Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Coniferous Canine Capers

I had the great fortune to command an infantry battalion in Hawaii nine (has it been that long?) years ago. The Marines of the First Battalion of the 3d Marine Regiment (abbreviated 1st Bn, 3d Mar, or just 1/3) carried the nickname "Lava Dogs." Marines were called Teufel Hunden, or Devil Dogs, by the German soldiers fortunate to survive facing them in the First World War. Since that time, "Devil Dog" has been as near to a term of affection with which Marines will refer to one another as our warriorhood would allow. When the Devil Dogs of 1/3 moved to their current base in Hawaii following the Vietnam War, one of the island menaces they first faced (excluding the rip-off artists in Waikiki) was the rocky remnants of volcanic activity ubiquitous throughout the Big Island's Pohakoloa Training Area, or PTA. Jagged bits and chunks of broken lava, these lava dogs will chew up a pair of boots in a week of hard training or rip up a uniform in one hit and roll--not to mention the damage they can cause to skin and bone. A month-long visit to PTA was a great but costly training opportunity--both in personnel and gear casualties due to run-ins with the devilish lava dogs. So, it was a natural thing for the 1/3 Marines to assign themselves the nickname Lava Dogs.

At the Officers Club on the hill at Marine Corps Base, Kaneohe Bay, one whole barroom was filled with plaques left by battalions and squadrons. An old, broken 1/3 plaque had bolted to it the figure of a bipedal bulldog that mysteriously disappeared just prior to our battalion's deployment for a seven month stay on Okinawa. At our first 1/3 Officer's Call at the Camp Hansen Officer's Club shortly after our arrival in Okinawa, the LPA (Lieutenants Protective Association--every unit has one or shame on its lieutenants) arrived en masse in the company of one 2d Lieutenant Lava NMI (no middle initial) Dog; a bipedal wooden bulldog bearing a striking resemblance to the missing plaque dog. My XO, Dan Liddell, saw the look in my eyes and leaned in to put the theft in perspective, "Colonel, the LPA has a mascot, and it could have been worse."

He was right, and I didn't even want to ponder long on what the "worse" mascot might have been. So, I resolved to put my stamp of approval on 2dLt Lava NMI Dog as the official First Battalion, Third Marines LPA mascot, and put that resolution in written form that was published at the following Friday's Officers' Call. The resolution/commission included regulations requiring 2dLt Lava NMI Dog's attendance at all official and unofficial functions at which a simple majority of the battalion's officers were present, and made the 1/3 LPA the sole and solemn caretakers, mentors, and minders of 2dLt Lava NMI Dog. My final charge to the LPA with regard to 2dLt Lava NMI Dog, was that he was to be returned intact to his rightful place "en plaque" at the K-Bay O' Club upon our return.

Over the next few months on Okinawa, the battalion's schedule sent individual companies on separate training deployments to Australia, Korea, Camp Fuji, Hokaido, and even one platoon to the Persian Gulf as the adhoc Marine Detachment for the aircraft carrier, USS Independence. 2dLt Lava NMI Dog accompanied the battalion wherever the majority of its officers deployed. At one point I took about half of the battalion to train in Korea for a month and left the XO in charge of the remnant of the battalion on Okinawa. One day, I asked an esteemed member of the LPA about the whereabouts of 2dLt Lava NMI Dog, not having seen him at a function at which I was fairly certain represented a simple majority of the battalion's officers. The lieutenant's answer to the "Old Man" was disingenuous at best, "Sir, 2dLt Lava NMI Dog missed movement to Korea." Missing movement was a court martial offense for which the responding representative of the LPA thought, incorrectly, the LPA would not be held accountable en masse. A quick phone call back to the XO on Okinawa, confirmed not only that 2dLt Lava NMI Dog had indeed missed movement to Korea with the battalion, but was UA (unauthorized absence--aka AWOL) and whereabouts unknown on Okinawa, as well. The fact of the matter was 2dLt Lava NMI Dog had been kidnapped from the care of the LPA by person or persons unknown.

For the next several weeks, a veritable flurry--nay, blizzard--of e-mails circulated among the officers of the battalion. I, of course, instigated most of it with contemptible condemnations of the slovenly safeguard with which the LPA had performed their leadership duties with regard to 2dLt Lava NMI Dog. At one point an e-mail, as they are wont to do, leaped the electronic corral and ran amok amongst the world wide web. I began receiving e-mails of condolences and inquiries as to the status of the search for, and the investigation into the disappearance of 2d Lt Lava NMI Dog. My son wrote from Mississippi to inform me that an admiral guest of honor at his NROTC's formal dinner rose and offered a toast to "the brave, and obviously P.O.W., 2dLt Lava NMI Dog." That he might more nobly be a P.O.W., and not simply, shamefully U.A., became the tenor of all future e-mails, and 2dLt Lava NMI Dog's plight began to take on the status of legend with rumorous reports of his exploits and escape attempts foiled by cruel captors.

At every assemblage of the battalion's officers, I asked for a report from the LPA regarding 2dLt Lava NMI Dog. Soon enough, the LPA pointed a disrespectful finger of fault at their superiors in the battalion's CPA (Captains Protective Association--every unit has one or shame on its captains). The furor that ensued was sheer delight to the XO and me--we had the spotlight and angry attention off of the more onerous requirements we "Old Corps" Marines were placing on the newest generation of Leathernecks (we were on a crusade to maintain the conservative standards of personal appearance and conduct, and Old Corps customs and courtesies, with which we had been raised as lieutenants).

The CPA, it turned out, had indeed taken 2dLt Lava NMI Dog captive; and the LPA finally planned, organized, and executed a rescue raid combining strategic and operational surprise and deception reminiscent of the much-studied Son Tay Prison Camp raid, and tactical actions not matched until Tom Cruise made the movie Mission Impossible. 2dLt Lava NMI Dog was found in solitary confinement in air conditioning ducts in the ceilings over adjoining rooms of two members of the CPA who vociferously denied any involvement and actively accused the LPA of a colossal frame-job.

Great entertainment for all involved--and several weeks of a long deployment passed quickly.
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