I was RA, (Regular Army.) I enlisted to serve and looked forward to it. In actuality I was drafted first in June 1957, my senior year while at the University of Notre Dame, but when I explained to my New York Draft Board that I was enrolled in a 5 year program and showed them the college catalog and my parents tuition receipt for the upcoming year, I was told the Army only recognized 4 year programs. We went round and round for months attempting to clarify the situation and it was resolved when I was offered a new military “deal” that had just been created in the “new Army” called, “A Choice, Not a Chance.” By enlisting and giving the US military 3 years instead of 2, I could choose the date I wanted to report, the branch of service, the advanced training and duty station I wanted. I signed up. My selections were Army military Intelligence Corps (CIC), Officers Candidate School (OCS) and duty station in Italy.
My report date was in June 1958. I reported to HDQS, First US Army Recruiting District, 39 Whitehall Street, New York. After processing and swearing in, we had to report across the river to Ft. Dix, New Jersey for Basic Training. I assumed since I was “regular Army” I was put in charge of getting that day’s crop of 13 on the subway to report to Ft. Dix. Everyone was reminded that they were already sworn in and if they didn’t get to Ft. Dix, they would be considered AWOL and subject to arrest by MP’s. Everyone eventually got to Ft. Dix and reported in. We were issued our uniforms, bedding and what was euphemistically called a haircut but was really a shearing of any hair on top of one’s head. The next couple of days started with memorizing our “for life military numbers,” work details, the start of learning formation and marching and other military basics. On the first weekend, we were able to have visitors and my family drove from Long Island to visit.
That 1st Monday, provided the 1st bad news. My entire recruit company was informed that due to a just arrived large influx of “90 day wonders,” (ROTC college graduates who were all Lieutenants) we were going to be shipped to Ft. Benning, Georgia.
That was where the “ugly” started. The part of Ft. Benning that we were to occupy hadn’t been used since WWII when it held German POW’s. We found out the hard way that the southern cadre of Sergeants who were going to train us hadn’t trained anyone in years. They were “rednecks” and were very verbal about their dislikes of “Northerners, Yankees, College Kids, Jews, Catholics, Negros and Puerto Ricans and anyone who associated with them. Our Company had all of the above. In 1958, racial segregation was strong and still a hot topic in the South. No serious race or religious disagreements took place among us throughout the Basic Training.
As mentioned above, the Ft. Benning Cadre we were assigned to were not experienced “trainers” so the training caused more problems than would have ordinarily occurred. First, there were no physical training or conditioning Sergeants at Ft. Benning for our Company so they borrowed one from the Ft. Benning Airborne School Training Facility next door. Soldiers who go Airborne are either, volunteers, already trained Infantry Soldiers or are in excellent physical condition. Our group of New Yorkers were not in great shape. Even those who would be considered in good shape were no match for “Airborne” type of rigorous training in the high heat and humidity of summer in Georgia. The Airborne Sergeant who led our daily conditioning treated us as if we were just like the regular Airborne Soldier. When you woke up at 5 or 6am, it was already 110 degrees in the shade and it only got worse as the day went on. It all came to a head after about a couple of weeks when after morning formation, we were all told we had “volunteered” to donate blood to the Red Cross and give the camp a 100% contributor rating. The Red Cross had set up their collection stations near the Sick Bay and in single file we waited in line in the hot sun in T-shirts and fatigues pants. The 1st few men who had their blood drawn also had their blood tested and it became evident very rapidly that every other man had an iron deficiency that made the blood donation unusable. Collection of blood was stopped and everyone was marched to the dispensary and started on a daily iron supplement and salt tablets for the duration of Basic.
One month into basic, I was called into the Company’s CO’s office mid-day and told that my father, who had never been sick a day in his life, had died suddenly of a heart attack and I was being sent home on a 10 day emergency leave. I had no money for an airline ticket, but was given a loan by the Red Cross for the tick and a small gym bag for a change clothes. My barracks mates heard about this and by the time I left for the Atlanta Airport, they had taken up a private collection and handed me a welcomed fist full of money to help me along. At the airport, I learned firsthand about segregation that I had only read about in the Northern papers. I had to go to the bathroom and was about to enter the Men’s Room when a booming voice shouted at me, “Where are you going, boy?” I turned to see a fat white Southern Sheriff in full uniform. I looked at the door symbol and made sure it was the Men’s Room and said I had to go to the bathroom. He bellowed, “Can’t you read, boy?” I looked at the sign again and said, “Yeh, it says Men.” He said, “Look above the door, boy?” At the top of the door over the top frame was a sign that said, “Colored.” I said, “That’s okay, it doesn’t matter to me.” He drew closer, hand on his pistol and said, “It matters to me, boy” and pointed to where the Men’s room had a “White’s only” sign over the door. I quickly got the message and used it instead.
