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The Proud Bastards

One Marine's Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam

About The Book

A riveting memoir of one marine rifleman's journey from Parris Island through the hell of Vietnam and the Tet Offensive with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines.

In 1967, a young E. Michael Helms boarded a bus to the legendary grounds of Parris Island, where mere boys were forged into hardened Marines—and sent to the jungles of Vietnam. It was the first stop on a journey that would forever change him—and by its end, he would be awarded the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

From the brutality and endurance-straining ordeals of boot camp to the endless horror of combat, Helms paints a vivid, unflinchingly realistic depiction of the lives of Marines in training and under fire. As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written, Helms's “grunt's-eye” view of the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, and the mindless chaos that surrounded it, is truly a modern military classic.


Chapter 1

Boot Camp. Parris Island. God, how I had dreamed about that place! Everything I had read and heard about was true. But my romanticized visions of being molded into a United States Marine at the legendary Recruit Training Depot were about to be quickly and rudely transformed into something more closely akin to a nightmare....

Yes, Mikey, there really is a Drill Instructor who jumps aboard the bus to welcome your arrival. Only, his maniacal ranting and raving and the most god-awful foul-mouthed ear-bending cursing you never wanted to hear serve to quickly dispel my notion that this is going to even remotely resemble the adventure that I had envisioned. I think I really screwed up this time!

Hey, there really are yellow footprints on the pavement for us to line up on as we frantically scramble off the bus at the DI's orders. After being unceremoniously shown how to attain something faintly resembling the military posture of attention, and several of the "herd" being reminded somewhat unkindly that the other foot is the left one, we are "marched" to a wooden building and issued field jackets because it is January and it is late at night or early morning and it is very cold. We don the field jackets over our civilian clothing and they become our security blankets, guarding us from the cold outside and somewhat less from the fear-induced lonely chill inside.

We are "herded" (the DI has given up trying to teach such hopeless worthless pieces of shit how to march this night) to another wooden building, a "holding pen" of sorts. It is crammed with metal-framed bunk beds, thin bare mattresses and pillows with neatly folded green woolen blankets at the foot of each. We are ordered to sleep. We try. We fail. We talk very little, but we think very much -- confused, disoriented, regretful, self-pitying thoughts: What have I done? What have I gotten myself into? Oh shit! is repeated a thousand times in a thousand ways. No one escapes.

Daylight threatens and we are aroused in a surprisingly nonviolent manner by another DI who is not really a DI but at this point we think everyone is a DI. We trudge in mock unison to the shearing room where butchers posing as barbers cause the crowning vestige of our civilian identities to fall in pitiful heaps upon the floor. Blond, black, brunette, red, short, long, curly, straight -- nothing matters. We are now all the same.

Another building and we are stripped of our civilian clothes, shoes, belts and all personal effects. We have nothing. We are nothing. We are issued olive-drab utility shirts and trousers, web belts and brass buckles, soft covers, black boots, socks and skivvies. We put them on. Now we are something: United States Marine Corps recruits -- "boots." We are reminded that we are still worthless pieces of shit who will probably never become real Marines, but even that is better than being nothing or being a civilian. We have been promoted.

The sun is getting high in the clear winter sky now and we have been led to a big tin building by an enraged sergeant who we are sure must be one of our bona fide DIs. He is too mean and nasty to be otherwise. It must be catching -- everyone is being rude as they "issue" buckets, canteens, mess gear, shelter halves and poles, packs, webbed gear, helmets, punches, pokes, slaps and insults to us. We are soon consoled, however, because we are introduced to our "best friend" who will be with us during our trials and tribulations while on the Island -- the M-14 rifle.

We shoulder our burdens and our best friend and double-time toward a large two-story barracks that will be our home until death, desertion, disgrace or graduation do us part.

We are on the second floor of the large white structure and we are standing at attention in front of our racks and we are very scared. Our DIs are introducing themselves to us. Sergeant Bottoms is the DI who escorted us from the tin building. He is young and mean looking and I don't think I like him. Staff Sergeant Burns is slightly paunchy and a sadistical son of a bitch and I'm sure I don't like him. Gunnery Sergeant Franz is our Senior Drill Instructor. He is short, built like a cannon ball, and looks somewhat like a bulldog (although most bulldogs I've seen seemed a lot less ferocious than Gunnery Sergeant Franz).

