Taken from Leatherneck Magazine, 1988 - Story by Jack Lewis
I stood there in the growing light, eyeing the devastation, wondering whether we could have done things differently," Marine Gunner Gilbert H. Bolton recalled, frowning at the memory, more than two decades old.
"We had accounted for 34 enemy dead, but we had six KIAs of our own, and nearly every man in the platoon had been wounded in one way or another. I wondered whether we could have done it better if our training had been better."
On the night in question -- November 2, 1967 -- SSgt Bolton was a platoon sergeant with Company "M", 3d Battalion, Seventh Marines. The place was a fire base on a featureless piece of real estate marked on the situation maps simply as Hill 25. But it was a hill that the Viet Cong wanted and, apparently, wanted badly.
Around 2 a.m., Bolton's platoon "came under intense small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire from a force composed of an estimated 100 Viet Cong soldiers," reads the gunner's Silver Star medal citation. "In the initial moments of the vicious attack, the platoon command post was destroyed by an enemy satchel charge.
"Escaping from the burning and collapsing command bunker, and realizing that the unit's primary radio was inoperable, Bolton fearlessly maneuvered through the intense enemy fire to the bunker where the secondary radio was located."
At the time of the attack, the platoon manning the fire base was under strength; down to 28 or so Marines, the gunner recalled. The odds were heavily against them.
"Encouraging his men, he quickly manned the radio and called in and adjusted an artillery illumination mission on the area which revealed the enemy penetrating the defensive wire," the citation continues.
"Without hesitation, SSgt Bolton organized a blocking force and succeeded in stopping the penetration at one point, but failed to drive the enemy back.
"As the determined Viet Cong continued to surge over the hill, he realized that drastic measures were required to save his platoon. Displaying bold initiative and extraordinary courage, SSgt Bolton, unable to contact the platoon commander, directed his men to their bunkers and, with exceptional composure, called for six 105-mm. variable-timed (proximity) fuse fire missions on his own position.
"After the fire missions were completed and the remaining Viet Cong had been driven front the hill," the citation continues, "he rallied his men, directing the recovery of casualties and assisted in reorganizing the platoon's defensive perimeter."
But as the weary Marine waited to be evacuated himself, he viewed the new troops who had come in to relieve his battered platoon and wondered what lay ahead for them. He also wondered whether more training -- better training -- could have saved some of the Marines who died that night on Hill 25. It was probably in that moment that the young staff sergeant knew he had a mission in the Marine Corps - and in his lire: to do whatever he could to provide the best possible training for combat. And that is what tie has been doing for most or the past 16 years.
"I still think back to that night on the fire base, when our perimeter was overrun," said Marine Gunner Bolton. "I think perhaps I was affected by guilt for a time...that others had died and I had not. But with the passing of time and a lot of introspection, I've come to believe we did as well as we could with an under strength platoon that was short on training."
As seems always the case in time of war, the duration of stateside tactical recruit training was reduced during Vietnam. They needed Marines on the line, not running tactical problems in the hills of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Also, due to Congressional pressure, advanced infantry training class suspended for "non-combatant" types such as cooks, bakers, administrative and aviation personnel. Certain lawmakers felt it was taking too long to train individual Marines for combat, when other services were doing it in fewer days.
"Those individuals had never heard the philosophy that 'the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.'" Gunner Bolton said.
As an 18-year-old high school graduate, he enlisted in Portsmouth, Ohio, in late 1959, leaving a potential career in the family's plumbing business. "I never looked back," he remembered. "I had my heart set on being a Marine."
Today, Gunner Bolton is the officer in charge of the Advanced Infantry Training Section at the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. There has been a lot of training, instructing and a good deal of soul-searching in the years since he first reported to Camp San Onofre in 1975; he was assigned to what then was known as the Infantry Training School, as officer in charge of Recruit Entry Level Training.
"With a lot of others assigned to the school staff, I wanted to make those youngsters into the best Marines I knew how," he said. That desire came from his earlier experiences; some of them even earlier than the pre-dawn morning on Hill 25.
"I've never had an assignment in which I didn't learn something," he philosophized. "For example, when I was a young private, fresh out of boot camp, I was assigned to an outfit when it was forming. We were to have an inspection by the commanding general, but I'd been assigned to fire-watch duty.
"I was in the company office, when the first sergeant--a grizzled, old World War II veteran with so many ribbons they dazzled me came out of his office, tying his field scarf. He was running close to being late for the inspection and glanced down to note that the rear tail of his tie did not match the front.
