|An up close and personal interview with U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and Togetherweserved.com Member:|
SgtMaj Joe D Armstrong USMC (Ret) (1957-1987)
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
Cpl Anotonio Agustino 1952. Remembering his name after 60 years I guess you could say he really made an impact on me. I needed some major surgery on my shoulder as a 12 year old. The Selfridge Air Force Hospital in Michigan had a very small pediatric ward so being over 10 I was put into the surgical recovery ward with the GI's returning from Korea. Being 12, man did I get picked on. The first day only. "Corporal Tony", an amputee from Korea, threatened all the GI's within an inch of their life if they didn't leave me alone. So for two weeks, I hung around with Cpl Tony, doing jigsaw puzzles, going down to the 'geedunk', listening to war stories, learning to play penny ante poker, etc. The day I left the hospital Cpl Tony told me "Thanks for sticking with me kid. I scored with one of the nurses last night." At the time I didn't know what he was talking about. But him taking me under his wing and protecting me from the butt heads in the ward, I was really grateful.
1stLt Floyd Hunter USMC 1950-1955. As a senior in high school I had enough credits to graduate in December. Mr. Hunter, my high school counselor got me into a college prep ROTC program after February '57. About six weeks later he called me in for counseling, more like a one way discussion. In a nut shell, I was having too much fun, chasing too many skirts and not keeping my grades up not necessarily in that order. "Pack your seabag and move out"! He gave me a parting shot, "Stick to the Army, you couldn't hack it as a Marine". October of 1957 while on boot leave, I marched into the teachers lounge and 'Reporting as Ordered, Sir"! Shocked the hell out of him. He didn't have classes that afternoon so he told me some sea stories over coffee for the rest of the day. Mr. Hunter, his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident that December. Sure wish I'd gotten to know him better as a man and as a Marine..
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
Briefly! How do you cram 30 plus years into "Briefly?"
I started off as a basic Wireman in 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. Learning all about running wire lines at oh-dark-thirty, sound powered TA-1 phones, ST-1 (that's a STone to new guys). Never did qualify as a lineman, I spurred out about 6 feet off the ground and pulled splinters out of my crotch for a week. "Ain't getting me up them poles again". From wire, I went into field radio humping an AN/PRC-10 radio. When there was an opening for Morse Code school at MCRD San Diego, I was the first one in line to volunteer. Wasn't too awfully keen on the extra 16 pounds I was toting around. Little did I know I was trading it in for a 30 pound cannon ball (generator) that I'd be toting. I got to be good at Morse Code, having been a Boy Scout with the radio code merit badge. Sitting watch on all of the Division communications nets, I got real good. So good that I was one of three from 1st Marine Division that got to go on temporary duty, on week ends, to San Diego and sit on the Navy ship-to-shore circuits aboard the Navy communications ship USS El Dorado (AGC-11). Got so proficient that we qualified for our FCC speed key (a bug) license. We were really "hot stuff"; so hot we convinced the Navy watch commander to let us sit on the commercial ship-shore. Huh?! Do what?! Hey, slow down! Boy did we have a rude awakening. The Division morse code nets ran about 8-12 words per minute and the Navy ship-shore circuit ran about 16-20 words per minute both using American/NATO Morse Code. The commercial ship-shore circuits used International Morse Code and on a really slow day dropped to about 20 words per minute. Man! that was a lot of dits-n-dahs if you blinked an eye. The Chief just grinned, "guess you Marines ain't that hot after all."
I had been bitten by the bug, pun intended. I re-enlisted and left 1st Marine Division attending the Navy High Speed Morse Intercept School in Pensacola, FL. After that school, all of my assignments were joint service. The joint service was mostly Navy-Marine Corps, but there were some assignments with the Air Force or the Army. In fact after school, my first assignment was with Company D, Marine Support Battalion (an independent Company), attached to the Naval Security Group Activity Hanza, attached to the Army Security Agency Torri Station, Okinawa. Now that was joint service.
It would be 15 years before I got back to Fleet Marine Force. Permanent and temporary duty stations during my career included Okinawa, Philippines, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Diego Garcia, Australia, Vietnam, Laos, Puerto Rico, Panama, Canada, Morocco, Ethiopia, Spain, Scotland, numerous ships at sea and some places I'd have to shoot you if I told you. In every clime and place, I think all but about 5 states, South America and Antarctica
While stationed at Fort Meade, MD with the National Security Agency (NSA), I was promoted to First Sergeant. As a rule, that promotion would have been automatic orders back to Fleet Marine Force and there were my orders the next day. Went to work to pick up my check out slip for transfer and ---not so fast there Marine! Seems that my duties at NSA were in a National Security Council (NSC) controlled billet and NSC would not released me for at least another year. BOY did that upset Headquarters Marine Corps. Here I am a 1stSgt and they have me working as a techno-geek and super spook for NSC.