Our Senior DI has just demonstrated that he doesn't take any insolence or other shit off of any maggot recruit -- a point-of-fact driven home by the prostrate figure gasping for breath on the squadbay's wooden deck. I am much too intimidated to form a quick opinion of Gunnery Sergeant Franz, as I strongly suspect he can read minds.

We have been instructed as to the proper way to address our Drill Instructors ("Sir, Private so-and-so requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor, Sir!"); have learned never to refer to ourselves in the first-person ("I"), and never, never (Oh Jesus, save my young ass!) refer to our Drill Instructors as "you" ("You? You? Are you calling me a 'ewe', Private? With a yard of dick and a sack full of balls, how dare you call me a female sheep!").

We have also learned that Marine Corps Drill Instructors are all hard of hearing ("Sir, yes Sir!" I can't hear you. "Sir, yes Sir!" I still can't hear you, ladies! "Sir, yes Sir!" Say it like you've got a set, you worthless cunts! "Sirrr, yesss Sirrr!!!").

We are in a brick building filling out forms according to a corporal's instructions when I see it. The clock on the wall. It is two o'clock in the afternoon of the first day. Oh god, this can't be true! I'm sure I've been here almost forever, and it's only two o'clock? The first day? Maybe I'm dreaming. That's it. We must be filling out some final forms. Soon we'll leave here and march to the parade grounds and pass-in-review and graduate. It can't still be the first day -- my entire eighteen years haven't lasted this long. But it is. Two o'clock. The first day. Jesus, how time flies when you're having fun.

"Sir, Private Helms requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor, Sir."

We are back in our barracks and standing at attention in front of our racks (as we must do at all times unless we have been otherwise instructed) and I am feeling sick and I am sure I am going to throw up.


"Sir, Private Helms requests permission to make a head call, Sir." (We have learned that Marines piss and shit and shave and brush their teeth in the "head," not the bathroom.)

"What's the matter, maggot, fixing to mess your drawers?"

"Sir, no Sir. The private is about to throw up, Sir."

"You will not throw up on my beautiful clean deck, will you, Private?"

"Sir, no Sir!"

"Because if you do puke on my beautiful clean deck, you will take a spoon and eat it all up, won't you, Private?"

"Sir, yes Sir!"

"And you will take a fork and eat up all the chunky pieces, won't you, maggot?"

"Sir, yes Sir!"


"Aye, aye, Sir!"

I double-time down the squadbay and through the hatchway leading to the head. I race to a toilet as waves of salty spit well-up from my throat. I spit into the bowl a few times but don't puke. The nausea subsides. I run back to my rack and assume my statue position.

Time passes. How much time is impossible to ascertain in our bewildered state. We continue to stand frozen before our racks, afraid to commit so much as a twitch lest we incur the wrath of our Drill Instructors. We have been commanded to stand still. We do. A flurry of incoherent thoughts bombards my consciousness: I am hungry I feel sick I am not really here I am tired I am dreaming I am in a world of shit I do not belong here I think I will tell my Drill Instructor that I have made a mistake and changed my mind and could I please go home now but I don't want to die and that would be suicide this shit can't be real I will wake up soon I can't take this much longer maybe they will let me go home if I just explain that I think I want to change my mind no hard feelings but this isn't quite what I expected the recruiter didn't tell me this shit.

It is late in the afternoon and we are marching to chow, our first meal on the Island. At least I think it is our first meal but I can't be sure because we have been here a long time and we should have eaten before but I don't think we have so this must be our first meal. We "stand at rigid attention -- asshole to bellybutton" in single-file waiting to enter the hatchway leading to the mess hall.

In turn we reach the serving counter, execute a left-face, grab a metal tray and lift it smartly upward so that we are staring at our tray as if it were a mirror. We sidestep along the chow line one pace at a time, ever-fighting the temptation to avert our eyes from our muddled reflection toward the myriad sights, sounds and smells our befuddled senses are now starting to detect.

