NAVY BOOT CAMP
Summer - 1961
by Mike Caffarel
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Jake has been after me for some time to recount experiences I had in boot camp, thinking that while they are not unique, they might tweak some memories. So, here we go.
First, let's set the stage: enlistment in San Diego, and of course, boot camp at the NTC in San Diego. For reason known only to God and the Navy, we all spent our first night in some barracks someplace in San Diego before going up the short road to the NTC. That night, I learned a valuable lesson: Speak when spoken to. In the middle of the night our company commander came through, waking everyone up, and asking for anyone with ROTC or equivalent experience. A couple of hands went up, and they became RCPO (recruit chief petty officer) and two other lesser ranks. Then he asked, who can type? And my hand went up. And I became company yeoman. Which as it turned out, was arguably the most powerful petty officer position.
So off we went to NTC. For those of you who have been there, you'll recall that the base is divided by a channel. Camp Nimitz is on one side, and Camp Lawrence is on the other. Nimitz is for the newbies. Lawrence is for the people making it through the first 3 weeks or so. With a big difference between the two.
In Nimitz, you were an absolute grunt. For the most part. Except for us recruit petty officers. Any time the company en masse, or an individual or groups of individuals was to go anywhere, a "walking chit" was required. And on Day 2, the company commander had signed something, gave it to me, and said, "Learn to do my signature." Ooookay. Pandora's box, here we come.
Now, the gedunk was in Lawrence, on the other side of the canal, to which we didn't have access in our humbled state on the Nimitz side. Plus, on the Lawrence side, everyone wore whites while us grunts wore greens. Dead giveaway. One evening the four of us recruit petty officers were sitting around the CC's (Company Commanders) office (which, of course, had become my office) with a real taste for some gedunk. We collectively said, "Hmmm. What if we could somehow get into our whites, and Mike (that's me) you can write us a walking chit and we'll go get some! Sounded like a plan to me, and so that's what we did.
Everything was fine. Worked like a charm. Until we got back to the company and someone noticed the remnants of strawberry shortcake on the whites of one of our group of four! To say the company was displeased with us is putting it mildly. We managed to quell the threats of physical violence and/or lynching, and life in Nimitz went on.
One night in Nimitz I woke up for some reason. I glanced over to the next bunk where the RCPO slept, and he wasn't there. Curious, I got up and checked the head and the office. He was no where to be found. Getting concerned, I woke up the other two guys. One said, "Oh, s***! I'll bet he's bolting. He's been having girl troubles back home..." So off we went to find him. Keep in mind, this is the middle of the night, and next to strawberry shortcake, sleep is the most valuable commodity in bootcamp.
Sure enough, we found him trying to dig his way under the perimeter fence. And convinced him to come back, that that wasn't the way. He was a good guy, got his head together, and graduated with the rest of us.
So now, on to Camp Lawrence! Big time! Kiss that miserable Nimitz goodbye!
Once there, we gradually saw less and less of our CC. Not during "working" hours, but in early mornings and evenings. It became up to the four of us to get the company up and together, then march them off for breakfast. I would have written a walking chit the night before, then it was a coin toss between us as to which of the four would take the duty of marching the company to the mess hall. With the others sleeping in. It worked for us...
We had a couple of classes that really baffled me, regarding the instructors. One was firefighting, the other was tear gas. And it's the same basic theme. In tear gas, we were instructed as to how to use the masks and all. Then tear gas was let go in a sealed room, with us all having masks on, and it was painful, even with the masks. Yet the instructor just stood there with crossed arms in the room, seemingly oblivious to the gas. Same with firefighting class.
They had a cinderblock building used for the exercise. Inside there was a steel wall bisecting the building. It was considered a ship's bulkhead. The idea was that a fire would be set on one side. Two teams would go in with hoses, one on each side. The task of the first was to put out the fire, the task of the second was to spray the "bulkhead" to keep it from buckling under the heat of the fire. And we had been cautioned, "Don't cough, and keep your head down because that's where any good air will be." I was on a nozzle and let me tell you, folks, my nose was about an inch off the deck! Yet, again, the instructor was standing in the back of the chamber with his arms crossed; the smoke didn't seem to bother him a bit. Amazing.
One of our guys did panic and bolt. NOT a good choice on his part. He spent the rest of the day going through the same exercise with different companies, over and over....