"Unperturbed, he simply picked up a pair of scissors and cut off the longer length of cloth. Then he marched out the door to the inspection. That's the day I gained my first insight, I suppose, as to just what a field expedient could entail. It also taught me there's more than one way of achieving an objective!"
Today, Gunner Bolton has a personal interest in the Commandant's plan to return to the old premise that every Marine is basically a rifleman. He is deeply involved in planning the training of future cooks, bakers, computer operators and aircraft mechanics as riflemen, at the School of Infantry, before they go on to specialty training.
"I think it's a good concept," he declared. "It was the cooks, bakers and clerk typists who helped fight off the Japanese banzai attack at Bloody Nose Ridge in World War II. It was those same types who picked up rifles and became infantrymen in Korea, during the 'attack in another direction' front the Chosin Reservoir. There were incidents in Vietnam in rear areas where those assigned as technicians fought off infiltrators. But a battlefield is a poor place to have to teach a man basic tactics!"
And Gunner Bolton is just as interested in a current proposal to reestablish the rank of Marine gunner in the Marine Corps. At present, he is the only 0302 Infantry Marine Gunner still on active duty. In fact, he is one of three bursting bomb wearers still in the Marine Corps. According to Headquarters Marine Corps the only other Marine gunners still on active duty are James E. Carter, who is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Guy L. Hunter Jr., from MCAS New River, N.C.
"We've probably tended to think of ourselves as a dying breed," Bolton conceded. "Military dinosaurs, if you like. But the Commandant's interest could bring about some new thinking concerning the role of the Marine gunner in combat organization."
Prior to 1916, the Marine Corps had no warrant officers -- thus, no Marine gunners. It was in that year that the Commandant of the Marine Corps recommended to the Secretary of the Navy the creation of the warrant grades of Marine gunner and quartermaster clerk; these individuals would be appointed from the Corps' noncommissioned officers.
The act of August 29, 1916 increased the strength of the Marine Corps and also provided for the rank of warrant officer. The following year, 41 quartermaster clerks and 43 Marine gunners were appointed. As might be expected, under the pressures of our entry into World War I, all but three of these Marines were later commissioned as second lieutenants.
In October 1943, the designations of commissioned warrant officer and warrant officer replaced the old titles. Still later, the commissioned warrant officer title was changed to chief warrant officer. It was not until 1956 that the bursting bomb insignia of the Marine gunner was restored for qualified personnel appointed as non-technical warrant officers. But the designation was dropped once again in September 1959.
As the Vietnam hostilities developed, the Marine gunner designation was re-instituted. That was in October 1964, and it was only for those involved with the infantry, artillery, tank, amphibian tractor and operational communications fields. Then, a decade later in 1974, the Marine gunner designation again was discontinued.
Upon returning from Vietnam, SSgt Bolton became a second lieutenant via a battlefield commission. He was assigned at the time to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, as a drill instructor. Pinning on his new bars, he completed his tour as recruit series commander and assistant director of the Recruit Special Training Branch.
In 1970, as a first lieutenant, Bolton reported on board USS Paul Revere (LPA-248) as the combat cargo officer.
"It was an interesting tour," he stated, "and we did do a good deal of training with Marines, since we carried 20 or so landing craft aboard and seemed to be involved in training operations almost constantly."
But he still was not where he wanted to be. As a drill instructor at San Diego, he had come to realize he was training young men in the initial rites of becoming Marines, but he was not in a position to teach them the tactics and the survival skills which would keep them alive in combat. That still was his goal in life.
Bolton came off the ship in April 1971, as a first lieutenant, to learn that his temporary commission had been revoked as a result of the cutbacks in funds and personnel that follow every war. However, he had been appointed a W-2 with the rank of chief Marine gunner. He was wearing the bursting bomb on his collar when he picked up his orders at Marine Barracks, U.S. Naval Station, San Diego, and headed up the San Diego Freeway to the Weapons Training Section, Edson Range, Camp Pendleton. There he served as the recruit rifle range officer for nearly three years.
"In overseeing rifle training, I was a lot closer to what I wanted to do in the Marine Corps," he said. "At least, I was working with troops and helping to teach them the type of marksmanship that would win battles and perhaps even save lives, if it ever came to that."
Once assigned to the Infantry Training School at Camp San Onofre in 1975, Gunner Bolton felt "like I'd come home. This was what I wanted to do: teach young men to be combat Marines!"
Later in that tour, Gunner Bolton organized and developed the Weapons Training School, remaining as its officer in charge until ordered to the Okinawa-based Third Marine Division in 1979.
As a result of his performance of duty during the four years he spent at the Infantry Training School, Gunner Bolton was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal by the Secretary of the Navy.
