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TOW Platoon, 6th Marine Regiment, Part 1.
In April of 1983 I joined the Marine Corps for the second time. Due to prior military experience I joined as a Sergeant, guaranteed TOW training, and did not have to go through Boot Camp again. I was 32 years old and had received my Bachelor of Science degree in engineering about 10 months earlier but was unable to find a job in the civilian sector. I was sent directly from the transient quarters at Camp Lejeune to Camp Geiger where East Coast ITR (Individual Training Regiment) was conducted. It was actually a part of Camp Lejeune. I felt a little awkward for the first week because I had arrived at Camp Lejeune wearing a three-piece suit and the clothing issue point at Camp Geiger did not have any uniforms available at that time for some reason. So, I stood formation with about a hundred other Marines wearing camouflage utility uniforms, and me in my suit. I was told later that a lot of people thought that I was CID (the military’s Criminal Investigation Division) but how stupid did that make the people that thought that about me? I stood out like a rabbit pellet in a punchbowl. There were four other ‘re-treads’ (prior service people, all ex-Marines) in my ITR Company. The company staff had never had any Marines in the course that had a higher rank than PFC (E-2) so some adjustments to the SOP (standard operating procedures) were necessary.
I was finally given a partial issue of uniforms a few days before training started. I fit in a little better after that. I was not the senior of the three re-tread sergeants in the unit so I deferred to a sergeant that had been an administrative type in the Marine Corps during his previous enlistment. Since the company had NCO trainees, we were expected to handle things like getting ourselves to class on time, by ourselves, etc. That must have made a few people curious, and we did get lost a few times.
Oddly enough, the three of us that were Sergeants wound up in competition for academically. There were a number of tests that we had to take during the course and the three just seemed to form a cluster at the top. These tests had nothing to do with our previous experience and were strictly based on material that we were taught as prospective 0351s (anti-tank assault men). We would not become 0352s (TOW crewmen) until after we were out of training and with our units. I don’t really want to go into all of the confrontations and other strange things that went on there. In the end, the unit took a rare step and awarded two of us Honor Graduate certificates. I was one of the two. The other stayed one step ahead of me during the time we were at 6th Marines.
From ITR we were assigned to TOW Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. My recruiter had told me this would happen and that it would give me an opportunity to transfer to the tanks, which I liked and had had considerable experience with in the Army. For some reason this never happened.
I should probably explain what a TOW is. At this time the Marine Corps had two types of anti-tank guided missiles, the TOW and the Dragon. The TOW was a Tube launched, Optically tracked, Wire guided missile with a range of about 2000 meters and a shaped charge warhead. The original version was marginally man-pack able. Since it was a missile it was relatively recoilless and could be fired from a tripod. Ours were usually mounted on an M151 jeep. The heaviest and most necessary piece of the system was the missile control unit, which was a box about 18 inches high and about two feet on each side. (Thus barely man-pack able). In man-pack configuration there were four other pieces: the tripod, the launch tube cradle, the launch tube and at least one missile. The missile canisters were about four feet long and maybe ten inches in diameter at the end caps. Like the Shillelagh there was a pronounced drop when the missile was expelled from the launch tube. The ‘wire-guided’ part also put some restrictions on where they could be fired. (Don’t fire over water, electrical power cables, etc.) We were told, though, that the TOW, which had been used in Vietnam, could be used to shoot down helicopters. An economically effective idea since helicopters are more expensive than tanks. Anyway, this really isn’t about the missiles.
TOW Company, 2nd Tank Battalion was HUGE. It was supposedly the most deployed unit in the Marine Corps at the time since the Marines were committed to a full time presence in the Mediterranean and each MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit (re-enforced battalion)) required its own TOW platoon of 13 vehicles and 11 - 13 men.
Unfortunately for me, HQMC (Head Quarters Marine Corps) had decided that each Marine Regiment should have its own TOW platoon and the TOW companies would be used to fill in as needed. Once 2nd TOW Company got large enough, it spawned at least three regimental TOW platoons and I was sent to the 6th Marine Regiment where we were attached to Headquarters Company. 6th Marine Regiment fought with distinction during WWI and had been awarded a ‘fouraguerre’ by the French. This is a braided rope that is worn on the left shoulder and predominantly a green that does not match the normal Marine ‘shit brown’ dress uniform. We had to scramble to get enough issued to us for our first inspection.
