In the summer of 1956, when I was 11 years old, I went to see the movie “Away All Boats.” It starred Jeff Chandler who played the captain of the amphibious attack transport, Belinda (APA-22). The movie followed the ship and its crew across the Pacific carrying Marines to their island campaigns.I was so excited to see this movie. The scenes of Marines climbing down the cargo nets suspended along the sides of the the ships excited me stirred up a desire to do something like that. In later years I did not remember much about the movie except for those scenes and the sight of the little boats forming up in circles preparatory to assembling on the line of departure for their trip to the beach. I did not know then that I wanted to a Marine, I just knew that I wanted very much something to do with the heroism, bravery, and sacrifices of those men. Growing up in the years after World War II I heard many tales and adventures from my dad, uncles, and men in the neighborhood. I overheard one man say to a friend, “I met your dad on the beach at Saipan.” That sent shivers down my spine. I wanted to be like these men and do noble deeds.
Ten years later II was a young Marine Lieutenant assigned to the Basic Officers Course at Quantico, VA. One week the training schedule showed a full day blocked out for “Cargo Nets.” I immediately knew what this meant. On the assigned day we fell in with rifles and full gear and proceeded out to the training area. There in front of us was a 20 foot wall with two cargo nets attached. The structure looked huge and presented me with yet another training challenge. I was confident I could climb down the net; climbing up would be something else. With the “encouragement” of the instructors and my comrades I made it up and down several times. I was so concentrated on the instruction “Don’t Look Down” that I did not have time to think of the heavy rifle and pack on my back. This activity prepared us for more fun to come: a live exercise.
The following week we traveled to the Navy base at Norfolk, VA where we boarded the Attack Transport USS Francis Marion (APA-249). We were quickly assigned to quarters. Each space accommodated 50 Marines. The racks were arranged in 6-high tiers. I took the top rack, with the overhead about a foot above me. The space was somewhat private as I had no one above me, although I had 5 guys below me!
. The following morning, the first day of our 3 days of landings, we were awakened at 0600. We proceeded to breakfast at 0630. Breakfast consisted of steak and eggs, the traditional breakfast fed to Marines before a landing. I felt so proud to be part of that tradition as it represented the last meal many Marines would ever have had. By 0800 we were all on deck. I was eager to get to my station early. As I recall, the sky was overcast and a light breeze was blowing. The sea was choppy, and the air felt crisp. The deck was noisy with orders being shouted and sailors running everywhere. I was assigned to debark station Red 1. There are 5 debarcation stations on either side of an APA and each is color coded. Red 1 was the highest station because it was up on the bow. Of course I had to get that one! I and my pals Max Kalletta, Jack Kelly and Pete Kearney were the first ones over the rail. I broke the first rule and looked down into the little boat about 40 feet below me bobbing up and down in the water and banging into the side of the ship. It could have been a mile away! All of a sudden reality hit me, I have to climb down this net and into that little boat. At once I felt nauseous and scared. I did not want to get sea sick and I did not want my fear to show and I certainly did not want to fall off the net. My training kicked in and, with the three others, in an instant, I was over the side. That was a life lesson for me. Fear is dispelled by taking action. Once you get absorbed in doing something, the fear goes away. The descent was easier than I thought. I followed the second training rule which was to climb with my feet and not with my hands. I relied on my feet for weight and position and my hands for balance. And I timed my jump into the boat so I would land on the up roll of the boat on the waves. Before going over the side we were warned to time our leap into the boat with its upward roll. To do otherwise would risk a fall and a broken ankle. Once in the boat, we grabbed the lines fastened to the beam at the end of the net and pull them hard so the net would remain taut and would rest at the bottom of the boat. No sooner did I grab hold of my rope than the net started to fill with Marines. It took all my strength to hold that rope and my side of the net taut as the little Papa boat rose and fell and banged against the side of the ship. The wind and waves had picked up by that time and I was starting to get wet. But as hard as I worked I kept my gear on my back and my rifle on my shoulder.
Once our boat filled with Marines, the coxswain received the order to depart. He proceeded out into the open ocean and formed up with other boats from the Francis Marion in a tight circle which got larger as other boats were joined. The sea was really choppy by this time and we soon got sopping wet. The sound of the loud engines was so noisy that it was almost impossible to be heard so hand signals were used. Once all the boats had joined the circle we proceeded out to form up on the line of departure. Nothing is more thrilling than to see to the right and left boats lined up in a perfectly straight line poised for the order to attack. The waiting seemed forever but at last the signal was given and we proceeded to make our 2,000 yard trip to the beach. The little boat plowed through the chop as it rose and fell on each wave, Water streamed over the gunwales and spray flew over the flat ramp at the forward part of the boat. The bad news was that i was soaked; the good news was that I was not seasick!
When we arrived at the beach, the boat unloaded us in about 5 feet of water and we had to wade the rest of the distance to shore, holding our rifles over our heads. By this time, I was cold, wet, covered with sand, and exhausted. Once ashore we began to execute our training exercise. And have the chance to do it all over again the next day.