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Jan-05-2010 00:05printcomments

Marine Drill Instructor Remembered

Marine veteran remembers a senior drill instructor who was awarded the Navy Cross with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (the “Walking Dead”) in Vietnam and later killed at Con Thien, RVN, in September 1967.

SSgt Jettie Rivers Jr.
Rare photograph captures a glimpse of one of the few black Marine drill instructors in 1962: SSgt Jettie Rivers Jr. A few years later he was killed while serving with the famous Marine Corps 1/9 "Walking Dead". Photo: Robert O'Dowd

(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - It’s been 48 years since we got off the Greyhound bus at Parris Island. The bus ride from Yemassee, South Carolina to Parris Island went quickly.

Thirteen of us had boarded the train in Philadelphia, after taking the Oath of Enlistment at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard. We changed trains in Washington. The overnight train from Washington came to an abrupt stop at Yemassee at 0530 on January 26, 1962.

We didn’t have to wait for instructions. Two Marines with no nonsense attitudes boarded the train and in tones that only Marines can mimic, quickly got all 20 of us off the train.

It had snowed in the North and we were wearing winter coats. We had left the North and winter and gone into another world with palm trees and summer warmth. No need for suntan lotion. While waiting for the bus, we sat at rigid attention on bare bed springs in the wooden Receiving Barracks, interrupted by policing (cleaning) the main street of the town. Once on the bus, those of us who smoked tossed our cigarettes out of the windows, after one Marine NCO let it be known you couldn’t “light up” whenever you felt like it. We were becoming quick learners.

Marine Corps boot camp covers a 13 week training cycle. Recruits west of the Mississippi go to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego; while those east of the Mississippi go to Parris Island. The standing joke in the Corps was that “Hollywood” Marines have it easier than those going through Parris Island. Don’t believe it.

Not everyone makes it through Marine Corps boot camp. Enlistment was not a free ticket into the Marines. You had to earn it. We had a number of recruits who couldn’t keep up with the training because of sprained ankles or broken bones. Once healed, they were assigned to another platoon to complete training. I don’t know the “drop-out rate” but you can bet, no one made any calls to their mothers asking to go home.

A Marine Corps boot camp platoon only has one senior drill instructor and one or more junior drill instructors. SDIs are easily identified by their black belts. As want-a-bee Marines, the first and last words out of our mouths when addressing any drill instructor was always “Sir”! Woe to any recruit who forgot that rule.

Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Jettie Rivers took over our platoon from a very tough Korean War veteran who had to suffer from PTSD. If anyone needed “anger management,” our SDI was at the top of the list. Physical beatings were common. One recruit (now dead) had his front teeth knocked out for reading a letter from his girl friend after lights out.

Our SDI even challenged other drill instructors for no apparent reason. More than once, it looked like an argument would result in a fist fight on the parade grinder between two drill instructors. At the rifle range, anyone with a “Maggie drawer’s” (missing the target) was hung up on their thumbs by their belt suspender straps. Trust me, you don’t want to repeat this at home.

There was no “change of command” or unofficial explanation. From the Marine Corps’ perspective, no explanation to recruits was necessary. At reveille, we now had two SDIs.

For a few days, SSgt River appeared to take the role of an observer. To our amazement, SSgt Jones (fictitious name) hurled racial insults at him without any reaction. It’s obvious now that Jones suffered from PTSD from combat with the 1st Marine Division in Korea.

The only clue that “something was up” came when a junior drill instructor who could easily masquerade as the Marquis de Sade read SSgt Jones’ Silver Star citation with tears in his eyes. I doubt if any recruits felt the same way. The next thing we knew was SSgt Jones was gone and SSgt Rivers was the new SDI.

Jettie Rivers, age 29, was an oddity at Parris Island. In 1962, you could count the number of black Marine drill instructors at Parris Island on one hand. A wiry, athletic man from the deep South, he would prove that he didn’t have an ounce of prejudice in his body, even though black men in the South in those days couldn’t eat at a restaurant with whites or even ride in the front of a bus with whites.

