Read an Excerpt
THE MAKING OF A MARINE
BORN TO SERVE
Service was in my DNA from the very beginning. I was born because of my parents’ service, and I was born to serve. World War II brought my mother and father together, compelling them both to join the effort right after the United States declared war against Japan. My father served as a Pilot and my mother as a secretary at a nearby aviation plant, where they first met. So, in a very real way, my older brother, Butch, and I both owe our lives to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
My first conscious memory of our nation being at war was forged when I was just three or four years old, around 1951.
Butch and I were too young to read the newspaper, so our news came from the newsreels that were shown at the community movie theater in Fairmount, Missouri, just down the road from where we lived. Almost every weekend, our parents would take us to Saturday matinees, terrible westerns and sometimes cartoons. We’d stay there all-day drinking sodas and eating popcorn and candy bars, as many as we could afford. Sometimes all our parents could buy us were the tickets, which went for ten cents a pop. It was in that theater that I first saw images of the Korean War. I still have indelibly vivid memories of black-and-white footage of men in combat, with a vague understanding that my father and my uncles had also served in places like that.
The kids growing up in my community were all aware of the military, and we were the first generation to be fully aware of the draft. Most of the boys and girls in my neighborhood were the grandchildren of World War I veterans, and I don’t recall a friend whose father wasn’t a veteran of World War II or Korea. Some even served in both. Though my grandfather’s hadn’t served in World War I—Grandpa Musgrave was legally blind and couldn’t serve; Grandpa Bartlett was drafted right before the war ended and never got called up—I was still admired by my peers, because my father had served as a Pilot and an officer. So naturally I played that up, and I had big dreams of growing up to become a waist gunner on my dad’s B-17 bomber, known as the Flying Fortress. That was my first military fantasy, around age eight, to be a crewman on my father’s plane. Eventually, when I finally accepted that B-17s weren’t flying anymore and my father wasn’t flying either, I was terribly disappointed and started casting about for another way to serve my country.
I had no interest in superheroes as a child, because my friends and I were surrounded by real heroes every day. My father was Superman to me. From an early age, I understood that he had helped save the world. We didn’t know much about the Germans, but we knew they did horrible things. We knew they shot prisoners, tortured American servicemen, and killed innocent people, but we had no idea just how many people or of the scale of destruction left in their path.
I don’t recall anyone telling me that they hated the Germans. Some veterans even spoke about them with pride, saying that they were good Soldiers and they were glad they fought against them. However, when it came to the Japanese, among my parents’ generation there was a deep seated anger and distrust. My father often said that he would never forgive the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, Bataan, and Corregidor. If pressed, he would say that he “didn’t like ’em or trust ’em.” When I reflect back on it now, the conduct of the Japanese Soldiers across the Pacific was bestial, and the hatred it engendered made some sense. What was unforgivable was demonizing our own citizens of Japanese descent and holding them responsible for the war and imprisoning them.
We had a friend, Bob Landry, who had been on the USS Oklahoma on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. He had been wounded that fateful Sunday morning, and so the attack was very real for us and for most of the people in our community. When we heard stories about war on the news, the reporters were talking about our Scout masters, about friends’ fathers, about my minister, who was a chaplain in World War II, and about our male teachers, of whom there were few because of the wars.
We wanted to be just like these veterans, and as we got older, it seemed as if at every party, while the women gathered in the living room, a group of men would huddle in the kitchen, drinking and swapping war stories. Whenever I could, I would go stand in the doorway and eavesdrop. Oftentimes, the things I heard them say were a lot different from what they might say if they knew I was standing there. Among themselves, they were pretty open. They talked of the places they had been, and of battles I was seeing on TV or in the movies. These were just regular guys from the neighborhood, but they had done extraordinary things in the service of their country. Surrounded by these men and their stories, I began to look at adults in a different way, with respect and with a curiosity to know what they had done in the war.
