MCRD, Parris Island, S.C.

By Herb Richardson - Originally Published July 1981

It probably seemed like a great place for a base when the Marines arrived at Parris Island, S. C., in 1891. It was remote, swampy, and contained a large population of snakes, bugs and alligators. In addition, it rained quite a bit and often got hotter than blazes.

To make things even better, it was an island with no bridge connecting it to the mainland.

But, over the years, technology has made advances and now you can drive to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Most of the marshes have been filled and the island is dotted with modern buildings-most of the standard big-base facilities-as a matter of fact.

Despite rumors and sea stories, there are not as many bugs and snakes as there used to be, and the sand flea is not the state bird.

It still rains quite a bit and gets hotter than blazes, however.

Actually, Parris Island is one of the most striking and historic bases in the Marine Corps, blessed with great natural beauty, and kept in a spit-shined state of maintenance.

Recruits, who are the main business at P.I., usually don't see much of it until they depart with orders, but the approach to the mainside area from the gate is nothing less than quietly stated elegance.

It begins with the sentries on the gate. They are immaculate, professional, helpful-outstanding Marine Corps representatives. They are exactly as they should be. Many parents of graduating Marines pass through the gates to witness the ceremonies that will transform their sons or daughters from the status of recruits to that of full-fledged Marines. The sentries on the gate are often the first Marines the parents see or speak with. It is appropriate that the new members of the Marine Corps family are greeted in a positive manner.

They are.

From the main gate the road cuts over tidal marshlands. It is flanked by stately palms and carpeted with grass on both sides of the road. The grass appears more barbered than mowed, and there is no trash on it.

Next is the Horse Island Picnic Area. Obviously, it's surrounded by water. The area is also shaded by huge oak trees which support colonies of Spanish moss. The scene is so "Old South" it's almost a cliche.

Mainside is a few more minutes down the road. It's a mix of old and new. Old brick buildings age well, and carry their years with dignity. Old metal buildings-warehouses and such-look like old metal buildings, no matter how shiny and fresh the paint. There are both kinds of buildings-brick and metal-mainside, along with barracks and support buildings that are as modern as jungle utilities.

The reason most incoming recruits do not appreciate the beauty of the drive mainside is that they don't see it. They're brought aboard by chartered buses from the nearest train depot or airport, and most of them seem to arrive at night. It isn't clear whether this is by design, but an informal survey indicates that the night-time arrivals are dictated by transportation schedules.

Recruits do become familiar with one famous Parris Island landmark. It's known as "The Grinder." The main drill field, where graduation ceremonies are held, covers 44 acres, all paved. Young students of Marine Corps close order drill spend a considerable amount of time at first, learning to correctly identify their feet-which one is left and which one is right. Toward the end of their 12 weeks of training they spend even more time on the parade deck. The learning at this stage is more joyful than difficult. The last thing the recruits do on "The Grinder" is polish up their moves for the final parade that marks graduation.

Some of the permanent personnel are nearly as restricted as the recruits. Drill instructors, platoon commanders, series commanders and gunnery sergeants, for instance, spend many long hours with the recruits in their charge, and those hours include early mornings, evenings and weekends. One series commander commented, "In nearly two years of duty here, there has been just one day that I haven't crossed the bridge to the base." Much of that daily presence is required by the dictates of the job, and a lot is dictated by a personal sense of dedication.

Those who find time to explore the base will find that it is actually several islands-Parris Island, Horse Island, Gibbs Island, Doggie Island, Jericho Island, Scout Island-a total of about 8,000 acres, half of which is usable land.

Primary training areas are the rifle range, Elliot's Beach and Page Field. The mainside area has the confidence course and a scattering of obstacle and physical training facilities.

Though the bulk of training at P.I. is geared toward recruits, there are other schools, too-Recruiters, Drill Instructors, First Sergeants, and Personnel Administration. The rifle range is used by other Marine commands in that part of the country, as well as by other services.

The history of the area also deserves exploration. There is a monument near the clubhouse on the 18-hole golf course-The Jean Ribaut Monument-to mark the site of the first colony to settle there. That was in 1562, just 70 years after the famous voyage of Columbus. The settlers were French Huguenots in search of religious freedom, led by Ribaut.

The attempt to settle the land failed. The French returned to their homeland, and the Spanish moved in five years after the arrival of the French. They didn't last long either, for a couple of reasons.

It got hungry for them-kind of hard to make a living from the marshes-and the Indians pointed out that they didn't particularly enjoy the company of the Europeans. Their points had arrows behind them.

Archeologists are currently excavating an area near the golf course that may have great historical impact. There is speculation that the early settlement of Charlesfort may have been on the golf course rather than where it was thought to have been.

Somewhere around 1700, England claimed South Carolina and gave title to 48,000 acres of it to Edward Archen part of which is the land now occupied by Marines. Archer gave the title to Parris Island to Alexander Parris in 1715. That's the origin of the name of the base.

Marines first came in contact with Parris Island during the Civil War, when units of the Yankee persuasion took possession of the island and a couple of nearby forts.

1stSgt Richard Donovan, along with 12 other Marines, transferred aboard the island in 1891, and Marines have been there ever since. It had been a U. S. Naval Station. A couple of recruit companies trained there, then were split, and recruit training was not reestablished until late 1915.

Recruit training has been going on there at a brisk cadence since that time.

The best place to learn the history of Parris Island is in the museum set up in the mainside area. There are displays of earlier times, uniforms, weapons-and viewing the displays is worth far more than the admission price-which is free.

Other facilities include a chapel, Marine Exchange, hobby shops, a commissary, library, bowling alley, theater, swimming pools, credit union, bank, clothing sales, Hostess House, clubs and a boat basin.

The basin is an important asset for the many salt water sportsmen stationed at P.I. It's a handy place to launch boats from trailers to seek out the cobia for which the local waters are famous, and it provides reasonably priced berthing spaces for larger, privately owned craft.

A boat is nice, but not entirely necessary for gathering the main course for a fresh seafood dinner. Marines hook fish from the bridges and banks of the waters, and often dip bountiful catches of shrimp and crabs during the seasons. Parris Island may not be paradise for the outdoorsman, but it is still a better than average duty station in that regard. Out-of-state fishermen spend big bucks to sample the fishing fare that is almost in the backyard of the Parris Island Marines.

Married personnel reporting to P.I. for duty will probably have to wait for base housing. The Depot Housing Office maintains a list of rental housing available within the civilian community.

There are six base housing areas, including two trailer parks. Some of the housing is near the mainside area, and some is at Laurel Bay, an area several miles away that is shared with Marines at MCAS, Beaufort.

Families can get medical treatment at the Beaufort Naval Hospital. Elementary school and kindergarten facilities are on base.

Most Marines view Parris Island as a stop-an important one-in their Marine experience. They go there to learn the basics. Then, it's a matter of moving out for more training and other duty stations. For most, it turns out to be one of the truly remarkable times of their lives-one they're not likely to forget.