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Engine trouble in the Marine Corps

Bob Kramer

Are you “mechanically inclined?”

If you are, I consider you a genius. I truly mean it. If you are

capable of working on your own car my hat is off to you.


As for me, I don’t understand a thing. Usually it takes me about 10

minutes just to locate the hood opener. If my car doesn’t start I only

know one thing to do: call the Auto Club and wait for help.

This testimony from someone who was trained as a diesel mechanic.


Yeah, me, a diesel mechanic. The words almost make me laugh out loud.

Let me take you back to 1967 when I was beginning my three-year stint

in the Marine Corps.

I had signed up to be in the infantry and was looking forward to

advanced training in the different weapons the Marine Corps had in its


That was just about the time I was at the wrong place at the wrong

time. I remember I was standing around the drill area when one of our


high-ranking Marine Corps officers exited his headquarters.

“I need 10 diesel mechanics!” he yelled.

He quickly rounded up 10 warm bodies and announced we would all become

diesel mechanics for the Marine Corps.

The big trucks were constantly breaking down in Vietnam and,

evidently, mechanics were in short supply. The officer obviously didn’t

want to hear my remarks about the other training the Marine Corps had

promised me.


“You’ll make a great mechanic,” he yelled as he turned and returned to

his office.

“Yeah, great,” I thought, as I walked away.

All I know is one week later I had orders to report to Camp Le Jeune,

N.C., for diesel mechanic school. Being as I had worked my way all the

way up to “private” I knew I had to keep my mouth shut and go along with

the program.

My first few weeks were fairly easy, all book learning. It wasn’t

until the fourth week that I actually came face to face with a gigantic

diesel engine. This was a huge engine and I had no idea how anything


Every day we would take the engine apart and put it back together.

Often, I would have extra pieces left over at the end of the day. I had

no idea where they went. The engines still ran so I was able to stay out

of trouble.

Twelve weeks later was graduation day. I passed only because it was a

written examination. I knew the material on paper, but for all intents

and purposes I couldn’t fix a thing.

This was never more obvious than during my first work assignment; a

company stationed right at Camp Le Jeune. I was the new mechanic and was

promptly issued a new toolbox. I didn’t know how to use the tools, but it

was a nice set.

About two weeks into the job our sergeant major drove in a jeep. A

wheel was bad and I figured the bearing was shot. In just a few short

hours I managed to change the wheel bearing and waved goodbye to the

sergeant major.

He got about 40 feet from our garage when the wheel fell off and the

jeep ground to a halt. This was about the time when he figured I might

not be the great mechanic he hoped for.

Two weeks later I was on my way to Vietnam, where the real shortage of

mechanics was obvious. A good diesel mechanic was very valuable, and it

didn’t take long for them to figure out that I wasn’t one.

Again, another great toolbox was issued to me. What a waste, I

thought, as I signed for all the wrenches and sockets.

My first encounter came with a two-and-a-half ton truck that needed a

brake adjustment. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? It would be easy for a

mechanic, but not for me. I didn’t have a clue how to do it.

I remembered a textbook that said you turned a certain lever or knob,

and proceeded to give it a shot. The driver actually made it out of the

motor pool, and I thought I might be getting a handle on things.

Unfortunately, he showed up 20 minutes later and said the brakes

weren’t any better. Then I remembered a chapter about a major brake

adjustment and proceeded to turn and torque some new levers.

An hour later he drove out of the motor pool, and I thought I had

actually fixed something.

But about 20 minutes later he came back to the motor pool. He was


“You see that smoke in the horizon,” he asked. “That’s the truck after

the brakes overheated.”

That was about the last time the Marines let me touch a truck. For the

remainder of my tour I walked patrols, back to the infantry that I longed


“Think of it this way,” my captain would tell me each day. “If

something happens to you we can get a real mechanic.”

To this day I still don’t know anything about fixing engines, but I

have mastered the art of calling the Automobile Club.

* BOB KRAMER is a Burbank city councilman. Reach him at 238-5751.