By Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN retired
He stood ramrod straight, yet the lines in his pleasant chiseled features reflected the rigors of his life. Immaculate in his dress with close-cropped gun metal hair, he exuded the persona of “Chesty” Puller and the swagger of big John Wayne. In his Dress uniform he was the envy of every man…wives and girlfriends’ hearts skipped a beat when he entered a social gathering. His name was Charles “Chuck” Sheldon. He was a Marine!
As First Sergeant of a rifle company in World War II, his company was one of the first waves to hit the beach on Iwo Jima. Due to enormous combat causalities he received a battlefield commission to Lieutenant and took command of a platoon within hours of coming ashore. If memory serves me his decorations included the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart Medals for his actions during that and other Pacific campaigns…Major Sheldon, was the Military Training Officer for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Construction Forces.
I was NMCB One Battalion Operations & Engineering Chief Petty Officer, a high profile billet. With Officer shortages I covered as Assistant OPS Officer. We were in mid-deployment in the Caribbean when the Commodore and his staff came aboard for the unit’s annual readiness inspection.
That occasion, was my first encounter with the Major. I was impressed with his exceptional charisma and military bearing. During the three-day administrative and material inspection he dropped by the Operations hut several times for coffee and small talk. I thought nothing of his casual visits as Ops was the center of unit activity.
At Headquarters Company personnel inspection he selected my platoon to inspect. With little tact, he quickly squared me away on the correct [his and the Corps] method to inspect. We sidestepped down the ranks coming face to face with each man, heels clicking with each move. My men were sharp; I had instilled that in them. I had also checked each man for gigs…I was smug and confident.
After the inspection of the first squad I found the Major’s standards were somewhat more critical than my own. He found gigs in places I never knew existed. He could burn holes through a man with his fixed steely-eyed stare leaving many tongue-tied when he popped simple questions. I watched tears run down the cheeks of a 220-pound Steelworker as the Major inferred in flaming adjectives that his mother would probably disown him as the welts of his shoes were not polished! I also recall such remarks as, “A man who doesn’t polish his brass, don’t wipe his ass…” That was one quip that stuck with me throughout my career. Terror reigned in those awaiting his unforgiving assault on the naval uniform and the unfortunate soul wearing it! By the time we had reached the last man my guts were churning and the starch in my “Good Humor” Dress Whites had run down into my shoes.
Upon completion he made a few general remarks then questioned my Expert Marksmanship medals? I told him I had worked for a Commander while assigned to NATO who had taken the Navy Pistol/Rifle teams to Camp Perry for the National Meets on several occasions. The Commander had taught me small arms skills and I had qualified expert numerous times with service 45, M-1 rifle and carbine…
The Major seemed interested, but made no further comment. As I saluted and thanked him for his remarks he cracked a warm smile, shook my hand, turned and left to continue his inspection. A smile, a friggin’ smile…why in hell would he be smiling? Was it because he had just eaten my entire platoon for breakfast and was pleased with the carnage he had left behind…or was something afoot? I was uneasy.
The following week, the Captain’s Yeoman came over to the hut and told me the Skipper wanted me ASAP! As I stepped into his office, the XO greeted me as the Captain came from behind his desk shook my hand and told me he had some wonderful news and some unexpected, somewhat disturbing news. I frowned with uncertainty. He turned to the desk picked up a couple of messages and handed them to me.
Hot damn! Our battalion had just been awarded “Best of Type” as the result of the annual inspection! The Skipper beamed as he watched my elated expression. He told me I played a large part in the award, as Engineering got the top grade in the Force. I read the second message twice…I was to be detached immediately and return to CBLANT Headquarters, Davisville, Rhode Island for duty as Assistant to the Military Training Officer.
I was to work for Major “Ass-eating” Sheldon! Good God Almighty! My nerves had just settled down from his previous week’s visit and now I was going to be his assistant and under constant scrutiny! The Captain noting my surprise responded that he was very proud as out of four battalions and approximately 200 Chief Petty Officers I was picked for the Headquarters assignment. He was reluctant to let me go as I was leaving a critical void…yet orders were orders. I would catch the next MATS flight out…
Reluctantly I walked up to the Major’s office door which was embellished with a large brass Eagle, Globe and Anchor. I mentally went over my check-list; Service Dress Khakis were spotless, short haircut, sideburns trimmed at the eye-line, polished shoes with special care to the welts, creases just right, ribbons correct, hat in hand, knock twice…“ENTER!” Taking a deep breath, I stepped up to his desk and stood at rigid attention, “Major Sheldon, Chief Petty Officer Bookhardt reporting for duty, Sir!” He let me stand there a few moments, looked up and said, “Chief, for Christ’s sake, go get a damn haircut!”
I guess it was his way of letting me know who was in charge, not that there was the slightest doubt in my mind! I came back with a Marine special and kept it that way as long as I was in the billet. Later, one on one, his demeanor changed, he was warm of heart yet always reserved; he gradually gave me control of the entire training operation which included some forty instructors, the armory, range, tactics obstacle course, etc.
Early on, he called me to his office one day and presented me with four sets of Marine long sleeve gabardine khaki shirts and trousers, plus a new smoky bear hat! [By the way, if you have ever wondered how the campaign hat maintained its flat rigid appearance? It was sugar! The hat was placed on a flat smooth surface and the brim soaked in a saturated sugar solution. When dry, the brim was like stone…just don’t get caught in the rain!]
Under the Major’s guidance and firm caring expertise, I took to the job like a duck to water. He made me a better man and militarily prepared a Construction Force for what lie ahead. As Range Officer I would strut along the firing line in my military-creased Marine khakis, smoky bear and swagger-stick barking firing instructions, changing the “clicks” on some shooters M-1s as they got a wave of “Maggie’s drawers”…and then watch their expression change when they scored a hit. The Major overseeing it all was truly pleased but would never let it show through his gruff Gung Ho facade!
On occasion he would demonstrate the BAR. Holding the weapon at hip level he would roll GI cans across the open range area with sustained bursts of fire. The students thought he was “God, The Duke and Chesty” all rolled into one…so did I! Damn, I was proud and loved that tour of duty!
The Major played a significant role in helping me finally get an Officer’s commission. As a young First Class Petty Officer I had applied for and was accepted for the “Seaman to Admiral” program in existence at the time. I went for my commissioning physical and was disqualified for “acute hypertension.” There was no follow-up, no treatment, and no support from my superiors, nothing…I was simply dropped from the program.
Later when I was Chief Petty Officer, I applied for the LDO program and again dropped for hypertension, I was devastated…it was the old Catch 22! However, the new “Super Chief” [E-8/9] additions to the enlisted rating structure enacted at that time gave additional advancement opportunities. I was selected first time up and it eased the disappointment.
When the Major discovered how the system had failed me, he took me directly to the Base Senior Medical Officer. Not being known for his political correctness he cornered the doctor and demanded an evaluation and documented follow-up to BUMED. My symptoms turned out to be benign. With the physical hurdles overcome, I received a commission in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps in 1961.
As we traverse the course that was laid out for us by the Almighty, we are in constant interaction with the multitudes. Most become faceless shadows and are soon forgotten. Then you cross paths with individuals that are so dynamic, so memorable and unique that their image is etched forever in the psyche. That was the Major. Following that tour with the Seabees and in his mid-fifties he retired, sadly passing to his reward two years later.
Knowing the Major, he probably has Saint Peter making laps around Camp Pearly Gates in full angelic field gear, plus frank eyeball to eyeball discussions involving unpolished halos…Semper Fi!