When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. West who wore thick glasses and walked hunched over and with a slow gait. He talked slowly, almost as if he were mentally impaired, but he was actually a very intelligent man. All of my classmates were merciless when it came to Mr. West, saying cruel things about him, but I never did. He was a good teacher and he knew his subject, American history, well, and for that he commanded my respect. One day, while I was talking with him about an assignment, he shared with me that he had been wounded in combat. To that point, I had never thought of him as a veteran, because he didn’t match up to the picture that I had of veterans. It turned out that he had served as an Army infantry officer in Korea. When his jeep ran over a land mine, he sustained a skull fracture, a broken back, and a fragmentation wound. From that point on, anytime I heard anyone dropping shit on old Mr. West, I would stand up for him and say that he had been wounded fighting for us and we had no right to make fun of him. After that, I never made assumptions about who people were or what they had experienced.
The father of a friend had been in the Marine Corps. To my surprise, my friend’s mother had also been in the Corps. It’s where his parents had met and married. She was one of the very few female veterans I met when I was a kid. I was aware that most women had done something to assist the war effort, and because of my mother’s role during World War II, I was never allowed to think that women didn’t participate. From an early age, I started judging people, especially men, based upon their military service, or lack thereof. If they hadn’t served in any way, I wasn’t very interested in what they had to say. I just couldn’t understand why they hadn’t served. I’m sure they all had good reasons, but to my young mind everybody served, period. If you didn’t, well, in a certain way, it was inexcusable.
In my father’s community in Frankfort, Kansas, there was a kid who, although he was eligible for the draft, somehow got out of it. His father said he was essential to the family farm, and so the kid stayed home, raised crops, and prospered. Because there had been no interruption to his life, he became very wealthy, as he had been able to capitalize upon the sacrifices of other boys his age. While they were away fighting, he remained home and dated all the girls those guys were dreaming of overseas, because he was one of the few able-bodied guys in town. My dad and his buddies, who were all veterans, never forgave this guy for taking the easy way out. If they ran into him in a restaurant, they would make it obvious that they wanted nothing to do with him. And if he tried to talk to them, they’d blow him off. I remember thinking I didn’t ever want to be that guy, the guy who didn’t serve when everybody else did. I thought that heroes serve their country and cowards find their way out of service.
I started haunting the Marine Corps recruiting station in Independence, Missouri, when I was thirteen years old. Over time, I came to know the recruiters well. One of them, Gunnery Sergeant Matthews, who had served in World War II and Korea, looked like an English bulldog. I went down to the office for the first time in February of eighth grade, when I was four feet, eleven inches tall, and offered up to the recruiters in my prepubescent voice, “I’m gonna be a Marine.” They weren’t totally discouraging, but they did tell me to come back when I had “grown a set of balls” and “put on a little more weight.”
In February 1966, my senior year of high school, I returned to the recruiting station to pick up some Marine Corps magazines and posters for my room. By this time, I had grown a bit and my voice had finally dropped, but I still had a long way to go before I imagined I would be Marine material. When Gunny Matthews saw me, though, he immediately asked if I was seventeen yet. When I told him I was, he fired back, “Well, then, are you going to join the Corps today?” Unable to form a sentence, I sputtered. All I had wanted my entire life was to be a Marine. Asking me if I wanted to join the Corps was like asking me if I wanted to play in the Beach Boys. When I finally regained my wits, I said something to the effect of “Hell yeah!” and plopped down in a chair right next to Gunny Matthews’s desk. He pulled out this huge stack of forms and said, “Let’s get her done.”
Given my age, we both knew that he would still have to come to my home and persuade my parents to sign, but he wanted to get my commitment down in writing then and there so that all my parents would have to do was agree. Once we’d signed all those papers and they obtained my parents’ permission, there would be no turning back. Gunny Matthews had a strategy and a plan, and he caught me flat- footed when I walked into his office that day.
