Sunday, June 18, 2023

My Crime Fiction: 'Boots On The Ground'

The below story about Navy Boot Camp is chapter seven in my crime thriller Olongapo, which I hope to publish this year.  

Boots On the Ground

By Paul Davis 

Prior to going on watch in the USS Kitty Hawk’s message processing center as we were operating on "Yankee Station" in the South China Sea off the coast of North Vietnam in 1971, I was standing in line in the galley waiting for chow to begin being served.

Standing in line with me was Willie Henry, a bulky 25-year-old black sailor from Houston who worked with me in the aircraft carrier’s Communications Radio Division. Henry was wondering what was going to be served.

“If I can’t put it between two pieces of bread, I ain’t eating it,” Henry explained.

“I guess soup is out,” I said.

In the past, I’d seen him place a large piece of meatloaf between two pieces of sliced white bread, and another time I saw him slap a thick steak between slices of white bread. I even once saw him place a mound of mashed potatoes between slices of white bread and squash it down.

“Gangway! Prisoners!” 

We moved aside when we heard the Marines yell as they marched the dozen or so brig prisoners past us to the head of the chow line.

“That’s Lupre,” I said, pointing towards the brig prisoners. 

I recognized the tall and lanky black sailor, his head shaved, marching in close order with the other brig prisoners, toe-to-heel and crotch-to-ass. 

“You know Louie Lupre?” 

 “Yeah. He was my friend in Boot Camp.” 

Henry told me that he met Lupre in Olongapo. Henry said that this was Lupre’s second time in the brig. Lupre, usually a low-key guy, was working as a mess cook when he assaulted a petty officer who threw a mop at him and ordered him to swab the deck. Lupre hit the petty officer with the mop.     

Henry said that Lupre had previously punched out a petty officer who was stupid enough to raise his voice at him. Henry also told me a story of Lupre in the “Jungle” section of Olongapo, where black sailors preferred to hang out away from the white sailors.       

“Two brothers were razzing Lupre about being a dumb, country-ass fool,” Henry said. “Lupre didn’t say anything back. He just punched them both out. One, then the other. That crazy brother hits hard.”

I liked Lupre and I felt bad for him. As I stood in the chow line, I thought of our time together in Boot Camp.


The road to Olongapo for me began on a platform at the North Philadelphia train station on February 9th in 1970 when I was 17 years old. My mother and father were with me as we waited for the train to take me to Chicago and then on to the Naval Recruit Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois.

Salvatore Lorino was also there, standing alone a few feet from me. I recognized him from our South Philly neighborhood, and I was surprised to see him there. I nodded to him, and he nodded back.

We later spoke on the train as we barreled towards Chicago. Sitting in the diner car, I looked at the menu, thinking I was worldly and cool like actor Sean Connery as James Bond on the Orient Express train in the film From Russia With Love. The waiter disabused me quickly of this notion, as he told us that as Navy recruits, our meals were planned and prepaid.

Lorino told me over dinner that a judge ordered him to join the military or go to prison, so he decided to enlist in the Navy. He wondered if he had made the right choice.

I told Lorino that I needed to use the restroom and I went off in search of one. The train was rocking hard from side to side as it sped on, and I tried with some difficulty to keep my feet firmly on the restroom’s floor and keep my stream of urine directed at the center of the toilet as I swayed uncontrollably from the train’s motion. I recall hoping that my aim would be better on the Navy’s rifle range.

When we reached Chicago, all of the recruits transferred to a bus that took us to the Navy base, arriving late in the evening. It was bitter, bone-chilling cold, as we stepped off of the bus. As we emerged from the bus, we were greeted by a screaming wild man. The wild man yelled out that he was Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Petty Officer Calhoun, our company commander. Calhoun had a pronounced rural Southern accent, and he cursed us as he herded us into the barracks like we were cattle. 

