ORRINGTON — Phil Eckert seeks a few good men: the Marines who joined the Pine Tree Platoon, U.S. Marine Corps, in June 1953.
Drawn from Bangor, Bucksport, Millinocket, Orono and elsewhere, 32 Maine men departed Bangor by train on Friday, June 19, 1953. Among these young men was Eckert, who had graduated from Bangor High School two days earlier.
Sixty-plus years later, he wants to meet the Maine Marines who went through basic training with him.
A Glenburn resident, Eckert had enlisted in the Maine Army National Guard when he was 16. He remembered that the recruits “signed up before we even graduated from high school.” He likely enlisted in January 1953 as the Korean War raged half a world away.
Traveling on a Maine Central Railroad train, the 32 recruits underwent physical exams in Portland. From there they flew by plane to South Carolina and caught a bus to the Marine Corps training facility on Parris Island.
“We were the Pine Tree Platoon. They pinned little plastic pine trees on us before we left,” Eckert recalled as he sat in the living room of his well-kept home atop Kings Mountain.
The Maine recruits encountered the Marine Corps at their destination airport. “When we got off the plane, we were met by a DI [drill instructor]” who “called us ‘wooden-headed jerks from Maine.’ He made us get rid of the pins,” he said.
Kept together as the Pine Tree Platoon, the Maine recruits underwent 12 weeks of basic training. “It was like hell,” admitted Eckert.
His brother, David Eckert, had joined the Marines in 1950. He advised his younger brother “to keep your nose clean” during basic training. “Just don’t give the DIs any back talk,” David warned Phil.
The young Maine Marines perceptibly changed as the weeks passed. “About three weeks later” after receiving the DI’s first rude wakeup call, “you start to turn into an adult, so to speak, with responsibilities,” Phil Eckert explained. “Twelve weeks later, you come out of there as a very responsible person.”
The Maine Marines did their state proud; “we took top honors as the Platoon of the Year” after graduating from boot camp in [early] September 1953,” Eckert said.
After officially becoming Marines, 23 members of the Pine Tree Platoon traveled to Bangor together, arriving at Union Station in Bangor on Sunday evening, Sept. 6. The Marines all had a 10-day leave; Eckert asked six comrades to be his groomsmen when he married Marguerite Bowden of Orrington on Sept. 10.
He then attended a heavy equipment school at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Offered a choice of assignment at Camp Pendleton, Calif., or in Korea upon graduation, he realized that “I could get to California any time. I chose Korea.”
Ironically, his decision did send Eckert to the Golden State, where “we left San Diego in February 1954, and it took us 28 days by ship to get there” to Yokohama, Japan, where Marines were not allowed off their transport ships.
His next ocean voyage took Eckert to Inchon in the Republic of Korea, where he went ashore in an LST (landing ship tank). “The tide in Inchon is like the tide in Eastport,” he recalled. “It’s a 28-foot tide.”
Assigned to the 1st Shore Party, Eckert spent 12 months in Korea, where a September 1953 armistice officially had ended the shooting. Stationed near Kimpo airfield, Eckert helped build roads and performed other work in a landscape still badly marked by war.
He and his comrades lived in an eight-man tent and slept on cots. “We had an old oil stove to keep us warm,” he said.
“I think we went into [the war-devastated] Seoul once or twice,” Eckert said. “The only building that was left standing” had been “taken over by the American military.” There may have been a post exchange “or something like that” on the third floor.
“It was all quiet,” he said. “Once in a while a Mig [communist jet] flew over, but it was already turning around and heading back” to North Korea, “so I don’t think they ever got caught.”
When he joined the Marines, Eckert was paid $78 per month. His pay rose after he completed basic training, and in Korea all Marines received an additional $10 per month for combat pay.
Eckert stressed at least twice that while the military still regarded Korea as a war zone, “I don’t consider myself a combat veteran. It’s the guys that landed there in 1950.”
Returning by ship to the States in February 1955, Eckert came home to Maine on a 30-day leave. He was later stationed at Camp Pendleton; Sgt. Phil Eckert left the active-duty Marines in June 1956, when his monthly pay had risen to $137.
Resuming his civilian status in Maine, Eckert worked as a mechanic for Caterpillar; he earned 90 cents an hour while traveling into the Maine woods in any season to repair logging equipment. Later he and Marguerite purchased and operated a store on Route 15 in Orrington, and Eckert purchased from his father-in-law some land at the highest end of the Kings Mountain Road. There Phil and Marguerite built their house in the 1970s.
They raised four children, including a daughter, Lorie, who served in the Army.
“I’d always lived out in the county,” Eckert said, and “out in the country” he has lived ever since he settled in Orrington. From his deck he can gaze north across the Penobscot Valley and the local landmarks. On a clear day Mount Katahdin is visible on the horizon, and on the days when fog obscures the river valley, Eckert finds the scenery to be “beautiful.”
He worked many years for Canteen Service, even living in Limestone for a few years while maintaining the company’s vending machines at Loring Air Force Base. He did similar work while living in Millinocket.
Now 78, Eckert retired from Canteen Service in 1995.
Although he officially doffed his Marine uniform 57 years ago, Eckert remains faithful to the premise, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
He participates actively in the Bangor-based Unit 1151, Marine Corps League. “We meet once a month up at the [Bangor] Veterans Home,” Eckert said. “We have about 65 members. We’re all Marines; there is no such thing as a ‘former Marine.’”
“We are the few and the proud,” he stated, echoing another Marines Corp-affiliated statement.
Eckert owns three Jeeps: two CJ-7s and an original MB Army jeep built in 1945. Eckert has styled that olive drab Jeep to resemble a Jeep that Marines would have used during the Korean War. He drove one Jeep during the July 4, 2013, parade in Bangor; Eckert will probably bring the Marines Corp Jeep to the Queen City’s Veterans Day parade.
He has shared his military memories with schoolchildren visiting the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor. “I’ve got letters upon letters kids have sent me, thanking me for my service,” he said.
Before Veterans Day 2013, Eckert wants to meet other members of the Pine Tree Platoon. He believes that most of the 23 men portrayed in a Sept. 8, 1953, Bangor Daily News photo are still alive; he identified a few men who had died, and he knows several who still live in the greater Bangor area.
If you are one of the few and the proud Marines of the 1953 Pine Tree Platoon, please, call Phil Eckert at 825-3722.