By Andy Weddington
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Yesterday was an important one in U. S. Marine Corps history. The 23rd of February marked the 64th anniversary of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising our Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi—on day five of the 35-day battle for Iwo Jima during World War II. For me, yesterday stirred thoughts of the Marines and Sailors who fought that historic battle—and the tens of thousands wounded and killed. The day also caused me to reflect on the training that turns ordinary men (and women) into Marines—who, against all instinct, move forward under fire and fight—business as usual on Iwo Jima—and has always been a Marine trademark. The spirit and courage to overcome instinct and conquer fear has a beginning—the Marines call it “recruit training.” Thirty-eight years after Iwo Jima, there was a recruit training company carrying on the business of making Marines. That company was F Company.
The enlisted numbered well over a hundred—Corporals, Sergeants, Staff Sergeants, Gunnery Sergeants, and one First Sergeant the company rated by Table of Organization (T/O)—most were Sergeants and Staff Sergeants. Each, once a recruit, had stepped off a bus in the middle of the night and anchored a set of yellow foot prints—a moment indelibly etched in their memories and the starting point of an experience that changed them forever. Now all, at different stages in their careers, had mastered the eight week curriculum of Drill Instructor School and earned the coveted specialty “8511” (spoken “eighty-five eleven”)—Drill Instructor—as denoted in their service record. In uniform they were privileged to wear a green web (Drill Instructor) or black leather (Senior Drill Instructor) belt symbolizing experience and authority, and the distinctive, if not intimidating, campaign cover or “Smokey” simply adorned with a black eagle, globe, and anchor. These men were the DIs of F Company. Their two-fold mission: lead; and transform recruits into Marines.
There were less than two dozen other Marines that rounded out the company—all First Lieutenants and a couple of Captains—one, again by T/O, was the commanding officer. These men were the officers of F Company. Their two-fold mission: lead; and supervise training.
The DIs and officers were the permanent personnel of F Company, Second Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. They were the trainers and supervisors—two thirds of the core recipe necessary for “Making Marines.” The remaining and most important ingredient for “Making Marines”—recruits. For without recruits there was no need for F Company. Thousands of recruits flowed through F Company.
The DIs and officers of F Company came from nearly every occupational specialty in the Corps—from combat arms to administration to logistics to aviation maintenance. Despite their specialty differences, they wore the same uniform and spoke the same language—they came from common roots. Their aggregate experience on active duty easily surpassed 600 years—the bulk of those years resting with the cadre of DIs. They came from all walks of life, regions of the country, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some were newly married. Some married for years and had children. Others were single. Their likes, dislikes, and hobbies were as unique as each man. In short, they were as diverse a collective of people one could have intentionally thrown together. Yet they were there by luck of the draw. And despite their many differences they had two things in common. First, and foremost, they were Marines. Second, their mission was to “Make Marines.”
In the day, there were five other male and two female recruit training companies on the island. Yet there was an obvious and undeniable chemistry among the men of F Company. F Company was unique. There was something extraordinary about this group of men. And though that “something” was apparent to the Marines in the company and even to outsiders, it was also clear it was an intangible something beyond the description of mere words. Theirs was no ordinary sense of camaraderie. The company’s chemistry spilled beyond the confines of formal and informal unit cohesion, dedication to mission and each other, teamwork—whatever you want to call it. Of course such unit identity begins with leadership but the esprit de corps of F Company went well beyond leadership—leadership alone, for sundry reasons, could not fully explain the dynamics of F Company. Theirs was a spirit far more powerful than any one individual. Though confident, highly competitive men, this was a team that banded together and tended to the business of training Marines—sustaining the Corps.
