7 Tips for Successfully Completing Boot Camp, or Any Intense Training Experience, Courtesy of WWII Marines

by Marcus Brotherton on March 20, 2013 · 49 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

National Archives, public domain

Picture yourself.

You’re 18-years-old. It’s Monday morning, December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and you’re furious.

You and your friends are standing in a long recruiting line along with every other able-bodied young man in your hometown, and you’ve got a huge goal ahead of you—you want your family and all those you love to be free.

So you sign up for the Marines, arguably the roughest, most savage group of the military.

Boot Camp is normally 12 weeks, but after Pearl Harbor everything is intensified into 6 weeks of hard training. They send you by train to South Carolina, to the Marine Corps base at Parris Island. You don’t know exactly what to expect at boot camp, other than your life will become hell.

Do you have what it takes?

I recently completed a new book called Voices of the Pacific, along with coauthor Adam Makos. We talked to WWII Marines who fought in the Pacific and asked them what it was like. Following boot camp, these same men went on to battle the enemy on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa and returned home triumphant after V-J Day. But before they did remarkable things, first came hard training.

Listen now to these living legends talk about the first part of their journey. You and I won’t go through exactly what they did (although boot camp for the Marines remains the same tough crucible it’s always been!), but the lessons learned in a season of intense training can be applied to overcoming difficult experiences and achieving goals no matter the era.

According to these men, the biggest tips for successfully completing boot camp are as follows:

1. Expect immediate, difficult change.

Sterling Mace encountered instant culture shock in boot camp—partly physical, partly mental. Immediately after coming through the front gate, Mace had his head shaved. The next morning he was woken up at 4 a.m. for a 5-mile run. Then it was over to the mess hall where “none of the food tasted like it did at home,” he said.

Right away, “we trained how to handle tear gas, both with our mask on and without,” Mace said. “We went over to the pool and swam 50 yards with our hands behind our back. Then we had the obstacle course—climb this, do that—which you don’t do in combat, but it’s all to get you in shape.”

Life lesson for today: Accomplishing your goal will require your current situation to change, and it won’t be easy. In fact, it shouldn’t be easy, otherwise everybody would do it.

2. Never complain.

Boot camp was “rugged” for Sid Phillips.

He remembers arriving dressed in civilian clothes, and having a group of trainees who’d arrived before him yell, “You’ll be sorr-ee!” as he walked in the front gate. It meant you’d be sorry that you ever joined the outfit, Phillips explained.

Within the first few hours of arriving, he was sorry indeed. He arrived in wintertime and it was cold. The recruits weren’t allowed to wear warm clothes, only khaki pants and a sweatshirt. If a man complained about being cold, then that only brought about more pushups or running.

“There wasn’t anything you could do except endure it,” Phillips said. “Parris Island was rough, and still is, and should be. I’m glad it was. It teaches discipline to young men, and you need that to survive.”

Life lesson for today: When training for your goal, don’t grumble, whine, or find fault. Enduring the difficulty will produce strength, and you will need that in the days ahead.

3. Never fight the man who trains you.

On the first day of boot camp at Parris Island, the new recruits were told to come to the assembly area wearing pants, shoes, and a sweater only. But Dan Lawler remembers another new recruit standing in formation defiantly wearing a huge overcoat.

Rumor had it that the other recruit was the leader of a New York City gang. He brought two young henchmen with him, and all three of them showed the rest of the recruits pistols they wore.

Lawler recounts the story:

When the drill instructor came to the kid with the overcoat he reached down, grabbed the kid’s pistol, and held it to the kid’s head.

“You wouldn’t dare,” said the gang leader.

“You want to try me,” said the DI.

“If you weren’t holding my pistol right now, I’d kick the shit out of you,” said the kid.

The DI threw the pistol to one side. “Come on and try.”

The gang leader toke a poke at the DI, but the kid swung wide.

When the DI got through with him, the kid bled for two days.

“That’s what the Marine Corps did,” Lawler said. “They broke you down so they could build you back up. They knew what it was going to be like once you got into combat. It paid off, that’s what I say. All that training. It paid off.”

