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Korea Bound - Chris Sarno Memoir

On his last liberty weekend at Pendleton, Sarno spent his free time at the base while a big gang of Marines went to Tijuana, Mexico, to "raise holy hell." He made no calls home because he was too broke to make them, but he did mail a letter to his mother telling her the day that he was scheduled to board the troop ship. The Korea-bound Marines also got five shots, but Sarno didn’t mind. "I was eager and totally happy to be finally going to Korea in July of 1951," he said. "After eight months of training, I considered myself a most fortunate Marine to be completely ready for combat from intensive virulent training by World War II NCOs and officers. They helped me to be a survivor and to come home from the Korean War alive. They were a wonderful bunch of dedicated Marine instructors."

Nobody got a delay en route to go home to visit their families before the ship embarked.
" Cripes, we’d never come back," Sarno said. Four or five days before the whole replacement draft was to board the ship, Chris Sarno and others from casual company were told they were to be the advance party. "We thought we were special," he laughed. "Hey, we’re the advance party." On the day they cleared their gear out of their lockers, one of the Marines suddenly found the thought of combat too daunting. He told Sarno and the others that he had changed his mind and wasn’t going to go to Korea. But everyone knew that he would have to go whether or not he wanted to—his orders for FMF had already been issued. As the men paused at the gangway to be identified, Sarno noticed that the Marine who changed his mind was sure enough not there. "His father was very wealthy and a high diplomat in Washington, DC," Sarno recalled. "He was good. He did everything good. But his father must have got him out to do something else. This kid wasn’t going to Korea. He passed with flying colors, but he just chickened out in the end."

The "special" Marines remaining in the advance party found out why they were needed on the ship a few days before its scheduled departure. "We had to load the hold, which was cavernous," Sarno said. The General Meigs was a two-stacker that held 5,000 troops. Sarno had never been on a ship that big before. "Our job was to work the cargo nets for every sea bag that was going over to Korea," he said. "Our draft was close to 4,000 Marines. That was 4,000 sea bags that we had to put in the hole by hand. It was a shit detail." The only good thing about the work was that they had the opportunity to see a wide variety of artwork that had been drawn on the sea bags by some of the 20-year men.

With the cargo all safely stowed away, the remaining troops in the 12th draft began to board the Meigs. Besides the Marines it carried, there were some 500 Army troops and a few Air Force guys. Excitement was in the air, and some of that Marine ingenuity started to kick in before the ship even set sail out of the California harbor town. Little boats carrying enterprising merchants and merchandise came out to port or starboard side. "They were selling pogie bait—ice cream, candy, and chips," recalled Sarno. "They had a system already rigged up. They came up and threw out a rope that was just like a clothes line." Those onboard the Meigs secured the rope. "They had a wicker basket with a price list on what they had available," explained Sarno. The troops on the Meigs marked off what they wanted, and then they put money in the basket and sent it down to the merchant boats. The merchants filled up the basket and sent it back up to the departing troops via the clothesline rope. Sarno and one of his buddies got behind some Army guys who had the basket. Neither Sarno nor his buddy had any money, but the two brick pints of ice cream sitting in the basket were too great of a temptation for Chris Sarno to resist. He snatched them out of the basket and told the Amy guys that he had paid for them. "The Army guys were easy pigeons," Sarno laughed.

On a serious note, however, Chris Sarno had the opportunity to talk to Army personnel who were onboard the Meigs for the trip to Korea. He said that he remembered talking to an Army rifleman one day while standing in the noon chow line. "I was standing beside a couple of Army guys," he recalled. "One had a slung carbine over his shoulder with a big tag on it like you would tag a piece of clothing. The carbine was coated with cosmoline. I asked him, ‘Hey, did you ever qualify with that weapon?’ The Army guy replied, ‘What, with this half rifle?’ I said, ‘Half rifle? That’s an M-1, A-1 carbine.’ The Army guy said, ‘Oh, is that what it is?’ When I asked him what outfit he was going to, he said that he was going to one of the Army outfits in Korea. I thought to myself, ‘That guy will never make it. He doesn’t even know what a carbine is.’" Sarno said that the Army guy admitted that he had never fired a weapon in his life. In contrast, the Marines provided their troops with intensive training—including specialized training with rifles--for six months. "This guy was going into combat and he didn’t even know what he was packing," Sarno said. He figured that the Army guy probably got killed in Korea due to his lack of training and inexperience with his weapon.

Light bantering between Army and Marine personnel sometimes turned to the threat of fisticuffs on the sea voyage. A shove on the spiral stairwell going down to the chow line one day resulted in a face-off between an Army guy and a Marine. "One of the Army guys got an elbow by accident," recalled Sarno, "and he didn’t like it. So a Marine from Chicago gave him another elbow on purpose. The Army guy said, ‘I’ve had it with you goddamn Marines. You think you guys are world beaters. I’ll take youse all on now.’ This kid from Chicago says, ‘No, you’re not going to take my buddies on. You take me on.’ So the Army guy was going to give him a sucker punch and that’s all he waited on. He took that arm just like we were taught in judo. He could have broke his arm, but instead he threw him down so fast on the deck that Army guy didn’t want any more. The fight was all over."

Fighting onboard ship was limited, however, because companies as a whole were assigned duties. Sarno said that a few companies were guard detachment. "They were on security every 24 hour security fire watch," he said. "My company actually drew mess duty. Every ship I got on, our company always got mess duty, and I always ended up in the scullery washing trays. There were only maybe three or four of us in this scullery where we cleaned off the trays and put them in a rack to go through a hot cleaning apparatus." Because the water had to be hot to kill bacteria, Sarno said that the temperature in the scullery was about 125 degrees. Like the Marine cooks on Parris Island, Sarno decided that the cooks on the General Meigs were also the "meanest guys in the Corps." He said, "There was something about their mentality. They hated everybody. I couldn’t take it after a few days—heat gets to me." Figuring that he was going to collapse from heat in the scullery, he asked to be transferred to the serving line. Unfortunately, the transfer never came. "I stayed in that goddamned scullery," he remembered with chagrin. "It was hot. It was unbearable. We had to keep a tee shirt on. We washed thousands of trays." No sooner had he and his fellow scullery mates finished the morning chow trays, than it was time for them to start on the noon chow trays. The cooks allowed them to take a 15-minute break between meals, but there were no chairs or benches to sit on. "We could only lay on the deck," Sarno recalled. "Everybody ate standing up in the chow section, simply because if the ship ever got torpedoed, there wouldn’t be chairs blocking the exit."


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