By Andy Weddington
Friday, 16 April 2010
As legend goes, during World War I the fighting spirit and tenacity of United States Marines at Belleau Wood was so fierce the Germans honored them with the moniker "Teufel Hunden" or "Devil Dog"--a term endeared to this day and often exchanged between Marines when greeting one another.
Want to raise the hackles on a Marine--a Devil Dog? Step on--literally or figuratively, intentionally or accidently--our emblem; the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
A Marine who conquered recruit training aboard Parris Island in 1950 sent his wonderfully described memory to me Monday evening. With his permission, it follows as written.
"Great, gnarled oak tree branches draped with Spanish Moss formed a tunnel as we sped along the rural two-lane highway through the ever darkening countryside. The moss waved in the wind generated by the buses. It was a scene straight out of a Boris Karloff horror movie.
The damp night air whipped through the open windows of our bus, filling it with the fetid smell of rotted vegetation, mud banks and pinewood smoke. Occasionally the moon, now full in the sky, glinted off flooded swamp land on both sides of the highway.
We were going deeper and deeper into tidewater country. The smell of salt water became more evident. We were headed to our appointment on an island with a reputation second only to that of another island off the coast of French Guiana known as Devil's Island.
Parris Island, South Carolina, home of the famous or infamous Marine Corps Recruit Training Regiment. This is the place where all Marine recruits from all locations east of the Mississippi River are sent to train.
Out of the darkness appeared a large red sign at the gate to the island. It was illuminated by floodlights. On either side of the sign were large, ornate gold Marine emblems, the emblems we were going to try to earn. Between the emblems gold lettering stated simply, 'Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.'
Beyond the brightly lighted sign, the direction in which we were headed, Stygian blackness. When we passed by that sign and into that blackness and the unknown beyond it, complete silence descended on the group.
In the 60-years since I first saw that sign I can close my eyes and see the austere, red sign and the two large, golden Marine Corps emblems that seemed to enclose us as we drove through the gate."
Master Sergeant Robert "Flat Top" Caulkins, USMC (Retired)
The tradition of recruits arriving on buses in the middle of the night continues.
The simple character of the sign that triggered intimidation, fear, challenge, respect and pride--that silenced busloads of recruits rolling through the gate in the middle of the night for at least six decades--is gone.
To paraphrase the thoughts of one wise old Marine, 'Our emblems removed from center-stage for bookend duty make them appear as an afterthought decoration. Notice where our emblems rest on our dress uniforms--not on the flanks. A large emblem is centered on the front of the barracks cover, and a shiny pair in close proximity to each other (as once positioned on the sign) ride high on the neckband on Blues and black ones high on Service Alpha lapels. They cannot be missed. And where is our emblem on our camouflage utilities? Centered on the cover and on the left breast pocket--over our heart. How appropriate. And it has been that way a long time--with tar-like iron-on decals long before embroidery came along. The uniform analogy is relevant. Our emblems now on the flanks of the sign have lost their luster and impact. What first impression are we making, and not just to recruits? And what message is being sent?'
To carry the sage view of that old Marine a step further, some thoughts from a handful of Marines; a couple of whom were Drill Instructors (DIs). It makes good sense to treat the sign as a uniform. DIs teach everything with the mantra "Attention to Detail" and are masters at finding discrepancies. That is their job--training Marines to survive. Of course a bold, striking sign as you enter the Depot that mimics a sharp-looking Marine in Dress Blues. Some say, "But it's only a sign." Then why not DIs overlook an Irish Pennant--dangling from uniform or nostril, a smudge on a brass buckle, a stray whisker, or a speck of carbon on a weapon? Exactly. Small things are important--take care of them and the big things take care of themselves. "Attention to Detail" is a mindset that saves lives during dangerous training and on the battlefield. It must be drilled into Marines and it starts with recruits. Though inanimate, the sign must make an emphatic statement and set a tone. No, no, no...it's not just a sign.
"I was never one to use nameplates on a desk, a door, etc. When you walked into my office you knew who I was. The names look tacky. It's all about earning the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. That's [the sign] something I'd expect walking into Walmart. Store Manager________Assist Manager_________
Get the message? Marines are not happy about the sign. They want to know why. As do friends of Marines. They all see something is wrong.
