Jun 09, 2023, 06:27AM

A Pretty Good Jarhead

Remembering the Marines and serving alongside men like Top Talimoni.

9ca6458101e0e601355d5d3a8d3059bc.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I was drafted into the Marine Corps. The Marines weren’t meeting their recruiting targets and career-minded factory workers such as me (kidding), recent college grads and married guys without kids got drafted into the Army and the Marines. I was 20, a long-haired hippie who attended Woodstock and was just recovering from a serious car accident followed by a minor setback with the Westport Police over a small chunk of hashish. Strangely enough, I was a pretty good Jarhead as I was an expert on the rifle range and was in excellent shape from flinging heavy boxes around all day in that factory. I wound up working in my unit’s office a few months after arriving from Field Artillery Fire Direction Control (FDC) School as a Private First Class. In every unit the First Sergeant is the First Shirt, the “Top” enlisted man in the unit. Although he’s technically outranked by the lowest ranked officer, a 2nd Lieutenant, the only officer with more weight is the Commanding Officer (CO), usually a Captain in an artillery battery. The First Sergeant runs the day-to-day operation.

My unit was Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. The First Sergeant was Louis McMichael. He was an old-school Jarhead who got things done and worked well with my boss, another draftee Sergeant Ed Husseman, and the guys in the office. Top McMichael was a typical lifer in that he looked like he was in his 50s but was probably closer to 40. He left the administration of the office to Ed, who was an executive in training with a business degree and true leadership skills. Retirement was full and desirable for many after 19 years and six months and Top McMichael took his a few months after I joined the office staff. We were aware that a new Top was coming, but nothing prepared us for what we got. In walks a ramrod straight, flat-top coiffed, muscular, pencil-thin mustachioed, darker-skinned, and heavily-accented gentleman with a chest full of medals on his perfectly fitted uniform. This was First Sergeant Saui Talimoni. A  Samoan by birth and the baddest looking guy I’d ever seen. Another draftee and officemate, Joe Schiarra, and I looked at each other and he gave me his best look, raised eyebrows, pursed lips and a silent, read-my-lips, “problem!” After meeting with Captain Lefevre he introduced himself and met with Ed to get a lay of the land.

As the File Clerk, I helped myself to Top Talimoni’s personnel records before they were filed away.  He was a grunt, 0311, infantryman, the most basic form of jarhead; a rifleman. We artillery guys thought we were above the grunts. They were pure muscle and just marched, head down, rifle in hand, into whatever misery was thrown their way. Top was 38, regularly ran three miles at lunch before eating a sandwich at his desk and was the base’s handball champion. That’s right, base champion, as in 26-mile wide Camp Pendleton, with tens of thousands of Marines. This handball champion was almost twice as old as the guys he was whipping on the handball court. The Top had done three tours in Vietnam, had a wife and two young sons and was 20 years into his career. With his thick accent, he had trouble with R’s and L’s.

Alex Kresge, who trained me in filing science, correspondence, handling mail and countless other tasks was referred to as Coepall (Corporal) K. I was Lance Coepall Mo, as Ed and Carl both called me Mo. Joe was, amazingly, “Private Joe.”

We soon learned that our new First Shirt was put in place to cure the battery of its salty ways. Physical Training (PT) was part of our schedule. Appearance was enforced; no dirty utilities (work uniforms) were allowed. Ironed, preferably starched utes were to be the uniform of the day. Excellence was expected, even of the guys returning from ‘Nam. In the office we were all quizzed about what our function was and what we were expected to do to pass an Inspector General’s inspection.

One of my favorite incidents with Top Talimoni was when he received a letter from a new private’s mom complaining that she never heard from her son and was worried something happened to him. We were all unaware of this as a nervous private reported to the Top’s desk and stood at attention after announcing himself to a seemingly disinterested First Sergeant. “So, you do not like to write letters home, young Marine?” barked the Top. “Uh, why do you ask, Sir?” mumbled the terrified private. “Because I have a letter from your mother saying she hasn’t heard from you for several months!” was the answer. “And you will go back to your locker and write a nice long letter to your mother and you’ll show it to me before the end of the day! Is that understood?” “Yessir!” was the quick response. The letter was brought to the Top and mailed by yours truly that night.

There was an anal-retentive lieutenant named McNally who had it in for me. I was a wise-ass boot who made Corporal in 13 months and kidded around with the Staff NCOs and officers. The Captain loved me and the Top relied on me more and more as guys’ hitches were up and they left. In the field I eventually became the “computer” of FDC. We computed the range, deflection (direction) and site (elevation) for 105 howitzer cannons, using slide rules and raw data from forward observers and my guys using chart maps with 1000 meter grids. McNally didn’t think I was a “true” Marine. In truth, he was right, although the experience left me a better person. But I did everything asked of me. McNally wasn’t happy that I skated on shit details that other guys did and I spoke as an equal among all ranks. I put in as much time as anybody, but in a garrison environment, it was mostly in the office. When we did artillery shoots in the “field,” I performed my real Military Occupation in FDC. One day when it was just  Joe and me holding down the fort in the office, McNally said he was assigning me to a work detail. I told him I had work that had to be done that day and was in charge of the office. “You sit on your ass all day, every day. I don’t give a shit, just do it!” “Yes Lieutenant McNally!” I replied.

When I returned to the office I was sweaty and my uniform was a mess. Top Talimoni was back from his Battalion meeting and I’m sure Joe filled him in on what went down between me and McNally. Top asked for my side of the story. When I told him respectfully about McNally’s interference, and said I didn’t want to make more waves with McNally, he turned a shade of purple and told me to finish my work and not worry about it. Later that day McNally came in the office. “You wanted to see me Top?” he asked. “Oh yes, Lieutenant, let’s talk in the Captain’s office.” Among the words coming out of the Captain’s office shouted in McNally’s direction were “MY MEN,” “ I DON’T GIVE A DAMN “and “YOU WILL GO THROUGH ME.”  This was the only time I heard an officer chewed out by a staff NCO, but there was no doubt that the Top was higher on the food chain than any lieutenant. McNally would never fucked with me again.

Ed and his number two guy Carl, both draftees, separated when their time was done. Before they left Top Talimoni treated us to a picnic with his wife and sons. It was a nice gesture from a class guy. For us guys so far away from home, grilled burgers, potato salad and a family atmosphere was much appreciated. There was no better role model in leadership qualities and no one more respected in the unit than Top Talimoni.


Register or Login to leave a comment