Issue 103, Summer 1987
Captain Hipp and his background made me ever more fascinated by a theory I had often played with. Which was: you didn’t have to be a Southerner to be a good marine, but it certainly did no harm. There were too many feisty Irish kids from Boston and tough-handed Midwestern farm boys who had risen through the ranks to make the Corps a preserve, as it were, of Dixieland. But I suspected that there was no American organization remotely its size where a Southerner felt so completely at home, or where he could become a star with so little ill-feeling or prejudice. Or where, proportionately, the good ole boys had risen so high. Salute a divisional commanding general out there and over half the time you saluted a Southerner—Gen. Cates from Tennessee, Erskine (“the Big E,” they called him) from Louisiana, Howlin’ Mad Smith from Alabama, Lem Shepherd from Virginia. The revered Commandant, Archie Vandegrift, was a Virginian, as was the toughest son of a bitch ever to wear a Marine uniform—my fellow creature of the Tidewater, Chesty Puller, whose house in Saluda I used to gaze on with reverence when, at the beginning of the war, I passed it on the way to school. Puller, who possessed—unimaginably—four Navy Crosses, was said to hate second lieutenants (especially reserves) so intensely that he had actually eaten several. Which might have been a joke, but then again—no. During the battle of Peleliu, it had been reliably reported. Colonel Puller called some college dunce of a platoon leader into his tent and the lad seen again. Where but into his gullet?
Terrified as I might have been of such a commanding officer—during the period not so long before when I was virtually lacking in terror—I would have felt myself lucky to serve under him, for he was a marine par excellence, and I would have been a liar if I had not freely admitted that there was a part of me that responded to such a paragon with admiration. Each one of these gentlemen had the Civil War somewhere in his background (as did I), they all went to V.M.I, or Annapolis or The Citadel or otherwise prepared themselves for the Marines in the conviction that a military career was a noble calling—as noble as the clergy or the law or medicine—and I was witness to the fact that many such Southern professionals, contrary to popular opinion, spoke in gentle voices, drank abstemiously, alluded respectfully to women, and sternly refrained from using the four-letter words they were teethed on. Hipp, born of a somewhat younger generation, was looser in his language but was of the Old School in spirit. It was no accident that that night, in the process of analyzing my platoon’s disaster on Okinawa, Hipp invoked the name Longstreet. With only a small stretch of the imagination I could see Hipp himself, blond-bearded, hair in ringlets, sword upthrust, braving the Yankee brimstone and lead at Chickamauga.
Likewise the colonel who delivered our death warrant soon after this. His name was Hankins and he was Operations Officer of the division. Unlike the Army or the Navy, the Marine Corps has never emphasized pretty-boy officers. Fiercely ugly and redfaced, with blemishes that helped make him look a little like Sinclair Lewis, he was a Mississippian and as mournful and lean as a buzzard. He spoke in the stately periods of a man accustomed to reading the Bible, Kipling, and the Reader’s Digest. Why I expected someone more sprightly I didn’t know, unless it was the festive nature of the place in which the division officers gathered, the huge amphitheater where Deanna Durbin bad aroused the troops with her chaste bodice and high C’s, where Bob Hope and Red Skelton had worked what the P.R. flacks had called their “side-splitting wizardry,” and where—as the entrance sign announced—Kay Kyser would arrive, if all went well, the following Wednesday, along with his entire Kollege of Musical Knowledge, Ginny Sims, Ish Kabibble, plus Wee Bonnie Baker, “the Oh, Johnny! girl.” The two beers which had become my customary comfort after breakfast contributed to the insanity I felt. I said (a little too loudly), “Jesus Christ—for this shit we’re going to shed our precious blood?” Which I could tell puzzled, and perhaps annoyed, Fulcher and Belcher who were my companions. I think they still regarded me with respect and perhaps even a touch of awe, believing that I was combat-hardened and not having been there long enough to know my Secret Shame—they would learn soon enough.