By Gerard J. St. John
In the 1950s, Dragnet was one of the most popular programs on television. Every show began the same way. There was a panorama of a smoggy city skyline, and then a deadpan voice intoned, “This is the city… I work here… I am a cop. My name is Friday.” Actor Jack Webb played the part of police sergeant Joe Friday, a slender, unflappable man, who insisted that his job was to get the facts, “just the facts.” It is unlikely that there was a policeman in the United States more popular than Joe Friday. Then, in 1957, Joe Friday joined the Marines. Jack Webb directed and starred in a movie called, “The D.I.”
The letters “D.I.” are an abbreviation for “drill instructor,” the noncommissioned officer who is charged with the duty of ramrodding raw recruits through a tough three-month boot camp designed to shape those recruits into Marines. Jack Webb played the part of Gunnery Sergeant Jim Moore, who brought the unflappable persona of Joe Friday to a Marine Corps drill instructor. Gunny Moore was reputed to be the toughest D.I. in the Marine Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C. In the movie, Moore is exposed to pressure from above and below. Private Owens, a recruit in Moore’s platoon, performs at an unacceptably low level despite having what appears to be outstanding intelligence and superior physical ability. Moore takes Owens’ intransigence as a personal challenge. In the meanwhile, Moore’s commanding officer is worried that Owens’ erratic performance will reflect poorly on the platoon as a whole. He virtually orders Moore to dismiss Owens from the Corps. Sgt. Moore refuses to give up on Owens. Instead, Moore increases the pressure on Owens, particularly when Owens seriously considers running away from the recruit depot. In one scene filmed near the recruit barracks, Sgt. Moore points to the tidal swamp surrounding the island, and tells Owens that no one has ever made it out alive. In the end, the D.I. prevails. Owens changes his outlook, and becomes a part of a successful platoon. If only real life was as easy as the movie.
In April 1956, the year before the movie, another Parris Island D.I. attempted to discipline his recruit platoon by leading them in a night march through Ribbon Creek, behind the rifle range. Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon led the way. He figured that if the platoon followed closely in his footsteps, no one would encounter deep water. It did not go as planned. Ribbon Creek is a tidal swamp in which the water level changes abruptly from shallow to deep without any visible warning. The platoon did not keep a tight line of march. The rear elements strayed out of line; and six Marines drowned.
The tragedy was compounded by Marine Corps Commandant, General Randolph McCall Pate, who declared the D.I. guilty of manslaughter, and then ordered that McKeon be confined to the brig and court-martialed. The public news media went wild. Newspapers, radio and television called for McKeon’s head. Then, Jack Webb’s movie, “The D.I.,” was released and public opinion began to swing in favor of Sgt. McKeon. The court martial remained front page news; but a majority of the public cheered when the court martial board rejected the charge of involuntary manslaughter and found Sgt. McKeon guilty of only the lesser charge of negligent homicide.
In September 1959, when we reported for the 25th Officer Candidates Course at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia, the “Ribbon Creek Incident” was fresh in our minds. Also, many of us had read Leon Uris’ description of boot camp in his best-selling novel, “Battle Cry.” We knew that the Marine Corps’ basic training methods had changed, but we did not know the extent of those changes, and how that would affect the officer candidates program. Most of us heard horror stories from our friends who went through boot camp at Parris Island while we were in college. Now we were assembled in one of those tin butler huts behind our barracks. It was set up like a theater. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Marine striding up to the microphone looked just like Jack Webb. But he was not our D.I. He was the company commander, Captain Mike White. Still, the resemblance to Jack Webb was unsettling.
We had already met our D.I.s – there were two of them. They played the roles of “nice D.I. – tough D.I.” The nice D.I. was Gunnery Sgt. Robert L. DeBruhl, whose official title was “platoon sergeant.” DeBruhl was tall, tanned, and had a photogenic appearance that is usually seen only in recruiting posters. The tough guy was Sgt. Franklin R. Alender, our “sergeant instructor.” Alender was on the short side, stocky and well muscled. He delighted in regaling the platoon with stories of his exploits as a high school athlete in Kentucky. If one thing was clear to the 45 members of the second platoon of Charlie Company, it was that Sgt. Alender was dead set on driving anyone he chose out of the officer candidates program and into the pits of Parris Island and the tidal swamps of Ribbon Creek. Alender was our enemy-in-chief.
