The Army Years
By Beryl DarrahOn December 12, 1962, I was inducted into the U. S. Army in Kansas City, Missouri. Time had run out. There would be no more deferments, no more delays. Maybe I was the only boy who was drafted out of my high school class. There may have been some who joined voluntarily along the way, but not drafted. I have never figured out why I was taken out of my teaching job and drafted into the army in what was a non-critical period of time.
We were in the midst of the Cold War, to be sure. But there were no real emergencies; no real wars being fought. Vietnam was still very much in its infancy, an unknown action taking place in an unheard of country in a place where no one knew where it was. It puzzles me that a college graduate who was teaching---and in those days there was a legitimate teacher shortage---would be taken while other guys my age, who had not gone to college, who were not employed in critical jobs, would be left behind to perform their hourly-paid jobs. I have often wondered if Mrs. Zima's son ever went to the military. She was the clerk of the draft board who was so unyielding and determined that I would be one who would be drafted. Maybe I was the one who went in place of her son. Who knows? I've heard that it pays to have friends in high places.
But, nevertheless, it happened. And looking back, I am grateful for my military experience and I am grateful for the avenues it opened up for me in the future.
As I rode the bus to Kansas City that cold day in December, I was not so grateful. I was scared. I had no idea of what to expect, but I had heard nothing good about the Army from anyone that I knew. I arrived in Kansas City late at night, tired and confused. There was a telephone number on one of the papers. I called it and told whoever answered the telephone that I needed a ride. The driver who picked me up was surly and apparently not happy that he had to drive downtown.
After that the days are pretty much a blur. I remember being herded into a room where dozens of other guys were already sleeping. I remember taking another physical exam. I remember being called into a room and being told that good old Sgt. Waggoner had told them I wanted to enlist. When I seemed hesitant, they told me that if I enlisted I would have a choice of what I wanted to do in the Army. What a bunch of bull. That lie has been told to millions of confused, naive, gullible young men, and for the most part, it a ray of hope that they cling to. It was a hoax to entice them to sign on for an additional year. Draftees served for two years; those who enlisted served for three years.
I was one of the naive, gullible creatures who fell for the lie and enlisted. Looking back, the worst part of it was that Sgt. Waggoner got credit for my enlistment. That is probably the only part that I would ever want to un-do, if I had that power.
After doing whatever we did at the induction station, which is located within easy walking distance from the old train depot, I was immediately placed on leave and sent back home for the Christmas holidays. This is also something that I would have done differently. Of course, they knew that there would be no training taking place during this period of time. So they made us think that they were doing us a real favor by "letting" us go home for the holidays. If I had known what I know now, I would have simply have refused the leave, gone to my basic training site, gotten adjusted to the army, and simply have waited until the next training session began. Then I could have used the leave time later when I really needed it.
The purpose of the basic training is to keep its basic trainees utterly confused and off-balance during the entire duration of the eight-week training period. Basically they succeed in doing this. Perhaps most of it by design, but I am sure that some of the credit must go to the stupid, egotistical, ignorant, insecure drill sergeants who conduct the training. In my case, I had a short little banty rooster of a sergeant who made up for his lack of height and lack of intelligence by blustering his way through everything he did. It must have been a real power trip for him to be able to have so much power over scared, bewildered, unsuspecting boys who were thrown into a situation they did not want to be in and were powerless to do anything but obey.
After a period of test taking and orientation into the ways of the military, we began our military training. From one minute to the next, no one knew what would happen. That kept everyone on edge. There was drilling, marching, shooting, physical training, hikes. maneuvers, lectures, night training, day training. I am not sure that any of it really prepared us for actual combat. A lot of was busy work. A lot of it seemed to be designed to fulfil some sergeant's ego.
But looking back, if it was not actually fun (and it wasn't), it was at least interesting. A few of us were individually and collectively smart enough to at least beat part of the system. Maybe one of the realities of basic training is that the trainees and the drill sergeants have essentially the same IQ. If this is true, it doesn't say much for the quality of either one.
I learned several tricks that made life in basic training easier. For instance, I learned that you must always LOOK like you are doing something. It is appearances that count. Never appear to be idle. Pick up something and appear to be taking is somewhere (preferably with a buddy). If there is nothing to carry, look down as you walk, as if looking for something. Occasionally, reach down and pick something up. (Soldiers are always "policing the area". Never volunteer. You are not going to make any "points" and you run the risk of becoming a permanent volunteer.
