Basic Training with G. Washington
Dec. 1961-Jan. 1962
Basic Training with G. Washington
Fun in Southern New Jersey in the Wintertime
While sorting through memorabilia to put on my Web site for sale, two things made me stop and write this remembrance. This first was finding my army basic training “yearbook”, and the second was the fact that the winds are howling and the outside temperature is zero on a late January afternoon as I start writing this.
The military draft was still active in 1962 and, at age 22, I was classified 1-A, and considered “draft bait”. In August of that year I had quit my job in Washington, D.C. and made my first move back to my northwest Pennsylvania home town. Being 1-A made it impossible for me to get a job. No employer was willing to hire me with the likelihood that I would soon be drafted. I had plenty of time on my hands, waiting for potential employers to return phone calls, reading help wanted ads, and so forth, so was able to watch on television the entire Cuban missile drama as it unfolded and was successfully concluded. While it lasted, those were the tensest times of my life.
There had been a call-up of the National Guard for six months due to Cuban problems either earlier that year or at the end of 1961. Since I couldn't get a job, and we seemed to be “between wars” at the moment, I visited the Army recruitment center in a nearby city, and eventually enlisted. At that time an enlistee was almost guaranteed to get the training they wanted, as opposed to draftees who were given what the Army needed at the moment; also, enlistments in the Army were for only three years as opposed to four years for the other services. As the enlistment progressed, it turned out that the Vietnam War was starting and, as a result, I am considered a Vietnam-era vet, even though I was fortunate not to have ended up in Vietnam—more on this in another story.
I agreed to go to Pittsburgh to take the Army's IQ and related tests before enlisting. When I scored well, I enlisted to enter the Army Security Agency and go to the Army Language School (later consolidated with other military language schools and renamed Defense Language Institute, West Coast Branch) to learn Russian. To cut to the chase, I'll simply say that I got the school of my choice.
Upon enlistment, I was taken to Pittsburgh for the formal swearing in, and put on a cross-state train to Trenton, New Jersey, and then bused to Fort Dix for basic training. As a side note, I got a sleeper, had dinner on the train, and a great night's sleep. Trains were sill quite good at that time.
My enlistment started on November 15, 1962. Coincidentally, my brother received his basic training at Ft. Dix 10 years earlier during the Korean War, and my father received his basic training 10 years before that during World War II. On that thought, I wonder if our family shouldn't own a piece of the place?
I arrived in Ft. Dix at a wonderful time of the year to spend lots of time outdoors; from mid-November to the end of January! It turned out to be, according to radio reports at the time, the coldest winter that area had experienced since the Revolutionary War— I'm sure you can visualize the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Eve maneuvering through the ice bergs floating down the river.
In the accompanying photo, you can see the troops bundled in their cold-weather gear. I cannot say for certain, but it is possible that I am the fourth soldier from the left in this shot. How cold was it, you ask? I recall, on at least one morning, the radio reporting the temperature in Philadelphia (30 to 40 miles west) as being -15F. On that particular morning, after spending the night in pup tents, we were served breakfast at an outdoor mobile mess station; my eggs turned to porcelain in my tin mess kit, and my coffee skimmed over with ice! That was too durned cold to be camping out!
One night we had gone out “camping” in a chilly rain. We pitched our pup tents (photo at right is a "generic" picture of a pup tent, not taken during our bivouac), and tried to sleep warm in our sleeping bags—taking our outer clothing inside the bag so it would be warmed some when we got up the next morning. During the night the rain turned to snow, and the temperature dropped maybe to -15; it might have been the night before the morning described in the preceding paragraph. We spent the day in training exercises, unfortunately mostly outdoor style lectures sitting on wooden bleachers and freezing our “you-know-whats” off! To warm up, they provided rest tents. These were large “house” tents and had small pot-belly, coal-burning stoves in the center of them. Although there was a chimney, more smoke spewed inside the tent than exhausted through the chimney. We were supposed to spend more than one night bivouacked at that place, but our company commander, without orders, decided to move us back to our barracks, and we were given strict instructions to be as quiet as possible when marching back.
