Animal Tales (not Tails)

This story of wild animals does not refer to wild happy hours at posts and stations of The Corps (many of which I remember fondly) or Marines on liberty in exotic foreign ports of call.  It refers to the four-legged or no-legged fauna resident onboard our bases.  Other than the sand flea and the mosquito, I like most animals and animal stories. Previous “sea stories” have dealt with the grandpa monkey at Subic Bay who almost lured a Filipino cabbie into a go at fisticuffs, the ninja deer who miraculously survived the “Mad Minute” firepower demo for TBS classes 6 and 7-72, the Three Bears of Case Springs, and the hapless deer who didn’t survive being shot in the back seat of a Marine’s VW “Bug” on board MCAS Beaufort by an MP Corporal Of Marines.  Since it takes field training to make field Marines, it is not surprising that man meets beast on board military installations worldwide. Following are a few of my own encounters on duty with some other species of God’s creatures.

In the Fall of 1972, my class at The Basic School (TBS) (“Golf” Co. 7-72)  was undergoing our patrolling package under that renowned and charismatic instructor, then-Captain Ollie North (Later LtCol., USMC (Ret.) - now more famous for his “War Stories” on TV).  One event in that training involved a night patrol which crossed a stream known as Beaver Dam Run (BDR).  One of my platoon mates was 1stLt Nguyen Duc Truyen, VNMC.  Truyen was a veteran of five years of combat experience, and he was sent to our TBS as a break from active combat ops at home.  He was a great guy (whose fate remains unknown today, sadly).  He was a typical Vietnamese, which meant he was short in height, about 5’5” + or -.  By comparison, I stand 6’3”.  We were crossing BDR and I found myself in water up to my arm pits at mid-stream.  It would have been tough to know that in advance based on a map study, and I guess whoever the patrol leader was for that exercise had not done a reconnaissance, so the depth of the stream caught us by surprise. (Hey: TBS is a school and that’s how we learn.)   I looked out for Truyen, who was behind me in the column, concerned for his safety in this unexpectedly deep and relatively fast flowing water.  All I could see of him above the stream’s surface was his helmet. He continued marching along the creek bottom, and at one point his face was below the surface.  In his old, WW-II style helmet with VN Era camouflage cover, what I saw looked like a huge Box Turtle swimming on the surface of BDR.  As I reached to pull his head above water, his head surfaced – very much like that scene with Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now.”  (Only a Vietnamese stealthily rising above the water’s surface in an American stream and not the reverse, like in the movie.  A case of life pre-imitating and reversing art?)  I liked Truyen.  He could hold his beer for sure, and he was a mainstay in The Hawkins Room.  (I am writing this recollection at the start of Memorial Day Weekend 2011. It seems appropriate to me that we should remember our fallen allies also.)  While Truyen is not an animal, his brief resemblance to a turtle caused me to include him in the tale.

My first tour post-TBS was as a  rifle platoon commander in “Lima” 3/1.  I finally got to fulfill a lifelong dream and become a rifle platoon commander in the FMF.  I had the privilege to take over the first platoon of “Lima” Company, 3d Bn. 1st Marines (Captain Ronald L. Taylor, USMC – commanding).  At that time, 3/1 was conducting a troop test for Quantico, and our company was the aggressor force – which is always fun – more fun than being the training dummies for the boys from MCOTEA and MCDEC. Camp Pendleton, my favorite Marine Corps Base, used to be a huge hacienda back in the days of Zorro. In 1973 the last agricultural ops being conducted from those days of yesteryear was the grazing of sheep on base.  While sheep spoor may have been good for the ecology, it is absolutely devastating to the sensitive septum.  One night we were obliged to bed down in our sleeping bags for a few hours in a field that had recently been home to a flock of sheep.  It was cold, wet and stunk to high heavens.  Our Marines were definitely not happy campers, and it took a long time for that smell to go away.  Had the offending sheep been in the AO, we might have been eating lamb chops instead of Cold “C” rations.  I will never forget the unmistakable stench of sheep dung breathed in all night when bivouacking in a field on which the Portuguese shepherds had recently been grazing their sheep (one of the last vestiges of the agricultural operations that had once characterized the former Rancho O’Neill).

My favorite place aboard the 190 square mile former Spanish hacienda was Case Springs.  It’s a helluva climb up to it, but once there you can feel like the king of the world.  The Marine Corps even maintained at the time a small herd of buffalo – and that’s no bull.  Those huge beasts were rarely seen. However, their voluminous “calling cards” were in abundance, like mini-bogs– a biohazard to be avoided.

One night we had gone admin. and were racked out in the small wooden houses in a Combat Town located between Camps Horno and San Onofre.  In the middle of the night a large pack of coyotes came running into the ville. Several of them came into the building I was in, ran around in circles yipping like wild coyotes – oh, right, that’s what they were – and left.  Luckily there was no contact with humans.

Once my platoon was crossing an open, grassy area out behind Horno Ridge.  My point man was L/Cpl. Richard Garcia, a fine Marine from Ohio.  All of a sudden he stopped and stood there shaking his head from side-to-side.  I didn’t know what was wrong, so I walked up to him.  As I approached him, with each step as I got closer to him, I could hear the menacing sound of rattlesnakes’ rattles whirring madly from all directions.   The poor fellow had marched into a whole tribe of the vipers.  So I grabbed my comrade by the collar, and we slowly backed out of the area, and then we took another route to our objective.  No humans were bitten, and no snakes were stomped on (intentionally or otherwise).

