Seeking, and Finding, at Parris Island


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This week, following my last stint ever of reserve duty at Quantico, I decided to make one final trip to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.  I wanted to revisit what was a meaningful place for me one last time before my retirement on 1 June.   The nine-hour drive was smooth enough, but still… nine hours.  I arrived about 1730 in the evening and drove around town for a bit while I still had some light.

The surrounding communities of Beaufort and Port Royal had grown appreciably since I was here last, in May of 1992, when I relinquished command of India Company, Third Recruit Training Battalion.  On that same day, I also graduated my final Recruit Company and executed PCS orders.   Driving around I noticed there are many more restaurants now, and shopping centers, recreational activities… all the things that one would come to expect from a mid-sized and modern community.   There were far more amenities than existed twenty-odd years ago.   It was, as many have experienced visiting old duty stations, a bittersweet walk back in time… seeing places where I once lived, old haunts…. scenes not taken in for more than twenty years.  My objective, however, was not to drive and walk around the community.  I came to see the Recruit Depot at Parris Island, the place where I’d spent so many thousands of hours, in a job that was both challenging and immensely rewarding.  I also wanted to have a look at what changed, what hadn’t, and to do some reflecting on my time there, and my time since.   So… fairly early this morning, I climbed into a set of Charlies and headed aboard.

What awaited me was entirely and thoroughly unexpected.  In fact, it was quite a jolt, one which set me on my heels.  The first place I wanted to see after crossing the causeway was Third Recruit Training Battalion.  It was there that I served as a Series Commander and commanded India Company.  As I approached the Battalion area, I immediately noticed something was amiss.  No recruits anywhere.  No anybody.    I drove past the old barracks, triple-decker squad bays… I passed the Battalion HQ.  NOTHING.  So, I pulled my car in and got out.  To my absolute shock and inexpressible sadness, the entire of the Battalion Area was abandoned… derelict.

The line of squad bays that comprised Kilo and India Companies, 3rd RTBn.  So strange to see them without the bustle of activity.

The line of squad bays that comprised Kilo and India Companies, 3rd RTBn. So strange to see them without the bustle of activity.

The Third Recruit Training Battalion Command Post

The Third Recruit Training Battalion Command Post

Third RTBn Logo on the old grinder.

Third RTBn Logo on the old grinder.

Here was this place that I had thought of countless times — remembered hundreds and thousands of hours on the drill deck, the PT field, and next-door, the Close Combat area.  I expected to see recruits marching, to hear Drill Instructors correcting and yelling, to hear cadence being called and platoons sounding off.  Yet, there was not a soul around.  Just… a thunderous, deafening silence.  Here was a place where so much sweat and so much emotion had been expended by many thousands of recruits since the barracks were built in the 1950s.  Here was a place where the sharp commands of the Drill Instructors echoed off the brickwork, readying Marines for three wars.   Here was a place that was profoundly formative in so many a young life.  And now it was EMPTY.

Building 423, where India Company Office was located (the windows on the left front)

Building 423, where India Company Office was located (the windows on the left front)

The Inside of the former India Company Commander's Office.  No hand sanitizer in my day, though.

The Inside of the former India Company Commander’s Office. No hand sanitizer in my day, though.

I saw my old Series and Company Offices.  The paint was peeling and bits of debris and old equipment lay scattered about.  The “grinder” had grass and weeds growing from the cracked pavement.   The Chow Hall was overgrown, with crumbling steps and windows dislodged.   I ventured around, feeling a deep sadness that here, where I expected to find continuity, I instead encountered a very stark and sad reminder of the passage of time.   I wandered into the abandoned squad bays, ignoring the signs warning me to keep out.  When I stood there, it was if I could still hear the voices of hundreds of Drill Instructors and thousands of recruits, barking commands and sounding off in the rhythm that is unmistakably Marine Boot Camp.  My mind’s eye pictured images I saw a thousand times… of recruits executing the manual of arms in front of their racks, or mountain-climbing on the quarterdeck for some boneheaded infraction.   But they were only in my imagination, my memory.  Outside, the sand “motivation pits” where recruits once did incentive PT in the South Carolina heat, were now overgrown with grass and weeds, edged by rotting logs.

The squad bay.   The black lines closest to the windows were where the legs of the bunk racks were to be carefully aligned.  The lines toward the center were where recruit heels would be.  That was being "on-line" before the internet!

The squad bay. The black lines closest to the windows were where the legs of the bunk-style racks were to be carefully aligned. The lines toward the center were where recruit heels would be. That was being “on-line” before the internet!

Yellow footprints outside the DI hut.  The one closest is where the recruit stood when he was called to report.  The one in front of the hatch was where he stood to knock and report, and the third set was where he stood if he was told to stand by.

Yellow footprints outside the DI hut. The one closest is where the recruit stood when he was called to report. The one in front of the hatch was where he stood to knock and report, and the third set was where he stood if he was told to stand by.

In a place such as this, where so many young lives had so many defining moments, there remains an aura of those raw emotions that is almost palpable.  Those powerful emotions of fear and anger, excitement and resolve, mixed with the rightful pride of accomplishment, seems to float in the damp air still, nearly two years after the last recruit series called these squad bays home.

Around the side of the last squad bays, I met with yet another unpleasant surprise.  The Close Combat area, which had been immediately adjacent to Third Battalion, was also gone.  The pugil stick pits, which I helped build…gone.  Our “thunderdome” area and the shed where the Close Combat Instructors fought thousands of rounds had been replaced by base housing and a fire station.  The Confidence Course was gone also.  An empty field stood in its place.

The wash racks between squad bays.  Recruits would use these wash racks to scrub dirty uniforms and 782 gear, boots, etc.

