The Tijuana Brothel and the Geisha Brawl- “Make Peace or Die” Excerpt

An excerpt from my father’s memoir —Make Peace or Die: A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares — in which he and his Marines stop at brothels on both sides of the Pacific on their way to Korea.

At muster on Monday, I was given responsibility for thirty or so enlisted Marines in the Fifth Replacement Draft. The draft’s mission was to bring the depleted Marine forces on the Korean peninsula back up to strength for a counteroffensive.

As I inspected their weapons and gear, the platoon sergeant advised me that many of these boys were virgins and suggested we rectify that before heading out. That night, a dozen of us crossed the US/Mexico border and, with the help of the sergeant, found a Tijuana brothel, El Serape, where I negotiated a group rate, using my best college Spanish and some gestures to explain to the ladies it wouldn’t take these lads long. Not only was I the officer in charge of these guys but at twenty-three, I was older than almost all of them. This was not lost on our hosts, who called these Marines niños (boys).

On our way out, the ladies gathered to bid us farewell, offering streamers and feigned tears.

Years later, I was at a hotel bar in Veracruz, Mexico. I kept getting looks from one of the barmen. Finally, he shouted out “El Serape!” where he had been working when I came in on my way to war.


Dockside Wednesday morning, I bought $10,000 worth of short-term life insurance from an enterprising Aetna Life salesman, supplementing the government’s policy of the same amount. I would be taking over a platoon where most, if not all, of my predecessors had been killed or wounded. If I thought about it, I was fucked. But I didn’t think about it.

For the next two weeks, the seventy-one junior officers and 1,717 enlisted Marines sailed west aboard the USS General JC Breckinridge. We lieutenants played a lot of poker and led calisthenic workouts on deck. At the international dateline, first-time crossers had to run the gauntlet of enlisted men slapping us silly, per tradition. We made a stop in Yokosuka, Japan, for two days, picking up supplies and ammunition. We had a chance to call home. There was a long line to use the phones, it was crowded, and I couldn’t hear well.

In a room full of Marines, I shouted a crude farewell into the receiver to Mary, “You bet your sweet ass I love you.”

The first Marines off the ship had managed to get drunk and in trouble before the rest of us could even get down the gangplank. We were ordered to remain on the base, officers included. Eager to experience the finer points of Japanese culture, I assembled a squad of likeminded Marines, lined them up in formation, and marched them to the main gate, sternly bringing the ranks to a halt. I told the sentry that we were under orders to move into town and round up our misbehaving comrades. Outside the gate, I told the men to scatter, have fun, fuck their brains out, drink themselves stupid, but don’t get arrested, and do not miss the ship. I was showered with words of gratitude and promises to return on time. A fellow Basic School graduate, Pete McCloskey, whom I had met on the troop ship, made it ashore earlier. I found him in a geisha house infested with officers based in Japan. At one point, a Navy officer came from another room and pompously ordered us to quiet down. When he returned to his party, I threw an empty bottle through the paper screen wall, apparently striking someone. We heard a yell and then sirens. Pete and I clambered through a skylight and spent the night bivouacked on the roof. In the morning, everyone made it back to the ship. However just before departure, six officers were ordered to stay in Japan. One was the future evangelist and presidential candidate, Pat Robertson. Pat got his daddy — then United States Senator A. Willis Robertson — to have him pulled off the ship, because Pat was probably having second thoughts about dying for his country. The other five lieutenants were pulled, possibly to cover for Pat’s preferential treatment.

We landed at Pohang, a port on the east coast of Korea. An announcement from the captain came over the ship’s PA: “The United States Navy wishes all departing Marines good luck.”

“Ten dollars to the man who shoots that silly bastard,” came a shout from Sergeant “Muzzle Blast” Baker, known for a voice so loud it could drown out gunfire.

We were taken ashore by LST landing craft operated under contract by the Japanese, now our allies. I remember one Marine sizing up our diminutive skipper, “Who won the fucking war?”

From Pohang we were driven up into the hills in the back of trucks. The road was rough, the benches hard and cold. Nobody spoke. I thought about Mary and felt alone. It could be that this was one of my most frightening memories of the war. The men to my left and to my right were still strangers, and we had not yet encountered the action that would bond us and give us the courage to get through much darker nights.

At one piss stop we heard that we had already lost some guys from another convoy, not slain in some glorious fight, but squashed by their vehicle when it skidded off the rutted road and rolled down the steep hillside.

One lieutenant of our group, O’Shea, was a bachelor who counted on his pay accumulating during his deployment, but he had gambled accordingly in poker games on the ship to Korea by trying to fill inside straights and other optimistic bets. It has been said, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans for tomorrow.” Others have said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In O’Shea’s first contact with the enemy, he got his nose shot off. He was shipped home with no money and no nose.

We reached 1st Division’s 5th Marine Regiment at the front, not a line of trenches, just some high hills, narrow valleys, and a small river with enemy lurking in the long night. Pete McCloskey and I were assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion. The motto of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines is “Make peace or die.” For those of us who had just arrived in Korea, the latter seemed much more likely.

Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. This week, the Kindle eBook is on sale for $0.99. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196