Racial prejudice was the norm in the South in the 1960s. To this day, it’s hard to believe that Jettie Rivers was not affected by the abuse he experienced growing up in Alabama and Tennessee.

Jettie Rivers was an extremely fair, disciplined man in an environment where others often stepped across the line. He never laid a hand on any recruit, never cursed, never got into your face nor did he tolerate abuse by others. In 1962, this was exceptional behavior for a Marine Corps drill instructor.

You can get an idea of what Parris Island was like in those days by watching “Full Metal Jacket.” Just up the violence in the film by a factor of 10 or so and you should have some idea of how tough things could get. Physical beatings were common in the 3rd Battalion. There was always a price to pay for a “mistake.” All of this changed for the better when SSgt Rivers took over the leadership role of an SDI.

As a skinny 19-year old Marine boot, I had difficulty in getting over the obstacle course with my rifle, pack, cartridge belt, canteen, and helmet, ‘782’ gear in Marine speak. In his typical quiet way, SSGT Rivers identified the problem and took appropriate corrective action. He had me working on increasing arm strength in the barracks at the end of the training day.

Using the pipes hanging from the barrack’s ceiling, I did pull-ups and then dropped to my knees for push-ups until exhausted. All of this was done without abusive language or physical force. Within a week, I was keeping pace with the rest of the platoon. Failure would have meant extra weeks in boot camp in another platoon, something I didn’t look forward to.

Platoon 308, S Company, 3rd Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island graduated with 75 Marines in May 1962. We are much older now but none of us can forget Parris Island and Jettie Rivers, Jr.

In 1962, Marines would not be involved in Vietnam for another three years. Some of us got to Vietnam.

I started looking for "survivors" of Platoon 308 in April 2006. Thanks to the internet and some good people, mostly vets, lending a helping hand I found 55 of the 75 original boot camp platoon members.

Based on contact with the survivors, some of us got to Vietnam, a few more than once. Ernie Cannucci, Pete Cassidy, Peter Bellone, Fred Crowley, Bob Bates, Keith Shepherd, Jack Keleher, Brady Ray Bird, Milt Goings, Anthony Pulowski, Ross Lee Brown, Thomas Tucker and Jim McDonald are some who made the trip.

The 9th Marines--the first American ground forces in Vietnam--didn't go ashore at Da Nang until March 1965. By then we were in our third year of active duty.

In 1965, Dave Klauder, my boot camp buddy from Pennsylvania, and I were stationed with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) at Iwakuni, Japan. We both signed up for 4 year enlistments with aviation guaranteed.

Dave went with SATS (Short Air Tactical Systems) in May 1965, the 4th Marines and several hundred Seabees to a no named site 55 miles south of Da Nang. It was promptly named "Chu Lai", General Krulak's name in Mandarin Chinese. Dave was a sergeant at the time so no one questioned him filming the landing from the assault craft with an 8mm camera. As Dave tells the story, the Navy was bombarding the beach at the time. Lucky for him, no VC (Viet Cong or Vietnamese Communists) were shooting back. The landing was unopposed and the Seabees and the Marines in SATS built an airfield on a 4,000-foot strip of aluminum matting. Dave spent several months at Chu Lai returning to Iwakuni a good 50 pounds lighter before rotating back to the states. I followed him in December 1965. Our discharge dates were January 1966. Someone forgot to tell President Johnson, who had other plans for us.

The build-up of Marine forces in Vietnam picked up speed in '66 and '67. Marines were involuntarily extended 120 days that year. So much for a January discharge. I spent my last four months on active duty assigned to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing Headquarters, Marine Barracks, Naval Air Station, Glenview, Illinois. Rumor (in Marine speak “scuttlebutt”) had it that the Corps had plans to invade North Vietnam and needed to call up the 4th Marine Division and the 4th MAW. In fact, the Marine Corps reserves were never called up. The call-up would require Congressional approval and President Johnson didn’t have the votes to pull it off. Scrap the invasion of North Vietnam.

