What made the ranch well-suited for a training base was also what made it so well-suited for cattle raising.
Rifle fire rises up out of the ravines. Diesel engines scream from the mesas. Artillery rounds slam into the hills with chest-pounding thuds. Over nearly every square inch of Camp Pendleton the Marines march, drive, fly, or shoot. The land lends itself to war games. To the foot soldier, trekking and sweating in the dust, it is an empty wilderness, broken only by the sounds and structures of the Marines around him.
Mission San Luis Rey (1903). It grew to be the most prosperous of all twenty-one California missions.
San Diego Historical Society
Through the sights of his weapons, the soldier sees little evidence that others were here before the military. There are very few signs of the lives spent here long ago in the early days of California. The corrals and fences have left no imprint, and the few adobes have long since melted. No sign remains of the Shoshone Indians, either, who once had a village by the river over which the Marine helicopters now descend toward their airfield.
Frank Forster, second from left. In 1864 Pio Pico sold the entire estate, all 133,440 acres, to his brother-in-law, John Forster, for $14,000.
Take away that airfield, the roads, and the buildings, and Camp Pendleton would look much as it did when Don Gaspar de Portola’s party made camp by the river on July 20, 1769. Portola had just begun his overland journey from San Diego to Monterey. At the time, he was civil and military governor of a garrison in Baja, but here he was commander of the first Spanish expedition to establish missions along the California coast. Spain claimed the land from California to the Mississippi River then, but the small river in the big valley—about forty miles north of San Diego—had not yet been named. Since it was Saint Margaret’s day. Father Juan Crespi and Captain Portola proclaimed the river and the valley the Santa Margarita.
Richard O'Neill. The ranch was bought by James L. Flood, who later deeded half of it to Richard O’Neill, whom he had known in San Francisco in the gold rush days.
One hundred seventy-three years later, in 1942, the Ninth Marine Division marched in and took over what had been the Santa Margarita y Las Flores Ranch. The Second World War had begun and the United States needed a place, a gargantuan place, to train its warriors to fight on the Pacific islands. Camp Pendleton became the biggest amphibious warfare training area in the United States.
Bill Magee. Bessie's husband’s father had been ranch manager for the northern half since the year she was born, and later her husband. Bill Magee, was superintendent of that section, too.
The size and variability of the terrain were the biggest attractions for the Marines, but for all its size—which today seems elephantine in comparison to the relatively cramped life led by most Southern Californians—the base occupies only about half of the land the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores encompassed. Up until 1938 the ranch ranged from the Marine Corps air base at El Toro, near Santa Ana, all the way down the coast to Oceanside, and as far inland as Fallbrook—a total of 353 square miles, or about one-fourth the size of Rhode Island.
Bessie Magee Gardner:, 90: “I knew all the vaqueros. I had my own saddle horses there, six of them. I rode every day and I know every stick of that ranch."
Today the base includes only about 196 square miles, stretching from Oceanside to San Clemente along the coast, and inland to the old Rancho’s boundary near Fallbrook. There are eighteen miles of beach and innumerable canyons and creeks running through the area’s three mountain ranges. Almost 250 species of animals roam or soar over the base freely, including deer, buffalo, coyote, and probably a mountain lion or two. These animals root in the sumac along the canyon walls, chomp on the grass that carpets the rolling hills, and doze in the shade beneath the oak trees clustered in the shallow valleys. What made the ranch well-suited for a training base was also what made it so well-suited for the major form of enterprise carried on there during the previous 173 years—cattle raising. ‘
The Yasukochis. “All the contours in the field (in the Santa Margarita Valley) turned toward the ammunition dump at Fallbrook. The FBI thought it was signal for Japanese bombers.”
The first cattle brought into the area were those owned by the San Luis Rey Mission, which was established in 1798. Due to its location near the lush Santa Margarita River (west of Vista, on the edge of Camp Pendleton) and the efforts of the mission priest, Padre Antonio Peyri, Mission San Luis Rey grew to be the most prosperous of all twenty-one California missions. The domain of San Luis Rey was divided into six ranchos, including Santa Margarita y Las Flores. They stretched from where Encinitas is today all the way up to San Clemente, and as far inland as the Pala Mountains. With time, the cattle herds began to develop, and by 1832 the mission owned 27,500 head. Along with the cattle, which were used primarily for their hides and tallow, other domestic animals crowded into the Santa Margarita Valley and the surrounding mountains. Records show 28,913 sheep owned by the mission in 1828, as well as 2226 horses. And even though the Indians, in the early days, were known to prefer horseflesh to beef or mutton, those colts weren’t raised for food; they were the transit system for the men who handled the huge herds. These men were the vaqueros, the first American cowboys, and the first vaqueros were Indians.
George McCleary: ‘‘The first time the buffalo stampeded, they stopped just before entering San Clemente."