Even in your supposedly spare time, you run the risk of being dragged out of the barracks to do someone's dirty work. To remedy this, be absent as much as possible. Always go to church anytime there is a service. They usually can't stop you from doing this. Or spend time in the base library. Who ever heard of a training sergeant who can read? Or get off the base entirely, if possible. It is only those who are available and visible who are plucked out for the dirty work.
But the biggest obstacle to overcome in those early days of training, when everyone is shouting, yelling, screaming, and ranting, is to realize that it is only an act: an act of people who basically don't know how to get others to do as they want without making a complete fool of themselves. Once I figured out that I was smarter by far than any drill sergeant on the entire army base; and once I figured out what a pathetic job it must be to spend one's entire life yelling and screaming at other people---and what a pathetic person it takes to do such a job----I was able to relax somewhat and do what was expected of me.
Now that it has been over for many years, I can actually look back with a degree of nostalgia to those early days of basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood.
Back in those days of the early sixties, Ft. Leonard Wood still burned coal for heat. The frozen moisture and humidity of the morning mingled with the coal soot of a hundred chimneys to produce a sort of smog which hung continually over the area. This must have been great for the lungs as we went through our motions of training to become fighting machines.
Some of the more interesting activities we engaged in were bayonet training in which we were taught to lunge at our fellow soldiers and yell, "KIL-L-L-L" . Or perhaps the night compass training where we were taken out into an area in the back of a two and a half ton truck, dropped off, and were instructed to use our compass to find our way back to a base camp. Of course, all we had to do was follow the paths which has been beaten into the ground over many years and they led straight to our destination.
My favorite training activity was firing the M-1 rifle (which we also had to clean every night, and eventually had to take apart and assemble blindfolded. Not even a challenge.) Firing our weapon played a large part in our training. We would either jog ("double time" in army language) out to the rifle range or be transported in the two and a half ton trucks. On the rifle ranges, there was a system called "Train Fire". Targets would pop up at random at various distances, and we were graded on how many of them we could hit. Although I was not an expert at guns, I caught on quickly, and over the course of my army years, I earned three "Expert Medals", the highest marksmanship award. Other boys were not as fortunate. Some had probably never been close to a rifle and they were scared to death of them. Some were nearly hysterical when they were forced to fire the weapon for the first time. (Let me interject here that, you NEVER call a gun a "gun". It is a WEAPON.) Anyway, sergeants would take the rifle, put it to their cheek and fire it; they would put it to their chest and fire it; they would put it to their groin and fire it, in attempt to show the frightened recruits that it wouldn't hurt them.
All through the eight weeks of basic training, one theme of fear was constantly reinforced on an almost daily basis. If you don't pass your final test, you will by "recycled" and have to take the eight week of basic training over again. The final test is a sort of obstacle course in which you have to make your way from Point A to Point B, crawling on your stomach while cradling your rifle in your arms. Along the way you must fire at (and hit) targets which pop up (the enemy); you must go under barbed wire on your back while holding the rifle on the stomach; you must go dodge grenades (probably more like M-80's, and all at a safe distance); and you must go through mud and sand. This is the easy stuff. We had done all this before. The BIG DANGER was that during all this time, there was live rifle ammo being fired above our heads. We were told that we must never rise up, let alone stand up, or we would be shot by one of these bullets. But here, again, it was one of those, "You must be as dumb as we are" kind of things. Anyone could see that the tracers were at least fifteen or twenty feet above the tallest recruit's head. But, I guess it added a sense of drama to an otherwise routine afternoon.
Like I said, this was a do or die test. If we didn't pass it, we would be held back for another eight week session. At the end of this "grueling" ordeal, everyone in my platoon passed except for one poor soldier. He was scared, disappointed. embarrassed, humiliated----and sobbing like a child because he thought he would be the only one who would not "graduate". Well, it didn't exactly turn out that way. The sergeants gathered around him, trying to comfort him, assuring him that he wasn't going to have to go through basic training again. So much for that
After basic training, I was assigned to Ft. Benjamin Harridan, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, to train to be a pay specialist. Nothing in this period really stands out in my mind except for the guy who had the bunk next to mine. He hated the army and couldn't wait until he was finished with it. He was an intelligent guy, very un-army like, and he talked a lot about becoming a great Shakespearean actor when he got his army commitment behind him. Since he was only in for a six months reserve enlistment, I never saw him again (or really thought about him again) until I returned to the United States permanently a few years later. I turned on the television to a program called "Hill Street Blues". There was Daniel Travanti, the guy who had bunked next to me.
