An Incident at Parris Island
April in South Carolina isn’t so bad. Winters are awful and summers too hot but we didn’t appreciate the cool, wet weather of April. We were miserable. Nobody had told us how we would be treated in 1944 as new recruits at Parris Island. It was a rude awakening. We had asked to become Marines, being driven by the overwhelming spirit of patriotism that the war had engendered in all my friends in high school, so we couldn’t blame any one but ourselves.
Although we were nearing the halfway point of our boot camp training what was really expected of us had not yet sunk in. It was mid-morning, cool and drizzly, and we were on a corner of the parade ground next to our barracks doing bayonet drill. Our drill instructor (DI), Sgt. Horvath, was standing on the sidewalk that bordered the parade ground watching as our Assistant DI, PFC. Czech, was leading our drill.
We were in two lines facing each other with bayonets fixed on our M1 rifles but with the bayonets in their scabbards. We were wearing dungarees with no jackets, only our green undershirts, and pith helmets for head cover. Our drill consisted of both opposing lines thrusting and lunging at each other and parrying when ordered by PFC Czech. So it was “Thrust”, “Lunge”, “Parry”, “Retreat”, over and over again. Even though the scabbards covered the blades of our bayonets, there were a lot of bleeding knuckles but nobody dared complain.
Neither of our DIs noticed that another person had approached and was standing and watching. He was tall and slender and wore a khaki uniform with some ribbons and a fore and aft cap as headgear. For some reason that I still to this date don’t know, the Marines call this cap a piss cutter as differing from the garrison cap that has a leather sun visor. He also had metal ornaments on the cap and collars that indicated he was an officer but I had no idea what kind.
After watching us for a few minutes he stepped out toward Czech and said, “Excuse me, can I demonstrate something?” Our startled DI snapped to attention and, forgetting to call all the rest of us to attention, saluted and stuttered, “Yes sir, of course sir.”
The officer walked up to one of the boots and, taking his M1 by the fore stock, asked, “May I?” The poor boot, scared stiff, nodded and let go of the rifle. The officer set the rifle down, removed the scabbard from the bayonet and placed it on the ground. Then he handed the rifle back to the petrified boot. Next he turned to another boot, grasped his rifle and asked again, “May I?” On receiving another nod the officer took the rifle and, leaving the scabbard on this one alone, he turned to the first boot and said, “Come on, let’s you and I do a little drill.”
He made the boot with the bare bayonet face him and they both stood there with their rifles at port arms. “OK,” he said. “Now I want you to thrust and lunge at me as quick and as hard as you can. I want you to try and kill me!”
We all stood aghast. The poor boot was frozen still. “Come on. Come on. Try to kill me. That’s an order.” said the officer, his voice starting to rise. When the boot still didn’t move, the officer roared at him, shouting and berating him until, suddenly, the kid, his face white as a ghost and grimacing, pointed the rifle, thrust it forward and started to lunge, the point of the bare bayonet aimed directly at his opponent's chest. At that instant, we heard a loud, ear wrenching, blood curdling scream and the poor boot was so startled he dropped the rifle which clattered to the pavement. The officer, who we suddenly realized had been the one who’d screamed, reached forward with his M1, gently tapped the boot on the chest with the scabbard and said, “You’re dead.”
He handed the rifle back to the boot he’d taken it from and then launched into an impromptu lecture. In very clear and certain terms he explained why we were at Parris Island and what was expected of us. He told us that our DI’s were training us to kill someone – an enemy of our country – whose only intent was to kill us. This was no game; one of us – the enemy or us – was not coming home alive. It was our duty to be the one who lives. We were therefore to do nothing else but learn how to kill while staying alive. He told us there would be times we would win and others when we would have to retreat but in the latter event, we would bring our wounded and, if at all possible, our dead home with us. That our greatest duty was to the Marine next to us and that when told to do so we would always move toward the enemy and fight him or, if the situation called for it, stay in place at all costs and protect our fellow Marines. He then thanked us for wanting to be Marines, reminded us to take care of each other, wished us good fortune and walked away.
There was dead silence until someone asked, “Who was that?” Sgt Horvath, still looking somewhat stunned, a condition we’d never seen him in before, finally answered us. “That was Lieutenant Colonel Biddle. Some of you may have heard of him; he developed the Biddle "System" of close combat"
We were later told that LtCol Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Sr. was based at Parris Island at the time. He had been an expert boxer, also in hand-to-hand combat and the use of the bayonet and had a reputation as something of an eccentric in the Corps. I was never able to make sure it was indeed him but, of this I’m sure, we all grew up that day; we lost our youth, the hoopla of super-patriotism was gone, the bands had stopped playing and the flags had stopped waving and the realty of what we were about to do awoke in each of us. Some years later I heard that Pfc. Czech was killed at Iwo Jima in 1945.