I'll never forget how we observed a "Holiday schedule" of allowing the prisoners, which we called "confinees," to write letters home, read their Bibles, work on their gear, attend church services, and of course, later have Thanksgiving dinner. I remember marching them to chow that day. I purposing gave them a little leeway that day since it was Thanksgiving. No, marching 85 prisoners to their Thanksgiving meal was not the time to jump down their throats for being too out of step. That sort of thing could wait for a little while until marching back from chow.
We had two platoons of more than 80 prisoners each at Correction Custody. It was a "Re-motivation" facility, a place where bad attitudes could be adjusted and brought back into line with the needs of the Marine Corps. It was the place where Marines who had gone astray were "rehabilitated."
It was a tough place where Marines regained discipline, again found their sense of pride, and again found the bearing that they needed to be Marines. And yes, the men sentenced there were already Marines. Most were there because of minor violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. At the time, all were non-violent offenders who got 90-day sentences. And frankly, it was 90-days of Hell for the most part.
I remember one senior Instructor joking once about how we were in the "salvage business" to see if we could help those who the Corps could salvage instead of simply booting them out with Bad Conduct Discharges. With the classes in essential-subject, close order drill, almost daily inspections, physical training, and personal counseling, it was an effort to see if they could be salvaged as Marines. Some called Correctional Custody a "Boot Camp" refresher for Marines already in the Corps. All in all, looking back on those days so many years ago, I really believe that it was a successful program.
I became an Instructor there in February of 1976 just a few months after coming home from deployment overseas. As with all Instructors, I started out as a Section Leader under a Platoon Sergeant. As I said before, we had only two platoons at "CC" which were made up of an average of 85 men each. We had one Platoon Commander who oversaw operations of both platoons. Of course, the facility did have a staff of senior Staff NCOs and an Officer in Charge. But for all intense and purposes, the Platton Sergents was responsible for the training and rehabilitation of the men in their platoons. I became a Platoon Sergeant in April of that year. And for the next year and a half, because of long hours and strain, it would be the toughest duty of my time as an active duty Marine.
As for Thanksgiving of 1976, when we got to the Chow Hall, I remember turning the platoon over to a Corporal so that I would be able to check on progress in the Chow Hall. My platoon stood at attention waiting for me to tell them to "Enter," as I walked into the Chow Hall ahead of them to check to see if the Chow Hall was ready to serve them.
One of the aspects of being an Instructor at "CC" was that all of us were trained to have a keen eye, for attention to detail, to notice overt acts, suspicious movements, anything out of the norm. On that day, I remember seeing the cooks and servers behind the chow line take food such as turkey and mash potatoes off the serving line. I watched as they replaced the "Holiday Meal" with cold spam and beans.
By my watch, I needed to get my platoon into the Chow Hall by then. So yes, I gave the signal to my Corporal to bring them in. As my platoon entered, I stopped them at the point where they would pick up their meal trays.
I then walked up the serving line and looked at each Marine serving on the line. I found a Corporal and asked him if he was in charge of the Chow Hall? He said that he wasn't, but there was a Gunnery Sergeant who was. I asked to speak to that Gunny.
Knowing that the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) of the Chow Hall was a Gunny and that he out-ranked me made me watch my words as I spoke to him. I certainly didn't want to be hit with "disrespect" charges, so I measured my words as I spoke to him. Yes, always be courteous.
I still remember what I said to him. I first, very politely, asked him why the hot turkey and mashed potatoes were removed from the serving line? He told me it was none of my business. I then asked if there was a reason that my platoon was being denied a "Holiday Meal"?
He was very straightforward and didn't beat around the bush with his answers. He first told me that I needed to remember that I was just a Sergeant and that he was a Gunny, and that I should not question how he runs his Chow Hall. He then said, "Sgt., your prisoners don't deserve turkey and mash potatoes on Thanksgiving. They get spam and beans!"
I remember nodding to acknowledge that he outranked me. I remember saying, "Yes, Gunny. You are obviously right in the fact that you outrank me, Gunny." And yes, I watched a smile appear on his face when he heard me say that.
Then I watched that smile disappear when I informed him, "You do know that there is a Marine Corps order specifically regarding 'Holiday Meals' for prisoners?"
My men waited and later I found out they witnessed my encounter with the Gunny. I didn't know until later that they overheard me asking that Gunny for his name so that I could make a report of who refused my platoon of their prescribed "Holiday Meal." I found out later that I was overheard telling him that I witnessed turkey and mashed potatoes being purposely removed from the serving line -- so as to intentionally deny them their Thanksgiving meal. And yes, I learned later that the Gunny did not like the fact that I went to bat for my men -- prisoners or not.
After calling me a few choice words, he then told me that he would speak to my NCOIC about my behavior which he called "borderline disrespect." I nodded and informed him that that was his choice. I also informed him that I had a responsibility to my men -- prisoners or not. It was then that he told his Corporal to bring back out the turkey and mashed potatoes.
After the turkey and mashed potatoes replaced the spam and beans, I told my men to proceed and side-step through the chow line. I also had my Corporal follow suit and also get his meal. He ate while I "walked the floor" to maintain order.
It was a very memorable Thanksgiving for me. For one reason, I later found out that my going to bat for my men actually motivated them to work harder, march better, and want to follow orders. Of course, later I found out they all had a laugh about it as well. Their laugh was not about my going to bat for them. It was about what happened after my Corporal finished his meal and relieved me on the floor so that I could get my dinner.
You see after my Corporal relieved me, I went up to the chow line to get my meal. The Gunny Sergeant in charge of the Chow Hall waited until I had my tray in my hand before he told his Corporal to remove the turkey and mash potatoes from the serving line. I watched as he had them remove pans of food just so his men could give me a single dried piece of spam and some cold beans.
I will always remember how that Gunny smiled at me as I put my tray out for each server to plop a spoon full of beans on my tray. I still remember how he smiled when he had the bread rolls taken off the line. He seemed especially content when he was able to tell me that he hoped that I enjoyed my Thanksgiving dinner.
I also remember saying "Thank you. Every day's a holiday, and every meal's a feast." That was a saying that we had in those days, especially when things turned a bit sour. We would simply remind ourselves that things could be much worst than they were at that moment. We Marines did that by jokingly saying, "Every day's a holiday, and every meal's a feast." And yes, it's something that folks will still hear me say today for all of the same reasons.
So now, looking back on those days, it was probably one of the most memorable Thanksgiving meals that I've ever had. And yes, because I was taught as a kid that I should be grateful for all that I have even if it is a piece of spam and a spoon full of cold beans, I gave thanks to God for all of my blessings.
I still do.