After that, things went to Hell in a hurry.
We had a small cadre of experienced people from 2nd TOWs but the majority of us were green as grass. The platoon sergeant used to inspect his children’s rooms on Friday nights, just like normal Marine drill, and they did not get to play with their friends over the weekend if they failed the inspection. The platoon commander was a ‘mustang’ (ex-enlisted) whose father was a respected and high-ranking Marine officer. I know that the platoon commander was not respected and I doubt that he ever achieved high rank. The Squad leaders, Staff sergeants, were a mix. One was fat, one was so small that his boots had to be specially made, and the other was . . . different. I was a fire team leader then. I had a jeep with racks for 7 TOW missile reloads and commanded two other jeeps with launchers and racks for three rounds each. (I think)
The jeeps were an interesting story, though. The unit didn’t have 40 jeeps to spare for us so we were issued 40 brand new M151A1 jeeps painted Olive Drab. One of our first tasks was to get the jeeps from the railhead to our vehicle park without getting caught by the military police. I don’t know how we got the first one back, but we probably towed it with a civilian vehicle. After we got it assembled and running we used it to get the second one, etc. We had to borrow tow bars from whomever we could and most of them were designed for 5-ton trucks rather than jeeps, which caused some problems.
We eventually got all 40 of them into the vehicle park and then the fun began. Olive Drab was not an acceptable color for them, but supply could not provide us with the right color of paint to paint them and the base paint shop said we would have to wait about a year before they could get us in. Paint finally appeared from somewhere and we were shown pictures of a template used for camouflage painting M151s. We didn’t have any thinner and the paint was mostly old, so we used gasoline as a thinner. Each jeep crew was allowed some latitude in their interpretation of the template, largely due to lack of adult supervision. (The only difference between the Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts is that the Boy Scouts have adult leaders.) Some of the paint jobs looked terrible to me, but . . .
The attrition started shortly after this. My squad leader was canned due to his weight. And another squad leader disappeared, as far as we knew. This left the odd squad leader who had made sure that his squad was made up entirely from people fresh out of training. The rest of the platoon was a fairly even mix. Then the platoon sergeant went away and the odd squad leader became the platoon sergeant. My competitor at ITR had replaced my squad leader and the second squad leader was a freshly promoted Staff Sergeant who had been in the Water Purification field before changing occupational specialties. He eventually got in trouble while commanding a detachment of our people on guard duty at a large Navy base and we never saw him again after that. I don’t remember who took his place but it wasn’t me.
Our platoon commander was a bit of an alarmist. I have no idea how many times my phone rang at 0200 in the morning and my platoon commander was on the other end telling me to pack my gear because we were heading off to some hot spot. We actually rolled all of the jeeps out a few times, fueled the up, and then sat waiting for hours or days for the word to head for MCAS Cherry Point for air transport to places unknown.
We never went. I think that we spent 14 months in garrison once without ever going even to local training areas. The routine was maddening. Clean small arms. Clean missile systems. Maintain jeeps. Clean small arms. Prepare for Friday inspection.
Sometimes, when relief came, it turned out to be a very mixed blessing. We were mostly armed with pistols because we were not really infantrymen. We got an opportunity once to go out and fire our pistols at a non-qualification type range. We had a new platoon commander by this time. One of the officers that went with us to the range to fire was on loan from the Dutch Royal Marines, and he didn’t like TOW ‘critter’ at all. (It didn’t seem like anyone else at regimental headquarters did either.) He finally blew up when we were about to board the buses to go back to the barracks and harangued us for at least 10 minutes about or lacks. In his eyes we lacked just about everything. Our new platoon commander was highly irate, both about his actions and ours. I was still a lowly squad leader at the time and I didn’t see where we had disgraced ourselves more than any other similar group of totally un-trained people would have.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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