First, he told me, “We’ve got to decide your obligation,” which meant how many years of service I’d be signing up for that day. Gunny Matthews laid out the options: reserves for five and a half years, a three-year program of active duty, a four-year program, and even a six-year obligation, of which four could be active and two could be inactive, reserve, where you didn’t have to go to anything but could be called up anytime. After hearing all the options, I said, “Hell, give me twenty. I want to be a career Marine.” He laughed and said, “Okay, well, I tell you what. Why don’t we just start out with four?” And I said, “Okay, that sounds like a good deal to me,” but I was ready to sign the rest of my life away to the U.S. Marines.
I was nervous sitting in front of that pile of paperwork. In fact, I was so shaken and excited that I managed to misspell my own name on the first three forms he gave me. The first time, I thought, Okay, that was weird. That won’t happen again, but then I repeated the mistake two more times. When he pointed it out, I was embarrassed. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that I was, in that very moment, achieving a lifelong dream. I was also well aware that there was a war going on and I could very well be signing my obituary. Though it was still early in the war, the impact of the conflict was already being felt in Independence, Missouri, because many young men from my school and community had enlisted, had trained, and were fighting overseas. There had been close to two thousand American casualties in Vietnam in 1965, including one of my classmates from Van Horn High School, Bill Peck, a tall kid with reddish-blond hair whom I had known since eighth grade. As sobering as that was, I was still thrilled about the prospect of going to war. It made enlisting a lot more intense, but it also ensured that I wouldn’t end up sitting on my ass for four years at Camp Pendleton, running drills and training endlessly to go to war but never getting to fight in one. I knew that if I really wanted to serve my country, I needed to be there when I was needed the most, which was then, in the beginning of 1966, when Marines had been dying in Vietnam for more than a year. I was determined to go there and prove myself worthy of being called a Marine.
Gunny Matthews handed me my official Marine recruit ID card, which read, “Private John D. Musgrave 2294574 has enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.” He said, “If you ever get stopped by the police or somebody asks you for identification, you show them this card, and it may get you out of trouble,” and it actually did save me from a traffic ticket once. I’d been chasing a girl from church while riding my motorcycle.
I left the recruit station, which was on the Independence town square, and beelined for the bowling alley, just around the corner, to share the news with my best friend, Jay. I walked into the place as plumped up as a Butterball turkey. I was so proud of myself. I glided straight back to the pin machines, where Jay was working. When he saw me, he immediately asked, “What did you do?” because I looked as if I’d obviously done something, I was pretty thrilled about. And I said, “I enlisted,” to which he replied, “You son of a bitch! You can’t go without me.” So I said, “Well, then, better hurry the hell up.” So, Jay stopped what he was doing, went straight down to the recruiting station, and enlisted too. I went home from the bowling alley and told my parents, who were underwhelmed, to say the least. They knew that at seventeen I still needed their signatures to complete the paperwork, so they expected we wouldn’t be having the conversation until after I turned eighteen. I caught them off guard that afternoon. They dug in and told me, “Absolutely not,” but I pushed back and convinced them they really had no choice in the matter. It was the first time I challenged my father on anything, and once they saw how badly I wanted to be a Marine, they gave in, with the caveat that I had to finish high school before I could go.
When they first heard of my intention to enlist, which I made clear in eighth grade, my parents begged me to go to college instead, and they offered to take out loans. My brother, Butch, had gone to college on scholarship, but due to my mediocre grades I would never qualify for one, and I knew that if I went, all I would do was make my mother, who was very unhappy with her job in the IBM department at the Sheffield Steel Company in Kansas City, work for another few years. It would have been a waste of money because I was through with school. No more teachers, no more books. I was hell- bent on becoming a Marine. I had to talk like a senator to finally convince my parents that I was right. Mother—God bless her—quit her job right after I left, and it made me feel like a man that I had finally done something that was really helping my family.
