The Sierra Nevada can be an intimidating place to settle. The combination of altitude, isolation, and extreme weather remove any possibility that that it might be easy, creating an environment that for many is entirely undesirable.
Unless the people in question are Marines.
Where others might see a difficult situation, the Marine Corps sees a golden opportunity, which is precisely why the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) is located here on the Eastside, in the mountains between Bridgeport and Walker.
We want our Marines to get pounded by inclement weather,” Colonel Kevin Hutchinson, Commanding Officer at MCMWTC, told a group of community leaders assembled in the training center’s auditorium on Wednesday morning. To put it another way: “We’ve created an island of isolation where we can torture Marines without the scrutiny of the public,” Col. Hutchinson explained, drawing a laugh from the civilians and Marines in the auditorium.
The civilian group’s visit to the base is one of two times that the Mountain Warfare Training Center welcomes visitors during the year. All those invited to visit on Wednesday have established relationships with the Training Center whether it be through veterans groups, donations, or volunteer work.
After the battle of Chosin Reservior in the Korean War, during which the Marine Corps sustained more than 7,000 non-battle casualties as a result of cold weather, there was a desperate need to incorporate mountain training into the
Marines’ regimen. When efforts to establish a mountain base at Big Bear and San Jacinto were insufficient, leadership turned their attention to the Sierra, focusing on the isolation and “utterly miserable” conditions that the mountains offered.
In 1951, the MCMWTC was established near Bridgeport to train replacement troops headed to Korea and has since become, in the words of Col. Hutchinson, “a national treasure.”
“If you can fight here,” said Col. Hutchinson, “You can fight and win anywhere.”
At present, two battalions call the Training Center home, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines (3/8), and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6), both based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Getting to the camp at Grouse Meadow from the base at Pickel Meadow means a forty-minute snowcat that covers 2,200 vertical feet; battalions training at MCMWTC make the trek on foot, carrying 75-100 lb packs and taking anywhere between two and a half to eighteen hours.
The community leaders’ visit was timed to take in the battalions as they transitioned from the heated 15-person tents in the open at Grouse Meadow to much smaller four-person shelters dug into the snow, known as “Survival Night.”
At Grouse Meadow, Col. Hutchinson read an excerpt from Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, which chronicles the “conquest” of the American West. The passage Hutchinson chose centered on the trials John C. Fremont’s group of soldiers faced in the nearby mountains. From the meadow, Hutchinson pointed out Lost Cannon Peak, where Fremont and co. ditched a howitzer that they’d been lugging with them since the Midwest.
Hutchinson focused on the resilience demonstrated by Fremont’s company in overcoming their perilous situation, a spirit that drives the training at MCMWTC.
After a brief tour of the camp at Grouse Meadow, with the opportunity to peer inside the fifteen-man tents and meet the 3/6 and 3/8 Marines, the civilian group cleared the snow road leading into camp to allow the battalions to march to a training session lead by base instructors. In the coming weeks, they will play the role of opposing forces in training exercises.
Listening to the base’s commanding officers describe the conditions at MCMWTC and seeing them firsthand begs an obvious question: why do this? Why put yourself through this snowy hell?
It takes a unique individual to thrive in these circumstances, someone who can grin and bear it, laugh at adversity, and embrace the “suck” of the situation. That combination forms the essence of the Marines training and working at MCMWTC, on full display Wednesday.
Col. Hutchinson became emotional describing the history of the Corps, his love for it, and his duty to preserving the Marine’s military prowess and legacy; he, along with the others who spoke with and to the civilian group were never far from a smile or joke about the difficult conditions at the Training Center. Throughout the visit, that dedication and humor were readily apparent.
Following chow, the assembled civilians took in a demonstration of a Marine Corps fire team in action. At the signal of Master Sergeant Ricardo Villanueva, the four-man group broke from the trees in a diamond formation, and at another direction, turned as one and began firing and advancing on an objective to their right.
Watching the fire team in action reinforced an understanding of Marines’ lethality; even in two to four feet of snow, they advanced as one, laying down cover fire for each other as they moved forward in sync. In a matter of about thirty seconds, the team covered the required distance, “one of the most intricate orchestrizations of violence you will ever see,” as Col. Hutchinson noted.
In the late afternoon light, 3/6 Marines could be seen digging in for Survival Night along the roadside as the snowcats returned to the base, a final reminder of the Training Center’s goals before departure. A quick visit to the Legacy Hut and Px marked the end of the day.
The experience wasn’t something that can be entirely understood from an outsider’s perspective: much of the training and mentality at MCMWTF goes against what would be deemed natural by many. But that’s the point; Col. Hutchinson repeatedly stressed the importance of teaching Marines to do unnatural things and, as one officer noted, “Marines aren’t ordinary people.”