The early weeks of Army basic training at Camp Steward, Ga. were spent firing rifles, marching, and writing letters home. We sure were kept busy. Still, how lonely life could be, especially in evening when the haunting sounds of Taps signaled the end of another day.
On a Saturday in April 1953, my dad (the Doughboy pictured here) poked his head into my tent and delivered his signature line, “Hi, Bud!”
He didn’t tell me he was coming. Our outfit was preparing for bivouac and a trek into the Okefenokee Swamp. My mind flashed back to the time a first-grade classmate teased me when I met my dad on the corner outside School 14 in Paterson, J.J. “No hugging,” I ordered on that occasion. Dad laughed. He understood.
This time it was different. I was 20 and thrilled to see him. I knew something special was happening. I shook his hand. The quintessential soldier was returning for one more look at his beloved U.S. Army. Early that Monday morning, pack on my back and rifle slung over my shoulder, I slogged away to the unknown with pals Fusco, Friedhoff, Cholewinski and others I would remember for a lifetime. There was no band playing; only the sounds of shuffling boots and swinging equipment bumping against hard bodies disturbed the silence. The weather, foggy and damp, matched our mood.
The scene of soldiers on the move was not new to Dad. He was a machine gunner in WWI. In 1928 he paraded into Brest, France with the Blue and the Gray 29th Division to the sound of local children singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here!” What followed for him was the eerie sound of whistling enemy shells in Alsace, followed by the chatter of machine gunfire in the muddy field of the Argonne. When I was a kid I discovered in his old duffel bag a battered bugle rescued from the battlefield and his personal gas mask inscribed “I need Thee every hour” written in his own hand.
Somehow I was excused from duty for the rest of the weekend. To say it was an amazing turn of events is an understatement. The Army can be amazingly lenient on occasion when morale comes into play. Or maybe the old trooper had some influence. He had already moved into the camp’s motel for VIPs.
In the few months since I had entered the service, he seemed to have grown older. His black hair was becoming gray; he was only 57. We would make the most of our time together. We went to the base movie, attended Mass the next morning in the camp’s chapel and toured the spacious post in the afternoon. You could hitch a ride in brand new ’53 Chevrolets anywhere on the grounds for a quarter.
As our outfit headed out toward the swamp that morning, Dad huddled with a group of non-commissioned officers. A solder walking behind me suggested, “Go hug him.” I chose not to break ranks, a decision I’m confident Frank Harrison, Sr. understood.
A few weeks later I heard while the boys of the 551st AAA Battalion’s Battery B stepped off that morning with thoughts of snakes in the swamp dancing in their minds, Dad was holding a small court. Our tent leader Sgt. Fitts informed me weeks later that “Your dad assured each of us we were earning the love and respect of a grateful nation that would last a lifetime.” The tough sergeant said he welled up listening to my dad and added “He’s one hell of a guy. You should be very proud.”
I certainly was.