By 1971, the Marine Corps had suffered racial outbreaks at every major Marine base in the world, except one. In Vietnam, some units were disarmed after coming out of the bush, as there had been firefights between white and Black Marines. A celebration of Martin Luther King’s life by Black Marines at Chu Lai in April 1969, one year after his assassination, had been surrounded by tanks. Racial “relations” were terrible. (As was true in all the other branches, in Vietnam, the US and on bases in Europe.)
The one base that hadn’t had an outbreak of racial violence was the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, where I was stationed. We were a base where Marine pilots came to learn bombing and gunnery practices.
I was an avionics technician, trained to work on communications and navigation equipment in A-4 Skyhawk aircraft; but my lack of seniority had knocked me down to work on vacuum-tubed radio equipment in CH-47 helicopters. I wasn’t very good at it; I guess the night I threw a 75 pound radio against a cement brick wall in frustration kinda gave me away.
Unknown to me at the time, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Air Wing had decided to set up a “human relations” program at Yuma; obviously not to do anything, but to cover his ass in case something jumped off.
Somehow—I was never told why—I was ordered to join Gunnery Sgt. Thomas A. Robinson and Sgt. Michael G. Courtney in the unit. Gunny Rob and Mike, both African Americans, had decided to make this project real, and the first day I reported to work, Gunny Rob gave this white boy literally a two-foot high stack of some of the most revolutionary literature of the 1960s—books like “Soul on Ice,” “Die, Nigger, Die!,” “Soledad Brother,” and a number more—and ordered me to go back to the barracks, to read these books. “If you’re going to be any good to us, you’ve got to know what’s going on with the young Black Marines.” Little did I know my life began changing the first day on the job.
I read and learned. Although I had been raised in a conservative Arizona working class family, I had not been raised a racist. Our small town had poor blacks, poor Mexicans and poor whites, and we all seemed to get along pretty well. My step-father had known Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine who had helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. I was able to “get” what the writers had said.
I came back to work, and for 18 months under the tutelage of Gunny Rob and, after Mike got out, Cpl. James E. Kolloch (another Black Marine), I fought racism and white supremacy as my official duty. We learned of example after example, how Blacks were treated differently—and worse—than whites. We intervened when we could, and we fought this shit. We fought non-judicial punishments, bad paper discharges, general mistreatment—we were in the thick of things. Over time, Gunny Rob expanded our work to defending the many white Marines who had “drug problems,” such as getting caught with a single marijuana seed in their car. Before long, it seemed we were taking on the entire Marine Corps “world.”
Two cases stand out in my memory. On the liberty bus going into town, a white Marine had called a Black Marine the N-word; the Black got in his face, and another white Marine intervened on the side of his white friend; in the struggle, the second white Marine got thrown out of the bus and was run over by a following car and killed. Our team investigated, and found out what had happened, as I stated above. I got chosen to report what we’d found to the dead Marine’s unit, a light anti-aircraft missile battalion, many of whom had just come back from Nam.
The guys in the unit were not pleased to hear my report. Soon, I got death threats left on our phone, particularly warning me to watch myself in the chow line. I can remember putting copies of Life Magazine under my utility jacket to protect my kidneys in case of attack. Fortunately, no one ever tried to hit me.
Another example was more fun. We had a F-4 Phantom Squadron in our Group, run by a Lieutenant Colonel. They had a continuing number of racial “problems.” Gunny Rob called the Commanding General, who told him to “take care of it.” Rob sent Jim and I—two, 19 year old corporals at the time—to meet with the Lt. Col, and this Lt. Col. had to explain to us two corporals why he was having continuing problems in his unit, and why he had not successfully dealt with it! One of the highlights of my life!
The General had set our program outside of the Chain of Command, and the lifers did not like it; not one bit. Over the 18 months, we had numerous undercover CID-types come in, and tell us they were going to kill this motherfucker or that one. Usually, we knew those named needed to be straightened out, but a death threat put us on the spot: do we report it or not? Gunny Rob ultimately reported each threat, and strangely, nothing ever happened to the one making the threats. I’m sure it was only a coincidence.
After 18 months, we were shut down. There had been no large racial confrontations on our base; we think we played a part. I had made Sgt (E-5) by then, so even though I was sent into the A-4 Squadron that we’d really found a lot of problems, no one harassed me. I ran the Avionics Department—my Staff Sgt like to spend his nights at the Staff NCO club—and got out after four months, and headed to college at Florida State University, where I ultimately got my Bachelor’s of Science degree in 1975.
But no college has ever taught me anywhere near what Gunny Rob, Mike and Jim taught me. And based our experiences, when the “Pentagon Papers” came out while I was still on active duty, I turned-around.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of The Veteran.