Life lesson for today: Approach your training with humility, a willingness to follow directives, and an immediate respect for your leaders. One day when you’re in charge, you can do things your way. Until then, do things their way.

4. Pace yourself.

Harry Bender soon learned it didn’t pay to strut your stuff.

Before breakfast, one of the first days, the men ran through an obstacle course. The first time Bender went through, he went as fast and hard as he could and came in third. He stood around at the finish line with his chest puffed out, expecting to be congratulated.

The DI took one look at Bender and grunted, “Do it again.”

What Bender learned was that, “if you got time on your hands, you better not stand around feeling good about your accomplishments.”

The next time Bender ran the obstacle course, he came in tenth.

Life lesson for today: Beware of entering any new season of life with an attitude of superiority. If you quickly do well, don’t seek reward. Pace yourself and rise to the top at an appropriate time, when it won’t be considered brash.

5. Don’t be a “grab-ass.”

Chuck Tatum explained the slang term “grab-ass.” It’s when you “goof off when you’re supposed to be working,” and it tends to happen whenever “a bunch of young guys get together and there’s no radio, TV, or newspapers around—they make their own fun.” For instance, suppose you’re in line and you poke the guy in front of you so he jumps—that’s a grab-ass thing.

One time Tatum was at the rifle range. The recruits all wore pith helmets. While standing in line, one guy took off his pith helmet and lightly hit his buddy over the head with it. The force drove the helmet down so the inner band scrunched the guy’s ears. The second guy turned around, took his helmet off, and smacked the first guy back.

The DI saw it, brought the two guys out, stood them an arm’s length apart, and ordered them to take turns hitting each other over the head. The two recruits smashed their helmets over each other until their helmets were wrecked and their heads were sore. They needed to go buy new helmets.

“This was extremely funny.” Tatum cleared his throat. “As long as it didn’t happen to you.”

Life lesson for today: Discern when to use humor on the job. Even if you’re just standing in line, apply yourself to the task and maintain your focus.

6. Learn rules quickly, follow them explicitly.

James Young went through boot camp when the weather was warmer. One Sunday afternoon during a lull in training, Young was sitting on the barracks steps. He noticed another Marine walk by eating ice cream. Young asked him where he got it. He pointed across the drill field to the PX.

Young got a pint of ice cream, came back, and began to eat it. Just then his drill sergeant came out of the barracks.

“Private Young,” the DI said, “that looks real good, can I have a bite?”

“Yes sir,” Young said, and handed him the ice cream.

The DI took a large bite and said, “Wow, that’s really good. Take off your hat.”

Young did. The DI upended the carton, set it with a splat on Young’s head, and mashed Young’s hat down hard on top.

“Don’t move until it’s all melted,” the DI said.

By this time, all the guys in the barracks were laughing. The sergeant informed Young that permission had not been granted to go anywhere, even if it was Sunday afternoon and they weren’t training.

Life lesson for today: The expectations of a particular subculture are often not clearly communicated at first or may appear arbitrary. Nevertheless, your job is to learn a subculture’s specific practices so you can function within it.

7. Respect the leader with the low voice.

Before R.V. Burgin went to boot camp, he worked at the docks and had a supervisor who’d “holler and yell and cuss you out, call you names. If you wanted your job, you’d take the abuse. If not, there were ten other men who’d want your job.”

When Burgin was in boot camp, he had two drill instructors. “You knew not to mess with these guys,” Burgin said. “One of the guys, if he ever chewed you out, he’d never holler or yell, but he’d get right in your face, and speak with this real intense low voice. I though, boy, that’s real effective.”

Later in life Burgin worked as a post office supervisor and successfully applied the leadership techniques to his job there.

“To lead men,” Burgin said, “you don’t need to holler and yell and cuss.”

Life lesson for today: True respect is earned, not demanded. If you find a mentor who keeps his cool, learn all you can from him. Watch how he speaks under pressure—confidently, directly, and to the point.

