Recruit Training in World War II

The Marine in the picture at left is tough, confident and battle-hardened. He has been tested and came out on top. Through the crucible of war, he is prepared for whatever comes his way. In his landmark book Goodbye Darkness, noted historian William Manchester, himself a veteran of the Corps, described the wartime Marine as a "skilled blue-collar workman", and "a journeyman [who] worked ceaselessly to improve his mastery of his craft.

In a system that combined esprit de corps, technical instruction, rote memorization and hands-on learning, boot camp was the engine which took raw civilians and turned them into basically trained Marines. At the recruit depots in Parris Island, South Carolina, Montford Point, North Carolina and San Diego, California, experienced (and sometimes not-so experienced) drill instructors were the gate keepers, teachers and disciplinarians in this process.

Boot camp in the wartime Marine Corps was a conveyor belt system that fed an incessant demand for fresh troops for the Fleet Marine Force. During the limited emergency of 1939-1940, the Marine Corps expanded to meet requirements for defense of the nation. Then in 1940, the unlimited national emergency caused an explosive growth in strength. And with the coming of war in December 1941, the Marine Corps became America's spearhead of amphibious war. This meant continued expansion, and continuous casualties that needed to be replaced.

Before 1911, newly enlisted recruits were assigned directly to the closest Marine barracks for initial training. As the technical demands of military training had increased, this system proved inadequate and recruit depots were established at Parris Island and Mare Island, California. In 1923 recruit training at Mare Island was transferred to the new Marine Corps Base, San Diego. Throughout the years, the Marine Corps has maintained a general practice of sending recruits from the eastern U. S. to Parris Island and those from the western U. S. to San Diego. There have been many exceptions to this, however.

The raw material of the US Marine Corps. Newly enlisted recruits wait at the Yemassee Train Station for transport to Parris Island in November 1941. At that time, they could expect to spend seven weeks in boot camp. Life Magazine

Camp Lejeune -1943. A drill instructor observes his newly arrived recruits as they go through inprocessing. Like those in the photo above, these young men have no idea of what waits lie ahead of them in the Pacific campaigns. USMC Photo

On the east coast, this recruit training was conducted at Marine Barracks, Parris Island. With a peak strength of 13 recruit battalions, Parris Island turned out over 204,000 new Marines during the war. On the west coast, the Marine Corps Training Center, Marine Corps Base, San Diego, was charged with recruit training. With a peak strength of seven recruit battalions, San Diego turned out more than 223,000 new Marines during the wartime years.

Another important location for recruit training was Montford Point, North Carolina. As part of Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, Montford Point was the site of recruit training for African-American Marines. Running a training schedule identical to the recruit depots, Montford Point saw over 19,000 recruits come through its gate between June 1942 and August 1945.

Drill Instructor Sgt Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson gives drill commands to his platoon at Montford Point in 1943. Boot camp in World War II was a short but intense indoctrination into the Corps. The drill instructor epitomized the spirit of the Corps to young, and not so young, recruits.

DIs such as Sgt Johnson – himself a legendary Marine – were the critical links in the production line from raw recruit to basically-trained Leatherneck. USMC Photo

Recruit training was set at eight weeks of instruction prior to 1939. Headquarters, Marine Corps, established general guidance for the commanding generals of the training centers, and each general and his staff then developed their courses of instruction. On 8 September 1939 President Roosevelt issued the declaration of limited emergency and the next day, Headquarters, Marine Corps, directed that a four-week recruit training schedule go into effect. At one point there was discussion of implementing a three-week schedule, but this plan was never adopted.

A drill instructor corrects a private's carriage at the position of attention. The DI served as role model, task master, and gatekeeper for the Marine Corps. He was directly responsible for the success of his recruits and spent almost every waking hour with his platoon. Life Magazine

Marine planners recognized that four weeks was not enough time to adequately train recruits, but the pressure of an expanding Marine Corps outweighed all other factors. But quality suffered, and rifle qualifications dropped 25 percent under the four-week plan. By January 1940, expansion was somewhat stabilized and the the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb, directed that recruit training be reorganized under a six-week training schedule. In May 1940 the training schedule was increased to seven weeks by adding more time to the rifle range period.