Compared to the task the earlier missions had in training an Indian to be a responsible horseman, able to be put in charge of thousands of animals, Padre Peyri at San Luis Rey had it easy. The San Diego Mission had been established in 1769, and the next closest one, at San Juan Capistrano, was baptized in 1776. So by the time San Luis Rey needed horsemen in great numbers, right at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, there were plenty in the area. By 1810 the Indian population at San Luis Rey had grown to nearly 1600, and many of them were already qualified vaqueros.
The soldier sees little evidence that others were here before the military.
But there was also another type of vaquero who ranged on the Santa Margarita. This was the gente de razon vaquero, the person of reason. He was the colonist, the Californio, the dark-skinned man with a mixture of Spanish, Mexican, and Indian blood in his veins. It was this kind of man, and woman, who settled California long before the Americans arrived in any great numbers. The gente de razon had colonized California. Many had come with Portola on his first and subsequent expeditions, and others came with Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775. They had earned the name Californios, and they were a proud and tiny bunch. It was natural that they'd become the ruling class in the post-mission and pre-gold rush years in California.
“It’s them young congressmen that never been in the military, that’s the problem.”
The Californios weren’t all vaqueros then, in 1830, when about 4700 of them lived in this state. Some were soldiers, some were traders, some were politicians, and most were ranchers. It was into the hands of one of these Californios, Don Pio Pico, that most of the land claimed by the mission eventually fell.
“We’ve gotten rid of all that mad dog kill, kill, kill stuff."
Pio Pico became head of his family at the age of eighteen, when his father, a veteran soldier, died in San Diego in 1819. Pico was not a military man, and in this time of changing power, that was fortunate. For a person like Pico, who was ambitious, it was a time of opportunity. As rule over California passed from Spain to Mexico, the bold could cup their hands and let the little drops of power leak into their palms.
Pio Pico built the sixth house outside the San Diego Presidio in 1824, and he never forgot the excitement and pleasure of the day he and his mother moved into it. They celebrated by throwing a fandango which all of San Diego attended. Pico liked the respectability, the security of owning his own home. He told himself he’d have many more, and ranchos, too, and his houses would be open to everyone.
Pico had a knack for business. He opened a grog shop in a tent of skins in Los Angeles in the mid-1820s, where he dispensed spirits in ox horn containers with false bottoms. He started collecting political cards, and he began playing them as shrewdly as he played real ones in his infamous poker games. In 1826 he was appointed secretary at the court martial of a presidio soldier, and from then on he never lost sight of the realization that politics was just another form of trade. And as a trader he had become successful, running a store in San Diego and traveling from it to bargain with the rancheros and the mission padres. By 1835 his business acumen had so impressed state officials that Pico and his brother Andres were appointed civil administrators of Mission San Luis Rey, a post the Picos had coveted.
Ever since 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Indians’ claims to their vast lands began to crumble. Many Mexican administrators, Pio Pico among them, felt little obligation to honor the Spaniards’ vows that the tracts were being held in trust for the Indians. At San Luis Rey, Pico began siphoning off some of the mission’s income and grazed his own cattle on the Santa Margarita and the San Onofre ranchos. After four years of repeated complaints from the Indians and the mission father, Pio Pico was investigated by the government and removed from his position. But by then it was too late. He had already acquired most of the mission’s cattle as payment for imaginary debts, and his influence with California’s Mexican officials led to the granting of his request for ownership of the ranchos Santa Margarita and San Onofre on May 10, 1841. As a gesture of compensation, and in an effort to placate resentment, Pico gave up his claims to a rancho in Temecula, land the Indians had long disputed as their own. Shortly after obtaining the land grant for the Santa Margarita and the San Onofre, Pico acquired the Las Flores rancho, about six miles north of present-day Oceanside. It had been an Indian pueblo located in the middle of his holdings. This upped his take to 133,440 acres, one of the biggest land grants in California history, and certainly the biggest ever in San Diego County.
Pio Pico, partly on the strength of his huge land holdings, became the last Mexican governor of California in 1845. The following year, after the United States had taken California, he fled to Mexico. His brother Andres was left as general of the small army of Californios, who continued to resist U.S. domination. From his encampment on the Santa Margarita ranch, near the present-day ranch house, Andres Pico led his men into the battle of San Pasqual in 1846. Historians generally cede the victory to the Californios over General Kearny’s Army of the West. But further fighting was useless, and Andres Pico signed the Capitulation of Cahenga on January 13, 1847, marking the official takeover of California by the United States.
Pio Pico returned to California in 1848, still owner, with his brother, of the Santa Margarita y Las Flores. And now that the Americans were pouring into the state with a hunger for beef, Pico’s cattle ranch became even more prosperous than it had been in the mission days. No longer were cows and bulls slaughtered mainly to trade their hides and tallow to passing ships. In the 1850s the Santa Margarita supported 10,000 head of cattle. The vaqueros were plentiful, too, and Pico was free to gamble and to deal and to throw fiestas at his house in Los Angeles. He rarely visited the Santa Margarita.
