Interview with Captain Bruce McFarlane, USMC (Ret.)
26 January 2010
Hidden among the many legends and characters of the United States Marine Corps are countless Marines, Officer and enlisted, who served with distinction alongside those legends in places whose names populate the 234-year history of the Corps. These Marines shared in the hardships, the dangers, the courage, and the triumphs which made the Corps what it is today.
One such Marine turns 80 today. Captain Andrew Bruce McFarlane was born in Teaneck New Jersey on 26 January, 1930. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1948, and retired in 1971. During that time, he served in Korea with Chesty Puller’s First Marines, spent two tours as a Drill Instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, and is one of very few men to make the rather unlikely transition from First Sergeant to Second Lieutenant. As an Officer of Marines, Captain McFarlane served two tours in Vietnam, in 1966-67 and 1970-71. In his career, Captain McFarlane was awarded three Bronze Stars, (1 in Korea, 2 in Vietnam), a Presidential Unit Citation, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and a host of other medals and ribbons from his service in two wars.
USNI got the chance to ask Captain McFarlane some questions about his service and his experiences. The questions, and his responses, are below:
USNI: What was it that drew you to the Marine Corps?
I graduated from Rutherford High School, June 1947. Worked at assorted part-time jobs, decided to enter the US Military. USMC was my first and only choice. I enlisted on the Marine Corps Birthday, 10 Nov 1948, for a 3 yr enlistment. My recruiting office was in Newark NJ. I was 18 years and 10 months old. I finished “boot camp”, Parris Island SC, at the end of January, and turned 19 years old last day at Parris Island, January 26, 1949. As a young Marine, you wanted to learn & do your very best and my DI’s at Parris Island started me in the right direction.
USNI: How many WWII veterans did F/2/1 have in its ranks, and how did they provide guidance to the younger Marines during the Inchon landing and the fighting that followed?
In all early duty assignments it was those Sergeants and Corporals who had served in the late stages of WWII and decided to remain and serve 20 + years in the USMC. In the early days before Korea and during these early days in Korea, it was those WWII NCO’s who kept us alive, we soon grew up while in Korea and we became seasoned/experience young NCO’s. It was the WWII Marines made the 1st Marine Division what it was in the South Pacific (WWII) and was continued in Korea. They were the very best.
USNI: What was it like to have your Regiment commanded by Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a Corps legend?
Colonel Puller, a great Marine, when he commanded the 1st Marine Regiment in Korea, was then 50 yrs old, a real legend. I saw him a few times between Inchon & Seoul. The last saw him, he was a retired general at Quantico, Va @ the Marine Corp Birthday 1969. I was a Captain at AWS (Amphibious Warfare School). In my opinion, it is a true shame that the USMC never named a USMC Training Base/Camp after Puller. The only Chesty is the USMC Bulldog mascot, which I think is really very poor.
USNI: What was Fox Company’s role in the landing at Inchon and the fight to recapture Seoul?
F2/1 landed over Blue Beach (Inchon Harbor), and was required the following day (D+1) to take high ground around & near Inchon and continued on the MSR (Inchon-Seoul road).
USNI: Describe the fighting around the Chosin Reservoir and Koto-Ri.
Fighting around the actual Chosin Reservoir was the 5th and 7th regiments; they were deep in battle and suffered by far the most casualties in the 1st Marine Division. The 1st Marines (Chesty Puller) was located just north of Koto-Ri at Hagura- Ri. The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and the 2nd Battalion (with F/2/1) was at Koto-Ri . This was also theCP for 1st Marine Division & 1st Marine Regiment), the 3rd Battalion was south of Koto-Ri at the railroad and highway junction. As I’ve said, the 5th & 7th regiments in constant contact with the enemy!! We were at Koto-Ri, mostly securing the high ground around Koto-Ri. For sure the Marines of entire 1st Marine Division were ALL VERY COLD.
USNI: What do you remember most proudly about your time as a Drill Instructor at Parris Island?
Taking a young Marine in about 10/12 weeks from someone who knew nothing about being a Marine into a young and very proud Marine! Every day was a reward, being a DI, as you could see the individual being built. As a recruit in Nov 48- Jan 49, I was a “boot” in Platoon 254 (2nd Recruit Training Battalion). My two later tours as a DI (1951-53 & 1956-58) were also in the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion. Combined during these years I was a DI for 12 Recruit Platoons. Being a DI upon returning from Korea as a young Corporal, and 21 yrs old, I decided then and there I would make it a 20 yr career in the USMC.
