My assignment at the Naval Air Station, Coronado, California, consisted of a host of routine responsibilities. Our guard company of Marines, provided total security for the base, as well as the very important, very secret, nuclear warheads, stored in concrete and steel bunkers on the other side of the island. For a junior Marine, the overall intensity of my duties was heady indeed. I considered my tour of duty at North Island as just short of heaven, even though it was in a Naval Facility. My first duty station out of boot camp was at the Naval Station brig in San Diego. A more brutal place I had never experienced, at least at the tender age of seventeen. I suspect that I had angered the Sea School recruiter when he stopped me immediately after boot camp graduation, offering me a highly coveted position within his unit as a guard aboard Navy ships. At that time, my plans were in limbo. I felt that I wanted more, but had no earthly idea what turning down that recruiter would eventually mean to my career and life in general. I was about to find out.
By the time I realized what was happening, my rejection of the Sea School offer had resulted in my being given some of the worst, most dangerous and hateful duty possible within the Marine Corps, i.e., the brig in San Diego. Those Sea School recruiters were considered “Top Drawer” Marines, and turning down duty with one of their units aboard ships was simply not done. Truly, it was made clear to me that I had made a mistake of gigantic proportions. Well, I humbly sucked up my blunder, having learned a valuable lesson in Marine Corps etiquette, and reported for duty at the brig. In the interim, I learned a lot about dutifully accepting whatever assignment was offered (given), regardless of personal preference. I had witnessed the treatment of some of the most sadistic Marines possible, as they tortured and maimed the prisoners that they didn’t like. I had no desire to follow in their footsteps. I became aware of a position opening up across the bay, at the Naval Air Station, and immediately applied for a transfer. Very pleasantly surprised, I was selected for the job and wasted no time in reporting for duty at my new assignment. My entire life, both military and civilian, changed with that important decision.
During WWI, U.S. Marines fought alongside the French troops so ferociously at Belleau Wood, that they nicknamed us “Devil Dogs” and, over time, we have gratefully accepted that title with honor. Consequently, our Marine Barracks complement at North Island had previously been given special permission to keep a mascot. Actually, this particular mascot had been in residence for as long as anyone could remember, and was quite famous throughout most of the Marine Corps, especially in San Diego. It seemed a bit strange at first, living with an English Bulldog named “Gunny Grip.” The Gunny was his own man, er, dog, and did pretty much what he wanted to do, and when he wanted to do it. No one questioned his status. Before I arrived at North Island, Gunny Grip had been billeted in, and was allowed total freedom in roaming our barracks at will, day and night. There was no doghouse or kennel for the Gunny; he lived with us. Although never straying very far from the barracks, or the mess hall, he had a daily route which he followed and knew by heart. He rarely deviated from it. Our Marines handled all of his immediate needs, whatever they might be. At times, I would have sworn he knew which color of bus to take in selecting the correct one going to and from the mess hall. Its placard was blue, identifying it as the “Blue Bus.”
Gunny Grip had been installed as mascot by a previous C.O., and no one had the guts, or the heart, to challenge his appointment. He had always been a source of pride for our Marine Barracks, and that, of course, meant that Gunny was a full-fledged Marine in good standing, and was therefore accorded all of the honors and privileges associated with his rank. With Gunnery Sergeant Grip’s over twelve years in service, he proudly wore three hash marks to prove it. Throughout his time in service, whenever he became eligible for promotion, the current C.O. would assemble the entire guard company and present him with a new dress blue uniform, complete with his new rank sewn onto the back of it, and a Marine Corps insignia sewn onto his chest, of course in Marine Corps colors, red and gold. You might be tempted to laugh, but I assure you, no one else did.
Now, with Gunny Grip being a Gunnery Sergeant, you might think that he had been trained to follow orders. However, due to him being salty (having served for a long time), the Gunny had discovered a long time ago that none of our barracks complement had the rank, longevity, or reason to question or correct him about anything whatsoever. Oh, he wouldn’t actually pull rank and bite you, but his success was in the fact that you had no way of knowing that. If the Gunny was doing something that could possibly harm himself, or others, one of the Marines might have to temporarily intervene and rescue him from a situation that could be harmful in some manner; perhaps like an errant sailor teasing him.
Let me be clear, the Gunny generally behaved himself and minded his own business; although occasionally, some smartass sailor might encroach on the Gunny’s personal space, or his person, causing a problem. If a Marine was near, it was left to him to correct any wrong done, and “educate” the sailor concerning proper etiquette in dealing with a full Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps. Of course, the Gunny had his own, very effective avoidance strategy, as he could willfully fart on cue. Once exposed to that punishment, you never repeated your mistake. When standing inspections, or going across the base to the mess hall, were the only times the Gunny wore his dress blues uniform, however, when he was wearing it, no one bothered him; at least no one who knew who he was. One of our regular duties was controlling the ingress and egress through our perimeter gates to the outside world. If we caught a sailor misbehaving, we were in a position to give him a very hard time, especially if he was attempting to go on liberty. You might be lulled into thinking that the Gunny’s rank was all a joke, but I can tell you that he had been adopted by our entire barracks as our official “Gunnery Sergeant,” and that honor was respected by our entire complement of Marines.