The vaqueros threw their share of fiestas, and an excuse to hold one was as near at hand as a fresh pony. For instance, when they got bored and yearned for some excitement, they went out and found a grizzly bear. What better excuse for a fiesta than a bull-and-bear fight?
To capture an Ursus horribilis with only reatas (a rough leather rope) was no easy feat, especially since most horses would bolt at the merest whiff of grizzly. It generally took four vaqueros to get one. When the bear was found, one rider would lasso a back leg and two others would throw their reatas around his neck, choking him. The bear’s eyes would bulge and he’d nearly pass out from lack of breath, but before he did, the ropes were loosened. This tightening and loosening, done several times, would eventually bleed some of the steam out of the grizzly and get him into a frame of mind where he might be jerked, baited, and pulled back to the corral for the big event. The three ropes were still attached, and this left one horseman free. It was his job to ride in front of the grizzly, tease him into charging, and thereby gain ground back toward home. Sometimes it took as many as ten vaqueros working in relays over a span of two days and nights to get the grizzly to the bull-and-bear pit. When the task was accomplished, rancheros and their families gathered from miles around to view the spectacle and then drink, sing, and dance.
The bear and bull were usually tied together—one end of the reata tied to the bull’s foreleg, the other end tied to the bear’s hind leg. The rope was long enough to afford both beasts freedom of action. In quick, vicious scraps, the bear usually killed two or three good bulls, then died from injuries. After that the party would begin.
Due to the great floods of 1861 and 1862, and the droughts of 1863 and 1864, Pico’s cattle herd was decimated. He and his brother, both with tendencies toward reckless gambling and huge hospitality, found themselves seriously in debt. Andres sold his half of the ranch to Pio for $1,000; and two years later, in 1864, Pio sold the entire estate, all 133,440 acres, to his brother-in-law, John Forster, for $14,000. Pico died penniless in Los Angeles many years later at the age of ninety-three.
Forster had owned the Rancho de la Nacion, which included all of present-day National City and Chula Vista, but he was forced to sell it in 1856. At the time he bought the Santa Margarita, he owned the Mission Viejo and the Trabuco ranchos, which lie east of San Juan Capistrano, and which bordered the northern edge of the Santa Margarita. He joined the Santa Margarita with the other two ranchos to form a piece of land that spread nearly 353 square miles.
Forster lived on the Santa Margarita in the ranch house which is now home for the commander of Camp Pendleton. He made it a prosperous cattle ranch again, and pulled in extra money selling horses to the U.S. Cavalry. He even tried to start a town, Forster City, in the San Onofre area. Forster had gone to Holland in 1873 and offered 160 acres of land free to anyone who would come to his ranch in the U.S. The plan didn’t work out, and the five buildings at Forster City soon were abandoned. Forster owned the sprawling ranch for only sixteen years before he died, and soon after, his heirs were forced to sell the property to pay off a $207,000 mortgage. The ranch was bought by James L. Flood, who later deeded half of it to Richard O’Neill, whom he had known in San Francisco in the gold rush days. Flood had made his fortune with an interest in the Comstock lode in Nevada, and it was his heirs who eventually sold their half of the ranch to the United States government.
Cowboys came and went as the Twentieth Century approached, but there was always a core of them who lived on the ranch until the Marines arrived. Bessie Beatrice Magee Gardner, who was born March 23, 1888, remembers the vaqueros well. Her husband’s father had been ranch manager for the northern half since the year she was born, and later her husband. Bill Magee, was superintendent of that section, too.
Gardner (she remarried after Bill Magee died in 1951), who is ninety years old, lives in Oceanside. “I knew all the vaqueros,” she says in a voice as slow and deep as a meandering river. “They were wonderful people. Some had families.” She pauses for a long minute, reaching blindly from her wheelchair for a lighted cigarette. Asking questions of her is nearly futile. Her mind works well, but it labors almost independently of the outside world now. “They had a great, tremendous corral. I’ve seen them cut the cattle. The cowboys would have their cowboy hats on and they’d de-horn the cattle. They used these pinchers.” Swirls of smoke leak from her mouth as her nearly sightless eyes search for the inward vision of those dusty afternoons. “There’d always be one little stream of blood that went up and would fill the cowboys ’ hats when they cut the horns. The rim would balance with blood.”
This vision of blood sparks another memory. “Las Flores got its name from the billions of flowers between the ranch house and Las Flores. The flowers were called gotas a sangre—because they looked like little drops of blood. They were no bigger than the tip of my little finger.” She lifts her wrinkled hand and tips a pinky with a thumb. “I had my own saddle horses there, six of them. I rode every day and I know every stick of that ranch. When I’d sit on horseback, the wildflowers, the mustard, was clear up above my shoulder. And the mattilahaw poppies—they called them fried eggs. The buds came out in a ball and that made them crinkly. And the bud would start to open; there’d be five or six petals around the edge, with a yellow ball in the middle. I had my picture taken on horseback coming through those mattilahaw poppies. They were up to your shoulder.”