The recruit to my right has dared to remove a hand from his tray to scratch his ear and Staff Sergeant Burns who must have eyes in the back of his head has snatched him out of line and flung him into a table and is proceeding to deride the poor unfortunate's family heritage in a most vile and profane manner. I instantly become self-mesmerized by a tiny speck of dried food clinging to a section of my tray. Up and down the line other miscreants are falling prey to the Drill Instructors' eagle-eyed vision and the mess hall has become a gymnasium as numerous recruits perform various punitive exercises under the guiding berating of a host of DIs. United States Marine Corps Drill Instructors are obviously oblivious to the fact that stress is detrimental to the digestive processes of the human body. But then, we are not human beings, we are mere recruits, boots, maggots, scumbags, lower than whale shit which lies on the bottom of the ocean.

As we reach the servers we lower our trays to receive our chow, being careful to keep our eyes locked straight ahead. The ones serving our chow are also recruits, but they are much different than we are. There is a certain "air" about them. They are "salty." They are in the last stages of their training. Their metamorphosis is nearly complete. They will soon be real Marines. We feel like shit before their eyes and they know it and they love it. The bastards.

We proceed to our tables where we are commanded to sit in unison, bow our heads in unison and pray in unison. Finally, Gunnery Sergeant Franz barks the long-awaited order:


With relish I gaze hungrily at the contents of my heavily laden tray. Oh, god! Liver and onions floating in a milky gravy. I think I am going to be sick again. I can't possibly eat this shit! But I do, because I have been ordered to. I just hope I don't have to eat it again later, off the squadbay deck....

Dear Mama,

I have arrived here at Parris Island, and it's just about what I expected. They treat us pretty rough, but it's all for our own good. I'll just have to stick it out and do my best.

It has been the longest day that I can remember. It seemed like at least three weeks.

You ought to see my hair! I look like Yul Brynner! I've met a few guys and am getting along fine.

How is everybody doing? I hope y'all are doing fine. I don't have much time but my return address is on the envelope. Tell everybody to write soon.

Love, Mike

I have hurriedly scribbled down this letter during what's left of our "free time." We are graciously allotted thirty minutes each night to sit on our inverted buckets and write home to family or friends. Of course, before we can attend to such correspondence, we must first shit shower shave brush our teeth scrub our web belts and soft covers shine our brass buckles polish our boots and -- most importantly -- clean and oil our best friend M-14 rifle. Then we can lounge upon our buckets and write to our heart's content.

I really like the stationery. The Marine Corps has graciously provided us worthless shitbirds with matching writing paper and envelopes with the Iwo Jima flag-raising emblazoned on them. Despite the shock and rigors of the past hours, a faint glimmer of esprit de corps stirs somewhere deep within our gut as we gaze upon the immortalized image of real Marines from long ago. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us yet.

"Prepare to mount!"

Oh, shit! Staff Sergeant Burns and Sergeant Bottoms have come to tuck us in. We stand before our racks and "count off." There are seventy-seven lowly maggot recruits on deck.


One hundred fifty-four elbows and seventy-seven assholes swing madly into motion, scrambling frantically into seventy-seven racks and lie frozen at attention.

"Get out of them goddamn racks you goddamn shit maggots you're too goddamn slow!"

One hundred fifty-four elbows and seventy-seven assholes levitate to instant attention before their racks.


Another frenetic dive to our racks.

Another tirade of blasphemous oaths as Sergeant Bottoms this time beckons us to exit our racks.

After five or six tries we must have gotten it right, or maybe they have just given up on trying to teach us hopeless ones the proper manner of retiring for the night. At any rate, we have just finished singing the "Marine's Hymn" and the Lord's Prayer, still lying at attention.

"Goodnight, ladies!"

"Sir, goodnight, Sir!"

"I can't hearrr youuu!"

"Sirrr, goodnight, Sirrr!!!"


Exhaustion prevails, mercifully ending the long day.

Copyright © 1990 by E. Michael Helms

About The Author

Photo Credit:

A veteran, writer, and editor, E. Michael Helms Helms has published articles and stories in several regional and national magazines. His work has also appeared in the books Soldier's Heart: Survivors' Views of Combat Trauma and Two Score And Ten: Third Marine Division's History. He is the author of numerous books, including The Proud Bastards and The Private War of Corporal Henson. He lives in South Carolina with his wife, Karen. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Star (February 1, 2004)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743483247

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Raves and Reviews

Keith William Nolan author of Battle for Hue The best grunt-level, tell-it-like-it-was work I've read....A classic.

The Veterans News A stunning account of war....Like Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, The Proud Bastards is timeless.

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