When Pay Specialist school was drawing to an end, I , along with one other guy, got orders to report to Ft. McNair, in Washington D. C. But before this could happen, I was reassigned as a clerk in the office of the Commander right there at Ft. Benjamin Harrison. Eventually, I became Administrative Assistant to the Commander, but not before I spent a few rough days of adjustment.
I remember my first and only inspection. It was a Saturday morning and all of the headquarters personnel were lined up in the parking lot behind the barracks where most of us lived. The elderly, and apparently senile, first sergeant followed the (deleted) 1st Lt. Company Commander Clifton down the line "inspecting" the troops. The first sergeant first of all stepped on my shoe (I don't know if it was intentional or not) and then reached up and smudged the brass insignia on my uniform. The misfit Lt. Clifton immediately launched into a tirade about being prepared, etc. and told me (loudly, of course) that the next time I would be severely punished. Later that morning, I told my boss (who was everybody's boss) about the incident. He was furious and called the company commander and told him that I was never to be in any sort of inspection or company formation again. And I wasn't. In fact, I rarely ever saw the insecure, pompous (deleted) again.
But shortly after this incident we moved into a new headquarters building and reorganized the command structure so that I was never under his jurisdiction again anyway.
My days at Ft, Benjamin Harrison were enjoyable. I did my job as best as I could, took care of my boss, and committed myself to running the office as efficiently as I possibly could. Doing a good job and giving extra effort usually pays off, as it did my case. There was nothing flashy or spectacular. But I was well taken care, and nobody ever messed with me. I was treated much better by the commander than most of the officers. I enjoyed seeing officers squirm when they were summoned to his office. They were as nervous as a school boy being sent to see the principal. I was the first person they dealt with when the entered the office. It was usually I who announced their arrival, and it was I who ushered them into the commander's office. I was I whom they asked, "Is he is a good mood today?" or "Do you know what he wants?" or made other small talk with while they waited. Even though there were times that I thought the commander had somewhat of an ego problem when it came to dealing with the officers under his commend, most of the time I enjoyed seeing them being just a little bit humiliated----if they can dish it out, they should be able to take it.
Most my work day was spent simply taking care of things either the commander or the command sergeant major needed done. I would usually arrive fairly early, around 7:00, shine my shoes (We all tried to set an example in looking sharp.) and make the coffee. Then I would relax and read the Indianapolis morning newspaper until one or both of my bosses arrived. During the night there was always a CQ (in Charge of Quarters) and an Officer of the Day and a driver on duty. Whenever I arrived, they were free to go, which most of them were more than happy to do. Since Ft. Benjamin Harrison was a training post, there were an abundance of student officers. They were mostly fresh out of college and ROTC, and they were at Ft. Harrison learning to be finance officers, recruiting officers, adjutant general officers, etc. and other assorted office workers. Most of them had had far less training on being a soldier than the average enlisted recruit. In fact, many of them were down right pathetic and somewhat ignorant.
At any rate, when my superiors arrived, my work day would being. Most of my day was spent writing correspondence, answering the telephone, greeting visitors, looking up and posting army regulations, filling out reports, etc. Another of my main jobs was to make sure that the students graduating from any of the schools on post were ready to go overseas, if that was their next assignment. This meant that they had to have physical examinations and immunizations. They had to have orders issued, etc. Each morning, I checked with each of the student companies to see if everyone was present and accounted for and to report AWOL soldiers to the Military Police.
As time went on, I began conducting training sessions for the soldiers assigned to the headquarters. Somehow I was convinced (or perhaps ordered) to give a lecture on communism. And I must have done a pretty good job, because after that, I seemed to be more in demand to do that sort of stuff. Maybe they figured that since I had taught school for two and a half years, it just came naturally. Anyway, it was not something that I enjoyed, but it was something that I did as part of my job.