Gardner can dredge up stories about the Indians who lived on the ranch, and how all the Indian girls were locked up in a small room of the large ranch house every night to protect them from the men. She tells of the raging grass fires that plagued the ranch and how the men put them out by pulling dripping gunny sacks out of tubs of water and beating the fire with the wet burlap. “I’ve seen the shoes burned right off their feet.” The old cowgirl hunted all over the ranch and slept in the ranch house often. “In one corner they had a place for four small cannons in case of an Indian uprising, ” she recalls. “I used to sleep in a great big bed in that room. They’d left the holes where the cannons were.”
There aren’t many ranch records left of that tum-of-the-century period (the mission period is much better documented). The few remaining memories of it are tucked away in people like Bessie Gardner, or her son. Bill Magee, who was bom on the ranch in 1915. He lived with the vaqueros in the summertime all through the 1920s. The cattle were as thick as swamp mosquitos in those days, having been replenished after being almost completely wiped out in the early 1900s. Magee’s father told him about the time the cowboys had to drive 6000 head from the ranch to Huntington Beach in a desperation march to water. “There were so many dead cattle you could pert' near walk on ’em from Oceanside to El Toro,” claims Magee.
He was brought up by an Indian woman whose ancestors had always lived on the ranch, and part of his early training was horsemanship—he owned six or eight horses as a kid. There were always plenty of horses around, he recalls. “The cowboys had five or six horses apiece they’d take with them from camp to camp. They changed horses every day. It was hard work dragging two- or three-hundred-pound animals around all day." The horses were brought in by the boxcar load from Arizona and sold for about twenty dollars a head.
By the 1920s the ranch was being used for many purposes. Besides cattle raising, there were tenant farmers working the land, a clay mine was in full swing, and booze smugglers were utilizing the twenty miles of beach to bring in their illegal whiskey. It was the middle of Prohibition, and the Santa Margarita was one of the most remote and forgotten places that was still conveniently close to Los Angeles, where the liquor was sold.
‘‘When I lived at Las Flores, the Chinese cook had a son about my age.” Magee pauses to chuckle at the memory, his turquoise eyes squinting with mirth. “We were on the beach one day at Las Flores, seven miles north of Oceanside, and we found 300 cases of Scotch whiskey in a cavern on the beach. We came back and got this old horse called Floyd, and a big ol’ two-wheeled wagon. Packed ’em all in this wagon and hid it all in the barn. Some of the damn workmen found it and we never realized a penny of it, but everybody had a helluva drunk!”
Magee’s father discovered the clay deposits one day while hunting. He had wounded a deer up at La Cristianitos, a small canyon near the northern boundary of the ranch, and when he got to the animal, he found himself surrounded by white clay. Jerome O’Neill, one of the owners of the ranch, told the elder Magee that if he could find a market for the clay, he could participate in some of the profits. There was a company in Los Angeles that found it useful in making sewer pipes, and another company made dishes out of it. Magee still has some of the dishes, which are bone white and very beautiful. The Magees could have made a small fortune from the clay, but they only received $250. One month after the first royalty check had arrived, O’Neill died, and none of his heirs would honor the agreement.
But young Bill Magee did get something priceless out of the clay pits. “We were building a road up there one day at one of the clay mines, and when the grader went over this one area, there were these three bright green spots in the clay. I dug into one spot and dug a pistol out. We dug into the other two and found another pistol and a copper powder container. The pistols were all well-preserved and inlaid with gold. The hammers would still come back.” Were these possibly from the Portola expedition? Magee doesn’t know. He left the pistols with an ex-wife.
The pistols are only one of several mysteries attached to the ranch. Magee tells of the time he and his father were riding in a wagon up a canyon one night, and when they came around a bend, “there was a goddamn flame that high (two feet) coming right out of the ground. We warmed our hands by it. We took some sticks and put ’em around the fire so we could find it. There’s a story that there’s treasure where flames come out of the ground. Well, we came back the next day and looked at the ground. It looked just as darned level and smooth as that, and you couldn’t see no hole where the flames were coming out. The sticks were still there where we put ’em. We dug down about a foot but there was nothing there.”
Other peoples’ diggings were more fruitful. Magee, when he got a little older, was in charge of some of the fencing. He’d have fifteen or twenty Mexican laborers putting up fence all summer. “These two Mexicans were digging a post hole one day,” recalls Magee, puzzlement creeping over his long face, ‘‘and they found something in that post hole and disappeared, and to this day we’ve never seen ’em, and still don’t know what it is they found. They had $250 apiece coming to ’em, but they never came back to pick it up.”