The barracks, built in WWII, was decrepit and dreary. And very cold. The two-tier bunks, called racks, appeared to be even older than the barracks.

Calhoun was a muscular 6-footer with close-cropped blonde hair. He berated us and hurled insults ranging from “fucking pussies” to “candy-ass pukes.”

Navy recruit basic training was informally called “Boot Camp” and recruits were called “Boots.” We were in the U.S. Navy, but for the next three months we would not go aboard a ship or go to sea. First, we Boots had to be trained as sailors and military men ashore at Boot Camp. We were, in a sense, Boots on the ground.

Once in the barracks, Calhoun informed us that in the U.S. Navy’s order of things, Boots like us were less than human and we would be treated accordingly. Calhoun had us line up in front of our assigned racks. He informed us that we were in a temporary barracks and in one week’s time we would be “crossing the river” to our new barracks.

The following day we were issued uniforms and had our heads shaved. We spent that first week at Boot Camp marching, running, doing calisthenics and extreme exercises with a 12-pound M-1 rifle. As punishment for infractions, the recruit offender had to extend his arms outward and hold the rifle horizontally at shoulder’s length. 

Sounds easy? Try it for a half-hour, as I did on several occasions.   

I hated the company commander, as we all did, even though as the son of a former Navy chief, and a voracious reader about the Navy and the military, I knew that these extreme basic training conditions were meant to instill military discipline and teamwork. Still, I thought the company commander went way overboard, and he appeared to truly enjoy torturing the recruits.

That first week in Boot Camp we had to memorize the 11 General Orders of a Sentry, and we had to recite them to any drill instructor who happened to visit us while on watch. We stood security watches across from the company commander’s office, at the head of the passageway between the rows of bunks in the barracks. While on watch, we stood at parade rest, our right hand on our M-1 rifle as it leaned forward at our side, and the left hand placed behind our back, with our legs spread apart. 

While standing watch one early morning as the recruits were asleep, Calhoun snuck up on me. He looked me up and down, shook his head in disapproval, and called me a candy-ass and a puke excuse for a sailor. I stood rigid and said nothing, but I had a fine thought about punching this old man's lights out if I ever encountered him outside the base.

Calhoun placed his ugly, twisted face nearly up against mine and screamed, “What is the 5th Order of a Sentry?”  

"To quit my post only when properly relieved, Sir!" 

Calhoun looked disappointed that I knew the response. He walked into his office without another word.

Over the course of the first week, I saw many other recruits draw a mental blank through nervousness, and some broke down and stammered, and some even cried when Calhoun screamed, cursed, waved his hands about, and stomped his feet in an effort to confuse the sentry.   

Having been raised by a former Navy chief who ran our house like a ship, I felt like I grew up in the Navy. So this was not new or especially intimidating to me.

 "Did you eat shit for breakfast?” I recall Calhoun asking one recruit.

 “No, Sir,” the recruit replied.

 “Then why you got a shit-eating grin on your fucking face?”  

 Calhoun didn’t take particular notice of Lorino and I, thankfully, but he tormented Louis Lupre, a tall, gangling and soft-spoken 20-year-old black recruit from Louisiana.

 Calhoun seemed to always find fault with Lupre, from the way he made his rack, to the way the tall recruit stood at attention. At least twice a day, Calhoun would be on Lupre, mocking his name and his looks, and criticizing the recruit’s actions. Lupre took it all in stride, and this appeared to infuriate Calhoun.     

 “You got kerosine rags around your ankles, Lemonade?” Calhoun asked Lupre while we were all at attention for an impromptu inspection by the crazy company commander.

 “Sir, what?”

 “You got kerosene rags around your ankles to stop them ants from crawling up your leg to eat your candy ass.”

Lupre frowned and shook his head, “No, Sir.”  

 “You eye-balling me, boy?” Calhoun said as Lemon stood at attention.

 “Don’t’ call me boy,” Lupre said in a low voice.