After being released from NSC, for the next 12 years my career followed the normal Marine 1stSgt and Sergeant Major pattern. FMF ground, air, formal schools, Marine Corps Base, etc both overseas and state side. After I made SgtMaj the troops kept wanting to know why I didn't retire. "Took me 20 years to get to the top of the dog pile. Now I'm going to enjoy it," and I did.
In 1987 I was listed on the Sergeants Major lineal list as the 10th senior Sergeant Major on active duty. The year of appointing a new Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. The top 25 on the lineal list are automatically considered for that billet. Knowing this, I submitted my request to retire. A few days after my request for retirement went out I received temporary duty orders to Headquarters Marine Corps for interview. Knowing I had a snow balls chance in hell because I hadn't had my tickets punched (Recruiting, Drill Instructor or Independent Duty) I respectfully declined the orders stating I had already requested retirement. It was a great thought and feeling that at least I had been on the starting line. If memory serves me correctly, Sergeant Major Robert Cleary was number 3 or 4 on the lineal list at that time. A good Marine and and excellent Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.
I retired August 31, 1987 with 30 years, 1 month an 7 days as an active duty Marine. There were some really good times, some good times and some not so good times but there never was a bad day and I don't regret one minute of it.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
1963 (at sea) Gulf of Tonkin Incident, attack of USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy.
1965-1968 (at sea) Yankee Station flight strike missions against NVA in South Vietnam and targets within North Vietnam
In addition, 1963-1968 having two back to back overseas tours in Okinawa and Philippines, accompanied by family, I was subject to periods of temporary duty to Danang, Phu Bai, Plieku and Dong Ha as well as naval units at sea. These assignments, mostly static and non-mobile, were generally to provide "mid to short term and immanent tactical intelligence to the Operations tactical commander." If you can figure that one out, "You're a better man than I, Gunga Din".
Then in 1969, while at 2nd Radio Battalion, Camp Lejeune, NC - the powers that be at Headquarters Marine Corps - in their infinite wisdom - said "Oh, you don't have a tour in Vietnam. Guess where you're going"?
"Hey, what about my 16 months temporary duty in country for the past 5 years"? "Sorry, that don't count".
Hmm . . . after 6 months in country and returning from R&R in Hawaii, they recanted and wanted to know where I'd like to go. "As far away from Vietnam as possible"! They were kind to me - from the wet steamy muck and mud of Vietnam to the cold, wet, wind swept moors and craigs of Scotland. But that's another tale.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
In1963 while on board USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-64) on Yankee Station, South China Sea during flight operations against targets in North Vietnam. Our detachment was assigned to Flag Staff for the Task Group. In between flight operations two of our special antennas had to be raised and lowered by man power. We had just launched an extra Combat Air Patrol and flight operations were on a ready standby. All hands on the flight deck are required to wear personal flotation devices (PFD), a belted life jacket. This was just minutes or so after the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy had been hit by North Vietnamese patrol boats south of Haiphong Harbor. The tempo of our detachment operations were fast and critical and two of our antennas had been secure for flight ops. We received special permission to raise them. The antennas were located forward above and outside of the cat walk on both port and starboard sides of the main flight deck. As the flight deck crew was reading an F-4 Phantom from the forward flight deck to the ready position on the angle flight deck, the jet blast caught two of our detachment that were raising the port antenna and blew them overboard; the Kitty Hawk still doing full speed into the wind, 65 feet to the water line. The Petty Officer in Charge of the Detachment, a 1st Class, had on his PFD and was picked up by the dog watch - one of two escort ships always following a carrier during flight operations. "Mack" had suffered a broken shoulder, spine compression, concussion and exposure. The body of "Sam" a Petty Officer 2nd Class was never recovered.
The detachment Officer in Charge, a Navy Lieutenant, a former Chief, said "Sergeant Armstrong, you're senior enlisted. The detachments yours. What are you going to do"? That, I wasn't expecting and it surprised the hell out of me. I think I mumbled something about us having two detachments on the Maddox and Turner Joy and unknown number of Sailors and we gotta support them. Then we'll regroup and take care of casualties.
He replied, "Carry on! I'll be in the combat center briefing the Admiral. Give me five minute sitreps." spun on his heel and was gone.
