I mentioned earlier this week that I wanted to start honoring veterans on a roughly weekly basis, and here’s the first of what I hope to be many interviews.
This week’s interview is with Mike Pressley, a Marine who served in the early ’80s, and lost a lot of great friends in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing.
Where were you born? Goldsboro, NC, in 1961. My Dad was in the Air Force and was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base at the time. Or as he liked to call it, Skidmore Junction Airplane Camp. I have two older brothers. David was born at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, LA, in ’55. Mark at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, in ’58.
When did you serve and where? From August 1st, 1979 to July 31st, 1983. After graduating from Parris Island October 23, 1979, I was sent to 2nd Marine Division, Camp LeJeune, NC. I did a couple of months with 2/2, got sent to radio school at Camp Geiger, graduated from there in March of ’80, went back to 2/2 for a short time, before going back to Geiger to 1/8. You’ve heard of 1/8, right?
Who was your childhood hero? I don’t know. My Dad died when I was 8. He had phlebitis (blood clots). We were stationed on Okinawa because he kept the B-52s, which were pounding targets in Vietnam, flying. The climate there aggravated his phlebitis to the point that it killed him. This happened just a couple of weeks before we were to be medevaced back to the states. So he was probably it, but I really don’t remember having a hero.
What made you want to join up? I knew that I didn’t want to go to college, even though I had a full ride from my Dad’s VA benefits. I had figured that I’d join the military, maybe the Army. After the Air Force pretty much killed my Dad, it wasn’t going to be them. Then, my junior year in high school, I read a book. “Battle Cry” by Leon Uris. It’s about the Marines in WW2, based on Mr. Uris’ experiences with 2/6.
As a radio operator. I hadn’t really had any exposure to the Corps before this, but his story of the challenges of Boot Camp, the camaraderie of the Corps, and his experiences in combat sent me to the recruiter. I signed up in the delayed enlistment program the summer of ’78 and left for Parris Island after graduation the following year.
Tell us some of the big lessons you learned from serving. I lived a pretty sheltered life, even with loosing my father at a young age. My Mom moved us back to Goldsboro after he died. We had friends there and full base privileges. After some time in the Corps, I realized that the rest of the world wasn’t like little ol’ Goldsboro and a lot of the people in it weren’t like the folks from my hometown. Especially after a couple of Med floats, Caribbean cruises, and being sent to Key West, FL, during the Mariel boat lift. It’s a hard and cruel world out there. But on the flip side of that, I made friends on a level that I had never experienced before and have very few times since. Life-long friends. Except the ones killed on a Sunday morning in Beirut in 1983. But, they’re still with me.
What was your most harrowing experience, that you’re willing to share? (This can be a training event, as I think most civilians aren’t aware of how dangerous even peacetime service can be.) Most harrowing experience. A couple. Anti-tank training on LeJeune. A back hoe dug a trench, couple of feet wide maybe 4 feet deep. We got down in the trench and 3 M-60 tanks drove over us, the idea being that we would then pop up and shoot them in the rear end with imaginary LAAWS rockets. Keep in mind that at that point the cold war was raging and we were training to fight the Soviets hordes who were expected to pour into eastern Europe at any time.
Only the trench collapsed and we had to dig ourselves out. Bob Calhoun, AKA Cowboy Bob, was really buried and we had a time getting him out. It would presage his riding the roof of the Battalion Landing Team down in Beirut a few years later, along with Joe Martucci. (Editor’s Note: Pressley is referring to the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, which killed 241 Marines and was the bloodiest day for the Corps since World War II.) They had to dig themselves out then too.
Calhoun and Martucci were sent up there on the night of October 22nd to call in a medevac for a Marine that had been shot by one of the many militias that were shooting at them during that time. When the mission secured at oh-dark-thirty, the Communications Officer (One Zero in Grunt lingo), Lt. Boccia went up and told them that they might ought to just sleep up there as it was hot as Hell downstairs. They did and it saved their lives when the bombing occurred. They were probably one of the last ones to see the One Zero (Lt. Boccia) alive. He went back downstairs and died in the attack at 0622 the next morning.
Another harrowing incident was in 29 Palms for a CAX in 1981.I’m sure that you’ve been there, lovely place isn’t it? I’m with Alpha Company (heard of them?) as the FAC team leader (Forward Air Control) and the grunts are attacking one of the tire towns. Simulated structures made from stacks of old tires, they do a pretty good job of adsorbing rounds. Gotta train with live ammo at some point.
