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Parris Island in the '30s: Pajamas, rattlesnakes and one well-placed kick

Carter Fisher
Carter Fisher Submitted photo

Activity slowed considerably on Parris Island in the 1930s as the country grappled with the Great Depression.

Following the 1929 stock market crash, only about 300 recruits were cycled through the depot each month with no company or battalion organization in use, according to the book "100 Years of Making Marines at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island."

The eager volunteers seeking action in World War I were replaced with average working men like Carter Fisher, looking for a job.

Entering the service was viewed as a way to get "three squares and a flop plus a pair of shoes," wrote Fisher, of Pennsylvania, who headed to Parris Island in 1937. Fisher's basic-training memories have been collected by author and historian Eugene Alvarez and are now housed at the Parris Island Museum.

In a 1992 letter to Alvarez, Fisher recalled being among eight men screened at the Philadelphia recruiting station. Only he and one other were chosen.

On Nov. 22, 1937, he was given a box lunch and boarded the train to Yemassee.

Once at Parris Island, Fisher found that supplies and uniforms were sparse. He got a bucket that contained soap, a straight razor and pajamas. "We drilled and slept in the latter for several days before being issued overalls," he wrote.

There was also a shortage of drill instructors, so some recruits were promoted to lance corporal and had authority only over recruits.

Fisher remembered a painful run-in with one sadistic drill instructor.

He had stumbled during a marching drill and smiled to himself that he recovered before falling.

Then he heard the shout, "Platform left!"

The drill instructor was staring him down.

"Did you smile?" the DI asked.

"Yes, sir!"

In one swift motion, the DI gave Carter a slap to the face that left him reeling.

Then it was back to marching.

"I was still a bit dazed, so I got off to a slow start," he wrote. "That was corrected by a well-placed kick."

On another occasion the recruits had hung their washed clothes to dry.

"I see nicotine on a pair of skivvies!" the drill instructor yelled.

They had to drop all the clothes to the ground and march back and forth over them, then have them washed again within 20 minutes.

And when the training was over, there was no graduation ceremony as today's recruits get.

"We did not 'graduate' with a platoon book, visitors, etc.," he wrote. "We just finished and were dispersed worldwide at $20.80 per month."

Fisher's platoon's next stop was another Beaufort County island.

"We were shortly transferred to Hilton Head, infested by rattlers and other critters," he wrote.

The men were given machetes and axes to build "an excellent tent camp" called Camp Drugal, according to his letter. Defense battalions trained on the camp.

Carter described Hilton Head in 1938 as "an undeveloped island populated by very poor blacks. There was only an oyster 'factory' and 'white lightning' at 50 cents a pint."

They arrived in January on the island, where Fisher worked as a machine gunner. The camp was abandoned in May, he wrote.

Despite the conditions and the snakes, he recalled, "This was relatively good duty, especially following Parris Island."

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