VAN STOCKUM: Part 4: 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 a final installment of a 4-part series, a lieutenant detached to the USS Tennessee shares the dance floor – and the party scene – with some famous names both in and out of service.

By Ron Van Stockum

Shortly after arriving back at San Pedro in May, 1939, I was detached from the Tennessee and ordered to report to the Marine Corps Base in San Diego. There I joined Company D, the machine gun company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.


I have been chronicling the early years of a Marine Corps career that began with my commissioning as a second lieutenant in 1937, upon graduation from the University of Washington, including descriptions of the Panama Canal, Bermuda, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and, at some length, New York.

As I have shared these highlights, I have quoted liberally and transcribed literally the impressions I recorded in my Marine Corps Journal, now in the archives of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

quoted liberally and transcribed literally the impressions I recorded in my journal.

And now, as I conclude these memories, I do so with my billet in Southern California, where a change in address didn’t mean a change in edification.

So, while busying myself with company duties, I did not neglect Hollywood and my social life, as an excerpt from my journal indicates:

“Had a very enjoyable evening with Flo [Epler] , taking her to the Trocadero on Sunset Blvd. There was quite a turnout of the stars there and we found ourselves rubbing elbows on the dance floor with many of the following who were present: Constance Bennett, Joan Bennett, Ann Sheridan, Toby Wing, Dolores del Rio, Kay Francis, Alice Fay, Martha Ray, Loretta Young, Wendy Barrie, Dorothy Lamour, Gilbert Roland, Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart, Lew Lehr, Charles Ruggles, Cesar Romero, Alan Mowbray, Tom Brown, Edgar Bergen.”

In retrospect, as I read this entry, I am amazed that it was possible for a second lieutenant and his date to mingle so easily with Hollywood stars who were so prominent at the time. Anyone willing to pay a high “cover” charge was welcome.


So long, Flo

Two month’s later. I was startled to receive a telegram from Flo, dated Aug. 11, 1939, which read as follows:


I should have anticipated this message, for on a recent visit to the Eplers’ home, I had seen a large wall painting by Flo’s sister, Venetia, an accomplished artist, later to be nationally renowned. It showed a handsome man (Bob?) on a horse, riding off with a young lady (Flo) in his arms.

In the days before the war, second lieutenants, such as my classmates and I, were not allowed to marry until we had completed two years of commissioned service, which in my case would have been July 1, 1939. This stricture was providential, especially with an impending world war, during which I would spend a year and a half at sea and 2 years in the South Pacific.

In fact, enlisted men were forbidden to marry until they reached the non-commissioned rank of Staff Sergeant (E-5), when they would be eligible for special allowances. I well remember an outstanding Marine, Sgt. Whatley, who, having married, was ineligible to re-enlist. Every effort was made to obtain a waiver but to no avail. We lost a great leader.


Possible war interrupts romance

Although Florence’s telegram had a devastating immediate effect, life would go on. In a week, I met Peggy Vogel, the attractive and personable daughter of Brig. Gen. Barney Vogel, the hard-bitten base commander.

Soon the lives of all of us would be dramatically changed. I quote from my Marine Journal:

“3 September 1939

“2:20 a.m.Having just returned from an enjoyable Saturday evening at the club with Peggy Vogel, I tuned in on KFI to hear Prime Minister Chamberlain’s fateful message at 0215 declaring a state of War to exist between Great Britain and Germany. There had been no reply to England’s ultimatum that Germany announce her intentions of leaving Poland by 1100 3 September (British time). How small all my little troubles, joys, and sorrows seem by contrast.

“Now Great Britain, France and Poland face Germany. It seems to me that Hitler will surely be defeated finally. How soon will depend upon the allies he can muster. Of the possible allies – Italy may stay neutral as she did in the last war until an indication is given of who is most likely to win; Russia, despite its trade agreements with the Reich, has opposed the Nazi’s a long time; Japan is a little upset because of Germany’s agreement with the Reds; Turkey is with the British. It looks to me that der fuehrer is really on the spot – that spot being marked by the swastika. [I had drawn a swastika here].”

After Britain’s declaration of war against Hitler, combat seemed more ominous, and our military training assumed a new urgency. However, social life at the Marine Barracks continued unabated.


Comedians and heroes

On Oct. 28, 1939, I took Peggy Vogel to the Halloween masquerade dance at the officers’ club. Shofner, Burriss, Shea and I, with our dates, made quite a stir as, dressed as seven convicts and a “Keystone Kop,” we lock-stepped into the club. Having like the others, fortified myself for the occasion, I, as the Cop, may have used my “Bobby Club” a little too liberally that evening!

Austin Shofner, captured in the Philippines in 1942, survived the Bataan Death March. Later, he escaped and served as a guerrilla in the Japanese-occupied Philippines and was highly decorated.

Zedford Burris, one of my brightest classmates, was to die during the war when an explosive device he kept in a desk drawer accidently exploded.

Harry Shea, my roommate in Philadelphia and in San Diego, was accidently shot in a delicate place by one of his own men during combat in the Pacific. Returning from the latrine (“head” in Navy/Marine parlance) at night, wearing a Japanese raincoat he had picked up on the battlefield, he was mistaken for the enemy. It must have been embarrassing for him later to explain how he earned his Purple Heart.

Maj. John W. Thomason, a hero in the Marine Brigade in World War I and a nationally renowned writer of military books and magazine articles, was present for the masquerade. Dressed in an authentic Russian Cossack costume, he stood unsteadily on a chair to offer a toast to the Corps and promptly collapsed.


A mountain to climb

I took a month’s leave commencing June 20, 1940, a week after Paris, half a world away, succumbed to the German “Blitzkrieg.” On June 21, I climbed Mount Whitney in California, the highest peak in the United States, at 14,505 feet. (In 1959, after the admission of Alaska, Mount McKinley, at 20,320, became the highest.)

From Lone Pine I drove 13 miles to Whitney Portal, parked my car, and took a 3-mile switchback trail to Outpost Camp (altitude: 10,300 feet), where I spent the night.

Next morning at two, another climber and I started our climb by moonlight. At noon we were on top, having walked 9 miles in the process of climbing 4,000 feet.

My journal records:

“The snow field which led to Whitney Pass covered the trails and practically ‘defeated us.’ At 12,000 and 13,000 feet, a 60˚slope is difficult to climb. We were too tired to take many pictures at the top and slid down in about three hours.”

Whitney is not a difficult climb; the principal problem is the “thin” air at that altitude.

The following month, on July 16, I climbed Mount Hood in Oregon, with a party of four, led by an experienced guide. This was an easy climb of 10 hours duration over snow most of the way to the top, 11,485 feet.

The weather was perfect and the trip was made more interesting by the guide’s explanations of the phenomena of the formation of the mountain. He had guided some 70 parties to the top.

Having started this series on a mountaintop in Washington, wondering how I could descend, I now bring it to an end, again on a mountain top.


Ron Van Stockum’s latest book, Remembrances of World Wars, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm and Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, may be purchased at Terhune Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center or from Amazon.com.