I had wanted to be NCOIC of a detachment, but not at this price. My training as an NCO, squad leader and eventually a platoon sergeant in the 5th Marines had proven to be very effective. Sure I made mistakes, learned from them and fortunately nothing drastic. About a three weeks later the Kitty Hawk was relieved on station by another carrier and she headed back to Pearl Harbor and the states. The detachment debarked in the Philippines and headed back to Okinawa to get ready for our next deployment.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
Not one, two actually. The first a Master Gunnery Sergeant Skinner, the second or third to be promoted in the Marine Corps. I had been standing communications watch on three different circuits, 1st Marine Division communications, Camp Pendleton Range Control and the Hawaii-Camp Pendleton-29 Palms-Quantico circuit. I got up to make a head call and get another cup of coffee. The MGySgt came in and found my frequency/callsign book laying on the watch table. Yeah, at that time frequency and callsign listings were classified. Outside of the ten pounds of flesh he took off my rear end, I had to memorize Chapters 2 and 3 of the DNC-5. The DNC-5, Director of Naval Communications Publication 5, was 'the" communications security bible for US and NATO forces. All of about 4 inches thick and only had a total of 5 chapters in it. For three weeks, every night up in the communications center, it was read and recite, read and recite, read and recite, the guys on watch were ready to club me. That was when I got really interested in communications and communications security. To make matters worse - the SOB never did ask me any questions about the DNC-5.
The second and most influential individual in my military career was Judith Marie Trotter, my wife of now, 49 years. We met at Oceanside-Carlsbad Junior College, now Mira Costa. I was taking Business Law and Accounting II. Business Law was a snap. Accounting I, the previous semester, was OK, but Accounting II, that was kicking my butt and I needed help in the worst way. After Accounting II and dating for a year, we were married. Without her support and partnership, I most probably would not have made the Marine Corps a career.
There is only one calling in life tougher than being a Marine and that is being a "Marine Wife". When you're up-rooting the family ever 3 years, new schools, new friends, house hunting, the 24 hour temporary duty fly away teams, not knowing where I was going or when I'd be back and then add in the normal trials and tribulations of married life. Oh and some of these in foreign countries where you don't know the customs or language. Yep, that takes a special kind of dedication and love, that of a "Marine Wife".
Even though "we" have been retired-retired for 15 years, living in an Air Force town, she still has "it" and will back an Air Force wife or officer into a corner in a heart beat. Her pet peeve is when they start whining that hubby has been deployed for two months and I don't know what to do or how I'm going to cope with it for another three months. The National Mall on the 4th of July is nothing compared to the fireworks she sets off.
To tell a tale on Judy, but making a long story short, Judy and I were at the hospital on base, one thing led to another and we were served a letter of "persona non-grata" and no longer could use the hospital on base. Well knowing what I could and couldn't do, 15 minutes later we were in the office of the hospital Commanding Officer. After 30 minutes Judy and I were back in the CO's office where the Lawyer apologized, the Chief of Nursing apologized, the Doctor apologized and the CO apologized. Then Judy dropped the bomb shell. "Apologies all well and good, but this is bullshit. What if I had been the wife of a young Airman deployed to Desert Storm, who's going to stand up for her"!?
Two weeks later Judy and I ran into Command Chief Master Sergeant Tony G. He had to relate that the CO of the hospital had ordered every member of the hospital, including the lab technicians and janitors, into human relations classes and sensitivity training. Also that the General had ordered his legal staff and all squadron CO's and first sergeants to conduct 'town hall' meetings in the housing area for all dependents. Tony left with "I know who to call now, I've been trying to get the General to hold dependents town hall meetings for over six months".
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
Three actually, the first one is only funny when I looked back on it, the second will have you rolling on the floor.
While stationed in the Philippines in 1966 we had several seven man teams that formed "fly away" special communications teams and deployable on mission with less than 4 hours notice. I had reported down to operations one morning at 0730 as the watch commander and was going thru the daily message traffic catching up on what was going on in Vietnam. As I sat there pondering my daily chores, the Operations Officer, a Navy Commander, popped his head in the door and said "Fly Away 3". Forget my morning coffee and raising hell with the troops. The seven of us stopped by the Operations Office, received our orders, jumped in the duty van and headed back to home to get our gear, kissed the wife good-bye and threw the dog a biscuit. Or was it the other way around, kiss the dog and threw the wife a biscuit. Anyhow, this being my second 'fly away' in the Philippines, the wife knew not to ask questions. Two and a half hours later the team is sitting on the tarmac at NAS Cubi Point waiting for our aircraft. Total time from alert was 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Fifty-seven days later, we get back to base. I walked into the Company Office to turn in my orders and take some well earned leave. What's this? We have a new Company Commander and he want's to know who this stinking, unshaven slob is that is in his outer office.
