A Bluff to Assert Authority
. . . . .
Gamble was in the brig office the first day l was on the job. He was an old hand from the 55th Draft days, and I knew him, but the others in the office were new to me. One was a great big brute of a Marine from Texas, and the other man was a Seabee in leg irons. There were more prisoners lined up in the hallway outside the office. I was well aware that first impressions are important, and all these prisoners were, of course, wondering who this new guy on the block was. I had to show them I meant business, but I didn’t know quite how I would do this. Beneath a rough exterior that I had to display, there was a meek side of me I always tried to camouflage. I was one of those kids who had been constantly beat up in high school. I was a farm boy and when it came time to putting on boxing gloves in gym class, I would rather get beat up than punch back. Then I joined the Marines. I carried the same philosophy with me into bootcamp, but it didn’t last long. One of the methods our Drill Instructor, those feared D Is, used to toughen new recruits up was to take broomsticks and fasten boxing gloves on each end. He then had two recruits stand face to face with one another and slug it out. My opponent kept slamming away at me and all I did was to try to ward off the blows. The DI saw what was happening, grabbed the broomstick away from my opponent and kept poking at me, shouting all the time, “Come on, come on, do something.” I kept falling back but he kept after me, jabbing away. The other recruits stopped their sparring and gathered around to watch us. The DI became more violent. “Come on, what’s the matter with you boy, you chicken?” Still I did nothing except to try to defend myself, but now I began sobbing, with tears running down my face. My nose too began running. I fell back, tripped and was sitting on the ground, thinking that now he would let up, but he didn’t stop. He kept hammering away at me, his voice growing more shrill and louder and louder. “You’re a shit bird and that’s all you’ll ever be-a chicken shit shit bird.” Something snapped. I saw fury, blind fury, and got back on my feet. I didn’t care if that son-of-a-bitch was my DI or the Commandant of the Marine Corps himself. I took hold of my broomstick and instead of holding it in the middle, I grabbed one end and began swinging it savagely at the DI. He now was the one who fell back. He tripped and fell to the ground, and I stood over top him and kept swinging, wanting to kill him now. I had become insane with rage, and felt no pity as the sergeant on the ground held his arms over his head to ward off the blows. It took a whole squad of recruits and another DI standing nearby to pull me away.
I was sure I’d be put on report, maybe kicked out of the Marine Corps, and I didn’t care. I’d do it again. The DI got to his feet, dusted himself off, and said, “Good work, Marine.” He called me Marine. We were in bootcamp, and he called me Marine. I was the proudest guy in the platoon, and no one messed with me after that.
Now I was confronted with somewhat of the same problem as I stood in the brig office that morning. All eyes were on me, studying my every move. Would I be a pushover? They waited.
A few minutes before, a chaser had been in the office before me, and as was the procedure, he checked in his .45 and placed it on the desk with the clip of ammo next to it. I saw the .45, went over and picked it up, and turned around and faced everyone. In a voice loud and clear, I said, “I’m a fair guy but I won’t take any crap from anyone.” The words alone weren’t that powerful, and, in fact, I thought they were rather weak, something you’d expect a second lieutenant to say, but what I did next startled everyone in the room, in the office, and out in the courtyard where the prisoners were lined up to go to chow. I suddenly became the most feared assistant brig warden in Tsingtao.
What I didn’t know was that the chaser had checked out from the turnkey the .45 and not one clip of ammo but two clips. When I saw the pistol I thought it was unloaded. But in the Marines we have a policy, and that is that every weapon is loaded unless proven otherwise. I did what we are trained to do. I pointed the .45 upwards, pulled back the slide, and by doing so, I put a cartridge into the chamber. When I pulled the trigger the weapon went off. The action so astounded me, instead of admitting someone had goofed, I said, “Now let that be a warning!”
“Hey, you got to take it easy,” the Brig Warden said to me later that day. Even the Exec had something to say when I saw him the next time. Like in bootcamp, no one fooled around with me after that.
