VAN STOCKUM: Part 1: Recollections From A Marine Corps Career

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A military officer isn’t always fighting, and there’s plenty to see and learn in the downtime. In part one of a 2-part series, a western officer goes east.

By Ron Van Stockum

Combat is the primary challenge of a Marine, in fact the raison d’etre of any fighting service, but there are long periods of conditioning and training between battles, providing opportunities for new experiences, many unique to those in the military.


As an honor graduate of the University of Washington’s Army ROTC program, I was offered a commission as a second lieutenant in the regular U.S. Marine Corps, effective July 1, 1937, a week before my 21st birthday. However, approval of military commissions that year were delayed in the Senate.

While waiting for my commission to arrive, I was persuaded by a group of experienced mountain climbers to join them for a climb of Sloan Peak (elevation 7,824) in the nearby Cascades. For a novice like I was, this climb was a challenge, and I reached the peak only by being pulled up on a rope by my comrades. I do recall, when I had reached the top, contemplating the descent with some trepidation and wondering how I would ever get down to accept my commission in the Marine Corps.

If the Internet had been available in 1937, perhaps I would not have undertaken this venture.  It is described as the “Matterhorn of the Cascades" for its sharp, high peak.

I did descend successfully. A few days later my commission arrived, and I was sworn in as a second lieutenant.  I then served as a commissioned officer in the regular US Marine Corps until retirement in 1967, 30 years later, as a brigadier general. 

I shall describe some of my non-combat duties, experiences, and observations during this period.

Having been ordered immediately to report to the Marine Officers Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, I took the train from Seattle, riding on coaches for more than four days to save on my travel allowance. My family had been imbued with frugality, having struggled to survive the Great Depression, from which the country was slowly recovering.

At the basic school I joined 81 other second lieutenants for nearly a year’s training, which has been described in earlier columns.


Westerner in Wonderland

I had never been on the East Coast of the United States, and on weekends, accompanied my fellow officers, I visited downtown Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other nearby locations, to view historic sites and museums and to attend plays and other events.

My first impressions of the East Coast cities were recorded in my hand-written journal, maintained during my first five years in the Marine Corps, 1937-42. 

It is now in the possession of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, which has granted me authorization to quote from it. By quoting from this written record – as it originally appeared – I hope to reproduce the wonderment of a 21-year-old second lieutenant.



September 7, 1937: Another new experience.  Saw my first big league game yesterday (Labor Day).  The A’s lost a double header to the Yanks 3-6,1-2.  Joe Dimagio knocked his 40th home run for the capacity crowd.  .   .   .  .  I also took my first ride in the subway.

September 26, 1937: Went out the Parkway with Lantz and Glick.  Went through Rodin Museum where are displayed the works of that great sculptor, Rodin, whom I had never before heard of.

We paid 25 cents for admission to the Franklin Institute, a “wonderland of science.” They have all sorts of relics, examples of mechanical stages of man.  There is a complete Baldwin 10 wheel drive locomotive there, Wright brothers plane, Amelia Earheart’s plane that crossed the ocean.  Perhaps someday they will have the “Bremen” on display hanging from the ceiling.”

November 6, 1937: This afternoon (Saturday) I visited the huge public library and the art museum.  The latter is a beautiful building that sits Acropolis fashion on a knoll, a mile from the city hall on the Parkway.  I can’t remember having seen a more beautiful edifice.  The dozens of rooms on the second floor are given over to architecture of different localities and different dates.  It was a strange feeling to walk into a “room of the past.”  I was very interested in a display of sketches by Daumier, of whom I had never before heard.  His works were mostly cartoons and caricatures of life and people of his time.

November 13, l937: Last Thursday evening Lantz, Shea, and I attended a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stokowski directing.  Our $1.75 seats were up in the second balcony (Family Circle), but we were close to the stage and could see and hear well.  I imagine ticket prices are higher for certain seats, not necessarily because one can see better, but because one can be seen better.

