The Marine Corps for me was many things, but it was never boring — despite six years of mostly peacetime service.
One day, a tiny contingent of Marines represented all of the United States.
And we didn’t screw it up.
As a military intel guy, one of jobs was keeping an eye on the bad guys, in case things took a turn for the worse. And to keep up with potential foes of God, Country and Corps, we had to study a lot, to keep up on potential threats. New weapons, troop build-ups, conflicts in areas of interest, which sounds cool, but it was a lot like school. A lot of time in rooms with no windows looking over information, photos, reports. A desk job on a lot of days.
The only thing tougher than a desk job, was a desk job in Hawaii. We were on assignment from our unit to support Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific at Pearl Harbor.
Yes, a very rough assignment, but we Marines are fairly fearless, and the work needed to be done. So, of course, we obeyed our orders and worked away in the windowless buildings, researching and reporting while the sunshine remained a workplace daydream. On Fridays, we were allowed to wear our Deltas, basically the khaki short sleeve shirts, dress blues trousers with the dress blue white cover (hat for you civilian types). Basically, it was a common look for recruiters in the peacetime era.
In other words, we looked good. We looked official, and maybe from a distance we looked important to the untrained eye.
After work we headed back to the other side of the base and there were always some interesting ships parked along the docks near our barracks. One ship in particular caught our eye. We’re intel guys, it is the type of thing that should catch our eye. It was patrol boat sized, built with U.S. steel, an old hull frame from World War II era but it had some very new weapons on it. High tech electronics, that we identified from France, German missiles on the side, and we couldn’t quite figure out what we were looking at. By our estimates, this thing could sink half of a fleet before anyone knew it was there.
We had to know more.
We walked around to get a closer look and saw the ship’s colors, it was from Thailand. We were leaning in to get a closer look and we were not the only ones doing some investigating. Suddenly, the three of us looked up and there were many hands on deck looking back down on us. I thought maybe I was breaking some kind of rules by getting that close and doing a threat assessment of their impressive tiny warship.
They started to yell some things not in English. I was sure I had done something wrong. I was the highest ranking jarhead on the dock, a sergeant at the time, so any trouble belonged to me. I waited at the bottom of the ramp for someone to chew us out or ask for identification. Someone raised their hand with what is likely the universal sign to stop or halt. We stopped. And then the weirdest thing ever happened.
They piped us on board.
To back up a bit, Marines are indeed a branch of the U.S. Navy, but other than being the fine fellows who drive the boats (yes, Navy vernacular prefers ships, Marines use other terms as an annoyance) to take Marines to war. However, we knew enough that being piped on board is reserved for Captains, high ranking officials, very important persons.
This could be the only time in history a few enlisted knuckleheads were formerly piped on board.
While being piped on was pretty cool, and we did the double take to see if anyone else was around, but this was still potential trouble. We were unarmed, none us knew any Thai and we could still be violating a number of protocols way above our pay grade.
We ignored all that and went on board, of course.
Normally, we step on board and salute the flag, and then the officer on deck, but there were no U.S. flags in view, so we made due and saluted the dude with the boatswain whistle, because we owed him that much. We were greeted by a eight or nine Thai sailors, all just wearing white T-Shirts and white dungarees. Whoever was normally in charge of this ship was not around. We didn’t see any officers, but someone in full uniform was on the bridge, and he appeared to be the equivalent of a U.S. Navy Chief.
We got a full tour, mostly of pointing, nodding heads and smiles. To this point, none of our hosts was any more proficient at English than we were Thai. I tried to ask questions about some of the equipment, but they were either really smart and decided not to give away info or merely had no idea what I was asking.
We ended up in the galley, it was tiny, maybe enough room for eight people, but as our hosts were curious, about a dozen people were squeezed around a tiny table. They made us dinner. We tried to say no thanks, shake it off and head back up, but they were very insistent. So we ate. I had never had Thai food before, and really nothing as authentic as that day, and it was amazingly good.
Communication was still primarily smiles, nods of yes or no and the occasional high five. And the words “Jesus Christ” fell from the mouth of one of our hosts.
“Jesus Christ,” he repeated, and then he pointed at a silver cross that I was wearing that had moved to the outside of my uniform during all the ladder climbing tour earlier.
“Oh, my cross,” I realized. “Yes, Jesus Christ.”
He then pulled a Buddha necklace out, and described it as such.
“That does look like a little Buddha,” I awkwardly replied.
He then switched to hand gestures and offered a trade. I was reluctant at first, I’m not always the best theological representative, but the cross on my chest offered some comfort during my time in the Corps. I then handed over my cross and in turn received a Buddha necklace. We each put on our new gifts.
I asked him if he knew any more English, other than Jesus. He shook his head no and then said, “A little.”
I then went into a long series of hand gestures that would have made any park mime proud to describe their ship and tried to ask what enemies is this meant to fight?
“Vietnam,” he said.
Better English than I thought or my mime show was spot on.
I should have known our current allies may inherit some of our problems, so it made sense, but as I understand it, those skirmishes ended about a year after I was on this ship. It was tough looking boat. Maybe it made a difference.
Now it was getting dark, and we saluted our way topside and prepared to leave. I looked back to thank my trading partner, but he was tearing up and his eyes were fixed on my new Buddha. I took it off, he shook his head no and tried to push it away. I insisted. He took it back with a smile and started to take off his new cross.
“You keep it,” I said, “thanks for all the good company and good food.”
Can I get a head nod? Yes.
My fellow Marines shook some hands and we felt like we had accomplished something. We weren’t sure what, but it felt good. And then they played the pipe whistle once more, just for grins based on what we could see, and we disembarked.
They were waving goodbye, we simply gave them one more sharp salute. Waving wasn’t really our style. We then began our did that just happen conversation on the way back to the barracks. We may have broken some rules, we weren’t sure. At least we represented well, and made some new pals.
Ambassador for a day, fan of Thailand for life.