One Marine who didn't come back from Vietnam was Jettie Rivers, Jr. During the Vietnam War, the 1st Batta225px-1-9_new_battalion_logo.jpglion, 9th Marine Regiment (1/9 for short) earned the name of “The Walking Dead” for its high casualty rate.

The battalion endured the longest sustained combat and suffered the highest killed in action (KIA) rate in Marine Corps history. The battalion was engaged in combat for 47 months and 7 days, from 15 June 1965 to 19 October 1966 and 11 December 1966 to 14 July 1969. With typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 94% (747) were killed in Action (KIA) over this period. Any Marine assigned to 1/9 during this period was very lucky to be alive. Jettie Rivers, Jr. was not one of the lucky ones.

First Sergeant Jettie Rivers was killed with Captain Richard J. Sasek, Commanding Officer, D/1/9, HM2 John J. Van Vleck, (Corpsman with D/1/9), Cpl Joseph W. Barillo, and LCpl Edward M. Brady, on 06 July 1967 at Con Thien, RVN, by the same enemy incoming fire.

I always regretted missing his funeral in Philly. He was survived by a wife and two children and is buried in Arlington.

The Marine Corps posthumously promoted FSgt Jettie Rivers to 2nd Lieutenant, not a common action. If the streets of Heaven are guarded by U.S. Marines, the Lord couldn't find a better platoon leader.

Jettie Rivers’ Navy Cross citation speaks to the courage of the man and his willingness to go to the aid of other Marines, regardless of the consequences.

************* The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the NAVY CROSS to JETTIE RIVERS, JR. First Sergeant United States Marine Corps

CITATION: For extraordinary heroism as Company First Sergeant while serving with Company D, First Battalion, Ninth Marines in the Republic of Vietnam on 14 and 15 May 1967. While engaged in search-and-destroy operations against units of the North Vietnamese Army, Company D became engaged with an estimated reinforced enemy company and Second Lieutenant (then First Sergeant) Rivers, a member of the company command group, was wounded.

Realizing that the enemy had forced a gap between the command group and one platoon and the two rear platoons, he immediately informed the company commander. At dusk the enemy fire and mortar barrages intensified, and as casualties mounted, the two separate elements set up a hasty perimeter of defense.

Second Lieutenant Rivers expertly directed his men's fire, placed personnel in strategic positions, and personally participated in repelling the enemy assault. Observing a number of enemy soldiers maneuvering toward the perimeter, he mustered a small force of Marines and personally led them to meet the enemy, killing several of the enemy soldiers.

When evacuation of the wounded was completed, Second Lieutenant Rivers requested permission to take the point in an attempt to link up the smaller element with the other two platoons. A short distance from the perimeter, the group encountered withering machine-gun fire which instantly killed the platoon sergeant and seriously wounded the platoon leader.

Second Lieutenant Rivers immediately took command of the situation, aiding the wounded and personally pinning down the enemy machine gun while the casualties were removed. Now under complete darkness and subject to continuous enemy crossfire and sporadic mortar barrages, Second Lieutenant Rivers assisted in joining the two units. Discovering that all of the platoon leaders had become casualties, he assisted the company commander in setting up an effective perimeter and personally supervised the medical evacuation preparations.

Presently a deadly mortar barrage precipitated an all-out enemy assault on the company. Second Lieutenant Rivers was everywhere - encouraging the men, directing fire, assisting the wounded and distributing ammunition to critical positions.

Wounded himself, he continued this pace until late in the afternoon when relief arrived. By his initiative, devotion to duty, and aggressive leadership, he served to inspire all who observed him and was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines. His great personal valor reflected great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.


Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960's. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

  • . You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

    Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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    curtis Thurston jr son of Curtis g T July 23, 2015 6:34 am (Pacific time)

    Anyone know Curtis Garfield Thurston aka no platoon 321 1966

    Bob January 6, 2010 10:11 am (Pacific time)

    "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother; be ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhood's cheap whiles any speaks, That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

    William Shakespeare ("King Henry V")

    G 2/3; January 5, 2010 7:14 am (Pacific time)

    Semper Fi!

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