1 in the Onofre sector of Camp Pendleton. "They called it a field transport pack," explained Sarno. "It included everything you owned—all your clothing in two packs with your camouflage roll secured to the two packs. It weighed about 120 pounds. We got our rifle and our 782 gear, as well. Our sea bags were dropped off in the dirt company street, and we marched to the tent camp. We now were expected to live just like the World War II Marines had lived during their training. There were eight guys to a tent in a wooded area that was complete with rolling hills and rattlesnakes. "The brutal physical endurance of combat problems was soon to commence," Sarno said.

Camp Pendleton was 26 miles deep in 1951. Within that area was a wide variety of terrain on which to gain practical, hands-on experience to be future combat Marines. "We were marching in formation," Sarno recalled, "and we saw rolling hills about maybe 200 feet high, and mountains in the back. There were crosses on these little foothills. One of the guys asked what they were for, and the sergeant replied, ‘That’s if you fuck up anywhere along your Marine rifleman training. If you do, you’re going to have to take your field transport pack up there one night, pick up one of those wooden crosses, and be the modern day Jesus Christ. You’re going to have to plant that cross on top of that hill, and then you’ll have to spend the night up there by yourself. You’ll bring the cross back down the next morning, and you won’t screw up again.’" Sarno said that while the sergeant was telling this to the platoon, the trainees could see a couple of crosses left up there. "One guy did screw up," he recalled. "He came back from liberty one day late. Tough kid from Chicago. But he had a belligerent streak in him. He had to do everything the hard way. Undisciplined to some degree. He put a cross up there. And that guy never went to Korea. For some reason he left the outfit. I don’t know why, but he didn’t make it with us."

Pendleton provided tough, disciplined Marine infantry training. Most of the guys were ages 25 down to 18, with Sarno being one of the youngest at age 18. They lived in tents that were strung out on a dusty level piece of terrain. It was nice," recalled Sarno. "It was California. The weather was sunny, warm, and dry. No rain. It rained once in the six months that we were in training—it rained like hell. But otherwise, it was dry and sunny. I loved California." Sarno said that his tent was "in the boonies", far removed from the chow tent. "We had to march a mile to go to the chow for every meal," he recalled. "It had to be at least a mile. We’d march in company formation wearing our dungarees. The chow hall was very stark with aluminum siding and benches. It was just a place to eat good, solid food. It wasn’t fancy and all of us ate fast just to get out of there."

For two months, Sarno trained as a rifleman at Camp Pendleton’s Training and Replacement Command, otherwise known as Tent Camp #1. Most of those training there would eventually end up as replacements going to Korea. The men trained as a platoon. There were 13-man squads, four squads to a platoon. Within the squad, three men were assigned to a Browning automatic weapon. The remaining "fire team" members carried M-1 rifles, and it was of vital importance that they protect the BAR men. "We protected him," explained Sarno, "because the BAR man could bail us out in a fire fight with that rapid fire."

During the training, World War II officers and NCOs who had just returned from the Korean War served as senior instructors. "They set up a combat situation for us," said Sarno, "whether it was a four-man fire team or the whole squad going to assault the position. You did it a certain way. Some of us weren’t doing too good. We found out that, in a real combat situation, what we were doing would have caused some of us to end up as casualties. The gooks would have wiped us out, either because we just weren’t moving good enough or functioning the right way."

One of Chris Sarno’s strongest memories of the combat problems the trainees at Pendleton had to undergo was that of their first live fire drill. "Most of our combat training wasn’t with live ammo, but this was going to be with live ammo," he recalled. "Only eight rounds—lock and load. Our job was to go about 100 yards down a trail in the foothills. We were going to be low terrain while the enemy was to be in high command. The ‘enemy’ was silhouette targets." The mechanized targets popped up and that’s what the fire team was supposed to shoot. Sarno was designated to be the fire team leader, and it was his job to give the command for each of his men to move up in leap frog fashion. Each man was to fire at the closest target that popped up. They had enough targets so that every man would use his eight rounds. "This was the first time that I was firing with live ammo with live Marines in front or beside of me," Sarno explained. "The main thing was that we didn’t kill each other." The fire team was graded on this exercise. "Either you made it, you survived it, or you were wiped out," Sarno said. Going back was not an option. "I remember firing at the first silhouette," he said. "I missed him. He was probably 30 feet away. I knew he was going to pop up, but I was too anxious." Instead of hitting the silhouette, Sarno fired in front of it. "So I was swearing at myself going through this drill," he recalled. "But we had enough hits on the targets that we did okay." He gave credit where credit was due. "It was always reassuring to have the World War II officers who had been in combat and the NCOs from Korea as instructors. They did their damnedest to make sure that we functioned properly so we would be survivors."