The first obstacle to this plan was dismantling and repacking our pup tents. The way pup tents work, or at least the way they did then, was that each soldier had a half of a heavy canvas tent. This is the roll you see in old war movies over the top of the backpack. The halves of you and your partner were buttoned together lengthwise, and aluminum tent pegs were driven into the ground through rope loops, about four per side and one on each end.
Recall, it was raining when we put them up, and the temperature dropped to subzero readings during the preceding night. The temperature did not rise to more than +5F or +10F during the day. The first problem was getting the tent pegs out of the ground. To do this under normal circumstances one simply opened his entrenching tool (shovel) to a 90-degree angle, and used it something like you would a claw hammer to remove nails. Unfortunately, the ground had frozen solid, and it was like the pegs were embedded in solid concrete! The pegs were pointed on one end and T-shaped on the other end. You put the back of the entrenching tool under one of the T ends, and pried up. In our case, most of the ends simply peeled off like we were cutting soft butter, and a lot of tent-peg pieces were left in the ground.
The next problem was unbuttoning the frozen buttons holding the two halves of the tent together. Even after doing that we had to kick the tents down and apart to separate them! The tent pegs and tearing down the tents turned out to be the easiest part! We absolutely could not roll the tent half no matter how hard we tried. The best we were able to manage was to basically fold it in half once, then fold it in half again (stomping it down with our own body weight to make the pieces flatten together) and carry it like a large piece of wood under our arms!
We sneaked into our warm barracks, and that should have been a happy end to our experience. However, the post commander (the hero of Pork Chop Hill in the Korean War—not known for being in the warmest climate on earth) heard about our sneak return to the barracks, and after calling the other companies back in, ordered our company back out into the field for another night. Why he couldn't have penalized our company commander and not us is one of the mysteries of the universe.
Although I tried not to spend too much time in the warm-up tents, I inhaled enough coal smoke to cause an upper respiratory infection (Army-speak for a sore throat). I lived with it for a few days until a not particularly essential training exercise came up. Anyone in basic training lived in deadly terror of being “recycled”—failing the course and going through basic, starting at the beginning, a second time. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that sort of thing. I went on sick call to a local medical unit. In the unheated unit, they took the temperature of all of us on sick call that morning. Turned out that if a person's temperature exceeded 101 degrees, or something like that, they were admitted to the hospital. All I wanted was some throat lozenges, but in the military scheme of things, that would have been too easy. We went on sick call about 7:00 a.m., the “service” didn't open until about 9:00, and those of us with high temperatures had to wait another three hours for an ambulance to take us to the hospital to be admitted. The hospital was only two or three blocks away, but we were not permitted to walk. That meant that those of us who were so sick that the army thought we should be in hospital had to sit in that unheated room for around five hours total before an ambulance came to take us the short distance to the hospital.
I guess on the preceding note, I should mention that there is “the right way”, “the wrong way”, and “the military way” of doing things. The military way could also be termed, in my opinion, “the really, really wrong way”!
Having been admitted to the hospital, and stuck in a ward with about 40 or 50 other guys, I waited for some treatment for my sore throat and, by now, congested lungs. And I waited, and waited, and waited… Turned out their treatment for upper respiratory infection was to take our temperatures at 6:00 a.m., noon, and 10:00 p.m. each day. Absolutely no medication was prescribed or given, and I do not even remember being examined by a doctor. A PX (Post Exchange) cart was wheeled into the ward each day, and the patients could purchase snacks and candy from it. I learned that Life Savers were very beneficial for soothing my throat, and that's the only way I got any relief. Another thing I finally learned was that the powers that be were waiting for my temperature to drop below a critical level (I don't know, now, maybe below 100), and remain there for six readings in a row, in which case I would be discharged.
I knew that by this time I was missing “trainfire”—learning the proper positions to fire while standing, lying, kneeling, etc., and the rifle range itself (although I eventually earned an expert medal for rifle fire). I just knew that I was going to be recycled! I also knew that in very short order training would be halted for two weeks over the Christmas and New Year's holiday. We could stay on base or were permitted to take leave. I sure did not want to be recycled, and I sure wanted to get away from that place for two weeks. To get discharged from the hospital, I started holding ice under my tongue for a half hour prior to each temperature reading. It worked, and after about a total of 10 days in the hospital I was discharged.