Though I'd not planned to write more on this topic (at least not this week) the feedback to last week's Commentary--"A SIGN--WITH A SIGN SOMETHING IS WRONG"--has been almost overwhelming. So to air the collective voices, as one, a follow-on for today.
Here goes...and continuing with a sampling of comments from Marines who went through recruit training at Parris Island from the late 1940s through the late 1990s. Some returned to become DIs. Memories and comments continue to roll in with nary a single endorsement for the new sign. To be blunt, Marines are not impressed the emblem they sacrificed to earn, and hold dear, has been pushed aside for the names of individual Marines; ranks and billets notwithstanding.
"Why change perfection?" Marine
"Yep! That's the sign I saw on 17 August 1971. That says it all. A passenger on that bus has no clue what a commanding general or a sergeant major is. He or she sure don't need to know their names. The chances of being invited to the Saturday cookout are pretty slim." Marine
"I hope the sign is returned to its original splendor...I remember it well, even at 2AM on that bus...it was the first thing I saw." Lance Corporal
"What happened to tradition here? Bring back the old gate that sent shivers up and down a recruit's spine. Semper Fi." Sergeant
"I do not like that a general places his name in place of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. Isn't that what the Corps was all about--the Corps comes first before the individual, no matter what rank, nor what command he so holds? Tradition! It is what the Corps is all about. I am sure General Padilla, would reconsider the sign if this was brought to his attention in this fashion. After all, what Marine general wants to be known for replacing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor?" Corporal
"I told my 11-year old that they took the Eagle, Globe and Anchor off the main gate at PI and put people's names there instead...She cocked her head to the side and made a face and said....'The Eagle, Globe and Anchor is better.....it represents us' from the mouths of babes.....usually does come the truth." Lance Corporal
"Thank you, colonel, for bringing this to our attention. With all due respect to the general and the sergeant major, replacing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor with individual names seems to be in violation of Marine Corps Core Values...responsibility to duty above self." Lance Corporal
"He really just needs to put the old sign back and put that one in front of headquarters, and I would tell him that if I ever met him face to face." Lance Corporal
"They should leave the sign alone and put it back the way it was when I first went through the gates and also later when I passed thru it more times than I can count while stationed there for two years and the many visits to our wonderful paradise since then." Sergeant, U.S.M.C. (1969-1975)
"This new sign is self serving, and promoting personalities above principles! And it has no Esprit de Corps! And it has no character! I wholeheartedly think the old sign to the entrance to the Recruit Depot should be returned as it was when I climbed off that bus from the Yemassee, SC, train station and stepped into those yellow footprints at the Receiving Barracks on 18 February 1963, and proudly received my Eagle, Globe and Anchor as a graduate and entered the brotherhood of the United States Marine Corps on 10 May 1963. We owe that to those who came before us and after! I will write the Commandant and request the same from him." Sergeant
"Get the bullsh*t off of my sign and put the Eagle, Globe and Anchor back in place for all Marines." Platoon 182 USMC (Marine vet and proud of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor)
"I did not think Marines past or present would appreciate that change of the sign at the Main Gate. I know I'll never forget the day I went through that gate and the day I left the Island for I.T.R. at Camp Geiger, NC. There was a big cheer when we cleared the gate, "We were U.S. Marines, by God!" If you get enough feedback the CG at P.I. will take note and so will the CMC. You might get the local newspaper in on it. Press always gets attention. BIG TIME! Semper Fi, Sir!" Sergeant (Veteran)
"Those emblems are important! We EARNED them. And THOUSANDS of Americans pass through those gates every year to get their newly minted Marine or to come back to take a walk down memory lane. Those Eagle, Globe and Anchors MEAN something to more than just the Marines stationed there!" Marine
"Change it back you bunch of ego maniacs. We Veterans don't give a rat's 'patute' who happens to be the present commanding general or sergeant major. Bring back the EGAs." Sergeant (1966-1970)
"Ok, in the interest of disclosure...West Coast Jarhead, but it doesn't matter. If this was the Gate I had gone thru I'd be as rabid about it as any of you. This is wrong." Marine
"I am quite disgusted with the changes on the sign at Parris Island. For the two years I was a Drill Instructor at Parris Island, that sign motivated and pumped me up every single time I passed through the gate. No matter how tired I was feeling that sign was a shot of adrenaline to me. A Marine could not ask for a better way to start the day. Our traditions are starting to seem like the way of the past and it has to stop. If there is anything I can do to assist with having this atrocity corrected, please let me know." First Sergeant
"Change is not always for the better. When will the leaders of this great nation understand. Restore the sign....God Bless all of you that have passed thru that gate." Friend of Marines
The question Marines are asking, "How could a fellow Marine conclude it a good idea, for any reason, to move our emblems to accommodate names?"