 “Don’t call me boy - Sir!” Calhoun yelled back. “I ain’t calling you boy because you is colored. I’m calling you boy because you is a boy – a young boy Boot!”

 I was one of many, if not all, who silently urged Lupre to strike Calhoun.

Thankfully for Lupre, he did not. 


 At the end of that long first week, Calhoun told us to go to afternoon chow. 

“I don’t care if you just drink a glass of chocolate milk, I want you back here in fifteen minutes at 1300,” he screamed, his face red and distorted, saliva spitting out from his rubbery libs. “I want to see you in full uniform at parade rest with your sea bag in front of your rack ready to march across the river.” 

 We quickly gobbled some food and then rushed back to the barracks. “Full uniform” meant a Navy-blue wool watch cap, a Navy-blue wool turtleneck sweater under our chambray shirt, bell bottom dungaree pants, “BoonDocker” boots, and a heavy, double-breasted Navy-blue peacoat. After about a moment or two of standing at parade rest, our arms folded behind our backs, legs apart, we discovered that the insane company commander had raised the heat up in the barracks. 

 The barracks was like the proverbial oven and with our layered clothes, the sweat poured off of us. The barracks had a wall clock and out of the corner of our eyes we watched time tick on slowly as we remained at parade rest. No one moved, as we were terrified that Calhoun would sneak in and catch us off guard.   

 It was not until 1400 that a grinning and prancing Calhoun swept into the barracks. He appeared to enjoy seeing our discomfort.       

 "I got some bad news for some of y’all,” Calhoun announced to the sweat-soaked and weary recruits. “We are splitting the company up. Some you pussies will not have the pleasure of serving in my company.” 

He explained that those he called out would be transferred to another company under another company commander. 

“When you hear your name, fall out.” 

After the fourth name was called, I heard him say “Davis, Paul.” 

“Thank fucking God," I said aloud without thinking.  

Calhoun was on me in a flash. His twisted face, which no doubt housed a twisted mind, came within an inch of my own. 

“You don’t like me, do you boy?”

“No, Sir. I don’t” I replied.  

“Well, at least you’re fucking honest. Move out!”


Lorino remained in Calhoun’s company as I joined Lupre and the other recruits outside of the barracks. We met our new company commander, a stout Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Petty Officer with thick glasses named Schmidt. He was no sweetheart, to be sure, but he was certainly less manic than Calhoun. 

The new company commander lined us up and marched us across the mythical “river’ that separated the old base from the new. “Across the river” was often mentioned that first week and we were all taken aback to discover a body of water more accurately described as a small creek than a river. And the bridge across the shallow water looked like the kind of “bridge” one would see at a miniature golf course.     

Thankfully, the new barracks we moved into was recently constructed and we felt much more comfortable. Lupre’s rack was across from my rack in the barracks, and we became friends. Lupre told me that he was glad he was no longer in Calhoun’s company. 

“At some point, I would have punched that cracker and ended up in the brig.”

Lupre told me that I was his first white friend. He said that in the rural Louisiana area where he was born and raised, he had seen the occasional white man, but as his neighbors and his schoolmates were all black, he had no real contact with white people. Lupre, who didn’t say much, told me he got a kick out of my stories and old jokes.

One humorous story I told Lupre, and a couple of other recruits cracked him up.

“I passed this old guy on the sidewalk the other day. “How ya doin?” I said to him in passing.”

“Sailor!” I heard the man call out behind me. I turned and asked, “Are you talking to me?” I wasn't sure if he was talking to me, as no one ever called me a sailor before.”

That got a big laugh from the other recruits. 

“Look at my uniform, sailor.” The man bellowed in a commanding voice. 

“Hey, don’t feel bad,” I replied. “Look at the one they gave me.”

That also got a big laugh. 

 “The man looked frustrated and angry. He sputtered and finally said, “I’m an admiral!”  

“Yo, that’s a good job. Don’t fuck it up.”