I had the company running pretty well. We were where we supposed to be, when we were supposed to be, paperwork was being done, etc. Only thing was, when posting duty rosters there would be a hew and cry from whomever was on for the required nightly Fire and Security watch. No matter who I assigned, they had "Just had duty two days ago!". Yeah, right. This, from a company of 60+ men? So I finally hit my CTL (crap tolerance level) and told the CC, "Look. I don't need this grief. Get another yeoman and I'll push a piece."
So I did. And he did. And I found myself doing really fun things like KP, kitchen duty, etc. and he found a yeoman who didn't have a clue. That arrangement lasted for probably less than a week. He came to me and said, "Okay, enough? Are you ready to come back?" I said, "Do you want me back?" "Yes, dammit! Now get your ass in that office and straighten things out! NOW!" Yessir.
But speaking (again) of the office...we had an unfortunate incident one evening. The routine was that the CCs would do rotating duty on nights in terms of being responsible for multiple companies. So one evening our CC was off. The four of us, as usual, were in the office. MY office! So the duty CC shows up, drunk and belligerent. Demanding to know who we were and what we were doing in the CC's office. I said that I was the yeoman, and identified the other recruit petty officers. He bellowed, pointing to me, "You can stay. The rest of you -- out of here!!" Then he lurched off.
Well, as soon as he left we of course immediately reconvened and of course were outraged. Me, the most, since it was "my" office he had invaded. (Remember, this is still boot camp I'm talking about here!) So, righteously indignant as we were over the whole thing, we got dressed and decided to march on down to HQ to bring it to the attention of the brass. Across the grinder we marched, heads high and backs straight. And yes, with a walking chit. I was in the lead (after all, it WAS my office he had violated!) and up the steps to HQ we went. I was reaching to knock on the door when I felt hands grabbing me from behind and someone whispering, "DON'T!" Too late. I had already knocked. "Enter." I came in and faced the duty officer and poured out my sad tale. Toward the end I heard a semi-explosion from a couch behind me and guess who? The drunk duty CC. Who was NOT pleased. I spent the next hour or so standing at attention, reading a copy of the UCMJ conveniently posted on the wall.
Oh -- just an aside. Unlike those coddled wannabe swabbies at the NTC in Great Lakes with washing machines and dryers, we had scrub tables and lines. And early on, we were instructed how to hang our laundry (using clothes ties with the proper knot of course). Two fingers apart, and they had to be facing in a certain direction (mostly with trousers) -- so we could piss on the Marines!
I suppose that's what struck me about Navy boot camp was that in spite of the classes and drills and all, much of it seemed oriented toward practicing for the graduation exercise. I mean, that is a very big deal. And just our luck -- on our graduation day, the dress code had changed from whites to the heavy blues (a calendar thing) and it was unseasonably hot that day. And, it was some Naval anniversary, so there was speaker after speaker after speaker. With many companies standing at parade rest. Sweltering. Our CC had warned us, "Whatever you do, don't lock up your knees. You'll faint. And if you hear someone going down next to you, grab the piece before it hits the deck." Sound advice, that was. As the ceremonies wore on, guys were dropping, not unlike flies. I fell victim to the knee-lock-up syndrome and started feeling woozy, and forget parade rest -- I started flexing my knees and wiggling my toes, and managed to make it though.
Oh -- one other thing. Do you know the difference between "clean dirt" and "dirty dirt"? If not, "clean dirt" is that which is picked up from the ground. "Dirty dirt" is from the body. We had this one guy who was notorious for dirty dirt. Our company would get gigged repeatedly at inspections from this guy's dirty dirt in his hat, and other pieces of clothing. The four of us one night had had enough of it -- we had cautioned him over and over about the matter -- so we literally took him into the head with a major-duty scrub brush and gave him a GI shower. Big time. I think he got the message.
I have good memories of Navy boot camp. Not all fun and games, but then it's not supposed to be such. And maybe my experience there would have been very different if I hadn't raised my hand that first night when the CC came through asking questions. If I had been a grunt, pushing a piece, instead of pushing a clipboard.
Hope this tweaks some memories, as Jake chided me when he was bugging me to do this. Best wishes to anyone who reads this.
Submitted by Mike Caffarel 02/20/1993
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