If you’re going through a season of intense training right now, it helps to remember that boot camp is a season of metamorphosis. You enter one way, then exit another. What result do you hope ultimately happens? Keep that end goal always in mind.

For Clint Watters, “Boot Camp was rough, sure. You had a lot of running, a lot of exercise, a lot of work. They get you in shape, no question about it. They start by tearing you down and making you feel like nothing. But then they build you back up.”

What was the real reason the men were there?

“They wanted me to emerge as a Marine,” Watters said. “We were going to war, and we needed to be ready to fight hard.”

Which lesson do you most resonate with and why?

voicesMarcus Brotherton is a regular contributor to Art of Manliness.

Read his blog, Men Who Lead Well, at: www.marcusbrotherton.com

Preorder Marcus’ newest book, (written with coauthor Adam Makos), Voices of the Pacific, available April 2.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt March 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Right on time for tough mudder training.

2 Caleb L March 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm

I went through 12B OSUT at Ft Leonard Wood with the Army. Let me tell you, No. 7 is the truest of all of these. Don’t mess with the DS who never yelled. We had one who literally only raised his voice if it was necessary for you to hear him, and he was exactly the one DS who would rock your world if you crossed him.

If anybody is about to leave for Basic Training with any branch of the military, this holds true for all branches: Shut up and do as you’re told. Doing that alone will get you through. Our DS’s told us something that they held to, and that is Basic can be easy, or it can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Your choice.

3 Mandino March 20, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Such an inspiring read. Lots of good lessons to be applied in our daily lives.

4 Bobby G. March 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Try going through Basic when you’re 30 years old, like I did! Do what you are told to nth degree. Refuse to be defeated!

5 Mark March 20, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Forgot one:


6 Jon March 20, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Solid advice.

Source: I completed Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) last Summer.

7 ramon March 20, 2013 at 8:34 pm

great article. thanks.
i will share this.

8 James McCue March 20, 2013 at 8:38 pm

When I saw this article, I thought, this is going to be some outdated pansy a$$ $hit. But, as a combat vet in the Army, I will admit, this is pretty good.

The only thing I would add is “Plan and Plan for Chaos.”

Nothing in life ever goes to plan, so plan for everything to fail. That way, you can recover.

9 Justin March 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

All good stuff, though you forgot to add the part if any reader was from an allied country they would have been lined up a few years earlier. I’m passing this off to my buddies in the Forces right now!

10 Tac March 20, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Ahh, brings back memories. Different war, but surprisingly so much was exactly the same…..

11 Jim Weston March 20, 2013 at 11:18 pm

I have been considering joining the Corps. I’m in college right now, and if the job market hasn’t gotten any better by the time I graduate, I will probably be joining up. Thanks for the tips, they will help!

12 Pete March 20, 2013 at 11:43 pm

All good advice. I went through 6 years ago at the relatively old age of 26. I’d add one more – don’t try to stand out or draw attention to yourself. Be the grey man and do everything you can to help your buddies/team out.

13 Jason Keough March 21, 2013 at 12:45 am

7- the dog that doesn’t bite is the one you need to be careful of.

14 Jesper March 21, 2013 at 2:36 am

True. All of it. When I was conscripted in Denmark, number 7 was very true. My sergeant spoke softly, always. In general a pretty soft fellow, or so we thougt at the beginning
It turned out, he was a 4-tour vet from afghanistan. And a damned fine leader.

15 Steve March 21, 2013 at 5:23 am

I’ve always wondered how on earth someone could willingly subject themselves to so much abuse, mostly to later earn the right to possibly be killed. Props to them, but I just can’t imagine my own wussy ass not going all Private Pile.

So yeah, I’ve often wondered what I’d do if thrown into it and what people do to cope.

16 Sam March 21, 2013 at 6:50 am

I’m literally leaving for Air Force basic training with a combat control contract in just over a month. Great post.

17 Nick March 21, 2013 at 7:48 am

+1 on keeping your mouth shut and doing what you’re told. That’ll get you through.