My fellow recruits laughed heartily.

I also told my fellow recruits about the time I saw a Navy corpsman in sick bay and told him I had a back problem. 

About a half hour later the corpsman ushered me into the Navy doctor's office. The doctor consulted a sheet and asked, "You have a back problem? 

"Yes, Sir," I replied. "I wish I was back home in Philadelphia."

Another time when a recruit mentioned that he joined the Navy to see the world, I responded, “Well, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I joined the Navy so the world could see me!”

That made Lupre laugh out loud.


On one cold and gray day, Schmidt stood in front of us on the “grinder,” a football field-sized cement parade ground across from our barracks where we marched, ran and performed physical training, called PT. Seeming out of the blue, Schmidt told us that the best tool our enemy the Communists have is “McHale's Navy,” a popular TV comedy that aired in the mid-1960s. He did not elaborate and moved on to another subject.

Back at the barracks, I told Lupre that “McHale's Navy” was one of the reasons I joined the Navy. Lupre never saw the show, so I told him that “McHale’s Navy” starred actor Ernest Borgnine, a real Navy veteran, as the commanding officer of a PT boat in WWII with a crew of rough and roguish sailors. McHale’s sailors were wild and undisciplined on shore, but when it came to fighting the Japanese at sea, McHale’s PT boat had the best combat record. McHale’s nemesis in the show was Captain Wallace Binghamton, portrayed by actor Joe Flynn. Binghamton was an incompetent and ambitious officer who resented McHale’s combat success. He was called "Old Lead Bottom” contemptuously by McHale and his crew.

I told Lupre about one particular episode that I loved. In that episode, Binghamton was sucking up to an admiral at lunch. Binghamton told the admiral that McHale and his crew were pirates. He said he had to watch them all the time.

"You have to be ruthless with them, " Binghamton explained.

The admiral responded that his style was less adversarial, and the men under him loved him.

"But that's me, admiral," Binghamton proclaimed. "Lovable and ruthless."

Lupre laughed.


Despite a rigorous schedule of physical training and classroom instruction, we had some humorous moments in Boot Camp. As part of the recruit uniform, we carried a folded 8x5 notebook tucked under our belts. Schmidt often pulled out our notebooks to see what notes we were taking from our classes. 

One afternoon in the barracks, while we were all at attention in front of our racks, Schmidt pulled out the notebook belonging to this odd, quiet recruit named John Trevor.

The company commander was furious to discover that Trevor had drawn several crude pictures of female anatomy in his notebook.

 “What the fuck is this, Trevor?” Schmidt asked. “You defaced Navy property with your stupid drawings of tits, ass and pussy!”

Trevor looked as if he were about to cry.

“You like pussy?” Schmidt asked.

“Yes, Sir,” Trevor mumbled.

“Then eat that pussy.”

Schmidt tore out a page from the notebook, crumpled it up and shoved it in Trevor’s mouth. Half of the page protruded from Trevor’s lips as he stood rigid at attention. We all started laughing.

“Anyone who thinks this is funny, get down and give me 20,” Schmidt yelled.

I hit the deck, like Lupre and most of the recruit company, and began doing the 20 pushups as we continued to laugh.

The following day our company was ushered into a gymnasium where we were addressed by a Navy Captain. The big, red-faced Irish Catholic Chaplin said he was from Philadelphia, and he asked if anyone was from Philadelphia.

I raised my hand.

“What part?”

“South Philadelphia, Sir.”

“What are you, a South Philly hoodlum forced to join the Navy because you stole a car?”

I stammered and started to respond, but the Chaplin moved on, speaking to someone else.

Back at the barracks, I was approached by Ronald Watts, a 22-year-old tall and muscular black recruit from Chicago. Earlier, Watts had been pointed out to me by another black guy from Chicago. Watts, I was told, was a notorious drug dealing gang leader and supposedly a hit man. When he was arrested for various crimes, his lawyer greased palms - the Chicago way - and the bribed judge offered to drop charges if Watts joined the military. Although Watts was a veteran of gun battles on the streets of Chicago, he feared gun battles in the jungles of Vietnam, so he joined the Navy.