The citation points out that, while serving with the Weapons Training Section, he had been "responsible for the training of 4,000 machine gunners, motarmen and antitank assaultmen each year.
"In each of these assignments, he applied techniques of management and leadership to provide the best training possible during this short training cycle."
In addition to revising the instructional program, he was credited with establishing a new instructional facility in an area of run-down World War II Quonset huts, and reworking the firing ranges and field training areas used by his section to better support infantry training at the school.
On Okinawa, Gunner Bolton didn't feel too far removed from the job he had been doing at Camp Pendleton. He was assigned for his 13-month overseas tour as the assistant officer in charge, and later the OIC, of the Northern Training Area, overseeing field combat training for elements of the Third Marine Division.
Returning to Camp Pendleton, it was back to the same old stand. He once again was assigned as officer in charge of the Weapons Training Section. Then in May 1987, he was named to head up the Advanced Infantry Training Section, a new concept aimed at training squad leaders and platoon sergeants from the Marine divisions. This was a part of the new School of Infantry and was aimed at relieving the divisions' continuing problem of having to raid their own manpower and assets to establish and maintain division schools for such training. With a similar school now established at Camp Lejeune, instruction will be standardized Corps-wide.
One of the training innovations that Gunner Bolton has emphasized is to bring in "guest lecturers," who offer the squad leader and platoon leader students their personal insights into what real combat is all about.
"It's relatively informal," Gunner Bolton explained. "More like a 'bull' session than a class. Our guest is usually a senior enlisted man with a lot of combat experience. He sits there among the students and draws from his own background and memories, answering their questions within the framework of those recollections. It offers an added dimension to the training."
In 1963, then - Cpl Bolton was leader of a machine gun squad in the Third Marine Regiment on Okinawa. In that same regiment was another corporal, Michael Baumhover, also a machine gun squad leader. In the annual weapons competition, the action was hot and heavy as elements competed to determine who had best units in the regiment.
"I was mighty proud when my squad won the regimental competition," Gunner Bolton recalled. "Today, the corporal from that other squad is the sergeant major of Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton. And he's one of the 'old-salt' combat veterans we call upon to come and share his knowledge with our students."
Gunner Bolton views his transformation from first lieutenant to Marine gunner with a philosophic outlook. "While it may have been a step down in rank, I couldn't help but think of it as a step up in prestige," he said. "After all, there are a lot of lieutenants in the Marine Corps, but only a few Marine gunners. The day I pinned that bursting bomb on my collar was a highlight in my life. Deep down, I think there are a lot of people who outrank us who would like to be able to say they were Marine gunners once."
As for his enlisted days, Gunner Bolton thought back to them with a frown when asked what the high point of that era was.
"I guess my proudest day was when, as a sergeant, I was assigned as platoon commander with my first recruit platoon. I had two junior drill instructors - both corporals - under me, and we set out that day to turn out the best platoons we knew how."
As for the future of the Marine gunner program, Bolton has some personal feelings on the subject. "One suggestion was to re-designate all warrant officers as Marine gunners," he said. "I'm violently against that. I think the designation and the insignia should be limited to the professional fields in which the appointees are involved directly with combat arms. After all, that's the significance of the bursting bomb." Relative to qualifications, Bolton tends to consider this with a jaundiced view.
"Marine warrant officers - and Marine gunners, in particular - are in a strange situation," he answered thoughtfully. "Since we're all former enlisted Marines, we seem to have a relationship with enlisted personnel that is difficult to explain. Maybe you could call us soul mates, but that's probably not the right term to use with a Marine!"
He smiles at some secret recollection he is unwilling to share. "I do know that it's difficult for a crusty old gunnery sergeant to understand the thought process of a second lieutenant who may be 20 years younger than he is. That may be the generation gap syndrome. At the other extreme, staff NCOs don't seem to have any trouble in communicating with us. A commonality of age and experience probably have much to do with it."
Getting back to the possibility of a new crop of "bursting bombers," Chief Marine Gunner Gilbert H. Bolton finally came up with his own set of qualifications:
"I think each selectee should be at least a gunnery sergeant from the combat arms fields, and he should have a minimum of 14 years service," he decided.
"You weren't a gunnery sergeant and didn't have 14 years' service when you made W-2," it was suggested to him.
"But things get 'younger' when there's shooting." he explained, with a quiet smile. "They always do."
Editor's Note: The grade of Marine gunner will be reinstituted in September, when a Headquarters Marine Corps board will meet to select the first 15 or 16 gunners to be designated since 1974.