Like his mother, Magee was as comfortable on the back of a horse as any of the vaqueros. But there were certain things the cowboys did Magee would never try. Sometimes just for fun, or as an unconventional way to kill their beef, the vaqueros would colear, or tail, a big bull. The practice dates back to the mission days when the vaqueros played a game called coursing the bull. It was similar to a modem bullfight, except the matador rode on horseback and he didn’t kill the bull with swords. The bull was teased into chasing a cape held by the horseman, and after the animal showed signs of tiring, the gates of the corral were opened and the bull was driven through at full speed, with several galloping horses and riders giving chase. Magee witnessed this part of the old game many times. The vaqueros, who held knives in their teeth, would vie to be the first to reach the fleeing bull, grab his tail, wrap it around the saddle horn, and turn his horse sharply. This sent the bull tumbling haunch over horn, and before he could get up the rider would be off his horse with knife in hand and would cut the bull's spinal cord at the top of the head. “It was just a Sunday game,” chuckles Magee.
Given the tradition of rough Sundays on the Santa Margarita, it’s strangely apt that a particularly rough Sunday for the United States—December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed—should put an end to the Santa Margarita. For some, the closing of the ranch was a traumatic experience.
George Yasukochi and his wife, Sakac, had been renting about 300 acres of farmland on the ranch since 1939. (George’s name was actually Shozo, but an elementary school teacher decided Shozo was too hard to pronounce, so she named him George.) The Yasukochis were growing chilis and strawberries. In March of 1942 they were just getting ready to harvest the strawberries and plant the chilis. Then, “all of a sudden you’re a saboteur in one night,” says Yasukochi, still smiting from having lost his farm and his freedom. But the order to report to Oceanside toward the end of March for transportation to the internment camp came as no surprise. Yasukochi’s father and brother were already in one of the camps, and George had been hounded by the FBI for weeks. “All the contours in the field (in the Santa Margarita Valley) turned toward the ammunition dump at Fallbrook,” says Yasukochi. “The FBI thought it was signal for Japanese bombers.” The Yasukochis laugh now, but it's a plaintive laugh that says it really wasn’t funny when it happened. They smile at the memory of how they bought a ton of rice in January, 1942, and how it started the rumor that a Japanese submarine was going to pull secretly into Oceanside for replenishment.
The Yasukochis say they lost about $150,000 in crops and equipment from the Santa Margarita. They later got a $25,000 check from the government as compensation. “Sure, we have bitterness,” says Yasukochi. "If you complained, they said you’re lucky you’re in the U.S. But we didn’t figure it that way. We thought we were Americans.”
Inadvertently, the Yasukochis did do their part for the war effort. The Marines were in a hurry when they took over the ranch, so they set up the base in the most opportune fashion. They chose the Yasukochis’ plowed chili field for their airstrip, seeing as how it was already leveled. The Yasukochis’ strawberry field near Lake O’Neill, farther up the valley, became the site of the Marines’ new hospital.
The taking of the ranch was not prompted solely by the start of the war. The leathernecks had been eyeing the Santa Margarita since 1939. They needed an amphibious warfare training base near San Diego, and when the second War Powers Act was passed by Congress in 1942, giving the government access to anything deemed necessary for the war effort, they quickly condemned the ranch and moved in. The U.S. paid the Flood heirs $4,110,035 for it in 1943, and Bill Magee says this figure is much lower than what they could have gotten had they not been so friendly with the local tax assessor. “They got trapped,” remarks Magee of the Flood heirs. “They were like everybody else in those days—they used to wine and dine the tax assessor. When the government bought the ranch, it said, ‘We’re gonna pay you over an average of the last three years’ taxes.’ ”
Through the dusty windshield of an old green Marine pickup truck, the back country of Camp Pendleton doesn’t look much different from when it was called the Santa Margarita. The three occupants of the truck—two Marines and a civilian—are out looking for the herd of buffalo roaming the hills. The truck climbs steeply through the Santa Margarita Mountains on a once-decent asphalt road that took some hard knocks from last year’s rains. The road cuts through several terrains, starting with grasslands at the foot of the mountain, clawing through the chaparral and the coastal sage, and leveling out onto the savannah on top. It’s an odd mixture of scrub oak, cactus, manzanita, California red berry, and sumac that passes by the truck as the two Marines try to describe to the civilian what it means to be in the Corps.
“When I think of the military, I think of the Marines. These other slimes ain’t worth shit,” barks the driver. Corporal Marcus Hawks. One of twenty-two deputy game wardens. Hawks has the enviable job of driving out into the country every day, checking up on the wildlife. But it’s obvious that Hawks, decked out in his fatigues and his chopped, regulation mustache, is a fighting man first and a game warden second. And like most of the other 32,000 Marines stationed here, Hawks feels the inevitable detachment from the society at large. “You get the impression the civilian population doesn’t want you,” Hawks complains. “But you go overseas and they like you. It feels good. It’s like those movies you see of the Marines marching into Paris.” The other Marine present. Sergeant Lyndon Smith of the Joint Public Affairs Office (reporters and photographers are allowed nowhere on the base, and given no interviews, without a public affairs officer present) nods his head in occasional agreement, and now and then offers support for Hawks’ position.