The wash racks between squad bays. Recruits would use these wash racks to scrub dirty uniforms and 782 gear, boots, etc.

The place in which I stepped into a gopher hole up to my right thigh, resulting in a crushed vertebrae.  One step I regret.

The place on the 3rd RTBn PT field where I stepped into a gopher hole up to my right thigh, resulting in a crushed vertebrae. One step I regret.

As I stood remembering and taking pictures, I had to ask myself… Why such a powerful reaction? Why was I seemingly close to tears?   My emotions were all my own, all personal.  I expected to come back and find the place eminently recognizable, something  which would perhaps make me consider that 22 years was not quite so long ago.   But it is so long ago, especially when the recruits  are just 18 or 19 years old, and some of the Drill Instructors themselves only in their mid-twenties.

I eventually got back in my car and drove around the base some more.  A good deal of the infrastructure was new, including a massive Instructional Training building.  That beat the decrepit and cramped building I had occupied for the purpose (I was the OIC of Close Combat and Academics in between having a Series and Commanding India Company).    No wooden squad bays remained, which is kind of too bad.  The last of them was at the Rifle Range, replaced by brick structures about ten years ago.

The more I drove and walked around, the more I noticed that the tenor of the place had not changed very much at all.  Parris Island is still a place that provides the mental and physical challenges to those who want to be Marines.   The Drill Instructors still have the lean, hard, tired, uncompromising countenance.  The recruits still snap to, pushed by their DIs, until they respond quickly and willingly; until they become basically-trained Marines.   So, with further consideration, I realized that I did indeed find the continuity I was looking for.

The new location of India Company, 3rd RTBn

The new location of India Company, 3rd RTBn

I also eventually found the “new” Third Battalion.  A brand-new row of triple-deck squad bays, grinder, Command Post, wash racks, and a new PT field had been built about 1,500 yards from the old Battalion Area.  They were behind the rows of Spanish Moss-bedecked trees in the area that was once the island’s working farm.  There were new “motivation pits” and the ubiquitous pull-up bars.  I actually had a chance to see the “new” India Company area, and was pleased to meet the Officers and some of the Drill Instructors who are building today’s Marines.  It was a good conversation.  The hours are still incredibly long, the Drill Instructors still thoroughly professional and dedicated, and the pride of playing a part in the making of Marines is still very much in evidence.  Semper Fidelis, Marines!  And thanks for taking the time to talk to an old man who stood where you stand now (more or less) a quarter century ago.

H/T to DB for EDIT

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10 Comments

Filed under history, marines, Personal

10 responses to “Seeking, and Finding, at Parris Island

  1. Very moving. Thank you URR.

    “No matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away.”

  2. Thanks for the memories URR. My dad (Chaplain Ron Cuny) was Director of Family Services at P.I. from ’82-88. I was only 12 in ’88, and haven’t been back since ’90, but the place is still pretty strong in my memory. I’ll have to head back that way one of these years.

  3. Richard Frost

    Having been a recruit in 3rd btn. India co. Plt. 3053 back in 1983, your story and pictures brought back some great memories of my time spent on Parris Island. Sad to see it all empty though.

  4. SFC Dunlap 173d RVN

    Very moving, my compliments sir and thank you for your sterling service and know that you very much deserve the retirement you have earned. The memories may come fewer between and when they do come it will always be a flood of many thoughts and emotions.

  5. Paul L. Quandt

    URR:

    Thank you for sharing your visit with us and thank you for your service. My son went through MCRD San Diego, so I saw a little bit of what you and your fellow Marines did and made: United States Marines.

    If a former zommie and soldier may, Semper Fi, sir.

    Paul L. Quandt

  6. Your version of “12 O’Clock High.” If we are blessed, then we get one, and get to meet and reunite with some of those we “suffered” with. Alas, my places are, at best, razor blades, as we used to put it. I can still meet up with some I suffered with, but that’s about as close as it gets.

  7. Buck Buchanan

    Thanks for sharing. Very moving.

    I think my experience may have been on a different azimuth. When I returned to FT Knox, KY in 2007, and visited where I went through Infantry Basic in 1976 I found it had been turned into….an AIT Company for the Adjutant General Corps!

    I threw up a little in my mouth over that!

  8. Esli

    Congrats on your pending retirement.
    Good post, if a bit pensive. I have gone to many places where I have served and am always surprised at the change. My own barracks from basic are long since gone and have now been replaced by great new facilities to make scouts. I am going back to Germany next, where I will undoubtedly go look at the kaserne at which I was stationed which has been turned back over to Germany to serve as transient housing for Albanians, Kosovars, etc. That’s the nature of things; even if the process (making Marines, in this case) stays the same, the cogs and gears wear out and must be replaced. (Just like the bodies of the human capital that ultimately make the machine work. Hence your retirement, and, some day, mine….). Judge all not by where they were formed, but if they can perform.

  9. Brian

    URR,
    Great post. I was a Series Officer with Lima Company back in the early-2000’s. I had a front row seat to many of the changes that shocked you – my first series used the “old” Thunderdome and my second was actually the first series on the Island to use the new one, I saw the new RTF built, 3rd RTBN Pond Road paved, and many more. I’m a reservist now and drill out of MCAS Beaufort, so I have the occasion to visit MCRD with some regularity. It seems that every time I go back, there’s a new building that I don’t recognize. The changes just in the last few years are amazing and i have to say that I too was shocked when I first saw 3rd RTBN standing empty. Congrats on your pending retirement and we look forward to welcoming you back to the Lowcountry once you’ve purchased your official retirement uniform – red hat and satin jacket! Semper Fidelis.