This proved to be a temporary turning point in my life, and led to a brief life of crime; thanks to Army training. I returned to my company sometime during the day while the company was out training somewhere. Each company has a company office where all the records are maintained. I walked into the office to report my return to duty, and there was no one behind the counter. I waited a while, looking the room over. On one wall was a large grease board with a list of several names, mine being one of them, with a note and a code in blocks for each of the number of days the person was off duty and where they were. It was clear that I was noted as being in hospital, and that I had been there those several days. After waiting what seemed a long time, and no one showed up, I apprehensively picked up the erasure cloth that was conveniently hanging on the board, deleted my name and entire record of the absence, and returned to my barracks.
That brought several things to light over the course of the next couple of hours. Immediately I learned that all of my gear was gone! There was really not a single thing I could do except hang around the barracks and wait for my platoon to return. Return they did, and only one person noticed that I had returned after being gone—the platoon sergeant didn't even realize it. The person who noticed was an acquaintance from my home town who had re-enlisted and was going through basic a second time. Because he was experienced, he had one of the cadre rooms and did not live out in the open barracks like the rest of us. When he had realized I was gone, he gathered up all my gear that had not already been stolen, and stored it safely in his room. Maybe I should just skip this statement, but shortly after being assigned to a basic training company, I learned somehow that 90% or more of the company was comprised of guys from New York City who had been convicted of some kind of crime and were given the choice of enlisting in the Army or going to prison!
I was able to set my bunk back up and complete the next few days of training, no one the wiser, until the holiday leave started. Without discussing my leave, except to say that two weeks at home eating my mother's home cooking restored my health sufficiently to allow me to complete basic training, I'll finish this story.
The day I went on sick call, I had left my gear exactly as we were supposed to, and exactly the same way everyone did. Of course, when I went on sick call I had no way to know in advance that I would not be permitted to return to the barracks. After my return from hospital, I went to the supply room to replace the items that had been stolen before my guardian angel had safely stowed my gear. I do not now remember everything that I lost, but know that there were specifically two items; my entrenching tool and my bayonet. I explained to the supply sergeant what happened, and he told me how much I had to pay to replace the various items. I was stunned. As a basic trainee, we did not receive much pay; if memory serves, I received $95.00 a month, and it was going to cost more than that to replace the missing items. It was “splained” to me that it was my responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of my gear, even though there was no way I had been able to do so. I had enough money to replace all but one piece. I decided to not purchase a bayonet because I could have all my gear on and it would not be plainly obvious that the bayonet was missing because I still had its sheath.
Now I have to relate the most blatant criminal episode of my life. I hope the statute of limitations applies in this situation, and the time has ended by now. We were doing some kind of training in a large field. It was not exactly time consuming, and we all had plenty of time to wander around a good bit. I noticed that the company commander, a 2nd lieutenant, was wandering around playing a sort of mumblety-peg with his bayonet, throwing and sticking it in fallen logs, removing it, and sticking it again. I kept my eye on him, and sidled as close as I could without being obvious about it. At one point he stuck the bayonet in a log and walked away for some reason. I casually walked past the bayonet, grabbed it out of the log, and immediately sheathed it, and no one ever heard about that until now—42 years later.
My basic training company graduated on February 1, 1963, but I wasn't there! I was pulled from basic two weeks early to be rushed to the Army Language School in Monterey, California, to begin my language training. The ironic part of that was that the class they sent me to already exceeded the number of students that were permitted in one class, and I and another guy were made temporary company clerks for six months!
One additional note: My illness had returned when I resumed training after the holiday leave. I was not about to go on sick call at Ft. Dix again, but the first morning I was in Monterey I went on sick call. This time I actually saw a real doctor, he actually treated me, gave me a few days of bed rest and some medication, and I recovered as completely as possible from the upper respiratory infection. I say as completely as possible, because I've had a recurring pain in my chest ever since the first episode, and assume it is somehow related, although I've never had it checked out in all these years.
I was separated from active duty in 1965, entered standby reserves, and got my final, honorable discharged in 1968. During my tour of active duty, enlistments for the school and training I received was changed to four years.
© 2004 Richard A. Johnson