Our company went through Amphibious Raid training as a unit.  One week we bivouacked on the beach at Camp Pendleton, and spent our training days mastering the handling of the old Inflatable Boat, Small (IBS).  One morning we were due for a five mile paddling exercise.  Some base range control Marine came out to our bivouac and informed the CO that there had been numerous shark sightings recently off shore, and recommended we postpone our training.  The XO was hot to carry out the training schedule, but the CO prudently decided to substitute a five mile run on the beach instead of a five mile paddle off-shore.  The XO was sure the reports were false.  We’d hardly run a mile before we came upon the corpse of a six foot shark washed up on shore.  The look the CO gave the XO was priceless. (It was a good thing we deferred, as we didn’t have any “shark absorbers” on our gear list – sorry, I couldn’t pass that one up.)

In 1974-5 I served my first of three 3d MarDiv tours on Okinawa. The officer-in-charge of the Northern Training Area (NTA) was the same Captain Ollie North who’d been my patrolling instructor two years previously at TBS.  One of the Marines who went through training at NTA had an unusually strong fear of snakes.  One day while marching along a trail, this Marine came around a curve and saw two Habu vipers on the trail.  He yelled, “Snnaaaakkkkeeeee” and did a by-the-left flank-march.  He unfortunately ran over a 20’ cliff, breaking both legs in his fall. (Actually it was the sudden stop at the bottom that broke the poor guy’s legs.)

In the summer of 1980, while waiting to start Amphibious Warfare School (since 2002 now known as Expeditionary Warfare School) I served as a platoon commander for OCS’ PLC-Junior program at Camp Upshur.  I had gone through PLC-Jr. at Upshur myself eleven years previously.  Ironically, my office was in the very same Quonset Hut that I had lived in as a bald-headed candidate eleven summers past.  (I guess that illustrates the old adage that “what goes around comes around.”) One morning at about 0330 I was driving out to Camp Upshur from my quarters in the “300 Block” on the high ground IVO Harry Lee Hall (aka “The Captains’ Ghetto).  Mine was the sole vehicle on the road – but I was not alone.  I came around a bend in the road and quickly came to a screeching halt. I found my car surrounded by a herd of 23 deer (I know: they hung around long enough for me to count them).  They milled about skittishly as I idled there.  Some backed up nervously until they bumped into my car.  (Finally after a Bambi moment, during which I wished for a frag grenade.  I’d’ve been in venison for ages – probably the brig, too; so maybe it’s best I was unarmed.)  I honked the car and they skedaddaled back into the woods. No harm was done to the deer or my POV, and no run-ins were had with the game warden.

In February of 1982 my unit at that time, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, was at Subic Bay as part of a deployment.  We were billeted at the Upper MAU Camp.  One night I went by myself on a run from the Upper MAU Camp to Cubi Point.  The path was on a narrow, unlit paved road, on both sides of which the jungle dropped down at a steep angle.  I was on the return leg when behind me I heard a loud crashing sound.  I turned around to see what was going on, and I could barely see in the dim light a huge, seemingly horse sized, four legged animal leap out of the jungle onto the road and stop.  I could not recognize what kind of animal it was, but it was big!  I could see it turn its head towards me, and I thought to myself, “Oh, XXXX!”  I was unarmed, and doubted I could outrun a large four-legged critter if it came after me.  Fortunately, it leaped off into the jungle on the other side of the road.  To this day I have no idea what it was.

In 1983 I was serving as the G-2/3 of the First Force Service Support Group (now the 1st Marine Logistics Group) during my second of three great tours at Camp Pendleton.  The group Comptroller and I shared one of the small, white clapboard out building at the Group CP.  One of the Comptroller’s NCO’s had a pet boa constrictor that he kept in his office in a terrarium.  Normally he fed this exotic pet with those cute little white mice one buys in pet shops.  Feeding time for the boa was a big draw for curious Marines (like ancient Romans at the arena – out for a little vicarious thrill watching death happen).  One time, however, the snake keeper went to feed his boa a wild field mouse someone had captured outside.  You know, one of the millions of the little creatures that create those incalculable holes in the ground that cause us all to trip and twist an ankle in the field at Camp Pendleton.  That snake was too used to the little white mice which so docilely went to that great Mouse Hole in the Sky.  This wild critter ran circles around the boa – it must have been part mongoose ethnically.  The snake was clearly tiring from his many, repeated, unsuccessful lunges to capture the prey.  People had to get back to work, and so the pet owner wanted to hasten the end; besides, his inept predator was being made to look the fool by a helpless little mouse.  So the Marine took the top of the terrarium off so as to insert a pane of glass to shrink the playing field, to the snake’s advantage – a big mistake.  That field mouse made four quick leaps to safety: up onto the Marine’s elbow; then onto his shoulder; then onto the ledge of the open window; and finally back outdoors to safety.  The boa had to be ashamed of  himself, as well as tired and hungry.  The owner was embarrassed, and the assembled Marines all cheered a mouse that would not be a victim.  That courageous mouse should have been a Marine.

We Marines proudly serve “in every clime and place.”  Most places have animals that have existed there since before we relatively hairless apes got there.  We need to learn to co-exist with them when we operate in their natural areas.  In our pre-deployment work-up we should learn about the local fauna.  They all have their own niche in the natural order of things.  Avoid them when possible and leave them alone.  Learn how to deal with them when we do unavoidably encounter them.

Semper Fi!


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