Being a good non-commissioned officer, I centered myself in the hatch and introduced myself. Without looking up, the good Captain started to bellow, "So your the Sergeant we're declaring a deserter Friday. I'm just getting ready to ship you family back to the states at your expense and you're headed for the brig." and as he looked up, "What the hell are you wearing 'cracker jacks' . . . . . ." and more for about 15 seconds. That's about the time the Master Guns yelled across the hall, "Captain M, we gotta meet Commander D in the station Captains Office NOW! "
The Captain whizzed past me with a "Stand fast, Marine!" and was out the door. The Master Guns right behind him, slowed only to say "Armstrong, get your stinking ass out of here and go get in a proper uniform. I don't want to see you for ten days unless it's over at the club".
Seems that the old CO, who got emergency orders back to the states, knew where I was, but when he left, he couldn't tell the new CO because being the new guy, he didn't have his security clearance yet or a security "need to know" where I was or when I'd be back. The new CO just knew he couldn't find me, couldn't account for me and no one could tell him where I was. Two more years in the Philippines and I had more of those 'fly aways'. Needless to say, thereafter the CO always checked with the Navy Ops.
About a year later, still in the Philippines and on another fly-away this time 68 days. We terminated mission in Hong Kong and had to report to the US Embassy to secure all of our mission records and cryptographic gear. It was going to be 3 days before our transport aircraft arrived to take us back to PI. Well, the 7 of us on the fly away team only had navy blue jump suits. We all needed haircuts, shaves and hogan's goat probably smelled better than we did. Having no billeting, the Embassy certified our orders as "flight crew". Off across the harbor we went to the Empress Hotel, "the" 5 star hotel in Hong Kong at the time. Flight Crew - no problem, suites at $5 per day. WOW! The royal treatment. You can't pull liberty in a jump suit. Here comes Harry to the rescue. Seems that Harry, a PO1 Chinese linguist, has an uncle that lives in Kowloon. So we go visit, have dinner, chit chat and down a few adult beverages. As we get ready to leave, Uncle C takes us down stairs to his shop. All during the evening he's had his minions working over time. Each of us was outfitted with a new silk suit, shirt and tie. Just for being friends with Harry and looking after him.
Well after three days of liberty in Hong Kong our aircraft arrives and we head back to the Philippines. All decked out in my new silk suit I stick my head in to let the CO know I'm back. All I get is a mumble, "How in hell do you guys get these trips?"
The second tale was quite a few years later. I was Schools Battalion Sergeant Major at Camp Pendleton. We got in a new Battalion Adjutant, a young female 2nd Lieutenant right out of officer basic and administration school and standing all of 5 foot 3 inches in her stocking feet. I swear she was standing on a brick when they measured her. She started off the first day in her best squeaky command voice "Sgt Jones, get me .....", "Cpl Smith you look like a soup sandwich ........" , "Gunny they need to empty my out box 4 times a day...." The Battalion Admin Chief, aka the Gunny, kept telling her, 'Ma'am ya can't be doing that. It ain't lady like to yell. If you want something, come see me or call me on the phone". Well, it didn't stop her. All but a few of the NCO's in the headquarters were pretty much short timer Vietnam veterans and were just itching to get at the Lieutenant.
After about two weeks of this, the troops started unscrewing the balance pads on the bottoms of the legs of her desk. Not much, just a turn a day. After about ten days of messing with her chair and scratching her head, she could barely see over her desk. Everyone in the Battalion Headquarters was having to bite their lip every time they passed her office. Finally, the Battalion Executive Officer, said "OK Sergeant Major, go rescue her".
Uh, that didn't go over too well, at the top of her squeaky voice "I'm a 2nd Lieutenant and an Officer in the United States Marine Corps. . . . .yada yada yada". That was on Wednesday. Thursday was uneventful. Thursday night is field day throughout the Corps.
I usually got in at about 0630. As I walked by the Lieutenants door Friday morning, there was a new name tag. "2nd Lt Sally Smith, USSC". Huh?! What the hell? Being the nosy guy I am, I opened her door. There was a new desk plate also. That's not all. Hung throughout her office were about 20 little blue Smurf's in parachutes and the name plate "2nd Lieutenant Sally Smith, United States Smurf Corps." The XO was right behind me, "SgtMaj head her off in the parking lot and bring her through my back door."
One thing led to another, she had a good cry, the XO gave her the day off, we got her office put back properly. She stayed with the Battalion for three years. Turned out to be a damn good Marine Officer at that.
