When Marine Private Lynn E. McClure died last March after being beaten during a mock bayonet drill at the San Diego Recruit Depot, the Marine Corps was accused once again of boot camp brutality. The ultimate target of much of the criticism has been Gen. Louis H. Wilson, a gung-ho Congressional Medal of Honor winner who took over in 1975 as commandant. A 35-year veteran of the corps who joined up when he was 20, the courtly, Mississippi-born General Wilson talked about the charges and the future of the Marines with Clare Crawford, Washington correspondent of PEOPLE.
How do you feel about the image of the Marine Corps today?
I think our image has not suffered tremendously over the isolated incidents at the recruit depots. Naturally, I am embarrassed and disheartened that such things can happen. I am determined that they stop; we’re going to conduct our training with firmness, fairness and dignity.
But don’t such incidents of brutality date back 20 years?
In 1956 a drill instructor at Parris Island who had been drinking made his platoon march as punishment into a swampy area with all their gear on. Six of the recruits drowned. This incident caused a series of changes in the recruit depots which was rather dramatic. But 20 years is a long time. There has been a lessening of supervision. A feeling built up that the drill instructor was an end within himself. Unfortunately, sometimes incidents like this have to occur to ensure a wide range of supervision, from me on down.
Can such incidents be prevented?
Obviously we can never completely ensure they won’t happen, because we’re dealing with people. Besides, my mission in life is not to prevent incidents at recruit depots; my mission is to provide a system under which we can train Marines who have to fight our country’s battles.
Are drill instructors one of the difficulties?
Some of the drill instructors think, “Well, the officers expect us to take care of these problem recruits but they just don’t want to know about it.” This is absolutely untrue. There is no responsible officer who will condone brutality, and there are regulations which specifically forbid it.
What are those regulations?
There is absolutely no way that an instructor can lay his hands on a recruit, even for the most minor offense—like straightening up his position at attention.
What is the average recruit like?
It has been suggested that we are reduced to taking inferior people because our quotas are high. This is untrue. Last year 67 percent of all men who got into the Marine Corps were high school graduates. This year it’s 75 percent, the highest ever.
Wasn’t the young recruit who died last March mentally retarded?
I conducted an investigation on this, and the allegation is false. As best we can tell, this young man was emotionally disturbed. There’s a lot of difference between emotionally disturbed and mentally retarded. There’s no indication that he had any help whatsoever in passing the aptitude test. He denied having a police record. He denied having been in a mental institution. And there’s absolutely no way that we could find out that he was not telling the truth. We could not check every mental institution for every person who wants to enlist. His home state of Texas has laws against revealing whether a young man has a police record or not.
Do you mean a juvenile record?
Yes. We’ve therefore been accused of accepting such individuals. Yet 35 states forbid the police from revealing this information to us.
Isn’t there any way of keeping emotionally unhealthy people out of the Marine Corps?
One of the changes I’ve made is to have the drill instructors screened by psychiatrists to find out if there’s some manifest reason why they should not be drill instructors. But there’s no way that we could now screen every young man who wants to get into the armed forces. You have to realize that the armed forces take in 1,000 recruits a day. The Marine Corps accepts 135 a day out of about a thousand who come in and express an interest.
How has the elimination of the draft affected the Marine Corps?
The Marine Corps has traditionally been an all-volunteer service, but admittedly a great many people who enlisted were keeping one step ahead of the draft. But now, with the all-volunteer armed forces, we’re trying very hard to make our system work. We are, however, having to compete with industry, as well as the other services. Still, last year, of those who were recommended for reenlistment, about 40 percent did so.
What about the recent Brookings Institution study, which recommended ending the Marines’ amphibious operations?
The proposal has been discounted by Congress and the Defense Department. Obviously, a maritime nation such as ours which is absolutely dependent upon the seas must have a force which can project itself ashore. There are, for example, 8,000 miles of coastline between the North Cape of Norway and Greece in Europe alone. We have a $180 billion investment overseas in private and government facilities, so it’s absolutely necessary that the United States have a means to get this power ashore, where and when it is required. The Marine Corps was designed for this and we’re capable of doing it.
Getting back to training, just how rough is boot camp?
It is 77 days of difficult training, completely stratified from 5 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night, and it’s going to continue to be so. But boot camp also has more mystery about it, more mystique, more rumors than almost anything else I can think of. Young people, when they get away from home, exaggerate to their friends, and their parents particularly. I am reminded of the story at Parris Island, when a mother and father were watching their son climb up a tower and then slide down a wire on a pulley before dropping into the water. The mother looked down and said, “Well, where are the alligators?” The youngster had written home, of course, that there were alligators down there.
Are you suggesting that most of the stories of brutality in boot camp are only rumors?
I’d like to say that the recruit depots are open to anyone, anytime. Visitors can walk in and watch training or look up any individual they know. Sure, you can see people get tired running and fall down by the side of the road. But they do that practicing for the high school football team, too. We have thousands and thousands of letters from parents about the benefits of the training their sons took.
The Marines still require the shortest hair of the three services. Why?
When there was a trend toward longer hair, the Marines stood firm, and I am certainly going to continue this. Obviously hair has nothing to do with a man’s ability to fight, but it is a manifestation of his willingness to accept subordination and discipline. Marines sometimes felt they were put upon, particularly in their dealings with girls who liked long hair. But this has gone by the board, and we’re really not having any trouble now on the subject.
Will homosexuals ever be accepted as Marines?
If we discover a man is a homosexual we’ll discharge him, because it’s simply a morale factor that we can’t have. If laws are passed that allow homosexuals in, then we’ll negotiate.
What is the future for women in the corps?
It’s tremendous. I’ve just authorized doubling the number of women Marines over the next three years to about 6,000 and a 50 percent increase in women officers. They’re doing a fine job in all fields.
What kinds of women are signing up?
We’re getting all high school graduates. We don’t require that but we have so many women who want to enlist that we take only high school graduates. Twenty percent of the women officers have master’s degrees, and I believe that 15 percent of the enlisted women have had some college.
What about combat?
The law now says women can’t go into combat. The American people are not ready for it, nor am I. But I have authorized a woman to be an explosives ordnance disposal officer. She’ll defuse bombs. And of the top four Marines at the engineers’ school at Camp Lejeune, three were women. I fully expect a woman to take my place one day.