18 Erik March 21, 2013 at 7:49 am

Glad to know the definition of Grab ass. The new word for “Grab ass” is “Shammer”. Can also be a verb: “Don’t Sham.”

The number one golden rule for survival is “Don’t be noticed.” Don’t do anything faster, slower, better or worse than anybody else. Don’t do anything to stand out. The experience is all about leveling or “breaking you.” If you are not level, they will will make you that way and it will painful and they will ride your ass for a while to remind you never to be different. Not exactly the place for one who believes in individualism.

19 Smooth March 21, 2013 at 8:50 am

Speaking in a low voice definitely works. If you want them to listen to what you are saying, speak in in a low voice, not a loud one. It works!

20 Frank March 21, 2013 at 10:25 am

I was at PI April of ’66 and we were part of LBJ’S big build up of ground forces in Vietnam. Our training period was cramed into eight weeks in lieu of twelve, much like the first person’s tip in this article who’s training was reduced to six weeks in early WW2. I can relate to this and they didn’t leave anything out of our training requirements.

21 kasakka March 21, 2013 at 11:46 am

This reminds me of my time in the army. It’s a different world with lots of bullshit rules that generally go straight out the window when real work is to be done. The examples in 5 and 6 are the kind of crap that could be easily distilled into “don’t be a dumbass” instead of these elaborate punishments. The leaders I would gladly follow were the ones who could keep the focus on the job and lead with example. Unfortunately #7 is far too often lost on both bosses and instructors.

22 John March 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Having been through Basic Training and now being on the other end of the training experience, I have learned that the Drill Sergeants are not sadists. They are extremely professional individuals who sacrificed more than I did during that period and were dedicated to saving my life. If I ever see Drill Sergeant Finney or Drill Sergeant Yon again, I owe them my life.

23 William March 21, 2013 at 8:06 pm

As a graduate of Paris Island the most difficult and important lesson that I learned was that reason only troubles the reasonable. War, life, and people in general are often unfair and unreasonable. We shouldn’t expect them to be. My drill instructors in the process of breaking me down taught me this critical lesson and snapped me out of my childish delusions. I an ever grateful to them for this and many other lessons that they taught me. I would not be the man or father that I am today without those 13 weeks of hell and the subsequent deployments.

24 minuteman March 21, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I was a corporal and a captain (Canadian Army) so I have seen if from both ends. I have two points. The first is that the average marine or army recruit would have been in way better physical condition in 1941 than they are now. They were used to working and walking. When you find out you are going or even if you haven’t been to the recruiting center yet, start getting fit. Going to recruit school with a high level of fitness is doing yourself a huge favour. Secondly, don’t take all the petty bull shit personally. Its all part of the game. If your first kit/barrack inspection is perfect the instructors will find all kinds of reasons to find fault where there is none. Its all part of the game. Older recruits tend to see right through this,but younger ones don’t. That’s why the forces like them young.

Also, don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down and don’t be awake when you can sleep. If you get a chance to sleep, take it, you don’t know when you will get another chance.

25 Jon March 21, 2013 at 9:37 pm

@Mark: Amen brother.
At Basic Training one night, we were all roused from our bunks, told to get into full kit, and sent outside fo disciplinary action due to some guys goofing off instead of sleeping. For a number of reasons, not the least of which being anger at corporate punishment for individual infractions, I finally hit my breaking point. One of my fellow trainees grabbed me by the arm and said “Don’t you dare quit. I’ve been watching you for two weeks and you are not a quitter. So don’t you dare quit on me now!” I got up, got through my own mental space, and got on with the buisiness of becoming a Soldier. From there on out, I was fine.

Sometimes, what you really need is a brother-in-arms to tell you you’re stronger than you think you are.

26 Joe March 22, 2013 at 6:30 am

When I left for basic training, my dad (who was a Korean War vet) gave me three pieces of advice, “Do as you’re told, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut.”