Weapons platoon has their M-60s set up on a rise overlooking tire town, providing a base of fire for the grunts. They’re laying down the lead and stop firing so the Grunts can start moving in. They do, but then the M-60s open back up hitting the grunts. One was killed and a couple more shot. I can clearly remember the screams of a guy that was shot but mostly the anger of the Grunts. They wanted to go and kill the guys in Weapons platoon. Me being the FAC, I called in the medevac chopper and got the injured out and to the hospital. It’s kinda different when it’s for real. The training kicks in and you do your job.
What do you wish those who have never served better understood? What I wish those that never served understood? The Suck. You know what I mean. The games, the bullsh*t that we put up with in the Grunts. Long hours, longer humps. The cold, the heat. The lousy chow. The sometimes not being any chow, but you gotta keep going. All of that. But on the flip side, is the Title. United States Marine. When civilian types ask about military life, I usually tell them that the Marine Corps causes permanent brain damage and that I’m living proof. They usually don’t know what to say or laugh a kind of nervous laugh.
Are there any service members that you know, or served with, that you’d like to honor their sacrifice by naming? Service members I know or served with that I’d like to honor? Yeah, my Dad. Tech Sergeant Hugh Pressley. If it wasn’t for somebody needing to keep those planes flying to try and bomb the Vietnamese back to the stone age, he wouldn’t have been on Oki. And I like to think that he wouldn’t of died at 37 years old.
I’d also like to honor the 220 Marines, 18 Sailors and 3 Soldiers who were KIA on 10/23/83 in Beirut, Lebanon. A good number of those were guys I knew. Guys I lived with, guys I served with, guys that shared their lives with me. Some, like Ron Shallo from Hudson, NY, were guys that I spent the entire time I was in the Corps with. Ron and I went to Boot Camp together, same series, different platoons.
When we checked into 2nd MARDIV after boot camp leave, I recognized him while we standing in line waiting for our orders. I got Comm Platoon, H&S CO. 2/2. When he drew the same, I asked him if he had a car. “Nope,” he said. “I do,” I said. “Get your sea bag and we’ll go find our new home.”
We were like peas in a pod after that. When we got back from radio school, 2/2 was in the field. Us being the boot radiomen, we got stuck on mid-watch in the Combat Operations Center. After a couple of nights of radio watch, we had climbed into our hootch one morning to get some rack time. Hadn’t been there long when the flap gets pulled open, it’s the platoon sergeant, SGT. Howard. “I need 2 radio operators to go to 1/8 for a Med float.”
Ron looks at me and says. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” We pack our gear, get a ride back to mainside, pack our sea bags and head to our new home, back on Camp Geiger.
The next few years are Med floats, field ops, liberty, good times and bad. Life in the grunts. Fast forward to April of 1983. 1/8 is going to Beirut, 2/8, 3/8, and 2/6 have been there and now it’s 1/8’s turn. I’m short, with a wife and a newborn, so I’m getting out and trying my hand at civilian life. Along with a couple of others.
But there’s some Comm Marines that are extending their contracts to go to Lebanon, including Pete Murphy, Eric Washington, and Ron Shallo. I happen to run into Ron one morning coming out of the H&S Company office after formation, and he’s wearing a strange expression on his face. I ask him what’s up and he informs me that he’s just extended for 6 months to go to Beirut. He then says the words that I will never forget, as long as I walk this earth. “Come on and go with us Mike. We’ll go over there, do our time and come back with some ribbons on our chests and some stories to tell our grandchildren.”
I told him that I couldn’t do it, and he said that he understood. Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to Comm PLT, Headquarters Company, 8th Marine Regiment, and someone filled my billet with 1/8. I remember standing on the quad on Camp Geiger in early May, watching 1/8 load their gear and get on the buses taking them to Morehead City to embark aboard the US Navy ships that would deliver them to Beirut. We said our goodbyes, promising to write, and making plans to party when they returned.
They left, I stayed at Geiger until June 6th, when I started terminal leave. Being from Goldsboro, I was only a couple of hours away from home so I didn’t use a lot of my leave time. 54 days later at the end of July, I was officially out of the Corps, at least the active duty part. I still had about a year of inactive reserve time left, but no big deal. I received a couple of letters and post cards from the guys, and wrote a couple back. I basically got on with my life, finding a job and settling in to being a member of the 1st Civ Div.
Then on Sunday morning, October 23rd, my phone rang. It was my oldest brother telling me to turn my TV on, that something was going on over in Beirut. The next week or so really sucked, keeping in mind that the internet hadn’t been invented. Watching the news when I could, looking for familiar faces and not seeing any. Then the casualty lists started showing up in the newspaper. And it was bad. H&S Company was decimated, especially Comm. A lot of names. It ended up being like 33 out of 64 in Comm. Bad.
