Author: Richard Botkin
Summer 1953 was a different time in Marine Corps history. It was "old Corps," really old Corps. Old Corps in ways even today's toughest, most grizzled veterans would accept as old Corps.
It was almost "other worldly" and indescribably more magnificent. Dan Daly and Smedley Butler were gone, but in the summer of 1953 a peppering of gents in the ranks had known and served with them. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller remained on active duty. Others, thousands really, had campaigned at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and again in Korea at Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir. There were so many of them on active duty that they were almost common in an uncommon way.
By 1953, they were still young by most measures - except for those experiences. And that was and is the draw of the Corps: to be a part of something meaningful and manly and dignified.
The Marine Corps always has been a sublimating force for young men who might have gone astray and who might have used their youthful exuberance and energy in socially unacceptable ways. They were the ones who might have turned left when told to go right.
There is something mystical, something not quite definable that draws someone to the ways of the Corps. Like a narcotic, once injected it can control the soul, absorbing a person in ways that never can be fully understood or appreciated from the outside. For most, once the eagle, globe and anchor has been earned, there is no divorce, no full recovery. The Corps is all-consuming, and most go willingly, like a moth to a flame, like sheep to slaughter.
Little in Ed McCourt's initial pedigree suggested that he would amount to much. His father had done time in prison. His stepfather had done time in prison. Both were deserters from the U.S. Army. He had a cousin, also an Army deserter, who did time in Sing Sing for armed robbery.
Growing up in one of the toughest parts of Chicago, by the time he was 13, Ed McCourt had managed to obtain a license to drive the Uptown Supermarket's meat truck. He dealt with thugs and mafia types near his home on Clark Street, three doors north of Division. He left that job and at 15, in 1951, was managing a parking lot on Lake Street and Wacker Drive, earning the princely sum of $135 per week (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator that is the equivalent of $1,132 in 2010 dollars). His salary supported his extended and horribly dysfunctional family.
McCourt was unable to finish ninth grade because he had to support his mother, stepbrothers and sisters. Life in the bowery offered small attraction. Living across the street from the Foremost Theater and the Gold Coast Amusement Center, McCourt could count seven bars and pubs on his block alone. Even though the money was good, he tired of waiting to be "old enough" for something more suited to his need for purpose and direction.
Well before his 16th birthday, McCourt had hatched a plan of escape from his skid-row existence. Retrieving his baptismal certificate from the few records his mother kept, he began the process of altering his date of birth. It took seven attempts before he was satisfied that the copies appeared legitimate. He canvassed all the services - first the Air Force and then the Navy, followed by the Army. Once confident those recruiters were fooled by the forgeries, he made his run on the Marines. Bang. Success.
Convinced McCourt was about to turn 18, the recruiters did not even need his mother's approval. So, by the time he was barely 16, Ed McCourt was boot camp bound. Everything was cool. On the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego rifle range, he was the high shooter for his entire recruit series and was among the few recruits to be meritoriously promoted to private first class due to his superior performance. He was dialed in, good-to-go and preparing for combat duty in Korea.
Had he been assigned to a different military occupational specialty, the Corps never might have discovered the deception, but at that time those in certain aspects of artillery required a security clearance. During that background investigation, Private First Class McCourt's true date of birth was uncovered. As a result, after nine months and 16 days, PFC McCourt, minority discharge under honorable conditions in hand, was released from active duty with very little fanfare.
Figuratively bloodied but certainly unbowed, Ed McCourt did not let that discharge interrupt his appointment with destiny. At age 17, he informed his mom that he was going back in the Corps as soon as he was 18 with or without her consent. So why not make it 17 since a person can join the military at that age with parental consent? The next time he went in, it would be for good.
Able to reenlist legally in 1953 at 17 and keep his former rank, PFC McCourt hit the deck with all cylinders firing fully. Although disappointed that he had missed the action in Korea, he had little time to despair. Ed McCourt was now a round peg in a round hole, the kid in the candy store, the young warrior monk seeking enlightenment. He was home. The Corps was his family, his tribe. The brothers and the father he never had known surrounded him, challenged him, embraced and uplifted him. Good things began to compound.
In assignment after assignment McCourt gained rank, education, experience and confidence. Behavioral scientists might have observed that he had fulfilled Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The Corps became his self-actualization. An outsider might have thought that if he had cut Ed McCourt, he would have bled Marine Corps green.