The funny part of the story is that today she is a District Attorney in a mid-western state and a few years ago she sent me a photo of her in her office. Sitting dead center on top of one of her law book cases, is her name plate and a little blue Smurf with parachute. When asked about it, "I won't ever part with that. It reminds me every day that I have dedicated respected professionals that work with me. Not for me!"
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I retired at Camp Pendleton, CA and went straight into Property Management. The wife and I took over management of a high end apartment complex and really threw ourselves into the job. The next year, the owner, a WW II Jewish Holocaust survivor, paid for me to get some more schooling and certified. With that under my belt he jacked up the salary times one and the responsibilities times four. We not only managed the one complex, but I was now the Corporation Maintenance Supervisor for four apartment complexes and time-share condos in Carlsbad, Oceanside, Long Beach and Simi Valley.
After eight years, I was driving up the freeway one morning at O-dark-thirty doing 70 plus in my old pick'um'up. The station wagon on the right of me had Mom screaming and swatting at three kids in the back and a BMW on the left was driven by some adam-henry yaking on a cell phone, holding what had to be a boiling cup of coffee I thought, "I'm retired, I don't need to be doing this sh&^!!".
So we moved to New Mexico. I had lost my Mother the year before and her home was still on the real estate market, so we bought it outright from the estate. One of the ladies in the church asked if I'd come over and fix her toilet. The next week another had a problem with the sink and garage door. This went on for a couple months. So, I opened shop here in New Mexico, "Honey Do". Being my own boss, I could close shop and move out anytime and the wife and I would take off to go visit the grand kids, go to Las Vegas to spend their inheritance, go cruising and visit friends here and there. But mostly we worked and had business was good. We were always booked for no less that two weeks in advance for nine years.
In 2004, I was contacted by Major Prater and on one of our trips to CA to visit grand kids, I stopped in at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms, CA to see him. I liked what I heard about Together We Served, and the rest as they say, "is history."
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
Marine Corps League, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Alamogordo Retired E-9 Association
Alamogordo Retired E-9 Association, formerly the Alamogordo Retired Chief's Association. After I joined and started "questioning" the procedures and what all was going on, there were 6 other retired E-9's, 2 Navy and 4 Army, and they joined the band wagon and there was a name change to the Retired E-9 Association. Seems I was the burr under the saddle blanket. Granted it's still an Air Force Chief's Association chapter just a name change, but it worked and I still get pinged on every meeting.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
The only dumb job is the one you didn't do right the first time, the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask and the only bad day is, well I don't know - haven't run into one yet. That's not to say that some days aren't better than others though.
Regardless of the situation, you must take charge, even if of no one but yourself, review the situation and plot a course of action. Failure to take action will only destroy you personally, professionally and morally.
Make sound decisions from the information available and be true to your decisions and your word. All other things are material objects which can be bought or replaced. Your word and integrity is who you are.
Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
When you get assigned overseas, or anywhere else for that matter, get out past bar alley at the main gate. Learn about the country, it's history, it's culture, it's people. Remember that "you are the foreigner." You are a guest in their country, your values are not theirs and above all else, treat them with respect and they will respect you.
Even if you were drafted, you volunteered once, and once is all it takes. You need to step up and take advantage of every school, every temporary duty, every collateral duty you can, and then go looking for more. It will not only look good for your over all career, but will give you a world of experience. Experience that you would not otherwise have a chance to obtain.
You need to continue your education. Doesn't make any difference if it is a formal military school, night classes at the local college or military professional correspondence courses. The classes and schools don't necessarily have to be job related either. Sometime in the future, you'll use something you learned in each one of those classes.
Learn how to teach others, how to pass on your skills and knowledge. Not just your job, but a skill, a hobby or an art that they may be interested in. By teaching others, you broaden your horizon and give a little of yourself.
In short, give back to your community and our country.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
It has been a pleasure dealing with Marines again. Generally, Marines know when they make a mistake, will own up to it, learn from it - and like a good Timex, they'll "take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. "
I've reconnected with friends I lost track of over 35 years ago and found family of friends who have gone on to guard the gates. Shared memories and photos of kids, grand kids and great grand kids.
Not only those I served with, but Marines and families of today's Corps as well. Anything from helping and encouraging a disable Marine to apply to Bureau of Correction of Naval Records to file for his promotion to Cpl that had been held up because of his pending medical board to pushing two young Marine brats to apply for and received, college scholarships from the Marine Corps League and VFW. Being able to pass on knowledge or be of assistance in helping my fellow Marines or families makes all the difference in the world. Not only Marines, but any of our veterans, and that's what it's all about.