The commander appointed me as the representative of Ft. Benjamin Harrison to the Indianapolis Service Men's Center, a sort of USO, which was located in downtown Indianapolis and served as a sort of social center for the servicemen. It was a good place for lonely guys to meet local girls, to dance, play games, eat, listen to music or watch TV. I spent much of my free time there.
Military life at Ft. Benjamin Harrison was a relatively easy life. We were given an hour each day for PT (physical activity). I took mine the hour before my lunch hour, so essentially I had two free hours in the middle of the day. I usually did something with another guy who lived in the room next to mine and worked in base supply. Sometimes we would play tennis--well not really, but at least we would hit the ball back and forth. Sometimes we would jog around the army base; other times we would lift weights or shoot baskets. Then sometimes, we didn't have any choice. My boss, the commander, liked to play hand ball, and whenever he said, "Let's go play hand ball," needless to say, I went and played handball. When I first started playing, my hand hurt so much and were so swollen that I could hardly type. But after time, I adjusted to it, and I became pretty good at getting beat and not suffering much pain afterward. The commander was pretty good, and I don't think there was ever any danger that I would be able to defeat him----even if I had been so foolish to entertain such thoughts.
One cold November afternoon, I was sitting at my desk when my buddy from the supply department stuck his head in the door and said, "President Kennedy has been shot." I thought he was kidding, because he said it in such an off-had manner. "No," he insisted, "he really has been shot." The commander, who had heard him from his office, came bolting out his door with his cap and coat announcing that he was going to church. The mood became very somber. We turned on a radio and sat silently while the news was made official. The entire base was shut down immediately, students dismissed, the flag lowered, and all activities canceled.
Upstairs in my room, commercial TV entertainment was also canceled, and for the next four days, television was devoted exclusively and entirely to covering the Kennedy assassination. I was sitting watching TV when Jack Ruby fired the shot which killed Lee Harvey Oswald. And I watched a couple days later as John Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Aside from a short military ceremony held in the bitter cold, work was pretty much suspended until after the funeral.
We worked five and a half days a week, five if you count the half day which each of us had off during the week. It was on one of these half days off that I received news that would change my life forever---and, I (now) think, for the better.
Having nothing better to do at the time, I was cleaning my room. Dusting on top my locker, in fact, when my sergeant major walked in my room. I assumed that he was merely wandering around the building on one of his relaxed and leisurely inspection tours. He looked around the room a bit, and then asked, "How would you like to go to Vietnam?" Since I was responsible for getting solider ready to go overseas and since we had often talked about Vietnam. "Where is it?" "What's going on there?" "Why are we there?" I thought he was making small talk, and I told him that I thought I would pass up the opportunity this time.
"Well, we just received orders that you are going to Vietnam," he said, handing me a sheet of paper. I was speechless, scared, shocked, overwhelmed. I was being sent to this place that nobody knew about. Where a little war was going on. The jungle. People shooting at each other.
He suggested that I apply for a direct commission as an officer. Maybe that would keep me from going. So I started that process immediately, knowing that it was probably futile. Nobody in the Adjutant General Corps receives a direct commission. And, I was right, after a few weeks----a delaying process, at best, the application came back marked "Denied". So I started the painful process of getting ready to go to Vietnam. The word spread quickly. Even though all of my friends sympathized with me, I was no dumb one. It was like, "We feel sorry for you and wish it hadn't happened to you. But, better you than me.
" One day went to the base hospital to get my shots. The sergeant with whom I dealt almost daily to arrange shots for the troops leaving Ft. Benjamin Harrison told me that I must be crazy for volunteering to go to Vietnam. "Volunteer??? I didn't volunteer; I received orders to go to Vietnam."
"Why didn't you tell me that a long time ago? I could have fixed your medical record so they would have never touched you!!"
My visit to the dentist was, looking back, worse than going to Vietnam. They decided that ALL of my wisdom teeth had to be pulled before I left. So, in two different trips, they came out. The first two slid out with no problem. In a few days, they were forgotten. The final visit was enough to make me hate dentists the rest of my life (although I don't). One of the wisdom teeth was growing crooked under another tooth. After pulling, cutting, yanking, grinding, and other painful things, it finally came out. I spent the next few days in bed, drugged with pain pills, waiting for the swelling in my face to finally go down.
This, I guess, was my initiation for Vietnam.