The Corps can be a demanding and jealous mistress, consuming and absorbing one's total passion, leaving little room or consideration for others. This love affair often comes at a high price, sometimes without reciprocity. During war the price may be a man's own life or those of cherished comrades. For others, the love affair leads not to "happily ever after, " but to marriages or families that lack a man's full devotion. Some even buy into the adage that " if the Corps wanted you to have a wife, they'd have issued you one." For a length of time, Ed McCourt would fall for that line.
As America was leaving her unsatisfactory Korean experience behind and as her tastes were transitioning from Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney to Bill Haley and the Comets, McCourt was in the Band of Brothers. His lifestyle and experience would absorb and consume him 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Assuming his duties as an infantryman and later as a recon Marine, in the next 11 years, Ed McCourt would serve at seven different duty stations, not including time spent at sea or the myriad of military schools attended. Along the way he picked up a nickname "Machete Eddie" which he would use with panache and aplomb. When he was not improving his fighting or reconnaissance skills at schools or in training for the next war, Machete Eddie played on various varsity football teams the Corps maintained at its major bases. In between, he found time to get married twice.
Following a successful tour on recruiting duty, Staff Sergeant McCourt was transferred back to the Fleet Marine Force in mid-1964. Deployed to Okinawa, his battalion spent time on board amphibious ships floating off the coasts of Thailand and Vietnam. In April 1965, 2d Battalion, Third Marine Regiment was part of the buildup of leathernecks going ashore at Da Nang to begin expanded operations against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC).
Due to his extensive training and skills as a troop leader, SSgt McCourt served as a rifle platoon leader, a job normally given only to commissioned officers. For six months, McCourt led the men of "Fox" Company's 1st Platoon through the jungles, swamps and rice paddies. It was the perfect prelude and workup for an even more demanding second tour.
Returning Stateside in January 1966, McCourt endured the drudgery of what appeared bland after the intensity of combat. Assigned as a senior instructor to the rifle ranges at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., he was marking time. Like any good Marine, he did the job he was given. At least he was training Marines, passing on the things he had learned.
With the American effort in Vietnam increasing, promotions came more quickly. In the early afternoon of 14 July 1966, a teletype message proclaimed his selection for promotion to gunnery sergeant. Two hours later, before he could finish celebrating, another message announced his selection for promotion to second lieutenant.
It was difficult to enjoy the relative opulence of sunny Southern California knowing his friends were fighting and dying in Southeast Asia. The next day 2dLt McCourt went to his commanding officer and requested orders for Vietnam. Three weeks later he was back in I Corps, leading Marines in combat.
Between the time 2dLt McCourt had concluded his first Vietnam tour and he returned for his second, the nature and intensity of the ground combat prosecuted by American Marines had changed dramatically. Before, most of the action had been against local VC, and contact with main force NVA regulars had been a rarity. By early 1967, the Marines were battling the NVA daily, virtually every time they left the wire. The VC were cunning, deceptive and fleeting, while the NVA were far better trained and more formidable than their southern allies. The NVA did not back down from a fight, and the Marines had their hands full.
It was with India Co, 3/3 that Machete Eddie would come into his own as a warrior and troop leader. By the time of his second arrival, the meat grinder of Northern I Corps was consuming Marines, small-unit leaders in particular, at a horrifyingly rapid rate. A problem common for all the 3dMarDiv infantry battalions operating in Northern I Corps was that constituent rifle companies and platoons were stretched thinly and always were engaged. Turnover of key personnel was a constant challenge.
Second Lt McCourt quickly made a name for himself in 3/3. He seemed bred for the moment. He was a warrior, a gunfighter, the go-to guy when the stuff hit the fan, as things were doing with increasing frequency.
When the battalion went to the field as a complete unit, his platoon was usually on point. His men rallied to him. He loved his men with the same tough-love leadership he had felt throughout his Marine Corps experience. His feelings were reciprocated. His leadership reflected their reasons for joining the Corps rather than some other branch of service. They were confident he would do nothing foolish, nothing reckless and that he would be with them in every firefight at the precise point of contact.
