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VAN STOCKUM: Part 2: Recollections From A Marine Corps Career

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Popping the cork on new experiences

By Ron Van Stockum

Combat is the primary challenge of a Marine, but there are many days when fighting is far from the primary agenda.

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In the first days of a 30-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, I was dispatched to the Marine Officers Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, my first trip east from my home in Washington state.

I got a chance to learn much, and for five years I recorded these memories in a journal that now is part of the Filson Historical Society.

With permission of Filson, here are some of my non-combat duties, experiences, and observations during this period.

The entries are published as they were then, to show you the wonderment of a 21-year-old second lieutenant.

 

NEW YORK CITY

February 2, 1938: After the last class on Friday, I left with A. J. Stuart on my way to N.Y. It was a beautiful day. We took the skyline route to the Holland Tunnel, under the Hudson to N.Y. “Jeb” drove up Riverside Drive on his way to Boston, letting me off at about 50th St. There at seven P.M. I landed in the Big City. I took a bus to Broadway and walked down that famous street to Times Square. I was certainly not disappointed at the electric signs there. It was as light as day on the great white way. Had my first glimpse of the famous Wrigley sign.

After orienting myself I arrived at the 23d St. “Y” by a couple of bus rides and checked in there on the eighth floor. After that, I took a Fifth Avenue Bus up above 50th, walked over to Broadway and returned on that street. Walked by Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and noticed Madison Square Garden – near W 50 and 8th Ave, I believe.

Transportation is very cheap in N.Y. A nickel will take a person almost anywhere by subway, elevated, or surface lines. I went to Macy’s famous department store, from there up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Art Museum at 82nd. We spent only a couple of hours in that most interesting building; certainly no words of mine can do it justice.

We then went to the magnificent Radio City Music Hall and saw the picture “Tom Sawyer.” On the stage the Music Hall Ballet Group performed as well as the famous “Rockettes,” precision dancers, who introduced Billy Kelley and the girl who played with him in the picture. We saw a three-hour top notch performance for only 77 cents in that huge theater.

Last night Clark and I attended a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. From our elevated position in the last row of “Family Circle” at the Academy of Music, we trained our field glasses on the stage. Ballets presented were “Jeux d’]nfants” (Childrens Games), Choreartium, and Prince Igor. We are both tremendously impressed with the beauty and grace of dances (and dancers).

 

BOSTON

 

April 16, 1938: This afternoon went to Harvard “U,” looked around, visited Agassiz collection of glass flowers.

Pel and a couple of his friends met me at Harvard Square and drove me to Bunker Hill monument. There we heard a little boy speak his piece of the history of the monument for one thin dime, walked the 284 steps to the top. We then proceeded to the Navy Yard, noticing the Constitution (Old Ironsides) at dock.

 

NEW YORK CITY

April 25, 1938: Friday after liberty shoved off for N. Y. with Adelmann and King in latter’s Ford. Made fair time and by 7:30 was established in a room at Sloane “Y,” 9th and 34th, a good place to stay. Took bus down 34th to 5th Avenue that eve. Not being in uniform, had to pay $1.10 to get to 102nd floor of Empire State Bldg. (about 1/c per floor). Was surprised at the speed of the elevators. My ears popped – something they don’t do on the more gradual ascent of mountains. From observation roof, saw nearly all of Manhatten lighted up. “Bremen” could be seen at dock, getting up steam for her midnight departure. Took some experimental photos.

May 25, 1938: Spent most of the weekend planning to pack and actually packing. Having nothing else to do Sunday afternoon, I drove to N. Y. to get a last glimpse of the big city. Spent most of my time there wandering around. Took boat to Bedloes Island but could not get inside Statue of Liberty – being repaired. (In fact, I disregarded a “keep out” sign and stumbled over some two-by-fours blocking the passage-way in order to determine if it were impossible to get up in said statue. It was.) Going up to N. Y. Heinl was hauled in for speeding, plead “guilty without criminality” to no avail – fine $7.

PHILADELPHIA

May 1, 1938: The night before being the last time all the boys at our table would probably dine together, I surprised them all by buying two bottles of Champagne. Drank a glass and a half of it myself but still prefer ginger ale. [Thus I departed the ranks of teetotallers and quite soon lost my taste for ginger ale! Thereafter, my tablemate Bob Heinl called me “Champagne Van.”]

 

On to new assignments

We had completed our formal classes at the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia, where we had dined together for nearly a year at the Officers Club. Our remaining two weeks of the basic school course would be spent at the rifle range at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. In those days, every Marine, enlisted or officer, cook or battalion commander, was required to qualify annually firing the old M1903 Springfield clip-loaded rifle on a very demanding course.

We then, pursuant to official orders, fanned out to our next duty stations, at sea, at home, or abroad. I would proceed to San Pedro, Calif., to join the Marine Detachment of the battleship, USS Tennessee. I was pleased to learn that the Commanding Officer of the Basic School had recommended that I be assigned to the ship in which he had served many years before.

Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., one of the two or three intellectuals in our class, was well-liked and respected, but we never expected him to become one of the greatest historians ever to write about our Corps.

Later, through his many books, including Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775–1962, he established a lasting reputation. Soldiers of the Sea, nearly 700 pages in length, is a definitive history of our Corps, carrying a Foreword by pre-eminent military historian B. H. Liddell-Hart.

Tragically, Bob Heinl (1916-79) drowned, while vacationing in the Caribbean. He was only 62 and at the peak of his productivity.

 

Aboard USS Tennessee

May 25, 1938: Spent a busy day 23 May getting cleared from the [Naval] yard and finishing packing. When I came to Philly I brought my worldly possessions in one small, dilapidated army locker and a suitcase. When I left it took two large foot lockers, three packing boxes, and two pieces of hand luggage to contain all my uniforms, etc.