I don’t like to swim in the ocean. Sand gets in places it was never meant to be. That may be ironic since I wound up in the Marines. I had never been on any water craft bigger than a 15-foot fishing boat when I joined the Corps in 1958, so I had never experienced sailing on the deep blue. By the time I shipped over to Okinawa I had only flown commercial a couple times on Bonanza Airlines between San Diego and Phoenix – the first time on a DC-3, the second on a small turbo-prop. I hadn’t experienced air sickness either time so I was unprepared for what was ahead.
In late 1959, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, under command of then Lt. Col. Kenneth J. Houghton, departed California on the good ship USS Breckenridge, a WWII single screw troop ship. We immediately hit heavy seas which lasted the entire journey to Japan. We even took our brig-rats. They were simply transferred from the Camp Pendleton brig to the Breckenridge brig to the Okinawa brig to finish their sentences before returning to the battalion. By the second day out we were told that the brig was in ankle deep water, something about a split seam due to heavy weather was how the swabbies explained it. As miserable as I was, I couldn’t help feeling a little pity for those guys.
It wasn’t just the disconcerting feeling of having to look up to see the tops of the 40 foot swells we wallowed through for the entire journey that was bothersome. As the old tub would crest a swell and dive into the next trough, the single prop would come part way out of the water, slapping at it and sending a shudder through the ship. Very few of us weren’t seasick from the start. Even old salt sailors were getting sick. I lived on cr-p from the geedunk for most of the first week because I couldn’t stand in a chow line below decks without throwing up. The routine in chow line, as it stretched out of the mess hall was to stay alert for anyone making a mad dash from their table in an ill-fated attempt to make it topside before giving up whatever food they had managed to swallow. At the cry of “SICK MAN COMING THROUGH” everyone would flatten themselves against the bulkhead and hope the unfortunate soul made it past them before ejection. I was seasick to some degree the entire trip. One of my buddies commented that I really had a weak stomach. “Not so,” I replied. “I can chuck it out there as far as anyone on board.”
Adding to our grief was that the front half of the ship was off limits due to the foul sea conditions for fear of a man being washed over the side. That meant the entire battalion had just half the deck space to attempt to stay out of the stinking below-decks. It didn’t help to see senior staff NCO’s, officers and military family members promenading around an upper deck.
One particular E-4 Sergeant was obnoxious to all us greenies. He was on his second tour and bragged about being a Sea-Marine, having a Med cruise under his belt. He wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t all that unaffected by the rough voyage, but one evening he got his comeuppance. It happened in the heads, which were located under the fantail. He was leaning forward, one hand on the sink, combing his hair when the kid next to him suddenly threw up all over ol’ Salt’s hand. He took one look at his hand, dashed to the closest GI can and puked. Unfortunately for him – and hilarious to all of us who had suffered his taunts – he wore false teeth. Out they popped with dinner, into the can along with the former contents of other stomachs. We heard no more old-salt-talk from him for the rest of the voyage.
What was truly perplexing about the Breckenridge was the design of the toilet system. There were urinals on the wall, yes. But for taking care of the bowels there were long troughs with dual boards spaced down their length for sitting to take care of business. Being a WWII troop ship, I assumed she had been designed by the enemy. Instead of the troughs running port to starboard, they ran fore and aft. The constant flow of sea water used to flush the trough rushed in a wave from one end to the other as the old ship climbed and dived over the sea swells. On the worst days an unthinking Marine who took position on an end seat was most likely to get his butt drenched by the dung-filled sea water as it splashed against the end of the trough. On the best days some wise yahoo might float a ball of toilet paper in the rushing water and set it afire, causing mayhem as it floated down the line of bare butts, causing guys to jump up while still in the process of relieving themselves. Pretty funny – if you didn’t happen to be on one of the seats.
As a note of interest, 3/5 settled in at the brand new base, Camp Schwab, on arrival at Okinawa. Schwab may now become the new home of MCAS Futenma and the shanty village outside the base has apparently become a thriving city.
The old Breckenridge was commissioned in 1945, too late to participate in WWII but was in the mix for both Korean and Vietnam wars. She was decommissioned and sold to a Japanese firm for scrap in 1987. During 3/5’s voyage, I wasn’t sure which of us would be decommissioned first, her or me.
Mar. 1958-Mar 1962