From September 1939 through December 1941, the recruit depots trained more than 42,000 recruits. But that number, large as it was, but soon be far outstripped by the demands of the wartime Marine Corps.


Immediately following the Japanese attacks of December 1941, the Marine Corps' authorized strength increased from 75,000 to 104,000 Marines. During the last month of peace in November 1941, 1,978 men enlisted. In December enlistments jumped to 10,224. That number was smashed by a record of 22,686 enlistments in January 1942. The following month saw 12,037 men enlisting. These huge numbers put an immense strain on the recruit depots. The training schedule was immediately reduced from seven to six weeks, and Headquarters, Marine Corps, directed maximum effort into staffing the depots. The goal was to achieve the end-strength of 104,000 by 1 March 1942.

A drill instructor passes the word to his platoon in 1941. More than anyone else, the DI was the key Marine in shaping new recruits into basically trained Marines. His influence was so great, many Marines identified him as the most important person in their lives. Life Magazine

General Holcomb realized that even a six-week training schedule was too long to achieve the strength goal, and on 1 January 1942 directed the depots to immediately institute a five-week course of recruit training. This schedule called for three weeks in garrison and two weeks at the rifle range. A total of 188 hours were scheduled for major topics. Chief among them was 96 hours of weapons training, 56 hours of drill, interior guard, and other garrison subjects, 32 hours of field training, and four hour of physical training.

Inspections served an important role in boot camp. Under the sharp eyes of Marine officers and NCO's, recruits learned attention to detail and teamwork. In this photo, boots stand a personnel inspection conducted by one of their company officers. MacMillan and Company

By 15 February 1942, the training schedule was increased to six weeks for newly forming platoons, and on 1 March, it went back to the seven-week schedule. Under the seven-week schedule, recruits spent three weeks in the recruit depot, two weeks at the range, and the rest of boot camp back at the depot. Through more efficient time management, the seven-week schedule was improved in 1942 and 1943 to add 25% more instruction in core subjects.

In early 1944, General Holcomb established for the first time a master eight-week training schedule to be adopted by both recruit depots. This was in response to continuing complaints from the fleet and from Marine Corps schools about the quality of knowledge new Marines were bringing from boot camp. Under this schedule, which remained in effect until the end of the war, 421 hours of instruction were called for. 195 hours were devoted to weapons, 39 to physical training, 89 to garrison subjects, and 98 to field subjects.

Throughout the war years, there existed a constant struggle between the urgency for personnel in the operational forces, and the need to produce well-trained Marines. This dichotomy was never completely resolved, although HQMC and the recruit depots strove endlessly to match needs and capabilities. In comparison with recruit training of latter eras, the length of boot camp in World War II was very short. But the product of that training was the blood and bone that forged victory in the war.

Recruits fire their service rifles at the Camp Mathews rifle range near the San Diego Recruit Depot. Rifle marksmanship in the Marine Corps was so important, that more time was devoted to this skill in boot camp than any other single instructional subject. Still image from the 20th Century Fox motion picture "To the Shores of Tripoli"


Upon arriving at the receiving barracks, most new recruits were fed their first meal in the Marine Corps and shuttled to sick bay, where Navy Corpsmen and doctors waited. They gave the boots the first set many inoculations, drew blood, checked their eyes. The recruits were subjected to a medical check and their health records were set-up.

Then it was off to the administrative section for paperwork, dog tags, ID card, allotments, service record books, and issuance of the all-important service number. Somewhere in there, the recruits were shorn of their hair in the cue ball style at the barber. They received their initial issue of clothing and 782 gear, drew rifles, received their first PX issue of personal items stowed in a brand new GI bucket. Formed into platoons of between 48 and 60 recruits, the new recruits then met their drill instructors. Leon Uris described the event in Battle Cry:

[Corporal Whitlock] paraded before the platoon, which stood frozen.
"Goddam Yankees," he finally hissed. "Goddamyankee is one word in my book. All right, you people. My name is address me as sir. You sonofabitches aren't human beings anymore. I don't want any of you lily-livered bastards getting the idea you are Marines either. You're boots! Crapheads! The lowest, stinking, scummiest form of animal life in the universe. I'm supposed to attempt to make Marines out of you in the next three months. I doubt it. You goddamyankees are the most putrid-looking specimens of slime I have have ever laid eyes on...Remember this, you sonofabitches—your soul may belong to Jesus, but your ass belongs to me."