Shortly after McCourt's arrival for his second tour, 3/3’s Lima Co was taken over by John Ripley, a young captain. The gentleman from Virginia quickly became known for his aggressiveness and tactical savvy. His Marines, after particularly difficult action during March 1967, would be called by "Ripley's Raiders," a name that still sets them apart.
The urbane and genteel John Walter Ripley, whom some would call a 20th-century Stonewall Jackson and who would become more famous for his 1972 heroics in destroying the Dong Ha bridge and seriously dulling the NVA offensive, was in most ways as different from Machete Eddie as the East is from the West. A friendship that transcended their different backgrounds quickly developed: a brother-to-brother kinship made possible only by their shared circumstances and devotion to the Corps that would last until Ripley's untimely death in 2008. (McCourt still mourns deeply for his friend, who believed McCourt was the only man in Marine Corps history to reenlist at 17.
Machete Eddie called Ripley "an NVA magnet." McCourt and his men were convinced that to gain contact with the enemy, all they had to do was to operate with Lima Co. Although McCourt would be awarded medals for valor, including the Silver Star and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm (the Vietnamese equivalent to our Silver Star), the praise and endorsements from John Ripley were more important.
Ripley felt his junior mate had "written the book on leadership in combat." Ripley's Raiders affirmed his thoughts, on more than a few occasions, when they exclaimed to their "skipper": "Sir, Lieutenant McCourt is on our flank. We are secure!"
All Marines have an acute understanding for the quality of leadership, especially in combat. It distills the necessary from the trivial, condenses all that is vital down to the few small issues that make the difference between life or death, victory or defeat.
An officer might coast for a while on personality or puffery; he even might convince superiors he is, in fact, the Second Coming. However, to those in his charge there are only actions and results. No amount of cosmetics or breast-beating can conceal the warts and imperfections of actual performance.
The young Marines, the squad leaders, the fire-team leaders, the guys humping mortar rounds and radios all know the truth. They suffer the poor decisions or survive the good ones. They are judge and jury. They are the ultimate customers of a combat leader's ability.
The Marines of India Co's 1st Plt were no different. Properly motivated and led, they would attempt anything. Machete Eddie's Marines would do just about anything for him because they knew he would be out front doing it with them.
A poem, "The Ballad of Fort McCourt," composed and given to McCourt by two of his Marines in November 1966, speaks in a simple, heartfelt way to that need for strong leadership and camaraderie. Taken out of context, it might seem hokey and homespun, almost obsequious, but the verse was not composed by brown-nosing boys.
By the time it was written, co-authors Lance Corporal Michael Baronowski and LCpl Tim Duffy were seasoned veterans. Baronowski, who had only one month left on his tour, was killed walking point the day after the two close buddies completed their masterpiece. Duffy would go on to serve in the combined-action program and be known for doing good things. Their poem is more precious to McCourt than medals and any other accolades.
Author's note: Capt Ed McCourt retired from active duty in 1973 and spent another 25 years in law enforcement and high-risk security before his second retirement in 1997. In 1990, he married for the final time, and the third try was the charm. Like so many Marines, he married well, and he married up. His wife, Sue, has an MBA as well as a doctorate in health care administration. The couple lives in South Texas. Machete Eddie continues to instruct in shooting and spends a great deal of time in contact with his extensive and impressive list of old Corps Marine pals.
The Ballad of Fort McCourt
We wander through the jungles of Vietnam all day.
We find the Viet Cong dug in and chase them all away.
You'll find no finer fighting men of any name or sort.
You'll always find us ready here defending Fort McCourt.
He is the bravest man of all and that is plain to see.
And we're his men of 1st Platoon of "India," 3/3.
He's taught us all to be Marines of very rugged sort.
We're proud to be here fighting beside Lt Ed McCourt.
The first time here he learned the tricks to hunt the VC down.
He's back again and meaner yet the second time around.
He leads the finest fighting men in Marine Corps infantry.
And we're the fighting 1st Platoon of "India," 3/3.
We patrol all day and watch all night for that's the way he planned.
And where we find the Viet Cong that's where we'll make our stand.
And when you hear about us 'twill be a good report.
For here we are and here we'll stay on top of Fort McCourt.
Although he works us very hard, he never is unfair.
He makes us feel that we're the best Marines found anywhere.
You'll never find morale as high at any other fort.
There is no finer leader than Lt Ed McCourt.
~LCpl Michael Baronowski and LCpl Tim Duffy