"Jack Webb wanted to make a movie about the incident in which the six recruits died on Parris Island. Webb went on to make the movie The DI and had a real DI act in it. I believe the movie was made at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego."
"Actually, Camp Pendleton. Though they absolutely replicated Parris Island. The tragedy at Ribbon Creek was too close and too controversial, and the Corps would not endorse it. Then Webb got this germ of a plot from a play called The Murder of a Sand Flea, which is at the heart of the movie: the forbidden killing of a single sand flea that brings the DI down on the trainees."
"What punishments did you omit from the book?"
"Well," he pauses. "I listed some things that used to go on, like doing the manual of arms with footlockers, putting kids in dumpsters, or catching a recruit smoking illegally and making him smoke a whole pack of cigarettes at once with a bucket over his head and a blanket over the bucket. One Marine told me that in boot camp, in the '50s, two recruits tried to escape, got lost, and snuck back. The DIs turned the whole platoon out and said, 'These two are going to diminish the overall level of your unit. We're going to leave you here and we don't care what happens to them. We don't care if they end up in a hospital.' The platoon beat the daylights out of the pair. Both ended up getting out on a Section 8. So, there was this kind of rough justice that the DIs doled out."
"One of the toughest things I ever heard from a Marine was that they weren't allowed to defecate for a week."
"I don't know how you could prevent that," Larry says.
"You can't, but they were expected to."
"There's one example in the book where a DI makes a recruit eat his vomit after he's eaten too much and pukes. There are examples like that, but I frankly think it misses the point because the Marine Corps model is remarkably successful. Nobody ever forgets the name of his drill instructor. Many stay in touch. And the rules for DIs are much stricter now: no physical contact is permitted. The training is less harsh. For instance, the boots get to use Skin So Soft to protect against the bite of sand fleas. And the Corps has learned a lot about physical fitness, paralleling the fitness craze in the last 40 years. They take water breaks, and instead of running in combat boots and utilities ('utes'), they wear shorts and sneakers ('go-fasters'). If you're a DI berating a recruit, and you don't like what he's doing and you want to punish him, a card called an 'IT' tells you how many pushups you can make a guy do. And you can't go over that."
"Like a Miranda warning," I suggest.
"Yeah, except it applies to the drill instructor. Somehow, despite this, the Marines have managed to sustain their attitude, their demeanor, their temperament."
"Everyone seems to acknowledge the success of the training, but, on the down side, you can also create some characters like the Texas Tower Sniper and Lee Harvey Oswald."
Larry laughs. "Everyone likes to say there's no such thing as an ex-Marine... except for Lee Harvey Oswald."
"You quote Eleanor Roosevelt as follows: 'The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!' She was kidding, but then, during the Vietnam War, the standards really were lowered."
"Mmmm... The government was pouring such numbers into Vietnam that training was down to eight weeks, and they got a lot of really bottom-of-the-barrel recruits in the Marine Corps and all across the military. The military and recruiting were in disastrous shape. Some officers said that we couldn't continue to prosecute the war and that this was a big reason for the war ending. It wasn't just because of politics, but because our forces were no longer effective. A Marine installation in Vietnam, called LZ Ross, was actually overrun by these malcontents. And there was an extraordinary riot on a base in Okinawa. Huge efforts were made to keep this out of the press, and they mostly succeeded. Even the Marines could barely function with these guys in their ranks; a lot of them apparently were associated with gangs. And what they finally did was hold massive inspections throughout the Corps. Anybody who had a gang tattoo or something incriminating in his locker, they shipped him to San Diego and gave him an administrative discharge. That's when they came up with the ruling that you had to be a high school graduate. No more dregs of society."
"And now you have battalions of women at Parris Island."
"One battalion of women," Larry corrects. "It's the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion."
"In 1942, LeJeune was opened as a segregated training camp for African-American Marines. Nine years later, segregation in the service was ended by Truman, well ahead of the civilian world. When service was refused to a black in uniform in the town near Parris Island, sentries showed up. Instead of taking him away, they told the restaurant owner that if he didn't serve the black Marine, he wouldn't be serving 'any of us.' When a barber on base refused to cut the hair of black Marines, he was fired and the commanding officer personally apologized."
"Yes. All Marines bleed green, is the saying."
"The yellow footprints are identified with the Marines," I say, "but for me the icon of the Corps is definitely the DI."
"Yes, the mystique of the Marine Corps is really embodied in the drill instructor. These men are really special. All this hard-guy stuff they play with recruits is not to drive people out but to make them succeed. They're breaking recruits down to try to get them to submerge their identity in the group. There is no talking back. 'I,' 'me,' and 'my,' are forbidden words. They're expected to eat, sleep, and work as a team. The drill instructors will take a shapeless adolescent who's had a life of self-indulgence and not much in the way of prospects and in 12 weeks they turn that kid's life around. And they do it in a way that stays with that young man forever. It all happens through the drill instructor. They can't get sick, they stand out there at all hours, fit and immaculate, staring down these recruits, and the sand fleas are biting the shit out of the DIs and they're not even flinching. The kids see this and say, 'Wow, I want to be like that guy.'"