The prisoner from Texas had a name that was hard for a Marine to live down-Herbert Jones. I believe he became a roustabout merely for defending himself when someone called him by his name. He was a fighter, and tough as they came. They used to joke that he made Charles Atlas look like the skinny kid on the beach. The irony was that he was mild mannered and soft spoken. It was only after he got liquored up on Hubba Hubba that he got wild. He got drunk one night and cleaned up a whole bar filled with Marines and Swabbies. When they called for the MPs, they asked for reinforcements, but when two 4×4 weapons carriers loaded with MPs and SPs arrived, Herbert was sitting quietly at a table by himself. He went without a struggle, and got 30 days in the brig on a Summary. I liked the guy from the start.
Another prisoner I quickly got to know was Ralph Cuzzo. He was a Seabee, a very likeable guy, but being likeable dido ‘t help him much. He was deeply involved in the black market. He didn’t sell cigarettes and toothpaste like most of us did from our PX rations. He sold stockpiles, like sacks of sugar, by the truckloads. He not only sold the sugar but he sold the trucks that delivered the sugar as well. The rumor was that he had a fortune hidden away somewhere in Tsingtao. The other thing they said was that he was in cahoots with Tony Stompano.
Tony was one of those guys that no one liked but whom we all envied. He liked to make us think that he was one of the West Coast Mafia, with connections, but a couple guys figured he was no more than a Detroit Zoot Suiter. Even without duck-tails and sideburns Stompano was still a greaser. What annoyed us most about him was the silk Chinese robe he wore to the shower room, a true Hollywood dandy. When you saw him in bars and dancehalls around town, you could be sure he’d have his necktie off and his shirt unbuttoned and wide open down the front, exposing a hairy chest and a heavy gold cross on a gold chain. He also wore a gold Rolex. He was quick to cover up when the SP appeared. Everyone figured Cuzzo was his fall guy. But I didn’t think Cuzzo would stoop that low.
Tony Stompano was basically a coward. He’d back off from a fight, but the guys never challenged him. They feared him, not for his strength, but for the fact that he might pull a knife and stick them. They felt he might even do it at night when they were sleeping. He fed on this type of glory and it made him even more obstinate. He got along great with the White Russians in town. They say he was a gigolo for a couple of White Russian women at Rusty Mary’s.
We were warned Cuzzo was going to attempt a breakout. He wore leg irons at all times, and it was kind of pathetic to watch him hobble along every day with a Marine chaser with a carbine at port arms following him. I never really thought that he would attempt it, for where could he go, but that was my mistake. He broke out one night on my watch.
Cuzzo had been tried by court-martial and found guilty. He was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and was waiting transfer to Leavenworth. His Chinese girlfriend Ping Ping came to visit him during visiting hours on Sunday, and that may have been when they planned his escape. She was a pretty thing, a bit voluptuous and very sexy. Any guy would chance going over the hill for one night with her. You could tell when you saw them together that Cuzzo was very much in love with her. That same night when I was on watch, after taps and bed check, Cuzzo slipped up a back set of stairs to the attic, worked his way through a roof hatch, dropped twenty feet to the pavement below and cut through the mesh fence. Being a clever Seabee, he had fashioned a key and was able to remove his leg irons. It was probably Ping Ping who had sneaked him a metal cutter to cut through the fence.
The authorities assumed Cuzzo would make contact with Ping Ping; they were aware of her connections on the waterfront. She and her two hood brothers had rented a room there. Chinese police began staking out the place the very first day Cuzzo was arrested. The moment we reported Cuzzo ‘s escape, the CO dispatched a patrol to search the place, and I was assigned to go with them. Our orders were to apprehend Cuzzo, and if he refused to surrender and resisted, we were to shoot, and shoot to kill. This wasn’t like fighting the Japs; he was one of us. I put a clip in my .45 but debated about putting a round in the chamber.
It was dark, near midnight, when we struck. An entire company of MPs cordoned off the street along the waterfront. The place where Ping Ping was reported to be holed up was in a row of low clapboard buildings that extended over the water on pilings. A squad of five Marines, with a lieutenant in charge, two Chinese police and me were to approach from the sea. We climbed aboard a sampan sculled by a Chinese boat boy.