VAN STOCKUM: Brigadier General of Marines: Part 2, Helping the corps be prepared

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Growing in rank and responsibility, in a 4-part series, a newly minted Marines brigadier general brings a perspective on life during the Cold War Era. Today: Overseeing the reserve corps.

By Ron Van Stockum

In my previous column, I described the Cuban Missile Crisis of Oct. 16-28, 1962, when a threatening nuclear disaster was defused by the nerves of steel and the negotiating skills of President John F. Kennedy.


During this period I was serving as director, Marine Reserve, in U. S Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va., within a mile of the Pentagon, as one of the officers standing the rotating watch as duty general officer in the Marine Corps Command Center. I had been keenly aware of the imminent threat of a nuclear missile striking Washington.

Even during that time, my regular duties continued. I was responsible for the training and operational readiness of some 200 Marine reserve units scattered throughout the country. Plans had been made by my predecessor to create within the Marine Corps Reserve a 4th Marine Division and a 4th Marine (Aircraft) Wing, mirror images of the regular active duty forces. It became my responsibility on July 1, 1962, to implement this plan.

I visited many of these units, including those located in my hometown, Bellingham, Wash., Louisville in Kentucky, my future state, and even Oshkosh (By Gosh) in Wisconsin.

The reservists of the Louisville unit, which having been converted in the reorganization from an infantry company to a ration company, were very unhappy with their supporting role. The unit later was reverted to a combat role as a tank company, more consistent with Kentucky’s strong military tradition.

Also the Army Armor School was nearby at Fort Knox, where tanks could be based adjacent to suitable training areas.

The Marine Corps and the host communities were proud of these units.


Friend, family

While visiting Frankfort, I met a remarkable individual, Col. George Morgan Chinn, U. S. Marine Corps Reserve, who was director of the Kentucky Historical Society. I was impressed to learn that he was the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entries for both “Daniel Boone” and “Machine guns.”

He was a nationally prominent designer and inventor of military weapons, especially machine guns.

Chinn had been a member of the 1921 Centre College football team, called the “Praying Colonels,” that beat Harvard, 6-0, in one of the greatest upsets ever in college football.

In 1963, while inspecting the reserve units in St. Louis, I picked up distinguished centenarian Lee Meriwether, a cousin and friend of my family, and drove him to a dinner for Marine reserve officers in the area.

He was still famous for his bestseller A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day, published in 1886. He remarked to me that the last time he had been picked up by a military vehicle and driver was by a stagecoach at Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory, about 75 years earlier.

At the dinner, Meriwether, at age 100, amazed the Marines present by having a drink, giving a short entertaining talk and lighting up a cigarette.


Southeast Asia ‘debate’

It was during a visit to New York that arrangements were made for me to participate in a joint radio interview with Bernard B. Fall at the well-known Tavern on the Green. Fall, a widely respected Indochina scholar, born in Austria and raised in France, had published his acclaimed Street without Joy, in which he hadwarned about the pitfalls American forces would face in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

It turned into a debate.

Fall attacked the policies of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that were leading to our increasing involvement in Vietnam. I was unsuccessful in my defense of those policies. It was no contest.

On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. Six weeks later, on Dec. 31, Gen. David M. Shoup’s term as commandant of the Marine Corps ended, and he was replaced by Gen. Wallace Greene.

Shoup had expressed his opinion that the United States should never become involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. General Greene aggressively supported President Johnson’s policy of deeper involvement in Vietnam.

 One can only ponder how our involvement in Vietnam might have differed had Kennedy continued in office and had the outspoken Shoup, a favorite of the president’s, been reappointed as Marine Corps Commandant.

Kennedy had earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened nuclear war, thoroughly considered all of the options and, without backing down, had negotiated a diplomatic solution.

Had he not been assassinated, would he have avoided the morass of Vietnam? We shall never know.


‘Torture’ at Pickle Meadows

On one inspection trip, I visited the small Marine Corps facility at Pickle Meadows in the California mountains. Here, Marine Corps reserve units, taking part in their 2-week summer active duty training, were participating in survival exercises.

I was amazed to observe a group of Marine officers intermingled with their enlisted men, completely naked and crawling around in the mud while receiving simulated enemy indoctrination and harassment through a bullhorn mounted on a tower.

Also, I observed a form of simulated torture, presumably demonstrating a means used for the extraction of information from prisoners. It appeared to be similar in effect to the water boarding treatment imposed later by the United States forces upon suspected terrorists. One at a time, Marines were brought to a water-filled barrel, where their heads were plunged into the water and held there for a period of time.

In my opinion, such treatment, especially when involving all troops in a group, regardless of rank, was demeaning to the officers and detrimental to good order and discipline. Administration of simulated “torture” cannot be realistic when the individual knows that he is not going to be harmed or killed. The procedure could also be mentally harmful to those who refused such treatment or who did not undergo the procedure satisfactorily.

It could also provide an opportunity for the exercise by trainers of sadistic impulses.

I prepared a classified report to Marine Corps headquarters in which I expressed my concern and recommended that these procedures be modified.

I do not know what action, if any, was taken on my recommendation. Had Gen. Shoup still been commandant of the Marine Corps and seen my report, he would probably have agreed with it, for he had been the general officer who had investigated the tragedy of “Ribbon Creek,” in which six recruits died during a training march. He had recommended reorganization of recruit training to include closer officer supervision.

My Basic School classmate and friend, Col. Robert Debs Heinl, in his definitive history, Soldiers of Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775-1962, defined “Ribbon Creek” as “the most serious misadventure in its [Marine Corps] history.” He wrote:

“On the evening of 8 April 1956, an overzealous Parris Island drill instructor, who had been drinking while on duty, ordered an unauthorized night march during which six recruits were drowned in Ribbon, a tidal stream in the swamps that border the island.”



Bernard Fall:In 1967, while accompanying a Marine battalion in combat in Vietnam, stepped on a “Bouncing Betty” land mine and was killed. He was dictating notes into his tape recorder, which recorded his last words, “We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight and it smells bad – meaning it’s a little bit suspicious .. Could be an amb…”

Col. George M. Chinn (1902-1987): After my retirement from the Marine Corps, became a close friend. I visited him many times at the Kentucky Historical Society where he encouraged my interest in Kentucky history and aided me in my research. In discussing writing a book, he cautioned me: “Don’t get an editor; they take all the color out!”

Colonel Heinl (1916-1979):My Basic School classmate and friend, a 1937 Yale graduate, he may not have had a commanding military appearance as a second lieutenant. However, by writing the definitive history of our Marine Corps, he established a reputation that will outlast that of his gung-ho contemporaries. He died while vacationing in the Caribbean, presumably drowning while swimming in the surf.


Next: The U.S. in the Vietnam War


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, just off the press, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers,and Remembrances of World Wars,  may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.