The anxiety caused by that first exercise with live ammo could not compare with the tense day when the platoon went under live machine gun fire. At Camp Pendleton, there was a special course laid out with barbed wire strung out across an area for combat problems. The trainees were expected to go under the barbed wire while simultaneously going directly under the fire of two .30 machine guns. "If you raised up three feet, you were going to get your head chopped off," Sarno said. There was only so much room on the live machine gun fire course, so the Marines were divided into two groups—one of which would go under the machine gun fire that morning, and the other in the afternoon. "We had the afternoon," recalled Sarno. "I remember we were at noon chow. We were talking to the Marines who had gone through it in the morning. Of course, they were done by now. They were big shots. We hadn’t gone through it yet. That was the way the Marines crawled over one another. They had something over us. So we asked them how it was…you know, things like, ‘Did you have a tendency to get up?’. And they said, ‘No. I wasn’t afraid of the damned machine guns. I was afraid of the rattlesnakes. There are rattlesnakes out there.’ And I thought, ‘holy jeez, there’s rattlesnakes. California is loaded with rattlesnakes.’."

For Sarno, the thought of rattlesnakes was pretty scary. "Not the damn live ammo going over my head or the bomb bursts that they had planted in certain areas to simulate incoming," he said. The guys who had already been through the live machine gun problem were totally black from the explosions and from crawling in the dusty dirt. Every one of them was black. "Now it was our turn," recalled Sarno, "and that’s all that was on my mind—‘I’m going to run face to face with a goddamned rattlesnake.’ When our time came, we moved out of the trench and the machine guns clacked over our heads. We had to crawl through it. It was noisy, and it was dirty. But I never saw a rattlesnake. Before I knew it, I was out of there and it was all over. All I had was rattlesnake on my mind. I didn’t even hear that machine gun go off, so maybe it was a good thing that I heard a guy trying to put one over on us."

This razzing happened on more than one occasion as the Marines carried on with their training. Once, while standing in line at the chow hall to receive shots in preparation for the 12th replacement draft, another prank was played. "There was a long line of us strung along the length of the chow hall," recalled Sarno. "Everybody said that we were going to get the square needle. You know…they always pulled this stuff to make it sound horrendous what was going to happen. We didn’t know what was going to happen, so the word was just rampant going through the ranks. We were waiting way down in the back and the line was finally moving. All of the sudden, a guy came flying out of the chow hall, blood all over his arm, and he went by us screaming, ‘They’ve got the square needle today.’ We looked at the guy and wondered what the hell was going on. Then the officers came out and they started laughing. They just used it to scare the hell out of us. But that was the typical Marine Corps macabre attitude. I remember that I thought the guy was really bleeding, but they had ketchup all over him and he screamed like they had chewed up his arm."

Although there was laugher and teasing, life in Tent Camp #1 was not easy. With its wooded areas, bayonet range, obstacle course, cargo nets to scale up and down, dirt roads, and low mountains with crosses on them, "it was brutal training, physically and mentally," Sarno said. "There, we learned how to survive in combat. If we didn’t pick up on things, we could be killed. I got a lot out of being a Marine rifleman." Back in boot camp, Sarno had requested to be assigned to either tanks or artillery, but upon his arrival at Camp Pendleton, he had only one thing on his mind: to be a Marine rifleman. "Tank school was never in my mind at the time," he said. "From the first day at Tent Camp #1, all my mind and energy was focused on learning to be a Marine grunt. It rewarded me to undertake this Spartan training in case I returned to ground pounders if my tank was ever shot out beneath me." In a rustic setting in southern California, where birds chirped in eucalyptus trees and a World War II veteran platoon sergeant sang cadence to the hit song, "Sparrow in the Treetop," Chris Sarno and his fellow Marines prepared themselves for combat. On Korea’s front lines, more than a thousand Marines had already died in service to their country and in opposition to a Communist enemy.


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