“So, you a hoodlum from South Philly?” Watts said to me with a broad smile. “A judge let me join up in this here Navy to avoid prison too. Better the Navy than the joint, huh?”

I agreed.

 Watts was a bully and he enjoyed tormenting the other recruits who were afraid of him, but he left me alone, thinking I was a fellow hood. But Watts made a mistake in ridiculing Lupre. Like Calhoun, Watts thought Lupre was an easy target. Watts would tear into Lupre whenever he passed by, mocking him for being a country boy and calling him “Stepin Fetchit,” after the black vaudevillian and film comedian whose stage persona was billed as “the laziest man in the world.”   

While we were in the head brushing our teeth one cold morning, Watts started in on Lupre, calling him a “country boy retard.” Without a word, Lupre turned and hit Watts. Watts fell to the deck and was out cold. Several recruits, including me, laughed.

Watts was picked up and taken to sick bay, where he told the corpsman what he had told the company commander - that he slipped and fell.


Later that day, I told Lupre that I was impressed with the punch he threw at Watts. 

“I boxed at the Boys’ Club in South Philly. Did you train as a fighter too?”

 “No,’ Lupre said softly. “That was only the second time I hit somebody.”

  “Wow. That was a good punch. Good snap. But I was taught to throw combos, a combination of punches together, not just one punch.”

 “I only needs one punch.”

 “So you do,” I replied.   

 “The first time I hit a boy was in school,” Lupre said. “This boy was always calling me a slowpoke. I didn’t pay him no mind until he shoved me into some lockers. I punched him.”

 "Don’t tell me: you knocked him out?”

 "Yeah, I did.”

 "You should go into the ring. You’re a natural.”

  “No. I don’t like fighting.”

  “Tell that to Watts.”    


 The following week, perhaps to redeem himself in the eyes of the company, Watts took on a big, white country boy named Baines. Without provocation, Watts punched Baines square in the face. Baines absorbed the punch and grabbed Watts around the arms, which prevented the Chicago hoodlum from throwing another punch.

 Schmidt witnessed the entire altercation in the barracks. He broke up the fight and ordered Watts to go to the building’s quarterdeck and report to the company’s lieutenant. Watts did not return to the barracks, and someone gathered up his personal belongings and took them away. We later heard that Watts was kicked out of the Navy.


Schmidt didn’t like me. I asked too many questions, made sarcastic comments, and talked too much, as Schmidt told me several times over the course of our training.

“You’re a real smart ass, Davis,” he said.

But I scored high on the classroom instruction weekly tests, and I could march, shoot, and do PT, so Schmidt tolerated me.

On the last day of Boot Camp, as we were preparing to go home on a week’s leave before reporting to our assigned ships, stations or service schools, Schmidt looked at me and Lupre as we were packing our seabags.

    “You got plans to fuck a girl when you get home, Davis?”

   “Several, Sir,” I replied.

 Lupre chuckled softly.


Once the Kitty Hawk’s brig prisoners were seated together with their trays of food, the cooks began to serve the rest of us. Henry was happy because they were serving ham, so he was able to make a ham sandwich for himself. 

I looked over at Lupre. With the Marine guards watching him and the other prisoners closely, Lupre’s eyes faced straight forward as he chewed his food.    

Henry leaned over and told me that he heard that Lupre was going to be kicked out of the Navy with a dishonorable discharge once he got out of the brig.      

I felt bad for Lupre. As I recalled from Boot Camp, he was a friendly, unassuming guy - until he was pushed. 

© 2022 By Paul Davis 

Note: You can read the first two chapters of Olongapo via the below link:

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Butterfly'

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Salvatore Lorino'

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