OORAH! (Alternatively spelled “OOHRAH,” and “OOH-RAH.”)
–A motivational cry used by United States Marines, possibly derived from the sound that a submarine’s dive klaxon made when delivering Marines to war zones during the Korean conflict.
The U.S. Marines use the American preoccupation with hero worship as a pivotal element of their advertising, offering potential recruits the chance to escape a mundane situation of civilian life and join an exclusive club that combats threats to family, country and way of life. Media saturation was not commonplace in the waning years of World War II as Jack McDowell’s older brother came home from his Marine graduation, resplendent in his crisp green service uniform.
This and the stories of adversity and camaraderie at Montford Point in the midst of darkest North Carolina were enough to prompt the Brooklyn native to seek adventure a tad more strenuous than the occasional gang fights of his youth.
Basic training proved arduous to enough make young McDowell reconsider his decision to enlist, especially during one memorable episode in which his platoon endured a series of 600-yard runs carrying 40-pound foot lockers in the driving rain, but he was able to succeed and shipped out to the Far East for martial exploits that evaporated when the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
McDowell missed World War II, but the close of that clash did impact his military career. It ended Japan’s rule of the Korean peninsula, resulting in its division in one of the first political maneuvers of what would become known as the Cold War. The Russians (in the north) and the Americans (south of the parallel) assumed control of that country until the communists attempted to appropriate the entire country in June of 1950, resulting in the escalation of hostilities that became known as the Korean Conflict.
McDowell’s participation in the historic Inchon landing 200 miles behind enemy lines led to one of the highlights of his Marine career. Several weeks into the counterattack, McDowell, then a sergeant, was designated section leader for a mortar unit when his authority was challenged by a Caucasian marine from Kentucky. McDowell shared his memory of the trajectory of that relationship:
“Cpl. H. was a couple of years older and had been in the Corps longer. He was a racist and was clear about that. He was the only one I went to knuckle junction with. Eventually, I got the better of him and we mutually decided to tolerate each other.”
Several months later, when he received the first wound of his military career from a North Korean submachine gun, this same redneck was among those who pulled him to safety.
“After the crucible of the Chosin Reservoir and later when I was injured, we lost contact with each other until 1955 when we had an amiable coast-to-coast telephone conversation (me at Camp Pendleton, he at Quantico).”
The next few years proved to be uneventful for the battle-tested noncommissioned officer as he recovered from his injury, started a family, and moved through the ranks of the Corps. In the wake of the Ribbon Creek incident, in which six recruits drowned during a training exercise, the Corps pursued a rigorous reform of its training practices, and Staff Sgt. McDowell was selected for drill instructor duty. This assignment was not to his liking, but he accepted the challenge and became drill instructor of the year for Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, in 1958.
McDowell attributes his success to the lessons learned during his early career, particularly that arduous session with the foot lockers.
“Over the years it taught me that such tactics were brutal and uncalled for (in) the business of transitioning your civilians into U.S. Marines,” he said.
“I think the African American drill instructors of that era attempted to emulate the only role models they were familiar with, and those were the Whites that were their drill instructors; most of whom did not want to be assigned to train Negroes.”
During this era, the Cold War raged in the global psyche with President John F. Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev matching wits in an international brinkmanship that dominated media headlines at the dawn of the 1960s, while McDowell toiled at special assignments for embassy duty in Beirut, Lebanon; New Delhi, India, and Katmandu, Nepal. The competition between capitalist and communist ideologies never quite reached the point of all-out warfare, the two superpowers instead preoccupying themselves with economic and technological one-upmanship, and periodic “proxy wars” in which third-party countries engaged in armed skirmishes in place of the major rivals. This “cold” dispute gradually thawed to the point of armed discord in a little-known country in Southeast Asia known as Vietnam.
By the time McDowell, now a 1st Sgt., reached his duty station just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the war was in full swing, and he strived to ensure the safety of his Marines and the company in his charge.
In the lexicon of the military, the 1st Sgt. is considered the paterfamilias of a company, the basic unit of the Corps, and as such is unofficially known as the “top sergeant,” “top kick,” or simply “top.” With a dearth of battle-tested leadership, McDowell regularly took to the field to ensure his unit ran smoothly, and consequently regularly placed himself in harm’s way.
He was in such a position in April 1967, when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) blast knocked him off his feet and saturated his back with shrapnel. After a brief two-week interlude for recovery, he returned to the field.
Fate was not done with Jack McDowell, however, and three months later in July, a communist .51-caliber heavy machine-gun round shattered his left calf, forcing an amputation, and effectively ending a 22-year career in the Corps, in which he served in every major geographic region on the globe outside of Africa, the Antarctic and the Arctic.
McDowell is unique among the majority of military personnel in that he is the recipient of three Purple Hearts (the medal traditionally given to those who die, or are wounded in combat) along with his Bronze Star with a “V” for valor for the engagement in which he lost his leg. The citation states that “after being wounded by a gunshot in the foot, McDowell continued his actions and assisted in establishment of a secure defensive position.” It goes on to recount “throughout the encounter, he bolstered morale and aided in re-establishing organization amidst the confusion generated by the attack.”
Aside from a fair amount of ribbing from his comrades regarding his being a “three-time loser,” the experience of being maimed and the road to recovery tested his resolve psychologically.
Subsequent decades have afforded the former 1st sgt. success, notably as specialist in rail transportation in the Bay Area, Canada, Detroit and Malaysia. The wear and tear of serving his country still impacts him (he also suffers from the effects of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange), but McDowell has pursued his post-military endeavors with the same “Oorah!” spirit that Marines are known for.