Jay was never as ramped up as I was about joining the Corps. His father had served as a Marine and had been wounded on Okinawa; he was proud of his service but never glorified it, often telling Jay that it was a “hard goddamn job” and that he “nearly got killed doing it.” So, in high school, Jay always said that if you’re smart, you joined the Navy or the Air Force, but to me that screamed wimp, and I argued with him about it. Thankfully, Jay determined that if I joined the Marine Corps, he would go with me. He knew that when we graduated from high school, we weren’t going to go to college and that in six or ten months, a year at most, he’d be drafted into the Army. He said, “Hell, I don’t know if I could even live if you’re not here. There won’t be anything to do, nobody to hang out with, so I’ll just come with you.”
From the moment I met him, Jay had always been there for me. His friendship was the best thing that happened in high school. It saved me. During my early adolescence, from about fourth grade on, I had been the runt of the litter and struggled to keep up with my peers. During this miserable and deeply humiliating time, I learned all about bullies. Some days it seemed as if nearly every kid at school might take a shot at me, and I was scared to death. I couldn’t fight these guys. I was just a little kid, a so-called adolescent male who was never going to have a girlfriend and who lived in near- constant fear of being attacked.
In high school, when all of my classmates were going out for football, track, and basketball, I joined the marching band, and this turned out to be one of the best decisions of my young life. In the saxophone section of the school band that year, there was this blond-headed kid who sat a couple seats down from me named Jay Van Velzen. He was a total cutup, getting into trouble all the time, but it was never anything mean-spirited. He was always just having fun.
I discovered that one of the ways to keep bullies from lashing out at me was to make them laugh. So I’d been working on my comedy routines seriously for a while. It was a matter of survival. This kid Jay was funny as hell, a little irreverent for my taste, but an all-around great guy. I don’t know what it was about me that caused him to want to be my friend, because I was pretty square compared with him, but we shared a wry sense of humor and found that we enjoyed each other’s company. Before we knew it, we had become good buddies.
My parents adored Jay. Mom loved him because he’d eat anything she’d put in front of him. Because Mom worked almost as much as Dad, her cooking could be a little experimental at times, and our vegetables came out of cans. But the rule at our house was you would take some of everything on the table and you would eat it all. To this day, I’m not sure Jay understands how instrumental our friendship was in my survival in those first two high school years. In him, I found a true friend, someone in whom I could confide, and we really talked, all the time. The summer after graduating from high school, before leaving for boot camp, my friends and I did everything as though it would be our last time. Better have fun now, we reasoned, in case we don’t make it back. And we had an amazing time. Dad took Jay and me to Lake of the Ozarks every chance we got so we could water-ski and chase girls. Jay went with us on family vacations up to my grandparents’ farm, in Paradise, Kansas, and all of my relatives considered him part of the family. He was just a Musgrave with a funny last name.
I owned my own motorcycle, from money I earned playing with my rock band, the Fabulous Revells, and Jay rented one that summer and rode with me whenever he could. You could rent a motorcycle for an evening for like five or ten bucks.
Sometimes when Jay said that he had to go to work, my dad would take him aside, surreptitiously slip him some money, and say, “Jay, you’re not going to work. You’re going to do what you want to do, because you’re going to be working hard the rest of your life.” God bless my dad. He gave me that summer, and he said, “You just ride that motorcycle and don’t get killed. That’s the only rule I have. If you get killed, I’ll ground your ass.”
It was the perfect summer in almost every way. I was in love with a great girl, and every second Jay wasn’t at work, we would ride around on our motorcycles. My cousin Dicky had bought a motorcycle, too, just so he could ride with us. He was with the U.S. Navy Reserve at that time, so he was home a lot and could run around and do all the crazy shit with us. None of us were bad kids, so most of the trouble we got into that summer was the kind that you could laugh off, but for all of the laughing we never forgot the sword of Damocles hanging over the train station in downtown Kansas City. We had an exact ship-out date, and as it started to approach, we began thinking more seriously about our choices. We would soon be leaving the comfort of our small hometown for unfamiliar and even hostile places in an unknown world for which we were barely prepared. Knowing this made us savor every moment that summer, soaking it all up with the vigor of boys who knew their boyhood was about to end.