He had been doing his job long enough that he knew, and seemed to understand, what guard mount and inspections were all about. He would fall into ranks right along with everyone else. Generally, no one ever called him by his full, official name, “Gunnery Sergeant Grip,” as we always simply addressed him by the shortened, “Gunny Grip. Therefore, during roll call when his full name was called, the Gunny had been taught to answer with a loud “woof,” signifying that he was indeed present. When we were called to “Attention,” he immediately rose from a sitting, to standing position. I’m not assigning any sort of mystic powers to the Gunny, but if you’d seen him in action, I think you’d have to agree. I had a difficult time when I first arrived at North Island, believing what I was seeing. The Gunny always lived up to his rank and position. He would occasionally allow someone to scratch him behind the ears, or help him with his uniform, if he liked the smell of the person, but other than that he discouraged most physical contact. He had a certain “look” when he was displeased, or if he didn’t like a particular situation, he would simply wander off to be alone. Although, if he felt the situation called for it, he would exude flatulence near that person... and problem solved. The smell was palpable. When that happened, you knew you had done something wrong, and had been duly chastised for it.
Near to our regular mealtimes, the Corporal of the guard would help the Gunny with his uniform, whereas the Gunny would walk to the bus stop, sit in the shade of a tree, and wait patiently for the “Blue” bus. The “Blue” bus was the only one of about six cattle-car buses displaying different colored plaques identifying which route each bus would be taking on that particular day. The “Blue” bus was always identified as the one going closest to the mess hall. Gunny Grip would board the bus, ride to his destination and get off. If any of the numerous sailors attempted to pet him, or otherwise disrupt him in his quest, a sideways glance and deep, guttural growl made them think better of their overt actions.
The Gunny would exit the bus, find a shady spot near the back door of the mess hall and patiently wait. He never waited for long, before the mess Chief brought his breakfast, or supper. He always had something good for the Gunny to eat when he got off the bus. If the Gunny didn’t like someone riding with him, or if he was displeased about something, he would sidle up to that person and squeeze out another fart. Most sailors knew to give him a wide berth. Occasionally, when wandering the halls and inspecting the rooms, as if he were the Sergeant of the Guard looking for the misdeeds of miscreants, he always ended up at the Corporal of the Guard’s desk. After his inspections were complete, and the barracks activity began winding down for the evening, the Gunny would curl up on a special mattress and blanket in the storage room, and could often be heard crunching on a bone that the mess chief had dropped off on his way home.
Our rooms were generally closed in the wintertime, in order to hold in the warmth, so the Gunny often slept at the Corporal of the Guard’s desk, or on the couch in the warm T.V. room. If he had to pee, the Corporal of the Guard would escort him in and out of the barracks. We had a cordoned off grassy area, which was used exclusively for his needs. His all-around self-discipline was truly amazing to watch. At some point, someone had taught him what was expected of him, i.e., his regular duties, and how to perform them. The only breakdown in that discipline surfaced when someone teased him, and as far as we were concerned, he only did what any self-respecting Marine would do. It was never very long before the message got through. The sailors weren’t actually afraid of the Gunny. They realized that he was defending himself and they respected him for it. Just like a real Gunnery Sergeant, however, the Gunny was a bit on the aloof side. After watching him in his daily routines for about a month, everyone was solidly convinced that the Gunny knew exactly what he was doing and who his true friends were, including all Marines... and one sailor - the Mess Chief. We were convinced that there wasn’t a better Marine anywhere, and we all treated him with the respect that he deserved.
I loved everything about my tour of duty at N.A.S. North Island, including a very special Wave, from the Wave barracks. An Air Traffic Controller, who became the love of my life. When Georgia and I were married, and with her encouragement, I requested a transfer into the same occupational specialty, therefore, adopting it for my own. Soon, we were off to another life, but I will always remember Gunny Grip as one of the finest examples of a true Marine imaginable, by any measure. No one knew exactly how old the Gunny was when he died, the only records they could find were the dates of his promotions. One morning, after guard mount, he simply laid down at the Sergeant of the guard’s desk and went to sleep. He was buried at sea, as it were, suited in his dress blue uniform, and was allowed to slide into the bay between Coronado, and San Diego, from our “Nickle Snatcher” liberty boat. The entire base grieved, as Taps was played and our barracks flag flew at half-mast. His demise was even published in the Marine Corp Gazette magazine in Washington, D.C. I later heard that sympathy cards and letters throughout the Marine Corps flooded the base post office from just about everyone who had ever known, or known of, the Gunny..... Officers and sailors included.
Gunnery Sergeant Grip, born ????, Died 11/10, 1959; the Marine Corps birthday, a legend in his own time.