At 17, Jack Shipman enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was 140 pounds and nearsighted, simply trying to escape a troubled life at home in Maryland.
His decision brought him to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, a sprawling base south of Beaufort where slouchy teenagers are chiseled into straight-backed military men.
This was the fall of 1969. American troops had been fighting the Communist Viet Cong in Vietnam for four years. Thousands of people in the U.S. had just participated in a national moratorium protesting the war.
Shipman arrived at Parris Island and stood on the yellow footprints painted on the ground outside the Receiving Building. It is on the yellow footprints that he had his first taste of military life. It is on the yellow footprints that he had his first lesson on the proper attention position. It is on the yellow footprints that he is told by his drill instructor that there are only two ways to leave the island: in a pine box or as a Marine.
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So begins Shipman's candid recollection of his boot camp experience, captured in brutal detail in "Yellow Footprints," his first novel. Based on actual events during the training of Platoon 3074, Shipman takes readers through the boot camp gantlet, from the buzzing clippers that shear off recruits' hair to the blistering physical exercise to the complete lack of privacy. The environment, Shipman writes, "is best described as hostile, demanding and cheerless."
Recruits were not allowed to speak unless spoken to by a drill instructor. Every movement was expected to be precise and disciplined. Any undesirable behavior was swiftly corrected with verbal abuse and physical attacks.
During Shipman's time at boot camp, training was crammed into eight weeks instead of the usual 12 because of the increased number of troops shipping out to Vietnam. Drill instructors, many of whom had already experienced the harsh conditions of combat in Southeast Asia, had the enormous pressure and responsibility to prepare recruits at a faster clip. This unfortunately manifested in the mistreatment of many recruits.
"The type of drill instructors weren't the same as the ones before Vietnam," Shipman said in a recent interview. "These guys were coming home from the jungles of Vietnam with Post Traumatic Stress, which we didn't talk about in those days. And there were unresolved issues in the minds of these men, so when they got on (Parris) Island, they found they had an open door to beat the crap out of people and let the unresolved issues they were suffering come out."
Recruits in Shipman's platoon repeatedly went to the sick bay with injuries, but there was an unspoken code to never tell on a drill instructor.
"When I was looking at it from the innocence of a 17-year-old, I thought they could do this because this is the Marine Corps," Shipman said. "I didn't think that everything I went through was justified, but I still took it because I wanted to be a Marine."
"Yellow Footprints" was never meant to be a criticism of the Marine Corps, Shipman said. It was a personal catharsis and an opportunity to share his experience.
In doing so, Shipman does not hold back. All the swearing, bodily functions and insults are well-documented.
"I'm not going to water it down," Shipman said simply. In other words, you can't be a sissy if you want to read about the Marines. Oorah.
While the training Marines go through today is very different from what Shipman faced, he said there is still that uncertainty, that fear and that pride that comes with completing boot camp. But no one knows it quite like his fellow Vietnam veterans.
"We have a special club," he said. "We never talk about the war. We talk about Parris Island."