Marine Corps
Duty Stations

Hitting School - AWTU-3


After going through three months of Aviation Ordnance 'A' School at NAS Millington, Tennessee I reported to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro for training at Air Weapons Training Unit-3. My buddy Mark and I left Millington the same day, except he was headed to Florida to get married and I was headed to Colorado for a few days leave before continuing through to SouthCal. Unbelievably, we pulled up outside the SDO's office 10 minutes apart after driving two different cross-country routes.

I was actually under the charge of TME-31 (Trainee Management Element 31), part of the Third Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron while training but all that glorified name meant is that we lived in an old squad bay while going to school. TME-31 was the umbrella organization that held all students going through El Toro for training in the various Aviation MOSs. There was the obligatory wait of several weeks before class started, most of which was spent on working parties or just vegetating in one of the last wooden barracks on the base, a leftover from WWII construction.

Actually, I don't have a tattoo of my own, but it was in the squadbay that I met one of the first reasons I never got one. I don't remember this kid's name or what MOS school he was going to but his arm really sticks in my mind. He had gone home after Boot Camp and decided to save some money by getting his skin permanently marked by an artist there. Unfortunately for him, the tattoo guy wasn't a Marine, probably didn't know any Marines, and the Marine in question apparently didn't pay attention in Boot Camp when they taught Marine Corps History and Traditions. One weekend I saw him without a t-shirt and almost busted a gut when I saw his arm. He had a big USMC Bulldog and tried to say "Teufel Hűnden" but had hideously misspelled it and came out with "Tufen Huden" permanently etched in his skin...

The Car
We had one young Marine (also not an Ordie) who pulled his new car up to the concrete apron outside the barracks to do a little maintenance one weekend. He had one of the first Suzuki Swifts made; if you don't recognize the name, GMC later created the Geo Metro using the Swift. trying to save a few bucks, he had gone to the base Auto Parts store for an air filter, spark plugs and some wires and was planning to clean it out I guess. We were just lounging around that day, so we watched him on and off but after awhile there wasn't much entertainment value in it so we all disappeared to pursue other interests.

About 45 minutes after he started, he called up to us and asked if anyone "knew cars" and could possibly help him. I went down to see what I could do, and realized that he had been hunting around the engine bay for that whole time, trying to change his plugs. As he described it, he had found three but searched all over (and he showed me all the hiding spots) but he couldn't figure out where the fourth plug went. After looking at the block really quickly, I needed to break the news that his little car only had three cylinders, but the good news was that for the price of three four-packs of plugs he could get four changes.

Marine Corps Birthday

My first Marine Corps Birthday celebration was in MCRD while out in the field at Camp Pendleton. While we had stopped to learn the significance of the Birthday in Boot Camp, this was going to be the first time I actually had a chance to celebrate with fellow Marines.

I went through Boot Camp during a phase when only the Platoon Honor Grad was issued Blues; the rest of us had to find them onbase or at the pawn shops when we hit our duty stations. I had managed to find a pair of Dress Blues in the Uniform Shop and was ready to hit the Ball in style...wearing only my Expert Rifle badge. That also happened to be the last time the Officer's Club allowed the Enlisted Ball in their facility. Well, whatever the reason we were never allowed back in, we certainly had a very good time in there...

You have to realize that I'd been in school for almost four months already at NAS Millington Tennessee before getting to El Toro. During that time, we were taught Navy Ordnance handling and safety procedures, and now it was time to "un-Navy" and learn to do it right. For this, I was sent to Air Weapons Training Unit 3 (AWTU-3) to unlearn the Navy stuff and learn about Marine Aviation Ordnance including the basics of amphibious ordnance handling.

AWTU-3 taught other Ordnance-related classes but for me the goal was to learn handling, identification, stowage and inventory skills for things that go boom in the night. The school was about three months, during which time we were also taught the basics of Explosive Driver safety although up to that point none of us were licensed to operate military vehicles. To do that, after graduating AWTU's course of instruction we were sent to the care of MWSS-373 to learn how to drive some of the transport equipment we were going to be required to use.

Late in the school cycle, a few of us were given modified PCS (Permanent Change of Duty Station) orders. AWTU-3 was expanding, and needed new, young bodies to fill in. LCpl Pat McCarthy graduated #1 in the class and I was close behind him along with my buddy from Millington, LCpl Mark Moore. All three of us were selected to stay on at AWTU-3 where we were expected to instruct as well as perform a lot of the handling work around the unit. The trip to MWSS was first though, and that was where I learned to "drive truck".

We first learned to handle some of the lighter fare in the Marine Corps' inventory; the CUCV pickup. In the early 80s the military realized that sourcing parts for the M151 (Jeep replacment) and other tactical vehicles in garrison use was eating up major amounts of money since many of the parts weren't available anywhere else. GMC won a contract to provide a Commercial Utility Combat Vehicle (CUCV) resulting in the M1008/M1009 series of vehicles. I figure this was the first vehicle taught since the vehicles were militarized versions of the Chevy Pickup and Blazer, and would be most familiar to us. It's also a lot safer to train us on something 'small' before graduating to the HMMWV and the 5-ton trucks.