Recruits draw rifles during their forming days. Generally, it took no longer than six days for a platoon to form and begin training. Still image from USMC motion picture film

Cpl Mortimer Cox of Birmingham, Alabama, inspects his platoon of recruits at Montford Point Camp, North Carolina. Life Magazine
Under the exacting leadership of its drill instructor, the platoon learned by the numbers; close order drill, the rocks and shoals of naval regulations, customs of the service, military courtesy, VD prevention, and a thousand other subjects. Some of them were written down in regulations, but many were passed on by word of mouth. Nothing seemed too small or trivial for the DI, and he missed nothing. In his book On Valor's Side T. Grady Gallant remembered an incident from his own recruit training:

"What are you doing?" [Corporal Blaskewitz] snarled.
"I am standing at attention, sir."
"What are you looking at?"
"Nothing, sir."
The simple revelation on my part created within Corporal Blaskewitz a deep interest. ""Well," he said, "what does it look like?"
I felt like a fool. I could think of nothing to say that did not either sound smart aleck or stupid.
"Nothing, sir," I finally answered.
"Ain't that a surprise. Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir."
"Where is it?"
"Way out there, sir."
"Well, I'll be damned. An' to think none of us ever seen it."
We all stood in silence. I was still at attention, afraid to change, or to move, for that matter."
"Come out here," Blaskewitz ordered.
I burst from the ranks and ran to him, halting at attention before him.
"Get one of them buckets and bring me back seven hundred blades of grass. And you better count right lad. You better count right."

In boot camp, the recruit grew to know his rifle and developed an almost human relationship with it. Through its' weight, his muscles developed and grew strong. By exacting and ceaseless repetition in the manual of arms, he learned discipline and teamwork. As T. Grady Gallant recalled:

We carried the rifle everywhere. Its 8.69 pounds became our pounds. We learned to handle it easily, gracefully, lovingly, and with abiding affection and respect. But this respect and love did not come immediately. At first we were new to each other; the rifle was a burden. We did not understand it; we did not know its strength, its reliability, its toughness, its simple effectiveness. We did not know its power. We did not know what it could do, or its accuracy. We did not know how comforting it would be among enemies, or that we would feel alone and naked without it. Or how reassuring its weight could be and how calm and businesslike its voice.

This sign at the Parris Island Recruit Depot reminded boots that their training was not just theoretical, but deadly serious. US Marine Corps

Lessons of teamwork, discipline and attention to detail were drilled and pounded home on the parade deck and on the streets of the recruit depots. Sweat dripping off their bodies in the summer, freezing in the winter months, recruit platoons marched mile after mile under the ever-watchful eyes of their drill instructors. The chanting cadence became their metronome. At a steady, monotone pace of 120 beats per minute, the boots learned the manual of arms and close order drill while the extra layers of civilian life disappeared under the rugged suntan of Marine life. In his wartime book Boot — A Marine in the Making, Cpl Gilbert Bailey wrote of the process:

Drill is from the simple to the complex. A baby must walk before he can run. You can't do the movements; you can't do them worth a damn. You're a stupid clown, a plowjock, a stumblebum, a knucklehead and a cow. And then finally, suddenly, you can do them. By the numbers:

"Lah flang... HAwH! Step face step. Awn awp reep fope.... fawya laf. What the hell am I counting FOR? Areep... reep.......RIp HAwH! Laf... Laf... Right flang... HAwH. Cover off theah, boy! Reep... Reep... Laf flang, HAwH! RIp-HAwH, RIp-MAwH!... Mark Time...HAwH!"

Every day you march for miles, forward marching, rip marching, flank marching, back and forth, up and down, across the field and back again, going nowhere on the double. Forty inches back to breast, shoulders back, chin up, cover off. Countless times, by the numbers, by the hour, without numbers, by the day—the same routine.