The truck ascends a series of steep switchbacks, affording a panorama of the old rancho below, and the Pacific hazed in fuzzy blue beyond. Squirrels and rabbits flit across the road. An old rusted-out speed limit sign, peppered with bullet holes, stands like an unarmed sentry, ignored by the passing truck. “It’s them young congressmen that never been in the military, that’s the problem,” Hawks continues. “Too many civilians sticking their nose in military business.” The conversation jumps erratically from life as a Marine to the attempts at getting the Marines out of Camp Pendleton and turning the base into a park, and then to the subject of war.
The truck pulls up to Case Springs, a favorite bivouac area with a little natural water and several huge oak trees. “I know some people who are gonna get out and go over to Rhodesia and do some good guy/bad guy ass-kicking,” says Hawks. He’s been reading in Soldier of Fortune, the mercenary magazine, how Rhodesia won’t take mercenaries; you have to enlist in their army if you want to fight over there.“I wouldn't mind seeing a little action myself,” he adds after some consideration. “It’d square the Marines away. It’d make us a military unit instead of some quasi-political unit.”
No buffalo are in sight, so Hawks jumps behind the wheel again and the truck rolls through the long tan blades of the savannah grass. The subject of boot camp, a favorite for Marines, especially those who went through it more than two years ago, is discussed for a while. “There’s no discipline anymore,” says Smith. “The name of the game used to be behind closed doors. Not anymore. If a troop handler lays a hand on a troop, he goes to jail. If he calls him anything other than his rank, or troop, or trainee, he goes to jail.” Smith blows through his teeth and shakes his head. Both he and Hawks get disgusted talking about boot camp. “They used to call us maggots. Or ladies,” Hawks says wistfully. “Look,” he argues, “who you gonna respect more—somebody who yells at you, or somebody who punches your face in? The manhandling is necessary.” Across a field, about 200 yards from the dirt road, a huge woolly head looms above the grass. It’s a female buffalo, one of two given to the base last August by the San Diego Zoo. The rest of the herd is nowhere in sight. For reasons Hawks doesn’t know, the herd will not accept this cow. After a short pause the green truck bounces on.
In reaction to a question about women in the Corps, Smith and Hawks get fidgety and tense. The subject vexes them. There are only 310 women stationed on Camp Pendleton, but Hawks envisions a women’s fighting unit in the near future. “The women can't handle the job,” Smith says flatly. “And it’d be dangerous,” Hawks adds. “If they were fighting alongside men, the male unit would try to protect the female unit in combat. It’s the American man’s psychology. It’s a proven fact they can handle themselves in combat. Australia has had women combat troops for hundreds of years. But it’s a tradition there and the men are used to it. It just wouldn't work here. And besides, sex might be a problem. With all those women close by, if you wanted to rape one you’d have to remember that she has a k-bar (knife), an M-16, the whole works. You might find yourself in a little plastic baggie going home.”
As the truck climbs along a slope leading down into a grassy valley, the herd of buffalo comes into view. Begun in 1973 with two American bison named Adam and Eve, which were donated by the San Diego Zoo, the herd has grown to number eighteen. In all, twelve of the animals have been donated by the zoo and six were born on base. The Marines step out of the truck and inch their way down the hill. They are massive animals, the bison, and they can grow as tall as six feet at the head. They ignore the intruders and munch quietly, flapping their little tails in quick circles. “One guy wanted to take a point-blank picture of a buffalo,” remarks Hawks. “I wrote him a citation while he was in the hospital. This bull just picked him up with his head and threw him. But you develop an affection for the buffalo even if they are belligerent.” Hawks says sometimes the herd will wander into an encampment of grunts (foot soldiers) on the base and sleep in the middle of camp. The buffalo continue in oblivious bliss, grazing among the scattered oaks, as the pickup truck wanders off back toward the natural resources office.
It is the head of this office—game warden George McCleary—who is most responsible for having brought the buffalo to Camp Pendleton. In fact, McCleary is the man most responsible for all of the base’s vigorous wildlife programs. Through his contact with zoo officials, who asked McCleary if he’d like to have some buffalo, the herd has flourished. “It was good for community relations,” says McCleary, ‘‘but I thought we were gonna get just a couple. They breed well in captivity. Other zoos are saturated with them.” After dropping to a low of 300 buffalo in 1900, the population nationwide has increased to almost 30,000 today. At Pendleton, it may eventually get to the point where McCleary will wish he had some vaqueros to handle and protect the herd. Marine helicopters have been known to buzz the eighteen bison and touch off stampedes. ‘‘The first time they stampeded (it was caused by a bunch of reserves), they stopped just before entering San Clemente. Took us two days to get ’em back down here,” recalls McCleary with a very slight grin.