Three weeks later on Sunday morning, November 13th, my phone rings. It’s Cowboy Bob, him and Joe Martucci were dropped off at Geiger the night before with the uniforms on their backs and not much more, and they were asking if I could please come get them the Hell off of the base for a bit. After riding the roof of the Battalion Landing Team down, they had spent some time trying to help pull guys out off the rubble. It ended up being mostly bodies and parts of bodies.
They were directed to the Marine Amphibious Unit headquarters for medical treatment and guidance, the (MAU) assuming command of the Battalion Landing Team at that point. A couple of days later, they were sent to Germany where the casualties were being sent and given the job of trying to help identify bodies and parts of bodies. They then ended back in the states and were dropped off at Geiger, instructed to report to Headquarters Company to wait for the rest of the Battalion Landing Team to come back.
Keep in mind they were scheduled to rotate out of Beirut in November, and they still had to back-load all of their gear, de-snail in Naval Station Rota, Spain, and cross the Atlantic.
So I spend the day listening to them describe what had been going on over there leading up to the bombing, the actual attack, and the aftermath. And trying to wrap my brain around it all. That so many of Comm was gone, yet here were Joe and Bob. Surreal, to say the least. I stayed with them until late that Sunday, dropping them off only because I had to work Monday.
When the remnants of Comm got back, several of them would come up to my house on the weekends to get away from J-Ville (Jacksonville) and blow off steam. Many late nights listening to their stories, still in shock that so many of the guys were gone. We all had big holes in us. But that time helped me. I like to think that it did the same for them.
One by one, they exited active service and went home. Over the years, numbers change, folks moved, and I lost touch with a lot of them. Except Joe. We’ve stayed close, talking on the phone regularly, even vacationing together. Bob kinda dropped off the face of the earth. The last time I talked to him was in 2008 at the 25th anniversary ceremony in J-ville at The Wall. Next time I tried to reach out to him at the number I had, his ex-wife told me that he had passed away several months before from a heart attack.
It was like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. Him and Joe had had a falling out years earlier over something. When I called him with the news, he took it really hard. The strange thing was, when I found Bob’s obituary online, there was no mention of his service in the Corps. Nothing.
Talking with another Comm Marine from San Antonio, Bob’s hometown, he said that Bob had dropped off the radar and wouldn’t have anything to do with him. I guess that’s how he handled the tragedy that he had lived. We’ll never know. So, yeah, all of those guys that didn’t make it home. And in case you didn’t notice, Ron Shallo was killed 4 years to the day that we graduated from Parris Island.
What are your thoughts about the two major wars going on right now? Iraq and Afghanistan? Or any other thoughts on foreign policy that just frustrate you to no end. As far as what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s just the same old same old. Our guys dying for folks who really don’t give a crap about them.
What do you wish for the country? As for the future of our country, it looks like this coming election could be the one that determines the future of our democracy. Either keep what we’ve got or fundamentally change in to a “democratic socialist” country, whatever the Hell that means. It’s a dangerous road to go down, even if these clowns are telling us that the socialists are gonna get it “right’ this time. All I’m gonna say about that.
Closing remarks from Stan: I really want to thank Mike for sharing all this in a public forum. I hope you all have enjoyed it as much as I have. Mike said it had been very therapeutic typing it all out, so maybe he got as much out of it as I’m sure the readers who read it got out of it.
Thanks again, Mike, and two quick closing points.
First, if you’re a veteran or Marine who needs to re-connect with Mike or some of his unit’s members, email me at email@example.com. I’ll get you in touch with Mike privately, after getting his permission.
Secondly, I need your all’s help. Know a veteran you’d like to have honored? Email me. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll take it from there.
Hope you enjoyed the article, thanks again to Mike, and thank you in advance for those who have already sent me nominations. I need lots of help making this happen.
I really would like to do this on a pretty-reuglur basis, as just one very small way for me to help honor those who have sacrficied so much.
Stan R. Mitchell
About me: I write exciting, fast-paced thrillers. Both military action and mystery whodunnits. Ten books penned. 70,000+ sold. I also try to only write about positive things on my blog, so please consider subscribing. Or, you can sign up for my new release mailing list, where I will literally only email you when I publish a book. And obviously, if you’re looking for a quick, fun read, then click the link to check out my books. #USMC #SemperFidelis