Marines in 1940 run through the obstacle course at MCB, San Diego. In the era before the introduction of the utility uniform, they wear the winter service "B" uniform for field training. Still image from the 20th Century Fox motion picture "To the Shores of Tripoli"

The critical weeks of recruit training came when the platoon traveled to the rifle range, where the recruits learned to shoot the service rifle, pistols, the Browning Automatic Rifle, and other infantry weapons. It its core, the Marine Corps lived by the ethos that every Marine was first a rifleman. As an almost mystical part of what it meant to be a Marine, the rifle stood at the bedrock of this ethos. Other than graduation itself, rifle qualification day was the single most important day of recruit training. William Manchester wrote about his own qual day in Beyond Darkness:

My Parris Island triumph came on the rifle range. On Record Day we fired sixty-six shots, all but ten of them rapid fire, at targets two hundred, three hundred, and five hundred yards away. Each shot was worth a maximum of five points, for a bulls-eye. Riflemen could qualify in three categories: marksman, sharpshooter—and very rare, requiring 305 points out of a possible 330—expert rifleman. I knew I would do well. My M1 was zeroed to perfection. I had steady hands; I could hold my breath indefinitely, steadying the muzzle; I could fold my right ankle under my buttocks for the kneeling shots; and I had 20/10 vision...Record Day was clear and windless. I hardly missed anything. My score was 317. A colonel congratulated me and told me 317 was unprecedented...My world brightened a little.

In this photograph from Life Magazine, recruits at the Parris Island rifle range practice snapping in. This was a repetitive process of dry firing. It drilled into boots the correct system of weapons handling, sight alignment and trigger manipulation.

Finally, after completing their training, the brand new Marines gathered around their drill instructor to receive their orders for further training, or assignment directly to the Fleet Marine Force. Then, the recruit platoons formed one last time for their graduation parade. At this ceremony, they could rightfully look back with a sense of pride at what they had achieved, and what they had become: United States Marines. Leon Uris wrote of the event:

Down the huge parade ground they marched, erect as one man. For the first time, they felt the full thrill of the title they would carry for the rest of their lives. Past the reviewing stand Beller barked "Eyes Right!" and he flashed his silver saber to a salute. The band struck up the Marine's Hymn. The standards of the battalion and platoon dipped and the colonel returned the salute. To a man their hearts thumped, bursting with pride beneath the neat green uniforms. They had paid with sweat, with humiliation, and a few tears for the name they had. They were Marines now...and would be to the day they died.

One young recruit among the nearly 670,000 Americans who served in the Marine Corps during the war. This one, although not well-known then, would later become instantly familiar to most Americans. His name was Lee Marvin. He enlisted in August 1942 and went to Parris Island for recruit training. In January 1944 he was assigned to the 4th Marine Division. Marvin first served with Co D, 4th Tank Bn. He was later assigned to Co I, 3rd Bn, 24th Marines. He fought in the Marshall Islands, and on Saipan, where he was wounded in action. Marvin died in 1987 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of SgtMaj Hubert Caloud, USMC (Ret)

A recruit platoon in San Diego performs advanced drill during their final week of boot camp in 1940. In addition to the more than 40 hours of drill on the training schedule, platoons performed countless extra hours of drill. Still image from the 20th Century Fox motion picture "To the Shores of Tripoli"

Boots cleaning laundry during recruit training at Parris Island. US Marine Corps



Gerald Bailey, Boot — A Marine in the Making, The MacMillan Company, 1944
Kenneth Condit, Gerald Diamond and Edwin Turnbladh, Marine Corps Ground Training in World War II, Government Printing Office, 1947
T. Grady Gallant, On Valor's Side-A Marine's Own Story of Parris Island and Guadalcanal, Doubleday and Company, 1963
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness-A Memoir of the Pacific War, Little, Brown and Company, 1980
 Bernard C. Nalty, The Right to Fight: African-American Marines in World War II, Government Printing Office, 1995
Leon Uris, Battle Cry, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1953






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