McCleary can be credited for Camp Pendleton’s natural resources program. He began work in the base game unit in 1957, when military police had most of the game warden duties, and while he was an enlisted man stationed here. When he got out of the service in 1960 he stayed in the same job and became the base game warden, fully uniformed and certified by the State of California. ‘‘We’re trying to maintain the base in its natural state,” says McCleary in explanation of his job. This is a delicate and exacting task. For instance, McCleary’s office knows the family history of each of the 225 or so deer killed on the base each year. It is part of the job of the twenty-two deputy game wardens who patrol the base to keep track of the deer. A computer is also used in maintaining data on the deer population (estimated at about 3000), and this information helps determine how many hunting licenses are issued each year. Both civilian and military hunters are allowed to shoot game on the base.
But deer aren’t the only animals watched carefully. The least tern, a bird that is on the endangered species list, uses Camp Pendleton as a nesting ground. In early April, just before the birds arrive, McCleary gets heavy equipment to tear out the vegetation at the mouth of the Santa Margarita River. This allows the wind to form little depressions in the sand, where the least terns, which were once hunted doggedly for their bright white feathers, used on women's hats, have a population difficult to determine. The nesting pairs fluctuate from half a dozen to 250, the most ever seen at Camp Pendleton, in 1972.
Other birds, the savannah sparrow and the white tailed kite, for instance, have very critical habitats which are protected on the base. And still others which are not threatened with extinction are flocking to the base in increasing numbers. This is usually pointed to with pride by base officials, ever-conscious of portraying a good public image, as evidence that Camp Pendleton is the great wildlife sanctuary where all the animals driven from Los Angeles and San Diego can find a home. But it’s a matter of some concern to McCleary. Other animals, such as coyotes, are very near the maximum number the base can support. ‘‘Development outside the base is chasing th< here,” observes McCleary. ‘‘But what happens to the surplus? They’ll die. ”It is particularly worrisome for the game warden. As the animal population in the isolated slice of wilderness increases, does the possibility of an epidemic of some sort—rabies, in the worst extreme—it could kill most of them. People around the perimeter of the base are already complaining about the number of coyotes which especially love to dine in the avocado groves dotting the area. ‘‘By helping all the displaced animals, you can really defeat your purpose,” McCleary warns. ‘‘You’re creating an artificial habitat here. One gets sick, it wipes out the others.”
Of course, the wilderness areas of base are not completely given over wildlife. The animals have to share the space with the Marines. And when leathernecks are out there in the bush, where most of them feel they are finally doing what a Marine is supposed to do— play at making war—the animals have learned to step aside. Very few dead animals are found in the 30,000-acre impact area, where everything that blows up on Camp Pendleton eventually lands.
The Marines at the base have a $10 million ammunition bill every year, yet most of the soldiers feel they don't get to shoot their guns as much as they'd like to, and gripe that they only get in the dirt a couple of times a year. “When you go out in the field, you’re doing your job and nobody’s fucking with you,” declares Al, a sergeant in a transport company. “But when you come back, you sit around and clean your gear all day. That’s all the Corps is—cleaning shit.”
In terms of time spent in the field, the tank companies have it pretty good; they are out two or three times a month. There are seventy M-60 tanks stationed in the Las Flores area (about seven miles north of Oceanside), and not many flowers can be seen there anymore. A more common sight is that of Marines cleaning things and working on tanks. Up close the machines are immense, lethal, with the kind of bulk and power that remind one how soft and yielding flesh and bone really are. The tanks seem impervious to life, which may explain the shameful sense of invincibility one feels when riding in one. It’s true what they say about power—it corrupts. Tearing out over the landscape in an M-60, with fifty tons of steel beneath and around you, and firepower beyond comprehension, gives the rider the feeling that he’s not just one small man; he’s an armor-piercing missile that can eat its way through enemy steel and ricochet around in an enemy tank, making a puree of the inhabitants. He’s a vaquero straddling 750 horses, with a reata that can lasso a target 4400 meters away. He can spit fifty-caliber machine gun bullets, and jump gaping ditches without even slowing down. It’s this broadening of your area of influence, your capacity for casualty, that makes you want to jump into those awful death vendors and rip the hills to shreds. The tankers themselves claim not to be overly impressed with their demolition capabilities. “We’ve gotten rid of all that mad dog kill, kill, kill stuff,” says Captain Buster Diggs, commander of Tank Company B. “Nobody was going ‘aw shucks' when the Arabs and Israelis signed the peace accords.” There’s much the Marine Corps has attempted to rid itself of in recent years, and the bloodthirsty image is but one. Camp Pendleton’s major contribution to the campaign was the construction of its new brig in 1971. They prefer to call it a correctional facility, of course, and that’s understandable. The old brig, built in 1943 and used originally as a prisoner-of-war camp became infamous in the late Sixties for the rough treatment prisoners received there. The base is trying to get as far away as possible from anything associated with the previous facility—including the name.