27 Rohit Ramachandran March 22, 2013 at 9:09 am

Great read. I spend most of my time at work reading this blog. Is that manly?

28 Jordan Thayer March 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

Mr Brotherton,

You have a well written article with one significant flaw. You referred to a Marine Corps Drill Instructor as a Drill Sergeant. It affects your credibility as an author if your military terminology is not on point. As my Drill Instructor made clear to me: “Words mean things”. We are not the Army. We are the Marine Corps, and we have Drill Instructors.

2ndLt Jordan C. Thayer USMC

29 Marcus Brotherton March 22, 2013 at 11:59 am

Jordan, agreed, and you are correct. My mistake. –MB

30 L A HAWK March 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Marine Corps recruit training taught me an important lesson… Don’t look too far into the future and don’t feel bad for yourself during the present. Whether it’s six weeks or 13, recruit training has a way of breaking everyone down in their own special way. It doesn’t take very long to realize that you’re stuck on that depot until you graduate. What helped me out was taking my days meal to meal. If you looked too far into the future the task could at times seem daunting. If you took things too short it could do the same. Suffer in silence, always maintain your intensity, and if things get real tough just smile. Other than that just look forward to your next meal, after evening chow the day has winded down!

31 Bill G March 22, 2013 at 10:12 pm

All 7 hold true if you are starting a new job as well. Shut up, do as you’re told, and when you are in charge THEN you can do things your way.

32 davidshockey March 23, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Good stuff.

But, #4 will get you in trouble if you use it outside of basic. Some selection courses expect you to do your best and the instructors will come down on you if you are trying to hide in the middle. Watch “Two Weeks in Hell” for an example.

33 Joanne Norman March 23, 2013 at 5:49 pm

My experience in the armed forces was fairly slack compared to other commenters. Back in 1985, I joined the (Canadian) naval reserves to pay for school and to help add some employment experience to my resume. The 7 weeks of training was a very positive experience. There were plenty of times I was miserable but everyone was miserable so that did not make it so bad. I learned organizational skills, how to get along with people and most important (to me), attention to detail. I still use those skills daily.

Watching my disorganized brothers fumble through simple daily tasks has often prompted the quote “A couple of years in the army would have done those 2 boys a world of good.”

34 Joe March 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm

If you can count it down, you can get through anything.

35 Crazy Ranger March 25, 2013 at 10:01 am

1. the pace yourself lesson doesn’t apply so much. Instructors are looking for the guys who put out 100% effort 100% of the time. If it took 100% effort for that guy to get third then that’s what he should have done. if it took 100% effort to get 10th the second time, it was still the right decision. RI’s, DI’s, and cadre in general are looking for the guys who put out all the way.
2. one lesson that wasn’t mentioned. You just can’t stop. No matter what you never stop rucking, or running, or doing push-ups, or whatever they are having you do at the time. You keep going until they tell you to stop.

36 OkieRover March 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Its a funny thing. I went through Marine Corps boot camp 40 years after the Marines in the stories did. None of this had changed.
Those lessons of yesterday apply today.
Semper Fi

37 Daniel Kim March 27, 2013 at 7:45 am

I have no experience with such things as described here, but from what I have been told, it seems that part of the instruction instills the idea that ‘your leaders will tell you to do things that you think should kill you, but you don’t die.’ After a few such experiences, one may learn to trust those in command to know your limits, and to know what can realistically be accomplished.

38 David March 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm

The piece of advice that helped me the most through Basic was “meal to meal, Sunday to Sunday”.

Sure, you might only get 90 seconds to chow down on a meal sometimes, and Sundays you’ll still have work, but every meal and every Sunday felt like a mini vacation in basic.

Sometimes the thought of 7 or 8 more weeks can be really tough, but anyone can look at a few hour time stretch and get through that.

Out of the 7 rules listed, I’d say number 6 was the most useful for me. As soon as you realize all you have to do in Basic is what you’re told, things get really easy.

I am kind of surprised none of the tips listed pertained to your interaction with fellow trainees or recruits. Work together, have each other’s backs, and don’t be a constant screw up. Everyone messes up, just learn from your mistakes and do it right next time.