USNI: What changes did you see in the years between Korea and Vietnam?
Korea was more a conventional war, like WWII. You knew were the enemy was. Vietnam was a war where the enemy could be most anywhere! The Marine in each was still a great fighter. The worst part of Vietnam was how the serviceman was treated upon his return to CONUS. This didn’t really bother me, as I was a great deal older, age 37 after my first tour, and 41 upon return from my second, and a career Marine. This was my choice. But the young serviceman understandable had great difficulty.
USNI: Making the rank of First Sergeant and then pinning on 2nd Lieutenant bars had to be quite a transition. What did you find most difficult about it?
The change from a 1st Sergeant with 17+ years as an enlisted man, to that of a brand new 2nd Lieutenant (commissioned May 1966) was what I jokingly called a demotion from 1st Sgt to 2nd Lt! I had NO difficulty at all, I well knew I could do the job and accepted the promotion (?) with great pride! When I arrived in RVN (Sept 1966), I quickly thought to myself, “What the hell have you done now”?
USNI: Were you required to attend The Basic School after commissioning?
I was not required to attend the Basic School, just pinned the “brown bars” on and headed to Camp Pendleton for training in preparation for Vietnam. This was a 1 month training period, then by AIR to Japan to Okinawa to RVN. I was 36 years old, 2nd Lt, better know as a Mustang (prior enlisted) officer!
USNI: How did your platoon and the Officers in your company react to a 2nd Lt with such long and distinguished service and a chest full of awards?
My platoon (3rd Platoon F/2/3) checked me out, they sure knew I was a “Mustang”. We had no trouble, my first rule was simple: You take care of me, and for sure I’ll take care of you. My first Company Commander was a young and newly promoted Captain, a graduate of the USNA, and he was very eager. He needed a little taming and had to know how to use his Mustang officers’ knowledge and experience. That is exactly how it was in WWII and Korea, also. Long service, for sure. Distinguished service, yes, maybe. A chest full of awards? No. I didn’t wear them in combat, day in and day out.
USNI: How do your memories as a platoon leader in combat differ from those you have as a junior Marine?
As a platoon leader in combat in Vietnam, the biggest difference was that, as an Officer, you have a Platoon of 35-40 Marines. Always your first priority was to these men, and keeping them alive! As an enlisted young Marine (PFC or CPL) in Korea your primary concern was taking care of yourself and helping your buddy. Your world was a great deal smaller.
USNI: In what area did F/2/3 operate during your first tour in Vietnam? What were the major engagements or operations?
F/2/3 primarily worked the DMZ area, from Dong Ha west to Khe-Sanh. Of my 13 month tour (Sept 66-Oct 67), I figured I spent at least 75% my time in the DMZ area. During this tour in RVN I also served in G/2/3 as a Rifle Platoon Commander and as 2/3’s Battalion Ass’t Operations Officer (S 3-A) for a few months, just before leaving in Oct 67. All of my time on this tour in Vietnam was with 2/3.
USNI: Had the conduct of the war in Vietnam changed between your first tour in 1966-67 and 1970?
There were no real changes. Vietnam lasted far too long, and no real end could be seen. Upon arriving in RVN for my second tour (June 70) the USMC had “geared down”. The 3rd Marine Division was out of country, and only two regiments of the 1st Marine Division were still in country. Major Operations were few, troops discipline was poor. As I said the RVN ‘war” was just too long. By 1970-1971 all were counting the time.
USNI: What factored into your decision to retire from the Marine Corps after 22 years?
It was very simple. In May 1966 when I was first commissioned, I accepted the fact I would likely serve for about a 5 year period in a temporary commission Program. I retired effective Feb 1, 1971 which reached the five years. During my commission time, I served as a 2nd Lt, 1st Lt, and Captain. My permanent rank at commission was a First Sergeant (E-8). About two years later I was selected for a new permanent grade of Warrant Officer (W-01). As a designated Marine Gunner (03), about a year later I was advanced to the grade of Commissioned Warrant Officer (CWO-2). I never served in either of these grades, as they were a permanent rank to go to upon reversion from Commissioned Ranks. This took place very late in December, 1970. I decided that was more than enough of the USMC for me. After 22 yrs, 2 months and 21 days I retired from the Corps.
Many thanks to Captain McFarlane for taking the time to share his experiences as a Marine in two wars and his remarkable service to Corps and country in between.
Happy Birthday, Captain! Semper Fidelis!
This post was written by the fabulous UltimaRatioReg for the USNI blog.