Last week I could not answer that question; at least not intelligently and fairly. This week, after reading what Marines had to say, some investigative work, and mulling it over, the answer, at least partially, rests with a subtle observation. That is, what was erected to identify and mark entry to the Depot--then stood guard for six decades--had quietly evolved into a de facto monument; an icon. And that distinction something a commanding general either did not appreciate or understand when scuffing the sign's design. With that general's successors none the wiser and assuming, falsely, that's the way it's always been--they simply followed suit.
As a retired general officer known to me was famous for saying when learning something new, "I don't know what I don't know." And there rests the explanation--the alibi--for each successive general who inherited the sign. They didn't know. So a pass to all except the one who changed the sign. His logic would be interesting to hear.
In defense of the current commanding general, he merely inherited the sign. Research by a couple of Marines discovered the new look most likely came about in 1999/2000--six commanding generals ago. Interestingly enough, digging a bit more revealed not one of the generals, including the current one, had recruit training experience as a company grade officer. And none of them served aboard Parris Island.
The history, importance and power of that old sign cannot be overstated. For the headliner, the "Star" if you will, of Parris Island is our emblem--the Eagle, Globe and Anchor; not the star of a general or the star centered above four rockers on the chevron of a sergeant major.
To be absolutely clear, Marines are still being made the way they used to be; even better. Our two Depots work miracles during a physically and mentally exhausting 12-week ordeal turning civilians into Marines. With their incredible performance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in every clime and place across the planet--on land or afloat--testament to superb training and leadership.
But the sign does cut to history, to rich tradition, to the uniqueness of Parris Island, and, most importantly, to the Corps ethos. And, as some DIs pointed out and was mentioned earlier, there is the little matter of "Attention to Detail"--it starts at the gate. Greetings: "U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina" and here, recruits, are the emblems you came to earn. Nothing else is necessary.
And one more comment about the sign, an important one, from a retired Marine who served aboard Parris Island and passed along his sentiments to a civilian contact aboard the Depot...
"Please pass this to 'Jane.' This needs to be corrected. General Barrow would literally turn over in his grave...if he hasn't already." Major
General Robert H. Barrow, our 27th Commandant, commanded Parris Island in the early 1970s. As a major general and a lieutenant general he had a big hand in saving recruit training, literally, from Congress who wanted to end it. That's another story. He also had a big hand in implementing policies to better the quality of recruits and rid the Marine Corps of illegal drug users. His impact on the Corps so great, today the Depot headquarters bears his name--Barrow Hall. Having met him when commandant, and heard his thoughts and deep feelings about recruit training, he is most certainly turning over in his grave.
The sign--the emblem--is a permanent resident of the Depot. Recruits and Marines are only guests--transients--and need not be acknowledged on any sign.
Now the current commanding general knows.
Consensus, from the masses offering their two-cents, for remedy...
1. Remove "Eastern Recruiting Region"--it's the Recruit Depot.
2. Remove billet titles, commanding general and sergeant major names.
3. Return emblems (preferrably WW II era) to center-stage.
4. Replace the tacky lettering--it looks cheap.
5. Remove flanking half-walls. Or, at least leave them blank; less is more.
6. Position sign so it cannot be missed--especially in the middle of the night by busloads of recruits.
7. Write a Depot Order--"Hands Off" the sign. No tinkering--maintenance and repair only.
One seasoned Marine said it best, "Now that the general knows the history, all he needs to do is turn to his Assistant Chief of Staff/Facilities and issue a simple order, 'Colonel, fix the sign.'"
Semper Fidelis, Marines!
Facebook group, Return the iconic front gate sign at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island, currently has 348 members, and joins some 25 supporters a day.
Ever the optimist, standby to join a Facebook group saluting the current commanding general once he fixes the sign. Until then, the group's title will remain a secret.