The impact of losing my father didn’t hit me until I arrived home and was greeted at the airport by my brother and an aunt. Then is really hit me when I got home and saw my mother uncontrollably grieving. The rest of the leave was spent with my first ever task of helping my brother select a mortuary, secure a casket, find a burial plot and make funeral arrangements and cleaning out my father’s locker at work.
When I returned to basic training after my emergency leave, my Company had progressed 2 more weeks into the 10 week basic training and I had missed too much training to just rejoin them, so I was reassigned to another company located a few “blocks away.” Of course, I didn’t know anyone in the new barracks, so whenever I could I took a walk from my new group to visit my original group.
There were always rumors in the military of “plants” or undercover “spies” placed in various military groups to observe and report on things like conditions, maintenance, programs, etc. The same rumors floated in corporate America in large companies and organizations. It was hinted at by my barracks mates that I was the “plant” since I was the only one who already had orders for their next assignment and I always had prior knowledge of training events coming up. I never told anyone that during my walks I would visit my original group mates and they would let me know of things to come. Therefore, two incidents that followed convinced everyone, including the CO that I was indeed the “plant.”
The first incident occurred shortly after I was assigned to the new Company. Early one morning, in formation, the Sergeant in charge said we needed to clear an outdoor training area that hadn’t been used for years and now was over grown with poison ivy so we could hold our classes there. He proceeded to pick a “volunteer” cleanup crew. Three guys, including me. I went to the Sergeant and told him I was severely allergic and it would be dangerous for me to be on the detail and I would do any other detail he wanted but to take me off that one. He looked at me and said that he hated “slackers” and put me in charge of the detail. We spent the entire day clearing poison ivy and by the next morning I was covered in a red oozing rash over all exposed areas of my body including my face and hands. None of the other cleanup crew members were affected. At morning formation I requested to be released to the sick bay to get treated. He called me a “smart a**,” accused me of faking an illness and told me I had done such a good job on yesterday’s detail that he was putting me on a second detail to do the same thing in another classroom area.
So, for the second day, I was in the middle of poison ivy and when we got a break, I sat on a curb of the road, rolled up my fatigues and took of my short sleeve shirt and tried to air dry the rash. While sitting there in pain, an open Jeep pulled up and from the passenger side out stepped an older man in full uniform with a chest full of medals and a military hat that had “scrambled eggs” on the visor. He looked at me and said, “Soldier, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you in sick bay? Don’t you know you have a critical case of poison ivy and it’s contagious?” I told him I did know and that my Sergeant wouldn’t let me go on sick call and I relayed the two day story to him. He then turned and proceeded in the direction of the Sergeant.
I went to sick bay, got the medication I needed and the days off to treat the infection and went back to my barracks. No one ever saw the Sergeant again. He never came back from supervising the clean-up detail. I later found out that the man in the full uniform was the Surgeon General on a surprise inspection visit to the newly opened training part of the camp and was not happy with how a soldier considered “military property” was abused by a Non-commissioned Officer (NCO) and used the discipline of the Sergeant as a lesson of what would not be tolerated in the “new” Army.
The second incident occurred a couple of weeks later. I was fairly cured of the poison ivy when at morning formation the “new” Sergeant asked for volunteers who could paint, to step forward. I was told before joining never to “volunteer” for anything because what was requested was never what you thought it would be. I briefly thought over the volunteer request and since I liked painting, what the worse thing it could be? Painting a latrine? An outhouse? How bad could it be? It surely would be KP or picking up cigarette butts on the parade grounds. I took the chance and stepped forward as did three other guys. The Sergeant asked the 4 of us if we could do “fine art pictures, paint with oils?” Two guys stepped back in line, and the remaining two were sent to the Captain’s office. It turned out to be that we were going to get a new base Commanding Officer soon and as a welcoming gift, the camp command staff wanted to give the new CO an oil portrait of himself. The painting was of a German officer that had been started by a POW just before the end of WWII and left behind when he was shipped back to Germany. The Captain wanted to know if the two of us could change the painting into an American officer in dress green uniform. He showed us a picture of the new CO in full dress uniform to use as a model. We both agreed that we could do the job. Of course we needed paint supplies so the Captain gave us a purchase voucher, keys to the Jeep and a pass to go to the downtown Columbus, GA art store to buy whatever we needed.