After learning the basics of vehicle maintenance and handling, most of the classwork involved driving down I-5 from El Toro to Camp Pendleton, where we drove around on fire roads all day to familiarize many of the inexperienced drivers with handling a large vehicle, and also handling a 4x4 in driving situations we would be likely to encounter. While this was fun for awhile, my buddy Mark got to experience the downside of the M1009 Blazer CUCV when the transmission wouldn't shift out of 1st on the way home. He was driving as we left Camp Pendleton, and the convoy of three or four vehicles made stops in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano while we let Mark's Blazer catch up at a whopping 20-25mph. He somehow managed to keep the tranny intact until we got in the gate at El Toro again. Fortunately that was our last drive in the CUCV and we were ready to move on to bigger and better toys.

HMMWV training was next. You may recognize the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle by another name, the Hummer. Once again our road course in the HMMWV involved road trips down to Camp Pendleton and even up into the Los Angelese area as well. It's just as well that we learned this one after getting familiar with the full-size trucks first - the HMMWV is WIDE. Really wide, as we learned. I'm 6'4" and felt swallowed up in the cab. Handling that big tank of a vehicle requires constant attention. The hood slopes away and even for me it was difficult to see the corners, but the stability on sideslopes is incredible. We would routinely park on sidehills and change drivers, just so we could get a feel for the stability. This is also where I learned one of the huge handicaps of the HMMWV...it don't flex, so it's real easy to get the HMMWV high-centered on hillclimbs. I watched that time and time again as my classmates got their wheels in the wrong place. We had to guide them out of the ruts and retry, but the damage was done; I knew the HMMWV wasn't invincible.

Now that we'd learned the limitations of the new toy, it was time to learn about the big boy. M813 and M925 5-ton trucks. 6-wheel drive, 10 tires, green and 10,000 pound offroad carrying capacity; on-road that doubles to a 20,000 pound load. Where the HMMWV was wide, the 5-ton was just huge. Yeah, we took those puppies offroad as well and I tell you it's unsettling to know you're 20 feet from the edge of the cliff but unable to see it because the hood is so dang large! Ground guides (sacrificial 'volunteers' who would stand near the edge and direct you) were pretty critical in that type situation, but overall it was fun. I was disappointed in the quality of instruction there however. One stage of the coursework involved winching, and the staff decided to have us pull one 5-ton toward the other to understand how the winch operated. We were given training on winch operation, cable safety, wrapping the cable and other aspects that make a winch vehicle recovery a success. The 5-tons were parked facing each other on a sloped portion of the parking lot, and the winch cable was fed out. I think it's situations like this that give Marines a view of Motor T as "knuckle-dragging truck driver." Everything sounds good so far, right? Well, it would be except for the fact that the uphill truck was being pulled toward the downhill one. Trying to point this out to the instructor drew blank stares; in their minds this was correct. We ended up having to have a student in the uphill vehicle apply the brakes to provide some drag as we pulled his 5-ton downhill...

One of our last roadtrips was shortly before Christmas 1989; right after the US invasion of Panama. Realize that our vehicles were all prominently placarded as "STUDENT DRIVER" on the fronts and rears, yet as we were cruising Interstate 5 through Southern Cali we had people frequently pull up behind us to honk, smile and wave. They told us to "go kick some ass" as though we were going to drive through Mexico disguised as 'students' and sneak into Panama that way. The support shown by the public was unexpected by all of us, but was a welcome change from the usual indifference we saw. Even better, it was a tiny foreshadowing of the support we would see a year later following Iraq's invasion and pillage of Kuwait.

MCAS El Toro
Located in sunny Southern California less than a half-hour south of Disneyland, this base is no longer in use by the military. Civilian interest groups had already clear-cut all the orange groves and moved into Orange County, and by the late 1980s they were crying about the noise from the jets. El Toro had been in existence since late in the Second World War, and now was losing the fight against domestic enemies. One indicator to me in early 1990 was the fact that our magazines at Station Ordnance weren't allowed to be filled anywhere near capacity. The given reason was easy to spot; houses had begun to pop up on the hillsides to the south and east, reducing the amount we could safely store.

MCAS El Toro Airshow

1990 El Toro Airshow, typical Reservists looking to make a quick buck...or three

1990 was the only year I didn't pull duty at the annual Air Show, a weekend that attracted almost a million people onto the base to check out the Blue Angels and several other aerial demonstrations along with static displays of military aircraft. On Sunday afternoon it was starting to rain lightly. I had already shot a few rolls of film at the static displays so I headed back to the barracks as the first four Blue Angels took off, headed in my direction. Naturally i had to turn around and watch them of course.

1990 El Toro Airshow, Blue Angel Number 6 overheadSolo #5 was already at my end of the runway and once he started rolling, he pulled into a sharp climb at airshow center and started climbing straight up. As I watched #5 disappear, I heard the announcer talk about Solo #6 rolling, but didn't look until he was already "airborne" - doing barrel rolls barely off the runway and headed straight toward me! I was able to get the camera up and focused just in time to grab two shots - a little farther out #6 was upside down and pointed straight at me, half a revolution later he was overhead and I just barely caught this shot as he roared by overhead...

MACS-23 | AWTU-3 | MAG-11 (Fwd)
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created: Nov 5, 2003
Updated April 10, 2005