Like Alice in Wonderland, it began at the beginning. In the wee hours of our first morning in Quantico, Sgt. Alender awakened the entire platoon with a deafening racket caused by running a glass Coke bottle around the inside of a galvanized metal GI can. It continued months later when he ran through our overnight bivouac at Kopp’s farm, yelling “Atomic attack! Move out!” Bill Harrison was so intimidated that night, he snapped to the position of full attention, forgetting that he was in a low-slung pup tent at the time.
Some barbs were personal. “Blum, how old are you?” “How did you get so f----n’ ugly in just twenty-five years?” Ron Roe made the mistake of walking out of the shower and directly into the squadbay with his towel across his shoulder. Alender ordered Ron to stand on his foot locker while the entire platoon trooped by and patted him on his bare butt.
The closest we came to a physical altercation was that afternoon when we were scrubbing down the squadbay deck. To make the work more bearable, we sang as we scrubbed: college songs, drinking sons, spirituals, military songs – anything. Sgt. Alender was in the platoon office, squaring away his dress uniform. We were starting to sing military songs. One of the first songs was “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” Hardly had we begun when Sgt. Alender, dressed in khaki trousers and a white T-shirt, burst into the room, screaming, “Stop it! That’s a “doggie” song! We don’t sing no “doggie” songs.” I tried, but I could not hold it back. I burst into laughter – and Alender saw me.
Shouting epithets and challenges, he charged across the room, stopping inches from my face. I was sure that this was the end of my officer candidate experience. At this point, my only goal was to avoid being the one who threw the first punch. Alender reached out quickly with his right hand. Was it a punch? No, he grabbed the chain of the miraculous medal that I wore around my neck. I moved my open hands forward, so as to be in a position to respond to any assault that might come. I did not know how this was going to play out, but I was not going to be a punching bag. We stared at each other for about twenty seconds, and then he let go of the chain. The confrontation was over. That was a long time ago.
In recent years, the surviving members of our officer candidate platoon have been able to reestablish contact with each other thanks to the computer. In 2009, we planned a reunion of the platoon at the Officers Candidate School, in Quantico on the 50th anniversary of the time that we reported for duty in the Marine Corps. Our biggest surprise in the planning was an e-mail message from Ron Roe in California. Ron had located Sgt. Alender, who was now a retired gunnery sergeant, living in Cary, North Carolina. Everyone agreed that we should invite “Frank” Alender to attend the reunion as the guest of the platoon.
The reunion began with a note of uncertainty. Alender had not seen or heard from any of us for more than fifty years. Similarly, we had no idea what he now looked like. When we entered the Crossroads Inn, we all saw the old guy by the lobby door, wearing a white T-shirt and a freshly starched and ironed utility cap. Is that him? Indeed it was.
Once we opened the conference room that we reserved, things got easier. As more and more people talked to Frank, he began to recall our 1959 platoon. The first day of the program, he and DeBruhl went through our files and came to the conclusion that we had a good chance to become the Honor Platoon. One member of the platoon remembered that Frank did not attend our commissioning ceremony. Frank’s infant son died at about that time, and Frank was fully absorbed in that tragic event. The platoon member saluted Frank, and handed him a silver dollar – a tradition usually observed at the commissioning ceremonies.
At the current Officers Candidate School, we were given a presentation by the commanding officer. The officers and staff were surprised to learn that these 25 visitors were members of a single platoon that went through the program fifty years ago. Even more surprising to them was the fact that we brought with us one of our D.I.s. When we posed for a photo in front of the present day OCS, Frank held the pennant indicating that we were from Charlie Company. Back at the Crossroads, other Marines made it a point to approach Frank and tell him that he did a great job with “that group back there.” Frank had one helluva good time.
After the reunion, Frank wrote a “thank-you” letter, and made several follow-up phone calls. He asked for background material on the members of the platoon, and was appreciative when he received it. Two men sent him copies of Tim Geraghty’s book on the Marine Barracks in Beirut. He donated one of the copies to his local library. Frank received frequent notes and phone calls from members of our group. In late 2011, I received a phone call from Leo Carlin. He said that phone calls to Frank were not answered; and that he did a Google search and found an obituary. Our D.I. died on November 5, 2011. Frank probably was angry that he did not make it another five days until the Marine Corps birthday.
Not long ago, General Colin Powell was quoted to the effect that, “No one ever forgets the name of his drill instructor.” Frank Alender would take issue with that contention. After all, what does Colin Powell know about drill instructors? Powell was a “doggie” general.