It was decided between the two of us that one person would go into the art store, buy the paints, brushes he needed for his part, and half of the mutual supplies we both needed for the painting while the other one stayed with the Jeep and did whatever he wanted to for an hour or so then we would reverse roles. That gave each of us some free-time. I took the jeep first and went to a local diner for a hamburger and a shake then walked around and found a USO Club nearby. I walked in and noticed a board with black and white photos of young ladies on them. The head of the USO came out of an office and asked what I was looking at. I informed her that I wasn’t sure and who the young ladies were. She said the ladies were the Orchid Girls. Local young ladies who spent most hours of their free time volunteering at the USO, entertaining the soldiers stationed at Ft. Benning. I told her that for the time the ladies spent volunteering just to get a corsage wasn’t thanks enough. She ask me what I would do instead. I said to paint a gigantic orchid on the wall and the most recent girl would have her picture in the center with the other around the outside. She asked my name and if I could paint her an orchid like the one I described. I told her sure, but as a recruit, there was no way I would ever get another pass to spend the time needed and left the USO.
Back at Ft. Benning, the 2 of us finished the painting in a week, which meant a week of no other word detail. No KP, and any free time we had or needed, day and evenings were spent in a relatively cool fan air conditioned office leisurely painting. When the painting was presented to the new CO we heard it made a big hit. Of course we never got any credit or got to sign our names to the painting. A week later, one Saturday morning, over the loud speaker I heard my name called to report to the Captain’s office, immediately. When I reported to the Captain, he was furious, he pointed at me and said, he didn’t know who the Hell I was, but he was going to find out and get rid of me. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I assumed he heard about the incident with the Surgeon General and the poison ivy and the connection with losing one of his Sergeants. But, then he told me there was a USO station wagon at the front gate waiting for me and practically threw a pass at me signed by the new base CO. He didn’t know how I got a Saturday pass, since no recruit ever gets a pass, never! I took the pass and reported to the front gate. Sure enough, the head of the USO was there. She was driving the station wagon with the USO logo. I thanked her and said I may be in trouble for doing the orchid painting but she assured me there would be no problem. She went through all the channels and called in a couple of favors. At my request she drove me to a local drug store where I looked through the card rack until I found a card with an orchid illustration in color and then went to the paint store to pick up the paints, brushes and supplies I needed. She paid for everything. I could have done it all in one Saturday, but she insisted I enjoy myself since I was doing volunteer work for the USO and to take at least 2 Saturdays. She would take care of getting me the passes. So, while the maintenance crew took down everything from the lobby wall, patch and repair all the cracks and nail holes, the Orchid Girls took me to the nearby Ida Carson Callaway Gardens for a picnic.
So, the next 2 Saturdays, I was wined and dined by lovely Southern Belles as I painted them an orchid in their front lobby.
Some of the recruits were “encouraged” by Judges and the Court to join the Army rather than go to jail for various offenses. I shared a barrack with one of them. One night, I awoke to hear one of the “encouraged” recruits dragging a heavy wooden crate. I got up and asked him what he was doing. He said that he couldn’t sleep and went for a walk and found this box full of hand grenades in a metal shed where he picked the lock to gain access. I knew I had to get those things out of the barracks. So, I told him that the barracks were inspected every Saturday and where did he think he could hide a wooden crate that size. I was able to talk him into taking them back to the metal shed. He knew where they were anyway if he decided he needed them in the future.
While visiting my original barracks mates, I learned that we were going to start Squad Tactics. We were to march between 2 mounds and we would be fired upon in a cross fire by two machine guns manned by the Sergeants using blank ammunition. It would be a practical lesson to see if we were listening during the classroom instruction. I returned to my new barracks mates and told them of the upcoming events. Few believe me and said they believe we would never be fired upon. Sure enough, as we were approaching the mounds, within seconds the machine guns started firing over our heads and into the sandy path in front and all around us. Those near me, who trusted and listened to me, immediately dove to the side of the road and prepared to return fire. The rest of the squad just stood there in a daze, confused. Obviously, if in a real combat, these men would be dead. What I didn’t know when I mentioned what was going to happen, one of the “encouraged” recruits got two smoke grenades from his private supply shed. When the firing started, he on his own, flanked the machine gun and without being seen, pulled the pin on one grenade, counted and lobbed it into the machine gun nest. He again pulled the next pin on the 2nd grenade and lobbed it into the other machine gun nest. Each nest had 2 Sergeants. The explosions from the grenades blew sand all over the place and set off a lot of smoke, but no one was injured. I never say Sergeants that size abandoned their positions and run so fast in my whole life.
No one would know, except for me, who threw the grenades and more importantly where they came from. Staff was at a lost for punishment. The investigation into the event never proceeded very far and we got very little harassment after that from the Sergeants.
The remainder of the basic training was almost without incident….
I received my predetermined orders to report to Ft. Holabird, MD for Military Intelligent Training as a Special Agent.