According to an article that appeared in the September 15, 1969 issue of The Nation, written by the magazine's editor, Robert Sherrill, guards at the brig were known to beat and kick prisoners almost routinely. Much of the information in the article came from a Dr. Larry McNamee, who served as brig physician for a year. McNamee told Sherrill of countless prisoners who came to him with bruises all over their backs and chests, apparently inflicted by taped clubs wielded by guards. McNamee asked prisoners who came to him to write down their experiences. On March 5, 1969, Private Jimmy L. Milton wrote:
“On 2 March, 1969 CpI. DeGross called me to the correctional custody office and then beat me a few times in the chest, then made me eat four cigarettes and then pushed me out the door.”
Private Charles J. Comisky, according to the article, described this episode in a signed statement dated March 4, 1969:
“I was called into the correctional custody instructors' hut and told to stand at attention on some yellow footprints keeping my eyes straight ahead. At that time L/CpI. Johnson started beating me with a rolled-up towel in the face. He then gave me blows to the stumic and karate chops in the neck. When I put my hands up to protect myself instinkivly, he thought I was crazy or something and invited me to hit him back. When I accepted his invitation with a swing and a curse, three of the CC instructors grabbed me, beat me, and tied me up. continuing the act until the assistant warden came and took me to sick bay.” Sherrill reports the existence of the ‘‘Ice Box,” which was made up of six cages arranged on a concrete slab. Only bars protected the prisoners from the weather. The article went on to say that the cages were covered with canvas during the hot day, and the canvas was removed during the cold nights. And there was also a room of mirrors in which prisoners were punished by being forced to stand naked all day, sometimes for several weeks, just looking at themselves.
Captain George Miller, the current commanding officer of the new brig, claims there was a mistake in Sherrill’s article. “The canvas was taken off [the Ice Box] in the daytime and put back on at night,” he deadpans. Miller explains that after a Congressional investigation into the brig in 1969, $2.5 million was appropriated for the new building. He doesn’t deny the old brig was a hellhole. “There were between 600 and 900 prisoners being held in the facility built for 400,” Miller recalls. “And they were mostly Vietnam deserters.”
Things are different now. The new brig’s capacity is 382, and today there are only 185 “confinees” detained there. Many of them have been jailed for drug-related offenses. The philosophy now is to produce “positive change”—Miller hates the word rehabilitation—in the Marine while he’s incarcerated. Miller, with his crew-cut hair; tight, crooked little mouth; and “Cool Stud!” tattoo on his right forearm, fits the stereotypical jailer’s physicality perfectly. “Seventy percent of these guys are not going back to duty,” he states. “That presents a helluva percentage to work with or salvage. We’re not in the junk business; we’re in the salvage business.”
For the most part, the prisoners in the brig don’t live in cell blocks. The bulk of them live in open “dormitories” in the extremely secure building. But there are three ways to end up in a cramped cell: portray assaultive behavior, be a serious (felonious) offender, or claim you are a homosexual. There are very few homosexuals in the brig, and Miller attributes part of this to the fact that pornographic magazines and books are not allowed. “We can sell Playboy (in the prison exchange), but not hard-cord porn. When that kind of material is in there, you have male homosexuality.”
The system for producing “positive change” includes psychological testing, education programs, counseling, work programs, sports—the usual measures. And according to Miller, it’s working quite well. There haven’t been any riots like there were in the old brig, and many fewer fights. Also, the recidivism rate is low—sixteen percent—although with the transient nature of Camp Pendleton, it’s hard to interpret that figure since most of the prisoners are released from the Corps anyway.
After showing a visitor through his facility and emphasizing what a progressive program he has going there. Miller calls over three prisoners so the visitor can view firsthand the “positive change.” “Get over here, you three yahoos,” he barks to a group of Marines slouched in green chairs before a television tuned to cartoons. The three scramble to pop tall in front of their keeper. “What are you in here for?” Miller asks one of the men. “Drugs, sir.”
“And you?” the captain demands of the next man.
“And what about you?” Miller asks the third man.
“Okay,” Miller observes, turning to the visitor. “We got two druggies and a thief here. What did you want to ask them?”
The man in the middle, identified as the thief, blanches and opens his mouth to protest, but catches himself before he makes the mistake. The other two are more resigned and compliant. All three are no older than twenty-one. “How do you like it here?” the visitor asks, aware that an honest reply will be unlikely with Captain Miller and the public affairs officer present. “That’s a dumb question,” says Miller. “Ask them this: How do you like your treatment here?” The men mumble something about the treatment being fine with them. They’re all three waiting to finish their sentences and to be processed out of the military. They all give the answers Miller expects them to give.
“See?” Miller exclaims after dismissing the three prisoners. “Corrections has changed to super good in the last five years. Camp Pendleton is being set up as the standard for all other military correctional facilities.” The prisoners return glumly to their cartoons as the visitor is ushered out and the steel doors slam shut behind him.