Once in a while, through the chaos of Headquarters, Marine Corps manpower assignments and subordinate level assigners, units take shape and gel beyond all expectations. Some will argue it starts and stops at the unit’s leadership. But there is more to it. And though F Company was surely well led, the personnel dynamics went beyond leadership. When you’re part of a unit like F Company you know it; and never forget it. Nothing more can nor need be said. That’s why “inexplicable” is the best word to describe F Company. For if the F Company recipe could be accurately identified it would become the basis for intentionally building like units. But it’s not something that can be definitively identified nor intentionally built through assignments. Chemistry—for the good and not as good—is a natural by-product of leadership, personalities, teamwork, shared hardship, and mission accomplishment. And the mix is indeed a delicate one.
More than a decade after leaving F Company, I had an unexpected encounter with the First Sergeant who had since been promoted to Sergeant Major and was serving as the Depot Sergeant Major at Parris Island. He told me a brief story about a conversation he had with the Depot’s Commanding General. The General asked him about the best units he had ever been a part of. The Sergeant Major said without hesitation he told the General about “F Company.” The obvious follow-up question from the General, “Why?” It’s a tough question to answer. Why do some units click and others not to the same degree. To the best of my recollection and in so many words the Sergeant Major told him, ‘The people and the chemistry amongst the people. It was not something you could create. It just happened and there was no denying it was a special unit. It did not matter how many variations of DIs and officers were put together as a Series team—they always meshed—and the company distinguished itself time and time again.’ The Sergeant Major was right. It was one of those rare times when Marines came together and, for whatever reason, they, as the saying goes, “just clicked.” Yes, of course, there were differences at times but nothing disrupted the chemistry of the company.
First to come to mind are DIs Moore, Fetherson, Russell, Hall, Claytor, Hodgeman, Ciccarelli, Miller, Eversmeyer, Ernst, Foreman, Froncek, Merrill, Lauria, Vinesett, Robbins, Hawkins, Vick, Seals, Driscoll, Andrews, and Skelley. If dwelling longer I could come up with many others. Their dedication to preserving the standards of the Corps was remarkable—they were uncompromising and tireless perfectionists. And the officers likewise readily come to mind—Bailey, Winzeler, Gerlaugh, McGill, Barrow, Rodriquez, Biggs, Gunn, Ellis, Hasegawa, O’Conner, Koehler, Barth, Laslavic, Stokes, and Leonard. Like the DIs, if I thought a while longer more would come to mind. Each was as committed to preserving the Corps’ legacy as the DIs they led.
One of the Company commanders is still on active duty. He’s a Brigadier General and slated to soon take command of Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego—a fitting assignment. I remember him well and hold him in high regard for a small act of leadership he probably does not remember but meant much to me at the time. I would be surprised if any of the DIs who stayed for a career are still on active duty. Surely most, if not all, are retired after two decades and more of faithful service and have earned their rest. And I know somewhere out there are F Company recruits who are now retired Marines. Where has the time gone?
In another month or so it will be 26 years since I reported to Parris Island for duty with the Recruit Training Regiment. My good fortune was to be assigned to 2nd Battalion and then down to F Company—serving as an Assistant Series Commander, Series Commander, and Company Executive Officer. In those days the Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Moore, Jr. Later I served as the Battalion Operations Officer and Commanding Officer, D Company under Lieutenant Colonel Tom Hickinbotham. The Battalion commanders were different personalities but each a talented and capable commander in their own right. They were Marines who knew far more than just a little something about leading Marines and overseeing—the trainers and supervisors—the process of making Marines. They too had the Corps’ best interest at heart—always.
Series, Company, and Battalion commanders, though critically important, in the eyes of recruits are distant and bit players. They are not especially memorable. On the other hand and by design, DIs are gods and unforgettable. Marines may forget some particulars about their time in uniform but the names of their DIs they never forget—ever. Thanks to the Internet—www.togetherweserved.com—I occasionally hear from F Company Marines (and others I served with in the battalion). And once in a rare while from a Marine, then recruit, who miraculously remembers I was their Series or Company commander. Without fail they cite their DIs by name and ask if I remember them, “Of course I remember them, how could I possibly forget.”
Semper Fidelis, F Company Marines, Semper Fidelis.