Like crazyranger said, do your best, 100%, all the time. Your instructors can tell, and the people training with you can tell.

39 Jordan April 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm

All of these tips will help one navigate basic training and I would add one more…Maintain a rigid state of flexibility. While deployed to Iraq our CW5 always told us to, “Maintain a rigid state of flexibility.” Plans change, missions change, etc. Don’t let the changes effect you adversely. The instructors will notice and only make things worse.

40 Andrew April 7, 2013 at 6:21 pm

I’ve never been in the military, and never done any extreme training programs or anything like that. Perhaps those sorts of things do not fit my temperament *shrugs*

However, the advice still resonated with me because it looks like you can apply much of it in plenty of situations. A new job, a new social organization, etc.

The bit about respecting the leader with a low voice struck me. I’m a substitute teacher at the moment, and while I’m not near as effective as a Drill Instructor, I can tell you that keeping calm and speaking in measured tones works wonders when you’re in a management role, especially when you’re dealing with kids.

41 Super Dooper Paratrooper April 8, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Remember these words:
“I will quit tomorrow.”
You say that everyday you need to, not at the start, not at the end, but during the midst of the suck. When the suck sucks the most then it is time for application. By the time the suck is done you are downhill until the suck rises up again. Quitting tomorrow will always work. Just remember to say it again when the suck rears her ugly, fuzzy, and toothless head tomorrow. Got me through 11B OSUT (back when it was hard of course), Jump school (back when it was hard), Afghanistan and Iraq.

42 Kyle R April 10, 2013 at 10:35 am

This is a great read and applicable to all aspects of life.

43 david May 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Anyone who goes through basic should remember one thing: your life is easier when you do not get noticed. The less instructors and even other trainees notice you, the better off you are.

It also helps to remember that drill instructors are actors playing characters designed to leave an impression. When they go home they are just regular people who like to spend time laughing with their buddies about the silly things that their trainees did that day.

44 Craig W May 15, 2013 at 11:05 am

Great Life Lessons! I especially like the first lesson about accomplishing your Goals, “if shouldnt be easy, otherwise everybody would be doing it” how true…..

45 Joel October 16, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for the article! This has quickly became one of my favorite websites over the past few months or so.

I leave for bootcamp at MCRD Parris Island this July, so this helps calm my nerves a bit.

46 Devyn March 20, 2014 at 9:55 am

Great article for men and women! I have a tendency to complain too much and this is great inspiration to toughen up.

47 Eric March 20, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Solid advice.
Remember, it’s meant to be stressful, and you learn to operate with that stress. It’s how war will be and you have to learn to push through. Training under stress is a cornerstone of Army training (I can’t speak for the other services). Ranger school it gets more intense with sleep and food deprivation, because you may well operate without food or sleep. The most difficult thing I had to deal with in basic was the guys who were stressed out, the DS would make sure you got through the training.

Army NCO for 8 years and now a Commissioned Officer

48 Brian April 4, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Well i sure am glad I only went through Air Force Basic in the mid 80s. After graduation, I had a good laugh at myself for actually being nervous when it began. I’m sure there’s a life lesson it that somewhere. They encouraged us to call home about halfway into it. My Dad, who was a 17 year old Marine in early 1945, thought I was calling to ask to come home instead of completing Basic Training – not that I wasn’t in shape or tough enough, but because I was a smartass. I never told him how close his guess was.

49 Steve Youngblood April 6, 2014 at 9:45 am

Aside from the glaring mistake that he said the USMC’s basic training is the toughest (they all are equally unpleasant — I was Army, and it sure wasn’t a vacation), I loved the lessons. Especially about the nimrod who got the ice cream. Respect your supervisors in the civilian world — they have pride and do not appreciate your acting like an idiot.

#2 is the best one. Quit whining, for God’s sakes — society seems to encourage whining. Be better than your coworkers. If life sucks, you can quit, or you can smirk in the face of adversity.

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