I really enjoyed the performance.  The day being 11 November, Stokowski played the National Anthem.  It was a great pleasure to hear a real orchestra play the “Star Spangled Banner.”

10 November was the Marines 162nd birthday.  The Marines have had a glorious history in which we basic school students have played no part.  However, our class can be counted on to carry on with the traditions.  If we ever come under fire, and we surely will sometime, we will die before disgracing the Corps. [Many of my classmates did die heroic deaths.]



January 16, 1938: First we visited Arlington National Cemetery and saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Lee’s home in particular and the graves of thousands in general.

We next visited the Lincoln Memorial, a place familiar to me from the pictures I have seen of it.  It is a huge building surrounded by thirty-six pillars representative of the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death.  It contains a huge statue of the Civil War president seated, flanked by his two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.

Of course I had to take an elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.  From up in the air over 500 feet the city appeared as if viewed from an airplane.

I spent the whole afternoon on the Smithsonian grounds.  The most interesting thing about the Smithsonian building proper was the edifice itself.  It looks like a medieval castle with its tower and spires.

It’s useless for me to try to describe the Arts and Industries Building; my vocabulary lacks superlatives enough.  I was interested mainly in the historical and military exhibits.  There are uniforms of all countries and all times on display.  Likewise there is a wonderful collection of swords and other arms, especially from the time of the World War.  The citations received by the 5th and 6th Marines from the French as well as a large scale plan of the Belleau Wood area are also on display.

Name an industry, any important industry.  A scale model of its technique of manufacture may be seen, perhaps a life size exhibit.  Do you want to see how bees make honey?  Over here on the right is a glass passageway through which the bees enter and leave their glass enclosed hive.  Are you interested in ships, ceramics, photography, medicine, costumes, history, coins, stamps industry?  You can spend hours, perhaps days, studying the exhibits in your special field.  Of course I have not done this building of the institute justice; it would take volumes from a real writer to do so.

Before I forget, I must mention the series of historical originals in the A. and I. buildings, I believe.  I was very much impressed by seeing famous paintings of our famous men in history, copies of which I have often seen before.

Saturday I had time only to see the main floor of the Natural History Museum but I finished my tour of it Sunday afternoon.  I walked around these buildings nearly in a trance, I was so much awed by the wonders I saw.  Some of the highlights there are: skeletons of prehistoric monsters, wax models of uncivilized peoples, huge stone relics, model of 78’ foot whale, skeletons and stuffed exhibits of everything imaginable.  Everything is on a grand proportion.  I was very much interested in the National Gallery of Art, especially in the works of Abbott Thayer, whose paintings were easy to recognize because of the presence of his wife and/or children in many.  I saw extremely life like portrait sketches of World War soldiers by John Elliot, paintings of Pershing, King Albert, and many other world war heroes by Douglas Volk, Johansen, and others.  One entire room was devoted to full length group portraits of Civil War survivors painted in uniform fifty years after.  To my amateur eye, a full length portrait of George V by Salisbury was magnificent.  This ends a superficial summary of the displays of the third building I visited on the grounds.

I spent two hours this morning in the Freer Gallery of Art.  It contains a unique collection of Far Eastern Art but of more interest to me were the American exhibits.  A group of paintings by Whistler filled two rooms.  They were all interesting, but one of the clearest was “The Music Room.”  “The Peacock Room” which has been transported from Leyland’s home (whoever he was) and was the subject of a Leyland-Whistler argument was most interesting.  The best painting, again my amateurish opinion, is Blossom Time by Metcalf – a beautiful landscape with a meandering [stream] in which a boy is fishing.

The Freer Art Gallery is air conditioned so that excess moisture in the air will not aid deterioration of the paintings.

I mustn’t fail to remark that there are many airplanes suspended from the ceiling in the Arts and Industries bldg, the “Spirit of St. Louis” and the “Winne Mae,” among them.  The exhibits in the different buildings overlap somewhat.  Beautiful paintings are abundant in all of them.


Coming up: More days stateside